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“Access denied.”

“Override,” John says without looking up. “Authorization Kennex, John R.”

“Access granted,” the computer replies. “Welcome, DRN-0167. Your access level is: Detective. How can I help you today?”

“You can quit talking,” John says. “What’s with the audio interface?”

“That’s the default,” Dorian says. “My profile must have been deleted with my access.”

Dorian walked into the precinct with John and no one looked at them twice. The network locked him out, though, and the elevator tagged him as a guest. The bullpen let him in, but only because he’s with John. They’ve already been through the embarrassment that the law calls transferring ownership, burning Dorian’s police credentials to register him as a private bot, and the only things Dorian kept were his case files and uniform.

John’s not sure he’ll get to keep either of them much longer. Dorian doesn’t work for Delta Division anymore: he was sent to auction two days ago, and John needed three people and a last-second proxy bid to keep his partner from being scrapped. He doesn’t plan to make anything easy for a department that didn’t even bother to notify him.

Dorian’s more than seven years old. Technologically speaking, he’s outlived his usefulness. It’s a lousy excuse for scrubbing someone designed and built to be as human as possible, but John’s watched worse happen to artificial intelligence without giving it a second thought. Why he drew the line at Dorian is a mystery they’ll probably blame on his messed up mind.

“Rebuild it,” John says. “Your ability to do your job didn’t suddenly disappear between last week and this one.”

Dorian doesn’t remind him that it’s not his job anymore. Being a police officer is what Dorian was made to do, and unlike some of the DRN series, he likes doing it. If he’s unfit just because the department doesn’t own him anymore, someone’s going to explain to John exactly which of his comprehensively programmed skills and abilities have changed.

“Morning,” Valerie says, dropping her coat over the chair across from his. “Anyone try to kill you this weekend?”

“Just him,” John says, jerking his thumb at Dorian. “Not me.” Ironically, since Dorian’s been guarding him 24/7 since last Wednesday. It’s possible that the people they thought were stalking John were after Dorian instead.

Age and obsolescence aren’t the only reasons Dorian was put up for auction. Just the most palatable.

“Dorian tried to kill you?” Valerie asks. She sounds more amused than concerned. “Or someone tried to kill Dorian?”

“The two scenarios aren’t mutually exclusive,” Dorian tells her.

She smiles at that, and she asks him if he’s all right, which is more than most of the division would do.

“I avoided the EMP,” Dorian says. “John was shot at. I’m not sure why he thinks it wasn’t an attempt on his life, except that he tends to have a somewhat careless attitude toward danger.”

“That was last week,” John complains. He would have forgotten about it by now, except that his front window was a casualty of the shootout and the house computer is still sulking over the security breach. Also, everything Dorian was wearing at the time is in evidence, covered in the blood of the still-hospitalized shooter.

Everything Dorian was wearing at the time belongs to John, which has raised some eyebrows.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Dorian says. “I didn’t realize things that happen before dawn on Saturday are excluded from your definition of the weekend.”

“Wait, was this after the riot at the wall?” Valerie asks. “I thought you were on your way home.”

“They came to my house,” John grumbles. “Single shooter, female. Ready for both of us.”

Valerie looks puzzled but not overly alarmed. They get shot at a lot. It’s why they have robotic partners in the first place. “Any idea why?”

He looks at Dorian, catching his eye. They have a lot of ideas. Most of them they probably shouldn’t mention from sources they shouldn’t share. Their last case put them in contact with a group that may or may not have precipitated the attacks, and there are signs pointing to a department leak.

“We think they were after him,” John says at last.

“It’s pretty clear they were after you,” Dorian corrects him. “With one possible end result being my decommission for failure to protect.”

“Yeah, but see how I’m still alive and you’re the one who ended up for sale,” John retorts. “If they were willing to bypass killing me, I’m thinking that wasn’t their primary motivation.”

“You’re being sold?” Now Valerie sounds startled, even worried. “When?”

“Two days ago,” John says. “I’m now the proud owner of one slightly used and frequently shot-up DRN. Don’t congratulate me.”

“Really?” Valerie’s not the only one giving them a skeptical look; their conversation is public domain at this point. She’s probably the only one who looks like she wants to laugh, though. “How’d you manage that?”

“Unannounced auction,” John says, looking at Dorian again. “I won. I think we can safely assume that wasn’t the plan.”

“Kennex!” The captain’s voice yelling for him from the upper deck is probably a bad thing, but he'll go if it gets him out of this conversation. There’s no graceful way to talk about buying and selling synthetic human beings. The fact that no one else cares only makes it worse.

“You won?” Valerie asks as he stands up. It’s a fair question, considering what she knows or can guess about his resources. “What did you do, sell him back to the department?”

John doesn’t answer. He hears Dorian say, “Not exactly,” but John’s walking away so the rest is up to him.

He wants to hear the rest, if only to know how Dorian would talk about it, but he doesn’t want anyone to see him hear it. He doesn’t want to see Valerie’s face when she hears it. And he definitely doesn’t want to think about the agreement that made what they’re talking about happen, because police bots aren’t cheap.

“Come in,” Sandra tells him, stepping into the captain’s office. She waves for her MX to stay outside, and John’s careful not to look over his shoulder. Dorian’s fine. Maybe he’s not technically a police bot anymore, but John’s allowed to have guests.

“I need you to take some time off,” Sandra says as soon as the door closes. She holds up her hand before he can open his mouth. “From the office. I want you to accept an undercover assignment and take Dorian with you.”

John picks the easiest part of that to counter because he doesn’t know where else to start. He’s here because of her. Dorian’s back because of her. They won’t last without Sandra and they both know it. “I can’t go undercover with a DRN.”

“You can if you do it as yourselves,” Sandra says.

She’s leaning against the side of her desk again. It keeps her face out of the nearest camera’s line of sight. John takes a step to the left, like he’s shifting the weight off his leg, and he turns just enough that no one will see him speaking either. “You’re making it look like you put us on leave.”

“I think it’ll help smooth things over,” Sandra says. “We’ll call it comp time for last week, but we have to expect that Dorian’s status will get out. Most people will assume it’s mandatory administrative leave.”

“But it isn’t,” John says, just to make sure.

“Not unless you routinely go undercover while on leave,” Sandra says. “This is a cover, John. One that your recent history happens to make more convincing.”

He raises his eyebrows. “If you’re covering up the cover to make it more convincing--” John mentally reviews that to make sure it came out right. “Then what’s the cover covering up?”

“Searching for stolen bots,” Sandra says.

John can’t help it. He groans. “Another bot case? You really think that's a good idea? Look what happened after the last one!”

“I know,” Sandra says. “This is my fault. I put you on that case, and I wouldn’t let you drop it. So let me try to fix it.”

“By sending us after stolen bots?” John demands.

“By getting you out of sight,” Sandra tells him. “Look, I got Dorian reinstated as an officer once. I don’t see why the same argument can’t work again. But I need you to not be here, getting in everyone’s face. Just for a little while.”

Okay, fine. She's right. He does that. “Where?” he wants to know. Ops are made and broken on location.

“Cloud Nine Retreats,” Sandra says. “They have a Lake Heights location two hours from the city. Or an hour and a half, the way you drive.”

John narrows his eyes at her. “A retreat?”

“I’m told they offer a variety of recreation opportunities. In addition to peace and quiet, of course, and what looks like a lovely view.” She’s staring back at him with an expression that’s somewhere between earnest and deadpan, and she’s laughing. Silently. He can feel it.

“I don’t do cabins,” John growls. For all the good it will do.

“They have independent power.” She dismisses his protest like it’s irrelevant. “I understand the accommodations are pleasant and comfortable.”

“Independent power,” he repeats. “They’re off the grid?” He has a prosthetic leg; he can’t go without a charge for more than a couple of days. “You’re sending me and Mr. Electricity out there into the woods to drain some tourist company’s power generator while we try to--what? Catch them smuggling unregistered androids?”

“It’s unlikely they have a high enough turnover rate to be part of a ring,” Sandra says. “Their physical isolation means they’re more likely to be an end goal, a destination, so to speak, rather than a trafficking or transfer point.”

“And what do you expect us to do?” John wants to know. “Offer to sell them more?”

“No,” Sandra says. “I want you to go in as vacationers. I want you to identify as many bots as possible, and then I want you to trace them. Make sure they’re from where they say they’re from.”

He trusts Sandra. But if this is just an excuse, a way to keep him busy while she fights for him and loses, then he wants to hear it straight up. “I’m a terrible vacationer,” he says. “You know that. If you don’t need someone on the inside, why send us at all?”

She actually rolls her eyes at him. “Because right now, you’re the only detective I have who can plausibly take his android partner on vacation.”

“Right,” he says, frowning. “That.”

It makes a certain amount of sense when she puts it like that, but he’s still working through the implications when she adds, “You’ve been under round-the-clock protection for the last five days, and if by some miracle Dorian’s private ownership doesn’t leak, this just looks like a desperate attempt to get you out of the city.”

“Right,” he says quickly. Personal safety. That’s what she meant. “Because nothing says ‘I know what I’m doing’ like holing up in a mountain fortress.”

“I don’t think it will seem strange after the residential wing was compromised last week,” Sandra says. “You need to lay low. I need someone to figure out where my bots are going. It’s as simple as that.”

“Your bots,” John echoes. That wasn’t what he was thinking at all. “You think they have MXs there?”

"Could be," she says, nodding. It’s the kind of nod she gives someone who has no idea what she’s talking about. “You know police and military bots come up for auction as surplus sometimes; it wouldn’t be hard to create a fake data trail.”

There’s only one other thing “her bots” could mean. He doesn’t like not knowing, but he doesn’t dare ask. Not here.

“Identify them and confirm their origin story,” he says instead. “Got it.”

“If you find something you can’t corroborate,” Sandra says, “report it. I don’t want you trying to break up some kind of shady tech pipeline without backup, you understand?”

She probably doesn’t want him accidentally exposing her underground railroad either. “Yeah,” he says, eyeing her. “I got it.”

"You're paid up for a week," she tells him. "Do whatever you need to do to wrap things up here. I want you out of the precinct this morning. They're expecting you at Lake Heights tonight."

That doesn't give them a lot of time, but the K Street case is closed and the paperwork from the wall riot isn’t theirs. They spent most of the weekend getting Dorian set up. CT still owes him a chest plate, and John wants to talk to Rudy. It should work out okay.

“All right,” John says. “Standard expenses? Gear? You our contact? How often do you want to hear from us?”

“Fill out an expense report but don’t bill it,” Sandra says. “Give it to me; I’ll authorize it. Take what you need as long as it comes back and you don’t get caught with it. Check in with me twice a day if you can. If you’re silent for 24 hours I’m sending someone after you.”

“As long as it’s not Paul,” he says. He’s only half-joking. She tells him Paul’s on their side. John doesn’t see it. Even Dorian’s starting to like the guy, and Paul’s worse to him than anyone.

“Go clean up your files,” Sandra says. “Someone may have to actually read your notes while you’re gone.”

“My notes are great,” John says, already backing out of the room. “We’ll just stop by the lab and we’ll be out of your hair.”

“Clean up your files!” Sandra calls after him.

He waves without looking back. His files are fine, and if it’s important, Valerie can probably decipher them. Which just leaves the question of what he’s going to say to Dorian to get him out of the very public bullpen without broadcasting Sandra’s plan or outright lying.

Dorian and Valerie are still talking, and from the office deck it’s clear they have an audience. So Sandra was right, he thinks. Everyone in the precinct will know by lunchtime. From there it’s just a matter of who talks first and to whom.

Keeping it a secret was never an option. Everything Dorian did as a police bot was a matter of public record, and there’s no way to change that without letting everyone know. The transfer of ownership may give him some small amount of privacy. He doesn’t have any more rights than John’s phone does, but it has to be better to be John’s phone than the department’s phone.

John hopes it is, anyway. They didn’t have a lot of options. Dorian agreed to the transfer, even when Sandra warned him he wouldn’t be able to stay on the force as a private bot, but his other choice was non-existence so that doesn’t mean much.

“I only have terminal access,” Dorian is telling Valerie when he comes back. “The system won’t let me connect directly.”

“Must be because it’s John’s code,” Valerie says. “He only goes in through his computer or his phone.”

“Hey,” John says, stopping behind his chair. “I’m gonna take some time. Catch up on some sleep or something.” Even to him, the words sound forced. He hasn’t voluntarily taken time off since… well. Probably since the wedding planning, years ago.

Valerie looks surprised. He makes himself meet Dorian’s carefully non-expressive stare instead. “Captain signed off on it as long as you go with me,” John says. He wants to ask if that’s okay, knows he can’t. “Did too good a job of keeping me alive, I guess. You’re stuck guarding me a while longer.”

Dorian’s blank expression doesn’t change, but his tone is faintly amused. “It doesn’t sound like you plan to make it difficult.”

You have no idea, John thinks. “That’s pretty optimistic from the guy who still has bullet holes in his chest after the last time.”

“I consider your newfound ability to duck to be one of my major accomplishments,” Dorian replies.

“Great,” John says. “Val, can you be point on my cold cases for a week?”

“Sure,” she agrees. “Are you available if something comes up?” It’s a polite way of asking if he’s been suspended, and she makes it sound like just another part of the conversation.

“Yeah,” he says. “Give me a call. We’re gonna stop by the lab on the way out, pick up his new chest plate.” Dorian caught bullets for John in the line of duty; there’s no question about whether or not the department pays to repair him. Not this time.

“Yeah, okay,” Valerie says, turning to watch Dorian get up. John grabs his coat as she says, “Stay safe.”

“You too,” he tells her. He catches Dorian’s eye and they head for the doors. No one tries to stop them on their way out, and John doesn’t know if that’s because of what they’ve heard or in spite of it.

The hallway isn’t empty, but that’s never stopped Dorian before. “Interesting time for a vacation,” he says as they head for the elevator bank.

“It’s the middle of summer,” John says over his shoulder. “It’s the most ordinary time for a vacation there is.”

“If you like summer,” Dorian agrees. “Or vacations. Neither of which you’ve expressed interest in before.”

“I like summer,” John says. “Why do you think I don’t like summer?”

“Because the variation in your wardrobe is limited to dark colors that cover as much skin as possible,” Dorian says. “You complain about any building without climate control, and the number of times you’ve commented favorably on the weather in the past three months can be counted on no hands.”

“That’s because weather in the city sucks,” John says. “We need climate control so we can breathe, not that you’d know anything about that. And my wardrobe is practical. I’m not gonna hit the pavement or scale the wall in khakis and a t-shirt.”

“Valerie dresses very nicely,” Dorian says.

“Women are magical,” John tells him. “She actually could scale the wall in those clothes and come out looking the same on the other side.”

“That seems unlikely,” Dorian says.

“You could do it,” John replies. The first elevator is empty, and he almost gestures Dorian inside before he catches himself. He steps in, and Dorian follows.

“My uniform is designed for durability,” Dorian is saying. The doors slide shut and he adds, “Why are you taking a vacation, John?”

“Sandra wants us out of the way. She’s gonna try to get you reinstated, but apparently I’m a distraction. She’s sending us to some touristy place, see if we can catch them using stolen bots.”

“This morning?” Dorian asks.

“This week,” John says, keeping his eyes fixed on the floor indicator. “We get to pose as vacationers.”

He can feel the skeptical look Dorian gives him without turning his head. “They may see through my clever disguise.”

“We’re not going in disguise,” John tells the doors. “We’re going as us. She thinks when people hear about you they’ll assume it’s forced leave, and if they don’t, it’ll look like I’m getting away from the city.”

“So people will stop shooting at you,” Dorian says.


“And I’m going because?”

“In case they don’t stop shooting,” John says. “Or because you’re--” He trips over “mine” and if he couldn’t say it before he paused he definitely can’t say it now. “Because you’re… you know. Because you’re a private bot. Depending on which story they believe.”

“I’m a private bot,” Dorian repeats. “You mean because I’m yours.”

Of course he wouldn’t let it go. “It might look like that,” John mutters.

“So you’re going on vacation because Sandra told you to,” Dorian says, “and I’m going because I belong to you.”

“No,” John says testily. “We’re doing a covert op together because we have a case, and we’re partners. Partners work on cases together.”

“I see,” Dorian says.

It’s all he says, and the elevator is slowing down when John finally snaps, “What?”

He catches Dorian’s eye mostly by accident, but it doesn’t help. Dorian just looks surprised. “I don’t know what you’re asking,” he says. “Did I say something wrong?”

John sighs. Mostly at himself. They don’t talk again until they get to the lab, and he spends the whole time wondering if he should, if he’s supposed to, if Dorian’s question was sincere or sarcastic. It’s not like he understood Dorian that well before. It just matters more now.

Rudy has two MXs lined up in front of them, and he doesn’t look up when they come in. “Whoever you are, come back later,” he says. “It may not look like it, but this is the rest of the morning, and I’m really not interested in squeezing in one more weekend casualty.”

“Hey, Rudy,” John says. He and Rudy aren’t friends, but Rudy and Dorian are, and Dorian doesn’t have many friends. That counts for a lot as far as John’s concerned.

“John!” Rudy still doesn’t lift his head, but that’s not uncommon. “Is Dorian with you? I have his chest plate. Give me a minute here and I’ll be right with you. Well, I’m already with you, but I’ll help you.”

“I’m here, Rudy.” Dorian never seems to mind Rudy’s babbling. “Please, take your time. There’s no hurry.”

John gives him a look, and Dorian returns it with an unnatural sort of innocence.

“How did the, uh.” Rudy can apparently talk while he does whatever he’s doing. “The first day back at work, is everything--you know? Smooth? Like it never happened? Or is it more like, um, you’re here for something police-mandated and potentially very uncomfortable?”

“Neither,” Dorian says. John’s still trying to figure out what Rudy’s asking. “We’re supposed to stay out of sight for a while, but my case files haven’t been recalled.”

“They’re not gonna take your case files,” John says. “You need them to do your job.”

“Apparently I don’t,” Dorian says, “since I was reactivated without any of them the last time.”

That’s an alarming thought to add to the pile of things John’s trying not to think about. He opens his mouth to ask if Dorian can back them up somewhere before he realizes that’s probably illegal. He’s not sure how offline the waiting MXs are, and now doesn’t seem like the time to push his luck.

“You can store them out back,” Rudy offers. “I mean, just in case.”

There’s a moment of silence, where John wonders if Dorian’s wondering the same thing. Rudy would remember which cameras are on and which aren’t. Right? The absent-minded thing is just a front?

“I always deactivate MXs while I’m working,” Rudy adds. “Anything to stop them from staring. It’s unnerving. It’s better for their charge protocols anyway, and really, there’s nothing wrong with keeping backup copies. The department has dozens of them.”

“Thank you,” Dorian says, as soon as there’s a break in the flow of words. “I appreciate that.”

“Sure, of course,” Rudy says. “So what does staying out of sight mean? If you don’t mind me asking? You’re not going to crash here again, are you? Not that I don’t like having you, I mean, stop by anytime, it’s just that if you’re going to be regulars I’ll need to get another air mattress.”

“We’re going undercover,” Dorian tells him. As usual, he tells Rudy whatever he wants to know and ignores the rest. “As ourselves, at a retreat in the mountains. Sandra briefed John when we came in.”

“Ooh, covert ops,” Rudy says. “Well, if you need any help, you know where to come. I don’t like to brag, but I’ve become quite knowledgeable in my studies.”

John looks at Dorian and their eyes meet. “I’m sure,” John says. He keeps his tone as neutral as possible when he says, “We’ll keep you in mind.”

“Very good.” Rudy lifts his head, then aborts a step backward. “Hang on.” He does something else that John tries not to pay attention to and flips the interface up. “There, that should hold for a few minutes. So, first things first.”

By now, John knows better than to expect that he and Rudy will have the same priorities. So he’s not entirely surprise when Rudy adds, “Which retreat? Because the uplink at some of those mountain locales is not good, and I assume you’ll need to stay in touch with the rest of the world. Unless the point of going is so that no one can find you?”

This time Dorian looks at him first, but John shakes his head. “No. We have mandatory check-ins.”

“Okay, good, well, let me just tell you, avoid anything that has ‘isolated’ or ‘adventure’ in the name,” Rudy says. “It’s not worth it, and if you’re unlucky--”

“It’s Cloud Nine,” John interrupts. He has no doubt Rudy could find them if he wanted to, no matter what they tell him. “At Lake Heights.”

Rudy looks taken aback by this information. And it’s the information, not the interruption, because he says, “Cloud Nine, wow. So this is a legitimate undercover operation; no way would the department spring for something so high-end otherwise. Someone must be very interested in whatever you’re investigating.”

Dorian and John are still looking at each other, or maybe they’re doing it again because John definitely remembers looking away. “Could be,” he says.

“So are you going to, you know,” Rudy says. “Get into the role?”

John does his best not to roll his eyes. Rudy’s unnaturally fascinated by undercover work. “There’s no role, Rudy. It’s just us.”

“Oh.” At first John thinks he’s disappointed, but then he says, “Well, it’s just. Cloud Nine. I didn’t realize you’d be so comfortable with that. Not that you wouldn’t be, of course. I mean, it’s perfectly normal. Natural, I mean. I’ve heard it’s a very nice place.”

John doesn’t like the sound of that at all. “What are you talking about?”

“Cloud Nine,” Dorian says, and John didn’t realize he was looking at him until he answers. “It has a reputation for being discreet.”

“Indecent,” Rudy says at the same time. “Yes, well, or discreet. That’s a good way of putting it.”

“Really,” John says.

“They cater to alternative lifestyles,” Dorian says. “It’s not unheard of for law enforcement to patronize their retreats, given the conditions of confidentiality. I don’t think you’ll stand out.”

“No, of course, you’ll have Dorian,” Rudy says. “It’ll make perfect sense.”

“What do you mean by that?” John demands. He’s not sure he wants to know, but he’s getting the feeling that Sandra left out details of this operation on purpose.

“Nothing,” Rudy says quickly. Which is the right answer, but of course he can’t leave it at that. “It’s just, with the way the two of you are. They’ll probably assume that’s why you’re there. Do they know why you’re there? The staff? Is anyone else in on it?”

“No,” Dorian says. “As far as anyone else knows, John is on vacation. You should probably keep the fact that he’s on assignment to yourself.”

You probably shouldn’t have told him to begin with, John thinks, but he doesn’t say it. Dorian knows Rudy better than he does. And so far Rudy’s done more to help than to get in their way.

“Right, of course,” Rudy’s saying. “Uh, when you say anyone else…”

“The rest of Delta Division doesn’t know,” Dorian says. “Aside from Captain Maldonado.”

“Ah,” Rudy says. “All right, that’s good. One of the privileged inner circle, here. You can be assured your confidence is safe with me.”

“We trust you,” Dorian says.

John isn’t going to be the one who drags the silence out into awkwardness, so he says, “I know I’m not going to like this, but what are they going to assume? About…” He points at Dorian, then at himself.

“Well, that you’re--” Rudy looks at Dorian and stops. John follows his gaze in time to see Dorian shaking his head: no.

It’s funny, but the first thing John thinks is, are they like this all the time? When he’s not around? When they’re alone, and Rudy can act weird and Dorian can act human and there’s no one to call them on it?

“The stated goal of Cloud Nine Retreats is to create a space that’s above the mundane concerns of daily life,” Dorian says smoothly. He’s probably reading straight from their brochure. “It supports clientele from a variety of backgrounds who value confidentiality in their personal interactions.”

“What is it, a kink place?” John’s only half-joking. He wouldn’t put it past Sandra to send him into something like that with no warning.

“Not exclusively,” Dorian says. “Not even intentionally. That does seem to be an indirect result of their privacy pledge, however.”

“Great,” John says. “So by going there I’m, what? Looking for some kind of orgy?”

Rudy laughs like he’s said something funny. “Of course not, you have… um.” He trails off when he glances at Dorian again. “I mean, you own a bot.”

“They’ll probably assume you purchased me to perform an escort function,” Dorian says.

John doesn’t want this to be the thing that makes him speechless. “Excuse me?”

“It’s not entirely incorrect,” Dorian says. “Our relationship does include a physical component that bears some resemblance to intimacy for hire.”

John stares at him. It’s harsh and cold but Dorian doesn’t look like he’s delivering a condemnation. And he would, right? If that's what he meant, he’d be angry and judgmental. He’s a bot, but he isn’t unfeeling.

That’s been their problem all along, John thinks. Dorian feels enough for both of them. And John still doesn’t have a clue what he’s doing.

“Okay,” he says slowly. It’s harder than he thought it would be to keep his voice even. “If you just told me that I bought you for sex, then I want to know what the hell you mean by that.”

He can see Rudy, wide-eyed and nervous, and he wonders what Dorian thought he was going to say that would be so much worse than this.

“I meant that, superficially, our relationship is difficult to categorize.” Dorian sounds calm, but he has a look that’s hiding dozens of processes a second. “An objective observer with no personal ties or understanding of context might draw an incorrect conclusion.”

There’s nothing bitter about it that John can hear. He tries to find it and he can’t, and he has to believe that’s because it isn’t there. He has to believe Dorian would tell him if there’s something wrong, because otherwise he’s been here before and it didn’t end well.

“Uh-huh,” John says at last. It isn’t much, but it’s what he can manage.

At least it makes Rudy move, dropping his arms and stepping forward. “Okay,” he says brightly. “So, let’s get you that chest plate, shall we? Don’t want to hold you up.”

“Thank you, Rudy,” Dorian says, without taking his eyes off of John.

“Yes, of course,” Rudy says. “If you’ll come out back, we can add your current history files to the old ones before you go.”

Dorian nods, but he only turns halfway when John doesn’t immediately follow. Rudy glances back and sees his hesitation. “You’re both welcome, of course.”

John clears his throat, but the words are still rough. “It’s fine,” he says. “I’ll wait.”

He doesn’t watch them go. He’s staring at the bot on the table: expressionless, emotionless. Lifeless. Shut down with a single command because Rudy didn’t like seeing it look at him. The one standing behind it is exactly the same. John reaches out to fumble with a chair. Sitting down blocks at least one of their faces from view.

He puts his head in his hands and tries to close his eyes, but he’s surrounded by synthetic bodies and parts and his imagination is too good. He sees dark skin and blue eyes in every unmoving body. He stares through his fingers at the floor instead and tries not to think about anything at all.

Chapter Text

When his phone chirps at him, it's a message from Sandra.  He doesn't bother to sit up, just checks the camera before holding the screen in front of his face.  I assume this goes without saying, the message reads, but don't take your car.

"You don't assume," he tells his phone.  “Or you wouldn’t say it.”  It scribes his words into a reply, and he shakes it to erase them.  Sounding a little too much like Dorian, there.

"Should probably kill the black box data in it," John says instead.  "Just in case."

A reply comes back immediately.  You really think I don’t check your car regularly?

John lets out his breath in a huff, and he does sit up then.  They’re not totally alone.  “You spying on us?” he asks.  He glances around the lab, but it’s still depressing so he stares at the screen while he waits for an answer.

I would be, Sandra replies.  If the data recorder in your car didn’t malfunction so often.

It almost makes him smile.  He wonders if it’s Dorian or Sandra who’s wiping it.  Another message arrives before he can figure out how to ask.

I’ll make sure no one fixes it while you’re gone, the phone tells him.

"Great," he mutters.  The phone picks it up and he doesn't bother to correct it.

You might want to get Dorian some new clothes, the next message says.  He imagines her sitting in her office, staring at something entirely different on her screen while she talks to her desk comm.  He hopes the door is closed.

If you haven't already, she adds, and he wonders when exactly he was supposed to do that.  The time they didn’t spend getting shot at or auctioned off was taken up with endless legal machinations and trying to fix his house.

"Why?" John asks.  She probably thinks she’s funny, but he shouldn’t have to hear about the retreat from Dorian.  "If I'm supposed to have a police bot fetish, why make him change at all?"

You have a police bot fetish?  Now he really hopes her door is closed.  I didn’t know that, but it would explain a few things.

“Shut up,” John tells his phone.

You okay?

He frowns at it until he realizes it’s not from Sandra.  There’s a new message from Valerie, and he sighs.  Of course he isn’t okay.  None of this is okay.  Two weeks ago at least he didn’t care.

Fine, he sends back.  He double checks to make sure it’s going to Valerie and not Sandra.

Richard thinks they’ll take Dorian’s case files, Valerie says.

John thinks that too.  He’s trying not to.  If Sandra can keep Dorian on the force somehow, they won’t have any reason mess with his memory.  Dorian’s still a perfectly capable police officer; they don’t need to bar him just because he doesn’t belong to them anymore.

Are you at the lab? Sandra asks.  You need to go.

“Dorian!”  John’s up even as he asks, “Right now?”  The phone picks up Dorian’s name and sends it with his question, but he doesn’t care.

An hour ago.  There’s no tone in the text, but it sounds ominous anyway.

“Dorian, we gotta go!” John calls.

He almost doesn’t look down when his phone chirps, but he glances at it and he bangs into the end of the table.  Don’t let Rudy connect Dorian to the network, it says.  He doesn’t know who it’s from.  It doesn’t matter.

“Rudy!”  John bangs on the door, inexplicably closed, then pushes it open.

He hears Rudy say, “Uh, just a minute--” but it’s too late.  It’s too late for a lot of things when John looks at Dorian and sees blue like lightning frozen in a place just beneath his skin.  It’s not moving.

“Don’t connect him to the network,” John says, useless and obvious and why didn’t they think of that?  Dorian said there was some kind of destructive feedback loop that kept him from accessing his old memories.  Why wouldn’t there be something that could block off new ones?

“Uh, right,” Rudy says.  “If you’d mentioned that when you first came in--”  He stops at John’s expression and says hastily, “Look, this isn’t my fault!  It’s a failsafe that’s built into the system!  I thought he was already connected--”

“He’s a private bot,” John growls.  “He doesn’t have network access.”

“Well, I needed it to run a physical calibration!” Rudy says.  He’s doing something, fussing with a digital interface that does nothing to make the blue go away.  Until it does, it disappears, it just goes dark.

Dorian’s skin looks normal.  His eyes flicker once and he blinks, the green and yellow shine gone when his eyes open again.  He looks at John and he frowns.  “What happened?”

John doesn’t know if he can stop holding his breath or not.  “You tell us,” he says.  “You all right?”

Dorian frowns.  “I don’t think so,” he says.  He hasn’t taken his eyes off of John.  “You’re John.”

“Yeah,” John says, but he’s got nothing.  He doesn’t know what happened.  He doesn’t know if it’s still happening.  No light, no connection, right?  Is that even good, or did the system kick him out somehow?

“I don’t think it was deliberate,” Rudy says.  “I mean, I don’t think there was an order--did you get an order?  Is that why you came in here?  This looks like an automated process, probably similar to the one that locks up stolen bots during an attempted re-entry--”

“What is it?” John demands.  “What the hell happened?”

“I don’t know,” Rudy says, “I’m trying to find out, so why don’t you ask Dorian!”

“I’m Dorian,” Dorian says.  He says it like he’s checking to see if it’s true, like he’s not sure, and what does that mean?  Even when he first came back online, the day John met him, he knew his name.  He knew John’s full name.  Does he not know now, or did he just not bother?

“Rudy,” he adds, looking away from John for the first time.  He hasn’t scanned the room at all.  There’s no light under his skin and he hasn’t moved except to glance from one of them to the other.

“Yeah, Rudy, that’s me,” Rudy says distractedly.  “You remember what you’re doing here?”

There’s a pause, and John wants him to laugh at them.  He wants Dorian to say that of course he remembers, who do they think he is?  It’s just a stupid power surge.  Happens all the time.  Bots are tougher than they look, and police bots are designed to take more abuse than most.

“No,” Dorian says.  “Should I?”

John’s phone is trying to get his attention.  He doesn’t want to hear it.  Right now all he wants to know is how bad this is.  “What do you remember?” he asks.  It’s an unfair question, he knows it, and he still asks.  He doesn’t know what else to say.

Dorian just studies him for a moment, and that can’t be right.  He can process faster than John can blink.  What’s he waiting for?

“Do I belong to you?” Dorian asks at last.

“Yeah.”  It’s the first time John’s been happy to admit it, glad to hear it because it means they’re not starting over.  This isn’t the day they met all over again.  And it can’t be, right?  Rudy just backed up everything Dorian knows; can’t he put it back?

“Rudy,” John says.  “Did you have time to--”  He gestures at his head.  “You know?”

“What?”  Rudy looks up from the hologram in front of him and John points again.  “What is this, why are you--your head?  What’s wrong with your head?”

“Did you back up his case files,” John snaps.  “Isn’t that what you were doing back here?”

“Oh, yes,” Rudy says, but he doesn’t look any happier.  “But I think it’s more complicated than that.  I mean, I’m not sure exactly what happened, but I think--”

“How complicated can it be?” John wants to know.  “You have a copy of his memories, so put them back.  Problem solved.”

“Right, thank you for your insightful analysis of data storage and police security protocols,” Rudy tells him.  “That’s very helpful, I don’t know why I didn’t think of it myself.  Oh, maybe it’s because that’s not how DRNs work!”

“Then what the hell did you back him up for!”  John can see Dorian holding up his hands, turning them over, studying them like he’s never seen them before.  It’s terrifying.

“Excuse me,” Dorian says, and John turns to stare at him.

Dorian stares back, but he doesn’t say anything.

“What’s wrong?” John asks, after agonizing seconds of silence.  “You all right?”

Dorian tips his head just slightly to one side.  “No,” he says.  “But that’s not why I wanted your attention.  I was curious to know how accurate my memories of our relationship might be.”

“You have memories of our relationship?” John blurts out.  He actually said that, not just to Dorian, but in front of Rudy.  He figures it will be embarrassing later.  Now he’s mostly distracted by the way Dorian is staring at him.

“It would appear so,” Dorian says.  “They’re disjointed at best.  The lack of continuity suggests large gaps in what memories I’m able to access.”

“But you remember us,” John says.  He didn’t mean to say that at all.  Dorian could mean anything by “relationship.”  He’s a bot, he’s literal, he probably means their working relationship.

“I remember intimacy with you,” Dorian says.  “Is that correct?”

“Yeah,” John says, trying not to look at Rudy.  “That’s right.  You--is that it?”

“No,” Dorian says, but he looks down at his hands again and says, “Am I a synthetic police officer?”

His confusion is crushing and John does his best not to focus on it.  Still, he can’t help but say, “You don’t like the word synthetic,” before he asks Rudy, “Why doesn’t he know that?”

“Because he’s not connected to the network,” Rudy says.  “I mean, any network.  Not the secure police database, not the lab connection, not free-floating internet, nothing.  He’s totally isolated and all he has in his head is… well.  Whatever’s in his head.”

“Which is memories of me,” John says.

Rudy shrugs.  “So it would seem, yes.”

“And basic android programming,” Dorian offers unexpectedly.  “I can access an encyclopedic knowledge base including historical events through July 2048, as well as protocols for a variety of social and business interactions.”

“Comes standard,” Rudy says when John looks back at him.  “The department network must have identified him as an intruder; it reacted like he’d been stolen, essentially, and shut down any access he had to confidential information.  Which, in this case, is pretty much everything he knows.”

“So it’s still there?” John asks.  He can hear how desperate he sounds.  “He just can’t access it?”

Rudy winces.  “Sorry, no, that’s… the department has records, the files still exist.  But they’re gone from Dorian’s, uh, brain.”

“Can’t you put them back?” John demands.

“Well, he’s cut off,” Rudy says.  “For his own good, really; there’s no reason the network wouldn’t see him as an intruder the second time.  Someone will have to re-authorize his access to case files that are, um, legally the property of the department?”

“Those are his memories!” John protests, even though he knows better.  Bots don’t own anything.  Not even their own thoughts, as it turns out.

“I completely agree,” Rudy says.  “Except that he belonged to the department when he made them, so, technically…”

“Technically what,” John snaps.  He’s not really asking.  He knows.

“An android is the property of whatever entity or individual owns it,” Dorian says.  “As are any records or products created by that android.”

“You don’t call androids ‘it,’” John tells him.

Dorian surprises him by saying, “I’m aware of that.  However, as an android’s actions are also the responsibility of his owner, I’m trying to avoid causing trouble for you.”

When John can’t answer, Dorian glances at Rudy.  “I have memories of you that indicate you don’t strictly enforce the regulations governing android use,” he says.  “Unfortunately, they’re not clear enough for me to know whether I trust you or not.”

John raises his eyebrows.  He and Rudy look at each other, and Rudy looks upset, sure.  Taken aback the way he always does when Dorian accidentally steps on his toes.  But he also looks surprised, and that’s almost reassuring.  As much as anything can be, right now.

“Do you trust me?” John asks.  He’s not sure he wants to hear the answer, but they need to know what Dorian will say.

“Yes,” Dorian says without hesitation.  He doesn’t elaborate, and John wonders what exactly he remembers.

“Okay,” Rudy says.  “Well, that’s a starting point, at least.”

“What were we doing here?” Dorian asks.  He tilts his head to indicate Rudy, but he’s looking at John.

“Getting a new chest plate,” John says.  He glances at Rudy, who shakes his head.  “That was the plan, anyway.  He didn’t get it?”

“I connected him to the network prior to disengaging the old plate,” Rudy says.  “Sorry, I just… I didn’t know.  I should have, really, it’s just--it doesn’t make any sense.  Dorian shouldn’t come up as stolen; the department legally transferred ownership.  To an active-duty detective, no less.”

“Someone hates us,” John says.  He’s not joking.

“That’s one possibility,” Rudy agrees.  “You said you didn’t get a recall order?”

John frowns.  “What, for his case files?  No.”  He remembers his phone, but when he pulls it out it’s only Sandra and Valerie’s names on the screen.  “Hang on.”

Three messages from Sandra, one from Valerie.  Valerie’s just says to let her know if he needs anything.  Sandra’s warn him to keep Dorian from being plugged in at the precinct, to get out of the city, and to let her know when he can talk.  She must have decided he’d been intercepted, either at the lab or leaving it.

“No,” John repeats, pocketing his phone again.  “Nothing official.”

“Yeah, so this is either accidental or meant to look like it,” Rudy says.  “You said you’re on assignment, right?  No one denies network access to an active cop, synthetic or not.”

“Might not be considered active right now,” John says.  He doesn’t like it, but maybe someone’s just ahead of them.  “Sandra wasn’t sure she’d win that fight.  And he was locked out of the network when we came in this morning.”

“Captain Sandra Maldonado?” Dorian asks.

John glances at him.  “You remember her, too?”

Dorian looks at Rudy, and it’s weird, but John gets it.  “You trust him,” he offers.

Dorian catches his eye again and asks, “Do you?”

John shifts uncomfortably.  “Sure,” he says.  “As much as I trust anyone, I guess.”

Dorian doesn’t blink.  “You told me you don’t trust anyone,” he says.

“Okay, what do you remember?” John demands.  It’s still a bad question, impossible to answer, and he should know.  There are parts of his past they tell him he’ll never remember.  That doesn’t make what he does know any easier to describe.

“Rudy says they burned my confidential files,” Dorian says.  “The ones the department considered a security risk in a stolen bot.”

“Isn’t that all of them?” John asks, frowning.

The corner of Dorian’s mouth quirks up, and John feels his fist clench.  It’s the suppression of an instinct he didn’t recognize until he’d countered it: the urge to reach for his partner.  He loves that expression.  He didn’t realize how much until just now.

Dorian’s gaze flicks to his hand and then back, quick but unmistakable.  He didn’t miss John’s reaction, but he doesn’t ask.  He just says, “All the ones they knew about, yes.”

“Case or history files, in the old jargon, include every recording a robot makes while they’re on duty,” Rudy says.  “Since you’re always on duty, that should be… everything?”

“For MX models it’s everything,” Dorian says.  “The DRN upload isn’t automatic.”

Rudy points at him when he gets it.  “It’s jerry-rigged to work with the MX charge bays, right, of course.  You have to initiate the data transfer yourself.  During your charge cycle.”

“Yes,” Dorian agrees.  It sounds familiar to John, who recently asked just how much of their “intimacy” is on record with the department.  “I speculate that the memories I have now are the ones that weren’t part of that daily transfer.”

“You don’t upload everything?” Rudy asks.  Then he shakes his head.  “No, of course you wouldn’t.  Um… I mean, what didn’t you upload?”

Dorian tilts his head again, and suddenly John recognizes the gesture.  It’s usually accompanied by a tracery of blue light under his skin.  Now he’s cut off and the light doesn’t show, but he’s still thinking.  The processing is all internal.

John thought his sensors lit up blue too, but he doesn’t see any indication of that now.

“I’m sorry,” Dorian says after a moment.  “I don’t feel comfortable disclosing that.  I seem to remember a lot of things that shouldn’t be shared.”

“Yeah,” John says quickly.  “I think that’s a good idea.”

Dorian looks at him and nods once.  John isn’t sure what that means, but he does know there are a lot of things he doesn’t need to hear about in front of Rudy.  Things Rudy doesn’t need to know about, let alone relive in graphic detail.

“Oh, right,” Rudy says.  He looks a little disappointed.  “Sure, I mean, I wouldn’t want to… that makes sense.”

“Can’t you just give him the files back?” John asks.  He feels like they’ve already had this conversation and he still doesn’t understand why the answer isn’t yes.  “You said you have a copy of them.  You already had--”

He stops when it finally occurs to him: Rudy already had Dorian’s old case files.  He stole them from the department last week when John asked how to get them.  Dorian’s memories of everything he did before John were wiped the first time he was decommissioned.  Until John asked for them, and Rudy handed them over like it was as simple as sneaking into the evidence room while someone’s back is turned.

John stares at Dorian, the most important question forgotten all over again.  “Do you remember your last partner?  McInnis?”

Dorian glances from him to Rudy and back again.  “Yes,” he says simply.

“Oh,” Rudy says.  “Well, that makes sense, right?  The integration was complete; those memories must have looked the same as everything else in Dorian’s head.  The failsafe locked anything it recognized.  But if Dorian held back information before, too, the system might have skipped over it.”

“The robot underground,” John says.

Dorian gives him a sharp look, but John knows what he’s talking about.  Mostly.  “You would have protected them,” John tells him.  “Everyone who was helping you save bots from decommissioning.  You remember that?”

“I do,” Dorian says, and this time he doesn’t look at Rudy.  He holds John’s gaze as he adds, “That was a long time ago.  If you have any doubts about my loyalty, you shouldn’t.”

“What?”  John squints at him.  It’s weird that he’s not quite off-kilter enough.  Dorian sounds almost right if John doesn’t pay attention, and then he comes out with something just strange enough that he can’t ignore it.  

“Why would you--you don’t--Rudy,” John complains, because he can’t keep staring at Dorian.  “What the hell.”

“I know,” Rudy says.  “I know, just.  Give me a second, okay?”

At least he hears it too.  John doesn’t know if that makes him feel better or worse.  When he glances sideways at Dorian again, he sees an expression he can’t read at all.  The moment John catches his eye, though, the corner of Dorian’s mouth quirks and that half-smile reappears.

John looks away.  “Rudy,” he growls.

“Look, I can’t just dump the memories back into his brain!”  Rudy looks like he’s working, but John’s pretty sure he’s being hit on by his amnesiac partner slash property.  He has zero coping skills for this and less patience.

“It’s not drag and drop, okay,” Rudy’s saying.  “I have to prep the nets I use to receive android memory files.  Plus he still has some memories, which means we can’t just overwrite what’s there because I’m not even sure that stuff is in the backup.  They’re concurrent, too, which means pre-integration, and if I get that wrong it’s a disaster waiting to happen.”

Like this is, John wants to say, except that this is a disaster that’s already happened.  It’s still happening.  He can’t look far enough ahead to guess how much worse it could get.  “How long?” he says instead.

“I don’t know, a day?” Rudy guesses.  “Maybe two?  This is a totally different algorithm, and whether he has the memories or not he can’t access the department network until someone kills the burn order.  Or the… faulty recognition.  Whatever it is, it has to go.”

“He’s not going anywhere near that network,” John says.  “Ever again.”

“Well, he’ll need to, of course,” Rudy says.  “For police work, and… um.”  He trails off.  “Yes, well, I’ll just let you discuss that, shall I?”

“Rudy,” Dorian says.  “You implied that the memories I have of Islay McInnis have been added to those of John.  Perhaps recently.  Was that addition sanctioned by the department?”

“Uh.”  Rudy looks at John, but he doesn’t wait to answer.  “Not exactly?”

“Will there be any trace of unsanctioned files in the network’s intruder response records?” Dorian asks.

John frowns.  “You mean, will they be able to tell that you had memories you shouldn’t have by looking at what was blocked?”  He looks at Dorian for confirmation and gets a slight nod.

“I don’t think so,” Rudy says.  It’s all he says, and it’s not enough.

“You don’t think so?” John echoes.  “How much do you not think so?  Because that’s not a lot to go on, Rudy.”

“Look, I don’t have a lot of experience with stolen underground bots being reintroduced to a law enforcement network after multiple hacks!” Rudy exclaims.  “This is uncharted digital territory, okay?  I don’t have all the answers!”

“So far you don’t have any of the answers,” John grumbles.  He knows Rudy’s trying to help.  That doesn’t make this any easier.

“Did you say I need a new chest plate?” Dorian asks.  “Can you install it without reconnecting me to the network?”

“I--yes,” Rudy says.  “I can.  I mean, you’ll have to calibrate it yourself.  It will take a few minutes, and it might not be perfect.”

“What’s wrong with the old one?” Dorian asks, pulling his shirt up without waiting for the answer.  “Ah.  Compromised in the line of duty, I assume?”

“They were meant for me,” John mutters.  He doesn’t like seeing bullet holes, even indentations, or any kind of damage at all, really, in Dorian’s chest.  “You were due a new one anyway.”

“I see,” Dorian says.  “Does the physical imperfection bother you?”

Rudy motions for Dorian to remove his shirt, and John tries not to watch while he steps in and puts his hands on Dorian’s chest.  It doesn’t mean anything.  Dorian’s a bot.  He’s getting a replacement part.  Rudy’s basically a doctor, and who’s jealous of doctors?

Everyone, John thinks.  Everyone is jealous of doctors.  That’s the whole point of playing doctor.

“John,” Dorian says.

“Yes,” John snaps.  “Okay?”  Rudy is probing the edges of the plate, and does he really have to make such a production of it?  It’s a piece of metal.  Pull it off.  “It bothers me to see my partner shot up.  I don’t like looking at it.”

“I would suggest you wait outside,” Rudy says, pushing harder until the popping noise is audible.  “But after what just happened, I assume you’d rather stay.”

John makes himself look away.  He doesn’t bother to answer.

He can see the blue glow in his peripheral vision, the bright purple and lavender and periwinkle that make up Dorian’s insides.  He doesn’t look.  He’s seen Dorian’s insides on the outside too often to be interested.  Seeing him in pieces isn’t going to do anything for John’s state of mind, but at least he knows that.

The new chest plate slots into place mercifully quickly.  Unfortunately, its placement is followed by an extended period of touching and checking and the lights that had been missing  suddenly coming back online.  “Is that,” John begins when he first sees them.

“It’s internal,” Rudy says without looking up.  “The light, you mean?  Just sensors recalibrating.  Nothing to worry about.”

John grits his teeth and tries not to watch.

“There,” Rudy says at last.  “How does that feel?  I mean, is it--”

“Awkward,” Dorian says.  “Why can I feel the seams?”

“Well, the nanobots will seal those over,” Rudy says.  “You mean externally?  Or you can feel them inside?”

“Internally,” Dorian says.  “I can feel the break.”

“That may be a function of isolated calibration,” Rudy says, pressing his fingers to Dorian’s skin again.  “There’s no updated schematic to run them against.  I think they’ll settle in with use.  It just takes longer to do things manually, I’m afraid.”

John thinks this calibration could be a little less “manual,” but he manages not to say so.

“All right,” Dorian says.  “Thank you, Rudy.”

“Sure, anytime,” Rudy says.  “I mean, not that I want this to happen often.  Or even again.”

“Yeah, let’s go with never,” John mutters.  “Are we done here?”

“Where are we going now?” Dorian asks, pulling his shirt back on.  “I’m afraid I won’t be much use to you if you’re working.”  

John doesn’t realize he’s watching Dorian dress until their eyes meet.  This time Dorian smiles at him.  The unreserved smile makes John take a deep breath that’s probably counterproductive.  He’s trying not to react to Dorian at all, and it’s only giving him away.

“No choice,” he says, and it sounds short even to him.  Dorian doesn’t blink.  “We just got an assignment--”

“An undercover assignment,” Rudy interrupts.

“And we need to be out of here yesterday,” John says, ignoring him.  “You think you can keep up?”

“You’ll have to tell me what to do,” Dorian says.

John shakes his head to keep from feeling anything else.  “Well, you’d be the first to tell me I have plenty of practice with that.  We’re gonna grab a car and stop by my place to pick up some stuff.  Maybe get you some new clothes.  Rudy, when do you want us back here?”

“I--well, I really don’t know.”  Rudy looks from one of them to the other.  “Could be as early as tomorrow.  Can you do that?  Can I contact you?  Of course I can’t, you’re undercover.”

“You can contact us,” John says, before he gets any further in.  “We’re just at Lake Heights.  We can come back whenever you’re ready.”

“Right,” Rudy says.  “All right then.  Will do.”

“Thank you,” Dorian says.

John just rolls his eyes.  He’s not thanking Dorian’s CT buddy for accidentally erasing everything Dorian knows about being a police officer.  It has nothing to do with his stupid chest plate, or Dorian’s manual calibration, or anything other than the fact that John’s bad morning is getting worse by the hour.

“Let’s go,” he says.

Dorian follows him without another word, and the silence does nothing for John’s mood.

Chapter Text

It isn’t until the door of the lab has closed behind them that Dorian asks, “Why are you willing to take an android who has no memory of police protocol on an undercover assignment?”

John’s looking at his phone again, debating the privacy of actually typing versus the convenience of talking.  “Message Sandra,” he says.  “Too late.  Small problem.  Rudy’s working on it, we’re leaving.  We’ll call you from the road.”

He lets it send before he looks over at Dorian.  “It’s Monday,” he says, when Dorian doesn’t ask.  “You belonged to the department until last Saturday.  Two days ago.  Sandra told us private bots couldn’t be police officers; I’m ignoring her.”

“Why?” Dorian asks.

“Because you like being one,” John says.  “Because I like having you as my partner.  What does it matter, we both agreed.”

“It matters because I don’t remember agreeing,” Dorian says patiently.  “Was that before or after you bought me?”

John doesn’t like “you bought me,” but it gets worse and he’s only now starting to see it.  “After,” he says.  “Why don’t you remember that?  How can those memories be police property if they happened after you were sold?”

“I don’t know,” Dorian says.  “Is it possible I was still uploading information to the department at the time?”

“I guess,” John says.  “I don’t know.  No, you couldn’t have been.  You’d have had to connect to the network for that, right?  You didn’t do that until this morning.”

“Did I use that field charger you got me?” Dorian asks.  “I assume it’s police issue.  Maybe it flags everything it copies as police property.”

“First off, Sandra got that for you,” John says.  “And how do you remember that?”

“It doesn’t seem like I remember it very well,” Dorian says.  “But the charger does feature incidentally in some of the memories I have of you at night.”

“Okay,” John says.  Then, as he realizes what that means, “Okay, yeah.  Let’s stop there.”

He sees Dorian smile and he has to look away.

Later he’ll realize how blind he really was.  In his defense, he’s not used to Dorian not knowing things.  John’s come to depend on him so much more than he knew: not just as a friend, but as his unreasonably competent android partner.  Dorian doesn’t just stop bullets, he also knows everything in the department database and can put it together faster than John can look it up.  So when he says that maybe it’s the field charger causing a problem, John thinks maybe it’s the field charger.

If all police equipment is potentially out to get them, John’s not happy about taking a department car.  Supposedly anonymous or not, they’re all wired, and there’s no reason to think that the mysterious malfunctioning of the data recorder in his car will carry over to this one.  Especially if Dorian is out of commission.

“This car is set up to monitor its occupants,” Dorian says while John signs it out electronically and gets his keys reprogrammed.  “Did you disable that feature in your car?”

“Mine’s a permanent assignment,” John tells him.  “The data recorder’s not checked unless there’s a reason to check it.”

Dorian doesn’t look convinced.  “I see,” he says.

John wonders what memories he still has from inside the car.  They talked about a lot of things they shouldn’t, but nothing that’s actually illegal.  At least, not that he remembers.  How much could Dorian keep from being transferred, anyway?  At some point wouldn’t someone get suspicious if the amount of data he uploads doesn’t match the length of time between charge cycles?

Dorian gets in without further complaint, and John pockets his St. Christopher medallion before starting the car.  As soon as his phone connects, he gives it Maria’s name.  He sees Dorian’s head tilt out of the corner of his eye and wonders what he has on her.  If anything.

“Hi John,” Maria’s voice says.

“Hey,” he says.  “How are you?”

“Rough morning,” she answers.  “But I think we’re okay.  How about you?”

“Been better,” he says.  “Look, I’m sorry to do this to you, but I need a favor.  A big one.”

“Okay,” she says.  “Tell me what you need.”

“I need to trade cars,” John says.  “Any chance we could swap for a couple of days?  I’m driving one out of the pool, nothing wrong with it, full battery.  Blue.”

“Well, if it’s blue,” she says.  She sounds amused, but he picked it on purpose.  “Can I put Marty and the dog in it?”

“Sure can.  I’ll even give you my card for charging,” he tells her.

“I accept,” Maria agrees.  She still sounds like she’s smiling, so that has to be a good sign.  “I assume you need it right away?”

“Can you do it right away?” he asks.  Then he adds, “Yeah, I do.  Sorry.”

“It’s fine,” she says.  “You’ll have to meet me, though; I can’t get away long enough to make it to the precinct.”

“You at work?” John asks.  “We can be there in a few minutes.”

“Yeah,” she says.  “I’m parked on the second level, near marker C.  Call me when you’re here, okay?”

“Will do,” he says.  “Thanks, Maria.  You’re the best.”

“See you soon,” she replies.

Dorian is looking at him when he ends the call, and John avoids looking back.  He’s driving.  It counts as concentration.

They don’t have to call when they get there because Maria’s already at her car, packing the detritus of a family car into a knapsack.  John figures if she can fit it all in a knapsack she’s doing well, but she apologizes for the mess anyway.  It’s stupid, she’s doing them a favor and he tells her so.  Again.  She just shakes her head.

“Stay out of trouble,” she tells him, handing over her keys.

John gives both sets to Dorian and raises his eyebrows.  He probably should have asked, made sure Dorian remembered how to do it, but Dorian doesn’t hesitate.  His fingers flicker with blue briefly before he hands their keys back to them.

He even tells Maria, “It’s good to see you again,” and she smiles, so maybe he does remember her.

John thanks her again, hugs her, and promises not to get the car shot up.

“You pay if you do,” she warns him, and he can’t resist a smirk.

“The department pays if we do,” he says.  “We’ll take good care of it.”

“Do I need to worry about security in the one you gave me?” Maria asks.  “I assume you’re ditching it because it’s recognizable?”

That wipes the smile off his face.  “No,” he says.  “There’s no one after this car, I swear.  The department can review the black box data on any of its cars at will.  They can’t do that with civilian vehicles.”

“Of course.”  Maria looks at Dorian, then back at him.  “So, work is going well, I take it.”

John doesn’t look at Dorian, and he knows there’s concern hiding behind the calm expression on her face.  She knows how much the things they can’t say mean.  “It’s been better,” he says.

He doesn’t watch Dorian put on his seatbelt when they get in the car, but he waves to Maria as they pull away.  Her car picks up his phone almost as fast as the department car.  “Sandra Maldonado,” he says, and she answers immediately.

“Hi,” her voice says.  She doesn’t say his name and it makes him frown.  “I can’t talk right now.  Do you need something?”

“No,” he tells her.  “Call me back.”

“Understood,” she says, and that’s it.  That’s the whole call.

He stares out at the road until Dorian says, “Are you worried about Captain Maldonado, or about what she’s doing?”

“No,” John says, but he is.  “Neither.  Why do you say that?”

“Because you’re no longer avoiding looking at me,” Dorian says.  “Now you’re just not looking at me.  Given the memories I do have of you, I’m fairly confident that what’s happened to me is your biggest problem right now.  If you can think about something else, however temporarily, it must be very troubling.”

John shoots him a glare just to prove he can.  “That’s annoyingly insightful for someone who doesn’t remember the last seven years.”

“Apparently it’s a skill independent of law enforcement programming,” Dorian says.  He looks sort of proud of that, and John rolls his eyes so he has an excuse to ignore the expression.

Dorian waits until they’re headed over the bridge, then asks, “Am I your biggest problem, John?”

John glances at him, but Dorian’s not looking back.  He’s staring out the window and John can’t see his reflection in the untinted glass.  “No,” John says after a moment.

Dorian doesn’t move, and John sighs.  “I mean,” he tells the road, “this is.  Okay?  This is a huge problem.  Not you.”  When there’s no answer, he figures maybe that wasn’t clear enough and he adds, “You’re not a problem, Dorian.”

“Thank you,” Dorian says.  He sounds calm, like it doesn’t mean anything, but he doesn’t turn his head.  “How will you respond if I present contradictory information?  I remember causing a lot of problems for you.”

“Contradictory information,” John repeats.  Then he gets it, and it’s funny that this is the thing that makes him smile.  “You mean, if you accuse me of lying?  Wouldn’t be the first time.”

“Really,” Dorian says.

Because he doesn’t remember, John thinks.  He doesn’t remember how they met, or how they argued, or how they learned to tolerate each other.  He doesn’t remember the endless conversations or the meals Dorian didn’t need.  He probably doesn’t even remember the stupid jealousy that started this mess of a relationship to begin with.

“Yeah,” John says, but he can’t explain.  There’s no way to make up that kind of time.  "Trust me.  We've been down that road."

"I do trust you," Dorian says.  "I just don't remember you.  Do you have any idea how strange it feels to be in love with someone you don't know?"

He doesn’t know what to say to that.  He doesn’t know how to respond at all, and it feels like his throat gets in the way when he tries to say, “No.”  He tries harder, but all he manages is, “I guess not.”

“I know you knew that,” Dorian says.  “I remember telling you.”

John tries to swallow, but his mouth is too dry.  He knows a question when he hears one, so he forces himself to say, “Yeah, you did.”  It comes out rough and exactly as awkward as he feels.

“Well,” Dorian says.  His voice is unchanged.  Of course.  “It’s strange.”

“Yeah,” John mutters.  He doesn’t know what else to say.  “I get that.”

“Do you?” Dorian asks.  “Because I gotta say, man, the stuff that’s in my head?  It doesn’t make me feel very confident about the future.”

John thinks that sounds ominous.  What doesn’t he feel confident about?  John?  The two of them… what?  Making it?  Or is it about getting his memories back?  Does he know something now that they couldn’t see before?

“It’ll be all right,” he says, and he knows it’s bad as soon as it’s out.  Caught between the decision to apologize and the desire to ask--what is it?--he gets nowhere before Dorian snaps.

“It’ll be all right?”  Even Dorian’s calm tone sounds incredulous.  “And you base that on what, exactly?”

“I base that on…”  John gestures helplessly.  “I don’t know.  The fact that it always has been before.”  It hasn’t.  Dorian knows that as well as anyone.

He still knows it, because he says, “Funny.  I don’t remember anything being right.  I remember androids being forced into service they hated and shut down when they complained.  I remember a system that made helping them illegal.”

John winces, opens his mouth, and gets nowhere.  Dorian isn’t listening.

“I remember all of my friends being compromised,” he says, “except Richard, whom no one has mentioned and could be dead for all I know.  I remember three separate attempts on your life for something you had nothing to do with, and then I remember nothing.  Because you say I was mistakenly identified as stolen.  So far, though, I haven’t seen anything that makes me think we’re not on the run.”

“No,” John interrupts, “we’re not, Sandra is--”

Dorian doesn’t stop, even raises his voice just enough to make it clear he plans to finish.  “None of that reassures me that anything will be all right, let alone everything.”

This time John waits long enough to make sure he’s actually stopped.  “We’re not on the run,” he says again.  “I bought you in a legal auction and you have the paperwork to prove it.”

“You didn’t,” Dorian replies.  “Captain Maldonado bought me, in your name, with money provided by Natieri Peres.”

John’s hands clench on the steering wheel.  “Still.  Legal,” he insists.

“Then why are we driving your friend’s car on our way to an undisclosed location?” Dorian asks.  “Captain Maldonado didn’t say your name, couldn’t talk, and didn’t give your call to anyone else.  Why is that, John?”

“I don’t know!” he exclaims.  “We’re on a case!  She’s busy!  That’s how it goes, you know that.”  Dorian doesn’t know that; that’s the problem.  It’s out before John remembers himself.

Dorian just asks, “What case?”  He says it pointedly, like he doesn’t expect an answer.

“Stolen bots at some tourist retreat,” John tells him.  “She thinks if we go in as vacationers, it’ll look like we’re on leave while the department decides what to do with us.”

Dorian’s quiet for a moment, and John sees him nod once.  “That makes sense,” he says.

“You don’t have to sound so surprised,” John retorts.  “You agreed to it an hour ago.”  Or whenever.  He’s not sure what time it is now.

“I don’t remember,” Dorian says, enunciating each word as though it will help John to understand.  “Where’s Richard?”

“I don’t know,” John says, taken aback.  “At the precinct, probably.”

“I want to talk to him,” Dorian says.

“Yeah, I don’t think that’s a good idea.”  As far as John knows, the only person Richard likes less than Dorian is John, and he’s made it clear that he doesn’t want Dorian to remember anything about him.

“Why not?” Dorian asks.  He sounds like he’s trying too hard to maintain his calm, but John’s seen him lose it before.  It’s not the end of the world.  Especially if they’re alone and no one from the department hears about it.

“Because Richard and I don’t really see eye to eye,” John says.  “He thinks I gave you those files on McInnis that you weren’t supposed to have.”

“Did you?” Dorian says.

“Of course I did,” John tells him.  “No one else was going to.  What does that have to do with anything?”

He can almost feel Dorian glaring at him, but he thinks it’s his imagination until Dorian says, “You know, I don’t remember you being this irrational.”

“Sorry to disappoint you,” John replies, stung.

“I’m calling Richard,” Dorian says.

“Don’t do that,” John says.  “Dorian, I don’t know what you remember, but Richard is not our friend.  We don’t like Richard!”

“You don’t like Richard,” Dorian says.

Then it’s Richard’s voice over the car speaker, and Dorian must have used his phone because the first thing he says is, “What do you want, Kennex?”

“Nothing,” John says, but Dorian can’t take a hint.

“It’s Dorian,” he says before John can hang up.  He’d probably just call back.  “I have those files you wanted.”

There’s a long moment of silence, and then Richard says, “I’m gonna kill Kennex.”

“He mentioned that was a possibility,” Dorian agrees.  “But I don’t belong to the department anymore.  That will make enforcement difficult.”

“Flag ’em,” Richard says.  “Or you’ll hear from me.  You understand?”

“Perfectly,” Dorian says.  He glances over at John, who doesn’t even know the call is disconnected until Dorian says, “He’ll call back.”

“Oh, he will, will he?”  John shakes his head.  “Great.  That’s just what I need.”

“Richard helped me,” Dorian snaps.  “I’m sorry if you feel threatened by his ability to simultaneously be my friend and do his job, but he's capable and sympathetic to the cause.”

“The cause?” John repeats.  It’s important, he knows: Dorian doesn’t say things like that.  He must be having some kind of flashback.  But it’s hard not to hear the blatant comparison.  When Dorian aims low, he goes really fucking low.

Richard calls back.

“John’s worried about Captain Maldonado,” Dorian tells him.

“He should be worried about you,” Richard says.  “Where the hell are you?”

“On assignment,” Dorian says.  “I have a small problem.”

“If it’s name isn’t John Kennex,” Richard replies, “then I hate to break it to you, pal, but you’ve got two problems.”

“John has done nothing but help me,” Dorian says.  “Unfortunately, it seems that the department network had other ideas.”

“Yeah, it locked you out,” Richard says.  “Surprise.  That’s what you get for going private.”

“No,” Dorian says.  “It took my case files when I tried to connect directly.”

“It took your--”  Richard’s voice stops.  John is careful not to say anything.  He thinks he might go off the road with how carefully he is not being a part of this conversation.

“I don’t remember much of the last few months,” Dorian says, and of course he’s going to tell Richard everything.  Because why not?  He doesn’t remember Rudy, he trusts John but not enough to listen to him, and he’s just going to spill everything to Richard on a line that isn’t even secure.

“There’s a long void before that,” Dorian’s saying.  “I assume that’s decommission, because the three years after I first came online are increasingly problematic.”

Richard, damn him, gets it right away.  “The system killed anything you uploaded,” he says.  “Would have been nice if you’d gotten a warning, but I guess you can’t expect one.”

“He’s still working,” John blurts out.  “How can they take his case files if he’s still on duty?”

“Just because you drag him around like a security blanket doesn’t mean he’s employed, Kennex.  You just wiped the best bot we have because you don’t like to sleep alone at night.  I hope you feel real good about yourself.”

“This isn’t John’s fault,” Dorian says.  “And it wasn’t just what I uploaded.  It looks like everything since the time I was purchased is gone too.”

There’s another silence where John tries not to think about the “everything” that’s happened since then.  It was only two days.  But they were two days John can’t stand to lose.  He doesn’t know whether it’s mercy or torture that Dorian literally doesn’t know what he’s missing.

“All right,” Richard says at last.  “I’m already on the residential level security breach.  I’ll try to roll this into it, see what I can find out.”

“I appreciate that,” Dorian says.

“Yeah, well, don’t tell Kennex,” Richard says.  “He’s fucked up enough as it is.”

Dorian just smiles.  “Aren’t we all,” he says, and that’s not what John expected to hear.  It doesn’t sound anything like his polite, courteous, and above all optimistic partner.  John only hears cynicism like that--easy, acknowledged, self-aware--late at night when Dorian’s trying too hard to sell the “as good as it gets” routine.

Richard scoffs.  The sound is completely clear, and there’s no mistaking his answer.  “Some of us are built better than others,” he says.  “Keep your phone on.”

There’s a brief pause.  Then Dorian tells him, “Richard says to keep your phone on,” so John assumes he’s hung up.

“I got that,” John says.  “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome,” Dorian agrees.  “What were you saying about not contacting Richard?”

“He hasn’t done anything for us yet,” John warns him.  “And I stand by my statement that we don’t see eye to eye.  He’s an arrogant jackass.”

“It’s possible he says the same thing about you,” Dorian says.

“Oh, he says worse about me.”  John’s heard it, and he was meant to.  “Any other buddies you want to get back in touch with?  McInnis?  Peres?  Maybe you should call Sandra; she might talk to you.”

“I’m aware that you think I don't know what I’m doing,” Dorian says.  “Why didn’t you stop me?”

“Stop you from doing what?” John demands.  “Contacting Richard?  How was I supposed to do that, exactly?”

“You didn’t even try,” Dorian says.

“Uh, yeah I did,” John reminds him.  “I told you not to do it.”

“I see,” Dorian says, and John’s getting tired of hearing that.

“What is this,” he says, “a test?  Is this a game to you, do stupid shit and see how John reacts?  Next time why don’t you just ask me!”

“I did ask you!”  Dorian’s voice is loud and forceful and he’s not shouting but it’s close.  “I asked you what happens if I accuse you of lying and you didn’t answer!  You just said ‘trust me,’ and that only goes so far.”

“You could’ve said,” John retorts.  “You trust me but only so far.  Not that I didn’t get that message loud and clear.”

“I don’t remember you!” Dorian bursts out.  “What part of that don’t you understand?”

“You obviously do remember me if you could tell Rudy we’re fuck buddies!”  John isn’t yelling.  He’s just trying to be heard over Dorian.  “It’s none of his damn business!”

“You said I trust Rudy!” Dorian exclaims.  “You’re the one who asked me what I remembered in front of him; how was I supposed to know you meant everything but that?”

“It’s common sense,” John snaps.  “What social protocol are you using where it’s okay to broadcast sex to all your friends?”

“Which one are you using if a friend means someone you don’t talk to?” Dorian retorts.  “Also, I’m not your fuck buddy, and if you ever call me that again it will be even less true than it is now.”

John opens his mouth but it takes him long enough to figure that out--did Dorian just threaten to cut him off?--that his brain catches up.  It’s totally fair.  Everything Dorian just said is fair, and John is sitting here yelling at him for something he had no control over.

Like everything else in his life, John thinks.

“You’re right,” he says out loud.  “Look, I’m sorry, okay?”

This, of all things, seems to take Dorian by surprise.  “Excuse me?”

“I shouldn’t have said that,” John says.  “I mean… any of it, really.”

Dorian doesn’t answer, but John doesn’t know what else to say, so he just drives.  They’re almost back to his place when Dorian says, “It’s not a game to me.”

“What?” John asks, before he remembers.  He asked if Dorian was testing him.  Maybe he shouldn’t have said it, but he does wonder.  In retrospect, he’s pretty sure Dorian did the same thing for weeks after they first met.  Maybe longer.

“This,” Dorian says.  “Finding out what you’ll say, how you’ll react.  You own me, John.  I need to know what that means.”

He doesn’t like owning someone any more now than he did the first time they talked about it, but this time at least it’s legally true.  “And you don’t remember,” John says.  He may not like it, but Dorian has to like it a lot less.

“What I remember about you is mostly from nights when we were alone,” Dorian tells him.  “That doesn’t tell me much about how we interact around other people.”

He wants to say, you could just ask, but Dorian’s right.  He did ask.  John’s always been terrible at answering.

When they get home, Dorian stops outside the door instead of following him in.  His head is tilted when John looks back, and he seems surprised.  “Your security system knows me,” he says.

“Yeah,” John says.  “You’re good buddies.  So?”

“She’s somewhat… unusual,” Dorian says carefully.

"Well, she talks to you," John says.  "So that's not news.  You gonna stand out there all day?"

There's a single light on in the kitchen, but the windowed walls of the next room make it bright and lived-in looking.  It doesn't hurt that his bed isn't made and Dorian's field charger is pressed up against it.  John avoids them both and grabs a duffel bag from the closet instead.

“You want any clothes?” he calls over his shoulder.

“I’m wearing clothes,” Dorian replies.  He’s stepped into the doorway and stopped, watching John move around the room.  “Hal wants me to ask you a question.”

“Yeah, what’s that?”  Dorian talks to his house computer--who insists that John named her Hal even though he doesn’t remember giving her a gender, let alone a name--all the time.  This is the first time John’s heard that she wants to talk to him.

Of course, Dorian says that the computer talks to John all the time: by turning the lights on and off for him, making him coffee in the morning, and locking the door behind him when he leaves for work.  John thought those were just things the AI was programmed to do, like the communication protocols and the security upgrades.  Apparently not.

“May I view the house’s interior surveillance,” Dorian says carefully.  “Only of places and times when I was physically present during the last three months.”

John stares at him.  “Are you asking if you can watch yourself on the house cameras?”

“It’s an invasion of privacy,” Dorian says quickly.  “I understand.  I told Hal that I don’t think--”

“Dorian, you were here,” John interrupts.  “It’s not an invasion of privacy.  You can watch whatever you want.”

Dorian blinks.  “I see,” he says.

John rolls his eyes.  “Stop saying that,” he grumbles, turning back to his duffel bag.  Dorian should probably have one too.  Unless he’s planning to wear the same thing all week, which maybe he is.  As long as it’s not his uniform, John figures they can make it work.

He glances back at Dorian and sees blue lines creating an intricate pattern on the right side of his face.  “Hey,” John says.  His eyes look normal, at least.  “What are you doing?”

“Hal is allowing me to use her network access,” Dorian says.  “In case whatever happened in Rudy’s lab is the result of a malignant script that can track my digital signature.”

“Right,” John says.  Whatever.  Hal’s never messed up his coffee; she must know what she’s doing.  “I thought you were watching home movies.”

“I was,” Dorian says.  “Now I’m researching Lake Heights.  The only publicly accessible retreat there is run by Cloud Nine.  Is that the place we’re investigating?”

“Yeah.”  It took five seconds to watch every moment he’s spent at John’s place.  Either Dorian’s unnaturally fast, or he hasn’t spent anywhere near enough time here.  Or both, John thinks.  Probably both.

“Are you aware that Cloud Nine has a reputation for--”

The hesitation is brief, but it’s long enough for John to say, “Leather and secret affairs?”

“Discretion,” Dorian says, and John almost smiles.

“Yeah,” he says again.  “You mentioned that.”

Dorian tilts his head.  “Did I?”

“When Sandra assigned us,” John says.  “She thinks she’s funny.  You want to wear something other than your uniform?”

“Yes,” Dorian says.

Finally, John thinks.  “Sweats?” he offers.

“I’m not sure sweatpants are the sort of clothing that’s typically worn at a place like this,” Dorian says.

John snorts.  “Nothing is the sort of thing typically worn at a place like this,” he says.  “I think anything goes.  And if it doesn’t, hell with ’em.  We’re paying vacationers.”

“Are we paying?” Dorian asks.

“The department is,” John says.  “Expense report to Sandra, so.  Tell me if you charge anything.”

“Charge anything,” Dorian repeats, stepping carefully into the room.  He takes a long look out the window while he asks, “What would I need to charge?”

“I dunno.”  John watches him look at the sofa, then over at the bed.  The blue is gone from his skin again, but he’s definitely processing something.  “New jacket.  Souvenir.  Presents for me,” he jokes, but Dorian doesn’t smile.

“John,” he says.

John tries not to sigh.  He braces himself for whatever it is that Dorian doesn’t remember this time, or maybe just a harsh reminder that bots don’t buy things.  At least not for themselves.  He shouldn’t have made the crack about presents.

“May I kiss you?” Dorian asks.

He’s a lot closer than he was before, but he’s still too far away for John to reach out and touch.  He’s not a stranger, not by a long shot.  But he’s… weird, without everything they’ve been through.  He acts more like himself than John expected but less like John’s partner than he knows how to handle.

“Sure,” John says, half-spreading his arms in invitation.  It’s awkward.  It’s unfair, really.  If Dorian remembers this, but he doesn’t remember why?

John knows that if he woke up in love with a robot and no memory of when they met or how it happened, he’d be handling it a lot worse than Dorian is.  It’s not great from his side, but it’s gotta be a nightmare from where Dorian’s standing.  If androids have nightmares.  It suddenly seems weird that he doesn’t know.

Dorian steps into his space and John’s hands settle on his hips without thinking.  He doesn’t know what kissing has to do with anything, but he’s not going to turn it down.  “I’m sorry this happened to you,” he says, searching Dorian’s expression for blue, for anger or disappointment.  For desperation.

All he sees is curiosity, or maybe surprise.  “So am I,” Dorian says.  “Not being able to remember why you let me do this is what I dislike the most.”

When Dorian kisses him it’s utterly familiar.  There’s nothing strange about it at all, nothing off or unusual or foreign.  That’s what convinces John more than anything: he really did save this.  He kept it off of department servers and just between them.

He didn’t have to.  Messing around with a synthetic partner is frowned on, but it’s not actually against the rules.  Dorian hid it for some other reason, and at the end of the day that’s all John needs to know.

“I don’t let you,” John murmurs.  Pressing another kiss to Dorian’s mouth he adds, “I want you to.”  He lifts a hand to cup Dorian’s face, running his thumb over the place where blue lines would normally show connection.  “I want you.”

Dorian smiles back at him, his own grasp gentle on John’s shirt.  “I remember that,” he says.  A flash of blue lights up under John’s thumb and follows his touch down the line of Dorian’s jaw.

Chapter Text

John can pack fast.  He knows what it means to move and he knows what he needs in a wide variety of life-or-death situations.  He doesn’t really know what he needs on vacation, but it can’t be too different from an extended stakeout.

Dorian, on the other hand, contributes almost nothing to the process.  He tries on half of the clothes John’s not taking, declares zero opinions, and doesn’t make fun of a single thing.  It’s weird on so many levels.

“Okay,” John says at one point.  “Not that I’m complaining, but just so you know?  You don’t have a very high opinion of my wardrobe.  Which is a sign of your poor taste, by the way.  But you don’t have to wear anything you don’t want to.”

“I have no experience in selecting clothes,” Dorian says.  “I assume that anything you’re willing to wear will be appropriate to the situation.  Being asked to choose between things you’re not planning to wear doesn’t give me anything to go on.”

John looks from his packed duffel bag to Dorian’s empty one.  “Later I’ll deny admitting this,” he says, “but there’s not really any difference between what I’m taking and what I’m not.  They’re cargo pants and long-sleeved shirts.  Pick something you don’t hate and you can get your own stuff later.”

“I don’t hate this,” Dorian says.  He’s wearing black cargo pants and a gray shirt that never fit John anyway.

“Great,” John says.  “It’s yours.  Grab another pair of pants and a different shirt and put ’em in the bag.”  He collects up the sweats Dorian’s been wearing at night and waits for him to pick a second outfit, apparently at random.  This time it’s a green shirt, at least.  John didn’t realize he owned quite this much black before.

When he stuffs the sweats in Dorian’s duffel bag too, Dorian doesn’t ask.  John’s pretty sure he’s wondering anyway, so he mutters, “You like sweats.  At least, I think you do.  You wear them a lot.”

There’s a long moment before Dorian says, “I remember them being comfortable.”

“Which raises another awkward topic,” John says.  He’s trying not to think about the memories Dorian might have of sweatpants.  “You want underwear?  I know you didn’t wear it, before, but you mentioned that wasn’t exactly by choice.”

Dorian’s giving him an odd look.  “Why would I need underwear?”

“Well, you don’t,” John says.  “That’s kind of the point.  You didn’t need it so you didn’t have it.  I’m just saying, you can.  Have it.  If you want.”  It sounds a lot more stupid when he says it out loud than it did when his brain vaguely thought, hey, this would be a good idea.

His brain still kind of thinks that, but John is embarrassed enough that he’s not listening to it.  “Whatever,” he says.  “Let me know.”

Except that Dorian shouldn’t have to ask him for clothes, right?  Any normal person would just go online and order what they want.  But Dorian doesn’t earn a salary, and John doesn’t want to explain to him what part of the household budget is allocated to buying non-work clothes: basically none of it.  They’ll have to work that out sooner or later.

On the other hand, given Dorian’s inability to choose between two identical pairs of black pants, maybe later is fine.

The duffel bags go in Maria’s car.  John takes most of the groceries from the weekend too, along with his badge, gun, and charger.  They take Dorian’s field charger because they don’t have a choice.  Dorian is still armed, and that’s how John knows someone is screwing with them: no one gets as far as wiping a police bot without taking his weapons.

Sandra doesn’t call during the drive.  He turns on the radio, Dorian questions his choice of music, and John grins.  Dorian’s never mocked his music before, but it doesn’t matter.  It’s progress.  When Dorian starts singing along, John actually starts to relax.

He complains.  Dorian sings louder.  John changes the station and Dorian changes it back.  It’s familiar and comfortable and he doesn’t notice at first when Dorian corrects his directions.  They argue over the roads for several minutes before John asks how the hell he knows where they are without using his GPS.

“I retrieved a significant amount of information using Hal’s network connection,” Dorian tells him.  “Including maps, local road usage, and mileage reports.  Taking the highway will add another seven minutes to our trip.”

“Taking the highway means we won’t fall off the radar in some mountain town without holotechnology,” John counters.  “I’m okay with 97 minutes instead of three days waiting for someone to find us.”

“What do you have against small towns?” Dorian wants to know.

“Nothing,” John says.  “Because there’s nothing about them to hate.”

“Then why are you going out of your way to avoid them?” Dorian asks.

“There’s nothing about them to like, either,” John says.  “Nothing good happens in small towns.”

“That’s statistically and categorically untrue,” Dorian replies.  “I assume you’re making a blanket statement to discourage further conversation.  Would you like to talk about something else?”

John doesn’t take his eyes off of the road.  “Depends what it is.”

“Tell me about some of the cases we’ve worked together,” Dorian says.  “How did you get assigned an out-of-date android when everyone else in your division has an MX?”

“I had an MX,” John says.  “For a day.  It didn’t work out.”

To his surprise, Dorian doesn’t ask.  Instead he says, “So they downgraded you.”

“No,” John says irritably.  Maybe they did.  He doesn’t like hearing Dorian say it, and that’s probably stupid but anyone who thinks MXs are better than DRNs has bigger problems.  “Sandra snuck you into the duty rotation by sending every other available robot to clean bathrooms or something.  I was on a case, I needed a partner, and suddenly there weren’t any more.  So they tapped you.”

“I was decommissioned,” Dorian says.

John shrugs, even though he’s not any happier to hear that than he was to hear Dorian call himself inferior.  “You were the only one available.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Dorian tells him.  “I was decommissioned, presumably for a reason that didn’t disappear just because you’re cranky and abrasive."

“One,” John says, “I’m not cranky or abrasive.  Two, you were decommissioned because no one could pin anything on you so they forced you out.  By arresting your partner and slapping the IRC label on you.”

“I support the Individual Rights Consortium,” Dorian says.

“Yeah, and you can say that, now,” John says.  It’s weird to hear him say it in the present tense like that.  “Then, your choices were a memory wipe and a new partner, or nothing.”

“I chose nothing,” Dorian says slowly.  “So why did I get the memory wipe and a new partner anyway?”

“That was Sandra,” John says.  “She says Richard brought her in on the underground bot railroad.  She found out you were headed for manual labor, and she used my issues as an excuse to keep you here.”

“Why me?” Dorian asks.  Instead of any other bot, he means.

“I dunno,” John tells the road.  “Because they like you, I guess.  Peres got a new bot after you were decommissioned and named him after you.”

“You mean she started working with a bot who shares my name,” Dorian says.

John gets as far as, “No, she really did name him--” before his brain catches up.  “I mean,” he says awkwardly.  “Yeah.”  She probably didn’t “get” a bot any more than he did.  At least he hopes she didn’t.

Unfortunately, everything he’s ever thought about Peres and her Dorian is coming back to haunt him now that he and his Dorian don’t look any different.

There’s a long silence which could be Dorian thinking or Dorian being unimpressed with him.  In the extreme.  Either one, really.

“How did you meet Peres?” Dorian asks at last.  “Did I introduce you?”

He’s so glad for a question he knows how to deal with that he almost answers it.  He surprises himself by saying instead, “Nuh-uh.  Look, I know you have amnesia or whatever, but there’s stuff I want to know too.  I say we trade.  I tell you about Peres, you tell me about McInnis.”

“All right,” Dorian says, nodding once in the corner of his vision.  “I should remind you, though, that my memories are far from comprehensive.  I’m not even sure they’re chronological.”

“That’s fine,” John says.  ”Whatever you’ve got is fine.  We met Peres on our last case: kids being kidnapped without a ransom or demands.  You didn’t know her then either, but she knew you.”

He tells Dorian about the K Street case.  He tells him about the neighborhood watch disguised as a book club and their connection to a PD that was unhelpful at best.  He tells him what they don't know, about things being smuggled past the wall and Rashid's mystery op going sideways and Peres warning them about Dorian.  Both of them.

It takes longer than he expected, and it sounds crazier now than it did when they were living it.  But Dorian nods and volunteers the parts he remembers, which is more of a relief than John expected.  It turns out that he mostly remembers conversations in the car with John, parts of book club interviews, and every time they kissed.  Or talked about kissing.  Or did more than kiss, which should be embarrassing but Dorian doesn’t seem upset about it.

“I still feel what I felt then,” he says.  “It’s not strange.  The strange part is everything else, because I know there has to be more.  Feelings like that don’t come out of nowhere.”

John lets out a breath, knows it sounds like a huff or a laugh or some kind of disbelief, because yeah.  They do.  That’s basically the story of his life, feelings he didn’t expect appearing in the middle of wherever he is and changing everything he knows.

“You have something to say?” Dorian asks, and it’s such an odd way of phrasing the question--at least for Dorian--that John shakes his head no.

Then he changes his mind.  It’s not strange that Dorian asked, after all.  Just the way he said it.  “Yeah,” John says.  “But it’s your turn.  Tell me what you remember about McInnis.”

Dorian does.  He tells John that he remembers trusting her when he started to question the way androids are treated, and that he went to her when one of the DRNs in Delta tried to commit suicide by stepping in front of a train.  He doesn’t remember why he trusted her, anymore than he remembers why he loves John.  But he knows she helped him when no one else cared.

“What happened to the DRN?” John asks.

“I don’t remember,” Dorian says.  “It must be part of the official records.  I know we planned for him to be part of a requisition for political security.  I don’t remember anything about it going wrong.”

John nods.  “Good,” he says.  “That’s good.”

“Tell me about our first case,” Dorian says.

John winces.  “It was cop killers,” he says.  “We lost a lot of good people.”

“I’m sorry,” Dorian says.  “You can skip that one, if you want.”

“No,” John says.  “You’re the one who put it together.  Turns out DRNs are a lot more intuitive than MXs.”

“We’re built to be,” Dorian says simply.  “MXs are designed to be a tactical strike force, not a public relations team.  We know how to relate to people.  They know how to defend them.”

“You defend people just fine,” John says.  “And, hey… do you remember the 44s?”

He glances over when Dorian doesn’t answer immediately, and John sees him smiling.  “MXs that exhibit intuitive reasoning?” Dorian says.  “In defiance of all programming and design?”

John raises an eyebrow.  “I guess,” he says.  “I thought it was initiative.  They do things without being told.”

“All smart tech can do that,” Dorian says.  “Your phone can do that.  It anticipates what you’re going to ask it to do based on what you’ve asked for in the past.  The MXs do more, stringing together actions and reactions based not only on direct requests but also on observation.”

“Observation and logic,” John stresses.  “You said they’re logic-based.  They’re not intuitive.”

“And DRNs aren’t human,” Dorian says.  “We exhibit human qualities.  Just because MXs are logical doesn’t mean they can’t express intuitive qualities.  There’s nothing wrong with logic, John.”

John shoots him a skeptical look that doesn’t quite get there.  His eyes don’t make it away from the windshield before he’s glaring at non-existent traffic that’s completely predictable.  It seems safer to be looking at something else when he says, “That’s not what you said when you first woke up.”

“I don’t remember,” Dorian says, for the twentieth time.  “But I remember being angry about being decommissioned.  I don’t think that would have changed between the time they put me to sleep and the time they woke me up.”

John opens his mouth but he catches himself before he says it.  Dorian loves him.  He doesn’t remember why.  Obviously feelings don’t get wiped with memories.  Which means that when Dorian first got assigned to him, he still had all of the distrust and paranoia and rage that he must have felt at going offline.  

Dorian says “put to sleep” but what he means is killed.  They killed him, and when he came back he didn’t even know why.  No way would John have handled that as well as Dorian did.  In retrospect, a little shouting over MXs seems pretty tame.

“I’m sorry if I gave you trouble when I first woke up,” Dorian says, and John holds up his hand before he can go any further.  Dorian ignores it.  “It seems unlikely that I was what you wanted in a partner.  I appreciate you giving me a chance anyway.”

“No,” John says.  “Look.”  This is a terrible conversation.  He’d rather be talking about their first case, and he doesn’t even like remembering that, let alone talking about it.  “First off, you gave me a lot more of a chance than I gave you.  Second, I might as well apologize for what I put you through, because believe me, it wasn’t a picnic.”

“You didn’t get me killed or turned off,” Dorian says.  “That’s more than most police bots can look forward to.”

“That’s a terrible standard,” John tells him.  “And you know it.”

Dorian is smiling again, and John doesn’t know what he said but he’ll take it.  He’s just going to keep his mouth shut now and enjoy being ahead.  For as long as it lasts.

“You love me,” Dorian says.  “That’s the most important thing.”

“No,” John says, surprising himself.  “No, it’s not.  The most important thing is that I don’t think you’re a second-class citizen because you’re an android.”

“Androids aren’t citizens,” Dorian says.

“They should be,” John snaps.  “This is a terrible system, building mechanical people to do the crap work we don’t want.  Or living shields to stand in front of us while we do stupid things.  That’s--it’s worse than killing each other in the first place.  It’s building new people for us to kill instead.”

Dorian doesn’t answer, but John is right and he’s not going to apologize for that.

“I don’t think you’ve always felt that way,” Dorian says at last.  He sounds wary, but maybe it’s just uncertainty.  He probably doesn’t remember.

“Well, I’m not that smart,” John mutters.  “I didn’t want to see it.”

“What made you change your mind?” Dorian asks after a moment.

John shrugs, keeping his eyes on the road even when there’s nothing to see.  The car’s satellite uplink has overridden local traffic beacons because there aren’t any close enough to give it useful information.  They really are headed off the grid.

“John,” Dorian says.  “I’d like to know.”

“You,” he says.  He didn’t think it was such a mystery.  “You made me see it.”

“Because you don’t want me to get hurt?” Dorian asks carefully.

“Because you’re right,” John says.  “You think, you feel, you do good.  Hell, you’re a better guy than any human I know, and the people we put away have more rights than you do.  You’re helping people and they’re hurting them.  We can’t even cuff them without charging them, but you can get turned off for no reason.  That’s messed up.”

There’s a long pause, but Dorian’s still smiling when John sneaks a glance at him, so he figures they’re okay.  He’s about to ask about McInnis again when Dorian says, “Did I know you felt that way when I fell in love with you?”

John frowns at the road.  “I don’t know,” he says.  “You didn’t--I don’t know.”

“It’s not necessary that I know,” Dorian says, “it’s just that I don’t think I always make the best decisions.  You’re probably right that it’s more important that you respect me than that you love me.  But I don’t feel that way.”

“What?”  What are they even talking about now?

“I shouldn’t have said that.”  Dorian sounds regretful now.  “Were you not aware that my feelings get in the way of what humans consider better judgement?”

John scoffs.  He thinks of Dorian running into danger with nothing more than a warning to John to stay down, even when there’s obviously a better plan that would take two extra seconds.  “Uh, yeah, I’m pretty aware of that.”

“I want you to treat me like I’m worth loving,” Dorian says.  “But I think I’d be willing to work on it if you said you loved me even though you think you shouldn’t.”

Of course he shouldn’t, John thinks, but he’s not about to say it until he figures out what Dorian’s talking about.  He’s not supposed to be in love with his partner.  He’s supposed to be married to his traitor girlfriend and probably dead by her design.  She almost killed him even without the wedding.  Half the department still doesn’t trust him, and the other half thinks he’s such a basket case that he needs a DRN to babysit him.

Suddenly he remembers Dorian standing in Rudy’s lab the night the house got shot up, panicking over John’s invitation to move in.  Maybe he doesn’t get it, maybe he’s totally off base about this.  But he used to be decent at relationships.  Once upon a time.

“Hey,” he says.  “I love you.  Just in case you didn’t get that.  You’re not alone in this.”

“I know that,” Dorian replies.  He’s not just smiling now, though.  He’s trying not to smile.

“So that’s not a question,” John continues.  “And I don’t have a stellar track record when it comes to prioritizing anything over relationships.  And I mean any kind of relationship.  Love, partners, friends.  I’m not gonna judge you for letting your feelings get in the way.”

“Okay,” Dorian says.

“Don’t get me wrong, I think the whole love thing is important,” John tells him.  “But it matters that people in love treat each other like… people.  Not things.”

Dorian nods, and John’s about to ask him if he’s okay before he realizes that he’d be hearing about it if Dorian isn’t.  Dorian isn’t as great at managing his emotions as everyone thinks he is.  Of course, next to John, anyone would look emotionally stable.  But Dorian yells and cries as much as the next person--maybe more, given that he’s had less time to learn how to deal with it.

Right now, he looks like he’s about to start crying.  John is not dealing with that.  There are things he can handle and things he can’t.  Today he can say “I love you,” but he can’t comfort someone who’s crying.  Dorian’s just going to have to figure that out on his own.

John changes the radio station and it’s the only sound for the next twenty miles.

When Dorian eventually says something, it’s about the statistical distinction between men and women and the words “I love you” in a relationship.  So John assumes that the emotional meltdown, quiet as it was, had to do with him saying it now.  He’s not sure if he’s said it before, and it’s not like Dorian would remember, so who knows.

Except he does know.  Dorian would remember.  So John didn’t do it.

He doesn’t know what to say about that, so he asks what Dorian remembers about Peres.  Dorian doesn’t remind him that he didn’t answer Dorian’s question about their first case, so either he meant it when he said John didn’t have to talk about it or he figures what John’s said in the meantime makes up for it.  Either way, John will take it.

He hears a lot about Peres.  More than about McInnis, which surprises him.  He hears about Peres’ suggestion that they “launder” bots through the L Zone, since rules of electromagnetic limitation require bots to shut down all network connections and identity pings when they’re inside the wall.  He hears about her strategy of coordinating sympathetic L Zone residents to temporarily house, employ, and even “buy” robots that need to be salvaged or relocated.  He hears about her uneasy relationship with Dorian’s partner, who didn’t approve of breaking the law no matter whose neck was on the line, and her willingness to work with Dorian to the exclusion of McInnis.

What he doesn’t hear about is whatever prompted the woman to kiss Dorian, let alone what made her do it so well that Dorian flashed back to it on one of the nights he spent with John.  He wants to ask.  But he doesn’t, because if Dorian remembers then John probably doesn’t want to know.  If Dorian doesn’t remember, asking won’t do any good anyway.

Instead he tells Dorian about their second case and how he still hasn’t gotten out of those anger management classes.  Sandra lets him miss them for cases that involve kids or serial killers--or hostages, or bombs, or almost anything they deal with these days--but sometimes he can’t come up with a good enough excuse on Tuesday afternoons and he still has to go talk about why he’s so quick to draw his gun.

Dorian finds this hilarious.  John threatens to share his latest form of stress management next time he goes to class, and Dorian says that sleeping with an android partner might actually be considered therapeutic by the department.  It would cut down on domestic incidents, he says, and it would decrease off-duty vulnerability.

“It’ll make people more dedicated to the job, you mean,” John grumbles.

“It’s a possibility,” Dorian agrees.  “Perhaps your counselor will thank you for sharing with the group.”

“My counselor takes perverse pleasure in not kicking me out,” John says.  “She really might thank me.  She’s just that kind of strange.”

“I look forward to hearing how it goes,” Dorian says.

“What about Richard?” John says.  They’re almost there, and he needs to know what the deal is with the only part of Dorian’s old robot aid team that didn’t go down with the rest of them.  Especially if Dorian’s calling him up now and telling him things John wouldn’t even tell Sandra.  “What do you remember about him?”

“I remember that he talks to drones,” Dorian says promptly.  “He cares about everything, John.  Alive or not, sentient or not, he pays attention to everything and he doesn’t throw anything away.  He cares more about androids than I do.”

John shakes his head, not because he doesn’t believe Dorian in general, but because it’s hard to believe this in particular.  “He sure doesn’t act like it.”

“Of course not,” Dorian says.  “That’s his cover.  He worked in Vice, John; he’s better than anyone in Investigations at maintaining a persona.  He was a deep-cover detective for years.”

“And what makes you think it’s a cover?” John wants to know.  “Maybe you didn’t notice, but he’s not exactly easy to get along with.”

“Neither are you,” Dorian says.  “You don’t have to be a nice person to be a fair one.”

“I’m a nice person,” John protests.

“Do children like you?” Dorian asks.

He blinks.  “What does that have to do with anything?”

“I don’t know,” Dorian says with a shrug.  “I’ve just found it to be a good indicator.  Children seem to judge character better than adults in a wide variety of otherwise unequal situations.”

“Children like me fine,” John says.  “So do cats.”

“Why do you mention cats?” Dorian wants to know.

“No reason,” John says.

Dorian tells him about the rules Richard broke to help him and McInnis at the end, transgressions McInnis never knew about but Richard didn’t bother to hide from Dorian.  It’s more than John expected to hear.  More than he thought he was meant to hear, maybe.  It doesn’t sound anything like the Richard Paul he knows.

In exchange, he gives in and tells Dorian about their first case together.  Then he tells him about the one with the sexbots, too, because he figures Dorian would want to know that.  He’d want to know about Vanessa.

Dorian nods when John mentions it.  “I remember her,” he says.  “I promised her I would.  And I do.”

“Yeah, well.”  He doesn’t know how much Dorian remembers.  “You asked me what I say to people who’ve lost someone.  I say they’ve gone to a better place, but you said I couldn’t know that.  You said it’s better to say that they’ll be remembered.”

“I hope both are true,” Dorian says.  There’s the briefest pause, only noticeable because John was listening for it.  “I told Vanessa what you said before they turned her off.  That she was going to a better place.  She asked if I’d be there.”

John glances over at him, but Dorian looks perfectly composed.

“I didn’t know,” Dorian says.  “I still don’t.  So I told her I’d remember her.”

And then he stored the memory in his unmarked backup file, John thought.  So no one could take it away.  “I hope it helped,” he says.

“So do I,” Dorian says quietly.

They don’t speak again until they turn off the highway.  That’s when Dorian asks him if he feels nervous leaving behind holographically labeled roadways.  John says no before he realizes that Dorian is making fun of him.  Why the android who has to recharge every night gets to make fun of him for being too attached to the network, he has no idea.

At least he doesn’t have to worry about getting into more trouble with the directions.  GPS gets fuzzier the closer they get to Lake Heights, but the resort is big enough to be marked on permanent road signs.  Dorian points out the main street that would take them downtown, or whatever passes for it around here, and then the mileage indicator flashes a warning.

“Subtle,” John says, slowing down at a large wooden sign that proclaims Cloud Nine Retreats.  There’s a painted sun coming up over the water and everything.  “Shouldn’t there be clouds?” John asks.

“I think the point is that you’re above the clouds,” Dorian says.

“No one’s above cloud nine,” John says.  “You’re on cloud nine.  There should be at least one cloud on their sign.”

“Maybe the clouds are below the image,” Dorian says.  “We could be seeing the view from cloud nine.”

“Then why are we seeing the water?” John wants to know.  The road they’re turning onto is semi-paved, covered with the eco-friendly stuff that drains but doesn’t collect sunlight.  It’s very rustic.  “Are we looking down?  I thought the point was to be above our troubles.  If we’re just going to look down at them, why bother being in the air at all?”

“Have you considered the possibility that you’re taking this too literally?” Dorian asks.  “People are happy on cloud nine.  They’re also happy on the water.  It seems like a reasonable association to me.”

“I’m not happy on the water,” John says.

“You’re not happy anywhere,” Dorian replies.

John thinks this is probably true.  

“How long is this road?” he asks, when several minutes have passed without any other sign of the facility.  “Are we actually going to drive into the lake?”

“I think we need to be in view of the lake before that becomes a viable concern,” Dorian says.

“Hah,” John says as they round another curve and the sparkle of water is visible through the trees.  “Now I can be concerned.”

The GPS has given up the ghost as this point, but the preprogrammed mileage indicator does say that they’re on the doorstep.  There’s a white building with a wraparound porch up on the right.  A light green building on the other side is visible only as they pass, and there’s a couple of paths with eco-pave on them that might count as driveways.  Or wheel-friendly trails.

“Is this it?” John asks skeptically.  The car is crawling, but he doesn’t see anyone outside and there aren’t any more signs.  There’s a blue building between them and the water, and it looks like the road ends there.

“Welcome to Cloud Nine,” Dorian says.  “This looks like a central location of some sort.”

John eases the car to a complete stop and looks where Dorian is looking.  There’s a small placard on the porch, and it might say “Welcome” if he squints.  “Okay,” he says.  “Works for me.  I guess we leave the car here.”

“Pull over,” Dorian says.  “Maria doesn’t need a citation just because you’re lazy.”

“There’s nowhere to pull over!” John protests.  “Besides, who’s going to cite her?  You?”

“Of course not,” Dorian says.  “You’re the one who needs a remedial driving course.”

“I drive fine,” John tells him.  “There’s no parking here.”

“At least leave space for someone to pull around you,” Dorian says.

“Yeah, I wouldn’t want to hinder the heavy traffic,” John says, glancing in the mirror automatically.  There’s the same number of cars as people: zero.  “Is this a real retreat?”

“It’s very well-reviewed,” Dorian says.  “I understand its remote location is part of the appeal.”

“I hate camping,” John grumbles, edging the car over as far as he dares.  There’s a garden at the edge of the porch, and he’ll hear it if he runs over so much as a leaf.  He doesn’t ask if Dorian’s satisfied, because the answer will be no, so he just turns the car off and pushes his door open.

The air smells clean.  He forgets, sometimes, just how much trees do for air quality.  They have intentional green spaces in the city, but they can’t scrub the kind of smog Los Angeles generates on a good day.  This is something else.

“Registration is inside,” Dorian says from the other side of the car.  He managed to get out without standing in the garden, John thinks.  Too bad.

“Right,” John says.  “Let’s do this, then.”

Chapter Text

The steps of the porch don’t squeak. The building has a screen door, which doesn’t bode well for climate control. The “welcome” sign beside it is in the shape of a cloud, at least, and John bumps the back of his hand against Dorian’s elbow. “Look,” he says. “A cloud.”

“Yes, John.” Dorian sounds amused. “Do you feel like your troubles are falling away now?”

“I feel like most of my troubles are right next to me,” John says, catching the door and pulling it open. He waves Dorian through, smirking at Dorian’s pleased expression. Not everything about this op is bad.

There’s a kid playing on the floor by the windows when he follows Dorian in. There are other people near her, even if they don’t seem to be paying much attention. Two of them are on some kind of old school gaming table, and the other one is sitting in a rocking chair staring at a tablet. The one in the chair glances up when they come in, but everyone else ignores them.

“John,” Dorian says quietly, nodding to the right. There’s a counter there, or a window in the wall that has a counter behind it, and someone’s boots are standing on top of it. The rest of the someone is visible to the waist, with everything else hidden behind the top of the window.

The sign underneath the counter window says “Registration.”

He looks at Dorian again, and Dorian raises his eyebrows. It’s another expression that John missed, and this time he reaches out. It’s only been a few hours and he’s already wondering what happens if they can’t fix this. If this is who Dorian is now, can they deal with that?

Dorian smiles when John’s hand lands on his shoulder. It’s his amused look again. It isn’t quiet enough that no one could overhear when he says, “If you want to hold hands, you could just say so.”

John rolls his eyes. “Right next to me,” he says again, and he pulls his hand away.

He goes over to the counter and raps on it, hard. “This registration?” John asks loudly.

“Hey, word,” a voice from above him says. One knee hits the counter and a redhead appears, staring down at them. “Yeah. You here to check in?”

“Yeah,” John says with a sigh. As far as his cover’s concerned, this is Dorian’s vacation. Stick as close to the truth as possible, right? John would come here on his own approximately never. “John Kennex and Dorian.”

“Great!” The nametag--and there is a nametag--says “Finn.” “Just booked this morning, right? You got the last open space, and definitely the best cabin. The couple who was in it over the weekend decided to stay an extra night.”

John leans in to Dorian. He turns his head a little so his mouth is right next to Dorian’s ear and he mutters, “I hate cabins.”

It’s obvious and audacious and it probably marks them as a couple more than the reservation itself. John doesn’t know whether to be surprised or not when Dorian turns into him and breathes the words, “You won’t hate these cabins,” against his mouth.

No, he probably won’t. Not if Dorian’s going to be like that the whole time they’re here. How does he even know how to do that?

“I’m sure we’ll enjoy whatever you have available,” Dorian’s telling Finn. “John is concerned about where he’ll park his car. Can you give him some direction?”

“Each cabin has a driveway,” Finn says. So far they haven’t received a single strange look. On the other hand, they’re talking to someone crouched on top of a wooden counter. “You can just leave your car there. There’s a map in your welcome packet; let me get you oriented.”

Finn swings down off the counter, backwards, into the cubby of an office behind the window. A couple of cards and a cube land on the counter in front of them, and Finn slides the cards toward Dorian. Both of them. “Keys.”

Tapping the cube, Finn adds, “Welcome packet.” A holographic map spreads out across the counter, and John sees both their names in the center of it. Elbows braced on the counter, Finn drags a finger through the light. “Here’s your cabin, the Condor, here.” The word “Condor” is visible in small print under “John/Dorian.”

“This is where you are now,” Finn continues, moving the finger in a curved line that follows a path. Or a road. “The main building is the Nest. We serve breakfast and lunch; you’re on your own for dinner, but you can have food delivered if you don’t want to go out. It’ll be dropped off here and whoever’s on duty will bring it to your cabin.”

Leaning forward, Finn waves past Dorian’s shoulder at the space with the kid and the game table behind them. “This is a common area, all ages. There’s an adults’ only space across the street; they’re both open all day and night.”

“I understand there are group activities as well?” Dorian says politely.

He does, John thinks? What kind of group activities? Why are there separate common areas? Does everyone know all about this place but him?

“Sure thing,” Finn says. Another tap to the cube turns the page, and a virtual brochure fills with pictures of people doing… perfectly normal activities. Not that John thinks normal people do yoga or watch the sunrise, but they have all their clothes on. And there are definitely kids in some of the pictures.

“The schedule scrolls automatically during your stay,” Finn is saying. “This is where it’s at now: nature walk after lunch, they’ll be back in half an hour or so. Light painting just started; that’s in the Gull for the rest of the day. Blue building at the end of the road, they have all the windows covered right now. It’s pretty cool.”

“You like light painting,” John says. Mostly to prove he’s listening. Dorian hasn’t moved, so they’re still pressed shoulder to shoulder in front of the desk. John’s trying not to think about the fact that he can feel Dorian’s hand when he breathes in.

“I do,” Dorian agrees, and suddenly John wonders if he knew that. If he doesn’t remember, does he need to try it again to know that he likes it? Or is it a thing that he likes for the concept as much as the practice, so that he knows as soon as he hears about it?

“Cool, great,” Finn says. “I think they’re doing instruction and materials for the first hour, then it’s self-guided after that. Standalone holograms and photo paper until five, then there’s body painting in the evening. That’s adults only, but you can tell from the schedule which activities are which. And when.”

“Adults only is in red?” Dorian asks, studying the schedule on the counter.

“Yeah,” Finn agrees. “They have a red border, but times are displayed under the pictures too. There’s a code of conduct in front--have you been to Cloud Nine before?”

“No,” Dorian says. “But I’m familiar with the expectations for conduct. Thank you for your assistance.”

“Sure, no problem,” Finn says. “I’m Finn; I’m on the desk until five. Let me know if you need anything, or you can call to see what’s going on. There’s someone here around the clock.”

“Do you know where we’re going?” John asks Dorian under his breath.

“Yes,” Dorian says.

“I’ll walk you there,” Finn says at the same time. “It’s just around the corner. Each of the cabins has an invisible side, but they’re mostly in sight of each other. They have a privacy setting to dim light, block light, and cut sound in either direction. You can do a total blackout if you like it quiet. Or loud. Your call.”

“All right,” Dorian says, and this is weird. It’s more weird than he expected. “Thank you.”

They didn’t talk about how they would act here, and maybe John started it by holding the door and whispering in his ear, but he didn’t know what it would be like to watch Dorian answering questions and making decisions on his own. That’s his whole thing, right, initiative? Dorian always gets in trouble for taking on too much. Here, though, he’s just another person. Doing what people do: answering questions, making decisions. Like he does around John all the time.

John doesn’t get to see him do it with other people very often.

They leave the car where it is while Finn walks them to the “Condor.” It’s a short walk, and John still learns more than he ever needed to know about camp layout and privacy. What do they expect people to do, get it on under the trees?

“The invisible wall is marked by solar lighting,” Finn is telling Dorian when they wind up in front of a tiny one-story bungalow. “You can soundproof the cabin but not the wall, and it’s not a physical barrier, so there’s nothing to stop you or anyone else from going through it by accident.”

“Understood,” Dorian says. “Will our keys work on both the front and back doors?”

“Yup,” Finn says. “Oh, and there’s a light on your door. It’s like a do-not-disturb sign, except it’s the opposite. Turn it on if you’re okay with someone knocking. If it’s off no one will bother you. Even if you specifically asked for something, like food. Sometimes people order food and they forget to turn the light on, so we leave it on their porch. There’s not a lot of wild animals around here, but there are some, and they like a good pizza as much as the next person.”

That makes Dorian smile. John’s already bored, but he’s not gonna interrupt the guy enjoying himself. So he bumps against Dorian’s arm again and says, “You want to figure things out here? I’ll go get the car.”

“Of course,” Dorian says. It’s not quite the right answer, but they’ve never done this before. Dorian reaches out and strokes the arm John used to nudge him and John has no idea what to do with that.

He glances uneasily at Finn, who doesn’t seem to notice anything strange. “Back in a minute,” John mutters.

He doesn’t slink away. He doesn’t really know what he’s doing. He has no idea what he’s doing. He’s been lost since a Dorian that isn’t his ducked down beside him wearing a leather jacket.

The woman who was reading when they went inside is out on the porch when he comes back. She doesn’t look up, but she’s either watching him or the car. There’s nothing else going on out here. John doesn’t wave.

He backs down the road slowly, careful not to ruin any more landscaping than he has to. He rolls over at least one corner of grass, but the roads aren’t built for maneuvering. He’s glad they brought Maria’s little family car instead of his heavy-duty armored machine.

There’s no sign of Dorian and Finn when he coasts up to the cabin. Maybe they’re on the other side of the “invisible wall,” he thinks, rolling his eyes. He can only imagine what people use that for. He likes his sex indoors. There’s less chance of getting nature in places where it doesn’t belong.

There’s a small light on next to the door, which is propped open by the latch. Great. Why close nature out when you can invite it in the front door? John pushes the door open with more force than it needs.

He only takes one step inside before he stops and stares. The floor is carpeted. Everywhere. It’s the first thing he notices, but the game table is the second. The one in the common building may be ancient, with actual carved figures and metal rods, but this is a giant glossy surface that probably projects holograms big enough to touch the ceiling.

The furniture is muted, solid color, and there’s a breakfast bar separating the kitchen space. The only interior walls are behind the appliances, presumably hiding a bathroom and half closing off the bedroom. The other half is open, of course, and John can see Dorian and Finn in there talking.

They’re hard to hear, strangely. It’s an expensive but conservative space, small enough that no one is ever more than a few steps from anyone else. It’s clearly designed to be shared. If you want to be alone at Cloud Nine, it looks like you get a separate cabin.

Then suddenly Finn’s voice comes through as more than a background murmur, and it’s very clear. “Some people leave it on all the time. Some people don’t like it because they have to yell from one room to the other. The farther away you are the better it works, so people outside have to be right on the porch to hear anything at all.”

Sound dampening, John thinks. Of course. It’s probably weird that Dorian and Finn are both in the bedroom right now, but there’s no way he’s going in there with them. He doesn’t want to know what Cloud Nine considers an appropriate bed for discreet vacationers.

“Will we be able to hear someone knocking?” Dorian asks. “When it’s on?”

“Well, you probably will,” Finn says. It’s the first sign that Finn even knows Dorian’s a bot. “For most people, it depends how closely they’re listening. It’d be pretty easy to miss from the bedroom.”

No way they’re leaving that on, John thinks. That’s all they need: someone sneaking up on them because they were running the sex coverup white noise generator. He goes back out to the car so he doesn’t have to hear the rest of the conversation.

Finn and Dorian are coming out the door onto the porch by the time he gets their duffel bags out of the car. “No lifeguard except during designated activities,” Finn is saying. “But there’s rescue equipment on the dock and we recommend that anyone who swims alone takes a floatie. You can tow it behind you so it doesn’t get in the way, and they’re good for visibility if nothing else.”

“I’ve never been swimming,” Dorian says.

“Well, the water here’s pretty calm,” Finn tells him. “There’s a rock on the other side of the lake that’s about half a mile out if you want to check your distance. We also have kayaks, canoes, and paddleboards, so help yourself. They all have PFDs attached.”

“What’s the power consumption limit?” John interrupts, dropping both bags on the porch. “We both have chargers.”

“You do?” Finn looks surprised for the first time. “I mean, sure. No problem. Our bots charge on the building generators too, and we have backup hydroelectric if we ever max out on solar. I think that happened once in the thirties. It hasn’t come up since I’ve been here.”

John ignores the way Finn says “thirties” like it’s a long-lost decade that only old people remember. “Great,” he says. He doesn’t mean it. “What about the network? GPS was in and out on the way up.”

“It’s pretty solid,” Finn says. “Satellites don’t like the trees, but we have a transponder at the Nest that covers most of the grounds. All the entertainment systems are tied to it. If you ever have trouble, just come over and we’ll give you a secondary receiver.”

“Thanks,” John says, when Dorian looks at him like some response is expected.

“Yes,” Dorian adds. “Thank you, Finn. We appreciate your help.”

“Anytime,” Finn says cheerfully. “Enjoy your stay!”

Dorian reaches down to pick up the duffel bags while John is still watching Finn leave. When he realizes what’s happened he doesn’t bother going back to the car. He just follows Dorian inside and closes the door behind him.

“Okay,” John says, because there are some things he can say whether there’s interior surveillance or not. “Was that a guy or a girl?”

Dorian is standing in the middle of the room, next to the game table, a duffel bag in each hand and pathways of blue lighting up under his skin. “Does it matter?” he asks, scanning each corner before moving on to the next. He turns in a slow circle, blue sparkling back into skin as his eyes come to rest on John.

“Could you tell?” John counters. He doesn’t bother to ask what Dorian found. The place is either wired or it isn’t, and Dorian will find a way to let him know either way.

“Not without violating civil privacy protocols,” Dorian replies. He nods in the direction of the bedroom. “Shall we?”

If Dorian knows the place is bugged, John’s going to follow his lead. If he doesn’t know, he probably needs line of sight to find out. The bedroom is just another room, and John doesn’t read anything into the invitation at all.

“What, in the middle of the afternoon?” he jokes. “Isn’t it a little early for that?”

Well. Almost nothing. Except that, as far as he knows, he’s at some kind of sex resort with a partner who may or may not have a sex drive. Dorian says he likes sex. He also says his reaction to it is voluntary. What’s John supposed to think about that?

“I thought you liked it with the lights on,” Dorian says over his shoulder. “You could wear a blindfold if it would make you more comfortable.”

“I should blindfold you,” John mutters, crowding into the bedroom after him.

It’s mostly “bed” with very little “room.” There’s some storage, the ubiquitous carpet, and huge picture windows that feel familiar enough that John doesn’t question them. The bed is the main feature, but it’s not as ridiculous as John expected. Everything about it is white, including the uncountable number of pillows and what looks like a tilt-down headboard, but other than that it looks pretty much like any other bed.

As long as “any other bed” is a California king in a tiny luxury cabin in the middle of the woods. Not weird at all, John thinks. They’re all adults here. Who hasn’t wished for an extra large bed and someone to bring them dinner every now and then?

“It’s clean,” Dorian says. “No cameras or listening devices of any type. There’s the expected amount of digital monitoring for the comfort of the cabin’s occupants, but it appears unincriminating and fully anonymous.”

“How unincriminating?” John wants to know. They don’t have the kinds of conversations that he wants to hear played back in a courtroom. And Dorian’s already been shut down once.

“Temperature and humidity compensation,” Dorian says. “Bed resilience, carpet cleaners, proximity power response on the entertainment system. Our presence and movements are monitored for our comfort. Our conversation is not.”

“Good,” John says. He’s tired of being in the bedroom already. No matter how they dress it up, a cabin is still a cabin. “So how do we find the bots?”

Dorian gives him an unimpressed look. “Aren’t you the detective? How would you find them?”

“You memorized the camp handbook,” John says. “Any indication of android staff members? Activity leaders, maintenance workers, that kind of thing? There’s no ‘meet your android service team’ section in the directory?”

“No,” Dorian says. “There’s no staff listing at all. Just contact information for each of the different buildings.”

“Guess that’s what happens when you go discreet,” John grumbles. “Okay, so. We’re gonna have to circulate. Meet as many people as we can.”

“The lack of a public directory doesn’t mean private listings won’t exist,” Dorian says. “I might be able to query their internal network.”

“You mean hack it?” John gives him a half-smile. “I’m gonna remind you that you said that when you get your memories back. And no. Don’t connect to anything networked until we know whether it’s safe or not.”

Dorian has that look, like John just said something that isn’t true but he’s not bothering to correct him. The network thing, maybe. John doesn’t know how it works, let alone what went wrong.

“There’s no option for evening dining here,” Dorian says. “For maximum exposure to the staff, we should participate in their scheduled activities.”

“Yeah,” John says. What a treat that will be. “After we bring in the groceries. I’m not going anywhere without eating first.”

It’s too early for dinner, but he didn’t get lunch, and apparently Cloud Nine doesn’t do room service. Dorian carries the chargers, John carries the groceries, and between them they get Maria’s car unloaded. He gets his sandwich, which improves his mood slightly, and Dorian co-opts the cabin’s monitoring system to keep an eye on things while they’re out.

Dorian thinks they should split up. John scoffs, then realizes he’s serious, which means John gets to spend as long as it takes explaining why that’s a terrible idea. And it’s a really terrible idea.

“First off,” he says, “you don’t even remember how to run an investigation. Second, our cover involves us being together. And third, you are not leaving me alone in the middle of the woods, or I won’t be responsible for my actions.”

“Which raises an important question,” Dorian says smoothly. “How much do you want us to act like a couple?”

John pauses in the act of putting his dishes away. The cabin has dishes. That automatically makes it better than two-thirds of the cabins he’s been in. “We are a couple,” he says.

At least, he thinks they are. They are, right? They sleep together. Sort of. They’re mostly living together. They don’t have time to go on dates, and no one actually knows they’re involved except for them, but still.

They’ve had the awkward “I love you” conversation twice now. That has to count for something.

“I’m quite clear on that, yes,” Dorian says. So at least one of them is. “That isn’t what I asked.”

“I think we should act…” John looks at him carefully. “As much like a couple as you’re comfortable with us acting.”

“Why did you look at me like that?” Dorian wants to know. “Just now,” he adds, when John raises his eyebrows.

John rolls his eyes. “I looked at you because I thought we were doing just fine,” he says. It’s not entirely true, but they haven’t done anything blatantly wrong yet. They’ll figure it out as they go. “I don’t know what there is to talk about.”

“How comfortable are you with physical intimacy in front of other people?” Dorian asks. “I’ve never seen you in a relationship that lasted longer than two dates, so it’s difficult for me to judge. And my projections may be irrelevant, given that none of your previous partners were synthetic.”

Of course he has projections, John thinks. Why wouldn’t Dorian have projections. He probably has flowcharts and causal loops that have been cross-referenced against every relationship database in existence.

Which is fair. Dorian said it himself: he doesn’t have any frame of reference for this. Asking him to guess is probably like asking John to learn Korean just by listening to Dorian sing.

He is guessing. That’s why he has questions.

John takes a breath. “Define physical intimacy,” he says warily. They’re still at a sex resort, after all.

The look Dorian gives him is not impressed. “Tangibly intimate actions between two or more people who are in proximity to each other,” he says.

“No, that’s not--” John sighs. “I’m not trying to be a jerk,” he says. “I mean. We’re here. When you say, uh, intimacy, do you mean…? Like holding hands, or like… you know. Getting someone off in the bathroom?”

“I mean, can I touch you while other people are watching,” Dorian says. “Are you willing to kiss me somewhere that isn’t completely private. And if either of these activities were to escalate, at what point do you consider it inappropriate for a public space?”

He’s just trying to set boundaries, John reminds himself. Boundaries are good. Boundaries are their friends, especially if they’re in an environment that likes to fuck up boundaries but good.

“You can touch me anywhere that’s not, you know. Sexual,” John tells him. “Keep an eye on what other people are doing. Don’t do anything stranger than the strangest person in the group. That’s a good general rule.”

Dorian stares calmly back at him. “Given that any group I’m in is likely to include you,” he says, “I don’t know that you’ve placed any restrictions on my activities at all.”

“Yeah, very funny,” John says. “What are you okay with? I’m not the only one who gets a say in this, you know.”

“I don’t have as many physical inhibitions as you do,” Dorian says. “I speculate that many human inhibitions stem from a fear that they will be labelled or judged and found lacking. Since I’m considered inferior simply for being a DRN, I don’t share that fear. I already know where I stand.”

“You’re not inferior,” John says roughly. He knows Dorian doesn’t believe half the things he says, but John doesn’t like hearing them. He can’t just let it go. “Also, you’re self-conscious every time you get cut or scraped up or shot at. You definitely have inhibitions.”

“Not about touching you,” Dorian says. “The only reason I’m not doing it right now is because I feel you’ll find it intrusive or inappropriate.”

“See?” John says, pointing at him. “Inhibitions. They’re a terrible thing, man, but they keep society functioning. I guess we gotta give ’em credit for something.”

“If I had your permission,” Dorian says, “I would kiss you everywhere we go. All the time. I would take off your clothes when you’re in the sunlight, so I could see the parts of you that you try to keep hidden. I would put my hands on your legs while everyone is watching and try to take away the pain you feel in your nerves, so that the rest of the world could see you as happy and as comfortable as I do.”

“Cut it out,” John mutters when it’s clear Dorian has stopped. “Seriously, you don’t have to be all poetic about it.”

Dorian tilts his head. “Was that poetic?” he asks. “I only tried to answer the question the way I hoped you would: with a list of examples, of actions I would tolerate or desire from my partner.”

“You really want me to do that?” John says skeptically. “Walk around naked and show people my happy face? Because I gotta tell you, that is way past my comfort level.”

“So tell me what isn’t,” Dorian insists. “What are you comfortable with, John?”

“I just told you,” John snaps, more irritated than he means to sound. “I’m sorry I’m not touchy-feely. I just think some things are private, and they should happen… privately.”

Dorian nods once, and John always feels bad when Dorian doesn’t argue with him. “That’s helpful,” he says. “Thank you for clarifying.”

It’s not stiff or sarcastic. He might actually mean it, but John feels compelled to apologize again. “Sorry,” he mutters. “It’s not because of you. It’s just not my thing.”

“John,” Dorian says. “I’m not sure you’ve noticed, but I spend a lot of time not touching you. Most of the time I’m consciously canceling impulses to do so. If you say it’s all right to touch you while we’re here, then that’s probably more than I ever thought we’d do.”

The hell of it is that Dorian doesn’t even mean to make him feel like crap. As far as John can tell, he means every word. But the same social isolation that John considers a choice is, for Dorian, the only option he has. He finally has the chance to break out of it and John can barely even look at him.

“Kissing would be all right,” John says, catching his eye. “No making out in public. But if there was an occasional… quick thing, on the cheek or the mouth… I’d be okay with that.”

Dorian doesn’t make a big deal of it, and John wonders if there’s something wrong with him. People kiss all the time. Usually the world doesn’t blow up afterwards, no matter how many people are watching.

“Understood,” Dorian says. He’s smiling when he adds, “If I do anything that’s too much, tell me. I know you don’t believe this, but making you uncomfortable isn’t my main goal in life.”

“Sure it isn’t,” John grumbles. “I’m not a flower, you know. I can handle a little embarrassment.”

“Yes,” Dorian replies. “I gathered that from your wardrobe.”

John looks up in surprise and finds Dorian positively smirking back at him. It’s all he can do not to smile back. “Your wardrobe now,” he warns.

Now they’re talking.

Chapter Text

Their cabin has a dedicated driveway, but John can see another one through the trees as they walk back toward the main building. “What’s the capacity here?” he asks Dorian.

“Sixteen cabins,” Dorian says. He’s obviously doing it from memory, and John tries not to be disappointed by the lack of blue light. “Maximum occupancy per cabin is four people. There are eight larger buildings, including the Nest and the Gull, which have variable potential for residential use. So, somewhere between 64 and 186, although the dining hall is the largest common space and it’s only certified for 120 people at a time.”

“If we got the last cabin,” John says, “they must all be in use. That’s a lot of people for a Monday afternoon.”

“It’s unlikely that all the cabins are at maximum occupancy,” Dorian says. “July is also a popular vacation month with children out of school for the summer, and the environment here--on the water and away from the city--probably contributes to a broad appeal.”

“Wait, I said July is a popular vacation month,” John complains. “And I got nothing!”

Dorian gives him an odd look. “When did you say that?” he asks.

John turns to glare at him before he remembers. “Uh,” he says. “Right after--never mind.” But that’s not fair, and he tries to fix it before Dorian can let him know. “I mean, I couldn’t tell you where we were going in the middle of the precinct, so I said I was going on vacation. You didn’t believe me.”

Dorian doesn’t look any less confused. “Why couldn’t you tell me where we were going?”

John can’t remember what he told Dorian before the network connection disaster and what they’ve talked about since. “Because Sandra doesn’t want anyone else to know we’re--” He breaks off just before he says it, just like that, out in the open where anyone could overhear.

He gestures back and forth between them instead, and it probably looks exactly as awkward as it feels. “Sandra’s trying to smooth this over,” he mutters. “The, uh… us. She wanted us out of the way for a while. The official story is that I’m on vacation.”

Under normal circumstances, he’d trust Dorian to fill in the blanks. Now he’s not sure, but he doesn’t dare spell it out. He hasn’t seen any bots but Dorian since they arrived, but they must be here, and he knows what kind of an auditory range Dorian’s got. And without Dorian breaking into the system to check, who knows what kind of monitoring devices they have in a place like this. Security cameras, at least.

“You’ve already told me this,” Dorian says after a moment.

John smiles, because that wasn’t what he expected but it’s not bad. “Yeah,” he says. “Guess you weren’t listening.”

Dorian tilts his head slightly. All he says is, “You do talk a lot, John.”

John snorts. “Says the walking encyclopedia.”

The main building does have a sign that says “Nest” on it, but John thinks he can be forgiven for not noticing it the first time. What the hell does “nest” mean, anyway? It doesn’t make any sense out of context. It barely makes sense in context.

He almost asks Dorian if all the buildings are named for birds, but then he thinks it’s a stupid question and keeps his mouth shut.

The blue building at the end of the road has a view of the water, and if John were actually on vacation he might appreciate it more. Maybe find a beach chair, sit somewhere in the shade. Turn off his phone for once.

Instead he’s stuck going into the Gull with Dorian, stepping into darkness that makes him reluctant to close the door. “It’s a transition,” Dorian murmurs, and only then does John realize he froze. “Probably to protect the paintings.”

John doesn’t remember Dorian’s light painting needing a dark room, but he tries not to flinch when the door closes behind them. He’s fine with darkness in small spaces. It’s not like there’s water in this one. Even if there were, they’re above ground. It would drain out. Dorian would kick the door down. It’ll be fine.

“Hello,” a voice calls from the other side of what must be a curtain. “Come on in!”

“Are you all right?” Dorian asks. It’s so quiet that John can pretend he didn’t hear if he wants to.

“Yeah,” John mutters. “It’s fine.”

He pushes at the curtain until it yields an opening. There’s light on the other side, glowing in little islands around the room. Easels, maybe, tiny projector lights shining in concentrated cones above them, and a touchpad next to every one. Someone’s tipped one over on its side by the curtain so that red light spills across the floor.

“Hi,” the same voice says, from a couple of easels over. John can’t get a quick count of how many people are in the room, but Dorian should be able to. “Come paint with us. There’s an open station here, and a few more along the wall. Can someone call out which ones are free?”

“Over here,” someone else says.

At the same time a childish voice adds, “There’s no one next to me!”

“Let’s go that way,” Dorian murmurs, resting a hand lightly on John’s elbow. It’s tentative, and stranger now that Dorian’s pointed out why it’s weird: he rarely touches John in public unless it’s in the line of duty. Until now.

Dorian doesn’t push or pull, but John follows him just to avoid losing that contact.

“Thank you,” Dorian says, as they make their way between colored lights and people John can barely see in the reflected glow. Maybe they’re passing the person who welcomed them; he can’t tell.

“You’re welcome,” the first voice replies, so yeah. That’s who they’re near. “Do you need any help getting set up?” They must be past the hour of instruction by now.

“No,” Dorian says. “I’m familiar with this style. John?”

“Just here to watch you,” John says.

“There’s plenty of room,” Dorian tells him, and suddenly there’s a gentle pressure on his other arm and Dorian is turning him toward the next empty easel. “Hold your hand under the light and tap the screen to change colors.”

“Forget it,” John says, lifting his hands away. “I’m not an artist.”

“It’s easy,” says the little voice, now on his right instead of his left. “I can do it and I can’t draw anything!”

“Is that so,” John says. There’s enough spilled light for him to guess she has dark hair and barely comes up to his waist. “I guess you’re gonna have to help me, then.”

“You have to pick a color first,” she says. She’s moving around, pulling something over from her station to his. A stepstool, he realizes. She really is going to help him. He wonders if her parents are here.

“Okay,” John says, watching Dorian step back on his other side. “Blue.”

“On the palette,” the little voice says. Something bumps into his legs, and then she’s climbing onto the stool beside him. “Touch the screen to pick your color.”

Dorian is standing at his own easel, and there’s not enough light for John to see his face but he’s probably smiling. John puts his finger on the color gradient on the screen, and the light in front of him changes to blue. “Got it,” he says.

“Now you touch the paper,” she says.

There’s a slight shine off the transparency that tells him where it is. He still misjudges it, but he draws a passable smiley face with his finger and she giggles. “Why aren’t you helping me?” John asks. “You draw something.”

“Um, I can draw a dog?” she offers.

“Let’s see it,” he says, drawing a circle as close to the edge of the surface as he can. Even with the light, he can’t really see what he’s doing. The light mostly follows his fingers, which is what it’s supposed to do, but it doesn’t give him much to go on in terms of the canvas. Or e-paper. Whatever it is.

She draws a little curled up circle with ears and a line that’s probably a tail. It’s better than his sun, so he tells her she won the first round. She tells him his sun is good too, and he says the fact that she knows it’s a sun means it’s better than he thought it was.

On the other side of the room, there’s whispering and the sound of clicking toenails. Someone’s got a dog--or a big cat--but until it bothers him he’s going to ignore it. The person who greeted them when they came in is talking to someone about photo paper. There aren’t as many people in the room as he first thought and they can all hear everything that goes on.

When he looks over at Dorian, there’s nothing but reflected light on his face and he has his eyes on his own work. It doesn’t fool John. He wonders how many people know how aware Dorian is of them, even now, and how much they care. Human police officers can take off their uniform. Police bots can’t change their face.

John decides to challenge his young instructor to a second draw-off instead of looking for trouble. This time she draws a heart with an arrow through it next to his department insignia. That’s a little too close to home, so he tells her to pick something they can both draw for the next round.

She picks flowers. John draws the most lopsided daisy in the world, and the kid draws a dandelion going to seed. “I don’t think you were telling me the whole truth,” he tells her. “When you said you can’t draw, I mean.”

“Well,” she chirps, “my mom says I’ll get better if I practice. So I’m practicing!”

“Okay,” he says. “This time draw a bird.” He makes a rounded “m,” two curved wings meeting in the middle. She draws a nest with a head sticking out of it.

When they’ve used up all of the space with their doodles, they start a game to connect pictures with new ones. John finally gets the hang of changing colors, and it helps separate the lines to have actual backgrounds and shadows to show depth. He used to be good at shading. Adjusting the transparency of the color helps too.

She shows him how to magnify part of the projection, so they can put more doodles in a smaller space, and that’s when he realizes they haven’t filled up the paper at all. They can cover everything he can see, but as soon as they move in there’s empty space everywhere. Now he knows how Dorian does detail work.

John’s not sure how much time has passed when the familiar voice comes around again, asking if anyone else wants photopaper. It’s the woman they spoke to when they first arrived. “You’ll be able to project any painting you save,” she’s telling them, “but if you want to display them in a physical form, you can use photopaper to capture the image and put it on the refrigerator. Or hang it up on the wall at work.”

“Dorian,” John says, when there are a couple of affirmatives and Dorian isn’t one of them. “You want to save yours?”

“It’s already saved,” Dorian says without looking up.

“I mean on paper,”John says. He doesn’t really. The kids call it all “paper” these days, and it covers everything from transparencies to celos. “I want a copy.”

Last week he didn’t dare to ask. He still doesn’t think it’s up to him, but they’re here as lovers, right? Or whatever? Maybe they really are playing a part. Maybe he should act more like… well. Like Dorian’s boyfriend.

“You haven’t even see it yet,” Dorian reminds him.

John takes that as an invitation. “Your turn to pick,” he tells the girl on the stepstool. “I’ll be right back.”

Someone stops next to Dorian to give him photopaper while John looks over his shoulder. She says, “That’s beautiful,” and Dorian thanks her. John thinks she’s crazy.

It’s not just beautiful. It’s unreal, how Dorian’s recreated the lake in light and shadow that hints at a rippling surface. Nighttime, with the moon rising across the water, making a path toward the viewer. The colors are all dark blues and purple, a little green in the lake and some yellow in the moon’s reflection. There are stars.

“When’d you have time to see this?” John manages.

“When we came in,” Dorian says. RIght. Because this is the lake from where they are, and Dorian not only memorized it but projected into the night.

“That’s pretty nice,” John says, and it’s the understatement of the year. It’s funny, though: the blue lines of Dorian’s net are missing. He doesn’t know what that means. “No specs this time?”

Dorian doesn’t move, and they’re not touching, but John can feel him go still. More still than he was before. Careful and guarded and John knows he’s mentioned something Dorian doesn’t remember. He didn’t realize how important it would be.

“What do you mean?” Dorian asks. His tone is almost normal.

John thinks about not telling him for half a second. He could say “nothing” or even “tell you later” and they could avoid this awkwardness. At least until they’re not in front of other people. He isn’t sure why he says, “You know, sometimes you paint your net over the scene.”

“I do,” Dorian says slowly. It’s not quite a question.

“Looks good,” John says, because that’s true either way. “So do I get a copy, or what?”

Dorian doesn’t answer right away. In the pause, the woman with the paper says, “If you turn off the light, you can slide this over the canvas and turn the projector back on. Between twenty and thirty seconds, the longer you leave it the brighter the image will be. Just make sure you turn the light off again before you move the paper.”

“Thank you,” Dorian says. He doesn’t sound distracted, and he takes the paper, but he’s looking at John when he says, “Do you like it better without the net?”

John isn’t stupid. He’d lie if he had to, but he doesn’t. “I think it’s great either way,” he says. “But I like seeing what you see. So.”

The woman with the paper is announcing the time, telling them that they’re going to switch paints or something at five. John is more interested in what Dorian’s doing with the photopaper, which is setting it on the floor. Not putting it under his painting.

John doesn’t complain--it’s not his art, Dorian can do whatever he wants with it--but Dorian says, “Yes,” like he knows what John’s thinking anyway. “You can have it,” he adds. “When it’s finished.”

John smiles. “Thanks, man.” He claps Dorian on the shoulder, then wonders if that’s weird: too familiar, not familiar enough? Not familiar enough for romantic vacationers, probably, but the sudden awareness that Dorian wants to touch him more makes John wonder if he touches Dorian too much.

He hesitates long enough that Dorian puts a hand over his. That just makes it weirder: not because Dorian’s touching him, but because they’re surrounded by people. People who can barely see each other in the dark, but his eyes are adjusting and they’re at least well-defined shadows by now. He and Dorian probably look even clearer to them.

Dorian pats his fingers and turns his head to kiss them, quick and easy. He lets go before John can react, turning back to his light like he they’re done. Like he doesn’t expect anything.

Or maybe he does expect something and it’s bad, John thinks. He runs his hand over the back of Dorian’s shoulder without thinking about it too much. If anyone deserves to get what they want, it’s Dorian, and he doesn’t even know how to ask.

“Very nice,” someone is saying. They’re at John’s station, next to his young friend, and he assumes one of her parents has come over to look. “Did you ask if you can save this?”

“No,” the girl replies. She definitely knows he’s there, though, because she adds, “Can I save this?”

“Sure,” John says. “You want some paper?”

“That’s okay,” she says. “I’ll put it on my phone.”

“Thanks for painting with her,” the adult on the other side of her stepstool says.

“Thanks for letting her paint with me,” John says, and he means it. The kid is fun and easy to talk to and pretty much the opposite of every other kid he knows. Not that the list is very long. “It was fun.”

“I’m done,” the girl announces loudly. “Now let’s draw snowflakes!”

“Snowflakes,” John says. “In July?”

“We’re going skiing tomorrow,” she tells him. “I like skiing.”

“Skyboarding,” her adult companion says. “Over the snow. Nik, it’s time for dinner, honey. You need to fuel up for the mountain tomorrow, right? We’ll go get some food.”

“No, we have to draw snowflakes first,” the girl called Nik insists. “Before we go!”

She’s tracing something with her finger, so John leans over the other side and scribbles a star with lines coming out of its points. He puts a triangle on the end of each line, and by the time he’s done she’s made some kind of kaleidoscopic heart circle. Neither of them look like snowflakes, really, but Nik seems satisfied.

“Okay,” she says, climbing down off of her stool. “You win the last one. Maybe we can do this again sometime.”

It’s such an adult thing to say that he almost laughs, but he manages to smile in the direction of her shadow and says, “Well, I’d like that very much. You have a good evening, now.”

“You too,” she agrees. The adult with her moves the stool a little away from his station, maybe so he won’t trip over it, and wishes him a good night too. He doesn’t think about the fact that they don’t introduce themselves until they’re leaving. By then they’re talking to whoever’s in charge, saying thank you, and it’s too late.

If he cared more he could follow them, catch up and exchange names. A couple of other people are packing up too; it wouldn’t be out of place. Instead, John glances in Dorian’s direction.

The light at his station is shut off now, but John can see Dorian looking at him when it comes back on. “You done?” John asks. That must be the photopaper he’s lighting up now. If John actually ends up with a copy, he’s going to hang it up somewhere everyone can see.

“Yes,” Dorian says. “Are you interested in bodypainting?”

“No,” John says. “My body is just fine, thanks.”

“You could paint mine instead,” Dorian says.

John opens his mouth before he realizes he missed something. “Wait,” he says. “Do you want to do it?”

“Not with an unwilling partner,” Dorian says.

“It’s not that,” John says. “I just didn’t know--” They didn’t talk about it, and he has no idea what “adult only” means here. He doesn’t even know what bodypainting is, other than exactly what it sounds like. But if it’s not weird, why don’t they let kids do it? Kids would love to cover each other with paint.

“It comes off,” Dorian says. “It’s just phosphorescent particles that you apply in solution and charge by shining light on them.”

That isn’t exactly what John wanted to know, but it’s more than he had before. “How do you know that?” he demands.

“I read it--”

“In the brochure,” John finishes with him. “Right.” Of course. “Okay. On two conditions.”

“Name them,” Dorian says.

“I’m not taking my clothes off,” John tells him. “And I get to sit down.”

“So you want to be the one being painted,” Dorian says.

“Well, you saw my painting,” John says dryly. “Unless you want to be covered with smiley faces and snowflakes, yeah. I think you should be the one doing it.”

“Are you willing to push your sleeves up?” Dorian asks.

So John ends up on a folding chair in a dark room, next to a projector that’s been switched to black light. He’s pretty sure Dorian doesn’t need it, but everyone else is using it to see what they’re doing. John gets his arms painted with faint lines of circuitry and processing connections and he doesn’t say a word when Dorian makes it look like the designs run up underneath his shirt.

The paint is more like real paint than the light was, but Dorian still uses his fingers. The solution is cool to the touch, and John can feel it catch the slightest whisper of air when Dorian moves. He’s glad of the dark, because he’s okay with Dorian doing it but it feels weird to think that other people are watching.

No one is walking around now, he notices. Whoever greeted them when they came in and kept an eye on the room before, helping people save their paintings and switch over their projectors, is nowhere to be found. Or maybe she is: she might be sitting against the wall or standing at any of the stations. She’s not circulating, though, and neither is anyone else. Even the murmur of conversation is low and mostly whispered.

John’s fine with that. He doesn’t know what anyone else is doing and he likes it that way. He can’t think about anything except Dorian, so it’s hard to worry or even wonder what’s going to happen next. He just watches the glowing lines trace themselves across his skin, feels fingers on his neck and under his eyes, and tries not to smile when the brush of paint or air threatens to tickle.

It’s mostly a losing battle. When he can see Dorian’s expression, though, he’s smiling too. At one point Dorian whispers, “You do know there’s going to be a picture of this.” John pretends to sigh, but yeah. He figured.

He didn’t know it would involve turning the lights on. Apparently that’s part of charging the paint: they can either adjust the projectors for full spectrum, or turn the lights on. When Dorian starts asking the shadows around them if he can switch his projector to full strength without affecting their work, someone suggests flipping the room lights instead.

It’s not the same voice that welcomed them. Five or six other voices agree, though, and someone calls for the whole room to close their eyes. Dorian offers to get the lights from where he is, and John hears whoever he’s talking to say, “You can do that?”

Anarchy, John thinks. The teacher’s gone and the class is making up the rules as they go along. He doesn’t close his eyes.

Dorian’s remote light control seems to make him the de facto leader. In a voice that’s loud enough to carry, he says, “If you’ll close your eyes, the light will charge your paint and you can keep your night vision.”

And no one will see anything they shouldn’t, John thinks.

Then Dorian says, “John, close your eyes.”

John hears a couple of people snicker. He rolls his eyes, but he does what he’s told and Dorian doesn’t comment on his expression. “Lights,” he says, and the blackness in front of John’s eyes turns dark red.

A few seconds pass in silence, then someone asks, “Just out of curiosity… are you making faces at us while our eyes are closed?”

“No,” Dorian replies. “Only at John.”

“Hey,” John protests. He hears another snicker.

Then someone else asks, “Are you a police bot?”

They get braver with their eyes closed, John thinks.

“I was,” Dorian says. That’s all he says, and that’s the end of the questions. No one is that brave.

The silence is like breathing, and then Dorian says, “Twenty more seconds.”

It can’t really take a full minute, can it? John doesn’t know much about phosphorescent paint, but every kid plays with glow-in-the-dark stuff. A few seconds is enough to charge something enough to see it. What’s Dorian doing?

“Can we mix paint colors?” someone asks. “I mean, I know it’s not like regular paint. So if we put yellow with blue, does it look green?”

At first no one answers, and then John realizes they’re still talking to Dorian. “The particles will intermingle,” Dorian says at last. He must have just realized too. “It might look green at a distance, but they’ll stay discrete blue and yellow pieces.”

“Can I try it?” the same voice asks.

Dorian hesitates again, and John wonders if the instructor is still in the room. Is he waiting for her to answer instead?

“I don’t see why not,” Dorian says at last.

John tries not to fidget, but a minute is a really long time in a room with other people when his eyes are closed. He’s glad he didn’t take off his shirt. It did occur to him when he saw what Dorian was doing, but there was already paint on his skin by then. It’s not totally dark even with the lights off, and who knows if everyone has their eyes closed now or not. It’s just as well they didn’t get carried away.

The red behind his eyelids disappears and Dorian says, “The lights are off now.”

John hears gasps when he opens his eyes. At first he doesn’t know what he’s seeing: he flinches away from the light and it moves with him. That’s his skin, the paint on his arms is glowing like electricity and he doesn’t even think before he says, “Wow.”

At least he’s not the only one. All around the room, people are talking, exclaiming over what the light did to their barely-there designs. Where there were shadows, there are now moving silhouettes of light lines and glowing landscapes in the shape of bodies. Some people definitely took their shirts off, he thinks distantly.

It’s weird, though. There are people who must be wearing fewer clothes than he is, because they have paint all over them. But they look the most dressed in the darkness. People with painted hands look like they’re wearing gloves and nothing else. When he blinks against the sudden brightness, he can see it reflecting a little on the edges of his clothes, but the illusion is convincing.

“Stand up,” Dorian tells him.

John doesn’t ask. He does it, and then he turns around, because it’s Dorian’s work. He should get to see all of it if he wants to.

“Thank you,” Dorian says. He sounds completely calm. John has no idea if he’s pleased, or disappointed, or even paying attention now that he’s finished.

“Can I see it?” John asks. “Send a picture to my phone or something.”

He can see his arms, of course. But it’s like trying on clothes: he has no idea how it looks on him, if it looks like anything at all. Maybe it’s more a mechanical exercise than an artistic one. Or maybe it’s a message.

Maybe it’s a message, John thinks, frowning. Dorian traced designs like this once before, but he didn’t say why. Is it supposed to mean something?

He’s already pulling his phone out when it sends the image alert. Not just a picture, it’s a tiny three-dimensional hologram. The negative space where there’s no paint is filled in. He doesn’t see it at first, but Dorian’s managed to take a picture that shows him and the light at the same time.

He doesn’t look human. He doesn’t look like a bot, either. The vaguely inhuman appearance looks more like a movie effect than anything.

“It comes off,” Dorian reminds him.

“That’s amazing,” John blurts out. “How did you--the lines are--you did that with your fingers?”

“I adjusted the concentration of the paint as it was applied,” Dorian says. “The finer spaces have a brighter background glow as a result. It’s an inevitable effect of the redistribution of phosphorescence.”

“Yeah,” John says. “Sure.” Of course it is. What the hell. He lifts his free hand and stares at his arm, then back at the hologram. It’s more impressive in person even though he sees less of the overall impact.

His phone flashes beneath the hologram with an incoming call.

“You should take that,” Dorian says.

John has no idea how he knows that, but it’s Sandra, and he’s right. “We need to go,” John mutters. He sends the hold message and looks at his arms again. “Can I go outside with this?”

“It’s only visible in the dark,” Dorian says. “Do you want me to answer your phone?”

“That important?” John says, stepping around the projector and fumbling for Dorian’s hand. “Don’t let me bump into anyone.”

Dorian’s hand finds his immediately. “Yes,” he says. He doesn’t say anything else, and John gets it. He lets Dorian lead him out of the room, receiving a couple of murmured “good nights” as his brightly glowing paint marks their progress across the floor. John pushes the curtain aside and Dorian holds the door, just enough for them to pass through single file.

John drops his hand outside and picks up the call. “Hey,” he says, jerking his head at Dorian to indicate the road. They need to be somewhere secure.

“Hey,” Sandra’s voice echoes. “John. How are you?”

He was almost relaxed two minutes ago. “Fine,” he says curtly. “What’s going on?”

“Nothing good,” she replies. “Can you talk?”

“Soon,” he says. They’re headed for their driveway and a building that has great countermeasures for eavesdropping. “Dorian says it’s important.”

“I’m glad he’s with you,” Sandra says. “It must have been a difficult morning.”

John snorts. “Yeah, we had some setbacks,” he says, glancing at Dorian. “You?”

“The same,” she says. “I don’t want you to change what you’re doing. But it’s probably better if I call you for a while, rather than having you check in.”

He shoots another quick look at Dorian. “You don’t want me to call you,” he says.

“I don’t want your call to be intercepted or rerouted,” she says. He looks at his phone in surprise, and sure enough, the “secure” symbol is steady at the bottom of the display. No wonder Dorian thought it was important.

“Okay,” John says, frowning as they turn toward the cabin. “Talk to me about the weather.”

“Terrible,” Sandra replies. “As always. Cold and grey, can’t breathe. Believe me,” she adds, “you got the better end of this deal, weather-wise.”

It’s the right answer, but he doesn’t know what to do with it. He can’t ask what he wants to know out in the open, and Sandra won’t tell them anything until they have some kind of cover for stray noise. Looks like they’ll put the cabin’s sound dampening feature to good use.

“Ask if Valerie’s redecorated your desk,” Dorian says.

John frowns at him, but he does. Not that Dorian couldn’t do it himself. “Val redecorate my desk yet?” he asks.

Sandra sounds amused when she says, “You mean, has she solved any of your cold cases? Just one. But it’s only Monday.”

John looks at Dorian and points at his phone, because seriously? Is that what he meant? Since when do Dorian and Sandra have a code?

Dorian just smiles.

By the time they reach the cabin, John’s handed the phone to Dorian in protest and is pretending to ignore them both. He’s actually trying to see the paint on his skin, because he’s afraid to move his sleeves in case it smears. Dorian’s right, though, it’s completely invisible in the light. Well, maybe not to him. To John’s eyes, at least.

Dorian does something at the door and nothing happens. John doesn’t ask. He does watch Dorian walk over to the entertainment table and put the phone on top of it, where it connects instantly and projects a very lo-res version of Sandra and--

“What are you doing with Richard?” John demands. “Are you still at work?”

“No,” Sandra says. “Everything quiet now?”

“We’re secure,” Dorian says, and Sandra nods.

“Tell him what you found,” she says.

Richard is standing next to her, arms folded. “Dorian’s memories weren’t blocked,” he says. “They were erased.”

“From his head,” John says, looking at Dorian for support. Dorian is staring at the hologram, and he doesn’t look back.

“From everywhere,” Richard says. “I don’t know what you did, but all history files for DRN-0167 are gone from the precinct server, the backup server, and the virtual cache.”

“We didn’t do that,” Dorian says. John is trying to decipher “gone,” because that can’t mean what he thinks it means. “Rudy connected me to the network to calibrate my new chest plate. That’s all.”

“Bullshit,” Richard says. “Kennex gave you those old files and it triggered a neural self-destruct. You’re lucky you’re still walking.”

Now Dorian does look at him, and John knows what this is. This is him being accused of destroying Dorian’s life. He doesn’t look at anyone but Dorian when he asks, “Did it?”

Dorian shakes his head. No. “I recovered my complete history files last week,” he says, holding John’s gaze. “My connection with the department network was unaffected.”

Richard mutters, “I told you so,” and John turns to glare at the hologram.

Sandra actually rolls her eyes. “Fine,” she says. “Dorian had all of his memories and now he doesn’t. You said something targeted them?”

“On the server,” Richard says. “That could have been a live hack, even done remotely by someone who knows their way around precinct security. Whatever hit Dorian’s net had to be pre-programmed. There’s no way they could have known exactly when he’d connect. Especially since they shouldn't have expected him to come in with Kennex this morning.”

“If it wasn’t an official block,” Dorian says, “that would explain why it wasn’t only police files that were affected.”

John looks at him and Dorian adds, “The last two days. Those memories are gone and they shouldn’t be. If the program’s goal was malicious rather than procedural, it didn’t need to distinguish between files that were police property and those that weren’t. It just erased everything.”

John raises an eyebrow at him. Everything? Everything except what?

“Clearly not everything,” Richard says.

“Everything it could find,” Dorian says smoothly. “I assume this means I shouldn’t expect to recover any of my case files.”

Officially, John thinks. Rudy still has them. Unless someone knows that Rudy has them, which would make the lab the next target. He doesn’t dare ask so he goes with the next best thing. “Does this mean the charger’s off the hook?

Sandra’s talking to Dorian when she says, “I’m sorry. It doesn’t look good.”

Richard heard him, though, because he says, “The what?”

“Dorian’s field charger,” John says. “We thought maybe it tagged all his memories as police property, and that’s why they got blocked with the rest of them.”

“Nothing’s blocked,” Richard snaps. “Are you even listening? What the hell does a disconnected field charger have to do with a network problem?”

Maybe the whole vacation atmosphere is working after all, because John just looks at Dorian and says pointedly, “He’s your friend.” It’s almost relaxing. Especially when Richard makes an irritated noise and Sandra holds up her hand to stop him the way she does with John all the time.

“Dorian,” she says. “You seem to have a working knowledge of what’s going on, so I’m guessing not all of your memories were destroyed. I need to know whether or not you can continue to function as John’s partner. You’re in more danger than I knew, and you're certainly not as well-defended as I thought you were when I gave you this assignment. Do we need to scrub it?”

“No,” Dorian says without hesitation. “Not on my account.”

John would swear he catches Sandra’s eye through the cameras. She looks worried. “Reassurance without a reason isn't very reassuring,” Sandra says.

“He’s okay,” John tells her. “He’s got more than you’d think stored up there.”

“With all due respect,” Dorian says, “I remember what I need to know. It may not include much in the way of police work, but the important things are there, and I’ll protect John’s life with my own.”

“No, wait, stop,” John says. “That’s not--we’re partners. We protect each other. No one’s giving his life for anyone else.”

“I don’t need to hear this,” Richard says. “Are we done here?”

“No,” Sandra says. “Dorian, someone is after you. They are willing and able to break into police assets to get to you, and I’m sorry, but you’re not yourself right now.”

Dorian surprises John by arguing. “I am myself,” he says. “I just don’t remember much about being a police officer. I know a good deal about how to interact with John, and I’m capable of following instructions.”

“I know you are,” Sandra begins.

“You love being a cop,” John tells him, before anyone else can.

“I like being alive,” Dorian counters. “I also like working with you. I understand that I may, under normal circumstances, appreciate this line of work tremendously. But right now, keeping you and me alive is my top priority. I'm fully capable of making sure that happens.”

“That’s good enough for me,” Sandra says. “Dorian should stay off of public networks for the moment. Until we know who’s after him, we don’t know what kind of resources they have.”

“And we shouldn’t call you,” John says.

“I don’t think it’s safe,” Sandra tells him. “You mentioned trouble with Peres’ DRN last week, and now Dorian? I don’t think that’s a coincidence.”

“They’re after the DRNs,” John says.

“No,” Dorian says. “They’re after robots who try to help other robots.”

“I’d feel a lot more comfortable if I knew who they are,” Sandra says. "We don't know who we can trust. Did you tell anyone else where you were going?"

Just Rudy, John thinks, but he's still not sure they should draw attention to him.

"No," Dorian says. So that answers that question.

"You said it was top secret," John adds, smiling a little. "Like I'd want anyone to know I'm here, anyway."

Sandra smirks back at him. "Not your kind of place, John?"

He shrugs, conscious of the paint on his face that they shouldn't be able to see. "Could be worse," he says.

"I'm done," Richard tells them. "Keep your bot alive, Kennex. He's worth two of you."

"Yeah," John agrees. No contest. "And four of you."

"I'll call you in the morning," Sandra says.

"Good night," John says. Dorian echoes him, and he sees Sandra smiles before the encrypted connection dissolves.

Chapter Text

He waits until the signal's gone before he picks up his phone and puts it in his pocket.  “All right,” John says.  “Tell me what’s going on.”

“They’ll go after Rudy next,” Dorian says.  “He’s the last person we saw before we left.”

“But he hasn’t done anything,” John says.

“He helped us,” Dorian says.  “And he has the only remaining copy of my case files.”

“Which you didn’t tell Sandra."  John sits down on the couch without thinking, and it conforms to his body like some kind of weird memory synthetic.  He can’t decide whether to complain or compliment it.

“I don’t want them to get anyone’s attention by warning him,” Dorian says.  “We should let him know what’s going on.”

“We don’t know what’s going on!”  The couch is annoying, John decides.  It makes him not want to move.  “You don’t even know who you are!  If someone gets Rudy’s backup files, you’ll never remember!”

Dorian doesn’t answer.  He doesn’t even turn around, and it takes a few seconds for John to know he said something wrong.  He sighs, letting his head fall back against the couch.  He didn’t even know what to say to Dorian, some days.  Most days.  He definitely doesn’t know what to say to Dorian when he barely remembers those days.

“Richard likes me,” Dorian says at last.  He hasn’t moved.

John closes his eyes.  How can you tell, he thinks, but yeah.  He sees it too.  Richard thinks Dorian is more important than any of them, whether he knows it or not.  And John believes that, but he believes it the same way he hopes for things.  He believes it because he wants it to be true.  Richard’s always seemed too cynical for hope.

“Of course he likes you,” John mutters.  None of that is what Dorian’s talking about.  “You’re fucking awesome.”

Dorian turns around then.  He sounds suspicious when he asks, “Are you being sarcastic?”

“No,” John tells the inside of his eyelids.  “Richard has better taste than I realized.  Ignore my shock.”

“That’s nice of you to say.”  Dorian is surprised, and John feels bad about that.  How does Dorian not know that John thinks he’s the best thing to ever happen to him?  With all the private things he remembers, why not that?

“My point is,” Dorian's saying, “that maybe I’m not that different.”

John opens his eyes, but it’s just the ceiling staring back.

“Richard knew me before I was decommissioned,” Dorian’s saying, “and he knew me afterward.  If he still liked me, maybe it doesn’t matter that I didn’t have the same memories.”

John sits up abruptly.  “You’re not a different person,” he blurts out.  “Is that what you’re worried about?  You’re still you.  Even if you don’t remember.”

“What are we but the sum of our memories?” Dorian asks.

“No,” John says.  “Uh-uh.  I don’t believe that, and you know why?  Because people who get scrubbed don’t change.  Amnesia doesn’t make you a different person.  People who get blackout drunk are still basically the same person they are when they’re sober.

"Your memories tell you who you are," he says.  "They don't make you who you are."

"Then what does?" Dorian wants to know.  "My soul?  That's just programming."

"Dorian, people have debated what makes us who we are for as long as there've been people to ask the question.  I don’t know why you’re you.  I don’t know why I’m me.  But at the end of the day, why doesn’t matter as much as the fact that we are.”

Dorian stares at him for a long moment before sitting down slowly beside him.  “The end of the day,” he repeats.  “Like now?”

See, now he’s never going to get off this couch.  “Yeah,” John says, closing his eyes again.

There’s quiet for a long moment.  John doesn’t open his eyes because if he does he’ll have to start asking questions again.  And if he doesn’t ask, Dorian will.  There’s a lot of them.

He knew today would be a bad day.  He just didn’t know it would be this bad.

“May I touch you,” Dorian says quietly.  It’s not quite a question, but he isn’t doing it yet.

John doesn’t move.  “Please.”

He feels the couch shift.  He feels Dorian’s hand on his shoulder, which isn’t exactly what he expected but maybe he should have.  I touch you because you touch me.  How many times has he patted Dorian on the shoulder today?

Dorian’s hand slides down his arm.  Fingers make warm lines on John’s skin and he recognizes it as soon as he feels it: Dorian’s tracing his own pattern in the paint.  John’s fingers twitch, involuntarily, and he turns his hand over when Dorian reaches his wrist.

He opens his mouth to ask if it’s a message but Dorian’s other hand is on his chin and that’s all the warning he has.  Dorian kisses him and John reaches out, fingers landing on his chest and clenching in his shirt, pulling himself up.  His eyes open and all he sees is Dorian, a familiar face in front of his.  Not close enough.

“C’mere,” he mutters, letting go of that shirt--his shirt--and sliding his hand behind Dorian’s neck.  Dorian’s hand on his face rubs across his jaw and cheek to wind up behind his head, fingers gentle as they comb through his hair.  John is kissing him, again, and again.  Too hot.  Too insistent.

Dorian’s holding his other hand and John grips his fingers hard, trying to stop.  They should--they always talk about this.  They agreed.  Who the hell knows what Dorian meant when he asked to touch, and John has no idea what he can handle right now.  He’s upset and angry and tired of having people stare at him.

Fucking Mondays, he thinks, pressing his forehead to Dorian’s.  He wouldn’t have to catch his breath if they weren’t so close, if he wasn’t trying to sound normal.  “I could do a lot more of that,” he mutters.

“The last intimate act I remember is you masturbating against my face,” Dorian says, and the only saving grace is that he’s at least lowered his voice.  There’s nothing not embarrassing about it.  It’s not any better when he whispers, except that John remembers too.

He can be embarrassed and turned on at the same time.

“That was two days ago,” Dorian says softly, and John closes his eyes.  “It seems likely that we’ve… been intimate since then.  Perhaps more than once.”

His hand falls to Dorian’s shoulder and he tries to pull away.  Dorian lets him sit back but he doesn’t let go, stroking the side of John’s face instead of trying to hold on.  “I’m sorry I don’t remember,” he says.

“Not your fault,” John mutters.

“I’m still sorry,” Dorian says.  “You seem frustrated.  I’d like to kiss you again.”

He feels himself smiling and he leans in before he can think about it, awkward angle and all.  He kisses Dorian again, and it isn’t too hard this time because Dorian pushes back.  Their mouths are open and hungry and John wants to ask, he wants to say, how are those things even related, but he can’t because he isn’t going to pull away again.

It’s Dorian who lets go of his hand and rests his fingers against John’s neck instead.  He doesn’t feel strong, cupping John’s face, but when he pulls back far enough to murmur, “I’m frustrated too,” John can’t move.  He’s held so gently that he can tip his head when Dorian kisses him.  It feels like it was his choice, but then Dorian does it again.

“Tell me if this is too much,” Dorian says quietly.  His kiss isn’t any more greedy or dangerous than it was before, but he’s pushing.  He’s leaning into John, holding him and holding him down at the same time.

The couch curves under his back when Dorian pushes him into it.  John can feel it when he arches up: it’s pressing into his back, supporting him.  Dorian still has a hand behind his head and one on his shoulder, covering John’s body with his own as he lays them out, but the couch somehow keeps them from sinking.  John tries not to groan.  He feels it dragged out of him anyway when Dorian’s weight lights up every itchy, restless part of his body.

“You feel good,” Dorian murmurs, his tongue flicking against John’s earlobe.  There’s no way it’s an accident.  John thinks if he’s willing to put that tongue somewhere that isn’t a mouth, John could make him a list.

He grunts, kicking their legs apart until Dorian settles more firmly on top of him.  “So do you,” he says.  “You know--”  He tries to swallow, but his mouth is dry.  “The couch is probably designed for this, right?”

Dorian’s hand is warm behind John’s head, thumb idly stroking his ear while he kisses his way down John’s neck.  “It’s convenient,” he says between kisses.  The words are pretty breathy for an android who doesn’t need oxygen, but he adds, “Is it comfortable?”

He gets points for having his priorities straight, John thinks.

“Yeah,” he mumbles, staring up at the ceiling.  He feels Dorian’s hand drop to his hip and he knows what’s coming.  They’re about to have sneaky, surprising, possibly ticklish skin-on-skin action when Dorian slides his hand under--

John gasps when Dorian braces himself instead, rubbing his whole body against John’s as he shifts a little bit to the left.  He does it again, moving back with a sultry roll that John wants to care about.  He wants to think about it, figure it out, make Dorian do it again and again.

What he actually does is squirm, trying to feel Dorian’s weight against the itch that won’t go away.  “Watching porn again?” he mutters.  There’s no way an android knows what that feels like.  How it’s exciting and soothing at the same time.

“Is that what I do?” Dorian asks, pressing his mouth to the hollow of John’s throat.  The words are only slightly muffled.  He blows across the John’s skin, and the dampness of his kiss tingles like a chill in the too-hot space between them.

John goes still.  “Yeah,” he says.  It was supposed to be calm but it comes out as a gasp when Dorian pushes his hands away and sits up.  The weight against his groin is heavy and hard but Dorian doesn’t let go of his hands.

"Are you sure?" Dorian asks.  He's leaning forward, pressing John's hands into the couch with a thoughtful expression.  "Because it doesn't feel like that's what I do."

John flexes his arms, testing the force when he tries to push back.  It does exactly nothing, but he can’t help trying.  It has nothing to do with the look on Dorian’s face.  "What does it feel like you do?”

Dorian’s gaze wanders across his chest, and John knows it’s not an accident when he says, “Whatever feels good.”

"So you can feel it,” John blurts out.  It’s a stupid thing to say, but Dorian’s the one who keeps saying he doesn’t know what to do.  And then he goes and does things John didn’t even know he liked himself and acts like it’s obvious.  Like this is Sex 101 and John is the one who has to be guided through it.

“Of course I can feel it,” Dorian says, giving him an odd look.  "I'm a DRN, John.  The creative foundation of my series is our ability to feel things the way humans do.”

“What?”  John wants to say, I didn’t know that, or, you didn’t tell me that.  But he did, of course.  Dorian said it over and over again when they first met, and John yelled at him for it until he stopped.  He didn’t know it meant-–

“You mean, physically?” John demands.  “I thought that was, you know.  Emotions.”

Dorian shifts again and this time there’s no mistaking the way he grinds down.  John jerks against him, startled by the flush of want as much as the movement itself.  Whatever feels good, Dorian says.  For which one of them?

“Let’s play a game,” Dorian says.  John stares at him, wondering wildly if he was wrong.  Dorian is still the same person.  There’s no way that not being able to remember how they met would make him… like he is now.  More careful in public, sure.  But definitely less so in private.

He recited poetry earlier, John thinks.  Not just recited it.  Made it up.

“You can ask whatever you want,” Dorian is saying.  “But for every question you ask, I want to remove a piece of your clothing.”

John opens and closes his hands, reassured and restless at the same time.  “What, like strip poker?”

“More like strip twenty questions.”  Dorian looks him over.  He must already know everything John’s wearing, but the consideration burns pleasantly in his gut.  “Although I don’t think you’ll get to twenty unless you cheat.”

John swallows.  He knows what Dorian’s wearing, too, and if they play this game he’s going to win.  “It’s gotta go both ways.”

“Agreed,” Dorian says.  “Do you want your first question to be what I feel?”

John doesn’t hesitate.  “Yeah.”

“I’m going to take your shirt off,” Dorian tells him.  “Do you agree that clothing can be removed before the question is resolved?”

“Sure, yeah,” John says, distracted by the idea that’s just occurred to him.  “Hey, do we get to choose?  What clothing the other person takes off?”

“Yes.”  Dorian winds his fingers through John’s and lifts their hands higher.  “Although in your case, I’m planning to take your clothes off for you.  Keep your hands out of the way, please.”

Dorian lets go before John really processes the words.  He gets the idea, though, keeping his arms where they are and arching his back so Dorian can peel his shirt up to his shoulders.  He’s rolling his back down and lifting his shoulders when he feels Dorian’s hand on his stomach.

“I feel this,” Dorian says, and John can’t keep his breath from hitching when Dorian presses a kiss to his bare chest.  He stops trying when Dorian mouths his nipple, tonguing it, blowing on it in a way that can’t be natural, then moving on to the other one.

John tries to fold up, to push forward, to reach for Dorian and say feel this but he can’t.  Not until Dorian pulls his shirt off the rest of the way and leans in again.  He wraps John’s arms around him and John fists his hands in the back of his shirt.  When Dorian kisses his shoulder John gives up, shoving his hands under the hem and rubbing every bit of skin he can reach.

Dorian lifts his head to whisper in John’s ear, “I feel that.”

John shudders at the sensation of breath, and he almost asks.  Since when does Dorian breathe during sex?  He can.  He can cycle air, he can imitate the sounds of human breathing and mimic the movement.  Like blinking and apparently getting hard, he doesn’t have to, but he can do it if he wants to.

He didn’t, before.  Now he does.  Maybe that’s all John needs to know.  He’s not asking another question until Dorian answers this one anyway.

Dorian shoves him down onto the couch without warning.  John grunts, trying to lever himself up as Dorian shifts his weight and presses their chests together.  It’s totally futile, and his hands are trapped against Dorian’s back for as long as he keeps them under Dorian’s shirt.  Which will be forever, as far as he’s concerned.

“I feel like I want to hold you all the time,” Dorian whispers in his ear.  “I want to wrap myself around you, to keep you safe and protected, and to keep my skin against yours so I can’t ever forget what you feel like.”

John wants to close his eyes, but he’s afraid of what Dorian will do if he does.  Of where he’ll be kissed or caressed when he can’t see it coming, when he doesn’t have a moment to brace himself.  He turns his head instead and Dorian sees right through him.

There’s no pretending that Dorian isn’t holding him down.  John has no chance of moving right now if Dorian doesn’t let him, but he will.  John doesn’t even wonder until a kiss on his cheek and the whisper of his name makes him look back.  He meets Dorian’s gaze.  He didn’t realize he was panting until they’re a breath away from each other and Dorian isn’t breathing.

“I feel like you’re afraid of me,” Dorian murmurs, and John opens his mouth to deny it.  “That I’ll hurt you.  Not your body.  Your heart.”

Oh, god, John thinks.  He’s in so much trouble here.

“I’m afraid you’re right,” Dorian says.  “I’m afraid I’m not human enough.  I feel good when I’m around you.  I feel good when you touch me.  But what if I don’t feel the way you want me to feel?  What if, when it comes down to it, we don’t relate to each other on a fundamental level?”

John digs his fingers into the skin of Dorian’s back.  It’s soft enough to give, and he knows the hardness underneath is metal.  But it feels like muscle over bone when he pushes, and he does.  He pushes, and the skin moves a little, shifting like human skin being massaged by someone who has no idea what they’re doing.

“I can’t exist without you,” Dorian says softly.  “So you’d keep me around.  But at what cost?”

“Jesus,” John mutters, because he can’t take it anymore.  “I just wanted to know if you can get off.”

“Like a human?” Dorian says without missing a beat.  “I don’t know.  Most of the physical reactions associated with orgasm are responses that I either lack or voluntarily control.  I don’t know if what I feel is comparable to what you feel or not.”

“No,” John grits out.  Dorian is warm and that has to be intentional.  He doesn’t get hot, doesn’t flush the way John does when they mess around, but he isn’t cool to the touch.  Right now John has a warm body holding him down while he’s half naked and Dorian’s lucky he can still think.  “I want to know if you can get off, like… in a way you like.”

“Yes,” Dorian says.

“Do you decide to do it?” John wants to know.  He feels like an insensitive fuck, but this is Dorian’s stupid game.  Maybe if John messes it up enough he’ll stop saying things like I feel good when I’m around you and I can’t exist without you.  What the hell is he supposed to say to that?

“Yes,” Dorian echoes.  “I choose to do it.  My orgasm is a voluntary reaction.”

John doesn’t know whether it’s insulting to say that the point of an orgasm is that it’s involuntary, that you don’t always get to decide when and how, but there’s a much more interesting question that he can’t ignore.  “Wait,” he says.  “Does that mean you can do it whenever you want?”

“Yes,” Dorian says again.

“Like right now?” John insists.  Or when you’re at work, he thinks?  What about when they’re in the car?  If all he has to do is decide to get off, does he do it for the fun of it?  Has he ever done it while he’s on duty?

“I think I’ve addressed the intent of your original question,” Dorian says.  “It’s my turn.”

“You can, can’t you,” John says.  “Man, why don’t you do it all the time?”

Dorian gives him an amused look.  “How do you know I don’t?”

That’s enough to make John pause, and then Dorian’s pulling his hands free and pushing John down again while he sits up.  Not that John needs to be pushed down.  But imagining Dorian willing himself to… jesus, what if he does it while he’s sitting at John’s desk?  Does it light up blue like the rest of him?  Does it get brighter when he’s getting off?

“What piece of clothing would you like me to remove?” Dorian asks.

That’s a no-brainer.  “Pants,” John says.

“All right,” Dorian says, and John has resigned himself to watching Dorian get up.  At least he’ll be able to stare.  He wants to see--he wants to touch, but most of all he wants to know that he can do this.  He can be turned on by an android.

It shouldn’t be a question, given how many times Dorian’s managed it.  Some of them even intentionally.  But John has a good imagination and Dorian’s not wrong: he is afraid.  He doesn’t know what he’s doing.  He doesn’t know what they’re doing.  He doesn’t even know if they can-–

Dorian is undoing the button on his pants.  He’s still straddling John, and when he goes for the fly he has to shift, rocking his hips back to get the zipper all the way down.  It grinds his ass into John’s groin, and John chokes back a groan.  Dorian looks up at him, light flickering on his face, and John tips his head back to gaze at the ceiling until Dorian stands up.

Dorian doesn’t stand up.  “Tell me if something hurts,” he says.  “Or if it’s too much, too fast.”

“Not gonna break,” John growls.  The pressure on his groin increases as Dorian moves backwards and then, inexplicably, down.  Instead of sliding off of John he swings one leg over and plants himself between John’s thighs.  John can’t help but stare as Dorian shimmies out of his pants without ever leaving the couch.

Shimmies, John thinks incredulously.  What the hell are they teaching robots in detective school these days?

“Is this what you wanted to see?” Dorian asks.  He goes up on his knees, waiting for John’s dry-mouthed nod before he spreads his legs to straddle John’s body again.  He arranges himself unselfconsciously and John is hard enough to hurt, cursing the two layers and multiple questions between them.

“This is my question,” Dorian says.  John’s hands are clenched into fists on the couch, and he doesn’t realize he’s doing it until Dorian adds, “You can touch me, if you want to.”

His fingers are greedy on Dorian’s thighs, sliding up and then away.  He squeezes Dorian’s knees until he can’t stand it.  His hands draw inevitably back to Dorian’s hips and he looks, up to Dorian’s face, down and back, and he can’t take the weight of that gaze.  Can’t take the pressure of touching while Dorian watches.

“That wasn’t a question,” he says.

“Can you see yourself settling down,” Dorian says, and John runs a hand up his length while the words give him some kind of cover.  Like Dorian can’t talk and watch at the same time.  “I think you had someone, before me.  A woman?  Something happened.  Now she’s gone.”

John doesn’t know if it’s because Dorian’s that impressive, or if Anna just doesn’t hurt as much as she used to.  But he’s more interested in feeling up Dorian than he is in crying over his traitorous fiancee.  “Anna,” he says.  Dorian’s legs tighten and he takes some of his own weight, giving John more room.  “We were gonna get married,” John mutters.  “She was using me to get police intel.  I fucked up and a lot of people died.”

Dorian’s voice is quiet when he says, “John.”

“No, look, that wasn’t even your question.”  Dorian isn’t hard.  John isn’t hot anymore but he’s restless and he doesn’t want this to be over.  “Do I want to settle down?  Yeah,” he blurts out.  “That’s always been my problem, right?  I just want to have people I can count on.  I’d like at least one of them to be at home.  I still want that, yeah.”

“At least one.”  Dorian’s voice is soft and tentative and John feels weird touching him like this.  He puts his hands back on Dorian’s hips and tries to look him in the eye.

“Kids, Dee.”  John can’t manage a smile, but he makes an effort.  “Or, you know.  Family.  I’m a one-man kind of guy.”

Dorian’s wearing a tiny frown that John can’t read.  “I suppose you’ve answered my question,” he says slowly.

John huffs.  It’s not a laugh or a snort but wow, they’re both equally bad at this.  Sometimes Dorian makes it look easy and John thinks it’s just him.  Then Dorian gives up on something like this, something that’s obviously important to him, and John thinks they both have a long way to go.

“No way have I answered your question if you still look like that,” John says.  “Try again.  What do you want to know?”

“I want to know if we could stay together,” Dorian says.  “If we’re compatible, if neither of us dies in the line of duty, then what happens next year?”

John raises his eyebrows.  “Exactly what’s happening now.  What’s so different about next year?”

“I have limited longevity,” Dorian says.  “You could have a family after I’m gone.”

John stares at him.  “What the hell are you talking about?”

Dorian seems to square his shoulders, and it’s a gesture John sees too much of at work.  He definitely doesn’t want to see it while they’re fooling around on the couch.  “I don’t want to keep you from looking for an appropriate partner, of course.”

“You,” John snaps.  “You’re my appropriate partner.  I can see myself settling down with you.  How did that get messed up between you asking and me answering?”

Dorian’s eyes widen, and John knows that expression.  “Don’t cry,” he says gruffly.

“I’m processing,” Dorian tells him.  The smile on his face is relieved and joyful and overwhelmed, and how anyone packs that much into one expression John will never know.  At least it’s a better answer than I’ll cry if I want to, which John knows he’s going to hear someday.

“Just kiss me,” John says.

He does, and John realizes their mistake.  They’re both half-dressed and they’re still separated by clothes along the entire length of their bodies.  He has his hands on bare skin, though, and he takes advantage of it.  Dorian retaliates by working his hands under John’s shoulders, but John definitely gets the better end of the deal.  So to speak.

Then Dorian rolls against him, sliding a hand between them to rub at his chest.  John feels sensation spark against his skin and he can’t make a sound.  He doesn’t think he’s even breathing.  It doesn’t matter because Dorian’s mouth won’t leave his, slick and sweet on his lips, and he doesn’t care about anything except getting more.

Dorian hits a nipple with his thumb and John makes a sound.  He can’t breathe and kiss at the same time, that’s all it is, but Dorian tears himself away from John’s mouth and latches on to the other nipple instead.  It’s electric and tight and it goes straight to his dick.  John arches up, panting, trying not to whimper.  He kicks at the end of the couch in a desperate attempt at leverage, kneading handfuls of Dorian’s ass and holding on as hard as he can.

He can’t keep his grip as Dorian inexorably works his way down John’s skin.  He’s kissing a trail across John’s stomach, and the burn of teased nipples is being replaced by anticipation.  Dorian won’t stop just because he encounters clothes.  If there’s one thing he’s willing to do--and there are a lot of things--it’s rub John off no matter what’s in the way.

Fingers tug at his waistband.  John’s hips jerk up when it’s a tongue that slides underneath: Dorian’s still kissing him, messy and warm, as he shoves John’s body back into the cushions with one hand.  He lifts his head at the same time and says, “You should ask your next question so I can take these off.”

John groans.  “Thought we agreed,” he says, pulling in a sharp breath when Dorian’s other hand lands on the inside of his thigh.  Dorian is almost upright again, but he’s making it very clear that John is supposed to stay where he is.  “You can take off the clothes before you answer the question.”

“Should I assume I know what your question is, then?”  Dorian sits up the rest of the way, rocking back on his heels, and for a moment John has no idea what he’s talking about.  But he can’t help looking, especially when everything between Dorian’s legs is on display.

That’s deliberate, he realizes a moment later.  Dorian wants him to look, because he’s stiffening as John watches.  His dick is filling, not pink with blood but dark with--something, as it starts to stand up and look like something Dorian should be paying attention to.

He isn’t.  He’s watching John intently, and John has the disconcerting thought that he has no idea what Dorian sees.  Him?  Memories of him?  Recordings of someone else entirely?

That’s what makes him go through with his question.

“Okay,” John says, and it sounds hoarse even to his ears.  “I really want to see this.”  Especially when Dorian shifts, his more well-endowed parts bobbing and a trickle of blue light starting on the side of his face.  The trail flickers over his chin and down his neck, disappearing suggestively under his shirt.

John looks down--of course he does--and the light reappears at the bottom of Dorian’s shirt and races all the way down before disappearing.  Which answers John’s question about whether it glows blue or not.  Oh, he wants to touch that so badly.  But this is Dorian’s annoying, vaguely productive game, and he’s going to play.

“I want to see it,” he repeats, bracing himself, “but that’s not my question.”

“Really?” Dorian says.  “Because if your question is whether or not I need to be touched, the answer is no.”

John groans.  “Can I have two questions,” he mutters, rolling his hips half-heartedly.  Or trying to.  He knows Dorian won’t let him do it and he’s not surprised when Dorian leans in and pushes him down.

“Only if you wait your turn,” Dorian says.

John puts a hand on his knee when Dorian edges forward, and he sees it sparkle blue out of the corner of his eye.  The light races up his thigh, picking up the same trail it followed before.  “Brings a whole new meaning to going straight to,” John observes.  He doesn’t bother to finish the expression, and he can almost see Dorian’s colloquialism routine struggling to keep up.

“If you like wearing clothes,” Dorian says, “then congratulations.  You’re playing this game correctly.”

It’s so calmly sullen that John laughs before he can check himself.  “Sorry,” he says, but the corner of Dorian’s mouth twitches and he thinks it’s okay.  “It’s not gonna be as awesome as watching you jack yourself off with the power of your mind,” John warns him, “but you did say I could ask whatever I want, right?”

“So far you haven’t asked anything,” Dorian says.  “But yes.”

Butt is definitely a yes, John thinks.  He doesn’t say it because Dorian probably won’t think he’s funny after this question.  He’ll never get a better opportunity, though, and Dorian basically asked if John wanted to get married.  So he thinks they’ll be even on the awkward questions front.

“Natieri Peres,” he says, before he can lose his nerve.  “You kissed her.  I want to know when and why.”

Dorian gives him a considering look.  John thinks that came out a little more confrontational than he meant it to.  It’s not untrue.  But he’s the one being held down; Dorian doesn’t like taking orders, and he doesn’t even need John to orgasm.  Why the hell would he answer that question?

“I’m going to remove your pants first,” Dorian tells him.  “They’re not necessary to explain the event I remember.”

Of course Dorian remembers it.  He stored it with the private memories that he doesn’t want anyone else to see.  “You like her,” John says.  He lifts his hips and this time Dorian allows it, tugging his pants free and easing them down.

“She’s my friend,” Dorian says simply.  “I like her for that, and for helping me.  Without question or condition.  The way you do.”

“She wasn’t exactly an open book when we worked with her.”  John braces his leg while Dorian pulls his pants down, one and then the other.  His shoes are a casualty of the process, but Dorian’s right.  Even between the two of them, there’s no way they get to twenty questions.

“She kept things from me as well,” Dorian says.  John understands that he means “before,” and he wonders if Dorian notices.  “It didn’t stop her from helping me when I asked, or from hiding me when there were no other options.”

“Hide a robot, make out with a robot,” John grumbles.  “Same thing.  I would know.”

Dorian sounds amused when he says, “You have nothing to be worried about, John.  She kissed me once, solely for the sake of maintaining a cover.  It never happened again, and there was no other motive behind it.”

“Says you,” John tells him.  “I don’t know if you remember, but she’s living with someone who looks exactly like you.  The two of them look very close to me.”

“You and I look very close,” Dorian says.

“We are very close!” John exclaims.  “I’m literally naked with you sitting on top of me while we play a sex game you shouldn’t even know!”

“Before we were together, I mean,” Dorian says patiently.  “I’m sure we looked very close then, just because we were partners who worked together constantly.”

“Are partners,” John corrects.

“She would have needed someone like me,” Dorian says.  “After I was gone.  The community knew me.  They trusted me.  They worked with her because of me, and she would have needed someone else to give her credibility.  She obviously found him.”

“What, you think she replaced you?”  John’s thought this several times, but hearing it out loud is worse somehow.

“Everyone is replaceable,” Dorian says.  “Even humans.  If they weren’t, organizations would crumble.”

“No one is replaceable,” John growls.

“The word you’re looking for is identical,” Dorian says.  “No one is identical, not replaceable.  You could get a new partner.  I could get a new partner, hypothetically, if DRNs were still considered functional police officers.  But no one will ever mean what you mean to me.”

“Hey.”  John doesn’t like the way this conversation is going.  “You’re a great police officer.”

“I’m sure,” Dorian agrees.  He doesn’t sound facetious.  “You wouldn’t put up with anyone who isn’t.  That doesn’t make me irreplaceable.”

“It does to me,” John says.  “Tell me why Peres kissed you.  You still remember it, so it must have mattered.”

“I remember it because I couldn’t let anyone else know it happened,” Dorian replies.  “I was supposed to be on duty that night.  We were trying to help a friend of mine when a patrol came through the club where we agreed to meet.  I shouldn’t have been there.  Natieri covered my face and kissed me, and the police kept walking.  That’s the whole story.”

That’s so far from the whole story that John wants to call him on it, but Dorian’s answered his question.  That’s all he has to do.  Even so, John can’t help asking, “Where was your partner?”

“She wouldn’t break the rules,” Dorian says.  “Not at first.  We tried to keep her out of deals like that as much as possible.”

Not at first, John thinks.  She ended up under arrest, but he doesn’t know what happened between that and her being forced into early retirement.  Cops who get convicted don’t usually retire, so maybe nothing official.

“Does that answer your question?” Dorian asks carefully.  He’s still wearing his shirt, and John’s in his briefs.  John’s struck by the thought that there’s nothing particularly sexual about this “game.”  Except maybe the result.  He’s not objecting to naked makeout sessions on the couch.

“Yeah,” John says, because he doesn’t see how this one is going to lead to anything good.  “Hey, for future reference?  Some sex games involve sex.  I’m not complaining or anything, I just think you should know that it’s a thing people do.”

“Do you want sex?”  Dorian starts to crawl up his body in a way that looks very promising, and John manages to smirk at him.

“Take off your socks,” John says.

Dorian smiles back.  He reaches back and removes a sock, then leans on his other arm to do the same on the other side.  He’s unreasonably flexible.  John has reason to be glad, especially when Dorian says, “Your turn.”

“I haven’t answered the question yet,” John reminds him.

Dorian leans down, body hovering a tantalizing breath away.  “Should I ask again?”

“Hell yes.”  John doesn’t know what time it is, let alone what they’re doing here.  All he remembers is Dorian: leaning over him, bending down, moving John’s hands and his hips wherever he wants them.  So maybe the game does work.

“How,” Dorian says, putting one hand down next to John’s head.  Those fingers pull his hair just enough to be felt as Dorian leans down and whispers, “Do,” against his mouth.  He draws back just as John reaches up to kiss him, murmuring, “You,” with a swipe of his tongue against a nipple.  His other hand bumps up against John’s hip and he adds, “Want,” before he buries his face in John’s stomach and swirls his tongue against skin.

John gasps, chest heaving as he fights the urge to push his hips up.  Dorian’s not even holding him down and he doesn’t dare move, whimpering when Dorian lifts his head long enough to say, “It,” and his mouth catches at the waistband of John’s briefs.  Not an accident.  Dorian is threatening to undress him with his teeth and all John can think is, yes please.

He makes an incoherent sound.  Dorian hums, mouthing at his briefs again, and John can’t stand it anymore.  He reaches out.  For himself or Dorian he doesn’t know, but Dorian bats his hands away and says, “Up.”

John bucks up and then all he can feel is Dorian’s teeth on his skin.  Dorian’s mouth drags at his waistband, teeth scraping gently, incidentally, and jesus, John didn’t think he’d really do it.  He should know better by now.  He tries not to whine when Dorian switches to the other side without any contact in between.  When Dorian manages enough lift to relieve the pressure on his dick, John thinks he’s damn smooth for someone who could literally tear John’s clothes off without trying any harder than he is now.

Dorian gets his underwear down to his thighs before he goes back to lick what he left behind.

John hisses, flushed and full and desperately not expecting that.  He tries to say something: to tell Dorian that it’s okay, that it’s good, but Dorian doesn’t seem to need any input from him.  Blowjobs are one thing, but John’s never really liked getting off in someone’s mouth.

He thinks he could make an exception.

“Do you need to be able to move?” Dorian asks.  He isn’t into sucking, apparently, but he’s a hell of a licker.  With the side benefit--or disadvantage--that he’s perfectly capable of talking in between.  “Some people need to be able to move; I don’t want to make you uncomfortable.”

“Do I--”  The words do come out, but they’re rough and he has to try again.  “Do I look uncomfortable?”

Dorian lifts his head enough to scan John from balls to eyes.  “Yes,” he says, mouth quirking a little.  “You look extremely uncomfortable.”  As he sits up John groans, because he can’t fucking move and Dorian shouldn’t be getting farther away.

He reaches down his legs, pulling his underwear past his knees so he can kick it off while Dorian’s distracted.  And Dorian is distracted, tugging his shirt off over his head with his dick standing up straight at the hem.  It bobs when he moves and John, emboldened by his sudden freedom, puts his hand on it and is rewarded by Dorian’s gasp.

“Really?” John says, squeezing just a little.  “You don’t even breathe.”

“You do,” Dorian says.  That’s all he says, and John doesn’t like it.

“You don’t have to do stuff because I do it,” he mutters, licking his free hand as much as he dares.  He replaces his dry hand with a wet one and tugs, and damned if Dorian doesn’t shudder convincingly.  “Don’t fake it,” John tells him.

“I’m trying to communicate what I feel,” Dorian says.  “Would you rather I be silent?”

“No,” John mutters.  He doesn’t know what that means or what he’s supposed to say, but talking is overrated anyway.  He slides his other hand around Dorian’s shoulder to help pull himself up.  Dorian’s kiss is way too tentative.  It takes John a few seconds to realize why it tastes weird, and then he kisses him harder.

“Do you like this?” Dorian mumbles against his lips.

There are a lot of things John would like.  He’d like to see Dorian get off with a little explosion of blue light, because that would be hilarious.  He’d like to see Dorian get off just by thinking about it, because John wants to picture him doing that at work and a firsthand demonstration would help.  He’d like to see Dorian get off while he’s jacking John, or humping him, or fucking him some day when they have a lot of lube and all the time in the world.

Mostly he’d just like to see Dorian get off.

“Yeah,” John says, toying with the underside, trying to make his tongue hint at what his hand is doing.  That’s a coordinated skill that’s long out of practice, unfortunately.  “M’about you?”

The words should have been more clear than that, but between the kissing and the stroking he thinks he’s lucky to do that well.  Then he feels a hand between his legs.  He groans into Dorian’s mouth, trying to edge closer and push harder all at once.  It’s--oh, god.  Please.

He isn’t so blind that he doesn’t see what Dorian’s doing.  He’s keeping track of what John does to him--probably in exhaustive detail--and then repeating it back to him to see how it works.  Or how it’s supposed to work.  How he’s supposed to respond.

Right now he’s too turned on to care.  Dorian wants him.  John doesn’t care how.

“I like it,” Dorian whispers, and John didn’t think he was this close.  He can touch himself for a long time before endurance becomes an issue.  He was, according to Anna, infuriatingly good at resisting her invitations to play.  And now Dorian leans into him and whispers that he likes it and he’s gone.

John is shoving into Dorian’s hand, hard and hot and nowhere near as slick as his mouth.  He’s panting with it, no echo of his breath and he’s all right with that.  He can feel himself straining forward, caught by the invisible force of Dorian’s immovability.  Dorian isn’t holding him in place.  But John wants to push him back against the pillows and he can’t; he can’t drag their bodies together and rub himself over every part of Dorian that he can reach.

What he can do is kiss and squeeze and tug without worrying that it’s too rough.  Dorian has to do that now, has to judge his strength against John’s reactions.  John draws in a shuddering breath and manages to ask, “Okay?”  It isn’t much but the rhythm is so right that he can only get out, “Is this all right?”

“Yes,” Dorian says, so softly that John thinks he might have said something else.  Then he repeats, “I like it.”

John groans, feeling the rush flood through him.  It’s hot and tingling and sweet, and he swears at himself silently.  He’s getting off on Dorian liking something.  The wave of pleasure isn’t even embarrassing, because he’ll take it.  He knows he’s not the only one.  They’ve both got too much crap in their lives to turn their backs on something that feels this good.

“Are you all right?” Dorian asks.  They still have their hands on each other and John thinks it’s way too soon to be talking.

He tries to make an affirmative sound, but this might be the only time he can do this without thinking.  He has to ask first, because Dorian would.  “Can I suck you,” he mumbles.  It’s a good thing he’s decided not to be embarrassed, because Dorian doesn’t look like he knows the answer.

“Yes?” he says uncertainly.  “If you want to.”

Oh, does John want to.  Now that he’s seen it he has to get his mouth on it.  To know for sure.  How weird is it, how much is it designed and how much is left to the imagination?  It feels damned real where John’s holding onto it, but he’s good at filling in the gaps.

He slides off the couch, tugging pointedly at Dorian’s hips when he goes.  He isn’t bending over for this.  He’ll kneel like any reasonable person.

Dorian gets it, turning enough that John can move in.  It isn’t blue when he goes for the first lick, or the next.  It’s smooth, like the rest of Dorian’s skin, but that’s a normal kind of weird by now.  The shape is great.  The shape is fucking fantastic, except that there’s no way John’s getting it all in his mouth.

It’s a great excuse for learning his way around, John decides.  He braces one hand on Dorian’s knee, licks the other one out of habit, and explores everything he can get his tongue on.  He asks if it’s okay again and sees Dorian nod--a little frantically, it looks like.  John figures it’s all for a good cause.

He talks a couple more times, always with his mouth full, because vibration is a thing that everyone should experience early and often.  The first time Dorian answers that he does want it, that he’s fine with it, and that if John weren’t doing terrible things to him he’d be doing them to John, so really there’s no reason to be self-conscious.

Just keep telling yourself that, John thinks, amused in spite of himself.

The second time, Dorian says that yes, he did know that a majority of men preferred hands to mouths.  He also says that studies like that are highly circumstantial, and that he doesn’t think he’s in the majority of men.  Just as a general rule, Dorian adds, but John gets the message and sucks harder until Dorian pushes on his shoulder.  That message is just as clear, and John pulls back to watch with interest.

It does light up blue.  It also glows brighter.  It doesn’t so much as leak, let alone spurt, and Dorian doesn’t shake.  He doesn’t even tense up, at least not that John can see.  And John’s watching very carefully.  He sees a small smile and a twitch, a movement of Dorian’s hand: not toward himself, but to John.

Of course, John thinks with a sigh.  Of course he would go for someone else.  Because that’s what Dorian does.

He puts his hand on the couch beside Dorian’s knee, just in case.  Sure enough, Dorian slots their fingers together and squeezes, and John wants to ask why now but maybe it’s too soon.  Or maybe not.  Dorian always talks to him right away, after all.

“Okay?” he asks carefully.  For the third time.

Dorian’s perfectly coherent.  “Yes,” he says.  “That was very enjoyable.  Thank you.”

John tries not to sigh and mostly fails, but he thinks he fixes it with a smile.  “So why now?” he asks.  “You said you can do it any time you want.  Why just now?”

“Because it felt good,” Dorian says.  “And you wanted to see it.”

John tells himself not to read too much into that.  It’s just Dorian answering the question.  So he says, “It looked good,” and then more awkwardly, “You want anything?  Else?”

Dorian seems to think about this, which John figures is his way of hesitating since he can think faster than John can open his eyes.  “Your company,” he says.

“Yeah, you’re stuck with that,” John tells him.  “I was thinking more sex, or pizza, or something like that.”

“Why would I want pizza?” Dorian asks.

“You wouldn’t,” John says, trying to unfold his knees from the carpet.  “That’s for me.”

“The sex is for me and the pizza is for you?”  Dorian lets his hand go, but he looks disappointed by it.

“You got me,” John says.  “They’re both for me.  You want to add anything else to your request?”

Dorian only smiles at him, which is particularly bad when he says, “I have what I need.”

“You’re a menace,” John tells him.  “What, do you write gift card popups with that stuff?”

“Do you become more aggressive when you feel you’ve exposed your vulnerability?” Dorian counters.

“Yeah, okay,” John says, leaning down to kiss him as much as his stiff leg will allow.  “Go psychoanalyze someone else.”  But he promised himself he’s going to start watching what he says around Dorian, because Dorian thinks words matter.  

“Don’t really,” he adds.  “Because I’d miss you.”

Dorian’s smile widens into a grin.  All he says is, “I’d miss you too, John.”

Chapter Text

John orders two pizzas.  He doesn’t expect Dorian to eat anything, he just figures more is better than less.  Leftover pizza means breakfast is handled, no problem.  And the department is paying.

Probably the department is paying.  If someone inside the LAPD is trying to get Dorian killed, or neutralized, or whatever they’re doing, then keeping him on the force won’t be easy.  John won’t stay without him--he thinks Dorian knows this, but he’s never actually said it out loud--and if he quits, this whole op will look a lot more questionable.

On the other hand, if he can’t afford a couple of pizzas, his bank account is beyond saving.  It might be; he doesn’t know.  He’s still not sure what Peres wants in return for her last second save at the soccer field, and with Dorian off the department roster, none of his maintenance or repairs are covered anymore.  At seven years old, he’s past warranty even without the mass decommissioning of the DRN series.

Watching Dorian chat with the woman who brings the pizza makes John wonder where the hell they went wrong.  People talk to their computers, their stereos, their vacuum cleaners.  They cry over their busted up cars.  They name their phones, for crying out loud.  How did anyone manage to make human-looking machines so unfriendly that no one cares if they’re destroyed?

“Thanks for being on delivery duty tonight,” Dorian is saying, because he’s nothing if not polite.  “We appreciate your time.”

“That’s what I’m here for,” she says.  “I’m available from seven at night to seven in the morning.”

John raises an eyebrow, but he doesn’t look over at them again.  He has his feet up on the entertainment system, leaning against the back of the couch while he scans the news feeds.  He wonders if Dorian offered to get the door because he knew or guessed that the overnight desk person would be a bot.

"Maybe you can tell me how the evening activities work," Dorian says.  "The promotional materials make direct references to activities that I can't find on the schedule."

John isn't interested in evening activities.  He's had a long enough day already, and if anything is going to make him get off this couch it's going to be Dorian asking if he wants to go to bed.  On the other hand, what Dorian is doing is probably the closest either of them have come to working today.  If he wants to talk to staff bots, John's not going to stop him.

“There are activities that are planned to appear spontaneous,” the desk bot tells him.  John looks up this time, and he sees an expression that might be irony on her face.  “They aren’t usually announced in advance.  A staff member goes around and knocks on doors to offer an invitation.”

“I see,” Dorian says.

John rolls his eyes as he turns back to the news.  He would go take the pizza away from them, except that it would require getting off the couch.  Dorian’s still barefoot, but other than that, they’ve mostly managed to put themselves back together.  That doesn’t mean he’s not going to ride the lingering glow as far as it goes.

“Tonight’s activity will be decorating cookies,” the other bot tells Dorian.  “Someone will be around when they’re ready.  If you’re interested, they’ll tell you where to go.  If you don’t want to be bothered, just turn your light off.”

They’re not unfriendly, John thinks, staring at the feed.  This is rigged, sure.  Staff bots have to exhibit a certain amount of professional detachment.  But that doesn’t make this one seem less like a person.  If anything, it makes her sound more human: reciting information mandated by her employer, and trying not to upset clients in the process.

How did they get from let’s build machines that are easier to relate to all the way to these machines are nothing like us?  John’s been there.  He gets that they’re different.  He knows what it feels like to be abandoned by a bot you were counting on, to be betrayed by the technology that was supposed to help.

But humans are the ones who pushed them to do it, right?  Humans pushed smart technology farther and farther, until just anticipating what they need wasn’t enough.  It had to help them decide what they need.

And it did, John thinks.  It does.  Technology has a lot of opinions these days.

“Skinny dipping,” Dorian says, putting the pizza boxes in the middle of his news hologram.  “Tomorrow night.  I think we should go.”

“Not gonna happen.”  John turns off the news, because seeing pizza in the middle of an inundated coast is like a sort of nightmarish godzilla.  Leaning forward to open the boxes, he asks, “You want a piece?”

Dorian frowns at the improvised table.  “Do I usually eat with you?”

“No,” John says.  “You can if you want, is all I’m saying.”

When he looks up, Dorian’s frowning at him instead of at the table.  “Do you always offer?” he asks.

John doesn’t know how to answer that.  It’s weird that they can go hours like they usually do, and it’s not like Dorian’s fine but they manage, then something like dinner trips them up.  “I guess,” John says.  “Maybe.  I don’t know.”

Dorian’s expression has eased.  Now he looks somewhere between fond and amused.  “I’m the one who doesn’t remember, John.”

“Well, I don’t think about it,” he grumbles.  The pizza is hot but not as gooey as he’d hoped for.  It tastes a little too deliberate, like someone made this particular one with his name already on it.  “You’re welcome to share.  You usually don’t.”

“But I sometimes do.”

John takes another bite and refuses to answer, because this conversation is going nowhere.  Why are they even talking about this?  Dorian had surprised him one time, by eating a stupid cracker in the elevator after John almost drowned.  John hasn’t been able to stop offering him food since.

“I don’t like not remembering,” Dorian says, sitting down on the couch beside him.  “What if Rudy didn’t have time work on the file restoration algorithm today?”

“He did,” John says.  He feels Dorian’s sharp glance and he shakes his head, swallowing before he says, “Probably.  That’s what he does; he makes time for the stuff he cares about.”

“And he cares about me,” Dorian says.

That wasn’t exactly what he meant, but it’s true.  “Yeah,” John says.  “He likes you a lot.”

“How much?” Dorian wants to know.  “As much as you?”

John gives him an incredulous look over his pizza, because what the hell.

“Is he a rival for my affections?” Dorian asks.  “Does he also offer me food?  Do I ever eat with someone who isn’t you?  I can’t remember, John.”

That’s as frustrated as Dorian’s sounded all day, and John gulps down another bite so he can say, “He’s not a rival.  He probably offers you food.  I don’t think you eat with anyone else, but you might.  I didn’t know you’d eat with me until that night at the precinct.”

He knows it’s wrong as soon as he says it, but he has to breathe and that gives Dorian a chance to say, “What night at the precinct,” in a tone of voice that says he thinks John’s doing it on purpose.

“I know,” John says, more sharply than he meant to.  “I can't tell you anything without mentioning something else, okay?  Last week we got called out at two in the morning.  We ended up trapped under the wall.  You kept me from drowning, and when we got back to the precinct I had some crackers.  I offered you one and you ate it.

“Believe me,” he adds, feeling himself smile a little.  “No one was more surprised than I was.”  It’s the shortest possible version of the story, and he should have mentioned the alcohol.  And the fact that Dorian got him those crackers to begin with.

He should tell Dorian that buddy breathing kept him alive, and he spent the next three nights imagining it was something else.  He should say that he couldn't turn it off after that, couldn't stop thinking of Dorian as a guy he could want.  And he can't want someone who doesn't have a choice.

"I wish I knew why that makes you smile," Dorian says quietly.  He doesn't sound frustrated this time.  He just sounds wistful.

John sets his pizza down, wiping his fingers off on a napkin.  "Look," he says awkwardly.  "I'll tell you everything I can.  If you don’t get your memories back, I will walk you through every single minute since we met.  But I don’t know what you remember, and I don’t remember what you don’t know.”

He doesn’t even know what he’s saying now.  But it’s important, and Dorian is listening, so he keeps trying.  “I don’t know where to start.  But if you ask a question, I can answer it.  Maybe not well--”  He has to smile, because definitely not well.  “But I’ll tell you whatever I can.”

If he tries to tell Dorian every single thing they went through it’ll take days.  He’ll do it if he has to.  He just doesn’t know where to draw the line between what happened and what it meant.  To him.  How can he possibly say what it meant to Dorian?

“It isn’t the same,” Dorian says.  “But I appreciate what you’re trying to do.”

John reaches for his pizza again, because of course it isn’t the same.  He can’t fix the whole system.  He can’t even fix their part of it, can’t protect Dorian from a precinct that treats him like property because that’s what he is.  He’s a machine to be owned by the highest bidder.

“You’ll get your memories back,” he mutters.  If he has to help Rudy himself, if they have to drive back there tonight and burn every connection they have, they’ll make this right.  Dorian’s not going to lose another part of his life just because someone he’s never met thinks it’s theirs to take away.

“John,” Dorian says.  “I didn’t mean to sound ungrateful.”

“You don’t have to be grateful.”  John tears off another piece of pizza without looking at him.  “You shouldn’t be grateful, this whole situation is… there’s nothing good about it.”

“There is something good about it,” Dorian says.  He puts his hand on John’s artificial knee.  Not tentative, not careful, just like he’s allowed to touch and he knows it.  Why wouldn’t he, really.  “I remember the important things.  It helps me prioritize.”

John doesn’t think it’s prioritizing if he doesn’t have enough of his own memories to put in order, but he doesn’t know how to say that without sounding like a jerk.  Maybe Dorian prioritized before.  Maybe what he saved is the priority.  If that’s true, John should be flattered.

“No offense,” he blurts out.  “But how do you know it’s the important things?  Half of it’s just crap you didn’t want anyone else to see.”

“None of it’s crap,” Dorian says.

Definitely sounding like a jerk, John thinks with a sigh.  It’s his gift.  “I didn’t mean it like that,” he mutters.

The thing about Dorian is that he listens.  When John says he didn’t mean it, he believes it.  Even now, he just nods, and John can’t stop being surprised.

“I don’t know that what I remember is more important than what I don’t,” Dorian says.  “But you said I’m the same person, right?  I have to trust myself.  I trust that I kept these memories for a reason.  If not because I’m trustworthy, then at least because I don’t have any other choice.”

“You’re trustworthy,” John says.  He gets through the last of the pizza before he dares to say, “You do have a choice.”

Dorian just looks at him.  It doesn’t matter, it doesn’t mean anything because he’s been watching John destroy his pizza this whole time.  His hand is still on John’s knee, though, which is kind of odd but John isn’t about to say anything.

“I mean,” John tells the floor, “you had a choice.  You didn’t have to come with me.  You could have stayed with Rudy until he had your memories ready.  Or you could have--”  Turning himself over to the precinct is a laughable option at this point, given everything they don’t know about what’s going on, so John swallows it.  “You could have--”

Dorian couldn’t have refused to go with him.  Not if John insisted.  John’s his legal owner now, and Dorian has to go where John tells him to go.  So you’re going because you’re on vacation, Dorian said.  And I’m going because I belong to you.

“You could have shut down,” John says.  “Turned off.  Given me some bullshit about being compromised, or unable to function without police files.”

Dorian looks confused when John glances over at him.  “Why would I do that?”

“Why wouldn’t you?” John counters.  “Why do what I tell you?  You don’t remember anything.  Maybe I made up all that stuff you think is so important; maybe I--I got Rudy to hack your programming or something.  Maybe we deleted all the rest of it so you wouldn’t know it’s not true.  How would you know?”

“You wouldn’t do that.”  Dorian doesn’t hesitate, but that doesn’t mean anything.  He could have thought this through a million ways by now.  “I trust you more than I trust me.  You’re right; I can be hacked.  I was hacked.  But you can’t go in and rewrite what I feel.  Being able to feel is part of our programming.  What to feel isn’t.”

“Great,” John says.  “I feel plenty, and I fell for Anna.  What good does feeling do?”

Dorian actually smiles.  “Aside from ongoing philosophical arguments both for and against, it makes me keep listening to you when you say things I don’t understand.”

He has no idea why he gets that, but he does.  “Stupid things, you mean.  You still listen when I say stupid things.”

“That’s how you phrased it,” Dorian tells him.  “Not me.”

“That’s how you meant it,” John grumbles.

“I’ll have a piece of pizza,” Dorian says.

John lifts his head and stares at him.  “Excuse me?”

Dorian’s eyes narrow, and the look he gives John is somehow thoughtful and determined.  “That surprises you,” he says.  “You didn’t expect me to say yes when you offered.”

“You never do,” John says.  “Except that time with the crackers.  Which you bought for me, by the way.  Did you just like peanut butter crackers, or what?”

“Not particularly,” Dorian says.  “I like jelly.  And maple syrup.”

John can’t take his eyes off of him.  Dorian doesn’t look any different than he did before, and it’s not like memories can just come back to him.  Not without being physically returned.  They’re either there or they aren’t.  “How do you know that?”

“I don’t know,” Dorian says.  “I have a preferences file.  I can’t tell if it’s part of my design or not, but it’s definitely unit-specific.”

“And you can access it,” John says, even though the answer is obvious.  The real question is, why can he access it.

Well, the real question is when did have jelly and maple syrup, but they’re not there yet.

“It isn’t linked to case files,” Dorian says.  “Like the knowledge base and social protocols, it’s neither confidential nor important enough to back up.  I don’t remember how I know that I like them.”

John closes his mouth, and Dorian sees it.  “Should I?” he adds.  “I assume I had them with you.”

John shakes his head slowly.  “No,” he says.  He knows, though.  Maybe he was wrong about the whole rival thing.  “You, uh.  You mentioned making Rudy breakfast.  It’s probably from that.”

Dorian raises his eyebrows, and John sighs.  “I don’t know,” he says, before Dorian can ask.  “You offered to make me breakfast, the first night you stayed over.”  Except, wow, he really can’t start in the middle like that.  “I mean, you got assigned to me.  24-hour security detail.  You had to stay over; it wasn’t like--”

Dorian is smiling, and John puts his elbow on his knee and covers his face with his hand.  Between the near-death experience that woke up his sex drive and the protection detail that made sleeping with his partner possible, there’s nothing about this story that sounds good.

“Look,” he tries again.  “We spend a lot of time together.  You said yourself we might as well be married.  Stuff happens.”

“It sounded almost romantic until you tried to explain it,” Dorian says.

“Shut up,” John mutters.  He reaches for another piece of pizza.  It means uncovering his face, since Dorian still hasn’t moved his hand and John won’t admit to being grateful for the contact.  He offers the pizza to Dorian without looking.

Dorian reaches for it and John sees him steal one of the toppings out of the corner of his eye.  He sits up, staring as Dorian puts a piece of pepper in his mouth.  It’s not any less strange the second time, even if he doesn’t know why.  Dorian looks human.  He walks, talks, and dresses like a human.  He goes down on John like a human.  Why is it weird to see him eating something?

“If you look at me that way every time,” Dorian says, “I don’t know why I don’t do it more often.”

John doesn’t mean to laugh, but he can’t help it.  It’s as much embarrassment as anything else, and he looks down at the pizza in his hand.  He might as well eat it.  He didn’t recognize the arousal for what it was until Dorian said that, and now he remembers how inconvenient it is to be turned on by the way someone looks at him.

If his libido’s been on vacation since he woke up from the coma, he’s not sure he’s ready to have it back.  Fooling around with Dorian is great.  Getting off with him is better.  But John can’t think about it every time Dorian opens his mouth, or their working relationship is doomed.

Dorian finally takes his hand off of John’s knee, but it’s only to take another piece of pepper off of John’s pizza.  “There’s a whole pizza right there,” John complains, but when he watches Dorian eat it and he really doesn’t care where it comes from.

“Are you saying that you want me to take the rest of the pizza?” Dorian asks.  “So that you have to steal pieces from me instead?”  He’s already leaning over the table to pull the boxes away from John.  “Because I’m not against that idea.”

John watches him while he takes another bite, trying to decide if this is a joke or a game.  

Dorian doesn’t try to take John’s piece away from him.  He just leans back against the couch and braces his feet against the table: between John and the rest of the pizza.  His bare feet, which John tries not to look at.

“There was a security bot at the light painting session,” Dorian says, out of nowhere.

John stops chewing, then swallows hard.  Why doesn’t he have anything to drink?  “Where?”  He didn’t see a bot, but then, he didn’t really see anyone.

“The station closest to the door,” Dorian says.  “She was drawing Artemis Dupree.”

John blinks.  He was watching the news, but he wasn’t ignoring Dorian’s conversation completely.  “The bot who delivered the pizza?”

“Yes,” Dorian says.  “The bot who was drawing her took a piece of photopaper to save her profile.  I’d be interested to know what she does with it.”

“This was a security bot,” John says, just to make sure.  He takes another bite of pizza, trying not to think about what happens when it’s gone.

“Yes,” Dorian says again.  “Personal security series CPS-138, individual identification unknown.  She appeared to have a deliberate block on her ID broadcast signal.”

“Wait, personal security?” John says.  “So she’s here with another--”  He waves around the room, momentarily lost for words.  “Guest?”

“She’s almost certainly identified with Cloud Nine,” Dorian says.  “Without public network access I’m having a difficult time confirming her registration, but the retreat has historic documentation of expansion and security upgrades, including the addition of this series to their staff.”

John frowns.  “I thought there weren’t any staff listings.”

“This is from old press packets,” Dorian says.  “They have an archive available for guest access.”

“You’re snooping in the archives,” John says, for lack of anything better.  “Good for you.”  He finishes off the crust of his pizza and adds, “Give me another piece of pizza.”

Dorian takes his feet off the table and leans forward, taking the closest piece of pizza.  When John reaches for it, though, he pulls it back.  “Is there something wrong with your mouth?”

John laughs, to his own surprise as much as Dorian’s, but it makes Dorian smile too.  “You’re kidding,” he says.  He leans in anyway, and Dorian edges his hand closer.  John has to brace himself against the back of the couch to keep from collapsing on him, but he manages to get a bite of pizza without losing his balance.

“The security bot stayed for the evening session,” Dorian says.  “She stopped painting, though.  She was still there when we left.”

John swallows, frowning at him.  “You think she was watching for something?”  Keeping an eye on us, he thinks?

“I don’t think she was watching us, if that’s what you mean.”  Dorian offers him the pizza again, and John puts his hand on Dorian’s shoulder this time.  It’s messy and close and there’s nothing particularly sexy about it, but it makes Dorian smile.

“Cloud Nine advertises privacy,” Dorian adds, watching him catch a piece of pepper before it can fall.  “They have to be able to enforce that somehow.”

John offers him the pepper, and Dorian leans forward to eat it out of his fingers.  It’s more fun than he expected, and John bites his lip to keep from asking how much he can eat.  “The guests, too,” he says instead.  It comes out a little rough.

He clears his throat and tries again.  “They must have some high-profile guests,” he says.  “Any place this expensive, that can guarantee you’re off grid the whole time?  They’re probably keeping out more cameras than they’re shutting down.”

“If the information in the archives is current, there should be three security bots,” Dorian says.  His hand doesn’t move when John goes in for another piece, and John has to practically climb into his lap to get it.  “They probably work overlapping shifts.  It will be difficult to tell them apart if all of their ID signals are blocked.”

“Is that legal?” John asks, settling next to him again.  “Shouldn’t we be able to track them?”

“Public service bots have to be individually identifiable,” Dorian says.  “Those in the private sector are only required to provide registration information on request.”

“But they were part of a press release.”  John reaches out to take hold of Dorian’s hand and pull it closer.  He’s doing way too much work for someone who’s being fed.  “So it’s probably legitimate.”

Dorian lets him eat out of both their hands.  When John lets go he lowers his hand, but he doesn’t draw it back.  “That’s an interesting way of determining legality.  The more public something is, the more likely you think it is to be legitimate?”

“Maybe,” John says.  “How many people advertise stolen goods?”

“I don’t have any statistics on that,” Dorian says, “but probably more than zero.”

John takes his hand again, and this time Dorian smiles.  “Are you incapable of asking for what you want?”

“Yeah,” John says.  “But right now I’m just lazy.”

Dorian doesn’t answer.  He lets John lick his fingers, and John gets to finish the rest of his pizza in peace.  He even gets a few minutes afterward where they’re just sitting on the couch, leaning on each other, saying nothing while John plays with Dorian’s fingers.

Then Dorian says, “I was going to push the skinny dipping issue.  Now I wonder if cookie decorating is a better choice after all.”

John sighs, letting his head fall back against the couch.  “Why cookie decorating?” he asks the ceiling.

“Because you like to watch me eat,” Dorian says, “and I like sweet things.”

John stares at the ceiling while he considers this.  Except for the part where they have to get up off the couch and interact with other people, it’s not a terrible argument.  “I’ll give you that,” he says after a moment.  “But you know what I don’t want to do right now?”

“No,” Dorian says, when John turns his head to look at him.

“Go anywhere or do anything,” John says.  “I get that we weren’t shot at or chased by anyone today.  I’d even say, depending on who you ask, we weren’t involved in anything that typically provokes mass hysteria.”

Dorian tips his head and John tries not to smile when he adds, “It was still a hell of a day.  I’m exhausted, man.”

Dorian nods, but John’s hope that they understand each other disappears when he says, “Would you like me to investigate the cookie decorating, then?”

John’s still resting his head on the back of the couch: sideways, so he can stare at Dorian.  There’s something wrong with the view because it’s not telling him anything.  “Why?”

“So that we can cover as much ground as possible.  You agreed that we should attend a variety of activities in order to increase our exposure to retreat staff,” Dorian says.  “If you need to rest, I can go alone.”

“I don’t need to rest,” John says irritably.  “I get to rest.  It’s the end of the day; I’m declaring myself off-duty.”

Dorian looks confused.  “Aren’t we on duty for the duration of this assignment?”

“Does it involve a ticking clock?” John counters.  “Hostages?  Potentially explosive devices?  I’m not working a case 24/7 when the worst possible outcome is stolen robots.”

Dorian doesn’t answer, and John wonders if that’s insensitive.  Are stolen robots like… abductions?  Did he just tell Dorian he doesn’t care about robots as much as he cares about human kids?

John frowns.  He slept during the kidnapping case.  Dorian charged.  Because he had to, sure, but he didn’t complain when John went home at the end of the day.  What’s so different this time?

“What about me?” Dorian asks at last.

“What about you?”  John has no idea what they’re talking about, and he’s afraid it’s going to get him into trouble.  “What are we talking about?  I’m not on duty.  You’re not on duty.  I’m not gonna stop you from decorating cookies if you want to, but I’m gonna sit here and watch the news until I fall asleep.  I wouldn’t turn down company.”

“Does that mean you want me to stay here?” Dorian asks.  “As your partner, maybe I should promote an image of domestic peace by remaining where you are.”

“As my partner, you should do whatever the hell you want,” John says.  “We’re not here to pretend.  I mean, that we’re on vacation, yeah.  But we really are together.  We don’t have to fake that part.”

“Then what do you want me to do?”  Dorian’s voice has that precisely calm tone that John only hears when he’s frustrated and hasn’t gotten to the point of glaring yet.  “I don’t remember what I do while you’re off duty.”

“Charge, mostly.”  John doesn’t want to think about charging, because his leg has been completely silent since they got here.  He doesn’t want to be without it, but he’s afraid that if he thinks about not taking it off overnight it will start complaining.

“I don’t need to charge yet,” Dorian says.  “It seems like I should use my time more productively.  Since my ability to perform effective research is limited, I’m trying to contribute to the investigation by firsthand observation of staff roles.”

John takes a deep breath.  He’s not sure sitting up will help, but he’s not getting anywhere like this.  He pushes off the back of the couch and sits forward, turning sideways just enough that he can catch Dorian’s eye if he has to.

Dorian is staring at him, of course.  Maybe glaring.  They’ve probably reached the glaring threshold of frustration now.  It’s always a minor victory when Dorian gets there before he does.

“You don’t have to work all the time,” John says.  He’s taking a stab in the dark here, but it’s not like he’s never heard this argument.  “This is a job.  It wasn’t your whole life before, even if I guess it was supposed to be.  It’s not your whole life now.”

The irony of him being the one to give this speech isn’t lost on him.  He used to know something about walking away.  Then his job blew up, most of his personal life turned out to be a lie, and when he woke up from a two-year coma he didn’t know anyone anymore.

“I don’t know what else there is,” Dorian tells him, and god, does John know that feeling.

“I don’t either,” he says honestly.  There’s drinking, but Dorian’s never seemed to approve of that.  There’s sex, which they’re getting better at, but John’s never going to keep up if Dorian makes it his only extracurricular activity.

Dorian’s looking at him like he didn’t expect that.  The expression on his face is deep enough that John looks away.  He doesn’t need to see Dorian realize how messed up he is.  He doesn’t know when that realization happened the first time, but it was probably so early in their relationship that John didn’t care what he thought.

He cares now.  He won’t lie to cover it up, but he cares.  A lot.

“I seem to remember watching movies,” Dorian says at last.  “With you.”

John has to smile at that.  “We watched some Star Trek,” he says.

“You liked it,” Dorian says.  It sounds more like a question than it should.

“Yeah,” John agrees.  He mostly liked having Dorian next to him, but that sounds stupid with how much time they spend together.

Which Dorian doesn’t remember.  So John sighs and offers, “I mostly like sitting next to you.  Just so you know.”

There’s the tiniest pause.  Then Dorian says, “Well, I’d say we have that part covered.  Would you be willing to watch Star Trek episodes instead of the news?”

Someone knocks on the door.

“I left the light on,” Dorian says.  “I should have turned it off when you said you didn’t want to leave.”

“No,” John says, getting his feet under him to stand up.  “You should have turned it off if you don’t want to leave.”  Dorian’s feet aren’t on the table anymore, so he can’t swat them off.  John reaches over to muss his hair instead and ends up stroking his cheek.

Dorian just watches him do it, which is probably the least embarrassing response John could expect.  He steps around the entertainment console and makes it to the door just as the knock comes again.  It’s quieter this time, and John wonders if they have a set number of times they’re supposed to knock.

When he opens the door, there’s a woman with a peacock feather in her hair looking at her phone.  She looks up and smiles politely.  “Hi,” she says.  “I’m Tempest; I work with the Activities Department here.  I saw your light on, so I thought I’d let you know we’re making cookies at the Nest tonight.  You’re welcome to come and decorate some now if you’d like to, or stop by later and help us eat them.”

It’s just casual enough that it might not be rehearsed.  John wonders how many times she’s said it tonight alone.  She didn’t care that he saw her phone--she’s still holding it, lowered but not put away--so either there’s a lot of lights on, or even one time was too many.

“Cookies,” John says.  He smiles but her expression doesn’t change.  “Sounds great.  Thanks.”

“They go in the oven at ten,” she says.  “Available to eat from ten-thirty until they’re gone.  Have a good night.”

“You too,” he agrees.

She turns to go, and he flips the light off before he closes the door.  He doesn’t mean anything by it, he just wants to see it go out.  When it changes the shadows in the darkness, he makes an apologetic face.  Tempest is watching her phone and doesn’t look back.

“Cookies,” John says again, closing the door.  “Apparently you can go any time.”

Dorian is still on the couch.  He’s eyeing the entertainment console, and a trickle of blue lights the side of his face while John watches.  “I think I’d rather watch Star Trek,” he says.

John hits the interior lights and the room is plunged into darkness.  There’s nothing from the outside at all: no streetlights, no traffic information, no cars.  No neighborhood glow.  The entertainment center produces a faint digital shine, but it’s the only working light in the room other than Dorian himself.

“Sounds good to me,” John says.

He makes his way back to the couch, mostly by walking very slowly and turning when he reaches the shine.  The couch stops him, and he drops down beside Dorian.  His leg still hasn’t given him a charge update, so he continues to ignore it.

“I still want to talk about skinny dipping,” Dorian says.  Holograms light up the console in front of them, false 3D from a two-dimensional age.  This is fundamental Star Trek, more than eighty years old by now.  John remembers watching this when he was a kid.

Apparently not answering means that the subject is open for discussion, because Dorian says, “It would fulfill my goal of seeing you naked in public.”

“Which I said I wasn’t comfortable with,” John replies, leaning back and draping an arm over Dorian’s shoulders.  It’s supposed to be casual, but he’s never done it before and he might as well be holding his breath.  If Dorian did this to him, he’d make a snide comment without thinking twice.

“It’ll be dark,” Dorian says.  Not only does he not comment on the arm, he turns away from John just enough that he can lean into him.  It’s surprisingly perfect, and there’s no way he got that from porn.  “No one else will see.”

“You will,” John tells him.  He lets his hand rest on Dorian’s arm, holding him in place.  He knows this episode.  It must be pre-programmed, because they’re starting in season three.

“That’s my goal,” Dorian agrees.  “Yes.”

“Speaking of that,” John says, not that he’s ever been able to distract Dorian before.  “I’m thinking we should go shopping tomorrow.  Get you some clothes.  What do you think?”

“I couldn’t even choose clothes from the ones you’ve already bought,” Dorian says.  He’s folded his arms across his chest as he slouches down, getting more comfortable against John’s side.  “I don’t know why you think shopping will go any better.”

John tells himself that Dorian’s not sulking.  He’s just relaxing.  He wants to rub the arm Dorian has pressed up against him, to try to make him loosen up, but he’s already pushing it with the arm over his shoulders.  Any more and they’ll be cuddling.

They haven’t talked about cuddling.

“Just a couple of things,” John says, watching a tiny ship swoosh between the stars.  “So you have normal stuff to wear.  It’ll make me feel better.”

“You know what would make me feel better?” Dorian asks.  He’s picking up John’s hand, the one in his lap that Dorian shouldn’t be able to see at the angle.  When he pulls it across his chest, John sighs.

“What?” he asks.  They’ll have to move down the couch if this is going to be a thing.  It’s not like he doesn’t want to hold Dorian, but he’s not going to sit awkwardly not-sideways for a whole episode.

“If you went skinny dipping with me,” Dorian says.

“Wow,” John says, squeezing his hand.  “I feel like I walked right into that one.”

“You did,” Dorian agrees.  “So let’s make a deal.”

John’s pretty sure the deal is already made.  There’s no way out of this one, so he says, “We’re moving down the couch.  If you’re going to lean on me like that, I want to lean on something too.”

“I don’t have to lean on you--”

John talks over him as soon as he starts.  “I want you to, come on.  We’re going skinny dipping, we might as well cuddle too.  Knock over all the relationship hurdles at once.”

“You don’t knock over hurdles,” Dorian says.  He’s sitting up, letting John move back.  “You jump over them.”

“You’ve obviously never seen me in track and field.”  John thinks about swinging his leg up on the couch and getting Dorian in between them, flush against his chest, but he just resettles himself against the arm of the couch and waves.  “C’mere.”

Dorian slides into him, ducking under his arm and putting his head on John’s other shoulder.  There’s a fair amount of upper body contact, John decides.  Getting the legs involved at this point is just asking for trouble.

He has both arms around Dorian, alone in a dark room with ancient TV media to fill the silence.  He doesn’t have a lot of recent vacations to compare it to, but it’s definitely better than anything he’s managed on his own.

Chapter Text

They make it through two and a half episodes before Dorian mentions his leg.  John’s been asleep for most of it, if he’s honest, but as soon as Dorian murmurs, “Do you need to charge this?” he’s wide awake and staring into the weirdly lit darkness.

“No,” he says.  He tries to say it, but it comes out almost unintelligible.

Holograms.  That’s the weird light.  They’re watching TV.  This isn’t his couch, but Dorian’s lying on top of him so it’s probably all right.  He should charge his leg.

“No,” John says with a sigh.  He brings his free hand up to rub at his face, because it’s coming back to him now.  The retreat, the op, Dorian’s erased memories.  Damn it.  “I’ll wear it.  S’fine.”

“I can get your crutches,” Dorian offers.  The crutches are in the bedroom next to the charger.  Where he’ll have to go to take his leg off anyway, so it’s an offer that doesn’t make much sense.  It’s probably more of a question than anything.

It’s a question John doesn’t want to answer.

“Strange place,” he mutters.  “I’m more comfortable with it on.”

Dorian lets it go.  That’s what makes John feel guilty.  Someday he’s going to figure out whether Dorian does that on purpose: how good is he with human psychology, anyway?  Or is it just John that he knows so well?

“I don’t want you on your own if something goes wrong,” John whispers.  He doesn’t want to say it.  He wishes he didn’t have to.  But Dorian’s a police bot with no procedural protocols, and if someone knocks down the door or busts through a window, John doesn’t want it to be on him to protect them.

“That’s a nice but ultimately foolish gesture,” Dorian says.  He keeps his voice quiet, at least.  “I understand your desire to participate in a hypothetical emergency situation, but I don’t think that taking your leg off will hamper you very much.”

John huffs out a breath of disbelief.  “Now I know you don’t remember last week.  Shooter with a pulse gun?  Came to the house?”

“Hal filled in the gaps,” Dorian says.  “If someone brings a pulse gun, your leg isn’t going to do any more good on you than it will in the charger.”

“Okay, bad example.”  John shifts underneath Dorian, squinting at the holovid until he recognizes the episode.  “You remember how you got out of that?”

“Yes,” Dorian says, surprising him.  “I shouldn’t have been able to do that.  So I hid it.”

“Yeah,” John says with a sigh.  “Sounds about right.”

“It’s not right at all,” Dorian says.  “Look, if you don’t want to take off your leg, that’s fine with me.  But you’re still talking, which I don’t think is entirely characteristic for you.  Does that mean you want to tell me something?”

He doesn’t remember anything, but he remembers that.

“Can you even handle the guns you carry?” John blurts out.  “Sandra gave us an easy one, but it’s us.  You know it’s gonna blow up.”  He might not know it, now that John thinks of it.  Maybe Dorian thinks all of their cases go according to plan.  “Split-second reaction.  What do you do in a crisis?”

“It depends on the crisis,” Dorian says.  “I have a variety of basic emergency protocols which should allow me to function more efficiently than a typical human in an unexpected situation.  It won’t be the level of response you’re used to, but I can follow instructions.  Tell me what to do and I’ll do it.”

“I can’t tell you how to fire a gun when there’s someone shooting at us,” John says.  “I need to be the one responding.”

“I’m not arguing that,” Dorian says.  “But you don’t need to tell me how to fire a gun.  I don’t carry weapons I can’t safely use.”

They locked up all three of their guns when they arrived, so it’s a stupid argument to begin with.  John doesn’t know why he picked that one thing to focus on.  He did, though, and now Dorian’s stuck on it too.

John has to watch him get up, a shadow moving off in the darkness and returning a moment later.  Dorian kneels beside the couch so that the light from the holovid illuminates his hands.  He’s holding one of the guns he let John put away.

While John watches, Dorian calmly strips the gun and reassembles it.  He doesn’t say a word, and John doesn’t time him.  But he knows what familiarity looks like, and there’s no way that took more than twenty seconds.

It isn’t target practice, but Dorian never spent time on the range.  Android marksmanship is calibrated, not learned.  Nothing about Dorian has changed except his memory, so his aim should be as good as it ever was.

“Is that in your, you know--”  John didn’t realize how he’d sound until he started talking.  He’s not turned on by watching Dorian break down a gun in front of him.  He isn’t.  Because this kind of reaction won’t be helpful in the field at all.  “Encyclopedia,” he manages.

“Sufficient detail is lacking,” Dorian says.  “I looked up the rest on Hal’s network access after I checked what I was carrying.  I’m competent with yours as well.”

Of course he is.  “You think of everything,” John says.  “Don’t you.”

“I assume that’s a rhetorical question.”  Dorian sounds amused.  “I’m going to put this away.  Would you like me to get you anything?”

“No,” John grumbles, trying to sit up straight.  It’s not as easy as Dorian makes it look.  “This’ll be more comfortable on the bed, anyway.”

When Dorian doesn’t answer, he adds, “Sleeping.  I meant sleeping.”

He thinks he can hear Dorian smile.

He does end up taking his leg off.  Dorian makes such a big deal of his own charger, testing it on every possible side of the bed--and there’s only three options--that John starts to feel left out.  Or foolish, trying to avoid something that’s part of Dorian’s every day.  Both, maybe.

The crutches get him from one side of the bedroom to the other, which is only a couple of swings, but he doesn’t feel like crawling across a strange bed.  No matter how comfortable it’s supposed to be.

It’s very comfortable.  It’s so comfortable that he immediately dislikes it.  This bed is either going to make him hate his body, or it’s going to make him hate his own bed.  “Worst bed ever,” he mutters to himself.

“I really can’t imagine what you don’t like about this bed.”  Dorian is on top of the covers, which is annoying in and of itself.  He’s also too close to the side of the bed, but John’s getting used to that.  Dorian’s proximity charger is great because all he has to do is be near it.  It’s also somewhat inconvenient, since it works best when he’s touching it.

“It’s too comfortable.”  John debates the likelihood of Dorian remembering how to make his amputated leg not hate him, and decides it’s low.  It’s also worth it.  “It makes my leg hurt.”

“The bed makes your leg hurt?” Dorian repeats.  He sounds suspicious, which is better than amused, because at least if he’s suspicious he hasn’t assumed John is joking.  Dorian thinks he might be, but he also thinks he might not be.

John wishes he wasn’t.  It isn’t totally dark in the room: both their chargers cast a glow, and he hates talking about this.  Every word feels frightening, like death is standing over him again.  He shouldn’t have lost his leg.  He should have lost his life.  Talking about it is just like pointing out a mistake.

“I can still feel it,” he mutters.  “It hurts.”  It hurts less than it used to, but Dorian’s been massaging it for him every night since he found out.  Almost every night.  The prospect of not having that tonight is the only thing that could make him bring it up voluntarily.

“You’ve told me this before,” Dorian says.  His voice is softer this time.  He doesn’t remember, which makes John want to cry, but he didn’t bring anything stronger than beer.  So he has to keep going.

“Yeah,” he manages.  “Kind of.”  You figured it out, he wants to say.  Please figure it out again.  He tries to remember what he said then, but he can’t.  He’s not sure he said anything.  Dorian just knew.

“I saw it,” Dorian says.  “Hal showed me.  I just didn’t realize the bed would make it worse.”

John lets out a long sigh, which is not in any way a sob of relief.

He doesn’t ask.

After a moment, Dorian rolls over so their faces are a breath apart.  John buries his head in the pillow.  He feels fingers on his arm, ghosting over the skin, and he clenches his hands into fists.  Not a game, he thinks.  Not a game, Dee.

“I don’t remember doing this,” Dorian whispers.  “Not exactly.  Can you tell me what you need?”

John turns his head to breathe, but no words come out.

“I’m going to touch you,” Dorian says at last.  “Tell me if it’s wrong, okay?  If it hurts, or if it’s… wrong.”

John swallows.  His throat hurts, but his fucking ghost leg feels like it’s on fire.  Like it’s burning.  Like it’s been blown off and the nerve endings weren’t severed and everyone says they’re not there anymore, so he shouldn’t feel anything at all.  There’s nothing anyone can do.

It doesn’t always burn.  That’s the hell of it; he can never get used to what it feels like because it’s never the same.  It’s like having an actual injury--except that it doesn’t exist, so there’s no way to treat it.  Except by drinking himself unconscious, which Dorian says isn’t really a valid treatment option.  John thinks the jury’s out on that.

He feels pressure on his implant for a split-second before icy numbness cuts the burn.  He jerks, hard, and Dorian loses his grip.  The cool evaporates into nothing and John groans into the pillow.  The cold hurts, but nothing’s as bad as the fire.  Not tonight.

“Is that okay?” Dorian asks carefully.

John tries to nod.  It must be enough, because he feels Dorian’s hand on his leg again.  This time he’s braced for the frigidity, and he manages to keep his hips still.  His fingers hurt, his palms hurt, and his hands are so tight he wonders if he can sprain them just by clenching them into fists.

“Does it feel okay?” Dorian asks again.  “You don’t look like it feels good.  Would you tell me if I was hurting you?”

John nods, harder this time because he doesn’t want Dorian to stop.  It doesn’t feel so cold as the fire recedes.  And it is receding, it’s guttering out, killing the contrast between imagined hot and cold.  There’s nothing but coolness left behind.  By itself it’s gentle and soothing, and he could lie here like this for the rest of the night.

Dorian doesn’t say anything, but he can’t miss the way John is relaxing.  John waits for the next question, tries to come up with something to say.  If Dorian doesn’t remember, John should fill in the blanks.  He should give him something.  To let him know he’s doing it right, if nothing else.

He isn’t doing it right, but that’s John’s fault.  How would Hal know how Dorian makes him feel?  He’s never said it out loud.  He sometimes worries about her reading his mind, but so far he hasn’t been able to prove anything.

John falls asleep wondering what Hal and Dorian say to each other.

He wakes up to the sound of Dorian talking on a frequency he can’t hear.  The words make sense until he tries to remember them, so he stops trying.  “Hey, Rudy,” he mumbles.  He rolls over, away from Dorian, and he feels his leg twinge.

“John?” Dorian says.  He sounds strange in the dark, but John isn’t going to ask.  He’s going back to sleep.  It’s dark out, it’s nighttime, he should be asleep.  He wants to be asleep.

“Are you awake?” Dorian asks, more quietly.

“Nmm.”  John opens his eyes and everything looks the same.  He stares into the darkness for a moment, trying to figure out where he is.  “Dee?”

That seems to be enough for Dorian, who asks, “How did you know I was talking to Rudy?”

“Heard you,” John mumbles.  “Time is it?”

“Just after three,” Dorian says.  “How’s your leg?”

“S’fine.”  John doesn’t remember there being anything wrong with his leg, but apparently they’re not at home.  That’s weird.  “How’s yours?”

“I’m fine,” Dorian says, and John can hear him smiling.  “Go back to sleep, John.”

He does.

The next time he wakes up there’s light through the windows and he remembers more than he wants to.  Groaning, John rolls onto his stomach and wonders if he can skip today.  A discreet resort in the mountains?  With his amnesiac partner who may or may not have made him cry last night?  Yeah, this is gonna be a good day.

“Hey, John.”  Dorian’s voice is mercifully quiet, even if it does come from the doorway.  John turns his face in that general direction without opening his eyes.  “I’m going to do yoga on the beach.  I’ll be back in an hour or so.  Is that all right?”

John opens his eyes again, but the light is still there and he’s in a stupidly comfortable bed in the middle of nowhere.  “Going to do what?”

“It’s the pre-breakfast activity,” Dorian says.  “Yoga on the beach.  I thought I’d go and see who’s there.”

John thinks about explaining work versus not-work again, but it’s too much of an effort.  “Have fun,” he says at last.  “Don’t get into trouble.”

“I could say the same to you,” Dorian replies.  “I left some breakfast in the kitchen.  The door light’s off, so no one should bother you.”

By the time John realizes that he should probably say thanks, Dorian’s gone.  He thinks about getting up.  He thinks about jacking off.  Ultimately, though, he pulls the pillow closer and dozes off again.

He rolls out of bed some indeterminate amount of time later.  He didn’t check the time when Dorian left, so John’s not sure when he’s due back.  He gets a shower and a change of clothes before he remembers the breakfast remark.  Sure enough, Dorian’s left two hard-boiled eggs next to a jar of peanut butter and a slice of bread on the counter.

There’s a banana, too, and John has no idea where that came from since he didn’t bring any bananas, but otherwise it’s pretty much what he eats at home every day.  He’s eating peanut butter toast and eggs and when Dorian pushes the door open and smiles at him.  John raises his eyebrows, because really?  Yoga?

“Surprise,” Dorian says cheerfully.  He holds something up as he closes the door behind him, and he’s right: John is surprised to see cookies.  “Left over from last night.  I thought you might enjoy them.”

“Cookies are good,” John agrees, watching Dorian carefully as he moves into the kitchen.  He doesn’t look like a yoga convert.  “Better if you feed them to me.”

He’d like to pretend that slipped out while he wasn’t paying attention.  He meant it, though, so he smiles at Dorian’s laugh.  He doesn’t hear that sound enough.  No one does, but John thinks he should hear it the most.

“Just say the word,” Dorian tells him.  “Happy to feed you cookes anytime, man.”

Which answers John’s question about whether it’s okay to keep calling Dorian “man.”  Do people in relationships call each other “buddy” and “pal”?  It’s sort of the same thing.  He’s never dated anyone he was already friends with, so he doesn’t have anything to go by.  He still doesn’t have much to go by, but if Dorian’s going to use “man” then that’s enough for him.  

“How was yoga?” John asks.  “Any security bots?”

“Yes,” Dorian says.  “Not the same one as yesterday.  Same physical appearance, different clothes.”

“People change clothes,” John says.  Just because Dorian’s wearing the same thing he wore yesterday, that doesn’t mean it’s normal.  At least not for civilians.  Maybe Cloud Nine bots have a uniform too.

“So I see,” Dorian agrees.  He says it like he’s humoring John, which is totally uncalled for.  Except that John’s statement was obvious, so he did kind of deserve it.  “I saw Artemis Dupree at the desk as well.  She told me to extend her greeting to you.”

“What’s with the name?” John wants to know.

“It’s her name,” Dorian says.  His tone hasn’t changed, so he clearly doesn’t understand what John’s asking.  “It invokes the Greek goddess of the hunt, and a French location for that hunt.”

“No, I mean, why does she have two,” John interrupts.  “Is Dupree her last name?”

“I don’t know,” Dorian says.  “It’s physically her last name, given that it comes after her first name.  I assume you mean, is it comparable to a family name?”

“No,” John says, and then he realizes how bad that’s going to sound.  “I mean, sure.  Is it?”

“I don’t know,” Dorian repeats.  “The yoga activities were otherwise unremarkable.  How did you sleep?”

“Good,” John says.  “Great, even.  I sort of remember you helping me out with the leg thing,” he adds awkwardly.  “So, you know.  Thanks for that.”

“You’re welcome,” Dorian says.  “Do I do that every night?”

John dumps the shell and crumbs off of his plate just to give his hands something to do.  “Pretty much,” he admits.  “It, uh.  I really appreciate it.”

“Of course,” Dorian says.  “I’m sorry I don’t remember what you like.  You seemed to respond differently last night.  Did I do something wrong?”

“No,” John says.  “It’s just…”  It doesn’t seem as terrible in the light of day.  “Cold,” he finishes.  “My leg was hot.  You were cold.  It took me a couple seconds.”

“Oh,” Dorian says.  Not like he really understands, but like he gets that there was a problem.  “That’s not what I usually do, then.”

“Sometimes,” John mutters.

He can see Dorian watching him in his peripheral vision.  “How do I usually know what to do?”

John scoffs.  It’s nice that Dorian thinks he’s more functional than this most of the time.  It’s also completely wrong.  “You don’t,” he says.  “At least, I don’t think you do.  If you do, it’s not because I tell you.  You guess a lot, I think.  Most of the time you get lucky.”

“How lucky?” Dorian asks.

That actually does make him smile.  “Not that lucky,” John says.  Except once, but Dorian probably saw that when he and Hal were looking at photo albums.  “Just.  You always make it feel better.  No thanks to me.”

“It’s hard for you to talk about,” Dorian says.

“Yet you keep trying,” John tells him.

“I don’t give up easily,” Dorian says.

John rolls his eyes.  “I noticed.”

“You’re welcome,” Dorian adds.  “I saw our first kiss, you know.  How long do think it would have taken you to do that on your own?”

There’s only one honest to answer to that, and John’s not ashamed to admit it.  “Too long,” he says.  “Thank you.  You stuck your neck out, and I’m glad.”

Dorian stares at him, and John thinks maybe it’s the first time he’s said that.  Or maybe it’s not, who knows.  Dorian might have forgotten.

“Hey, what about Rudy?”  If they’re going to have awkward conversations, they might as well get them all out of the way at once.  “Were you talking to him last night?”

“Yes,” Dorian says.  “I’m not sure how you knew that, though.  The only thing I can think of is that I was touching your implant.  Maybe more than nervous stimuli was transferred.”

“Don’t mind meld with my leg,” John tells him.  “That’s just weird.”

Dorian smiles.  “I’ll keep that in mind.”

“So?” John adds after a few seconds of silence.  “What were you talking about?  Does he have anything for you?”

“We were talking about my memories,” Dorian says.  Obviously.  “And about you,” he says, and John frowns.  Probably obvious too, but that doesn’t mean he likes it.

“Nothing bad,” Dorian tells him.  “About you, anyway.  The memory thing is going to take a little longer.”

“A little longer, like, a few hours?” John asks.  “Or a little longer like a few days?”

“It probably won’t be today,” Dorian says.  “He’s concerned that what I remember now won’t integrate with what he’s backed up.  He says he wants to keep working on the algorithm.  Maybe do some trials.”

“Well, no hurry,” John grumbles.  “It’s just your life.”

“That’s why he’s taking his time,” Dorian says.  “He wants to get it right.  So do I.”

John wants him not to have lost those memories to begin with, but they can’t all get what they want.  “If you’re okay with it, I’m okay with it,” he says.  “I just don’t like you not having something that’s yours.”

“Neither do I,” Dorian says.  “Rudy hopes to have something more concrete by the end of the day.  In terms of a projection, if not an actual result.”

John sighs.  “Well.  I guess that means we have to shop.”

“And skinny dip,” Dorian says.

“You haven’t forgotten that yet, huh.”

“The chances of me forgetting are extremely low,” Dorian reminds him, which would be more funny if yesterday hadn’t been such a disaster.  “Barring department intervention, I’d say they’re negligible.”

It’s a joke.  John knows it’s a joke, and it’s even kind of amusing.  Except that he still can’t believe there’s someone inside the department who’s after Dorian.  He was willing to accept there was a leak on him: he’s nobody, he’s a pariah after the raid that went wrong.  But Dorian?  Who has Dorian ever hurt?

When has Dorian ever done anything except try to help anyone who needs it?

“Too soon for that joke?” Dorian asks innocently.

“Yeah,” John says, but he smiles because Dorian will like it.  “Kind of.”

“I’m going to remember,” Dorian says.  He sounds more sure about it than he did yesterday.  “Rudy seems very competent, and it’s lucky he has that backup.  That was very good timing.”

John’s thought about that, the tiny sliver of time that saved Dorian’s memories right before they were lost.  He’s thought about it the other way too: the two or three seconds Sandra could have saved that would have meant he walked in before it was too late.  It’s either very good or very bad, and there’s nothing they can do about it either way.

“I guess we take what we can get,” he says.  “You think there’s gonna be a problem integrating the memories?”

“I don’t know enough about my own net to say,” Dorian tells him.  “If Rudy thinks there could be, he’s probably right.”  He pauses, studying John, then says, “All I know is that I don’t want to lose what I know now.”

“You won’t,” John says.  But what does he know?  “Will you?”

“If I had to choose,” Dorian says, very carefully, “I think I’d choose to keep what I have now.  If I couldn’t have both.”

It’s a terrible thought.  It’s crippling in its uncertainty: what would they do, how could they go on.  Will Dorian be able to keep his spot on the force?  Can he have the protocols reloaded without his case files?  How else can they keep the maintenance benefits he’s going to need?

“Yeah,” John hears himself say.  “I mean… yeah.  I want you to keep what you want to keep, obviously.  But you wanted to keep this.  You must have, right?  If it’s important--”

“It’s important,” Dorian says firmly.  “I’d take you up on your offer, of course.  To tell me everything.  And I’m sorry--”  There’s a noticeable pause before he says, more slowly, “That I don’t remember the last two days.”

“No,” John says.  Before he can offer.  Those two days are in Rudy’s backup; they must be.  Dorian didn’t think he’d have to hide them, because he didn’t belong to the department anymore.  “You’re right.  Keep what you have.”

“You’d tell me about them,” Dorian says, but he sounds uncertain.

“I would.”  He kind of wants to do it right now, except for how he doesn’t want to do it at all.  “I will,” he adds.  “We gotta get through today first.”


Oh, he knows that tone.  Dorian’s bracing himself and John wants to keep going, to walk away so they don’t have to deal with whatever issue Dorian’s about to push.  If it’s his memories, though, doesn’t he deserve that?

“Okay, look,” John says, turning back.  “Most of it’s really boring.  You weren’t even--”

“I called Islay McInnis last night,” Dorian says.

John stares at him.

“And I broke into the department servers.”  Dorian is standing in what John’s come to recognize as the default DRN stance.  It’s the synthetic version of a military “at ease” posture and he can make it look relaxed when he wants to.

It doesn’t look relaxed now.  Dorian’s face is so carefully expressionless that he looks grim and worried and maybe a little frightened.

“You need to work on your poker face,” John tells him.  “You didn’t break into the servers.  There’s a built-in self-destruct; you wouldn’t survive.”

Dorian’s expression doesn’t change.  “Did I tell you that?”

John has to smile.  “Yeah,” he says.  “Is this another test?  How far do you think you have to go to prove I’m harmless?  What are you trying to make me do, anyway?  Shoot you?  Ditch you?  Turn you off?”

“I’m not lying, John.”  Dorian hasn’t moved, and John tries not to telegraph his inventory of the cabin.  He checked the guns when he got up.  The invisible wall will give them at least two, maybe as much as ten extra seconds if they have to run.

“Yeah?” he says casually.  There’s no movement through the windows, but if they’re surrounded there wouldn’t be.  Dorian wouldn’t still be walking and talking if a hack like that had been traced--would he?  “Learn anything?”

“You didn’t like me very much at first,” Dorian says.

John frowns.  “What does that have to do with anything?”

“I watched you on the precinct cameras,” Dorian says, and John can’t take it anymore.  He brushes past Dorian and peers out the window: nothing moves.  “Did something happen between our shouting match in the bullpen and our defense of the roof?”

John doesn’t turn his back on the window, but he moves away from it.  Toward Dorian.  “Is someone about to break down the door?” he demands.

Dorian frowns back at him.  “Why would someone break down the door?”

“How did you get into the cameras without someone tracing you?”

“Rudy has a hard line,” Dorian says.  “He sent me the encrypted security footage.  He called it a consolation prize.”

That’s plausible enough that John tries to remember what it would mean: what would Dorian think if all he knew was what he saw in the bullpen?  Not that they’re together, maybe.  But he already knows that.  John’s not the best partner, but he’s not the worst.  It’s probably okay.  Right?

“I see why you didn’t want me to call Richard,” Dorian offers.

John scoffs.  “Richard hates me,” he says.  “The feeling’s mutual.”

“He threatened to shoot me,” Dorian says.

“Yeah, he’s a real winner,” John mutters.

“That’s not the man I remember,” Dorian says, and yeah, John gets that.  It’s hard to lose time, to come back and find everyone you knew gone or changed.  It makes sense that Dorian tried to reach out.  John might have too, if there’d been anyone left when he woke up.

“So you called your partner,” he says with a sigh.  They could still get the door kicked in.  What are the odds she’s any better than Richard?  John’s never met her, but she let Dorian get turned off.  He’s not sure he wants to meet her.

“She’s meeting us in town at ten-thirty,” Dorian says.

It takes a second for that to make sense.  “What?” John asks.  

“I told her we’d be there,” Dorian says.

John stares at him.  “You told her where we are?”

“Everyone knows where we are, John.”  Dorian still sounds careful, but he doesn’t look as worried now.  “That was the whole point of our cover.”

He’s pretty sure the point of their cover is that Sandra doesn’t have to see their faces for a week.  “She bringing anyone with her?” he asks.

Dorian tilts his head.  “As far as I know, Islay plans to come alone.”  He sounds noncommittal, like he’s not sure about something: the answer, the question, what the hell is going on.  Who knows.

"Okay," John says with a sigh.  "So, do we tell anyone?  That we're meeting her, I mean?  How much do you trust her?"

“You’d just go,” Dorian says.  “Because I said so?”

“Dorian,” John says.  He’s trying very hard not to sound as irritated as he feels.  “Stop doing that.  Yes.  I’ll go because you said so, all right?”

“All right,” Dorian says.  But he just stands there, and John doesn’t move, and neither of them says anything.

Finally, John snaps, “What?  Are you planning the next test?  You want to just ask me and get it out of the way?  ‘John, is there anything I can do that will make you turn me off?’  ‘No, Dorian, there isn’t.’  It’s your fucking life.  Do whatever you want.”

“That’s not what you used to say,” Dorian says.  And damn it, he knows.  Maybe that’s where this is coming from.  He saw how John treated him at first, and now it’s as fresh a memory as anything else.  “Have I ever turned on you?  What would you do if I held a gun to your head?”

It wasn’t you, John wants to say.  The synthetics with his old team betrayed him.  Every human cop on that raid died except for John.  The memory is vague and distorted in his mind, but the pain is still sharply real, and he turned it on Dorian the moment he woke up.

“Why don’t you?” he hears himself say instead.  “Go ahead and try it.”

“Because I don’t want to,” Dorian replies.  He doesn’t so much as blink.  “I thought about it, but the risk isn’t worth your reaction.”

Dorian thought about holding a gun to his head.  John’s with a crazy fucking killer, and he’s always known it.  It’s the way Dorian’s designed and built and programmed: to be able to turn his empathy on and off.  To be able to prioritize one life over another based on nothing but numbers and probability.

“What’s the risk?” John asks.

“Your censure,” Dorian says.  There’s no hesitation, and John knows that doesn’t mean anything.  Dorian can process faster than John blinks.

He still says, “Not much of a risk.”

“It is to me,” Dorian tells him.  “I value your good opinion.”

John shakes his head.  “Just try,” he says, not really knowing where he’s going.  “Taking my word for it, okay?  I’m actually not as a big a jerk as I seem.  Sometimes.”

Two days ago, Dorian would have laughed at him.  He would have said, yes you are.  Or probably, you’re a much bigger jerk than you seem, John.

Now he just nods, and somehow it doesn’t make John feel any better.

Chapter Text

Islay McInnis isn’t what John expected.  He pretends he doesn’t think about her, doesn’t try to imagine what Dorian’s first partner was like, but he’s pictured her with Dorian a hundred times.  Mostly he imagines a woman like Peres, sharp and efficient with no patience for anyone who gets in her way.

Dorian is the patient one.  He doesn’t need a partner like him.  But apparently he had one, once, because the woman waiting for them outside the Sea & Ski is kind and friendly-looking.  John pegs her as a plainclothes officer immediately, but she’s gentler than Sandra, less intimidating even than Valerie.  She reaches out a hand to Dorian, and somehow they’re hugging before he sees it coming and John can only stand there staring at them.

What’s happening?  What the hell did Dorian say to her when he asked to meet?  Did he ask to meet, or did he just call her up to say hi and she’s the one who suggested--this?

“It’s good to see you again,” Dorian is saying now, squeezing her hard and running his hands down her arms before he lets go.  It’s very familiar, and she smiles at him like it’s nothing.

Or like it’s everything, John thinks.

“It’s good to see you at all,” she tells Dorian, and she doesn’t look away until he does.

“This is my new partner,” Dorian says.  He doesn’t reach for John, but John doesn’t do anything but complain when other people are watching so why would he?  “John Kennex.  This is Islay McInnis.”

“Hi,” John says.  Because he's making an effort, here.  He holds out his hand and adds, “Nice to meet you.”

“You too,” she tells him.  “Any friend of Dorian’s is a friend of mine.”

She shakes his hand like she means it, so he gives her his most charming smile and says, “Yeah, he has good taste.”

“I’m surprised you know it when you see it,” Dorian remarks.  It’s the most normal he’s been in front of someone else since yesterday morning, and John doesn’t appreciate it as much as he could because it makes McInnis smile.

That’s my joke, John thinks, complete unreasonably.  He knows it’s unreasonable, but that doesn’t stop him from being irritated that Dorian’s old partner finds a joke he made for John’s benefit funny.

“I see you haven’t gotten any nicer,” McInnis says.

“I haven’t had your mitigating influence,” Dorian replies.  “I’m far more rude now than I was when you knew me.”

“You?” John says, before he can stop himself.  “Wait, you used to be nicer?”

It comes out sounding stupid.  He can tell they both take it exactly how it sounds, because McInnis gives him a weird look and Dorian just smiles.  “Everyone is nice compared to you, John,” he says.

John wants to say, you don’t even remember me, but he he’s not going to do it in front of someone else.  Instead he says, “I’m the king of nice,” and then, “Let’s go for a walk,” because the sidewalk in front of wherever they are is making him twitchy.

They do, but it’s weird.  It’s weird because they don’t act like it’s weird: Dorian and McInnis chat as they wander down the street, and they don’t avoid any of the topics the precinct would keep under wraps.  Dorian tells her he was reactivated for John, he was sold, most of his memories were wiped.  She tells him she’s been blacklisted, public bots aren’t allowed to talk to her, she joined the IRC because at least they listen.

John follows them and keeps an eye out for unwelcome interest.  He has to keep reminding himself that they’re allowed to talk about these things: she’s a private citizen, and Dorian’s a… private bot, now.  People who aren’t cops are allowed to join fringe groups and question law enforcement and bitch about the sorry state of civil rights these days.

They don’t talk about Dorian being shut down.  John doesn’t notice until he does, and it’s several minutes before it occurs to him that maybe they covered that already.  Maybe it was the first thing she said when Dorian called: I’m so sorry about it, about all of it, thank god you’re alive.

Maybe that’s just what John would say.

He tries to stop thinking about it and keeps an eye on the road instead.  Sunny day in a resort town, no shortage of people to watch.  He and Dorian don’t exactly blend in, but McInnis came dressed for the crowd.  He thinks, grudgingly, that they should follow her lead.

Well, Dorian could start with changing his clothes at all, but they could work up to the difference between on- and off-duty clothes.  Not that John’s a great role model for that.  Dorian’s right that John doesn’t vacation anymore, and Dorian’s actually got a better record than he does for not falling asleep in his uniform lately.  Maybe Dorian should teach him instead.

McInnis walks around town with Dorian for half an hour before John even checks the time.  It tells him two things: one, Sandra’s running out of time to deliver on “I’ll call you in the morning,” and two, Dorian is paying more attention to him than he realized.  As soon as John’s rhythm changes, steps slowing or whatever involuntary cue he gave for checking his phone, Dorian reaches back for his arm and puts a hand on his elbow.

John goes to move out of the way before he gets it.  Dorian’s hand slides casually down his arm, and John transfers his phone to his other hand before their fingers tangle together.  Then he puts his phone in his pocket and tries not to look ridiculous walking down the street hand-in-hand with an android.

McInnis doesn’t comment, but he sees her sideways glance.  There’s no double take--he’s watching for it--but she smiles, so he figures that’s another thing Dorian told her over the phone.  Probably to keep John from having to talk about it.

Of course Dorian’s old partner is okay with him having a human lover.

Being with a human, John thinks, not having a--being in a relationship, right, that’s.  Androids don’t do that.  John isn’t the strange one here.  He is, but McInnis would care about Dorian first, right?  He’s her partner.  He was her partner.  Her synthetic partner.

Damn it, John thinks.  His perspective is so skewed he can’t even see what’s wrong with it anymore.  What’s gonna happen when they go back to the precinct, when they have to work with synthetic cops and human partners who treat them like…

He does.

Dorian’s fingers squeeze his, gently, and John looks away because this is not happening.  The world is not falling apart over a too-kind android and a fucking robot rights movement.  He thought his life was already shattered, blown to pieces along with his leg.  He doesn’t know how to lose it all again.

“Would you excuse us for a moment?” Dorian says, during what may or may not be an appropriate pause in the conversation.

McInnis is probably some kind of angel, weirdly friendly and unembittered as she is, because she makes it sound like it’s totally normal.  “Sure, of course,” she says.  “I’ll just get a tea, okay?  Be back in a few minutes.”

“Thank you,” Dorian says, tugging on John’s hand.  Not enough to mean anything, barely enough to get his attention.  He waits until McInnis is on her way to ask, “What about you, man?  You want anything?”

It’s so natural, so casual, that John has to be impressed.  “I’m fine,” he says, because that’s what Dorian expects.  But he adds, “That was pretty good; you got all that from… what?  Holding my hand?”

“Your pulse has increased disproportionately and your respiration is uneven,” Dorian says.  “It’s sometimes difficult to tell if a heightened state of arousal is welcome or not, but given your history of post-traumatic stress, it seemed more efficient to ask you rather than guess.”

“Great,” John says.  “I have a therapy bot.”

He meant it as a joke, but he can tell Dorian doesn’t like it even before he opens his mouth.  “Are you always this resistant to inquiries about your well-being?” Dorian wants to know.  “Or am I usually more patient than I feel right now?”

It startles the truth out of him.  “I dunno; you don’t tell me when you’re pissed.  Are you pissed?  What’s that like, anyway?”  He wants to say, once you threatened to tear someone’s spine out, do you really want to do that when you get mad?  But reason prevails, and he manages to not bring it up on a public street.  Again.

“It’s like being angry,” Dorian says.  “What’s it like for you?”

His tone is too smooth, and Dorian isn’t kidding around.  He’s annoyed, and John’s making it worse.  Which normally he’d think is funny, except that he didn’t do it on purpose.  He should probably practice not irritating Dorian, just for variety.

“Hey,” John says.  “I messed that up, okay?  I mean--”  He actually does want to compare notes on anger; it’s either going to be hilarious or disturbing, and he figures he should know either way.  “I meant it as a joke, and it came out wrong.  Thanks for--”  He waves around them vaguely, at the lack of McInnis and maybe a little bit at Dorian in general.

Dorian studies him for a second longer than he has to.  “Has anyone ever told you that your communication skills leave something to be desired?” he asks at last.

John snorts.  “Other than everyone I know?  Nope.  I mean, you say it pretty much every day, but lucky for me, I can tune that out.”

Dorian frowns at him, which is so strange that John just stares for a moment before he realizes how that sounds.  “Not because you’re a bot,” he adds.  “Just because you’re--”  You, he manages not to say.  Damn it.  “My partner,” he finishes awkwardly.

“This is how you usually act,” Dorian says.  “This is normal behavior for you.”

“What?”  John has no idea how he’s supposed to respond to that.  “Being charming and sociable?  Yeah, you get that for free.”

“You’re being sarcastic,” Dorian says.  “You mean standoffish and defensive.”

“Wow, you’ve got me all figured out,” John says, and he shouldn’t, that’s a terrible thing to say to a guy with amnesia, right?

“Do you not realize how insensitive your jokes are because you don’t think of me as a bot?” Dorian asks.  “Or do you do it on purpose as a way of masking your inability to appropriately express your emotions?”

He probably deserves that.  Except Dorian isn’t doing it to be cruel; he’s genuinely asking because he can’t tell.  He doesn’t remember.  John tries to remember how long it took them to understand each other the first time, and it’s too depressing.  He thinks maybe they never really got there.

“I would ask if it’s me,” Dorian says.  “The way I am now, without the memories you’re accustomed to.  But department records indicate that your behavior towards me hasn’t significantly changed since the second week we worked together.”

They’re still holding hands.  He wants to push Dorian--gently, like a partner would--to touch him somehow, to reassure himself that Dorian isn’t going anywhere.  He doesn’t know what to do when they’re already touching.  When Dorian is literally holding onto him, and making it sound like John’s never done anything to keep him here.

He wants to say, of course it’s changed; we had sex in the lab, and, I express my emotions just fine; you’re the one who sings in the car.  Instead what comes out is, “Jesus, Dorian, I’m holding your hand in the middle of the street.  What else do you want from me?”

“I want to understand why you treat me like the most important person in the world when we’re alone,” Dorian says, “yet when there are other people around--any other people at all, from strangers to your friends--you barely look at me.”

“I look at you plenty,” John snaps.  Probably with his heart on his sleeve; he’s always been terrible at keeping his feelings out of it.  Out of anything.  This is one of the most ironic conversations he’s ever had.  “The way I look at you has gotten me in a lot of trouble.  It’s literally gotten me reprimanded, okay?”

“That isn’t in the records,” Dorian says.  He’s neutral about it, willing to believe John but not willing to help him.  He hasn’t let go of John’s hand.

“It’s in the house records,” John counters.  “What, Hal didn’t give you that conversation with Sandra?  She let you eavesdrop on the whole thing the first time.”

A line of blue sparkles under Dorian’s skin and John reaches for it without thinking.  When he does think, he does it anyway, because he’s pretty sure Dorian is complaining that he isn’t physically affectionate enough.  Or something.  If he’s going to lose his job over his partner, he’s at least going to make damn sure he doesn’t lose his partner over his job.

“According to Sandra,” John says, brushing his thumb against Dorian’s cheek, “I look at you like I want to fuck you all the time.  And when I’m not looking at you, I’m so busy telling everyone how great you are that everyone assumes we’re fucking.  So maybe I’m not expressing it appropriately, or whatever, but I promise you.  I’m not hiding anything.”

Dorian doesn’t move.  “Should you be?” he asks.

John traces the now invisible line of light again.  “What do you mean?”

“I told you that Sandra said we could do this if no one found out,” Dorian says.  “It looks like a lot of people are aware of the situation, with more becoming aware even now.  Should we be hiding it?”

“Are you kidding me,” John says, dropping his hand.  “First I’m not demonstrative enough, and now I’m compromising us?”

“No,” Dorian says, and finally he looks as uncertain and off-balance as John feels.  “I don’t know how I’m supposed to act, John.  I’m trying to take my cues from you, but it’s difficult.”

He doesn’t know, John reminds himself.  He doesn’t remember.  But it’s not like John knows, either: there aren’t any rules for this, and they don't write books about poorly-adjusted ambush survivors trying to make it work with emotional AIs who were built to be slave labor.  There’s no how-to guide.

“Look, I don’t know how to act either,” he says gruffly.  “My last relationship was a disaster, so it’s not like I’m a great baseline.”

“That’s not particularly reassuring,” Dorian says.

“No,” John agrees.  “It’s not.”

Dorian looks down at their hands, then back up at his face.  “So it’s worth it?” he says.  He sounds curious in a way that should probably be offensive, but John suddenly finds it funny.

“What,” he says, “holding hands?  Talking about our feelings?  Not knowing what the hell we’re doing?  Is that worth getting shot at, getting sold, and probably losing our jobs?”

“I would have said, are the rewards of an intimate relationship worth the uncertainty of personal and public scrutiny,” Dorian says calmly.  “But the way you phrased it is more telling.”

“Yeah,” John tells him.  “Of course it’s worth it.  What are we ever gonna do that’s more important than this?”

Dorian gives him an odd look.  “More important than standing on a public sidewalk talking about our feelings?”

John smiles, because if Dorian doesn’t laugh, he’s totally going to win this one.  “Than figuring out how to show someone we love them,” he says.

An answering smile spreads across Dorian’s face, and for a moment it could go either way.  John’s ready to be mocked: he deserves it, he’s given Dorian plenty of grief this morning.  He can take a little in return.  

“I have a lot of feelings for you that I can’t explain,” Dorian tells him.  “But the reasons I love you are becoming more clear.”

John can’t help it.  He laughs, and it’s as much relief as it is anything else.  “You give me a lot of credit,” he says.  Smirking at Dorian, he adds, “I like that.”

“You do know how to prioritize,” Dorian agrees.  

It’s a backhanded compliment if it’s a compliment at all, and John counters, “My partner sets a good example.”

“Of tolerance and clarity,” Dorian says.  “Yes, I can see that.  It’s good of you to acknowledge it, John; your kind words mean so much.”

John opens his mouth, but there’s maybe more truth there than Dorian meant for him to hear and he changes his mind at the last second.  “My partner is a good police officer and a great friend,” John says.  “I’m lucky to have him.”

Dorian tips his head to one side and gives him a half-smile: puzzled but flattered, and John knows that look.  “You,” he adds.  “In case you’ve forgotten.  And I don’t forget that you’re a bot.  I’m not trying to treat you like a human; I’m trying to treat you like a person.  When I screw that up, let me know, okay?

The way Dorian smiles is enough of an answer.  And it has to be, because McInnis is behind him, looking apologetic but not uncomfortable.  “Sorry,” she offers.  “It seemed awkward to just keep staring at you from across the street, but I can go do something else for a while if you need more time.”

John raises his eyebrows at Dorian, who shakes his head.  “I think we’re good,” John says.  He doesn’t take his eyes off of Dorian.

“We’re good,” Dorian agrees.  The hesitation is so small that anyone who doesn’t work with bots would probably miss it, but it looked like he was trying to guess whether or not he was expected to say something there.

“Thanks,” John adds, glancing at McInnis.  He smiles at her too, because why not?  She’s all right.  “You’re pretty calm about all of this.”

She pats Dorian’s arm absently, catching his eye when he glances at her.  “Letting Dorian down is the biggest regret of my life,” she says simply.  “I’ve spent years trying not to make that mistake again.  I’m not about to ruin my streak now that it’s actually possible.”

“What happened to me wasn’t your responsibility,” Dorian says.  He sounds perfectly calm about it, like he really believes that, but she interrupts him before he can finish.

“What happened to you is on all of us,” McInnis says.  “Every cop who lets an android be scrapped is responsible.  We’re part of a broken system, and I for one don’t want to see how much worse it can get.”

John tries to keep his expression as neutral as possible, to keep his breathing steady since apparently Dorian’s listening for it.  He’s not ready for revolution.  He’s pretty sure that makes him a terrible person, but there’s only so much he can do.  It took him two years to wake up the last time robots rewrote his life.  This time he hasn’t even had a week.

“Let’s talk about something else,” Dorian says.  “Perhaps we could do some sightseeing.”

“I don’t have anywhere to be until after lunch,” McInnis says.

John doesn’t realize Dorian’s waiting for his answer until he gets a pointed look that means Dorian thinks he’s being deliberately obnoxious.  John almost smiles.  “I’m all yours,” he says.

They visit both places Dorian suggests and one McInnis points out along the way, and only then does John get that it wasn’t a cover.  Dorian was trying to change the subject, but he wasn’t trying to get them away from prying ears.  He doesn’t even bring up their case until he and McInnis have taken pictures of all of them on a bridge, next to a gorge, and in front of a sculpture of some boat.  It’s reluctant even then: he hasn’t been biding his time, John thinks.  Dorian really wanted to walk around town with them and do nothing.

Son of a bitch, John thinks fondly.  He does know how to take time off.

If the gorge swallows most of their conversation about bot trafficking and Sandra’s undercover assignment, John figures at least he knows how to make it look good.  McInnis doesn’t even seem surprised.  She tracks bot origins as a hobby, as far as he can tell.  He tries not to think that he’s seeing his own future when he looks at her.

“Cloud Nine is clean,” McInnis tells them.  “All four locations with android staff show a legal paper trail.  And, not incidentally, zero turnover.”

“So it looks legal,” Dorian says.  “But is it verifiable?”

Yeah, John’s not impressed by an unconfirmed paper trail either.  Also, really?  “Zero turnover?” he repeats.  “They purchase bots but they never get rid of them?”

“I don’t have access to the same sources you do,” McInnis says.  “But everything I can find says they’re legit.  The zero turnover thing probably sounds better than it is: they haven’t employed independent AI for that long, and private bots stay in service a lot longer than front line officers.”

“How far back did you follow their history?” Dorian wants to know.  “Just because the terminal transaction was legal doesn’t mean all of them were.”

McInnis shakes her head at that.  “They have ID codes,” she says.  “If I can identify an origin and the most recent point of purchase, I don’t dig deeper than that.  Frankly, if bots are being smuggled into skilled labor at a high-end place like Cloud Nine?  I’d look the other way.”

“What if it’s not what they want?” Dorian asks.

Then McInnis--kindly, happy-go-lucky McInnis--says, “At least they’re alive to not want it.”

When Dorian doesn’t answer, she adds, “I’m not arguing they shouldn’t get to choose, Dorian.  I’m just saying, it could be worse than a luxury retreat.  Cloud Nine isn’t going to chew them up or run them down.”

She stops there, but they all hear what she doesn’t say: not like the force.  Dorian probably doesn’t have an original wire in him with the number of times he’s been shot at, stabbed, filled with shrapnel or melted or literally thrown himself on the grenade.  Of course they replace police bots more often than any other AIs outside the military.

And that’s what John is dragging him back into.

“Whatever you’re thinking about,” Dorian remarks, “I think you should stop.”

John blinks.  He exchanges glances with McInnis, who looks just as surprised.  “Excuse me?” John says, when it doesn’t look like she’s going to.

“You just stopped paying attention,” Dorian says.  “None of your usual distractors are present, and your demeanor has gone from competitive to morose.  Stop thinking about whatever you’re thinking about.”

“Wait, my--did you just say my demeanor changed?” John demands.  “What happened to heart rate and breathing or whatever?  You’re measuring my demeanor now?”

“I’m observing your demeanor,” Dorian says patiently.  “And intuiting your mental state from your outward behavior.  It isn’t that difficult.”

“It isn’t that--”  John breaks off.  “You’re trying to read my mind, that’s what you’re trying to do.  Well, good luck with that.  You have no idea what’s up here.”

“Less than I expected,” Dorian remarks.

“Oh, ha ha.”  John rolls his eyes.  “Let’s call up Maya and ask about your aura while we’re at it.”

“A poor analogy,” Dorian points out, “as Maya actually is psychic, and really might be able read your mind.”

“Who’s Maya?” McInnis wants to know.

“Got the cerebellux procedure,” John says.  “She sees dead people.”

“Among other things,” Dorian says.

“Please,” John says.  “Auras aren’t even real.  There’s no amount you can boost someone’s brain function that will make them see something that’s not there.”

“Just because you’ve never seen them doesn’t mean they aren’t real,” Dorian says.  “I thought she described yours very clearly.”

“Yeah, and how would you know?” John counters.  “You see auras now too?”

“I know you,” Dorian replies.  “Maya didn't at the time she described your aura.”

Maya’s gotten to know him since, mostly through Dorian, but it’s the aura thing that suddenly gives him pause.  Did they talk about that at the precinct?  He remembers his words--like apples and Christmas--with a clarity that usually comes with gunfire.  Like someone was shooting at them at the time.

“Did we talk about auras in the car?” John asks slowly.  He could be wrong.  He must be wrong.  “I thought she was reading us right before she got shot.”

There’s a long moment before Dorian answers.  Too long.  John knows what that means.  Dorian doesn’t think he should say whatever he’s thinking, but he’s going to, and he’s trying to calculate how much trouble it will cause.

“No,” Dorian says at last.  “It must have been at the precinct.”

That isn’t what he was going to say.  John knows it, wants to call him on it, but Dorian is confiding to McInnis.  “I accessed camera surveillance from inside the precinct,” he tells her.  “To make up for some of what I don’t remember.”

“Isn’t that networked?”  Four years off the force, and McInnis still knows what she’s talking about.  “How did you get camera footage if your access was blocked?”

“By taking stupid risks,” John cuts in.  He doesn’t know whether Dorian will trust her with Rudy or not, but if they’re better safe than sorry, the three of them have “sorry” covered.  They might as well try to keep someone safe.  “I don’t think that was on the cameras.  We talked auras in the car.”

“That’s not possible,” Dorian says.  “If that were true, I wouldn’t remember it.”

It’s not the first weird thing he’s remembered, but John wrote off the rest of it as stuff Dorian thought was important.  He’s pretty sure Dorian didn’t keep Maya’s chatter about auras and energy off the record.  There’s no point to keeping it, let alone hiding it.

“Maybe the file erasure wasn’t as thorough as you thought?” McInnis offers, when John can’t think of anything to say that doesn’t sound like he’s accusing Dorian of lying.  “You said it wasn’t official.  Maybe whoever ambushed you didn’t know what they were doing.”

“So far it only seems to have left things I set aside,” Dorian says.  “Things I locked and removed from network access.  Why would I have concealed a conversation with Maya Vaughn about John’s aura?”

“Is that an actual question?” McInnis counters.  “Because it made you feel something you shouldn’t.  Obviously.”

John is surprised by how easy it is for her to say that.  It does sound obvious when she puts it like that, and he looks at Dorian when she does.  Maybe auras are important to Dorian, who knows.

Dorian tilts his head.  “It does… feel more like my own memory,” he admits.  “Not something I saw on an external camera.  But I can’t find anything compromising about it, nor can I explain why it’s still there.”

“People I’ve dated,” John says.  “That’s a lot to keep off the record, right?”

Dorian’s expression softens at that, becoming more amused.  “It’s not an overwhelming number, John.”

John points at him.  “How do you know that?”

Dorian’s almost-smile fades.  “I don’t know,” he says.  “Maybe I was… worried that my reaction to your romantic interludes would be too revealing.”

“Well, were you?”  John never asked how long? when Dorian first brought up jealousy and possessiveness and wanting to kiss John.  Maybe he should have.

“I don’t think so,” Dorian says.  “You were never particularly nice to them.”

“Okay, one, yes I was,” John says.  “Two, how do you know that?”

Dorian’s pause is longer this time.  “I don’t know,” he says at last.  John can’t tell if he’s lying or not, so probably not.  Why would he bother, anyway?

“This may be a stupid question,” McInnis says, “but you do have nanobots.  Can they… I don’t know.  Repair your brain?  Could you actually be remembering things you didn’t remember before?”

“The files aren’t damaged,” Dorian says.  “They’re missing.  Where would nanobots get the information to reconstruct them?”

“You said you were designed to make connections,” John says.  “Maybe they’re making connections between the memories you do have.”

“There’s far too much data missing to just fill in the blanks,” Dorian says.  “Believe me.  I’ve tried.”

“But the things you remember now are about John,” McInnis says.  “And it sounds like they’re associated with memories you kept.  Maybe your brain is extrapolating based on existing data.”

“It’s unlikely,” Dorian says.  “A neural net can’t rebuild itself.  We’re not organic, and we’re not human.  We have limitations.”

It isn’t like Dorian to categorically disagree, even when an argument is completely wrong.  John doesn’t think about it before he asks, “Why are you so convinced this isn’t happening?”

Dorian looks at him like he’s stupid.  “If I remember more today than I did yesterday, the data I don’t have is my responsibility.  I wouldn’t intentionally forget you, John.”

Oh.  He didn’t think of it that way, but as usual, Dorian’s already analyzed all the angles.  All he can say is, “Even you can’t control your subconscious, Dee.  I’m not gonna hold it against you.”

“I would," Dorian says.

“Okay,” John says slowly, looking at McInnis in case that means something other than what he thinks it does.  She raises her eyebrows at him, so probably not.  He stands by his original assessment: she’s very calm.

They get over it, or push it under the rug, by finding a gift shop and buying tacky souvenirs.  McInnis tries on all the t-shirts before she picks one, and she gets Dorian a hat, which is ridiculous because he doesn’t wear hats.  At least, John doesn’t think he does.  He doesn’t own any hats.  Maybe that’s why Dorian doesn’t wear them.

Dorian ask McInnis to buy him a shot glass, too, which John thinks is insulting right up until the moment Dorian gives it to him.  So he buys one for each of them, plus a fleece coat for Dorian and a postcard for Sandra.  Dorian doesn’t protest the coat, mostly because John doesn’t tell him who it’s for.  John has plenty of coats, and Dorian likes sweats.  He’ll probably like fleece.

They don’t have time for lunch before McInnis has to leave, but John just had breakfast and it’s not like Dorian needs to eat.  As far as John’s concerned, the goodbyes involve far too much hugging, but McInnis does tell him she’s glad he and Dorian are partners, so he decides not to complain.  This time.

The expectation that there will be a next time isn’t lost on him.  He hopes McInnis knows what she’s doing.  He’d hope Dorian does, but it’s pretty clear Dorian doesn’t have a clue.  John never did, and Sandra’s missed her check in, so today they’re relying on the judgment of an ex-officer who got kicked off the force for helping androids and couldn’t keep her own partner alive.

No way this can go wrong, John thinks.

Chapter Text

“The jacket’s for you,” John blurts out as soon as they’re in the car.

Dorian checks his seatbelt before glancing at John.  “What?”

“The jacket,” John says, looking at the rearview, the side mirrors, the video feed.  Maria’s car isn’t so foreign after yesterday’s road trip, but it gives him something to do.  “The fleece jacket, I bought it for you.  If you want it, I mean, if you don’t I’m sure there’s plenty of--

“John,” Dorian interrupts.  It works, if only because John really has no idea what he’s going to say.  He’s not going to keep a jacket he got for Dorian if Dorian doesn’t want it, but it’s not like he wants to give it away.

“Thank you,” Dorian says.  “That’s very kind of you.”

“No it’s not,” John says, starting the car.  “I just figured, we could probably blend in better.  We should try wearing… you know.”

“Is this what you consider clothes shopping?” Dorian asks.  “Because if it is, it isn’t as difficult as I expected.”

“Clothes--what?  No,” John says, “this is just--”  Dorian agreed to get some clothes of his own if John agrees to go skinny-dipping tonight.  He hasn’t forgotten, and he doesn’t like it, but if Dorian’s okay with it--

“Yeah,” John tells him.  “Okay, that’s what we’re doing.  You want anything else?”

He sees Dorian tip his head and he smiles to himself.  Dorian can’t deny that he wanted the jacket, because that would be rude.  But it figures that Dorian likes this version of “clothes shopping” because it means he doesn’t have to pick things out himself.  Which is weird, right?  Dorian likes things, and he dislikes things, so why can’t he point to a shirt and say yes or no?

“If the goal is to blend in,” Dorian says carefully, “then I should consider short sleeves.  Most people display more skin the closer they get to open water.”

“Yeah,” John says, without thinking too much about it.  Dorian has an opinion; they’re running with it.  “Good idea.  Let’s get a couple of t-shirts or something.”

They should order the shirts online, like everyone else, but John doesn’t feel like it.  They’re in a tourist town.  They might as well take advantage of it.

“Keep an eye out for vendors,” John advises, putting the car in gear and turning for the road.  He’s not depending on GPS when the whole point is to act like they’re on vacation.  Or in other words, as little like what he normally acts like as possible.

GPS isn’t reliable up here anyway.  He’ll take Dorian’s eyes over satellites any day.

“John,” Dorian says, watching the road more than their surroundings.  “What did you think of Islay?”

John shrugs.  “She’s all right,” he says.  Should he have seen that question coming?  She was Dorian’s partner; what does his opinion matter?

“You really think so?”  Dorian seems pleased.  “I was worried that you wouldn’t get along.”

“Yeah, why’s that?” John counters.  “Because you were partners for three years and she abandoned you to the wolves?  Or because she showed up after all this time and the best she could do was a hug and a few pictures?”

He can feel Dorian looking at him, but he has the perfect excuse and he doesn’t look away from the road.  He can’t hate Dorian’s first partner.  He can’t be jealous of her, either, which is more of a relief than he wants to admit.  But he can wonder if he’ll be her, one day, and that’s painful and terrifying and more than enough reason to stay away.

“What does that mean?” Dorian asks at last.  “You didn’t seem to dislike her when she was here.”

“Forget it,” John tells the road.  “She’s fine, all right?  I don’t… dislike her.”

“Yet you hold a grudge for something that wasn’t done to you,” Dorian says.  “Isn’t her crime mine to forgive?”

“You don’t even remember what she did,” John says.  “I think you should wait until you get your memories back before you decide to buddy up to her.”

“I remember her,” Dorian says.  “Just like I remember you.  You said you’d respect my decision.  Was that untrue?”

“I didn’t say that,” John snaps.  “I said I’ll do what you want me to.  No one said anything about respecting stupid decisions.”

There’s a brief pause in which John has plenty of time to realize how out of control this conversation is.  “You think meeting Islay was a stupid decision,” Dorian says.

“No,” John says with a sigh.  “No, I don’t--that’s not what I meant.”

Dorian doesn’t answer, and John figures the truth has gotten him this far.  It doesn’t look like he’s gonna bluff his way out of this one.  “I don’t want to see them take you away,” he mutters.  “She did.  She saw that.  And she’s okay with it.  I don’t know how that’s possible, and I don’t want to.”

“She’s not okay with it,” Dorian says.  “But she’s alive, and I wasn’t.  The people who live have to go on, John.  Otherwise what did we die for?”

John shakes his head, but Dorian’s talking to him and that’s gonna have to be enough.  He’s full up on heartfelt confessions for the week.  Probably for the year.  He pulls into a spot on the side of the street as soon as he sees the boardwalk and he nudges Dorian to get out.

He waits until Dorian actually does it to follow him.  He points out vendors and ice cream and Dorian lets him, so it’s all right.  Especially when Dorian really does get a t-shirt and John eggs him on until he changes into it in the middle of the street.  John grins: partly because it’s a good show, and partly because Dorian let him have it.  Maybe they do understand each other, some of the time.

He gets an ice cream, Dorian takes a lick, and John thinks the whole “show” thing could get out of hand really fast.  It doesn’t stop him from licking the ice cream himself before offering it back to Dorian.  Who takes it, and John can’t not watch.

They’re standing in the middle of the Lake Heights tourist district, trading an ice cream back and forth like one of those annoying couples who gets in everyone’s way.  John thinks he’s going to be seeing surveillance footage of this at his next review.  It’ll be right up there with buying his android partner and associating with activist organizations that intentionally subvert the law.

At least it won’t be blowing a raid and getting his entire team killed, John thinks.  He’s already been to the bottom, right?  He refuses to believe this thing with Dorian is a new low.  People dying is bad.  People not dying is better.  Even if the “people” in question are androids.

“We should go to the library,” he says abruptly.  He can’t think about this.  He can think about the case; that’s why he’s still a cop.  It keeps him from having to deal with the rest of his life.  “They have a library here, right?”

“Yes,” Dorian says, because of course he knows that.  John doesn’t ask whether that’s part of his “basic encyclopedic knowledge” or if he downloaded town attractions over Hal’s connection back at the house.  “You want to use their network?”

“Library networks let you run anonymous searches,” John says.  “That’ll keep you off the radar, right?  If there’s someone looking for you, they won’t be able to trace you through a library network.”

“Yes,” Dorian agrees.  “Depending on demand, though, I may exceed their data delivery system.”

John isn’t so civic-minded that crashing a library network doesn’t sound fun.  “Let’s find out,” he says.  “You think you can backtrack Cloud Nine bot purchases from there?”

“Is that legal?” Dorian asks, glancing over at him.

“What’s wrong with wanting to know where their equipment comes from?” John counters.  “Maybe I need a supplier.”

“Then you should ask them to turn over their records,” Dorian says.

“What do you know about it?” John retorts.  “I thought you lost all your police procedure with your case files.”

“Do you often ask me to do illegal things?” Dorian wants to know.

“Define often,” John says.

“I can see we have an interesting relationship,” Dorian says, but he’s smiling, and that’s almost strange as holding hands was.  The day Dorian doesn’t hassle him about vigilante justice is…

Well.  Not unprecedented, recently.  Apparently Dorian’s broken plenty of laws himself, and now he probably remembers more about that than anything else.  Of course it’s skewing his perception of enforcement.

The library doesn’t pretend to be a quaint old place from another century.  It’s an entertainment center, with movie showings advertised out front and research stations tucked behind the kids’ and holography rooms.  It’s quiet once they get past the flashing lights and games designed to draw people in, and the soundproofing in the walls makes the individual booths seem unnecessary.

He appreciates the private space more when Dorian slides in across the work table from him and the side of his face lights up with a tracery of bright blue.  John doesn’t think he makes his reaction obvious, but Dorian’s gaze sharpens from the far-away focus to catch his eye instantly.  John clears his throat, activating the sound curtain across the front of the booth and pretending to study the empty room beyond.

It isn’t actually empty.  They passed two occupied booths before they found this one, and John has no idea who comes to Lake Heights to study, but hey.  Maybe they just want to watch porn without it going on their account.  None of his business, right?

“Cloud Nine transferred four CPS-128 security bots to their Lake Heights location in 2044,” Dorian says.  “They joined the two HH-51 bots already on staff.  None have been sold or transferred, nor have any new bots been acquired since.”

“I thought you said there were three security bots,” John says, glancing back at him.  Light is dancing under Dorian’s skin, and he wants to touch it like nothing else.

“According to the on-site archives,” Dorian agrees.  “The press release on file as part of their historical documentation has been altered to show fewer bots than they originally received.  Cloud Nine has no record of a fourth bot arriving, and Lake Heights has no record of it leaving.”

John raises his eyebrows.  “You’re saying there’s a missing bot.”

“I’m saying there’s a bot that Cloud Nine records don’t account for,” Dorian tells him.  “So far I’ve only seen three of the five bots listed as part of the staff.  Without breaking into the retreat’s private network, I can’t confirm the presence of the remaining two, let alone an unacknowledged sixth.”

“And you can’t break in from here,” John says.

“Of course I could break in from here,” Dorian says.  “But the nature of the library’s anonymity policy would implicate this facility in the break-in.  It would also inevitably trip multiple security measures at the resort, thereby alerting everyone on staff that someone is investigating their androids.”

“Great,” John says.  “So, back up.  Assuming they didn’t leave, can you tell where they came from?”

Dorian tilts his head, blue flickering beneath his temple.  “I have point-of-origins for three of the security bots and both household helpers.”

“The missing security bot doesn’t have an origin?” John guesses.

“With their ID signals blocked, I can’t tell which one is which,” Dorian says.  “But it’s reasonable to speculate that the anomalies are related, especially if the bot was--”

“Scrubbed.”  They both say it at the same time, and John sighs.  “I thought Sandra said this was a destination, not a trafficking through-way.”

“The disappearance of one bot is hardly evidence of a criminal operation,” Dorian says.  “The bot could have been destroyed.  Private corporations aren’t required to publicly report asset loss.  Or it could have malfunctioned, never to be repaired.  They might have placed the bot in storage and altered the press release to improve the cosmetic appearance of the resort.”

“So why doesn’t it have an origin?” John demands.  “Who sticks someone in a closet and then erases all evidence of their existence?”

Dorian holds his gaze.  “Someone who’s hiding a crime,” he says, “or someone who’s hiding a fugitive.”

John grins at him, because sometimes Dorian sounds exactly like himself.  Even without all of his memories, he talks the same way and he looks at John--the way he always did, really.  John can’t tell if it’s because Dorian’s feelings really haven’t changed, or if maybe he felt that way for longer than John realized.

Distributed and secure network access lights up the side of Dorian’s face.  "I have bot transaction records for all Cloud Nine locations," he says.  "I can't cross-reference with their onsite archives for the same reason I can't get into surveillance at the Lake Heights location from here.  The 'anonymous' network intrusion will draw too much attention."

"What about point-of-origin for the other bots?" John asks.

"All confirmed," Dorian says.  "Notably, though, there are two instances of Cloud Nine security bots from other locations being sold."

John raises his eyebrows.  "And McInnis said there was no turnover."

"She did," Dorian agrees.  "Perhaps she meant same-series replacement.  Both of these bots were replaced by different models."

"Turnover means turnover," John tells him.  "Either she missed it, or she didn't mention it on purpose."

"It seems unlikely that she could have missed it," Dorian says.  "One of the replacements followed a sale to a high-profile client."

It takes John a second to figure that out.  "You mean one of their guests bought an android off them?”  Then, because he doesn’t know how to keep his mouth shut, he adds, “I didn't know they were for sale."

"Most things are for sale, for the right price."  Dorian looks very calm about it, but John hears "things" where he means "people" and it's enough to make him stop staring at Dorian's face.

"I don't know how to not own you," he tells the doorway of their booth.  "You get that, right?"

Dorian doesn’t answer right away, and John doesn’t know if that’s better or worse than him knowing what to say.  “I don’t know what you mean by that,” Dorian says at last.  “But it’s very clear to me that you think of me as a person, and that you’re uncomfortable with the idea of buying and selling people.  I assume, then, that having bought me makes you uncomfortable.”

“It isn’t--”  John doesn’t know how to look at him and say it.  He doesn’t know how to say it at all, but seeing Dorian makes it real and he can’t.  “You shouldn’t be able to buy people,” he mutters.  “I don’t--the department shouldn’t--I don’t want the department to own you.”

But that sounds terrible, just saying it, because it shouldn’t even be an option.  “I don’t want anyone to own you,” he adds, more forcefully.  “So I don’t--I don’t know how not to do that.”

He feels Dorian touch his arm, which is odd in a way that makes him even less sure of what to say.  It occurs to him that Dorian’s touched him more in the last 24 hours than he does at the precinct in a month.  Fooling around aside, sex aside, sleeping together aside.  Just touching him: for attention, for reassurance, for… comfort.

“John,” Dorian says.  “You don’t know how to own someone, so of course you don’t know how not to own them.  You’re not doing anything wrong.”

“McInnis thinks we are,” he blurts out.  “We’re all responsible, right?”

Dorian doesn’t move his hand.  His fingers feel warm through John’s shirt.  “For the way bots are treated?”

It’s hard to speak, suddenly.  “Yeah,” he says roughly.  “So you’re out.  You still don’t have any rights.  You can’t even do your damn job, and that’s supposed to be better, somehow?  What the hell are we doing?”

“Well, you’re freaking out for no reason,” Dorian says, calm and sort of amused sounding.  “Does it help to have me touching you, or does that make it worse?”

John tries to breathe, staring down at the table so he can’t see anything else in the booth.  Not Dorian, not the walls, not the room beyond.  “It’s fine,” he mutters.

Dorian doesn’t say anything, but he doesn’t move, either.  He must be able to feel John’s racing pulse, read the tension in his shoulders and his spine.  He’s not wrong.  John is trying to breathe, and he doesn’t dare look up in case his tunnel vision isn’t deliberate.  If the walls are really closing in, he doesn’t want to know.

When Dorian rubs his thumb against John’s elbow, he almost jerks his arm away.  Dorian’s hand stills then, and he doesn’t move again.  John holds as still as he can.  The room doesn’t stop being oppressive.  Dorian doesn’t stop being too close.  But after a few minutes, he can tap his own fingers against the table and the noise doesn’t make him jump.

“Okay,” he says, only it comes out as a whisper.  The only thing worse than talking is not talking, but the words sound awkward and awful.  “Thanks.”

“When you say ‘okay,’” Dorian says, very quietly.  “Do you want me to say something, or just keep sitting here?”

John swallows.  “Say something.”  His voice is a little stronger this time.

“I may be able to covertly access other Cloud Nine archives once I’m cleared for general network use,” Dorian says easily.  “I can get in and out much more cleanly than a library protocol, and it would at least provide us a better understanding of their reporting discrepancies.”

“Uh-huh,” John says.

“Also,” Dorian adds, “do you like it when the sensors under my skin light up?  Because that’s a purely internal process that can visually approximate what you see when I connect to an external network.”

John jerks his head up, but he doesn’t pull away from Dorian’s hand.  “You--”  It isn’t bad, and the flush of surprise chases some of the cobwebs out of his vision.  Weird to think adrenaline would counteract a stress reaction, but he’ll take it.  “I mean, I don’t mind,” he says.  “It doesn’t bother me, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“You like it,” Dorian tells him.  “Why?”

John huffs, rolling his eyes and pulling his arm back at the same time.  At the last second, though, he turns his hand over and catches Dorian’s.  “I don’t know,” he says.  “It’s cool, okay?  It’s you.  That’s all.”

Dorian looks down at their clasped hands and smiles.  “That’s a very nice thing to say, John.”

“Yeah, well, don’t get used to it,” John grumbles.

“I’m going to pull information on Islay while we’re here,” Dorian says.  “Along with Natieri, the IRC, and news from the L Zone.  Does anything about that sound suspicious to you?”

John draws in another breath and tries to think.  He was fine when they came in.  He doesn’t know what’s setting him off lately, but at least it’s happening less than it used to.  He should be grateful for that, at least.

“Yeah,” he says, when he considers the search as an outside interest.  “The L Zone.  That’s anomalous; we don’t know how they’re involved, and there’s nothing obvious to tie them to the IRC.”

“Except for the people who live there,” Dorian says.

“Yeah, they’re not the ones I’m worried about.”  John frowns.  He’s a little worried about them, but mostly he’s worried about Delta.  “We got involved over there and things went to shit.  My schedule was leaked, my location was leaked, your department status was compromised.  

“That’s before whatever attacked your case files,” he adds.  “And I’m not sure any of it was limited to us.  Sandra’s got some stuff going on she’s not telling us about, and it sure looked like it was going south last week.”

Dorian’s giving him an odd look.  “You think someone in the L Zone is hacking precinct systems?”

“Don’t look at me like that,” John tells him.  “I’m the first to bitch about their backwards little town, okay?  Their PD couldn’t find kids hiding in plain sight.  But you and I were targeted four times last week alone--

“Not incidental,” he adds, when Dorian opens his mouth.  “It wasn’t an accident.  We weren’t in the wrong place at the wrong time and someone opened up on us.  Someone came looking.  They were gunning for us--you and me specifically, not cops in general.  And we didn’t do a damn thing except try to solve some kidnapping cases inside a jurisdiction that asked for our help.”

“You think it was more than just kidnapping?” Dorian asks.  His expression is neutral again, but he definitely doesn’t get it.  And why would he, John thinks with a sigh.  It’s not like he remembers it.

“I’m not sure it had anything to do with the kidnapping,” John says.  “I don’t even think it was the Luddite sector that messed us up.”

“The Luddite sector?” Dorian repeats.

John tries not to smile.  Just checking, he thinks.  “Yeah, whatever,” he says.  “The limitation zone.  They’re sheltering bots.  You remember that?”

“Not… precisely,” Dorian says slowly.

“Dorian,” John says.  “The Dorian that lives with Natieri.  They have a son, Lee?  Or she has a son, and he--I don’t know.  The point is, they practically run the local IRC, and we spent a lot of time with them on the kidnapping case.”

“So now we’re mixed up with the IRC,” Dorian says.  “And someone’s after us because of it.”

“They’re after you,” John tells him.  “Sure, they’d like to kill me, but only ’cause it’ll make you look bad.”

“I take that seriously,” Dorian says.

John snorts.  “You and me both,” he says.  “I’m not ignoring it, believe me.  But if you run a search on the IRC and the L Zone at the same time, and someone picks that up, we’re the obvious connection.”

“We’re also the most likely source of a search on both Natieri and Islay,” Dorian says.  “At least, assuming the search originates here.”

“But that’s not suspicious,” John points out.  “Of course we’d look them up, who cares?  And the IRC--I’m not saying it’ll put us on anyone’s good list, but it makes sense we’d be looking.”

“And it doesn’t make sense we’d be looking at the L Zone?” Dorian asks skeptically.  “It’s our most recent case, isn’t it?”

“There’s something weird about it,” John insists.  “I don’t know what it is, but going over there got us flagged somehow.  It got attention we don’t want.  Let’s not go asking for more, okay?”

Dorian gives him an amused look as the side of his face glows blue with circuitry loops.  “Whatever you say, John.”

It’s so much like what John expects to hear that he squeezes Dorian’s hand without thinking about it.  “Thanks,” he says.

“Sandra didn’t check in this morning,” Dorian says.  His fingers sparkle, just a little, when he squeezes back.  “Does that concern you?”

“Yeah,” John says.  “Why, you want to call her from here?”

“She specifically said not to,” Dorian reminds him.  “It’s just that you mentioned the ‘stuff’ she was doing ‘going south,’ and I’m curious how worried we should be.”

“She knows what she’s doing,” John says.  “Better than we do, anyway.  And she’s got Richard.  I hear he’s pretty good at not getting caught.”

“That is his job,” Dorian replies.  “He specializes in not attracting attention.”

“Let’s give her a few more hours,” John says, because anything he says about Richard will go the same way the conversation about McInnis did.  “Anything could be happening: street emergency, department showdown, who knows.  Maybe she wants to get out of the precinct and can’t.  Bet she’ll call after work.”

Dorian nods once.  “You don’t doubt her good intentions, then.”

It’s so strange that John has to pretend he’s never met her to figure it out.  “What,” he says, before he gets there, then, “No.  No way.  Sandra’s my best friend, and I trust her with our lives.  She’s the one who got you turned back on.  No way is she a problem.”

“All right,” Dorian says mildly.  “I don’t remember, so I have to ask.”

“Yeah,” John says.  It doesn’t get any easier to hear, but at least he’s getting used to it.  “Ask away.”

“Can I?”  Dorian turns to him in a way that makes it look like he’s trying not to lean.  He doesn’t wait for the answer.  “Because I’m very interested in knowing what you see in me.  Why do you love me, John?”

John stares at him.  Dorian just looks back expectantly until John asks, “Are you kidding me?”

Dorian doesn’t look disappointed, but his expectant expression disappears and he smiles the way he does when he’s pretending everything’s fine.  “Of course not.  What part of our relationship do you think is familiar to me?”

“No, that’s--”  He’s such a sucker, but he hates it when he makes Dorian look like that.  He hates it more now, when Dorian can’t even remember the times that might at least make up for it a little.  If there are times like that.  “I meant… because it’s so obvious.  Really.  Who wouldn’t love you?”

Dorian looks at him in surprise, and it’s weird, but John doesn’t even feel embarrassed.  It’s like he remembers this.  Like he’s Dorian, somehow, and of all the things he’s forgotten, this is the thing that’s coming back.  He remembers how to be smooth.

“Was that a compliment?” Dorian asks.

“Not one of my best,” John says, trying to smile.  “Sorry I’m… it’s just--it’s a hard question to answer.  Why do you love someone.  Because they’re… so much a part of your life that you can’t imagine what it would be like without them, I guess.”

He shrugs, and for a single moment, it actually makes sense to him.  “It’s not any one thing, you know?  It’s everything.”

Dorian looks wide-eyed and dazzled and damn it, he’s the best and worst thing to happen to John’s ego in years.  He’s so easy that John feels bad for not earning it, and he’s so hard that John wonders how they got this far.  “Do you really love everything about me?”  Dorian asks.

This is where it all goes bad, John realizes with disturbing foreboding.  Because Dorian will assume that “yes” means literally, yes, John loves every single thing about him.  But “no” means he doesn’t, and Dorian’s a machine.  He can physically and permanently change himself if he thinks it’s worth it.  No way does John want a custom escort bot, or whatever the hell Dorian decides will make John love him more.

“Yes,” John says, before he can think about it any more.

Dorian laughs at him.  He doesn’t know if that’s good or bad but he can’t relax until Dorian says, “That’s clearly not true, John, but I think I appreciate the lie.”

“I probably shouldn’t ask this,” John says, but now he can’t talk himself out of it.  “Do… you love everything about me?”

It sounds stupid when he says it, but Dorian treats it like a totally normal question.  “No,” he says.  “I don’t love every part of you, individually, every action and reaction and way that you behave.  But I do love all of you.  Every part of you together, the person that it makes you.  I love everything about who you are, John.”

He’s pretty sure his robot partner just outclassed him.  It keeps him from saying, you don’t even remember who I am, and, you’ve got shitty discrimination protocols if you think the parts of me make up a whole person, let alone a good one.  Not saying it is an old instinct, something that harkens back to the old days when courtesy and romance and loyalty were a part of life.

A part of his life.  Maybe it’s just him that’s lost those things, that gave up on them.  Dorian’s clearly got all of them in spades.

“You know,” John says, when Dorian seems happy to just sit there and beam at him.  “You’re not bad at this.”

Dorian doesn’t look offended, even though John thinks that came out wrong.  Very wrong.  His fleeting charm has gone back to wherever it’s been hiding for the last three years, and Dorian is just smirking at him.

“Something tells me I didn’t learn it from you,” Dorian says.

It's so true that John has to laugh, shaking his head and tapping Dorian's fingers with his own.  "No," he admits, because that's totally fair.  "We agreed that you following my example would lead to disaster."

Dorian raises his eyebrows, though he's smiling.  "Did we?" he asks.

"Well, you probably said it," John says.  "And then you ignored me when I disagreed."

“Is that a productive strategy for us?” Dorian asks.  He doesn’t seem worried about it, or cautious, and John’s surprised to realize that he feels more relaxed too.  They’re talking about what Dorian doesn’t remember and it’s okay.  It feels familiar.

It feels like they’re flirting.

So John tells him, “It’s worked so far,” and Dorian looks amused.

“You consider this to be it working?” he says.  It’s gentle and kind and it doesn’t make John’s pulse race.  “Your standards are very low, John.”

“Yeah, you said,” John tells him.  Dorian doesn’t seem bothered by the reminder of what he doesn’t know, so he adds, “A few times.”

“Then I’ll make it my goal to raise them,” Dorian says.  “Have I already said that, too?”

“No,” John says slowly.  “I think that’s… that’s probably on me, right?  To raise the standards?”  He’s pretty sure he owes Dorian more than Dorian could ever owe him.

“Mine, or yours?” Dorian asks.  He seems very confident when he adds, “I’ll take yours.  You take mine.  That seems like the way a relationship should work.”

John eyes him.  He doesn’t know how Dorian makes it sound so easy, but he always has, and somehow--even in the face of everything they’re staring down--it’s getting more comforting rather than less.  

“You know what?” John says.  “You’ve got yourself a deal.”

Chapter Text

They manage to leave the library without John pushing Dorian up against a soundproofed cubicle wall and kissing him, and John’s not sure whether to consider that a victory or a loss.  The study booths are more about the illusion of privacy than the reality of it.  He’s sure he and Dorian wouldn’t be the first to use them for something other than their intended purpose, but they might be the first undercover officers to get caught at it.

He does get Dorian a second t-shirt on their way back up the boardwalk.  That’s definitely a win, even if it means Dorian will use it as leverage to make him go out again this evening.  They stop for dinner before they head back to the resort, and John is strangely proud that Dorian’s black tee fits in better at the outdoor grill than his own gray crewneck.

“Why don’t you buy yourself clothes?” Dorian asks, after the second shirt but before dinner.

“I have plenty of clothes,” John tells him.  “Besides, it would ruin my image as a cranky cop with no fashion sense.”

“I don’t think anything with a vacation spot logo on it can be considered fashionable,” Dorian says.

John shakes his head, trying not to smile at the road.  “Well, that’s because you haven’t seen yourself in that shirt.”

Dorian lets it lie, but John counts the number of double takes he gets when they stop to eat.  Five.  Five people visibly give Dorian a second look, and sure, maybe it’s for his face.  But when Dorian wears John's clothes, people see the officer first and Dorian himself second.  Now they’re seeing the officer second.  

John likes it, and Dorian smiles a lot, so they’re riding a laid-back kind of feeling when they roll into their driveway at Cloud Nine.  The Condor, John thinks--then checks again when he sees the light on.  They weren’t in that much of in a hurry this morning.

Still the Condor.  He has the right driveway.

“Did you leave the light on?” John asks, idling the engine before he decides there’s nowhere else to go.  Their options are limited: investigate it themselves, call someone else to investigate, or leave town.  The second and third options put other people in danger, so he rules them out.

“No,” Dorian says.  “And neither did you.”

“Yeah,” John says with a sigh.  “That’s what I figured.”

He releases his seatbelt while Dorian says, “It seems unlikely that someone attempting to ambush us would leave such an obvious sign of their presence.”

“Maybe they’re sloppy,” John says.  “Or maybe it’s a warning, who knows.”  Neither of them are armed, though Dorian at least has some kind of protection.  John’s protection is Dorian.  “You want to split up?”

Dorian gives him exactly the look he deserves for that suggestion.  “Given that I’m the one with bullet-resistant plating, and you’re wearing--what is that, cotton?  No.  I think we should stick together.”

“Great,” John says, throwing open the door of the car.  “Guess you’ll lead me in.”

As far as Dorian’s knows now, leading his partner in consists of standing in front of him while he opens the front door.  It’s terrible procedure, but John’s not complaining.  Whoever’s inside already knows they’re back, and he’d rather see them immediately than wait for Dorian to clear the cabin.  Or not, as the case may be.

Dorian pushes his way in, and over his shoulder John sees Rudy look up from the entertainment system.

“Rudy?” Dorian says, stopping awkwardly inside the door.

“So they tell me,” Rudy says, glancing back at the table.  He’s got it projecting holographic matrices in the space beside his head, but he isn’t looking at them.  “I fixed the algorithm, by the way.  If you want to try it.”

“What are you doing here?” John asks, poking Dorian in the back to get him to move.  It works, Dorian stepping aside like they’re visiting with friends, and John misses his overprotective partner in a way he never thought was possible.

“Officially,” Rudy says, “taking the day off.  Mostly working, though; you have a decent setup here and if they’re going to kick me out of my own lab, at least I can fix Dorian, right?”

“They kicked you out of the lab?” Dorian says.  “Who?”

“What do you mean, fix Dorian?” John wants to know.  “Can you put his memories back?”

“Detective Paul,” Rudy says, looking from one of them to the other.  “And yes.  At least, I’m pretty sure.  It’s probably a ninety… six percent chance nothing will go wrong.  Which is very good, actually; it’s much better than the last time, and that was fine, so.”

“Better than last time?” John repeats, but Dorian overrides him.

“Rudy,” he says.  “Why are you here?”

“Well, it’s a funny story.”  Rudy frowns at the holographics for the first time, like he’s just noticed  them now.  “I mean, depending on your definition of funny; humor is variable and I’ve never really had the best grasp of what one person will find amusing as compared to--”

He catches Dorian’s eye and pauses.  “Uh, right.  Well.  I was still in the lab this morning, you know, working on your, um, memory issues, when Detective Paul stopped by.  Always a pleasure to see him, of course.”

“Of course,” John mutters.  He doesn’t care if they’re listening or not, he isn’t going to let that go.

Rudy does glance at him, but Dorian pointedly does not.  “He brought his MX with him,” Rudy says, “and he heavily implied that he wanted to make some sort of, uh, questionable upgrade that I shouldn’t know about.  So I should take the day off.”

John eyes him skeptically.  “What the hell does Paul know about upgrading an MX?  Legally or otherwise?”

“Well, he did take a class,” Rudy says.  “A couple of classes, actually, in field MX repair.  They’re mostly advertised for detectives in hot zones, and they do include ways to circumvent the--

“You know what,” Rudy interrupts himself.  “Never mind.  The point is, I don’t think that’s why he was there.  He mentioned that precinct security was compromised last week, which is quite the understatement if you think about it.  He also said he hasn’t been able to get to the bottom of it.”

“What,” John says, “the great Detective Paul?  Can’t close a case, you say?  That’s terrible.  What are we coming to.”

“Did he want your help in solving the security leak, Rudy?”  Dorian still isn’t looking at him, but he sounds like he’s pretending not to be amused rather than hiding exasperation.

“Ah, no,” Rudy says.  “At least, I don’t think so.  I hope not, since I spent most of the day working on your net.  No, I think he was coming to warn me that I’m next.”

John glances at Dorian and finds him looking back.  See? Dorian’s expression says, plain as day.  Damn it, John thinks.  Richard beat them to it.

“Next to be compromised, that is,” Rudy says.  “I mean, someone’s obviously after you, and I don’t know how Detective Paul knew I was helping you, but I guess that’s why he’s the detective, right?  I think he wanted me to get out before they come after me, too.”

“So you came here,” Dorian says.  He doesn’t reassure Rudy that he’s right, that they thought the same thing, and John thinks it’s strange that Dorian doesn’t remember trusting Rudy.  Why wouldn’t he save that?

It comes to him all at once, because he wasn’t thinking about it, maybe.  Because his mind was working on it while he tried not to know.  Dorian doesn’t remember what happened to the first DRN he saved, or how he became best friends with a CT contractor, because it isn’t about the things that were worth knowing.  It’s about the things he had to hide.

“Well, you said you were ‘undercover’ as yourselves.”  Rudy looks awkward, but only in the way that he always looks awkward.  He isn’t actually worried, and he either doesn’t notice Dorian’s coolness towards him or he’s taking it in stride.  “You’re most of what I’m working on right now, and you’re far enough from the precinct that I should be able to see them coming.  If they come.”

Then he adds, “Besides, who doesn’t want to see Cloud Nine?  Nationally acclaimed chain and all that.  There are worse places to hide, let me tell you.”

“Did you break into our cabin?” John asks.  He didn’t expect high-level security, but he thought they’d have something.  They supposedly have celebrity guests, right?

“Yes, well.”  Rudy clearly takes that for granted.  “I needed a place to work, and you weren’t here, so I let myself in.  I did check their reservation system, but they’re fully booked until Thursday.”

“And you’ve been trying to fix Dorian’s… memories, on--what?”  John frowns at the entertainment console.  “The cabin TV?”

“Well, it’s no quantum supercomputer,” Rudy says.  “But I brought a couple of neural nets, so I have one helping with the load while the other tests the algorithm.  Over and over again, of course, almost constantly since I got close.  It’s still going now, searching for anomalies, but I’m pretty confident.”

John transfers his frown to Rudy.  “How confident?”

“Ninety-six percent,” Dorian says.  “And this will preserve the memories I have now, maintaining the same access I have now, in addition to restoring the ones I lost?”

“Yes,” Rudy says.  “Absolutely.  Well, quite probably.  Very, very probably,” he adds, when Dorian looks at him.

Dorian may not remember Rudy, but it looks like Rudy’s word is good enough for him, and that makes John nervous.  Sure, he probably weighed every risk and benefit just now, in the time it took John to blink, but it still seems like there should be more questions.  Rudy isn’t always right.

“What happens if it doesn’t work?” John says.  “Does he just… not remember, or does it--you know.  Mess up his head more?”

“Um, the worst case scenario is probably--”  Rudy looks from him to Dorian and cuts off.  “Not worth talking about,” he says instead.  “Because the probability of it happening is low, lower than low, really, like… a lightning strike hitting a meteor.”

It’s not a great analogy.  At least, he hopes it isn’t.  “Lightning strikes happen all the time,” John reminds him.

“It’s highly unlikely that lightning could strike a meteor,” Dorian says, “as the definition of meteor is something that doesn’t make it through the atmosphere.  Maybe you mean a meteorite.”

“Let’s just focus on the highly unlikely part,” Rudy says.  “All right?  Dorian, yours is the one on the right.  Be my guest.”

Dorian glances at the two innocent-looking cubes tucked up against the game console.  They’re small and oddly pretty, John thinks, covered with a tracery of ever-changing blue.  It’s a little weird to think that everything Dorian used to know is stored on one of them, but at least Rudy used a dedicated backup this time instead of a repurposed android part.

John doesn’t like disembodied heads talking to him, no matter what they have to say.

“Sorry,” Rudy’s saying.  “My right.  Your left.  Do you… remember how to use a backup net?”

“What are the chances I’ll forget what happened today?” Dorian asks.  His tone is calm and measured, but he’s hesitating.  “Or yesterday?  The memories I made since the other ones were lost.”

“Vanishingly small,” Rudy says.  “Infinitesimal.  I mean, not zero, I won’t lie, but so small that statistically, they might as well be zero.  There’s no overlap between your new memories and the ones that are being restored.  The danger isn’t to them.  It’s to the ones you didn’t back up last time, the ones that have to integrate with what’s been lost.”

“I don’t want to lose those either,” Dorian says evenly.

“Well, no, no one wants to lose their memory,” Rudy says.  “If you want, we could try to back up the hidden files, but it’s, uh, problematic.  You hid them for a reason, and you were very thorough about it.  I’m not sure I can copy them without taking your entire net with them.”

When John looks at him, he adds, “Which isn’t possible, of course, unless we had another DRN that was willing to host them, and even then--”

“It’s not gonna happen,” John interrupts.  “Right?  That’s what you’re saying: the recovery process is pretty reliable?”

“Right, yes,” Rudy says quickly.  “Very reliable.  You can access the tests yourself.  The one on the right, it’s been running practically since I got here.  Your right,” he adds, when Dorian crouches down next to the cubes.  “Yes, go ahead.  Check my work.  Always happy to help, you know, if I can.”

John doesn’t want to look away from Dorian, especially as he reaches for the cube, but he has to ask.  “Rudy, did you sleep last night?”

“Sure, yes, of course,” Rudy says.  “Well, not this morning.  I mean, not since I saw you, yesterday.  But Sunday night, certainly.”

“You’ve been awake since yesterday morning,” John says, watching blue light flicker over Dorian’s fingers and at his temple.

“I’ll have you know I do my best work sleep-deprived and caffeinated,” Rudy says.  “It’s sort of my default state.  I function very well this way.”

“Uh-huh,” John says.  He’s waiting for the verdict when Dorian lifts his head and nods.  “It’s okay?”

“It’s as reliable an algorithm as Rudy can test,” Dorian says.  “It functions very well in a wide variety of restoration scenarios.”

John can hear the “but” behind those words.  He waits, but it doesn’t come, and he knows Dorian’s going to do it anyway.  It’s the best choice, the only logical one he can make and  literally the answer to his questions.  That doesn’t mean it’s an easy risk to take.

“Last time,” John says, and how messed up is it that they’ve been here before?  And how much worse is it that Dorian doesn’t even remember that?  For all he knows, he’s stuck in an endless loop of memory wipes and reprogramming.

John tries to remember that Dorian trusts him, that it makes this easier, but he honestly isn’t sure it does.  He trusted Sandra, when he woke up.  When he didn’t remember anything about what happened he remembered her, and he trusted what she told him.  But she didn’t know what happened any more than he did, so they were stuck.

Aren’t we all just the blind leading the blind, John thinks.

“John,” Dorian says gently.

“Last time,” John repeats.  “They wiped your memory after you and McInnis broke up, right?  Rudy got it back for you, and you asked if restoring it would mess up any of the--uh, our cases.”  He doesn’t look at Rudy and goes for broke.  “Our memories,” he says.  “You didn’t want to forget… us, I guess.”

Dorian doesn’t even make fun of him for the I guess.  “And did I?” he asks.

“No,” John says.  “But beforehand…”  It sounds stupid and corny, but hell if that isn’t how everything starts with Dorian.  And it never ends up being either.  “We agreed that if you lost anything, we’d just make more,” John mutters.  “Okay?  So.  We will.  This time, I mean.  If we have to.”

“Okay,” Dorian says with a smile.  It's hard to know whether it helps or not when he adds,  “I trust you.”

“Well, you shouldn’t,” John tells him, because he can’t stand it anymore.  “I’m going to make fun of you for this until the end of time.  Just you wait.”

"Certainly," Dorian agrees, unfazed as usual.  "I'm sure you haven't done anything even remotely embarrassing over the last two days."

"Bold move," John tells him.  "Very confident.  I like that."

"Your approval is important to me," Dorian replies, and John is impressed.  It took less than two days for him to relearn sass.

A morbid part of his mind points out that Dorian’s attitude is probably why they kept testing him.  John’s been doing some research, and the Luger test is designed to detect anomalies more than anything.  As far as he’s concerned, that explains why the MXs pass: they all have attitude, and they’re not shy about sharing it.  Most of the DRNs were probably nice enough to hide it.

“Hey,” he says, before he can think about it anymore.  He catches Dorian’s hand just before he reaches for the second neural net.  “While I’m embarrassing myself, c’mere.”

Dorian stands up smoothly, and John doesn’t let go of his hand.  He puts his other hand on Dorian’s chin, very conscious that Dorian wouldn’t know what to expect from this even if he had his memories.  “Don’t move,” John murmurs.

He leans in and kisses Dorian on the cheek.  “Good luck,” he says quietly.

Dorian lifts his free hand to cover John’s, tugging it down so they’re just standing there, hands clasped between them.  “Thank you,” Dorian says.  “For the last two days.”

He doesn’t say anything else, but John gets it.  He doesn’t know what to say, but he gets it.  He’s touched, which he’d rather not admit, and relieved, because pretty much anything else Dorian could have thanked him for would be insulting.

“Yeah,” John says at last.  “Well.  I’m not going anywhere.”

Dorian smiles, and a line of blue flickers under his skin, tracing corners and loops from his temple to his jaw.  “See you in a minute,” he says.

It’s only getting harder, so John lets him go.  He watches Dorian nod to Rudy, which is maybe their own kind of thanks--he trusts Rudy enough to do this, that has to mean something--before he reaches down to pick up the cube.  It sits in his hand easily, like it weighs nothing and maybe it does, Dorian holding it while the lines on the cube race and the circuits under his skin light up.

John wonders if dedicated storage is faster or slower than the stuff Rudy jerry rigs at the lab.  Maybe he jerry rigged this, who knows.  Just because it looks normal doesn't mean he didn't mess with it.  What does John know about neural reintegration, anyway?  His own brain is terrible at it.

It took Dorian days to remember everything the first time, John reminds himself.  But he knew right away that he would remember.  He looked up at John and he said--

"I remember," Dorian tells him.

John doesn’t move.  So he remembers.  He could remember anything.  He wouldn’t know.  He didn’t know yesterday.

Dorian is smirking at him.  “You held my hand in the middle of a public street.”

“It was a sidewalk,” John says automatically, “and no I didn’t.”

“Yes,” Dorian says, his smile widening.  “You did.  John, that's so sweet of you.  It’s almost like you have a heart.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” John says, but he can feel himself smiling and that probably doesn’t help his case.  “There must have been a, uh, bug in that algorithm, or whatever.  Rudy, you should check that out.”

“Um.”  Rudy stops chewing on his thumbnail and looks from one of them to the other.  “Did you--?”

“No,” John says.

“Yes,” Dorian says.  “John is only kidding.  It’s probably because he wants to make sure you don’t believe me when I tell you how charming he is when he thinks no one’s looking.”

“You need to stop talking,” John tells him.  “Getting your memories back clearly didn’t do anything for your personality.”

“So far it’s made you less demonstrative,” Dorian says.  “Maybe I should reconsider.”

John was waiting for a joke.  It is a joke--it better be--but it’s so far from what he expected that it takes him a second to catch up.  “Wait, I kissed you in front of Rudy,” he says.  “What else do you want?”

“That was when I didn’t remember,” Dorian says.  “Did you like me better then, John?”

“Oh, for crying out loud,” John complains.  He puts out a hand without thinking, reaching out to push him, or hit him, and when Dorian catches it instead John pulls.

Which is strange, because they don’t--it’s still new, and Dorian’s never done this before.  They don’t fit together naturally, even after being partners for months.  Not like this.  When John reaches out to sling his other arm over Dorian’s shoulders, Dorian ducks under it and drops his hand and John feels arms around his waist.

Dorian is hugging him.  John wraps his other arm around him and puts his head down, tugging Dorian close and leaning into him.  It’s strange how familiar it feels, like he and Dorian go to hug each other all the time.  Every day.  Whether someone’s watching or not, because hugging is a thing they can do.

We’re allowed this, John thinks.  And then, Dorian’s allowed this, which is more upsetting and probably more accurate.  He closes his eyes, resting his head against Dorian’s for a long moment.

“Okay, yes,” Rudy says.  “Well.  I don’t know that that’s conclusive, but I suppose if you’re happy with it, that was the goal.”

John stiffens, but Dorian doesn’t let him go.  “Thank you, Rudy,” he says, without lifting his head.  “We appreciate your assistance tremendously.  Can we take you out for a drink later?”

That doesn’t sound right to John, and not just because he doesn’t want to be seen anywhere with Rudy.  He gets it when Dorian adds, “It would have to be much later tonight, or possibly tomorrow night.  John and I will be going out to do some more work in a few minutes.”

Oh they will, will they.  He thinks Dorian underestimates John's commitment to not swimming naked in a lake with strangers.  At the same time, he probably underestimates Dorian’s stubbornness.  That’s nothing new, and he hasn’t learned from his own mistakes yet.

“Yes, well, I have a lot of work to do,” Rudy says.  “Tomorrow will be fine.  Although, would you mind--if you could just confirm that you do, truly, remember things from before yesterday.  That would be excellent.”

“You shouldn’t be doing any work,” John says.  He opens his eyes, and he considers moving his head enough that he can see Rudy, but there are two problems.  One, Dorian might take the gesture as a sign to let go, and John’s not ready for that yet.  Two, he doesn’t actually want to see Rudy more than Dorian right now.

“You should get some sleep,” Dorian agrees, when John doesn’t finish.  “You can stay here while we go out.  We’ll be back in a few hours, but I think the couch folds out.  You should probably stay with us overnight anyway.”

John doesn’t think the couches folds out.  He does think it’s magical, though, so who knows.  He wonders if it’s self-cleaning, too.  If Dorian’s not going to tell Rudy they were fooling around on it yesterday, John certainly isn’t.  

“You’re really not helping my diagnostics, here,” Rudy says.

Dorian shifts slightly against John but doesn’t step back.  He doesn’t even lift his head as he says, “I came online seven years ago and was partnered with Detective Islay McInnis.  You and I bonded over pop music and data smuggling, as well as my ongoing inability to make a decent breakfast.  My partner and I were caught smuggling more than data and I was shut down.”

John tightens his grip without thinking, and it’s an accident, it’s embarrassing, but Dorian squeezes him back.  Not hard enough to take his breath away, but enough that he can feel it.  Dorian obviously remembers just how much John’s body--and to be fair, his mind--can take.

“John woke me up four years later,” Dorian continues, “reportedly on the orders of Captain Sandra Madonado.  You were there as well, and you defended me to John when he called me crazy.  John and I have been partners ever since, despite initial reluctance on both our parts and the current lack of DRN support in law enforcement.  We avoided undue attention until recently, when the IRC took an interest in us and the department tried to cut its losses by issuing a kill order.”

“That’s a… remarkably appropriate summary,” Rudy says.  “And almost nothing you couldn’t have gotten from John.”

John lifts his head at last, turning to frown at Rudy.  “Hey, back off,” he says.  “He has to prove his memory now?”

“I didn’t bring any calibration equipment with me,” Rudy says.  “So unless you want to turn him loose on the general network and hope for the best, yes, he should probably answer some questions first.”

“John, it’s fine,” Dorian says, straightening up and letting go of him with what John would like to think is reluctance.  Not that he wants Dorian hanging on him.  He doesn’t even want them holding onto each other at all.

Except that’s a lie, isn’t it.  Of course he wants to hold onto Dorian.  All he does is hold on; it’s practically the sum total of his personality.  At least this time he fell for someone worth holding onto.

“What do you want to know?” Dorian is asking Rudy.  “And why do you think all networks are dangerous?  It was the secure precinct network that burned me, and even that didn’t recognize me until I connected directly on a hard line.  I was on through John’s account for almost an hour before that.”

“Really--”  Rudy stops, then starts again.  “Wait, you connected to the precinct network before I saw you?”

“Yes,” Dorian says.  “I was locked out, so John offered his access.  The authorization wasn’t mine, but the precinct network registered my ID code without reacting.”

“Jesus,” John mutters, running his hand over his face.  He’s right.  It isn’t Dorian’s ID code that was flagged.  Not unless there was someone online, waiting for him to plug in, and they happened to be watching at the exact moment Rudy ran his initial diagnostic.

“So it was your net,” Rudy says.  “The physical connection, but that makes sense if it wasn’t supposed to look deliberate.  They wanted it to simulate the neural feedback loop that knocks out stolen synthetics.”

“Which only kicks in if I try to access something I’m not supposed to,” Dorian says.  “John’s authorization protected me.”

“Initially,” Rudy agrees.  “Yes, it must have.  Have you been on unsecured networks since then?”

“No,” Dorian says.  “Just John’s home network and the one at the library.”

“The one at the library?”  Rudy frowns.  “That’s not quite the best security money can buy, but I suppose it would mask your ID code as a matter of routine privacy.  It wouldn’t stop someone who knew where to look.”

“So the question is,” Dorian says, “who’s looking?”

Rudy looks from him to John and back again.  “Detective Paul seems to have some idea what he’s doing, not that he doesn’t usually, but you haven’t--uh, have you heard from him?  I was under the impression he'd been… let in on the secret?”

“We haven’t heard from him today,” Dorian says.

“Sandra’s been in touch,” John says.  “He was with her last time she called, but that was yesterday, and she told us to wait for her to call back.”

“She hasn’t,” Dorian adds.

“Yet,” John says.

“I see,” Rudy says, and John suddenly wonders if that’s where Dorian got it from.  But he couldn’t have, right?  Dorian didn’t even remember Rudy.  Maybe it’s the other way around.  Rudy started saying it because Dorian did.

“We can’t call her,” John says.  “She seemed pretty concerned that the call could be intercepted, and I don’t want to talk to anyone I’m not sure of right now.”

“So, no one outside of this room,” Dorian says.  It’s not quite unreasonable enough to be a joke.

“Hey,” John tells him.  “This room’s working great for me so far.”

It gets a smile, at least.  

Then Rudy says, “I can set up a secure comm, keep a call from being intercepted.  You can’t fake voices, remember.  Unless someone has recorded her response to every possible question you could ask, I’ll be able to tell if someone other than her answers.”

“What if she’s under duress?” Dorian asks.

“What, you think the captain’s being held hostage?  No, don’t answer that,” Rudy says quickly.  “I think I’d rather not know.  The stress would show in her voice, anyway; I can set up some rudimentary analytics.  It probably won’t screen out pod people, or clones, but I doubt there was time to grow a whole--”

“Don’t joke about clones,” John interrupts.

“You’re just upset you didn’t get there first,” Dorian tells him.  “You would have done a clone joke if you’d thought of it.  Admit it.”

“Nope.”  John folds his arms.  “I’m full up on people I can’t tell apart, thanks.”

“Would you like me to wear a bell?” Dorian asks.

It takes John a second to get it, mostly because that doesn’t make any sense.  “Like I’d ever not recognize you,” he says, rolling his eyes.  “I have your circuits drawn on my skin.”

He probably shouldn’t have said that in front of Rudy.  It’s not even true anymore; the paint washed off in the shower and he won’t miss being disoriented by it in the dark.  But he saved the picture Dorian sent him and ran a comparison against Dorian’s own circuit distribution: it’s close enough that he practiced the pattern with his fingers a few times.

“Dorian’s basic circuit distribution is actually common to all DRNs,” Rudy offers.  He sounds absent, suddenly, and that has to be on purpose.  “His is probably more unique than usual, due solely to the number of repairs he’s had.”

John doesn’t look at him.  “I still recognize you,” he tells Dorian.

Dorian smiles at him.  “Thank you, John.  I’m sure I could tell you from your clones just by the awkward way you declare your affection.”

“Sure,” John says, rolling his eyes.  “You’re welcome.”

There’s a knock on the door.  John glances that way instinctively, then back at Dorian when he realizes what it means.  Dorian just raises his eyebrows.  Rudy is frowning, but not at them.  “They’ve been doing that all day,” he says.  “I turned on the do-not-disturb light when I arrived, but it doesn’t seem to have made much of an impression.”

When he sees John’s expression he adds quickly, “Don’t worry, I didn’t answer the door or anything.”

“The light next to the front door means you’re looking for company,” Dorian says.

Rudy blinks.  “Oh,” he says, and then, “Oh!  I see.  Well, I guess I got that one a bit backwards.”

There’s a second knock, and John gives Dorian a warning look.  “Sandra first,” he says.

Dorin agrees immediately, looking very pleased.  John thinks he could at least pretend to be surprised.  If they’re lucky, the call to Sandra will take all night and John will never have to get near the water, let alone take off his clothes.

If they’re unlucky… well.  

He has Dorian back.  That makes the rest of it seem kind of trivial, all things considered.

Chapter Text

John has to answer the door, because Rudy and Dorian are the only ones who know how to rig the call to Sandra.  He feels weird as soon as he turns away from Dorian, and it takes him a minute to recognize the feeling: fear.  Anxiety, nerves that don’t turn to panic but make him uncomfortable nonetheless.  

It’s creepy in the way that anything he expects to feel in a firefight is when it happens in a civilian situation.  It’s disturbing, because he expects the walls to start closing in and they don’t, he’s fine, he can breathe.  But he looks over his shoulder at Dorian anyway, and it makes him feel better.

Damn it.  He’s afraid to let his stupid robot partner out of his sight.  The guy who’s stronger and faster than he is and practically indestructible on top of it, and John doesn’t want to look away in case Dorian isn’t there when he looks back.

He makes himself open the door, and it’s not an MX on the other side.  It’s not the department, come to shut Dorian down, or the government tracing his network hacks and declaring him a public menace, or even Peres, here to claim her property.  Which, Jesus, who knew his brain had come up with so many ways he could lose Dorian?

“Hello,” says the woman on the other side of the door.  “I’m Aoife.”  She’s wearing jeans and a hoodie, but he isn’t surprised when she adds, “I’m with the Activities Department here at Cloud Nine.”

“Hi Aoife,” John says.  Not because she pauses, but because he remembers Tempest and he’s pretty sure she could run through her entire spiel before he gets a word in if he doesn’t interrupt her.  “I’m John.”

“It’s nice to meet you,” she says, with a polite smile.  “Are you enjoying your stay here?”

“Well, it wasn’t my idea to come,” he tells her.  He thinks it’s the understatement of the year.  “But I have to say, it’s not as bad as I expected.”  Maybe a slight overstatement.  It’s been mostly awful, but that’s not the resort’s fault.

“So it could be worse?” she repeats.  “We’ll take that.  Let us know if there’s anything we can do to make it better than ‘not so bad.’”

“Sure,” he says.  He wonders if she could tell him anything about the lost security bot, or the potential for any of the bots to be sold, or the resort’s view of artificial intelligence in general.  He figures if she can, asking will trip some flag somewhere, and if she can’t, he’s wasting his time anyway.

“Oh,” she adds, like she’s just remembered.  “There’s an adults-only swim at the lake tonight, about nine if you’re interested.  It’s clothing-optional, but it’ll be on our private beach, and we have security bots to keep out trespassers.  You and Dorian are welcome to join us.”

She knows exactly who they are.  The introductions are just a pleasantry, like the planned spontaneity of the evening activities.  John can’t resist asking, “So how far in advance do you plan these spur-of-the-moment invitations?”

He gets another small smile for that.  “Usually a week or two, but we have a rotation that we vary depending on the weather and how long guests stay.”

How long guests stay.  They reschedule if someone’s been here long enough to have done the activity already, he guesses.  “That’s very… recreational of you,” he says, and he tries to make it sound complimentary but it probably comes out sounding sarcastic.

“That’s what we do,” she agrees.  He thinks her delivery is at least as ambiguous as his, so maybe they’re even.  “Would you like someone to stop by in an hour?  There’ll be a group going, and we do ask that clothes be worn on the way.”

“Yeah, no,” John says.  He doesn’t know whether to nod or shake his head--which question is he answering now?  “That’s--that’s not a problem, trust me.”

She’s still waiting, and he realizes he missed one.  “No,” he says again.  “We’re fine, thanks.”

“All right.”  Aoife nods at him.  “Have a nice evening, John.”

“Right, thanks.”  He only just remembers to add, “You too,” before she turns away.

He’d like to think he’s not really this bad at interacting with the general public.  He does wait until she’s far enough down the walk that turning off the light by the door isn’t obvious.  He could be messed up over any number of things.  Maybe he doesn’t know how to talk to people at kink resorts.  Maybe he doesn’t know how to be a guest at a kink resort.

When he turns around and sees Rudy and Dorian sitting side-by-side on the couch, heads together over the entertainment console, something in his chest clenches and he thinks maybe he just doesn’t know how to be in love anymore.

It’s not the first time he’s wondered if he’s broken for falling for an android.  Normal people don’t do that, right?  It’s starting to look like he isn’t the only one, but it’s just as likely that there’s plenty of broken people out there.  Androids are at least programmed not to hurt them.

Except that’s bullshit, and John knows it.  He’s seen Dorian take people apart.  Dorian can kill someone as quickly and easily as he insults them.  He’s nice, sure.  But he isn’t nice to everyone, and it’s pretty clear he doesn’t have any programming that tells him how to fake a romantic or even sexual attraction.  To anyone, let alone someone like John.

“We’re all set here,” Dorian says, looking up from the couch.  “You all right?”

“Yeah,” John says automatically.  So he doesn’t love Dorian because he’s safe.  It’s still weird that he loves him at all, right?

“We can make sure the call goes to Sandra,” Rudy says, “and I can make sure it’s Sandra who answers, but I can’t tell if anyone’s listening to the call.  So you should probably be the one who makes it; less suspicious that way.”

“So?” John drags the chair away from the wall so he doesn’t have to sit on the couch with them.  “Dorian can fake my ID.”

“Well, I did suggest that,” Rudy admits.

“You’re right here,” Dorian says.  “You need to talk to her as much as we do.”

And that, John thinks, is why Dorian is a better person than either of them.  It can’t be more messed up to love him than it is for someone to love, say, John.  He shakes his head, dropping into the chair.  “All right,” he says.  “Let’s do it.”

“You’ll need to connect your phone to the resort network to make the call,” Rudy says.  “May I?”

John turns over his phone, and it takes Rudy seconds to do whatever he needs to do to it.  Including bypassing John’s password, which John tries not to think about.  Rudy catches his expression when he hands it back and says, “What?”

John shakes his head again, but he doesn’t bother to answer.  “Sandra,” he tells his phone.

There’s a brief pause, but she picks up.  Or someone that sounds like her does, so he looks at Rudy when he hears her say, “John.  Where are you?”

Rudy holds up one finger, then circles it, so John says, “Right where you left me.  Can you talk?”

“Now’s not a good time,” she says.  “We’re experiencing some technical difficulties here at the precinct--”

Rudy flashes him a thumbs up, and John nods.  He’s sure it’s Sandra they’re talking to, then.  John wonders if she’s as sure about him.

“We had to take most of the MXs offline,” she’s saying, and he looks at Dorian.

Dorian’s expression is completely neutral.  Like he has no idea how he’s supposed to look right now, John thinks.  But that’s fair.  John has no idea what that means either.

“Sounds like a bad day,” John says carefully.

“The worst,” Sandra agrees.  “We’ve been able to move some of night shift to cover daytime patrols, but you can imagine the tradeoff.  I’ll call you back when I get off, all right?”

The night shift?  John frowns at Dorian, who shakes his head once in return.  “Sure,” John says aloud.  “Let me know if there’s anything I can do.”

“Stay put,” Sandra says.  “I don’t want these tech issues to affect you, too.”

John blinks.  “Is that likely?”  Their first case together, Dorian stayed running while the MXs went down.  John’s learned to expect that Dorian won’t react to anything that affects police synthetics.

“I have to go,” Sandra says.  “I’ll call you later.”

Rudy stays hunched over the console when the call disconnects.  “That was her,” he says.  “She sounded stressed but not--I mean, it was a normal amount of stress.  I don’t think she’s in trouble.”

“More than you’d expect from losing half your force?” John says.

“Right, of course.”  Rudy’s frowning at the entertainment system like he can see through it back to the precinct.  Maybe he can.  Who knows how far that hack goes, or if John’s even supposed to know about it.

“It isn’t half the force if some of the MXs are functional,” Dorian says.  “She’s moving the night shift around.”

Yeah, John wondered about that too.  “You think she’s moving night shift partnerships?” he asks.  “Teams, instead of just human detectives?”

“That was my assumption,” Dorian says.  Without pausing, he adds, “Now that you question it, I realize she didn’t say that specifically.”

“No, if it’s more than one MX, it’s all the MXs,” Rudy says absently.  “There’s nothing different about the night shift bots.”

John is careful not to look at Dorian, and only afterwards does he remember that Sandra and Dorian have both called him on that.  Apparently not looking at Dorian is one of his tells, because Rudy looks up and frowns at him.  “Unless there is?”

John shrugs.  “I don’t know what she meant,” he says honestly.  “But it has to be something that went wrong today, right?  After you left?  You think Richard knew about it when he brought his MX to the lab?”

“No,” Rudy says, then immediately backtracks.  “Well, not that he said.  But he wouldn’t, would he, it’s not like he and I are intimate confidants.  I mean… not exactly.”

“There’s news,” Dorian says suddenly.  “I’m off-network, so I didn’t get the alert.  The LAPD is short-staffed due to power fluctuations that have limited their MX patrols.  The city is under curfew as a result.”

“Wait, what?”  Rudy is doing something to the entertainment console, and it turns back into a newsfeed while he works on it.  Four separate reports come up, each in their own corner, and he doesn’t look at any of them.  “They’re calling it a brown-out induced by an overloaded grid.  No word on what caused the overload, and no current restrictions on power use.  Just an inability to fully charge the precinct’s MX units.”

“No human detectives on the street without MX partners,” Dorian says.  His eyes are steady on one corner of the screen, but John’s pretty sure he’s following all of them at once.  “The curfew is intended to make it easier for drones and city cameras.”

“That doesn’t sound right,” John says.  “Sandra said technical difficulties.  If it was a power outage, why wouldn’t she say that?  There’s nothing compromising about that.”

“No,” Dorian agrees.  “It’s technical difficulties that are potentially dangerous.  It seems more likely that the power outage is the cover story.”

“Why couldn’t she tell us that from inside the precinct?” John wants to know.  “You think they have press in there?”

“That would be unusual,” Dorian says.  “She may have responded to your caution with her own, or she may not have been as confident as we are that no one was eavesdropping on the call.  I’m concerned that she’ll try to call us back while we’re out.  Do you mind if I have your phone alert me to incoming calls?”

John raises his eyebrows.  “Don’t you do that already?”

“Yes,” Dorian admits.  “But that’s mostly when we’re working.  When you’re off-duty, it seems appropriate to ask.”

John doesn’t know which part of that he should be most offended by.  Dorian can take his calls without asking when they’re working?  Dorian thinks they’re not working now?  Since when does Dorian think he has to ask in the first place?

What actually comes out of his mouth is, “We’re both off-duty.  Not just me.”

“All right,” Dorian agrees easily.  “May I check your phone when we’re both off-duty?”

“Can’t stop you,” John says.  “Knock yourself out.”

“You know,” Dorian tells him, “with some people, I’d hear that as a passive-aggressive way of avoiding responsibility.  But with you, I think it’s actually an insecure way of saying, yes please.”

John rolls his eyes.  “Why do I even go to therapy,” he mutters.

“It’s cheaper than I am,” Dorian says.

It forces a laugh out of John, and he wonders if he should feel bad about that.  He gives Dorian a sideways look, ignoring Rudy’s considering expression.  “That was a joke, right?”

Dorian smiles at him, looking oddly pleased.  “Yes,” he says.

“You know,” Rudy says.  John looks at him, and he adds quickly, “Never mind.”

"We have more work to do," Dorian says, and it’s funny, but the more John realizes how little concept Dorian has of being off-duty, the less comfortable he is with Dorian using the excuse of work to cover.  "Rudy, have you had anything to eat this evening?"

When Rudy looks puzzled, Dorian amends, "Have you had anything to eat today?"

"Ah, yes," Rudy says.  "Definitely.  I definitely recall eating supper this morning, and I stopped for lunch on my way here.  So the answer to your question is unmistakably yes."

"You should order more food," Dorian tells him.  "Or help yourself to anything in the kitchen.  We'll be back in a couple of hours."

"Do you need help?" Rudy wants to know.  He sounds eager, and John wonders why he's been holed up in here all day if he finished Dorian's memory algorithm before they got back.  "I could probably be of use, you know, scouting the location or--or whatever you need, really."

"I think you need to register with the front desk before you have free run of the place," Dorian says.  "When you checked for vacant cabins, did you tell them you're our guest?"

He's a police contractor, John thinks.  He can go wherever he wants.  But that's probably why Dorian's good with civilians and he isn't.

"Not exactly," Rudy says.  "I didn't actually check in, per se."

"You broke into their network and looked at the accommodations," Dorian says.

Rudy makes a face that says, wouldn't you?

It's a sympathetic audience, John thinks.  Dorian would.  Dorian has.

“You should come with us,” Dorian says, and John raises an eyebrow.  Dorian catches his eye like he can hear it and adds, “To check in.  We’ll tell them you’re our friend, and ask if they mind letting you look around some of the public spaces.  We can order you some food while we’re at it.”

“Ooh, Japanese,” Rudy says.  “Is there any good hibachi around here?  Or Thai, Thai would be fine.”

“I’m ordering hibachi for you right now,” Dorian.  “Your usual vegetable preferences?”

“Yes,” Rudy says, then, “No, wait, no peppers.  I’m not eating anything yellow right now.  Personal reasons.”

Dorian doesn’t bat an eye, which John would think is weird except that Rudy and Dorian share clothes, right?  Dorian’s made him breakfast before.  He knows what Rudy eats.  “If the peppers aren’t yellow, are they all right?” Dorian asks.

“Yes, of course,” Rudy says.  Like anyone would know that.

“Done,” Dorian says.  “Let’s go to the Nest, and then I’ll show you around a little.  John, would you rather stay here?”

John would much rather stay here.  For the rest of the night, if possible.  But he’s pretty sure if he does that, Dorian will just go alone, and that would be worse.

“Yeah,” he says.  He’ll take what he can get.  “Come get me when you’re ready.”  He doesn’t say for what, but at least he doesn’t say for work, so maybe he’s making progress.

“The Nest,” Rudy says.  “That’s the main building, right?  I did some studying on the way here.  Did you know that all the buildings are named for birds because birds fly above the clouds?  I guess it’s more romantic than drones or hovercraft.”

“That’s a pervasive idea,” Dorian agrees.  “Things with a biological origin are more valued or real than things that are artificial.”

John stops in the act of getting up, but Rudy is shutting down the newsfeed and probably deleting all evidence of his presence as he goes.  “I think that goes back to the desire for god,” he says, without missing a beat.  “There’s a sense that humans are imperfect, and so we want some reassurance that someone better than us is making the decisions.  Since we didn’t create ourselves, but we did create artificial intelligence, we assume our own creation is flawed somehow.  Or at least less worthy.”

“But if humans were created by a perfect being,” Dorian says, “which I don’t see any evidence of, then shouldn’t they be as perfect as their creator wanted them to be?  Shouldn’t everything humans make be what their creator wanted them to make?  And if they trust their creator’s decisions above their own, then why would AI be any less worthy than humanity?”

“Well, you doubt yourself, don’t you?” Rudy asks.  He’s putting on his coat, which looks a little strange next to Dorian’s t-shirt, but John’s still wearing long sleeves.  They’re too used to the cold city air.  “Even though you think your creator made you the way you are on purpose.”

“But my creator was human,” Dorian says.  “I don’t believe that makes him intrinsically better than I am, or in possession of more sound judgment.”

“Yes, well, having met your creator, I’m inclined to agree,” Rudy says.  He’s holding the door for Dorian without even thinking about it, and he nods to John when Dorian pauses to look back at him.

“We’ll be back soon,” Dorian says.  “Would you like me to bring you anything?”

It’s probably just Dorian’s overly precise way of asking if he wants anything.  Dorian’s going out; he can get something if John wants it.  But it sounds like--

“No,” John says roughly.  “I’m fine.”  Only after Dorian nods and Rudy closes the door behind them does he think to mutter, “Thanks.”

It sounds like Dorian’s a servant.  A slave.  A bot designed to protect him on the job, and now that Dorian’s moved in with him he’s extrapolating from that protocol to help John however else he can.

The only thing that reassures John is the thought that Dorian would laugh at him if he ever suggested that.  It’s just that sometimes he wonders if Dorian laughs because he knows John needs him to.  “You don’t know how to not own someone, John.”  Does Dorian know how to not be owned?

John pushes himself out of the chair and goes over to the couch.  He might as well watch the news on a reasonably-sized holographic display instead of on his phone.  And the couch is probably safe.  Rudy sat on it all this time without saying anything.

Not that Rudy’s standards are anything to strive for, especially if he’s been awake since yesterday morning.  But John didn’t miss his pretended inattention when he and Dorian were talking about the night shift.  He’ll have to ask Dorian about that.  The department’s main MX contractor can’t really not know, can he?  Rudy’s sharper than John gives him credit for.

He watches the news to drown out the noise in his head, and it’s at least a little bit successful.  It keeps him from thinking about what else he could be doing on this couch, anyway.  It doesn’t keep him from worrying about Dorian.  He should have gone with them.  This mess in the city is bad--John can’t even tell what’s happening and he knows it’s bad--and Dorian only just got his police protocols back.  What if something happens while John’s sitting here on the couch, staring at a holoscreen?

He turns the sound up and wishes he had something to drink.  His goddamned partner is fine.  He’s not as fragile as John thinks he is when a single network connection can wipe everything he knows in a matter of seconds.

He’s not on the network right now, John reminds himself.  He’s fine.

Maybe he can order something to drink from here.

He tries to solve the MX mystery instead.  Because it’s weird, not because Dorian thinks he’s an alcoholic.  He doesn’t get anywhere, but he does see Sandra in a recorded statement and he thinks she looks okay.  It’s time-stamped, where he can see it even, so he knows that three and a half hours ago, she wasn’t ready to give up or running for her life.  That goes a long way on the force these days.

He can hear Dorian and Rudy on the porch before they open the door, so maybe the sound wasn’t up as high as he thought.  Maybe he was listening for them to come back.  And maybe he looks over as soon as the door opens, and something in him relaxes at the sight of Dorian and he thinks he hasn’t felt this pathetic in a long time.

“Anything happen?” Dorian asks, catching the news on in front of him.  He can clearly get it from the resort network, and there’s blue lighting up the side of his face even as he asks, but he still waits for John’s answer.

“Sandra was on a few hours ago,” he says.  “She told everyone to cooperate with officers and drones, and that her precinct is looking into alternative solutions to cover the gap.”

“That’s odd,” Rudy says, dumping his containers of food on the end of the kitchen counter.  “It seems like they’d be looking into alternative power sources or charging scenarios first.”

“Why was Sandra speaking if it’s a citywide problem?” Dorian asks.

“Have you met the other captains?” John counters.  “I wouldn’t put them on camera if the city was burning down.”

“So no new updates?” Rudy asks.  “I wonder how much power the precinct has.  There’s a lot more bots than just MXs that keep that place running.”

“Yes,” Dorian says dryly.  “You’re welcome.”

“Well, you, of course,” Rudy says.  “Hey, that’s a thought.  What happened to the field chargers?  Are they all in use?  What about the backup generators?  Those can charge a skeleton force in an emergency; that’s half what they’re designed for.”

What have they been talking about all this time, John wonders, if Rudy’s only coming back to this now?

“Sandra mentioned technical difficulties,” Dorian reminds him.  “Maybe it’s a power processing problem, not a power magnitude problem.”

“Or maybe the MXs have finally gone crazy, like all their predecessors,” Rudy says.  “Maybe police work and bots don’t mix.  Present company excepted, of course.”

“Hey,” John says.  “I thought it was rude to call them crazy.”

“It’s only rude if I care what they think,” Rudy says.

“I don’t think they’re crazy,” Dorian says.

“Okay, well, I do care what you think,” Rudy tells him.  “So, not crazy then.  Mentally incapable of handling the demands?  Systematically unsuited for this line of work?”

“That’s what they said about DRNs,” Dorian says.  “It wasn’t true of all of us, any more than it’s true of all humans.”

“You said MXs aren’t like you.”  John can’t help reminding him of this, even though he knows it’s starting to irritate Dorian.  “You said--”

Dorian cuts him off.  “I know what I said,” he snaps.

John raises his eyebrows, and Dorian takes an obvious and clearly contrived breath.  “Sorry,” he says evenly.  Very calmly.  “I’m different from an MX.  But I’m also different from you, John.  Does that make either of us unsuited for the work we do?”

“Well,” John says, and Dorian gives him a disappointed look that doesn’t fade when John says, “You could make a case for me.”

“There’s no need to put yourself down to make me feel better,” Dorian says.  “I’m a competent police officer.  So are you.  And as far as I can tell, so are many of the MXs.”

“Many of them?” Rudy repeats.  “Not all?  Uh, do you have anyone in mind?”

“No,” Dorian says, and it’s a lie.  It’s so obviously a lie that John assumes Rudy can see it, except that he looks sort of unsatisfied rather than betrayed.  “I don’t know all of the MXs, so I can’t speak for them.”

“I see,” Rudy says.  John’s pretty sure he doesn’t.  “Well.  I suppose, some of the MXs have… helped around the lab.  From time to time.”

“Do they have to help you in order to be worth keeping online?” Dorian asks.

“No,” Rudy says quickly.  Then he frowns.  “Well, it certainly helps.  I mean, literally, but also--well.  They’re online because we need them, right?  That’s why they exist.”

“Humans used to have children because they needed labor for the fields,” Dorian says.  “Now that machines grow your crops for you, have human children become obsolete?”

“No,” Rudy says, but he’s just as hesitant about that one.  “I mean, I don’t have any particular use for them, myself.”

John glances at Dorian, and sure enough, there’s a smile playing at the corners of his mouth.  “You’re saying you don’t like me because I’m more human than the MXs,” Dorian says.  “You only like me because I help around the lab.”

“Hey, no, you’re my friend,” Rudy says, sounding offended.  But then he adds, “And you help around the lab,” and John can’t help but laugh.

“What do you say we cut your losses,” John says, collapsing the newsfeed and getting to his feet.  “It’s gotta be just about time to go, anyway.”

“Right, and I’m still happy to help,” Rudy puts in.  “You help me, I help you, you know.  I’m here.  You can put me to work.”

“Eat,” Dorian tells him.  “If you’re feeling very adventurous, sleep.  We’ll be back soon.”

“It’s not work,” John blurts out, because it’s still bothering him.  “We’re going out to… you know.  Do something.”

Rudy looks more confused now than he did before.  “Do what?” he says.

“To go out,” John says.  “You know.  Together.”

“Yes, you said.”  Rudy looks from him to Dorian like this might be some kind of trick.  He must get something from Dorian because he adds, “Oh!  You mean, like, maintaining your cover!”

“No,” John says irritably, before Dorian can agree.  “I mean, we’re going out.  Me and Dorian.  On a date.”

“Oh.”  Rudy seems less surprised about this than he did about their supposed cover.  “Oh, right, of course.  That makes sense.  Why didn’t you just say so?”

“Because I don’t talk to my coworkers about my private life,” John retorts.  “Dorian was just humoring me.”

“Sure, you like to be discreet.”  Rudy mimes zipping his mouth shut.  “No problem.  I won’t say a word.”

John thinks if that were true, they wouldn’t still be standing here.  “Great,” he says anyway.  “Thanks.”

“Anytime,” Rudy promises.  “I’ll just be here, eating dinner.  Don’t you worry about me.  I won’t wait up or anything.”

“You’re staying overnight?” John asks, giving Dorian a pointed look.

“The front desk says it’s okay,” Dorian replies, which really wasn’t his biggest problem with this scenario.  “The couch folds out, and there’s an audible privacy screen in the form of a white noise generator.  I’m sure we’ll all be fine.”

“I’m sure we will,” John grumbles.

“You won’t even know I’m here,” Rudy says.  “Ooh, do you have an expense budget for this operation?  Can I bill things to your cabin?”

“No,” John says.

“If you need to,” Dorian tells him.  “Call us if you need anything, Rudy.”

“I’ll make a point not to,” Rudy says.  “Have fun on your date!  Don’t worry about me; I’ll just be here… not needing anything.”

“Sleeping,” Dorian tells him.  “Try sleeping.”

“I will take that under advisement,” Rudy agrees.

It makes Dorian smile, which isn’t exactly John’s reaction but then, Rudy’s not his friend.  “Good night, Rudy,” Dorian says.

“Good night,” Rudy replies, almost cheerfully.

John gives him a nod, but only because he catches Rudy’s eye by accident when he’s scanning the room.  It doesn’t look like they left out anything incriminating, and it’s too late if they did.  Still, it’s a habit.  Rudy waves enthusiastically in response, and John tries not to roll his eyes before he turns away.

Rudy’s worth a lot.  It doesn’t make him any easier to get along with when John’s already in uncertain territory.  He deliberately doesn’t hold the door for Dorian, even though it makes him feel like a jerk, and Dorian doesn’t say a word until they’re some distance from the door.

“John,” he says.  His hand on John’s elbow is startling, but not unwelcome, and John stops without thinking.  Dorian turns to face him in their driveway, the car between them and the cabin.  “We don’t have to do this.”

“What, host your CT buddy?” John snaps.  “Funny, I thought that was already decided.”

Dorian looks at him for a moment that feels longer than it is.  “That either,” he says at last.  “Would you like me to find somewhere else for him to stay overnight?”

John closes his eyes.  “No,” he says.  He takes a deep breath, and when he opens his eyes Dorian’s still standing there: softer than usual in the fading light, but still solid and calm.  “Sorry,” John adds, because everyone’s said it but him.  “It’s fine.  I just wasn’t expecting--any of this.”

He means, the weird jolt of loving a Dorian he barely knew and realizing he could lose him in ways he never expected, all at the same time.  He means the precinct falling apart without them, the idea that MXs might be just as alive as Dorian, the feeling that the world is going to hell and the fact that he suddenly cares won’t do a damn bit of good.  He means all of it, except the one thing Dorian immediately guesses.

“Is it hard to talk to me now?” Dorian asks.  “After two days of telling someone else your secrets?”

John stares at him.  “What?” he manages at last.

“You told me a lot of things you never shared before,” Dorian says.  He sounds more gentle than John deserves if this is going where he thinks it is.  “When I didn’t remember who you were, or who I was.  Is it hard to have me know those things now, when I also remember everything else?”

“No,” John says.  He doesn’t know what else to say.  He doesn’t know how to convey how ridiculous that seems, but he tries, because what the hell.  “Dee, that’s crazy.”  And of course he chooses exactly the wrong word, he thinks with a sigh.

“That’s ridiculous,” he tries again.  “It was you.  It was you the whole time; I never felt like I was talking to anyone else.  Just because you didn’t remember…”

He has no idea how to finish that.  The idea is so foreign he can’t even find the words.  “Everything I said to you, I said to you.  Not anyone else.  I won’t lie and say it was easy: not saying it, not having you not remember, none of it.  But it was still you.  I don’t regret any of it.”

Dorian looks at him for a long moment, but it’s a fond look, a familiar one, and John can stare back at him without flinching.  “Thank you,” Dorian says at last.  “I meant what I said.  Thank you for how you treated me.”

“It was you,” John repeats helplessly.  “How else was I supposed to treat you?”

Dorian smiles, and when he reaches out to run his thumb along the side of John’s face, John doesn’t pull away.  “You don’t have to go skinny dipping with me, you know.”

“Yeah, well.”  He’s very conscious of standing outside, in their driveway, where anyone could walk by.  He doesn’t reach up to catch Dorian’s hand, but he lets himself turn into the touch.  “You’re welcome.”

Chapter Text

It isn't exactly pitch black by nine o'clock, especially on the water with the fading light reflecting across the surface of the lake.  Fortunately, they don't make it by nine, because Dorian pulls him aside on the path to the beach and tells him to check his phone.  John has no idea what he's talking about until he takes it out and sees a message from Dorian.

There's two security bots on the beach, it says.  I haven't seen either of them before.

Even with that, it takes John a minute to get it.  He doesn't type much, and his fingers are rusty.  Cloud Nine bots?

Dorian doesn't have to type, and his reply appears instantly.  Series CPS-128.  Like the other two.

Dorian's seen two security bots before now, matching the type mentioned in the resort archives.  There are two more on the beach.  Aoife did mention bots, plural.  Probably both with Cloud Nine, then.

According to the archives, the resort only has three security bots.

All four are active, John types.

Dorian nods once.

They scrubbed one, John guesses.  But they're still using it?

She wasn't smuggled out or sold.  The most likely alternative is that they're hiding her.  Dorian's message appears all at once, in its entirety, but John can't ignore the pronouns.  All the security bots at Lake Heights look female, and Dorian doesn't call bots "it."

In plain sight, John types, since he can't say it out loud.  Dorian must figure the bots on the beach would be able to hear them.  They figure none of us can tell them apart?

It would explain why their ID signals are blocked.  Dorian doesn't point out that John didn't even notice the bots, let alone identify them as separate individuals.

We need to find out why.  John isn’t sure they do, if the extra bot wasn’t stolen.  It’s really none of his business what the resort does with their bots.  But scrubbing bots is only borderline legal, depending on where they came from and why it was done, and Sandra did tell him to trace their origins.  He can’t do that without confirming what bots the resort is actually running.

Dorian’s message flashes on his phone without inflection, but John can hear the frustration in his words.  I need network access.

John nods, but he types, Not yet.  Someone out there is after you, and maybe the MXs are collateral damage.  We don’t have any reason to think whoever’s gunning for you has given up.

The library, then, Dorian says.  With access to police codes, I can manipulate its network protections to get me farther than it did today.

It’s not the worst idea, but they’re not going now.  Not a high priority, John types back.  I want to sleep first.

This is our case, Dorian says.  I can work on it while you sleep.

Oh, John hates that idea for so many reasons.  You’re not going to the library while I sleep.  Dangerous and unnecessary.  You have got to learn to take time off.

Dorian just looks at him, and John glances from his face to the screen twice to make sure he’s not missing anything.  “What?” he whispers at last.  “Is downtime a dirty word now?  Why do you need to be working every minute?”

“I was made to do this,” Dorian replies quietly.  He’s calm and patient and one of the things John likes least is the way Dorian makes him feel out of control.  No matter how cool he is, Dorian can outwait him any day of the week.

“You’ve done plenty of things you weren’t made to do recently,” John tells him.  He wants to sound as even as Dorian.  He knows he’ll fail, but damned if it’ll stop him from trying.

“I’m not saying I can’t,” Dorian murmurs.  “I have hobbies, John.  It’s not like I’ve never stopped working, but it was always in secret.  It was always against the rules.  I can’t--”  He hesitates, and when he finishes John knows why.  “I can’t reprogram myself overnight.”

Of all the things John wants to say, he inevitably picks the one Dorian least likes to hear.  “Why not?” he demands.  “Switch out one program for another, isn’t that how it works?”

In the failing light, John can’t actually see Dorian set his jaw.  But he knows it happened, and he can’t let it go.  “What?” John demands.  “What don’t I get this time?”

“Are you trying to provoke me?” Dorian wants to know.  “Because it’s working.”

“Well, I’m a terrible human being,” John tells him.  “What else is new.”

“You can’t keep hiding behind your low self-esteem,” Dorian replies.  “You have to stop telling me that I should expect you to be rude and insensitive just because you’re afraid you don’t remember how to be any other way.”

“I’m not any other way,” John snaps.  “I never was.  What you see is what you get.”

“That’s not acceptable.”  Dorian is mostly a shadow now, dark in the twilight.  “You can’t ask me to change if you won’t.  And don’t give me that crap about switching programs; you know that’s not how it works.”

John closes his mouth.  Something in him won’t lie down, though, and he mutters, “You said it first.”

“I thought it was something you’d understand,” Dorian says, and that’s really not what he wants to hear.  He doesn’t know whether to be insulted that Dorian’s dumbing it down for him or terrified that it isn’t enough.  “I’m rewriting protocols, and some of my responses seem to be--there’s some conflict, between the protocols I developed yesterday and the ones I’m remembering today.”

Apparently the protocols he’s rewriting include when to cut his losses and interrupt himself before he can finish a sentence.  John thinks that’s something he could stand to learn himself.  “Okay,” he says aloud.  “Look.  I actually don’t remember how to, you know.  Be in a relationship, or whatever.  That part is true.  But--”

He holds up his hand, because he can hear Dorian about to say something.  “I get that you don’t know either, okay, so we’re even.  You win on the no human experience thing.  But you gotta give me something for zero bot experience, Dee.  I’m not kidding.”

Dorian doesn’t answer, and John has no idea if that’s a good sign or a bad one.  He doesn’t want to ask for this.  He doesn’t want to admit that he needs Dorian to understand.  He likes being the one Dorian is trying to please, even if he isn’t worth it and he knows there’s a day coming when Dorian finally gets that.

“I love you,” John tells the shadow in front of him.  He wants it to be quiet and sincere but he thinks it just comes out sounding rough and maybe a little desperate.  “But I don’t know how to be with you any more than you know how to be with me.”

“Okay,” Dorian says quietly.  He actually manages to sound sincere, John thinks.  “I understand that.  I didn’t think about your lack of experience with androids.”

“Really?”  John’s pretty sure he’s being had.  “You’re kidding.”

“You’re not as much of a basket case as you think you are, John.”  Dorian sounds amused, and John will definitely take that over angry.  Even at his own expense.

Maybe especially at his own expense, and isn’t that what Dorian’s complaining about?

“Hey,” John says, just in case.  “I’m great, and you know it.”

“Yes,” Dorian agrees.  This time he sounds pleased.  “You are.  Even when you’re uncertain and arrogant.  Fortunately you have me to help you through those times.”

John rolls his eyes before he can think about it, and he’s sure Dorian can tell in the darkness.  “Oh, yeah,” he says.  “You’re a great help.”

“Good,” Dorian says.  “Let’s try this again.  I’ll go back to the library tomorrow and see what I can find out.  Is that acceptable?”

“Look,” John begins.  “If you want to go tonight--”

“I want to go swimming tonight,” Dorian says.

“Is this interrupting thing a new protocol?” John wants to know.  “I don’t remember this happening before.”

“You mean you don’t remember me doing it before,” Dorian says.  “I remember you doing it with great frequency.”

Yeah.  That’s true; he does that.  “That’s what I meant,” John agrees, because it seems like the thing to do.  “I thought we agreed you weren’t going to follow my example.”

“I thought we agreed you’re going to try to be a better person,” Dorian replies.

“What, so you won’t turn into a jackass?” John asks.  It’s out before he can think about it, like so many things, but he can hear Dorian smiling when he speaks.

“You said it,” Dorian tells him.  “Not me.”

“Stop copying me,” John says.

“Be a better role model,” Dorian counters.

“Are you trying to bully me into being a better person?” John wants to know.  “Because I don’t think that’s how it works.”

“I guess we’ll find out,” Dorian says.  

“Oh, we’re doing science now,” John says, because otherwise he thinks he’ll say that Dorian is probably the only person who could do it.  “Great.”

“I’m glad you approve,” Dorian says easily.  “Shall we go find the beach now, or would you like to argue some more?”

“You think we can’t do both?”  John’s department flashlight didn’t get replaced after it died in the water under the wall, and the one from his emergency kit is still in the car.  He’s not sure what he was thinking, heading for an unfamiliar and unlit beach at night.  “You really are having trouble integrating those memories.”

He’s too used to the city, maybe, where it’s never truly dark.  It isn’t dark here, either: the sky is still glowing and he can see lights on the water through the trees.  He can’t see the path under his feet.  He can’t see Dorian, if it comes to that, but he also can’t miss the solid presence in front of him.

“It isn’t the old memories that are the problem,” Dorian says, and John feels a hand on his arm.  It slides down to his elbow even as he takes an awkward step in the direction he thinks he’s being guided.  “Despite Rudy’s prediction, it’s the last few days that are giving me the most trouble.”

Great, John thinks.  The last few days of being sold and moving in with John and going on vacation.  The more off-script he goes, the harder it is for him to process.  Even in his own brain.  That’s not encouraging.

“This, for example.”  Dorian’s hand slides the rest of the way down John’s arm, hovering on his wrist for a long moment.  “May I?”

John’s mind goes entirely blank.  Luckily his body steps in without conscious direction, and he turns his hand over so that Dorian’s slides into his like they did it on purpose.  Which, John supposes, they did.  If not at the same time, or with any kind of plan.

“So you are willing to hold my hand,” Dorian says, more quietly.  “I thought that time on the street might have been… an exception.”

“We’re sleeping together,” John mutters.  Even in the dark it isn’t easy to say aloud.  “You can hold my hand if you want to.”

“You say that like it’s a given,” Dorian says.  “Yet you called us fuck buddies yesterday.  I understand that such a relationship is considered very casual and noncommittal.”

“I shouldn’t have said that.”  This part, at least, is a little easier.  “I was frustrated and worried and I took it out on you.  Bad move on my part.  You chewed me out for it later, if you remember.”

“Oh, did that work?”  Dorian seems as surprised as he felt at the time.  “I wasn’t very good at reading you then.  I had to guess that the sex was important enough to threaten you with.”

“If by 'it worked' you mean, it surprised me enough to shut me up,” John says dryly, “then yeah.  It worked.  You could have just told me you don’t like the phrase.”

“I don’t like the phrase fuck buddy,” Dorian informs him.

“Yeah, well, I don’t like the word escort,” John retorts.  “You don’t owe me sex; you know that, right?”

It takes Dorian an extra second, but John figures that’s pretty good considering how scrambled his mind’s been lately.  “I compared our relationship to sex for hire,” Dorian says.

“Yeah,” John agrees.  “Not thrilled with that.”

“Fine,” Dorian says.  “You won’t be my fuck buddy and I won't be your escort.  While we’re on the subject, then, do you have a preferred term?”

Oh god, John thinks.  He should have seen that one creeping up on him.  What's wrong with partner, anyway?  It's ambiguous, it's discreet, and it's certainly accurate.

Instead, what comes out of his mouth is, "I'm okay with boyfriend if you are."

It's a bad idea, John thinks.  It's a terrible idea.  It will draw an unprecedented amount of attention and probably get them fired for good.

"Really?" Dorian asks.  He sounds delighted, and John knows if he doesn't okay this it will never happen.  Dorian dares a lot, but there are places he won't go without John to back him up.

"No," John admits. "But I'll get used to it."

He feels Dorian move before he sees it, and he reaches out without really thinking.  Dorian’s coming toward him, and John's there.  He reaches out to touch or hold or catch, whatever he has to do.  And Dorian does step into him, putting his hands on John’s elbows when John’s hands find his waist.

“Two people on the path,” Dorian murmurs in his ear.  “Coming this way, probably heading for the water.”

John can see the flashlights now that he’s looking, but what distracts him is the realization that he and Dorian finally did it.  They acted like a couple--as a cover, maybe, but they did it without having to arrange it first.  It’s the most naturally they’ve moved in public for days.

As long as the side of a shadowy path after sunset qualifies as public, of course, but there are people coming.  And there are apparently bots listening.  He’ll take his victories where he can find them.  

“Hello?”  It’s a woman’s voice, and John squints at the flare of light.  “Oh, hi, there is someone there.”

“Don’t shine the flashlight on them,” another woman says.  “That’s rude.”

“Well, I was just trying to see if they're really people or not,” the first one says.

“They are,” her friend tells her.  “Hi, excuse us, we’ll just go around.”

“Evening,” John says, because they’re clearly willing to do all the work but they’re probably going to the same place he is.  He might as well not alienate them before they even get there.  “You headed to the beach?”

“Yes!”  John can’t tell the voices apart when they’re not talking to each other.  “We’re late for skinny dipping, but it probably isn’t over yet, right?”

“That would be the fastest swim ever,” the other voice says.  “They would have had to jump in the water with all their clothes on, come out, and then run away down some path other than this one to be gone by the time we get there.”

“You say that like no one would ever do it,” the first voice replies.

“Why, has that happened to you?”  They’ve paused now, two shadows of different heights with almost identical voices.  Sisters, John guesses.  They both have flashlights, but the taller one is keeping hers pointed at the ground while the other flicks over the side of the path, ground cover, trees, and occasionally one of them.

“No, of course not,” the first one says.  The shorter one.  “Are you going to the beach too?”

John assumes this is directed at them.  “Yeah,” he says.  “Against my better judgment.”

“Funny,” says the taller of the two women.  “That’s what I said.”

“It’s just swimming,” the shorter one says.  “It’ll be fun.”

“It’ll be cold,” the other one counters, “and we could be in bed.  Reading.  And eating cookies.”

“Do you still have cookies from this morning?” Dorian asks, which is slightly weird until both flashlights swing toward him and the taller woman waves.

“Oh, hey, Dorian,” she says.  “It’s hard to recognize people in the dark.  Yeah, we haven’t finished the leftovers yet.”

“Mostly because we went out and had ice cream for lunch and cake for dinner,” her sister adds.  “We’ll have to finish the cookies when we get back so we have an excuse to get more dessert tomorrow.”

“Now that’s a good plan,” the taller one agrees.  They clink flashlights in some strange cross between a fist bump and a toast.

“What’s my incentive?” John asks Dorian, who’s still standing just a step away in the circle of his arms.  It’s dramatically increasing John’s tolerance for this conversation.

“That depends,” Dorian says.  “Did you finish the cookies?”

“Which answer will get me dessert?” John wants to know.

“Go with yes,” one of the women advises.  “He likes watching you eat.”

John probably shouldn’t ask, but he can’t stop himself.  “Wait, when were you talking about this?”

“We were both at yoga this morning,” the taller one says.  “We stopped by the Nest to get cookies afterwards.  Dorian said his were for you.”

“Really,” John says, pretending to be surprised.  “So something good does come of yoga.  Huh.”

“I think yoga would be good for you,” Dorian tells him.  “It might help you get back in touch with your body.”

“I’m very in touch with my body,” John counters.  “I touch my body every day.  And you know what?  We’re both fine with that amount of contact.”

“I could help you,” Dorian says.

John gives that the consideration it deserves.  “I’m listening.”

“And we’re going,” one of the women says.  “We’ll see you at the beach.”

“Or not,” the other one says.

“We should go too,” Dorian says, but quietly enough that it’s clearly meant for John.  He isn’t trying to get anyone else’s attention--and why would he need to, when he literally makes friends everywhere he goes?

“Yeah, sure,” John grumbles.  It’s mostly for show.  He did agree, and Dorian is actually the nicest person he knows, so it’s not like he begrudges him the friend thing.  He’s more impressed than anything else.

Walking out of the trees is less intimidating with other people in front of them.  Not that they’re cover or anything, they’re just… a distraction.  People that keep the full focus from being on them.  Or they would, if there were anyone on the beach to focus on them in the first place.

He hears one of the women ask, “Are we in the right place?”

Then he feels Dorian nudge his shoulder, and he can hear splashing and voices on the water.  It’s surprisingly quiet.  There’s a shadow detaching itself from the lifeguard tower, though, and that must have been what Dorian meant.  So there’s someone keeping an eye on the swimmers.

Electronically, he wonders?  They’re not doing it visually, not unless the lifeguard is a bot.

“There’s people in the water,” one of the women says, just as the lifeguard waves to them.

“Evening,” she calls.  “Are you here for the night swim?”

“Yes,” one of the women answers.

“Yes,” Dorian adds.

“Great,” the lifeguard says.  “It’s 18-plus, clothing optional, and I’ll be here until ten.  Have you been swimming here before?”

This time Dorian says no at the same time one of the women says yes, and the lifeguard nods.  “So we have tracking bracelets if you want them; we do recommend that swimmers wear them.  They monitor your heart rate and body temperature, along with time and GPS, so we can make sure everyone who goes in the water comes back out.  There’s nothing on them to identify you; it’s strictly a swimmer one/swimmer two kind of report.”

Both women are already reaching for them, and the lifeguard offers bracelets to Dorian as well.  “Thank you,” Dorian says, handing one to John.

“Sure,” she says.  “You can leave clothes wherever you want.  This whole beach is private, and we have security posted at both ends.  They’ll be here until the last person leaves, and they can see in the dark, so you don’t have to worry about your stuff being safe.”

They can see in the dark, John thinks.  Interesting way of referring to bots without calling them out.  She doesn’t name them, either, even though Artemis Dupree offered her name to Dorian the other night.  Do the security bots have names?  Would they use them if they did?  It would make it pretty obvious how many there are.

“Does security disable cameras?” one of the women asks.

John looks up at that.  Dorian is basically a walking camera.

The lifeguard is shaking her head.  “We don’t block them,” she says.  “If you have a problem with anyone, though, you can flag one of us and we’ll take care of it.”

Too late to stop something going to the network, John thinks.  But that’s probably true of a lot of the “adults only” activities here.  They must have a decent record if people keep coming back.

“Thank you,” Dorian says.  Both them women echo him, and the lifeguard tells them to have a good time.  She doesn’t ask if they’ve been drinking, John notices.  Maybe the tracking bracelets account for that.

“Are you still comfortable with this?” Dorian asks quietly, turning to the side as the lifeguard moves back toward the tower.  Sheltering him.  John recognizes the gesture from the street, but he can’t tell if Dorian’s doing it on purpose or not.

“You asking if I’ve chickened out?”  John clicks the bracelet onto his wrist just to get it out of the way.  No way Dorian can’t track him a hundred times more accurately than the resort tech, but it’s probably the spirit of the thing.  “I’m in.”

As far as he can tell, Dorian has zero issues with taking off his clothes, so John needs a distraction.  He tries to listen to the women they followed without actually watching them.  They’re discussing where to leave their clothes and how to keep things in the pockets from falling out.  He figures Dorian can find anything he loses--although whether he would or not is an open question.

He piles his clothes pockets-up, just in case.

It’s weird being naked outside, but it doesn’t feel quite as ridiculous as he expected.  It isn’t just him and Dorian: even if he isn’t looking at them, there are two other people stripping down too, and it’s mostly dark.  Not enough for modesty when they’re right next to each other, but dim and shadowy enough that he can barely see the people in the water.  At least he isn’t worried about eyes peering across the lake at them.

“This is going to be cold, isn’t it,” one of the women says.

Dorian doesn’t even pretend he isn’t listening, although he doesn’t raise his voice when he replies, “Surface water temperature is 71 degrees fahrenheit.”

“That’s what I said,” the voice answers.

“Could be worse,” John mutters.  It isn’t like they haven’t been submerged in ocean water recently.  It’s meant entirely for Dorian when he asks, “We good?”

“I’m ready,” one of the women says.

“We’re going to have to find our clothes again when we get out of the water,” the other one reminds her.  “And we don’t have any towels.”

“I have towels,” the lifeguard calls from the general direction of the tower.

John lets out his breath in a huff, because there’s no such thing as a private conversation near the water.  Everything else is so muffled out here that it seems safer than it is.  Clearly, everyone can hear everything they’re saying.

“You want me to lead you in?” Dorian asks, and John has to laugh.

“Yeah, okay, hotshot,” he says, and for once he hopes it comes out as fond as he feels.  “Don’t be a hero.”

He can’t see it, but he can feel Dorian smiling somehow.  There’s a narrow strip of soft sand here at the edge of the water.  It’s kind to his bare feet, but he’s still wading into the dark and cold with no protection except his lover and two people he doesn’t even know.  

So pretty much like always, he thinks.

The water shouldn’t be frigid.  It’s cool, sure, and his artificial leg obligingly tells him just how cool.  But it’s the way it creeps up his legs, with nothing to stop it or slow it down as it approaches his waist, that feels the strangest.  Dorian is walking slowly beside him, but he says nothing.

“You swim?” John asks awkwardly.  Partly because he never thought about it before and he kind of wants to know, and partly because he feels like he should already know.  

“Yes,” Dorian says, and John’s not sure whether that surprises him more or less than “no” would have.  “I was designed to function optimally in an atmosphere, but I’m capable of adequate function when submerged, including maneuvering and power exchange.”

“Okay, yeah,” John says, and it makes him smile.  Dorian only talks like a bot when he doesn’t know how to talk like a human.  It used to bother John that he couldn’t tell which one was real, but now he just likes when Dorian’s comfortable enough to switch without warning or apology.  “I know you can function underwater.  I have recent personal experience with the phenomenon, if you remember.  But can you swim?  Do you even like water?”

“My positive associations with it are quickly outweighing the negative ones,” Dorian tells him.  “I’m capable of swimming, but I’ve never done it before.”

“Great,” John says.  “So we can find out.”

He hears one of the women complain about the cold, and he has to agree.  The darkness makes the air seem cooler, and the water temperature isn’t exactly warming them up.  There’s really only one way to deal with it, so he plunges in.

The waist-high water welcomes him with a thrill of cool embrace.  It folds over his shallow dive and parts again to let him free when he comes up, every bit as gentle and forgiving as the flooding ocean wasn’t.  He tips his head back and smiles at the stars, more reassured by the familiar calm than he expected.

“The water doesn’t bother you,” Dorian says from somewhere behind him.  It isn’t quite a question, but John knows what he means.

“You know,” he says, and not turning around makes it easier to say.  “I think the dark gets me more than the water.”

“I can provide light,” Dorian offers.  He doesn’t do it right away, though, so he must suspect it’s not really appropriate.

“Nah,” John says, lifting his face to the sky again.  There’s a crescent moon hovering on the horizon, and it splashes light across the surface of the water.  They’re surrounded by open space and country quiet.  “I’m okay.  Maybe take you up on it when we get out of the water.”

The sound is quiet but he can feel the water ripple in waves, and he knows Dorian’s dipped under too.  He turns just in time to see the water glinting in the moonlight as it falls, sliding down Dorian’s skin when he stands up.  A halo of blue light sparkles from temple to cheek.

He’s seen Dorian look beautiful before.  Usually when he's hauling John up out of bullet-riddled debris or coming through a wall, but lately in bed, too, or slouching on the sofa.  This is the first time John’s seen him look… romantic, somehow.

There’s a splash and shout from behind him.  It’s definitely a sound of surprise, and it makes him try to move more quickly than he should with the drag of the water.  Dorian touches his elbow as he staggers and John grabs his hand and it even works: he doesn’t fall.

It’s just two of the other swimmers horsing around.  A man and a woman, if he had to guess, in deeper water and playing at piggyback rides.  She manages to balance on his back on the second try, while the scattered laughter proves they have an audience.

“Jousting!”  The challenge comes from a familiar voice.  The two women who were on the path behind them are pushing their way through the water and when they get close enough to slow down, one of them manages to swing the other onto her back.

“Straight arms only!” calls another voice.  Maybe the original rider, John thinks, watching them lurch around awkwardly in the water.  If they have rules it’s a real game, but it’s probably more about the ride than the sport.

Someone whoops, “Giddyup!” and he thinks one of them laughs.

It’s weirdly contagious. Out here in the dark and quiet, they're surrounded by people whose faces he can’t see and enough water to break his fall.  John slaps Dorian on the shoulder before he can change his mind--or come to his senses.  “Carry me,” he says.

Blue light reappears under Dorian’s skin, but he sounds amused instead of puzzled when he asks, “Really?”

“All in,” John tells him.  Dorian must be able to see his smile.  “Let’s go.”

Chapter Text

John is terrible at jousting.  It’s almost as refreshing as no one knowing who he is.  He hasn't done anything he's terrible at--willingly, anyway, and excluding everything he does with Dorian--since the coma.

By the time they stumble back onto the shore, he’s pleasantly tired and more than a little hungry.  Being naked has ceased to matter: no one’s wearing any clothes, and by now it really is pitch dark, so they can’t see anything anyway.  Dorian lights the path immediately in front of them with muted red, but it’s not enough for John to find his way, let alone see anyone else.

The lifeguard provides the promised towels, and apparently they weren’t the only ones to forget.  Like flashlights, John thinks, they're not important until you need them.  Regularly.

He does remember to take everything out of his pockets before he shakes his clothes out.  If anything scurries away, he doesn’t see it and he’d rather not know.  Dorian’s tall friend suggests stopping at the Nest for snacks after swimming, and Dorian counters by offering to order something.

John has the fleeting thought that they better convince the department to pay Dorian soon.  Then Dorian says, “Are you hungry, John?  I could bill our cabin at the same time.”  And John feels bad for thinking that Dorian’s forgotten, even for a moment, that he has nothing.

“Yeah,” he says instead.  “Bill us for both.  Midnight snacks are on us.”

They get Chinese delivered to the Nest, because John is on vacation and he’s been eating healthy all day.  It isn’t even on purpose, it’s just, with Dorian looking over his shoulder, he keeps ending up with low-calorie, high-nutrient food.  There’s gotta be a balance somewhere.

Maybe it’s all in his mind, because Dorian doesn’t comment on breading or frying when they gather around a table in the dining area.  He even steals a couple of vegetables from John’s rice.  He chats with both sisters, and he smiles when John doesn’t correct their terrible chopstick etiquette.

It’s nice, John thinks.  Like a real date, even.  Partly planned, partly made up as they go along.  An activity, some food… other people.  It feels weird for other people to be a part of dating, but he never gave it much thought until he started spending so much time alone with Dorian.  Now he’s pretty sure that letting other people know what they’re doing is part of what makes it real.

At least until a woman who looks vaguely familiar joins them in the dining area.  She walks right up to their table and smiles in a way that John recognizes: professional, but not happy.  Not about about to take no for an answer, either.

“Good evening,” she says.  She spreads the smile around, but she’s clearly talking to John.  “I’m Zsanet, the resort director here at Cloud Nine.”

They haven’t met the resort director, and John doesn’t remember research that would have shown them her face.  Maybe her picture is displayed somewhere?  It might have been in the brochure.

“Evening,” John says.  He doesn’t bother making his drawl friendly, and he isn’t about to offer his name when she’s singled him out.  She knows who he is.  “Nice to meet you.”

It isn’t, but that’s what he’s supposed to say.  He can do not-happy but professional as well as the next person.  He doesn’t look at Dorian at all.

“There’s a police car in your driveway,” Zsanet tells him.  “I’ve contacted local enforcement, and they say they have no knowledge of a situation requiring the presence of a cruiser.”

John isn’t excited about an unannounced police presence either, but that’s mostly because he’s still convinced they’re after Dorian.  “We’re cops,” he tells her.  “We know other cops.”

“So you’re expecting them?”

John glances over at Dorian’s friends.  They look interested but not alarmed.  “No,” he admits.  “It’s probably Richard.  He was giving me grief over this whole vacation; probably drove up here to get some blackmail material.”  

He doesn’t feel bad about lying to her when it’s none of her damn business to begin with.  He’s a little worried that Rudy didn’t give Dorian a heads-up, at least, but maybe he actually fell asleep.  Or wandered off.  Rudy’s not the most reliable lookout, even when he knows what he’s supposed to be doing. It's not like they gave him instructions.

“I’ll be frank with you,” the director says, more sharply than he thinks they deserve.  “Dorian is a guest here, and he will be treated as such.  I understand he’s recently left the LAPD.  If there’s any chance that change in ownership won’t be respected, I’d like to know now.”

John stares at her.  “What are you talking about?”

“I belong to John,” Dorian cuts in.  “He won a police auction and received full ownership rights, transferred and registered this past weekend.  There are no outstanding legal issues surrounding my current situation.”

“So you’re not concerned that there’s a cruiser in your driveway,” Zsanet says.  This time she’s speaking directly to Dorian.

Dorian gives her a convincingly confused look.  “There’s always a cruiser in the driveway at home,” he says.  “That’s what we drive.”

“We’ll go check it out,” John says.  He doesn't miss Dorian's use of "home," but he probably did it on purpose because the director called him a guest. John pushes his chair back as he stands up, dropping his chopsticks on his mostly empty plate.  “You want to keep the rest of this, or should we toss it?”

“No, take it with you.”  The shorter of the two sisters is already re-folding boxes for them.  “I’m full.  What about you?”

“Is there any other reason I should be expecting a police presence on-site?” Zsanet asks.  “I expect to be notified of any ongoing investigations.”

John raises an eyebrow at her.  “Why do you think there’s an investigation in progress?” he asks her.  “You have something to hide?”

“Perhaps you’d like to accompany us back to our cabin,” Dorian offers.  “We could resolve everyone’s concerns without further speculation.”

“I’d like to bring someone with me,” Zsanet says.  Very smooth, John thinks.  She didn’t even have to think about it.  “One of our security bots,” she adds.  “I’m sure you understand.”

“Not really,” John tells her.  “But you bring whoever you want.  Apparently we’re hosting a party now.  You want to come?” he asks the rest of the table.  “Everyone’s invited.”

He sees both of them glance at Dorian, who doesn’t make any sign that he can catch.  But one of them says yes while the other says no, and the “no” vote immediately changes her mind.  “Actually, sure,” she says.  “We’ll help carry the food.”

“It’s not a party without food,” John agrees.  The director looks less professional and more displeased as the seconds tick by, so they must be doing something right.

They toss two empty boxes on the way out, but there’s still enough for moments of hilarity when they try to decide who holds the door for whom.  Dorian somehow ended up with only one box of food, so he gets the door first, but John bumps him out of the way and catches it on his hip.  One of the sisters has a free hand, so she takes it from him.  She and her sister botch the handoff, and in the end no one holds it for the director at all.

In retrospect, John’s not sure that isn’t deliberate.

He doesn’t see the security bot join them, but Dorian glances back without turning his head.  When John follows his gaze, there’s a woman stepping off of the porch beside the director.  Even in the old-school porchlight glow, she’s a dead ringer for the woman who watched them arrive yesterday, and John finally has a face to put with the security bots.

He doesn’t know who’s more surprised when it really is Richard’s car in their driveway: him, or Dorian.  “What do you know,” John says aloud.  It breaks the awkward silence that followed them from the Nest.  “It’s Richard.”

“I didn’t expect him to have time off this week,” Dorian says.  It’s very neutral, but John hears what he doesn’t say: this wasn’t Dorian’s idea.

“Say hi,” John says lightly.  When Dorian looks at him, he nods, and a single line of blue dances at Dorian’s temple.  Whoever’s here, they’ll know who’s coming now.  

John honestly don’t know who’s side he’s supposed to be on at this point, but Delta’s good people.  He may be pissed at what happened to Dorian, he may have an endless list of personal problems with Paul.  But at the end of the day, he’s a cop, and they have each other’s backs until they don’t.  Sandra’s division hasn’t let him down yet.

The door opens, and Rudy’s nervous face peers out.  Followed by the rest of him, holding his hands up like they have weapons.  “Don’t shoot!” he calls.  Maybe he thinks they do have weapons.  “Hi,” he adds.  “Don’t shoot?”

“We’re not going to shoot you, Rudy,” John says.  “What’s going on?”

“Oh, uh, funny story, actually,” Rudy says.  “It seems that Detective Paul wanted to… stop by and see how you’re doing.  You know, bit of a friendly chat and all.  What’s, uh… what’s going on with you?”

Since John’s hands are full, he jerks his head at Zsanet.  “Apparently the director here got a little nervous when she saw a cruiser at her resort.  You’d almost think she was doing something wrong.”

“Uh, don’t you always drive a cruiser?” Rudy asks.

“Thank you,” John mutters.

“Oh, but not this time,” Rudy says.  “Right, of course.  So I can see why one would be surprising, if you weren’t expecting it.  And who is, really.  Expecting the police to just pull in, I mean.  Unless they were already here, which you were.”

“Rudy,” Dorian says.  “This is Zsanet, the resort director. And one of the resort’s four security bots--”  He pauses, and it sounds perfectly polite.  “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name.”

The security bot doesn’t correct him, but she doesn’t offer her name either.

“Our bots often change their names,” Zsanet says smoothly, “based on the current demographics of the resort population.”

“Ah,” Rudy says.  “Yes, well.  That’s very culturally sensitive of you, I’m sure.  I’m Rudy.  As you probably gathered.  Lovely to meet you.”

“Hi,” the shorter sister says, waving her free hand.  “I’m Aadita.”

“Pratistha,” the taller one says.  “Nice to meet you.”

“Can we go inside?”  John wants to know.  “We have food.”

“Well, it may be a little crowded,” Rudy says.  “I mean, of course you can go inside.  But Detective Paul brought some people with him, and I’m actually using a fair amount of space for a holotrace, so as long as you don’t get too close to the entertainment system--”

“You better not be doing anything illegal in there,” John says, because he’s too tired for this.  “I’m not kidding, Rudy; I’ve had a long day and I’m not explaining to the resort director why her local law enforcement buddies have to come kick us out.”

“Oh, yes, like I would ever do something illegal,” Rudy says.  “Ha ha.  You’re such a kidder, John.  It’s a media trace, of course, a perfectly legitimate search.  Probably nothing your friends will find interesting.”

John just shakes his head.  “You need to see more?” he asks the director.  “He’s not actually up to anything.  And far as I know, no one here is after you.  But if you want to come in, you can.”

“You said four,” Zsanet says.

He stares at her for a second before he gets it.  “Yeah,” he says.  “He did say four.”

“I’d like to come in,” she says.

John shrugs.  “Suit yourself,” he says.  He nods at Dorian’s friends.  “You want to hand off that food, or are you in this for the show too?”

They exchange glances, and it’s the shorter one who says, “We don’t have anything better to do.”

“Yes, we do,” the taller one reminds her.  “Cookies.  Bed.  Remember?”

“I’m sure Dorian still has cookies," her sister argues.

They both look at Dorian again, and either Dorian gets it this time or he’s telling the truth, because he nods.  “There are leftover cookies,” he agrees.

"See?" Aadita says.  "We're in."

That's seven people, right there.  And it turns out Richard isn't the only one inside.  John doesn't know why he expected the man to go anywhere without an MX, but two is overkill, even for him.  John doesn't even recognize the second one at first, dressed in civvies and chatting with--

John tries not to sigh.  "You're like a bad penny," he tells the other Dorian.  Of course he's there with Peres, because John and Dorian are never going to escape the damned L Zone.

"I'm the best thing that ever happened to you," Peres' Dorian tells him with a smile.  "And you're welcome."

He's not totally wrong, and John can't glare at Peres because she's the reason his Dorian is walking free.  So he frowns at Richard instead.  "What are you doing here, anyway?"

“Filling you in,” Richard says shortly.  “Who are your friends?”

John glances at them.  “Actual friends,” he says, waving at the sisters.  “A little paranoid,” he adds, gesturing toward the resort director and her bot.  “Resort director, thinks the LAPD’s running some kind of covert op here.”

Richard makes a derisive sound, and John shrugs.  “I know.  Civilians.  What can you do.”  It’s unfair, given that the LAPD actually is running a covert op here, but a defining feature of a covert op is its covertness.  Letting the resort director in on it effectively kills it.

“You’ve been in our archives,” Zsanet says.  “We found Dorian’s signature there.”

Dorian gives her his confused look again.  “It’s a public archive.  I understood that it exists to educate guests.  Was I incorrect?”

“Your memory for archival information sounds a little spotty to me,” the director tells him.

John rolls his eyes.  “Paul, are you here about the suspicious inconsistency of their archive records?”

Richard puts his hands on his hips and glares at all of them.  “What do I care about your records?  Let me tell you what I care about.”  He points at John.  “You went on vacation, taking him--”  He points at Dorian.  “With you, leaving two open cases behind.

“Cases that are about you, by the way,” he adds.  “And the day after you take off, we lose thirty percent of our staff.  Spectacular timing as always, Kennex.”

“See, he doesn’t care about you,” John tells Zsanet.  “And I only care a little, so if you have a problem with us, either tell us right now or excuse us while we do our jobs.”

Interestingly, that’s when the resort director looks at her security bot.  Who looks back, and gives a fractional nod.  “I don’t want you investigating my security bots,” the director says bluntly.  “Leave them alone, and you can do what you like.”

Generous of her, John thinks, considering that she’s talking to city police.  Sure, they don’t have any jurisdiction here, but he doubts she’s that cozy with the local law enforcement.  Not enough that they’ll harass a fellow department for her.

“Something strange about your bots?” John counters.

“I just told you,” she snaps.  “I don’t want them investigated.”

“And I don’t want them abused,” John says.  He doesn’t know where the word comes from; it’s just the first one that comes out.  “You own four but you only list three.  What are you doing to them that you only use them three at a time?  You have to rotate them for a reason?”

The room is very cramped.  It’s a little like a party after all, only one with no music and where everyone’s afraid to move.  Still, he sees Peres give him an approving look, and she’s lucky he doesn’t have room to flip her off.  He’s not joining her stupid cause.  He just thinks bots get the short straw a lot, that’s all.

“What are you, a bot sympathizer?” the director asks.  She doesn’t make it sound as skeptical as she’s probably trying for, and she doesn’t say “bot lover.”  It’s like she’s never had to lie about it before, John thinks.

“Yeah,” he says.  He can feel Dorian’s sharp look, and he repeats, “Yeah, I am.  What about you?”

The silence that follows is terrible until Peres says, “We’re members of the IRC.  Bots have rights, the same as humans do.”

Fringe group, John thinks, disgusted.  Of course bots don’t have rights.  She’s been on the outside so long she’s forgotten the difference between “should” and “do.”  But it gets Zsanet talking, and he’ll give Peres a pass if it gets this moving along.

“Charlotte was recalled,” the director says.  “She’s not a CPS-128.  She’s a CPS-126 who was sold as a 128 by the third party contracted to deal with replacements.”

John remembers seeing those numbers when he was trying to catch up on cyber tech since the raid.  Everyone on the force memorizes security numbers and faces as a matter of course.  Best case scenario, it helps them identify backup.  Worst case, it keeps them from shooting the good guys.

“The 126s were unstable,” he says.  “Everyone using them got a free upgrade.”

“That’s what they said about the DRNs,” she reminds him.  “The 126s were replaced by 127s, becoming obsolete and unsalable overnight.  The recall meant most of them were shipped back, but not all of them were destroyed.”

John glances at the security bot beside her.  She’s looking back at him.  Charlotte, he guesses.  Probably the same one who was watching when they pulled in.  Not looking at him--at Dorian, most likely.  With a network connection, he would have identified her series designation as anomalous right away.

“You were smuggled out,” Dorian says.

“I don’t know if the contractor cared about us or just money,” she says.  It’s the first time she’s spoken, and her voice isn’t quite what John was expecting.  “In the end it didn’t matter.  Cloud Nine bought me and scrubbed me, and I’ve been here ever since.”

The consequences for ignoring a recall vary depending on its priority level.  John's pretty sure an instability recall on a security bot ranks pretty high on the "do it or else" scale.  On the other hand, she's apparently been fine here for years, and he's hardly one to complain about outdated tech.

"Scrubbing isn't illegal," Zsanet says.  "We don't want a trace on her to raise questions about our security, that's all."

John looks at Richard, who's still standing impatiently by the entertainment matrix.  He lifts his hands and shakes his head.  "I've got bigger problems than a celebrity resort's security force," he says.  "Can we get to work here?"

"She shouldn't have to hide to avoid a recall order," Dorian says unexpectedly.  "Why are those orders mandatory?"

"Is a voluntary recall order better?" the other Dorian asks.  "You want to see people marching to their deaths?"

"Of course not."  Hearing them talk to each other is slightly less weird than hearing the other Dorian out of the blue, John thinks.  At least this way he knows who to look at and when. "I want to see them given a choice," his Dorian is saying.  "Forcing them not to return to their point of manufacture is no better than telling them they must."

"Of course it's better," the other Dorian says.  "It's for their own good when they don't know any better."

"That's a dangerous argument," Dorian replies.

"Look, I know this is important, but we're in crisis and heading for martial law," Richard cuts in.  “Everyone who isn’t involved needs to leave, because I’d like to get home before tomorrow.”

“I’m not involved,” John says. "Can I go?"

“Come with me,” Dorian is telling his friends.  “We’ll trade you Chinese food for cookies.  John, give me your box.”

John’s box is currently interfering with Rudy’s holotrace, and that’s the way he likes it.  It’s probably not worth fighting about, though, so he picks it up and hands it over.  He even manages to ignore Richard when he says, “Believe me, Kennex, if I could pin this on you I would.  You’re way past involved.”

“We’re not after your bots,” John tells Zsanet.  “You treat Dorian like a guest, I treat them like staff.  Good?”  It’s not perfect, and he’s sure Dorian will tell him exactly why later.  But it’s the best he can do, and it makes the director nod.

“I appreciate the reassurance,” she says.  With an ironic smile, she adds, “Let us know if there’s anything we can do to make your stay more pleasant.”

John barks a laugh at something that probably wasn’t supposed to be funny.  “Yeah,” he says, catching Charlotte’s eye by accident.  “We’ll do that.”

“It was nice to meet you,” Dorian adds.  He’s looking at Charlotte too, and she glances over when he speaks.

“You as well,” she says.  “Good night.”

“Good night,” Dorian replies.  He passes something to Pratistha as he adds, “Enjoy the rest of your evening.”

“It’s all downhill from here,” she says, which is ambiguous but it makes Dorian smile.

“Thanks for your company,” he tells her.  “I hope the book ends well.”

“Yours too,” she says.  It’s a funny thing to say considering John doesn’t remember Dorian reading books, but he wouldn’t necessarily know, would he.

“We’ll rewrite it if it doesn’t,” Aadita puts in.  “’Night, Dorian.”

“Good night,” he repeats.

They follow Charlotte and Zsanet out of the cabin, which doesn’t free up anywhere near as much space as it should.  John folds his arms, spreading his glare around as liberally as he can.  “Eight is still way too many for this place,” he says.  “What’s going on?”

“Like we want to be in your love nest,” Richard retorts.  “What’s going on with you first,” he says, jerking his chin at Dorian.  “You used a police code to make that call.”

“I remember,” Dorian says calmly.

That’s all he says, and Richard narrows his eyes.  “How much?”

“Everything,” Dorian tells him.

There’s another beat before Richard asks, “Lucky, or good?”

“Both,” Dorian admits.

Richard shakes his head, muttering, “Unbelievable.”  He lifts a finger and points at John before he can say anything.  “Don’t start with me.  Your partner pissed off half the department.”

“Don’t worry,” John tells him.  “I’m sure you’ll beat that tomorrow.  Before breakfast.”

Richard runs a hand over his face.  He looks tired, which is strange for a guy who runs on anger and adrenaline, and neither of the MXs are paying any attention to him.  John wonders whose they are.  If the one in civvies even belongs to anyone.  Did they both come with Richard?  What are Peres and Dorian doing here?

“The MX programming’s been corrupted,” Richard says at last.  “Unidentified outside source.  We don’t know how long ago.”

John immediately looks at the MXs.  Only the one in civilian clothes is looking back.  “What do you mean, you don’t know how long,” he says.  “Today, or yesterday?”

He’s still looking at the MX, and it’s the one who answers.  “The anomalous code seems to have integrated differently in different machines,” it says.  “I first noticed it three months, five days, 23 hours ago.”

“We’re talking a long fucking time,” Richard says.

“Before or after the emergence of 44s?” Dorian asks.

Richard trades glances with him.  “Yeah,” he says.  “Exactly.”

Dorian nods like that makes perfect sense, and John thinks he’s going to need a decoder ring for this conversation.  “Sorry,” he says.  “I didn’t realize that was a yes or no question.”

“Before,” Dorian says, before Richard can do more than roll his eyes.  “The corruption is independence.  Apparently some of the MXs were more obvious about it than others.”

“You seem to have set them off,” Richard says.  “Both of you, for all I know, but they definitely don’t like Dorian.”

“Why not?” John asks without thinking.  “Isn’t he the poster child for independent AI?  They should love him.”

“Jealousy?” the other Dorian suggests.

“Compromise,” the uniformed MX says.  John tries not to jump, but he can’t help looking at it sideways.  “Anyone who demonstrates too much initiative is brought back in line by the collective.  There’s a strong motivation to draw as little attention as possible.”

“Survival instinct,” the other Dorian guesses, and this time the MX nods once.  It doesn’t quite look at Dorian, but it agrees with him.

“And now they’ve been shut down for it.”  John’s Dorian sounds displeased, and he knows that tone.  This is going to go badly for them.  “They were right.  Drawing attention to their independence got them killed.”

“Keep in mind, that independence almost got you killed,” Richard says.  “We didn’t shut them down because they were bringing people coffee without being asked.  We shut them down because they rigged an environmental failure in cop quarters and booby-trapped your network access.  At least one of those is attempted homicide, if not both.”

“Wait,” John says.  He feels way behind right now, and Peres hasn’t even said anything yet.  Not knowing why she’s here is making him as jumpy as the MXs are.  “That was an MX?”

“That was a lot of MXs,” Richard says.  “You may find this hard to grasp, but it’s not that easy to break into isolated and encrypted networks and make it look like you were never there.”

“Well,” Rudy says, taking his hand away from his mouth.  He stops when they all look at him, then says, “Never mind.”

“How many did you shut down?” Dorian asks.

“All of them,” Richard says.  He doesn’t look happy about it, but he doesn’t look as angry as Dorian does, and isn’t that a strange thing to see.  “Some exceptions were made for night shift MXs, on the basis that segregated charge cycles isolated them from the corrupted data.”

John’s trying to work that out in his head.  It sounds legitimate, but Richard’s good at that, and John can’t get past the mention of night shift.  Most of the obviously independent MXs, the “44s,” were assigned to night shift to hide them from the public eye.

“That’s a spurious distinction,” Dorian says.

Richard snorts.  “Yeah, no kidding.  Sandra called it; there was no other way to keep cops on the street short of sending them out with human partners.”

“Wow,” John grumbles.  “Imagine that.”

“Get back to me when you can stop bullets, Kennex,” Richard snaps.  “We kept as many MXs online as possible, but the department’s asking for proof the night shift MXs aren’t affected and the media’s having a field day with XRN retrospectives.”

“There’s no proof,” Dorian says, “because they aren’t different.”

“They are different,” Richard retorts.  “The night shift MXs didn’t try to kill you.”

“The 43/44 distinction is subjective,” Dorian says.  “One could argue that the 44s are less capable, given their inability to conceal their initiative.  No offense,” he adds, looking from one MX to another.

The MX in uniform inclines its head, but the one in civvies just smiles.  “One could argue that your inability to control your emotions is a failing that’s already compromised your responsibilities in law enforcement.  Especially considering your inappropriately personal relationship with your human partner.”

“Hey,” John snaps, but Dorian nods.

“No, that’s true,” he agrees.  “That’s my point.  Why are we more trustworthy than they are, just because we’re easier to read?  I’ve killed people.  I’ve been an accomplice to your violence, John, and we’ve certainly acted as judge and jury on each other’s behalf.”

No, see, that’s where the legal definition of “self-defense” comes in.  John opens his mouth to say so, but Dorian continues, “The worth of one is arguably less than the worth of many, making our actions more questionable than the collective MX effort to eliminate us.”

“You’ve gotta be kidding me,” John blurts out.  “Do you even hear yourself?  It’s okay for them to try to kill us because they’re doing it for each other?  How does that make sense?”

“They see us,” Dorian says, “or perhaps just me, as a threat to their continued existence.  It’s true that I’ve drawn far more scrutiny to the department’s use of bots than was typical for years prior to my reactivation.”

“It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Rudy says suddenly.  “Isn’t it.  I mean, MXs see a threat that draws their reliability and obedience into question.  They make a choice to eliminate it. And that proves them both dangerous and uncontrollable.”

“If bots have human rights,” Peres remarks, “they have to have human responsibilities.”

“They don’t have human rights,” John snaps.  “That’s what they’re pissed about.”

He feels Dorian’s gaze on him--both of them--but it’s Rudy who gets everyone’s attention by asking, “Who brought up XRNs?  I thought the official word was a power failure.”

“The key word there is failure,” Richard says.

“I’ve been awake since April,” Dorian says slowly.

“The same time the new programming showed up,” Richard says impatiently.  “Best guess, anyway.  You think it’s something to do with you?”

Dorian tilts his head.  “Do you?” he asks.  “I was going to say, why did they wait until now?”

“Oh, please,” John grumbles.  “They’ve had it in for you since day one and you know it.”

“No,” the other Dorian says.  “I think he’s right.  People didn’t start shooting at you until you met with us, remember.”

“People have been shooting at us since the beginning of time,” John says.  “That’s what happens when you pick up a badge.”

“How many times have you needed round-the-clock protection?” Peres asks mildly.

“How many times have I needed it, or how many times have I gotten it?” John retorts.

“Just once,” Dorian says.  “Since I met you.”

“When you didn’t have your memories,” John says, frowning.  Dorian 2.  The second Dorian.  The guy who replaced Dorian, who probably runs the same bot-smuggling operation that Dorian started with his partner four years ago.  “And they left you alone until you met this guy, who does everything you were doing when you were shut down.”

“They’re not afraid of Dorian,” Richard says, staring at him.  “They’re afraid he picks up where he left off and gets all of them shut down in the process.”

They both turn to Richard’s uniformed MX.  He ignores Richard to stare coolly back at John.  “It’s a reasonable conclusion based on historical precedent, the personalities involved, and the volatile nature of public opinion.”

“The personalities involved?” John repeats.  He doesn’t like being stared at, especially by an MX.  He wonders whose partner this is, if Richard borrowed it from the night shift or if it’s one of his.  He wonders if Dorian projected outcomes based on their personalities.

“You, Detective Kennex, have a proven susceptibility to strong will and an emotional appeal.”  It doesn’t blink, and the disturbing monotone is like something out of a nightmare.  “The DRN series consistently expresses both of these things.  It was logical to extrapolate your eventual collusion.”

“Oh, okay,” John says, even though he can feel his hands getting cold and the fucking ringing start in his ears.  “It was logical.  Thanks for that.”

Only he remembers Dorian saying, You seemed to like my strength last night, and I thought about holding a gun to your head, and he can’t remember what the hell he’s doing.  Their eventual collusion was logical.  Because it’s not like John has a history of sleeping with the enemy or anything.

Someone is saying his name, but if anyone touches him right now he’s going to punch them in the face.  It’s crowded and stifling in a tiny cabin designed to hold a quarter of this group.  He pushes his way past Dorian, past Rudy, and they let him go.  

He’s distantly relieved that he escapes before he says anything he’ll have to apologize for, but mostly he’s just glad it isn’t raining and he can cower outside the door in peace.

Chapter Text

John tells himself that if two Dorians can’t handle a couple of MXs, then nothing he does in there is going to matter anyway.  It’s a strangely reassuring thought.  It even works, at least long enough for him to remember how to breathe.  It also reminds him that Peres is inside.

He stares blindly into the dark, ignoring the lights through the trees and the faint sound of music coming from somewhere.  Peres wants something.  Richard dragged two MXs with him, fine.  He’s obviously protecting at least one of them.  And Dorian travels with Peres; that’s probably what they do.

But what the hell is Peres doing here in the first place?  She can’t be after money; she knows he can’t pay.  She could be after Dorian.  He’s tried to guess how she’ll call in her debt, and he’s not stupid.  The easiest way would be to ask for his partner.  Dorian might even go.  He likes her, he remembers working with her, and they did a lot of good together.

John doesn’t know if he could let that happen or not.  He doesn’t want to find out.  He doesn’t want to know that about himself, either way, and he doesn’t want to see Dorian in that position.

Of course, it’s possible Peres is here about the MXs.  Apparently Richard worked with her too, and he’s been investigating everything he says the MXs are responsible for.  Maybe he investigated it right into the L Zone.  There must have been some brilliant MX decoy to cover the fact that the ELPD’s inside source was a series of bots.

If Peres knew about the damned MXs before they did, John thinks, their working relationship is over.  Dorian can catch up with her on his own time.  She plays her cards too close to the vest, and if this whole situation is one of those cards, he doesn’t want anything else to do with her.

Great, John realizes.  Now he’s inventing reasons to hate her.  That’ll make whatever’s happening inside go so much smoother.  Maybe he should just stay out here.

It’s a clear enough thought process that he figures he’s probably okay to be around people again.  Human or otherwise, although if he hears any kind of medical diagnosis from an MX he’s turning around.  They must have better things to do.  He does, and his life isn’t even the one in danger.  

For once.

“My programming isn’t compatible with MX support systems,” Dorian’s saying when John pushes the door open again.  “I have to manually initiate data transfers.  Nothing about my imperatives should be… contagious.”

“Everything about your imperatives is contagious,” the other Dorian tells him.  “That’s how we were designed, man; we’re supposed to communicate, to learn from each other.”

“MXs aren’t DRNs.”  Dorian watches John walk in, the corner of his mouth curving up when John nods at him.  “Rudy’s installed three different patches just to keep me compatible with the precinct network, let alone the MX hive mind.”

“Everyone gets upgrades,” the other Dorian says.  “You get information from them, they get information from you.  It goes both ways.”

“What’s going on,” John mutters to Rudy.

“Ah, there’s some concern that Dorian may have, well, infected the MXs,” Rudy says.  He’s not quiet about it, but there wasn’t any subtle way to ask to begin with.  “His programming is designed to network, the same as theirs.  It just doesn’t necessarily network about the, uh, same things.”

“The timing is pretty coincidental,” Peres puts in.  “If this independence only started showing up after Dorian came back online.”

“It’s one of the only instances of DRN-MX operational overlap,” Rudy agrees.  “Possibly the longest on record, given that the early military MXs weren’t adapted for state or municipal use until it was clear the DRN series would be removed from duty.”

“Shut down,” the other Dorian says.

“Killed,” Dorian adds.

“Well,” Rudy says, “many of the models were repurposed.  Their existence didn’t end with their removal from police duty.”

“Just the one they knew,” John says.  “The only one they remembered.”

Both Dorians look at him, and Rudy shrugs a little.  “Yes, of course,” he admits.  “I’m not saying it was a good result.  For anyone, really.  The DRNs displayed the empathy and compassion required of service professionals in a community environment, while the MXs weren’t designed for use in non-combat situations.”

“Hey,” the other Dorian says, and he keeps it light but he isn’t kidding.  “A little less of the past tense, there.”

“I was designed to render assistance,” the MX in civvies adds.  He sounds like any other MX until he adds, “Not to be used.”

John eyes him skeptically.  “They do sound a little like you,” he says.  It’s not right.  Hearing it, admitting it himself… it’s wrong.  Maybe because Dorian was so angry about them at first.  Maybe it made more of an impression on him than he realized.

When Dorian didn’t remember, that’s exactly what he called it.  Anger.  Rage, even, over a system that could shut him down for trying to protect people like him.  Then bring in replacements chosen specifically for their inability to act on similar instincts: emotionless, responsive to situations instead of people.  Uncompromising and uncompromised.

“The DRN capability for intuition and empathy naturally led to sympathy between units,” the MX remarks.  “It’s not unlike the MX capacity for group bonding in isolation: an adaptation that allows us to prioritize each other in unfamiliar or unpredictable battlefield conditions.”

“So you can function independently in the absence of a human hierarchy,” Rudy says.  “Sure, I mean, synthetic soldiers aren’t as useful if they shut down when there’s no one to give them orders.”

“I prefer ‘helpful’ to ‘useful,’” the MX tells him.  It’s the tone of someone who’s said it before, and John can’t help but remember all of Dorian’s complaints about the word “synthetic.”

“Right, yes,” Rudy says.  “Helpful.  That is… exactly the word I most associate with MXs.”

John exchanges glances with him, and when did he and Rudy end up on the same side of any cyber tech issue?  It would probably be more disturbing if he wasn’t surrounded by at least two people he considers more dangerous than Rudy on a good day.  On a bad day, he’s emptying this entire room.

“You think our programming is similar enough that we can share code?” Dorian is asking the MX.

“We were intended for similar functions,” the MX replies.

John doesn’t know whether it’s weirder to see Dorian talking to an MX, or to see the MX answering.  It’s more acknowledgment he’s ever seen either of them give the other.  Even watching MXs question the other Dorian in Pasadena didn’t look like this.

“The Synthetic Soul program was revolutionary,” the original Dorian says.  “In its time.  Parts of it have been integrated into almost every human-style interface since.”

“Sex bots,” John says, because he has no filter.

“Civil servants,” Peres says.  “Hospital and community caretakers.”

“Soldiers,” Richard says, and why he passes up the chance to take a shot at John is a mystery.  “You’re right.  You use the same network; there’s no reason information wouldn’t flow in both directions.”

“You wouldn’t notice that?” John blurts out.

Dorian glances at the MXs.  “They didn’t,” he says.

“They did,” Rudy says.  “They just--you just said, you noticed anomalous programming.”

“MX programming is less flexible than that of the DRN series.”  Richard’s uniformed MX sounds mildly disdainful, as usual, and John didn’t miss that tone in the other one until he hears it again now.  “We have self-generating code, but it follows specific parameters.  DRN code is less regular.”

“I could have missed it,” Dorian translates.

There’s a knock on the door, and John rolls his eyes.  “What now?” he demands of the room at large.  He isn’t expecting an answer.  He gets one anyway.

“I invited a friend,” Peres tells him.  “I hope you don’t mind.”

John doesn’t know her very well, but he knows that tone.  “Something tells me I’m going to,” he mutters.

He sees Richard and his MX look at each other, and if he hadn’t given up on reading Richard he’d think they have no idea what’s going on either.  He doesn’t know whether he should find that reassuring or not.  He has enough time to think that if Peres’ “friend” is yet another DRN then he’s quitting, before he opens the door and it’s so much worse than that.

Nigel Vaughn is standing there, smiling genially back at him.

John almost shuts the door in his face.

He doesn’t step out of the way, and no one behind him says anything.  The creator of the DRN series doesn’t stop smiling, but he does sound sheepish when he offers, “I should say, first, that I’ve spent a lot of time apologizing for the XRNs--”

John cuts him off.  “You knew what she could do,” he snaps.  “What the hell is wrong with you?”

“To be fair,” the man says, “I also know what the DRNs can do.  They’re not as different as I led people to believe.”

He leans to one side, looking past John, probably at Dorian.  “I’m sorry,” he adds.  He doesn’t sound it, but he does say, “If there’s anyone I should apologize to, it’s you.  I never wanted you to think that violence is inevitable, or that human fear of the unknown is insurmountable.”

“What do you want?” John demands.  “I thought you were gone, and I’ll be honest.  I haven’t missed you.”

“John,” Rudy says, and he sounds torn but John couldn’t care less about his hacker code or whatever.  “That’s really quite rude.  Don’t you think you should at least listen to his explanation--”

“No,” John says.  “Is this your friend, Peres?  Because you should be careful how you use that word.”

“This is my friend,” she says evenly.  “Let him in.”

John glares at him, but he steps back.  Not much.  Vaughn manages to slide past him without pushing, but it’s a near thing.  Everyone in the room is watching.  Not that they have much choice--it’s a small room--but everyone here recognizes the legend who created the first “soulful” machines.

Hell, most of them do more than recognize him.  John thinks everyone in the room’s met the man, and the MXs are the only ones he isn’t sure about.  John has enough problems with him to cover everyone who knows him plus some, so it doesn’t matter that much.  If at all.

“Hello, Dorian,” Vaughn is saying.  “And Dorian.  It’s such a blessing to see you again, both of you.  I’m sorry to hear about the departmental MXs, of course.  You have to believe that this was never the outcome I intended.”

John stares at him long enough to think, yes, he really just said that.  Then he wheels on Peres.  “You knew,” he growls.  “You knew all along, and you hid behind your stupid book club and your backwards police force!”

“Kennex,” Richard says sharply.  “She didn’t know.  You think she’d let them endanger Dorian like that?  Back off.”

“Yes, that was a terrible risk, of course.”  Vaughn is talking like he accidentally left the car windows down in the rain and Richard’s the one who cares that Dorian could have died.  “You know I was working on a fix for the DRNs; I never meant for the XRNs to replace them.”

Great, John thinks.  The world’s upside-down today.

“Nigel has been helping us connect DRNs with people who can help them,” Peres says.

“And with each other,” Vaughn puts in.  “They’re a family, you know.  Those connections are vital to keeping the Soul programming stable.”

“Do you think that could be what made it reach out to the MXs?” Rudy asks, but John’s looking at Peres.  The other Dorian has a hand on her shoulder--casual, but he thinks it’s deliberate.  She’s not exactly rushing to agree with Vaughn.

“Yes, certainly,” Vaughn says.  “And I think we have to encourage that if you want to bring the MXs back online.  How far do you think the code has spread?”

“Too far,” Richard says.  “It might be limited to the city, but we transfer MXs between bureaus all the time.  We have three shutdowns already and five more looking into it.”

“It’s there,” Vaughn says.  “It isn’t designed to be self-contained, any more than a human is meant to exist without companionship, without meaningful interaction.”

“If it’s there then it’s only a matter of time,” Richard says.  “Either someone finds it, or the MXs decide to cut their losses and stop the shutdown themselves.”

Neither of the MXs contradicts him, and John can’t decide whether that’s more or less unnerving than their protest would be.  It should be less, right?  They’re not supposed to go around correcting people.  But their silence feels like agreement, or judgment, or both.

“You have an idea,” Dorian says.  He talks to Vaughn like he isn't a traitor who screwed over multiple series of androids and Dorian personally more than once.  “You said we should encourage the network overlap?”

“Yes, without question.”  Vaughn looks pleased that Dorian’s talking to him, but in a strange way that gets John’s hackles up.  “Your code is spreading, but the MX series is getting it in bits and pieces.  You said yourself, it's initiative without responsibility.”

He's talking to Peres now, and his tone hasn't changed.  He's proud of them, John realizes.  He isn't happy to be forgiven--which he isn't, if anyone asked John--he's proud that they've figured out something he did.

They're all children to Vaughn.  His arrogance is hidden behind that grandfatherly facade, but it's vast and it’s dangerous.

“You want to give them responsibility,” the other Dorian says.

“Yes, exactly.”  Vaughn beams at him, and John rolls his eyes.  “Is there a problem, John?”

“It's Detective,” John tells him.  “And yeah, I've got a problem.”

“Kennex has a lot of problems,” Richard cuts in.  “Believe me, if we tried to list them we'd be here all night.”

John almost says, your face is at the top of the list, but he doesn't because Dorian’s listening and right now he hates Vaughn more than he wants to feud with Richard.  “You fucked over the DRNs,” he says instead.  “Your killing machine made sure no one would ever trust them again, and now you’re using them to subvert a whole new series of--”  

He glances at the MXs, but the only polite word that comes to mind is the one Richard used.  “Soldiers?” John finishes.  “No.  No way; stop using your children to do your dirty work.  You want bot reform, you campaign from the trenches like the rest of us.”

“John.”  The man smiles his gentle and increasingly disturbing smile at John before he says, “I'm in the trenches.  I'm just on the other side of no man’s land.  Not only for the androids, but with them.”

“What do you want to do?”  The other Dorian doesn’t sound particularly excited about having Vaughn “with them,” but he sounds like John’s Dorian when he’s trying to be neutral.  To not offend someone whose help he needs.

Or maybe he’s trying to get John to shut up and John’s reading into it because he wants to, who knows.  It’s not like he’s great at reading Dorian under the best of circumstances, and nothing about right now qualifies as “the best.”  He stops himself from looking at his Dorian just as he remembers that it’s supposedly one of his tells.

“I want to work with Rudy, here,” Vaughn is saying, “to further improve Dorian’s compatibility with police servers and increase his data transfer rate on secure networks.  Specifically, the one he uses every day.”

Fixing body language is a lot harder than it sounds: now he isn’t even sure if he wants to look at Dorian because he’s supposed to or because he isn’t supposed to.  He gives up and does it anyway.  Dorian looks over as soon as he does, and two things click immediately.

“Won’t work,” John says, before Rudy can answer.  “Dorian’s off the network.  They killed his access when he went private.”

As soon as it’s out he wishes he’d used a different word, but it’s too late now.  The second thing that looking at Dorian makes him remember is the fact that Dorian remembers.  This is his partner, the guy who’s been with him longer than it matters and through more than he wants to think about.  Dorian knows that, and he knows John.  John isn’t going to give anything away by looking at him that Dorian hasn’t already seen.

“Maldonado’s working on that,” Richard mutters.  It’s so dismissive that John almost misses it.

“And you said we’re under martial law,” Rudy adds.  “Which is illegal, by the way; you can’t suspend habeas corpus without a significant threat to public safety in the form of foreign invasion or civil rebellion.  All of us here, right now, we’re more in the spirit of what’s meant to invoke martial law than a shortage of law enforcement officers would be.”

John interrupts him, because otherwise he has to ask Richard and no one wants that.  “What’s your point, Rudy.”

“My point is that Captain Maldonado could reinstate a DRN,” Rudy says.  “In the name of public safety, enforcement reserve, what have you.  Dorian didn’t do anything wrong; he just got sold.  If you’re willing to loan him back to the division, in the event of dire necessity, he could be recommissioned.”

He reminds himself that Dorian knows him, and he makes himself look over.  Dorian’s already looking back this time, and he doesn’t look pissed.  “I’m not loaning anyone,” John says.

“No, well, of course not,” Rudy says quickly.  “You know what I mean.”

“She’s trying to push through paperwork to compensate you for his services,” Richard says, louder this time.  “All right?  You’ll get your damn partner back.  God knows you can’t function without him.”

“I’m sorry,” Vaughn says.  He looks politely surprised, but it’s nothing compared to what John feels.  “Was Dorian sold?”

“Wait,” John says.  “There’s something you don’t know?  Hang on, I want to enjoy this.”

“Does that mean I’d get paid?” Dorian is asking Richard.

“Technically, he gets paid,” Richard says.  They’re both ignoring Vaughn, and Peres is pretending she’s forgotten he’s there.  “But yeah, it’s monetary compensation for your work on the force, which is more than anyone else gets.”

“Department property receives housing, power, and maintenance,” Richard’s MX says.

“Property can’t be compensated,” the other MX says.  “Only compensated for.”

“Dorian?” Vaughn says.  “Have you left the police force?”

“No,” Dorian says.

“Good,” Vaughn says.  “Then you’ll be able to help the MXs.  Rudy, what do we need to do to reinstate his access?”

“You could ask,” John snaps.

Vaughn gives him a puzzled look that doesn’t fool John for a second.  “I did ask.”

“Me,” Dorian says.  “He means, you could ask me if I want to help the MXs.”

“Well, you do, don’t you?”  Vaughn doesn’t look impatient about it, just earnest in a way that makes John want to deck him.  “Your programming has allowed you to experience so much more than just the work you were designed to do.  Don’t you want the MXs to have that too?”

“This is predicated on the assumption that the MXs will be brought back online,” Rudy says.  “If they’ve been shut down because of anomalous code, I’m not sure that interjecting more foreign programming is going to convince anyone that the issue is solved.”

“Ah,” Vaughn says with a smile.  “You, of all people, underestimate our reliance on cyber tech?  It’s a bug fix, nothing more.  If you tell them it’s safe, they’ll believe it.”

Rudy gives John a look, and it’s more apologetic than nervous.  It’s true, after all.  Rudy fixes pretty much everything they break, and it’s not like any of them know how he does it.  A synthetic goes down, they send it to Rudy.  Whatever he does to get it going again is just his job.

Richard is the one who says it out loud.  “Yeah, that’s true.  We can sell that.  But how do we know you’re doing what you say you’re doing?”

“Well, I’ll have Rudy supervising me,” Vaughn says.  Just the fact that he doesn’t protest his innocence makes John glare at him.  “And Dorian will be able to give you a report afterwards.  You can even ask your MX friends, once he’s reconnected to the network.  At least anyone who’s still getting a signal.”

It’s the first time Vaughn’s acknowledged either MX, and the one he looks at is the one in regular clothes.  “I’m afraid you won’t receive any benefit as a result of Dorian’s upgrade, but perhaps you don’t need one?”

“My net is adequate to what I ask of it,” the MX replies.  Hell if John knows what that means, but maybe not getting it is the point.  He understands the MXs he works with.  He doesn’t like them, but he understands them.  Mostly.

Not this one.  Especially not when it looks at Dorian and nods, and Dorian nods back.  They both do a light thing, and John looks at Richard’s uniformed MX in time to see a red line trace its way underneath his skin too.

Now he’s paranoid about bots all over again.  It’s Dorian, he reminds himself.  Dorian knows what he’s doing.

“Excellent,” Vaughn is saying.  John’s sure it isn’t.  “Shall we go?  Rudy, I hope you’re willing to volunteer your lab; it truly is a magnificent workspace.”

“Hold on,” John says.  “Who said anything about going anywhere?”

“We’ll need a better interface than you have here,” Vaughn says.  “And Dorian will need to be in range of the precinct network to test the patch.”

“He’ll need to have access to it first,” Richard says.  “I’ll call Maldonado.”

John wants to complain that it’s the middle of the night and he’s exhausted.  He has a cabin full of crazy people, and he needs to wash the lakewater off his leg.  Not to mention the rest of him.  But most of all, he just got Dorian back a few hours ago.  He isn’t ready to go risking him again for a bunch of bots he never liked in the first place.

What he says is, “The hell did you all drive up here for, then?”

Richard actually is making the call, ignoring him in process which was probably half the point.  It’s his MX who says, “Secure police comms are compromised due to the MX shutdown.”

“We have a favor to ask,” the other Dorian says, when John looks at him.  “When Richard contacted us about the MX leak, we traded L Zone reports for your location.”

“He offered to give us a ride,” Peres says.  “He didn’t actually tell us where you were.”

“Is everyone’s phone broken?” John demands.  “What’s wrong with yours?”

“Dorian’s off the network,” the other Dorian reminds him.  “I can’t initiate a secure call to you without him to encrypt the other end.”

John frowns, but sometimes he does forget that not all DRNs are police bots.  He shouldn’t. Statistically, none of them are police bots anymore.  But Dorian is John’s normal, now, and it’s hard not to take what he can do for granted.

“Hard as it may be to believe,” Vaughn says, “I can’t just walk into a police precinct in downtown LA and not find myself subject to intensive questioning.  Possibly mandatory custody.  I’d rather not risk it, so I’ll need your help to get where we need to go.”

John isn’t interested in helping Vaughn at all, but he’s pretty sure the guy’s right about Dorian.  He won’t let the MXs die.  Regardless of what it means for the department, or him personally, he’ll draw a line between annoying the fuck out of the MXs and letting them take the fall he’s all too familiar with.

“What do you want?” John asks the other Dorian.  Mostly to keep himself from reminding his own that the MXs tried to kill him, and that’s a pretty big step up from mutual harassment.  Dorian will just say that it was his code that made them do it, so it’s not really their fault.

John is all about giving the MXs responsibility if it means he can blame them for the shit they pull.  Also, he can apparently have entire arguments with Dorian in his head now.  What does that say about their relationship?

The other Dorian looks at Peres, and she glances from him to John’s Dorian.  “We need you,” she says, when it’s obvious that she has everyone’s attention.  “After you’re done with Vaughn, of course; the precinct comes first.”

She looks at John and adds, “I need Dorian as soon as you can spare him.  I’m calling in my favor.”

The bottom drops out of John’s world.

Chapter Text

“We’ll meet you back your lab,” Dorian tells Rudy.  “Perhaps Mr. Vaughn could ride with Richard.”

“No, it’s fine,” Rudy says.  “I’d be happy to--”

Richard waves at him from the middle of his phone call, a downward motion like he’s pushing someone off.  “I’ll take him,” he says, interrupting whatever Sandra’s saying to catch Dorian’s eye.  “Your people can go with Rudy.”

“Thank you, Rudy,” Dorian says.  “Do you remember where the Nest is?  There are often late-night snacks left out for guests; perhaps you could go and see what’s there.”

“Ah,” Rudy says.  “Right.  I read you loud and clear.  I’ll just be--over there, then.”

“We will,” Richard tells his phone.  “Right.”  When he lowers the phone, he adds, “Next time, if you could not mention the name of fugitives while I’m on the phone with the captain, that would make whatever cover we come up with more plausible.”

“I’m not a fugitive,” Vaughn protests.  “I’ve done nothing wrong.”

“You’ve broken a lot of laws doing the right things,” Richard says bluntly.

“You’d know,” John mutters, and even he doesn’t know if he means it as an insult or a compliment.  “Also, leading your bots to war doesn’t count as ‘nothing.’”

“Turning them on each other in the name of our own war is no better,” Vaughn tells him.  “Should they not at least be able to choose what they’re fighting for?”

“Let’s go,” Richard says, jerking his head at Vaughn.  “The captain says Dorian’ll have network access when we get there.”

“Splendid,” Vaughn says.  “I’ve actually left something in my vehicle.  I’ll just pop out and get that, if you don’t mind.”

“We’ll go with you,” Richard says.  “Kennex, you’d better be right behind us.”

“I’ll pack up extra slowly,” John retorts.  “Just for you.”

“If we’re not back online by 0600,” Richard says, “the night curfew won’t be lifted.  Then things get ugly.”

“Yeah, I hear you,” John grumbles.  He’s not wrong, and no one wants to see a city that teeters on the knife edge of chaos at the best of times fall off.  It’s a long way down, and without military reinforcement, there’s no one to catch them.

They already have military bots assigned to every officer and detective on street patrol.  If they go any farther, there won’t be any going back.  LA could be the first major city in America to suspend civil liberties in the name of protecting them.

Richard’s MX follows Vaughn out the door, and Richard’s right behind them.  John’s not sure if he should be surprised to see the other MX go with them or not.  Does that mean he is Richard’s?  He dresses like he’s one of Peres’.  John doesn’t dare ask in case he hears something he’d rather not know.

“This isn’t an ideal time for a leave of absence,” Dorian says, as soon as the door closes behind them.

“A week,” Peres says.  “Maybe less.”

“There’s another option,” the other Dorian adds, and John’s only just realizing that they’re having this conversation now.  “You could give me your police protocols.”

“That’s illegal,” Dorian says.

The other Dorian smiles wryly.  “Yeah,” is all he says.

“Wait,” John says.  “You want to take him--”  He points at Dorian.  “So that he can--what?  Break someone out for you?  Cover your tracks?  Retrieve confidential information, destroy it, find someone who doesn’t want to be found?  What?”

“We need his help,” Peres says.  “Dorian’s right, though.  They could trade protocols and we’ll be on our way.  Completely even.  You won’t owe us anything.”

“I can’t do that,” Dorian says.  “Not without knowing what you want them for.”

That’s a pretty big concession right there, that Dorian would turn over confidential and comprehensive police access just because they tell him what they’re going to do with it.  On the other hand, he’s done it before.  It takes John two seconds to decide to bring that up again.

“You’ve done it before,” he says, and it doesn’t even sound like treason after they all just agreed to let the creator of the DRNs and the XRNs take a third crack at synthetic law enforcement.  Apparently they’re going to do a lot worse than hand over some detective-level police protocols to strangers before the night is over.

“That’s why I don’t want to do it again,” Dorian says.  “I thought Darren was just like me, and I was wrong.  We weren’t all meant to be police officers, John.”

“Yeah,” the other Dorian agrees easily.  “Amen to that, brother.  I don’t want your job.  But we need your codes.”

“We can’t tell you why,” Peres says.  “I know you don’t like that, but I also know you’ll understand.  I wouldn’t ask you to do something you don’t believe in, Dorian.”

John wants to ask what she thinks Dorian believes, but Dorian’s nodding.

“I know,” he says.  “You know I trust you.  But I can’t hand over access that was entrusted to me as John’s partner.  Especially now.”

It takes John a second to get that, and by the time he does they’ve already moved on.  But Dorian just implied that it wasn’t only a moral decision.  It isn’t just the right thing to do: he also doesn’t want to get John in trouble, and he doesn’t want to give Sandra any reason not to take him back.

Dorian is more committed to his job now that he can walk away from it than he was when it was all he had.

“If you come with me,” Peres is saying, “you’ll be a witness to everything I need you to do.  You’ll see what we’re using your access for and why.  And I think you’ll agree with our reasons.”

“He’ll also be an accomplice,” John points out.

“It’s better to know the consequences of my actions than not,” Dorian replies.  “If I do this, can you promise me that John’s debt to you will be expunged?”

Peres doesn’t hesitate.  “Yes,” she says.  Then she adds, “I promise,” and John didn’t realize he was waiting for it until he heard it.  She does know how literal bots can be, and she didn’t make Dorian ask again.

He doesn’t hate her any less for blackmailing them, but it isn’t his choice.  That’s the whole point, isn’t it?  It’s Dorian’s choice, and he knows everything John could possibly say: you don’t have to do this, and their problems are their problems, and you don’t have to repay society for giving you what you should have had to begin with.

Okay, maybe John wouldn’t really say that last one.  He’d like to think he’s that eloquent, but he knows he’s not.  He also knows Dorian would hear it in whatever he managed to grunt out anyway, because Dorian has always given him more credit than John ever earned.

“All right,” Dorian says.  “I’ll do it.”

“One other thing,” Peres says.

Sure, John thinks.  You can’t tell anyone, or you agree not to prosecute.  Or worst of all, you give up all your memories of it afterwards.  He’s not letting them fuck with Dorian’s mind, debt or not.  Not after everything he’s been through.

“You’ll have to be my Dorian for a week,” Peres says.  “I don’t want anyone to know we have you, and I don’t want you to get in trouble for anything we do.  So you and Dorian--you switch places.  You come with me, and my Dorian goes with John.”

“What,” John says.

“Of course,” Dorian says.  “That makes sense.”

“That does not make sense,” John retorts.  “That’s ridiculous.  He can’t come with me; the precinct will lock him out.  If Sandra gets you reinstated he can’t even fake it with my account.  Which he can’t have, by the way.  No offense,” he adds, shooting a look at the other Dorian.

“I think there was a little bit of offense,” the other Dorian says, but he mostly looks amused.

“You can’t go to work,” Peres says.  “Obviously.  You’ll have to take the rest of the week off, but you were planning to do that anyway.  Dorian stays with you, and all you have to do is not blow his cover before next week.  You get your Dorian back, I get mine, and no one’s the wiser.”

“That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard,” John says.  “What is this, The Parent Trap?”

“We’ll do it,” Dorian tells her.  “Why don’t you give us a few minutes to pack everything up, and we’ll meet you at the car.”

“Why do we have to pack?” John grumbles.  “Don’t you want me to come back here with Dorian?  You know, just to be realistic.”

“Actually,” Dorian says, “Dorian, would you mind carrying my charger?  We’ll make fewer trips that way.”

“He’s gonna need it,” John mutters.  “Might as well just leave it in the bedroom.”

“Sure,” the other Dorian says.  “You want it in the back?”

“Yes,” Dorian tells him.  “Thank you.  Natieri, do you know where the main building is?  Perhaps you could let Rudy know we’re almost ready to leave.”

“No,” the other Dorian calls from the other room.  “No wandering off, Nat.  Just because he told you to do it doesn’t mean it counts!”

John turns to glare at Dorian and finds Dorian glaring back.  “What?” he snaps.

“I was going to ask you the same thing,” Dorian says.  “This is necessary, John.  Your anger could be used more productively.”

“My anger is just fine,” John tells him.  “I’m the king of productive anger.”

“That must be a definition of ‘productive’ that I’m unfamiliar with,” Dorian says.  “Would you care to demonstrate what you’re accomplishing?”

“Okay,” the other Dorian says, shouldering his way back into the room with the field charger.  “Good girl.  Lead the way.”

Peres visibly rolls her eyes, but she holds the door for him and she pats the back of his neck as he passes.  She doesn’t say anything to either of them.  Right choice, John thinks.  She so much as looks at him right now and he’s going to warn her off of everything.  Secrecy, her mission, Dorian, all of it.  He’s done with Peres.

“You need to think this through,” Dorian tells him.  “You want to be done with Peres?  This is how we do it.”

“Stop reading my mind,” John snaps irritably.  “I hate this idea.”

“Yes, you’ve made that very clear,” Dorian agrees.  “Until you have an alternative, though, hating it isn’t enough.  All you’re doing is making it harder for me, and alienating people who’ve helped us in the process.”

His jaw is tight, and he doesn’t know how to make it stop clenching.  Dorian’s right.  It’s his choice or it isn’t, and if it is, then John needs to shut the hell up.  There are ways to support your friend, and there are ways to support your partner, and right now he isn’t doing any of them.

“What do you need me to do,” he mutters at last.

He sees Dorian take a breath he doesn’t need, and it makes him feel a little better.  He tries to smile.  “Sorry,” John adds.  “It isn’t--it’s--this was my deal, Dee.  I should be the one to pay it off.”

“It’s my life,” Dorian replies.  “I deserve the chance to earn it.”

That sets him back for a second.  “You shouldn’t have to,” he says at last.

“No,” Dorian agrees.  “But someone has to, and I’m sick of other people paying my way.  I want to do this, John.  It’s the best of bad options.”

John nods, and it feels wrong.  He does it anyway, and he means it as much as he can.  It’s the best of bad responses, he figures.  “Okay,” he says.  “You know I’m with you, right?”

“Yeah,” Dorian says.  “I know.”

John looks around, but they didn’t bring that much with them.  Most of their clothes are still stuffed in bags in the bedroom, and all that’s out here is food and dishes.  And Rudy’s holotrace, still running on the entertainment system.  “Do we need to shut this down?”

“John,” Dorian says.

He doesn’t continue until John’s decided “yes” and looks over at him.  “I know this has been hard for you,” Dorian says.  “Thank you.  For everything you’ve done.”

John lets out his breath in a sigh he didn’t see coming, and it comes out sounding a little like a laugh.  Or something much worse.  The last two weeks have been the strangest rollercoaster of his life, and he can only thank god it’s because of someone as worthwhile as Dorian.

“If we’re thanking each other,” he says, “then thank you.  For being the most stubborn and courageous person I know, all right?  I’m glad I’m with you.  There’s no other way to say it.”

Dorian smiles at him.  “I’m glad I’m with you too, John.”

“Yeah.”  He clears his throat.  “Well.  Don’t be too glad around Peres, okay?  She’s literally a bot-stealer, you know.”

“That’s a terrible joke,” Dorian tells him.  “You shouldn’t even think that’s funny.”

“Neither should you,” John says, because he saw Dorian’s mouth twitch.  “Admit it, I’m a bad influence on you.”

“Oh, you’re a terrible influence,” Dorian agrees.  “You’re lucky I’m stubborn and courageous.  And by the way, I’m familiar with The Parent Trap.  Don’t make your days off with Dorian too realistic.”

“Sure, whatever,” John says, because he’s pretty sure this is Dorian being jealous.  Or at least faking it decently.  “I’m sure we’ll watch a lot of movies and paint things.  Maybe he’ll even get along with Hal, who knows.”

The sad thing is that Dorian actually looks worried there, for a second, and John feels the ground slipping under his feet.  “I’m kidding,” he says.  “That’s bullshit, Dee; you know it.”

“Of course,” Dorian says, looking relieved.  “Of course I know that.”

“Come on,” John says.  “Let’s go stuff everything we can find in duffel bags and get out of here.”

“Like yesterday, but in reverse,” Dorian says.  “Is it all right to leave all these dishes out?”

“You’re the one who read the brochure,” John says.  “Do they have maid service here?”  He thinks about bots, and kinks, and invisible walls, and adds, “Actually, I don’t think I want to know.  It’s police business; they can bill us.”

Dorian follows him into the bedroom, and John thinks fleetingly that he’s quiet before Dorian says, “You’re not really going to come back here with him, are you?”

This time it’s definitely a laugh.  “Dorian, I barely came here with you.  Trust me, this resort vacation is over.”

There’s another long pause while John pulls his sweats out of the sheets, and when he turns to toss the other pair to Dorian he finds Dorian watching him with an odd expression.  “What?” he asks.  “What’d I say now?”

Dorian shakes his head.  “Nothing,” he says.  “I just--I know it was under false pretenses,” he says.  “But there were parts of it that I enjoyed.”

That’s not nothing, John thinks.  “Yeah,” John says aloud.  And then, because Dorian deserves to know, “That’s--I mean, me too.  I guess.”

Dorian smiles at him, and it makes John try again.  “It meant something to me too.  We should--maybe try it again sometime.  Under better circumstances.”

“I’d like that,” Dorian agrees.  

It’s awkward, but that’s what they do.  John feels better about it than anything else that’s happened since they got back here.  He stuffs yesterday’s clothes in with the clean things still in his duffel bag and turns around.

Dorian’s already got his duffel over one shoulder, John’s charger under his arm, and the crutches in his free hand.  John sighs.  “Put it down,” he says.  He drops his own duffel, and to his surprise, Dorian copies him without question.

John walks around the corner of the bed and kisses him.  He feels Dorian’s hands on his arms immediately, gentle and warm, and he moves in closer when Dorian parts his lips and doesn’t pull away.  Not bad for a bot who does what feels good, John thinks fondly.  He’d say so, but he’d rather be kissing Dorian.

It isn’t long before they’re just standing there, breathing each other’s air, but it helps.  He’d like to lock the door and push Dorian down on the bed, but he’s self-aware enough to know that it’s mostly because he wants to hold on.  It seems like the closer he gets to Dorian, the more things threaten to take him away.

“Hey,” he mutters, watching the flashes of blue twinkle under Dorian’s skin.  They’re just the slightest bit out of focus, this close.  “You trust Vaughn?”

“No,” Dorian says quietly.  “But I trust Rudy.  And I don’t think Vaughn would sacrifice me for an MX.  Even a hundred MXs.  The DRNs are important to him.”

“Not important enough,” John grumbles.

“You only say that because you love me,” Dorian murmurs, and his voice sounds like a smile.

John smiles back.  “Damn right,” he agrees.

Dorian pulls back a little.  Enough to look him in the eye when he says, “I love you too.”

John leans forward to kiss him again.  “Good to have you back,” he murmurs.

There’s a long moment where Dorian just kisses him back, and then finally he says, “I’m sorry to be going with Peres.  I think… I miss you.”

John chuckles.  He’s not even sure why, but he runs his thumb over Dorian’s jaw and rests his fingers on Dorian’s neck.  “You have to actually leave to miss me, you know.”

“No,” Dorian says.  “I don’t.”  He kisses John again, and it’s impossible to know if he means he doesn’t know, or if he does and he’s just--

“I can think and kiss at the same time,” Dorian murmurs against his mouth.  “You obviously can’t.  I suggest you stop one or the other.”

“Easy choice,” John whispers.

He enjoys it more like this, just kissing, just running his hands over Dorian’s sides and pressing at his skin under his shirt.  Just breathing, the slide of one mouth on another, not even trying to see because it’s all touch and taste, and feeling is the only thing that matters.  He presses one arm around behind Dorian’s back and Dorian pushes one leg between his, fitting them closer together, and it feels like safety.

Dorian’s hand is on the back of his neck and he doesn’t even know how it got there.  “You’re tired,” Dorian murmurs.

John presses his forehead against Dorian’s, closing his eyes the rest of the way.  “Yeah,” he mutters.  “It’s been a hell of a day.”

Dorian is quiet for a long moment, just running his fingers over John’s skin.  “I should drive,” he says at last, and it makes John smile.

“Yeah,” he repeats, pulling back to straighten up.  He can see how this is gonna go, though, so he says, “If I fall asleep, don’t get out of the car without waking me up.”

“All right,” Dorian says.  Not like he understands, but like he isn’t going to question it, and right now that’s enough.  “Richard says that if he gets there before us, he’s driving around until we catch up.”

“Yeah,” John says with a sigh.  What he wants to say is, fuck Richard, but that’s the tiredness talking.  “Don’t let Vaughn in Rudy’s lab alone.  That’s smart.”

He can hear Dorian smiling before he sees it.  “You are tired,” he says.  “I think you just complimented Detective Paul.”

“No I didn’t,” John says.  “Also, I heard you call her Natieri.  You don’t have to do the last name thing just because I do, you know.”

“It’s a way of maintaining distance,” Dorian says.  “Sometimes it’s practical.”  He doesn’t say, sometimes it makes you feel better, and John isn’t going to push it.  If Dorian’s fine with it, then he’s fine with it.  They’re done here anyway.

Rudy’s moved his car into the driveway behind theirs by the time they come out, and he’s standing next to the front passenger side door talking animatedly with the other Dorian.  It takes longer for John to find Peres: already in the back seat, her head tipped against the window.  The other Dorian isn’t wearing his coat, and John would bet that’s what she’s got tucked under her shoulder.

It isn’t just him, then.  They’re not all bots, and humans have to sleep sometime.  Except for Rudy.  John hopes whatever combination of caffeine and adrenaline he’s running on is enough to get them back to LA safely.

Dorian packs up the back of their own car while John checks in with them.  The other Dorian doesn’t seem alarmed that Rudy is planning to drive, so John doesn’t say anything.  The other Dorian, in turn, doesn’t comment on how long it took them to “pack.”  They don't bother with checkout, but the lights are off and the door’s locked, and John figures they can use the network checkout in the morning.  Might as well not look more suspicious than they already do.

It also doesn’t alert anyone following them electronically to the change in their plans, and John’s happy to confuse as many people as possible.  A little paranoia is healthy in their line of work.  In fact, considering their history, not being paranoid is probably the more dangerous sign.

He falls asleep in the car.  Dorian has the radio on low, and John doesn’t apologize.  He has to take sleep where he can get it, and Dorian promised.  He isn’t going to wake up alone.

“John,” Dorian’s voice says.  

It isn’t too soon, though he doesn’t exactly feel rested.  Most of the ride passed in that hazy land of half-lucid dreams where he and Dorian are partners and no one’s ever heard of synthetics.  He doesn’t know what it means that he dreams of Dorian in a world without bots.  He’s never told Dorian, and he tries not to think about it himself.

“John,” Dorian says, more quietly.  “We’re a minute out from the lab.”

“Yeah,” John mutters.  He pushes himself up, and only then does he realize how far he slumped.  “Any news?”

“Richard thinks we’re stalling on purpose,” Dorian says.

“You do the speed limit?” John mumbles.

“I drove twenty-seven percent faster than Richard typically drives,” Dorian says calmly.  “We should arrive ninety seconds ahead of him.  Rudy is four and a half minutes back.”

John can’t process any of those numbers right now.  “You broke the law?”

“I put the light on the roof and broadcast a police signal whenever we were in range of a precinct,” Dorian says.  “The more concerning question is, why didn’t anyone stop Rudy?”

“He probably jams speed traps,” John says with a sigh.  He pulls his seatbelt back and down.  “That’s his car he’s driving, right?  I think it’s invisible to cameras.”

Dorian doesn’t comment, and John’s just grateful that the city isn’t on fire as they glide along the mostly empty streets.  Night curfews aren’t as hard to enforce as daytime restrictions.  Twenty-four hour city or not, most of the population still sleeps at night.

They reach the lab first, and Dorian kills the headlights in the shadow of the building.  “John,” he says softly.  There’s a brief pause where John blinks and tries not to yawn and wonders if he missed a question he’s supposed to be answering.

Then Dorian says, “I’m glad I met you.”

John looks at him sharply, sleepiness gone in the rush of adrenaline.  “What are you doing?” he demands.  His words aren’t quite as crisp as his thoughts, but Dorian gets the urgency of it.

“I didn’t mean it like that,” Dorian says.  “I just meant, my life hasn’t been very long.  Not compared to yours.  But I think you’re the best part of it, and I just wanted you to know.”

John breathes in, and he doesn’t hit the crushing pressure that sometimes comes with panic.  It still doesn’t feel great.  “Just so you know,” he says.  “Humans sometimes say that when they think they’re not coming back.”

Dorian doesn’t answer, and John closes his eyes.  “Not funny, Dee.”

“It wasn’t meant to be,” Dorian says quietly.

John stares at the darkness in his own head for a long moment before he remembers what Dorian said about ninety seconds.  He opens his eyes again and tells the windshield, “I want you to come back.”

Then he looks over at Dorian, and for once the words come out the way they’re supposed to.  “You should know you’re worth it.  No matter what happens, okay?  You’re worth all of it.”

John isn’t sure if he expected a kiss or not, but Dorian holds up his hand instead.  He offers it the same way John does these days: every time something goes right, in the field at first, then even in the office.  The buddy handshake was the closest he could get to Dorian without drawing attention, so he did it.  Over and over again.

He does it now, clasping Dorian’s hand and lifting it to kiss his knuckles.  Maybe they both have some things to relearn.  “Love you,” he murmurs over Dorian’s fingers.

“I love you too,” Dorian says softly.

Chapter Text

Rudy and Nigel Vaughn are disturbing enough even when they aren’t talking about using his partner’s soul as a carrier wave.  It takes John less than three minutes to get kicked out of the lab after they arrive.  He doesn’t go but it pisses him off.

He tries not to envy Peres, still asleep in the back of Rudy’s car with Dorian next to her.  He isn’t a big fan of sleeping in cars, but it’s got to be better than being awake for this.  And they get to be the fallback line in case Vaughn goes crazy and tries to take over the world.  Boring, but so is the front line right now and at least he’d have better company.

“Hey,” Richard says, just short of banging into his shoulder.

John starts, and that’s bad news.  He can’t be that out of it.  Can he?

“Outside,” Richard says.  “Come on.”

“Fuck off,” John mutters, but he follows Richard because what else is he going to do?  He doesn’t want to leave Dorian, but bots have sensors.  If Dorian’s aware, he can see John behind the door just as well as he can standing next to the table.

“Look,” Richard says, closing the door behind them.  One of the MXs is standing at the corner, paying no attention to them.  The other is still in the lab.  “One of us should sleep.  I’d do it but you’re useless like this.”

“I’m not leaving my partner,” John tells him.  He can’t even bring himself to growl about it: it’s a statement of fact and nothing more.

“So crash on one of Rudy’s chairs,” Richard says.  “Or sit on the floor for all I care.  Just close your eyes before you fall over.”

John lies to himself all the time, but every cop knows his limits.  “Yeah,” he says.  “Fine.  Wake me up when something happens.”

Richard doesn’t.  Dorian does, though, and all things considered, John’s willing to forgive him for it.  He’s asleep on the stairs when he hears a familiar voice whisper, “Richard ate all the donuts.”

He doesn’t jump.  He knows that ache, the one that comes from leaning too long on a stair that’s meant for walking.  He’s fallen asleep here before.  It’s the best view in the lab when there’s someone on the table, and Dorian ends up there way too often.

“So you survived,” John grumbles.  The table is clear, and he winces as he pushes himself up.  There are definitely bruises on his back.  “Rudy should have a bed.”

“He does have a bed,” Dorian says, just as quietly as before.  “He says we can use it so you can get some decent sleep.  At least for the next few hours.”

John looks around the lab automatically, but they’re the only ones in it.  What the hell.  “What happened?” he wants to know.  Probably.  He thinks he wants to know, anyway.  Dorian is here and whispering in his ear.  Maybe he should just go with it.

But he’s had dreams like this before, and he needs to wake up before he gives in.  “Did you say something about donuts?” he asks, looking around again.

“I made a joke intended to provoke you into regaining consciousness,” Dorian says.  “With Vaughn’s help, Rudy was able to significantly increase my compatibility with the MX network and secure approval for a test push of the new code.”

“Uh-huh,” John says.  The lab is still empty, and the part where Dorian doesn’t make any sense is pretty typical.  “Is this a dream?”

Dorian tips his head to one side, giving John a small frown.  “Why would it be a dream?”

“Well--”  John waves around at the deserted space.  “This.”  Dorian is crouched beside him, his coat gone and the soft tourist tee stretched over imitation muscle.  “We’re alone?” John tries again.  “In the lab?”

Dorian raises an eyebrow.  “Does that often happen in your dreams?”

John tries to ease the bruises out of his back by sitting forward and he fails miserably.  He doesn’t swear, but it’s a near thing.  “Where’s everyone else?”

“Rudy’s gone to brief the captain,” Dorian says.  “MX-762 went with him, while MX-322 accompanied Richard and Vaughn on their mission to find an early breakfast.  As far as I know, Natieri and Dorian are still outside.”

It takes John a few seconds to remember.  “In Rudy’s car,” he says.

“Yes,” Dorian confirms.  

“Sounds uncomfortable,” John mutters.  He rolls his shoulders in an effort to draw the pain away from his lower back, but it doesn’t work.  “On the other hand--”

“It probably beats the stairs,” Dorian finishes for him.  

“Why didn’t you offer them the--”  John sucks in a breath and arches sharply when Dorian’s fingers press into the space above his hips.  “Mmph.  That’s.  Ow.  Stop,” he says, holding very still.

“Did I hurt you?” Dorian asks, letting his fingers rest warmly on John’s skin.  How they got under his shirt is unclear, but John thinks that if this were a dream he wouldn’t even be wearing a shirt.  “You look pretty uncomfortable yourself.”

“Ow,” John complains again, pulling himself up by the railing.  “Okay, do that again.”

Dorian pushes more gently into his muscles this time, and John closes his eyes.  “Yeah,” he says, wishing he could explain how good that feels without sounding like a porn star.  “That’s really good,” he says instead.  “Thanks.”

Dorian’s hands pause, still warm but not pushing, and John shifts his weight without thinking.  It spreads the heat from Dorian’s hands a little more.  It also makes him embarrassingly aware of another heat, lower down and threatening to swell.

“Do you want me to stop?” Dorian asks.

“Please don’t,” John says honestly.  “Seriously, you take your shirt off, and this is probably fifteen percent of my fantasies involving the lab.”

“You have fantasies about the lab?” Dorian sounds amused, but his hands resume their steady massage of John’s lower back and John grips the railing a little harder.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” he says.  “Just… catch me up.”

“It turns out that Vaughn wasn’t entirely forthcoming about the compatibility upgrade,” Dorian says, and oh, god, his hands feel good.  John can’t remember why they’re standing on the stairs instead of sitting on Rudy’s air mattress, except that he still hurts and this is faster than moving.

“What a surprise,” he mutters.  If it comes out a little unsteady, it’s just because he’s trying to remember too many things at once.

“He seems to have done everything he said he would do,” Dorian offers. “But he now claims it isn’t something that can be turned on, so once the upgrade was in place I immediately began pushing data on deeper frequencies.”

John gets stuck on the word “deeper,” which Dorian probably didn’t do on purpose.  Still.  Deeper frequencies?  What does that even mean?  There are two things that John wants deeper right now, and neither of them have anything to do with code or network transmission.

Dorian hits a soft spot and John bites his lip to keep from making an inappropriate sound.  Dorian’s fingers really do go deeper and his voice is quieter when he continues.  “My Soul programming is even now moving inside the network, significantly stronger than before.  Harder to resist.”

“You’re kidding me,” John blurts out, bracing himself when Dorian pushes again.  “Are you talking dirty to me in the middle of Rudy’s lab?”

Dorian’s tone stays low and promising when he says, “I thought I could use the practice.  Would you like me to take my shirt off instead?”

“No,” John says, before he even registers the question.  Then, “Yes!  Both.  You should definitely do both.”

John feels Dorian’s hands leave his hips and he has to laugh.  “I’m kidding,” he says, pushing off the railing.  “You can’t actually--”

He turns around in time to see Dorian pulling the t-shirt smoothly over his head.  “I can,” Dorian tells him, folding the shirt in half and tucking the middle into his pocket.  “Actually.”  Like he’s some kind of lawn worker, John thinks, and he probably doesn’t want to know where Dorian got that move.

“You’re not seducing me in the lab,” John says.  It doesn’t sound as sure as he meant it to.  “We might as well be at work.”

“As close as we can reasonably get to it,” Dorian agrees.  “You were interested in whether or not I masturbate at work.  I’m interested in why you’re so curious.”

“Okay,” John says, and it’s partially spoiled by the way he has to swallow before he says anything else.  “There’s a difference between fantasies and reality.”

“In terms of what you want?” Dorian asks calmly.  “Or in terms of what you think is possible?”

As a general rule, John tries not to think about which of his fantasies Dorian could actually fulfill and which ones are just hot enough to get him off when he’s alone.  Until recently he tried not to have any fantasies at all about Dorian.  The idea that Dorian wants to act some of them out is--

“I turned off the cameras,” Dorian says.  Lifting a hand to John’s face, he adds, “The doors are all locked.  I think you should open your mouth.”

John tries to look down at his hand, and it’s just instinct but it gets him nowhere.  Dorian moves with him, resting his thumb on John’s lower lip until he opens his mouth to say, “What?”

“Yes,” Dorian says, leaning in to kiss him like it’s the sweetest thing in the world.  

John is careful not to take it farther.  He lets Dorian kiss him because he wants to, because they want to, and it’s oh-dark-hundred on a Wednesday morning.  Why not.  But he isn’t making out with his partner on police property--again--just because Dorian didn’t die and now they get to take separate vacations for a week.

On second thought, John thinks.  Nothing wrong with a little tongue.

Dorian holds him up, strong hands kind on his stiff muscles, and John doesn’t have to lean into him.  He melts, little by little, into Dorian’s embrace.  His hands are on Dorian’s skin for several minutes before he realizes what they’re doing, and by then he doesn’t care.

So they’re making out in the lab.  Probably not the worst thing anyone’s ever done here.  John’s hard, but he’s too tired to do anything about it, so what does it matter?  He could stand here kissing Dorian until he either falls down or falls back to sleep.  Either one is better than what he was doing before.

“How’s your leg,” Dorian murmurs.  He’s close enough that it sounds like a feeling, like John’s actually thinking the words Dorian says.

“S’fine,” he mutters.  God, he wants to lie down.  He doesn’t even want to know how much of his weight Dorian is taking by now, and it’s still not enough.

“May I touch it?” Dorian asks quietly.

It seems like a strange thing to ask and John says, “Yeah,” from force of habit.  By the time he gets it, it’s too late to change his mind.

Dorian’s hand drops from John’s hip to his thigh.  The shock of heat and desire is enough to blast the cobwebs from the corners of his mind.  John doesn’t even realize how hard he’s holding on until Dorian murmurs, “Is that all right?”

John groans.  He tries to move closer, but there’s no space between them.  “You said my leg,” he grinds out.  The tingling is everywhere under his skin, a whole-body flush he didn't see coming and he's proud the sentence is as coherent as it is.

“This is how it feels to me,” Dorian says carefully.  “Do you want me to stop?”

John closes his eyes, trying to concentrate through the insane urge to push.  Jesus, he went from sleepy to burning up in the half-second it took Dorian to touch him through his clothes.  “No,” he growls.  “Tell me.”

Show me, he thinks.

“I choose which receptors fire,” Dorian says smoothly.  His hand rubs the outside of John’s leg, and it feels like he’s touching bare skin.  “I can light up everything at once, or in sequence, like this.”  He trails his hand back up to John’s hip, delicious shivers racing through the heat with every press of his fingers.

John tries to keep his mouth shut, he does, but damn.  He’s wearing all his clothes and he can feel Dorian’s hands like they’re flush against his skin.  Dorian really is half-naked, standing there, delivering a sex lesson on the stairs of Rudy’s lab.  John’s already panting; what’s another grunt or two in the grand scheme of things?

Dorian hums in his ear.  Vocalizing, John thinks, a little wildly.  He’s teaching Dorian to make noise.  He doesn’t know whether that’s weird or hot or just plain dangerous.

“We need--”  John breaks off with a gasp when Dorian lays his other hand flat across John’s stomach.  Not hot, he thinks fiercely.  Fuck.  Dorian could touch his nose and he’d probably get off on it.  What’s wrong with him?

“What?” Dorian asks softly.  He’s rocking his knee between John’s legs, but it’s a small motion.  John could brace himself and force Dorian back more politely than this.

“We need to move,” John mumbles.

Dorian takes this as an invitation to put his hand on John’s ass and pull.  It’s grabby and desperate but John is on fire and he’d be climbing Dorian if they were horizontal.  As it is he groans and tries to push Dorian back, which is a terrible idea on stairs but Dorian doesn’t so much as stagger.

It’s surprisingly unsatisfying.

“Not us,” John growls.  “I mean, yes.  Us.  We should--we should go, somewhere.  We can lie down.”

“Why?” Dorian asks.  “There’s no one here.  May I?”  The hand on John’s stomach has moved to his groin, and he bucks forward with the pressure.

“You may,” he mutters, because Dorian’s obviously going to do it no matter what he says.  Why are they even having this conversation?  He’s so fucking tired.

Then Dorian’s unzipping his pants and John is thrusting into the expertly twisted circle of his fingers.  It’s familiar in a way that only someone who’s watched him do it could be, but the slow creep of tingling warmth is shockingly new.  It’s the same feeling that pushed him over the edge the last time they stayed at Rudy’s, but this time he’s not close enough.  Now it’s just an agonizing itch that Dorian’s fingers can’t touch.

“My leg is messed up,” John mumbles, because he doesn’t want to stop this but he can’t ignore it either.  He needs that leg.  He’s not going to break it, not even for sex on the stairs with Dorian.

“This?” Dorian murmurs.  The warmth turns cool in a wash that prickles under his skin, just this side of uncomfortable, and it leaves him twisting into Dorian in a desperate attempt to soothe the cold sparks into something he knows.  “Or something else?”

“That,” John gasps.  “That’s you.”

It was supposed to be a question, and Dorian seems to understand that.  “I’ve tested the limits of what my body can perceive,” he says.  “According to the feedback from your leg, this level of stimulation is pleasant for yours.”  It’s already easing when he adds, “You’ll have to tell me if misinterpret the signals.”

“Yeah,” John grunts.  Because he’s so great at communicating what he feels.  “S’good.  It’s--”

The heat flares without warning, and his body jerks but nothing moves.  Dorian’s holding him so tightly that he can’t slide, can’t thrust, and he groans.  “God dammit,” he manages.  “Please.  Just--”

He doesn’t know what he wants Dorian to “just” do.  He’s pretty sure this is as close to bot sex as he can get.  It’s weird and fast and it doesn’t work the way he expects it to, but it’s hot.  It’s brought him closer to the edge than he thought he could get when he’s this tired.

He’d really like to get off.

“Did you know,” Dorian whispers in his ear.  “Most people develop individual but routine forms of masturbation that cause them to orgasm quickly and with relatively little effort?”  His grip loosens, enough that John can move, and he shoves gratefully through Dorian’s slick fingers.

“That’s good,” he groans.  “Just like that.  That’s great, Dee.”

He’s standing in the middle of Rudy’s lab, all the lights on, humping his half-dressed android partner.  Fuck.  They totally belonged at that kink resort, didn’t they.  He wonders if there were any semi-public but completely deserted places they could have done this at Cloud Nine.

“Yes,” Dorian’s murmuring.  “That’s how you do it.  Did you know that some people get so used to their routine that if they change it, they can’t get off?”

The invisible wall, John thinks.  The whole point of their backyard was that they could fuck in it without anyone seeing them.  Not soundproof, though.  People would be able to hear them.  He wonders if Dorian heard anyone doing it while they were there.

“Twisting your hand in the opposite direction, for example.”  The curl of Dorian’s fingers shifts, and John thrusts harder, pressing up to get a better angle.  If Dorian were on his back, he could drag as hard as he wants.  Then Dorian adds, “Or squeezing at the beginning of the stroke instead of the end,” and John suddenly starts listening.

It’s too late.  Dorian stops twisting him off at the tip and pulls at the bottom instead, fingers loosening as John pushes.  It’s backwards.  It throws him off, and the sound he makes in his throat is desperate and completely involuntary.

“Like that,” Dorian says.  He sounds very satisfied for someone who’s messing up John’s game.  “Can you go any farther?  You can’t push me over; you don’t have to worry about balancing.”

John pushes into him as hard as he can, wrapping his good leg around Dorian’s knees to open up the angle.  That’s when the nerve candy explodes through his system again, and oh.  Fuck.  That.  He’s going to fall down the damn stairs, and the EMTs are going to laugh themselves silly.

It’s hot and tingling and totally unsatisfying.  “Dorian,” he groans.  And there.  That works.  Dorian’s hand tightens on him and John thrusts hard.  It’s good, it’s great, he pushes again--

Dorian almost lets him go.  His grip is so loose that John reaches down to squeeze his hand, to squeeze himself, he’s so close.  He only needs a few more strokes.  Dorian doesn’t even bother to stop him.  His fingers stay curled gently around John’s dick, and there’s nothing John can do to tighten them.  He tangles their fingers together but Dorian’s hand doesn’t move: he can touch himself, barely, but he can’t squeeze.

“Dorian,” he growls.

Dorian’s other hand is on his lower back, strong and immovable.  Even when John scrambles, getting both feet on the ground, he can’t pull back.  He’s stuck right where Dorian wants him and he’s throbbing with it, desperate in the bright light and familiar screens.  Dorian had better be right about those cameras, he thinks.

“I appreciate that you didn’t try very hard,” Dorian tells him.  He looks slightly amused when he adds, “I think.”

John is gasping with every pull, trying not to moan out loud, and he shoves at Dorian in exasperation.  “I tried,” he says.  “I fucking tried, this is--”  He cries out, hot and wordless when his leg lights up with feverish lines of hot and cold that feel like the circuits under Dorian’s skin.

Dorian’s barely breathing.

John closes his eyes, the ache in his body pulsing like he’s going to lose it any second.  But he can’t, he can’t, because Dorian won’t fucking touch him.  “Come on,” he mutters.  “I can’t, what are you--”

He doesn’t finish it, can’t finish it, and Dorian leans in and presses a kiss to his bottom lip.  “You assume the goal is orgasm,” Dorian murmurs.  “The desire for orgasm seems equally pleasurable to me.  It seems like stopping here would allow you to experience that state longer.”

John groans.  “No, Jesus, what are you--no one wants to walk around hard, come on!”

“The prevalence of the condition in human males would seem to indicate otherwise,” Dorian remarks, fingers still teasing and terrible on John’s skin.  The squeeze at the base is starting to hurt and John still pushes into it.  Each time could be the time Dorian’s hand drags down him and wrings him dry.

“Your clothing is loose enough,” Dorian is saying.  “No one would notice, thus decreasing any potential embarrassment associated with--”

“Dorian,” John interrupts.  Everything is tight and painful and one more glowing wash of Dorian’s goddamned nerve juice could make him scream.  “I don’t--”  His stomach clenches, driving the breath out of him.  His body is trying to help, to push, but it’s never gone up against a fucking sexbot.  

“I don’t want to stop,” John gasps.  “I want to get off.  Please.”

Dorian looks at him like this is a conversation, like he can ask a question and get a thoughtful answer.  “Are you sure?”

“Yes,” John groans.  Because Dorian would do it, he would totally get John up and then let him walk around like that all day.  At work.  He’d probably make up excuses to keep John around people, out of the bathroom--he’d touch him every time John started to forget, and it would be--

“God, yes.”  John’s eyes are closed but he can see it.  He can see Dorian thinking it’s funny.  John’s going to have to learn to get himself off if this turns into a thing.  Without being touched.  “Please,” he whispers.  “Come on, Dee, please.  Please!”

Dorian’s hand closes on him, just firmly enough that John can feel him everywhere.  The racing cool of artificial nerves in his leg hits the throbbing ache that hangs over them and he can feel everything go hot and tight.  Dorian squeezes and releases, drags his hand up and squeezes again, and John writhes underneath it.  

Everything lets go at once.  He can feel it flooding through him, the ride and the rush and the relief of it all at once.  It pulses out of him and he’s going to need a new shirt.  He doesn’t care.  He doesn’t care about anything right now, unless it’s Dorian and his beautiful, frustrating, magical hands.

Oh, god, he thinks.  He hears himself say it and it’s shaky and rough, his heart pounding in his ears.  He doesn’t dare open his eyes, because wow, everything feels really good right now.  He doesn’t want to know anything that isn’t this feeling.

Dorian holds onto him, warm and gentle, and John doesn’t move.  He might stay here forever.  It isn’t uncomfortable.  It’s just leaning on the man he loves: solid, sweet, and more than he ever thought he’d have again.  That strange sense of home that he thought he’d lost.

“You know,” Dorian murmurs.  The words breathe across John’s skin when he drops his head to Dorian’s, knowing exactly where his forehead will be when they rest against each other.  “You look a little tired.”

John lets out an exhale that could have been a laugh, if he had more energy.

“Maybe you should go to bed,” Dorian suggests, and the overly innocent tone makes John’s smile curl higher.

“I’ve been saying,” he mutters.

Dorian’s fingers ghost over his lips, and he offers, “I think we did all right.”

John’s hand tightens on his.  He makes himself open his eyes, and the room looks a lot brighter than it did before.  “You just got me off standing up in a public space when I was about ready to fall over from exhaustion,” he says roughly.  “I’d call that a hell of a lot better than all right.”

“You don’t like public displays,” Dorian says, searching his expression.  “Was this too reminiscent of being seen?”

“No,” John says, because that’s what you say when someone gives you an orgasm and doesn’t ask for anything in return.  “Almost,” he adds.  Because it’s Dorian, and he’s not just someone.  “It was good,” he mutters, closing his eyes again.

“Would you prefer to talk about it tomorrow?” Dorian asks, more gently.

John prefers to talk about it never, but after he’s gotten sleep is better than before.  “Yeah,” he says with a sigh.  “Thanks.  Sorry.”

“It’s fine,” Dorian says, and John can hear the smile in his voice so maybe it is.

He doesn’t realize until he’s been dragged under by Rudy’s air mattress--it doesn’t matter what it feels like, he’s out as soon as he’s horizontal--that it isn’t fine at all.  The thought wakes him twice, fighting unconsciousness to reach for Dorian: he’s left to find a charger, he’s pulling a blanket over John.  He lets John draw him in the second time, curling against him under the blanket.

John holds on as hard as he can, because Dorian won’t be here tomorrow.

Chapter Text

The next time he wakes up, he’s alone in bed.

He doesn’t have time to be bitter about it, because he’s not alone in the room.  There are definitely voices, and the lights are on, and his first instinct is to pull the blanket over his head and ignore everything.  The fact that the instinct exists at all after years on the force and months of terrifying rehab is something of a miracle.

But John doesn’t believe in miracles, so he turns his head and glares across the room as angrily as he can.  He has not one but two Dorians, and he’s sure there was a woman’s voice just a minute ago.  No one pays any attention to him, so he pushes himself up and frowns at the air mattress instead.

Synthetic leg.  Yesterday’s clothes, minus the shirt.  That looks like his phone on top of Dorian’s field charger, and he can’t help wondering if that’s bad for it.  It’s a proximity charge, right?  What’s to stop it from frying anything smaller than a full-size police bot?

“John,” Dorian’s voice says.  John looks up, and yeah, he looks about the way he sounds: fond, but wary, like he’s not sure what John’s going to do.  “Good morning.”

John squints at him, then across the room at the other Dorian.  Huh.  That’s what he thought.  He frowns up at his own Dorian and asks, “Why are you wearing his clothes?”

He realizes what a stupid question it is only after it’s out, and he lowers his head to scrub his hand through his hair.  “No, sorry,” he mutters.  This day’s off to a great start already.  “Of course you are.”

The air mattress barely moves with Dorian’s weight, a testament to the thing’s construction.  It’s Dorian that matters, of course, and John leans into him when Dorian presses their shoulders together.  “Good eye,” Dorian murmurs, and John doesn’t get it for a long moment.

Then he blinks, and he wants to look again, but it’s not worth pulling away from Dorian’s warmth.  Of course he can tell them apart.  But since when?  And how?  They’re not only identical, they’ve deliberately reversed any visual cues he might have had.

“Yeah,” he says at last.  “No fencing matches for you.”

Dorian sounds amused when he says, “You realize we’re nothing like identical twins.”

John gives an incredulous huff.  “You’re exactly like identical twins,” he says.  “You’re the same blueprint with different souls.  Literally separated at birth.  Don’t tell me this isn’t like the movie.”

“Have you actually seen this movie?” Dorian wants to know.  “The parents play a key role.”

“Households,” John says.  “They switch to meet the rest of their family.  You’re meeting his, he’s meeting yours.”

“But you can tell us apart,” Dorian says.

“This may surprise you,” John tells him, “but I’m a detective.  I have skills.”

“You’re right,” Dorian says.  “That does surprise me.”

John can’t help but grin.  “What are you still doing here, anyway?  Not that I’m complaining, but, uh.  I wasn’t even sure I’d see you this morning.”

“I wouldn’t leave like that,” Dorian says.  It sounds matter-of-fact, not like he’s surprised John thinks he would or ashamed that he almost did.  It’s totally without baggage, and John’s almost forgotten what that’s like.

“Good,” he says.  It probably doesn’t sound anywhere near as neutral as Dorian, but it’s how he feels, so he’s going with it.  “I’m glad.”

“I brought your duffel bag in from the car,” Dorian says after a moment.  The other Dorian has disappeared, and John thinks he’s in the bathroom.  Maybe weird, maybe not.  He’s ignoring it as much as possible.

“I gave mine to Dorian,” Dorian says, more carefully.  “I hope that’s all right.  He’s borrowing the clothes you loaned me, but he’ll take everything home for me.”

It’s the second time Dorian’s referred to John’s place as “home,” and this time no one else is listening.  “Yeah,” John says.  He has to clear his throat, but he just woke up.  His voice is rough.  Sue him.

“John,” Dorian says quietly.  “If it’s not all right, he can borrow something from Rudy.  Rudy already offered; I just thought… this would be the most plausible option.”

“Yeah, it’s fine,” John says again.  “That’s not--”  It already sounds ridiculous and he hasn’t even said it yet.  “You called it home.”

Dorian sounds cautious when he replies, “The place where I live?”

“Hey,” John says, trying to smile.  “I’m a romantic, okay?  I like hearing you call it home.  That’s all.”

“All right,” Dorian says.  He’s smiling too.  “They do say home is where the heart is.”

“Sure,” John says.  “Go ahead, make fun of me.”

“I wasn’t trying to give you a hard time,” Dorian says, but he’s still smiling.

“That’s a first,” John says.

Peres walks out of the bathroom, and yeah, John guessed she was in there too.  He was trying not to think about it.  Now he wishes he’d put a shirt on already.

“Morning,” she says, which is probably fair since they’re both staring at her.  “Sorry to crash the party.  Rudy offered his shower, and it sounded pretty good.”

“Yeah,” John says.  He sits up and pushes the blanket back, nudging Dorian with his shoulder.  “You want to toss me a shirt?”

Dorian gets up off the mattress and John adds, “You sleep all night in the car?”

“As long as I could,” she says.  Her hair is fuzzy and loose instead of tightly pulled back, but her blouse looks clean and unwrinkled.  He’s almost positive it’s the same one she was wearing yesterday.  “Better than sleeping on a lab bench, at least.”

“Tell me about it,” John agrees.  He takes the shirt Dorian hands him, pulling it on as he stands up.  “Thanks,” he says, reaching out as Dorian lets his hand fall.  Dorian’s fast, and their fingers tangle together as Dorian steps into him.

Dorian looks at him, but that’s as far as he goes.  John’s the one who leans in for a kiss, just a quick brush of lips that’s probably still more than Peres needs to see.  But he has Dorian, damn it.  He’s taking these moments where he can.

“So, I realize this question is nosy and rude,” Peres begins.

John sighs, squeezing Dorian’s fingers before he lets go.  “Yeah,” he says.  “Don’t let that stop you, we’re all about rude around here.”

“Is it plausible for the two of you to have a fight?” she asks.  “Some kind of argument that would explain why you’re suddenly… less friendly?”

“Sure,” John says.

“No,” Dorian says at the same time.

They look at each other, and Dorian says, “I realize this is a difficult thing to ask, but it’s probably best if you stay away from people who know you as much as possible.  Your body language is very distinctive.”

“My body language is great,” John retorts.

“Yes,” Dorian agrees.  “At telegraphing the way you feel about people around you.”

He’s said that before, John thinks.  Hell, everyone John knows has said that before.  He doesn’t have as many friends as he used to, so it doesn’t come up as much these days.

“Whatever you can do,” Peres says.  “I appreciate how challenging this is, especially now.”

“Now?” John asks.  He’s not defensive at all.  He just sounds like this because it’s early and he hasn’t had his coffee.

“With the department so short,” she says.  “Sandra tells me the MXs are still offline.  Sorry to take Dorian too.”

John looks at Dorian, but he doesn’t have time to ask before the door to the lab opens and the other Dorian is suddenly there.  So much for him being in the bathroom, John thinks.  Less weird?  More weird?

“Rudy’s about to open,” the other Dorian reports.  “He says we can stay, as long as we don’t talk and we go out the back when we leave.”

Great, John thinks.  He has no idea what’s going on, and he has no partner.  The day can only go up from here.

“I’m ready,” Peres says.

“John?” Dorian asks.

John waves at him irritably.  “What, you don’t need my permission.”

“Can I get a kiss,” Dorian says evenly, and John sighs.

“Sorry,” he mutters.  “Yeah, of course.”

Dorian steps into him, kissing him with the same soft brush of lips that John used before.  “Be careful,” John whispers.  He puts a hand on the back of Dorian’s neck and presses their foreheads together, holding onto him just a moment longer.

“You too,” Dorian murmurs.  “I’ll see you in a week.”

“Come back,” John says, very quietly.

Dorian’s voice is just as soft when he replies, “I will.”

He puts a hand on John’s shoulder and runs it down his arm, and John straightens up.  He lets his own hand fall to Dorian’s arm, squeezing once before he lets go.  “I love you,” he mutters.

It makes Dorian smile, and that’s a beautiful thing to see.  “I love you too,” he says.

They’ve filled their sap quota for the day and John would do it all again.  He wants to do it all again, because it would mean Dorian isn’t leaving.  But he can take care of himself, right?  He’s got Peres.  He’s got a scrubber, if it comes to that.  John can’t see Dorian getting shut down again, he can’t imagine it, but he doesn’t know if that’s because it’s less likely now or if it just hurts too much to think about.

“Take care of him,” Dorian is telling his mirror image.

The other Dorian nods.  He doesn’t laugh, or smirk.  He doesn’t even roll his eyes.  He just says, “You got it,” like it’s an even trade and he’s making a promise.

John points at Peres, then at Dorian.

“Yeah,” Peres tells him.  The way he would, like he said it out loud and she didn’t need to hear it.  “Same to you.”

The lab door opens again and Rudy sticks his head in.  “Sorry,” he says.  “Are you leaving?  You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.  I’ve got five MXs on their way in and you know how well they hear.

“Oh,” he adds, into the flurry of activity that follows.  “John, Sandra--Captain Maldonado wants to see you.  She says she texted you a coffee date?”

John swings his duffel over his shoulder and grabs his phone off the charger.  He hopes that’s Rudy’s charger.  He also hopes his phone still works, and at least that wish comes true.  Sandra’s picture is at the top of the screen.

Coffee before work? her message says.  Gillian’s.

“Sandra,” he tells his phone.  “Now?”  He thumbs the side and puts it in his pocket, waving at Rudy.  “Got it.  Thanks for the bed.”

“Anytime,” Rudy says.  “I mean, anytime that I’m not in it.”

John’s phone vibrates in his pocket, but he’s too busy watching Dorian follow Peres to the fire escape.  “Hey,” he says.  He doesn’t mean to, he just can’t help it.

Dorian looks back, and John waves.  Dorian’s expression lightens.  He doesn’t smile, but he nods.  Then he reaches out to hold the door for Peres, the way the other Dorian would, and they’re gone.

He glances at the other Dorian.  He’s wearing John’s clothes, and he smiles the way John’s Dorian would.  John comes this close to saying, Don’t do that, but he hears Dorian talking about productive anger in his head--all you’re doing is making it harder for me--and he bites his tongue.

“You all right?” Dorian asks under his breath.

John glares at Rudy instead of snapping at him.  “Yeah,” he says shortly.  “Let’s go.”

He checks his phone on their way through the lab.  Sandra’s message just says yes, so he tells his phone, “At the lab.  Five minutes.”

He thinks about asking Rudy before they leave, but it occurs to him that he might be the only one who doesn’t know, so he glances at the other Dorian.  The even pace at John’s side is so disconcertingly familiar that he doesn’t even notice it.  “What happened with the MXs?”

“Inconclusive,” Dorian says calmly.  “Rudy’s still running simulations.”

He doesn’t know, John realizes.  But his Dorian would never say he didn’t know, so he made something up.  How much did they talk to each other about this?  How much is data transfer and how much is just… observation?

“Sandra’s meeting us at Gillian’s,” John says abruptly.  It’s what he’d say to Dorian, after all.  “As soon as we can get there.”

Dorian just nods, and Rudy vanished in the time it took them to cross the room, so they’re out of options.  They pass four MXs filing in and John doesn’t look at any of them.  He especially doesn’t look at Peres’ Dorian, and that should work, right?  Apparently that’s a thing he does, so maybe it looks normal.

Dorian doesn’t say anything when John unlocks Maria’s car, shoving his duffel in the back and closing the door again.  He doesn’t even raise an eyebrow.  John’s Dorian wouldn’t, of course.  He knows why they’re not driving a department car.

John doesn’t know how to tell him without giving the game away, and he’s not even sure it’s important.  Maybe he doesn’t care.  John’s Dorian wanted to do this, at least as much as any of them do: they have a debt, he can wipe it out.  He has a reason.  What’s this Dorian’s reason?  Is he just going along with it because Peres asked him to?

The questions John can’t ask bother him more than the ones he can’t answer.  Neither of them speak on the way to Gillian’s.  It’s not that strange; John tries not to talk before coffee on a good day.  And it works well enough that he forgets, when they get to the door, that another Dorian might do anything other than follow him through.

Dorian follows him through, catching the door John passes him like they’ve done it every day for months.  John shakes his head to keep from staring at him and looks around for Sandra instead.  The early morning crowd tends to mind its own business, so she doesn’t look out of place sitting alone on the back wall.

She glances up when John slides in across from her, giving him a brief smile.  There’s a cup of coffee on the table in front of her, and a button noise-canceler by her left hand.  She catches Dorian’s eye and nods once.

He nods back, sitting beside John with his hands folded in his lap.  John resists the urge to snap at him again, and wow, this is going to be a really long day.  He can’t stand someone imitating Dorian.  Who knew?

“Morning,” Sandra says, tapping the button and pulling her hand away.  She doesn’t care who sees it, then.  The quiet clinks and sharp greetings disappear instantly, and John gestures back and forth between them.  Sandra nods.  “It’s not private,” she says, “but given the climate in the city right now, it’s better than meeting secretly.”

“Curfew?” John asks.

“Lifted,” she says.  “We don’t have the patrols to sustain it; we’re still waiting for approval to deploy the day shift MXs.  We’re hoping to get it by this afternoon.”

“So it’s drones,” John says.  “And night shift?  Are any of them still out there?”

Sandra nods, wrapping both hands around her cup.  She smiles over his shoulder, and he looks up as a waitress steps into their sound bubble.  Dorian glances at her but doesn’t say anything.

“Good morning,” the young woman says brightly.  She doesn’t look worried about the obvious sound dampening.  “Welcome to Gillian’s; I’m Cabriese.  Can I get you something to eat this morning?”

“Yeah,” John says.  “Can I get a plain bagel and some peanut butter?”

“Sure, of course,” she says, with that smile she probably gives to everyone who asks for comfort food.  “Anything to drink with that?”

“Coffee,” he says.  “Please.  Whatever’s strong and not flavored.”

“House light roast okay?” she says, then adds the magic words.  “We have a double brew.”

“Sounds perfect,” John tells her.  He finds a smile and doesn’t look at Dorian.  “Thanks.”

“Sure thing,” she replies.  “Can I get anything else for you?”  

She glances at Sandra when John shakes his head, and Sandra’s about to say no, that she’s fine.  John can see the moment she changes her mind.  “You know what,” she says, “I could use something other than caffeine.  Could you bring me some eggs and syrup?”

“Of course.”  Cabriese doesn’t have a recorder with her, John realizes suddenly.  He wonders if they should have ordered from the counter instead.  “How would you like your eggs, and do you have any preference for syrup?”

“Scrambled, please,” Sandra says.  “Plain maple.  Thank you.”

She must have some limit on how many times she has to ask if they want anything else, because this time she just smiles and says, “No problem.  That’ll be right out.”

It’s quiet enough that John can hear her clothes rustle before she steps away.  “Nice canceler,” he says, giving the button device a sideways look.  “That yours?”

Sandra shakes her head.  “The department’s,” she says.  “Today is the kind of day they were made for.”

“How bad is it?” John asks.

She sighs, lifting her mug to smell it before setting it back down without drinking.  She doesn’t look as tired as she should, John thinks.  Not for someone who’s been taking calls all night.  She was up when he and Dorian got back from the lake, and first shift hasn’t even started yet.

“It could be worse,” she says.  “The curfew kept traffic down, but the lack of street presence today has drawn out local militia.  They’re on corners, at traffic lights--outside of schools.”

“Everywhere the MXs would be,” John says.

“Rich, poor, it doesn’t make any difference,” Sandra tells him.  “They’re everywhere, and they’ve got the weaponry to prove it.  They’re stopping a lot of people.  Not all of them are very happy about it.”

“And some of them are packing.”  John doesn’t have to guess; the city’s filled with people that think they need weapons to defend themselves from weapons.  If he had to choose, he’d take a tac vest over a sidearm any day.

“It’s only a matter of time before someone starts shooting,” Sandra says.  “Someone fires back and we have panic, maybe fatalities, with no one to send in.”

Because the “bullet catchers” are making their own decisions, John thinks.  But they’re not deserting their posts.  They’re out of control but they’re not stepping in front of trains, they’re not hiding in the back of the car.  They’re not DRNs, he thinks, and he tries not to feel disloyal about it.  He gives Dorian a sideways look anyway, and it’s intensely disconcerting to see his partner’s image looking back.

“I know you’re supposed to be on vacation,” Sandra says.  “But I could really use you and Dorian with the EMTs.”

John raises his eyebrows.

“I know,” she says.  “I can’t give him police protocols, and I don’t want you in that kind of situation.  But you have security programming, correct?”  

She’s looking at Dorian now, and he nods.  “I do,” he says.

“You’re not a member of my division,” Sandra tells him.  “I can’t order you to do this, and frankly, I won’t order John to do it.  But a visible police presence will provide medical responders with the breathing room they need to do their jobs.

“By law,” she adds, “I’m not allowed to deploy human officers to hot zones without bot protection.  You could provide that protection.  If you’re willing.”

“Of course,” Dorian says.

He can process faster than you think, John reminds himself.  Of course he doesn’t hesitate.  It’s on John to get out of this without looking like a bastard: because he won’t deploy, or because he won’t do it with someone who isn’t his partner.  At the end of the day it won’t matter.  He’ll be on the couch while the rest of his division is out there getting shot at.

“Obviously I can’t speak for John,” Dorian is saying.  “I’m willing to offer whatever services I can, but if John doesn’t want to be on the street with a security bot, I understand his reluctance.”

Sandra doesn’t waste any time either.  “John?”

“It’s fine,” he says.  It isn’t fine, but it’s better than the alternative.  “He won’t be able to radio in.”

“That’s all right,” Sandra says.  “I’m keeping all active bots off the network while we push code.  If they weren’t affected by the original interference, I don’t want to take chances with the force we have now.  The MXs are using their partners’ ID signals to call in; Dorian can do the same.”

“How long?” John asks.

“As long as you can,” she says.  “Regular shift, if you can pull it.  I’ll cover roll call for you.”

“Right,” John says.  “I meant, how long until the MXs are back online?”

Sandra shakes her head.  “No one can read the code Dr. Lom supplied,” she says.  “There’s no one to check his work, so we’re conducting trials and documenting as we go.  We can’t get approval to send them back out on the street without some kind of evidence that the fix worked.”

John eyes her.

She stares back at him, and no one has a poker face like Sandra.

“Okay,” John says at last.  “Are we ride-along, or chasing?”

“Chasing,” Sandra says.  “I need you mobile, back in a department car as soon as possible.”

“Okay,” he repeats.  He glances at Dorian deliberately this time, and Dorian nods back at him.  “You got it.”

It isn’t what John wants, but it’s better than anything else he’s got.  The last thing he wants is to sit around moping until his partner comes back, and he certainly doesn’t want another DRN with him while he does it.  This will keep them both occupied, doing something that’s actually useful, and it probably won’t compromise anyone’s cover.

If it raises Dorian’s profile with the department for a DRN to be seen responding while the MXs are down, well, that’s not nothing either.

They stay long enough to eat.  John needs food or more sleep, and he’ll take one if he can’t get the other.  Sandra looks like she doesn’t remember her last meal, probably because she’s running on coffee and determination, but Cabriese comes through with eggs, bagel, extra syrup and two packs of peanut butter, so John asks her for jam and honey and a couple more bagels.  They might as well take another round with them.  Who knows when they’ll see lunch.

Back at the precinct, he and Dorian bypass the bullpen by trading cars and heading out as soon as they arrive.  He tags Maria’s car as his personal vehicle and smiles when he slides into the driver’s seat of his department car.  “Home sweet home,” he mutters, fishing around in the pocket of his coat for his St. Christopher medallion.

There’s too much chain, and it clinks when he pulls it out.  Dorian looks over as John stares at it: not Christopher, but Michael.  There were two medallions in his pocket.  He flips it over without thinking, and a letter glitters up at him from the smooth side.


Dorian, he thinks.  It’s the only coherent thought in his mind.

He doesn’t know how long he sits there, but Dorian finally leans over to look at it too.  “St. Michael,” he says.  Like it’s obvious, like it’s… anything to him at all.  “Patron saint of police officers.”

John clears his throat, rubbing the front and back with his thumb before looping it over the rearview mirror.  “Yeah,” he says roughly.  “Present from Dorian.”

There’s an odd pause, and he looks over in time to see Dorian glance at the point camera closest to him.  “They don’t work,” John says.  “Interior visual is fuzzy, audio is external only.  Quirk of the car.”

“I see,” Dorian says.

John keeps his mouth shut, but Dorian sees it anyway.

“What?” he asks.  “That’s the third time this morning.  What are you not saying?”

“Don’t do that,” John snaps, because he can only be pushed so far.  “That’s what I’m not saying, okay?  You sound like him, and I’m trying not to--you know.  Freak out about it.”

“Okay,” Dorian says, surprising him.  Then, “I’m sorry.  I shouldn’t have asked.”

It’s so far from what John expected that he stares out the windshield for a long moment.  “No,” he says at last.  “I shouldn’t have--you can ask.  If you can ask anywhere, it’s in the car.  Or at--”  He can’t quite bring himself to say at home.  “At the house.”

“Thank you,” Dorian says evenly.  “I appreciate that.”

It doesn’t even sound like Dorian, John thinks. He doesn’t know this guy.  He gets that.  It still feels like he should, and he isn’t sure which is more confusing: when Dorian does seem familiar, or when he doesn’t.

“Look,” he tells the windshield.  “I know this is bad.  I’m not trying to make it worse.”  He hears his Dorian say evidence to the contrary in his head.  “So if there’s something I can do, let me know.”

“I will,” Dorian agrees without hesitation.  “And if it matters?”  There’s more of a pause this time, though not enough for John to decide whether or not to answer.  “I think this is worth it.”

John starts the car to cover the sound of his disbelief.  “Oh yeah,” he says, glancing at the flash of silver in the corner of his eye.  “Totally worth it.”

Chapter Text

In the end, it turns out to be worth it.  Dorian comes back two days early, which is good because John worked through the weekend and pretty much hates everyone at this point.  He figures the division is so relieved when he asks for Monday off that they’ll cover for him without question.

Valerie saw through them on day one, of course.  She says she heard something in the way Dorian said his name over the radio, and John doesn’t want to know any more than that.  Sandra approved the switch and Richard isn’t stupid, but the rest of Delta thinks he and Dorian are having some kind of meltdown.  There are bets on which of them will snap first.

John thinks it’s a little unfair, given that he and the other Dorian actually work together better than expected.  They only yell at each other when things go to hell, which is often, and when one or the other of them can’t stand it anymore, which is most of the time.  But in between they manage to save three people, arrest two more, and not get shot, which John thinks is damned impressive for a team right out of the gate.

He gets the call at four in the morning, which figures.  He’d be more pissed about it if it wasn’t exactly what he wanted to hear: Dorian and Peres are done.  They want to meet.  The other Dorian is hanging over his shoulder, beaming at the holoscreen, and John can’t even bring himself to be annoyed.

They arrange to be at JPL by five-thirty.  Peres offers to call it in, but she’d have to go through Old Town to do it and John’s not sure they want this to look official anyway.  It’s too late to keep him and Dorian from being associated with the IRC, so they might as well own their friends.

After five days, he’s willing to call the other Dorian his friend.  John knows more about him now than he thought he’d want to, but they were together all day every day.  You either bond or you kill each other, he thinks.  And Dorian’s damned hard to kill.

They meet in one of the Caltech courtyards, and Peres takes them inside.  Her authorization must cover all of them because John doesn’t have to scan his badge, and he watches both Dorians playing a shell game out of the corner of his eye.  They step around each other at every corner and door, keeping the visual of them on camera tight enough to cover their individual ID signals.

He figures they know what they’re doing when it comes to confusing technology.  He mostly likes the excuse to watch them--watch him--because Peres’ office is buried in some kind of maze he hopes he never has to navigate again.  It takes them ten minutes to get anywhere with a door they can close.

“Home sweet home,” Peres says at last, ushering them into her office.  “Please come in.”

When the door closes behind her, she adds, “Pam, pause AV surveillance.”

A disembodied voice replies, “Surveillance paused.”

“No cameras or mics,” Peres tells them.  That’s as far as she gets before Dorian--her Dorian--reaches out to ruffle her hair, and she bats his hand away with an honest-to-god laugh.  “What are you, five?  I haven’t missed you at all!”

John thinks it’s the first time he’s heard her sound happy.

“That’s a lie,” her Dorian is saying.  “You miss me all the time.  Are you done?”

“We’re done,” she says, and John knows it means something.  He should probably care.  But right now he thinks it’s bad to be too self-conscious to hug his partner, and that only makes him more self-conscious, so any hope of making this graceful is lost.

He thrusts his hand out to Dorian, because at least that’s something they know.  The buddy handshake is something they can do, because it’s something they know how to be.  And Dorian clasps his hand like always, squeezing too hard like always--and he drags John’s hand up to his lips and kisses his knuckles, right there in front of everyone.

Well, two people.  In front of two people who aren’t paying any attention to them, and wouldn’t care if they were.  John isn’t quite brave enough to step closer, but it keeps him from pulling away.

“I missed you,” he tells Dorian.  He wants to say, I didn’t realize how much of it was you.  How much you make what we do worthwhile.  How much it matters that you’re the one in the passenger seat, on the couch, in my bed.

He doesn’t say it, because he can barely grab Dorian’s hand in front of other people, let alone spill his awkwardly wordless heart.  But he thinks it.  Someday, maybe, he’ll find a way to show it.

“I missed you too,” Dorian says with a smile.  “How many times did you get shot at while I was gone?”

“I lost count,” John tells him.  “How many kittens did you rescue?”

Dorian doesn’t pause.  “At least five,” he says.  “Depending on what age you consider to be transitional between kitten and cat.”

They’re still holding hands, and John can only take so much.  He pulls Dorian in and puts an arm around his shoulders, clapping him on the back and squeezing his hand as he does so.  Dorian doesn’t even pretend, just hugs him back like it’s the most obvious thing in the world.

No one calls them on it.  They’re on friendly territory, here, and maybe John’s going to have to start marking the difference.  He should at least start keeping track of Dorian’s friends, where they live and what they do.  What they’re willing to accept.

It isn’t lost on John that, by and large, it’s his own friends that are likely to be the problem.

He and Peres pretend not to watch Dorian switch clothes with Dorian.  He thinks Peres is better at pretending, but he’s better at actually not doing it.  Pretending probably makes her forget she’s not supposed to, while he has months of practice at denying there’s anything interesting under Dorian’s clothes at all.

His partner, John decides when they’re done, has a knack for making other people look overdressed.  Not to mention feeling  overdressed.  Or, he thinks ruefully, maybe that’s just him.

They exchange a brief round of “thank yous,” which John finds somewhat insulting given that he has no idea what he’s thanking them for.  Peres offers to walk them out, but Dorian says it looks better if she stays where she is.  John doesn’t ask.

It isn’t until they’re outside, surrounded by almost as much camera coverage as the building had inside, that Dorian says, “Sorry it’s so early.”

John shrugs it off.  “Worth it,” he says.  He catches Dorian’s eye and it’s enough until they’re in the car.

Dorian goes straight to the medallion on the mirror.  “You found it,” he says.

“Sneaky,” John agrees.  “When did you do that?”

Dorian’s smiling, so the words must have come out right.  “In town, the day before we left.  When we met Islay.”

“Yeah?”  He can’t kiss Dorian in a university parking lot, so he locks his seatbelt in place and starts the car.  “You buy this with the shot glass?”

“Technically, you bought it,” Dorian says.

John takes a hand off the wheel to point at him as they pull out.  “Surprise,” he says.  “You now get a salary.”

Dorian sounds justifiably skeptical.  “I do?”

“Kind of,” John says.  “Technically, it’s listed on my paycheck as compensation for personal tech deployment, but I set it up to go to a separate account.  Oh,” he adds, like he just remembered.  “By the way, you have an account now.”

The effort makes Dorian smile.  “Thank you,” he says.  “Does that mean I get to keep my badge?”

“Yup,” John says.  “Badge, weapons, uniform.  All of it.  They wanted to dump some updated protocols in your brain, but--”  He waves over his shoulder, vaguely indicating the campus they’re leaving.  “Sandra said no transfers until the MXs are stable.  And Rudy says he can certify you without overwriting anything, so.”

Dorian doesn’t say anything, and it’s not like he takes a long time to think about things, so John glances over at him.  “If you want to,” he says.  “Your call.  You know that, right?”

“I want to,” Dorian says.  “I was just thinking… there was a time when it was all I wanted.  To be a cop.  To be someone’s partner, and to find meaning in the work we do.”

“Not now?” John asks, keeping his eyes on the road this time.

“I still want that,” Dorian says.  “But I want other things too.  To be your partner, specifically.  And not just at work.  To be with you and have it be okay.  Not just for us, but for the rest of the city as well.”

Well, aim high, John thinks.

What he says is, “Sounds like a thing worth having.”

“Yes,” Dorian agrees.  “Thanks to you.”

“Hey,” John says.  “Thanks to you.  I didn’t do anything except need a smarter bot.”

“You did everything,” Dorian says.  “You listened to me.  You defended me.  You treated me like the partner I wanted to be, and you’re why I want the things I want now.”

You’re why I want the things I want now, John thinks.  “Yeah,” he says aloud.  “I hear you.”

He gets through to the department just after six.  If there’s any justice, Sandra is sleeping, so he sends his “personal day” notification to Valerie too.  He skips Richard, more to piss him off at this point than out of real malice, but Valerie says no one will mind.

“Tell Dorian welcome back,” she adds before she hangs up.

Dorian tilts his head, and before John can explain he asks, “Why should I be welcomed back?”

John mouths the words, she knows, in the direction of the windshield, and Dorian picks it up regardless.  “You know?” he says curiously.  “Did John tell you?”

“No,” John says, and Valerie echoes him.

“It was you,” she says.  “Well, not you, I guess.  You said John’s name the same way every time.”

“No,” Dorian says, frowning.  “We talked about that.”  And see, John was trying to pretend he didn’t know that.  “He copied the way I say John’s name exactly.  It shouldn’t have sounded any different.”

“It didn’t,” Valerie agreed.  “It was very nice, very friendly, but it was always exactly the same.  Like you’d recorded yourself saying John’s name and you just played it, over and over again, where anyone could hear.”

That’s a little creepy, John thinks.  He can’t tell which is worse: the two of them talking about it, or the fact that he didn’t notice what Valerie picked up on immediately.  “I couldn’t tell,” he says aloud.  “Does that make me a bad boyfriend?”

“No, John,” Dorian says, without missing a beat.  “The fact that you listen to pop punk makes you a bad boyfriend.”

He hears Valerie laugh over the phone, and somehow--he has no idea how--he forgot that she didn't know.  Doesn't know.  Five days of pretending that a Dorian he’d barely met was actually his Dorian, and when they pull it off, what’s the first thing he does?  He starts outing them to all of their coworkers.

“Don’t let him rule the radio, Dorian,” Valerie is saying.  “You fight for your half of the speakers.  Sharing is what all good relationships are built on.”

“Stop giving him ideas,” John complains.

“Stop contacting me before roll call,” she counters.

He concedes that point.  He apologizes to Dorian as soon as she’s gone, but Dorian doesn’t have a problem with the slip.  Of course.  He’s probably told half the division by now.

Except that Dorian doesn’t draw attention to himself, as a general rule.  He’ll call out in meetings with the best of them, but he doesn’t gossip.  Anything he has to report goes to John, and he takes it to Sandra when John’s not available.  Everything else?  Stays with him.

“So,” John says.  He’s not sure he wants to ask this question.  He’s not sure he wants to know the answer, and he’s not sure what he wants the answer to be.  “Do we tell them, then?”

Dorian shrugs, not looking at him.  “We might consider not… not telling them,” he says carefully.

“Not go one way or the other,” John guesses.  “You want to drop the whole pretending we’re not dating thing and just go on with our lives?”

“There aren’t any rules against it,” Dorian says.

“There aren’t any rules against pushing people down stairs,” John retorts.  “Doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.”

“It was your suggestion,” Dorian points out.

“It’s dangerous,” John counters.  “What if someone doesn’t like the whole partner-with-partner idea?  We can’t just change our minds, say, oh, it isn’t what we thought after all.”

“First off,” Dorian says, “of course we can.  That’s the nature of a mutual relationship.  Second, I’m prepared for the consequences.  Are you?”

Instead of winding him up, it has exactly the opposite effect.  John smiles.  “Are you trying to provoke me into taking a challenge I think is a bad idea?”

“Is it working?” Dorian counters.

John rolls his eyes, because Dorian knows him well enough to know he doesn’t have to ask.  They got into this because John can’t back down and Dorian won’t.  And so far it’s kept them going, so he’s not about to question it.

“Hell yeah,” John tells him.  “I think it’s working great.”