Amelia Claremont. He remembered her so clearly, even now: her laughter, her brilliance, all the magnetic forces that had drawn him to her from the moment they'd met. His one great love, by all conventional definitions. But Destiny hadn't been working in their favour. In the end they'd been forced to part and to pursue separate courses through the midnight forest, only occasionally sharing the comfort of a smile flashed across the intervening wilderness.
And thus he was alone now, save for an inhuman grace that had been drawn from some distant land to walk at his side. He could steal glances at its smooth limbs and shining eyes, but he knew that if he dared reach out to touch its opal horn it would shy away and vanish, leaving only an echo of moonlight behind.
"KITT's Lambda functions are five full points out of phase with the hardware."
Thirteen words, and a fate was effectively sealed. Bonnie promised that she would do her best to pull off a miracle yet again. Everybody nodded and made appropriate noises of faith and encouragement.
KITT only looked frightened for a moment before rolling up his sleeves and diving right back into the work at Bonnie's side. Michael and Devon, who had no role to play, contented themselves with a shared glance. Devon had never seen KITT's former driver appear more grim, and he knew he wasn't looking much better himself.
"It'll be fine," Michael asserted as they took their leave from the lab. Devon only nodded, his mind already a million miles away.
The mind of Peter DeVries hadn't survived its transplant into the car's CPU, at least not for long. Only fragments remained, enough for Bonnie to determine that they weren't written in any coherent programming language and thus were likely to be traces of a human presence.
In spite of all the logistical problems that were now on the table, Devon was actually relieved to hear that KITT's stats were too far off the beam to risk making the re-implantation attempt. He'd been steeling himself against the ordeal of watching it from afar for what felt like an eternity, trying not to think about what would happen if it failed.
Under normal circumstances he wished Bonnie every success in her endeavours. This time…
Well. This was as far from normal circumstances as he could imagine.
Michael took a sip of vending machine coffee, briefly grimacing at the taste, before ducking his head to peer through the little window in the door leading into the robotics bay. "Devon, I've never seen him this scared before. Not even after the acid pit."
Devon's gaze was already fixed on the back of KITT's neck where he bent over piece of equipment, helping Bonnie with endless calibrations. "Can you honestly blame him? He's determined to go ahead with the procedure if at all possible, and even if it ispossible it may well end up killing him."
Michael winced again. "Yeah. I know. I've been trying real hard not to think about that."
"And yet," Devon continued, "he's keeping calm and carrying on with admirable tenacity." He turned his attention to Michael with a small smile that concealed his own sinking heart. "Working with you again means everything in the world to him: he'd hazard any danger on that account."
Still peering into the bay, Michael shook his head. "It's not worth it. It's not worth his life. But I can't talk him out of it, no matter how hard I try. It's like he's tuning me out, only hearing what he wants to hear."
He reached out and laid a consoling hand on the driver's leather jacketed left arm. "He loves you, Michael. That's all that matters to him in the end."
Michael's lips tightened into a grim line. He nodded, but did not reply.
Two nights later Devon woke abruptly shortly after one a.m., prompted by a clear intuition that something wasn't where it should be in his domain. He freshened himself up and got dressed and set off into the halls of the mansion, trusting his intuition to guide him — which it did, to a darkened gallery overlooking the gardens where an isolated figure stood at one tall window, silently watching snow descend from the ebony sky.
"KITT?" His traitorous heart leaped into his throat but he found his feet moving closer anyway, taking him across the marble floor nearly silently. "What are you doing up so late?"
"Thinking, of course." His usually expressive voice was muted, save for what might have been irritation. "It's all I seem to be good for these days."
He stopped about a foot away from KITT's left shoulder, studying his profile and finding more weariness there than he'd ever seen before — and something much more troubling, a quality of tautly held pain. "You look exhausted. You should be in —"
"I suppose I should." He continued to observe the rare snowfall, each flake unique. "But I simply can't face it tonight. Strange, how a bed can be so much more lonely than a deserted parking garage. I used to hate spending nights trapped with so many other parked vehicles — it was like whiling away the hours in the presence of a herd of brainless corpses. But now…" A sharp inhalation, a slow sigh. "Oh, what I wouldn't give to be there again!"
He pitched his voice to a soothing timbre: "You will be, very soon."
It was a not-quite-human laugh, subtly wrong yet gorgeously musical for all its bitterness. "Oh, please! Were we listening to the same report? Because I can assure you, the data itself is even less promising."
"My dear boy…" He reached out and laid a steady hand on KITT's left shoulder, feeling the finely boned fragility of it, as compelling in its own way as the rigour of steel. "You mustn't give up hope just yet. Bonnie has assured me that she's very close to a breakthrough, and —"
"And?" He turned a fierce gaze on the man who to all intents and purposes owned his former body, his wide eyes nearly insolent in their directness. "Michael isn't here — surely we can discuss the matter truthfully, without being concerned with sparing his feelings? The fact is that every second I'm trapped in this body makes extraction that much less likely." The fire in his gaze suddenly dimmed to embers, and he looked out at the night again, turning as brittle as glass beneath Devon's hand. "It may no longer even be possible. And if it isn't…"
Devon had always been able to detach himself emotionally from any given situation: it was a skill that had made him a superlative intelligence operative. But this being's pain twined around his heart and held it fast. "There'll always be a place for you here, KITT. I promise you that."
"What if I don't want a refuge?" KITT countered almost tonelessly. "Without my speed, my strength, my futuristic capabilities, I'll be useless — to everyone. What if I wanted to be deactivated?"
It took him a second to process that statement, and when he did a hot chill raced through his entire body. "No. That's quite impossible."
"Why?" Another bark of laughter, much harsher; he looked down at the floor, his shoulders squaring with rising determination. "After all, it's not like I'm a real person. Peter DeVries is effectively dead: I'm just a ghost trapped inside his shell. What if I can't bear the burden of mortality? What if I wanted to be free?" He turned clear green eyes to Devon's face, speaking crisply. "Michael wouldn't help me. Neither would Bonnie. It would be up to you, Devon. You're the only one I can —"
He shook his head sharply and decisively, his heart choking his voice. "No! I won't do it. I won't help you commit suicide!"
"Why ever not?" He seemed genuinely curious, studying Devon's expression with a cooler edge to his jade eyes. "I should think you've have a vested interest in wrapping the project up as neatly as possible. I'd no longer be capable of fulfilling Wilton Knight's mandate. I'd be an extraneous variable, a burden on the —"
Silently, savagely, he cursed Jason Ridgeway's callousness — because suddenly he understood that KITT had been staring out into this snowy night with the words of the director's attack playing over and over in his eidetic memory, reinforcing his own conviction that his entire value lay in his ability to serve. With firm pressure of his hand he turned KITT to face him and then stepped closer, closing both hands around KITT"s upper arms and letting some of the fire he felt flash into his eyes. "You stopped being a sterile element in our equations a long time ago, KITT. In fact, you never really were. You're a cherished friend — no, more than that, we're your family. Never doubt that for a second."
A haunted quality infused his narrow features from within. "Devon, please… I have nowhere else to turn. Bonnie and Michael… they're focussed on me now, but they both have duties to return to." His voice ached with sudden grief. "And another car, eventually."
"Michael would never take another partner," Devon stated with complete conviction. "He loves you far too much."
After a moment KITT nodded, accepting the truth with simple grace. "Perhaps. But neither can he spend the rest of his life looking after me — and your world is far too strange and far too alien for me to navigate it on my own. I may walk among you, but I'll never truly belong." His shoulders stiffened, the defiance returning — and the full measure of his pride. "I understand how love can turn to hate when too much is asked of it — literature and history are both full of examples — and I won't let that happen between me and Michael. That would be a destruction more cruel than any other. No, it's better that I choose the method of my own extinction and avoid the problem entirely. Didn't the ancient Romans hold it as one of the highest virtues, to —?"
"You aren't an ancient Roman," Devon snapped, abruptly reaching the end of his patience. "You're like nothing that's ever walked the earth before, and I refuse to let you extinguish your own light because you fear the darkness!"
KITT studied his face for a long moment, eyes narrowed, his expression turning both amused and fond although the bleakness lingered in his eyes. "How human, to cling so tenaciously to what used to be!" A deprecating gesture at his own slender torso. "Look at me, Devon. I'm nothing special anymore."
Part of his mind was racing ahead, thinking of what would have to be done to get KITT somewhere safe, some place where he could be observed and cared for until this bout of despair had passed. Therefore he was distracted when he said aloud: "On the contrary: you're one of the most perfect creatures I've ever seen, as exquisite as a Greek sculpture infused with an angelic soul. No matter what happens to you, that has never changed, and it never will."
KITT 's eyes widened, the quality of his surprise almost palpable. "You really believe that?"
His full attention caught up with what he'd just said. Oh, bloody hell! But as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb… "Beyond a shadow of a doubt."
After a moment KITT nodded again, a wary incline of his chin. "Thank you. I think."
"You're welcome. And it's perfectly true. You are the most lasting proof of Wilton Knight's genius, and you always will be."
"Is that why you're reluctant to help me?" A flare of anger brightened his eyes. "I'm a travesty of what he intended me to be — surely you, of all people, would realize that?"
Devon forced himself to smile, although there wasn't much humour in it. "He didn't get a chance to know you, KITT, or to understand that you outgrew your function a long time ago. But I have. You're…" The mind in front of him was contemplating suicide. This wasn't the time to be coy. "You're inestimably precious to me — to all of us. If anything happened to you, none of us would ever forgive ourselves."
KITT swallowed. He looked away toward the night. His voice was low, but there was steel beneath it. "I'm aware of that. It's part of what's held me back thus far. But — Devon, I was designed to function in partnership with a human being. I have no protocols for solitary existence. If I can't be with Michael, everything I had is gone." He closed his eyes, looking utterly desolate, and breathed a hollow whisper: "I'll be… alone."
It was too much to be borne. He released KITT"s biceps to move even closer, his heart soaring and breaking simultaneously when KITT sank into his arms and let himself be enfolded. He smelled clean and healthy, so vitally alive, his low voice muffled against Devon's shirt collar: "And… I'm afraid!"
"I know, my darling. I know." He cradled him close, resting his cheek against that pale right temple. "But no matter what happens, you needn't be alone, I promise you that."
The winter night seemed to freeze in its tracks, to hold its breath as KITT's whole body went still, his arms tightening fractionally around Devon's waist. "What did you just call me?"
"My brave, sweet boy." Evidently the lover he'd been nearly forty years ago hadn't been completely laid to rest by the passage of time after all. "My own life is almost at its end, but for as long as I live I'll protect you and cherish you. I'll teach you how to fly free, and I know you'll soar to heights you can't even begin to imagine yet — if only you'll trust me."
"Of course I trust you!" No hesitation whatsoever. "You —" He raised his head to look up into Devon's eyes, his finely drawn eyebrows tightening in a little frown of what looked like puzzlement. "You were there from the beginning. Yours was the second voice I ever heard. And you've always been there whenever Michael and I needed you." The frown deepened. "Devon... I don't understand."
This was wrong. This was his best friend's son — or more accurately a genius's most finely crafted work of art, granted a cunning simulacrum of life by a rites too arcane for Devon to fully understand. But now that simulation had become reality, so he bent his head just enough to touch his lips to those of the man he loved, a kiss fleeting and almost chaste. He felt KITT's tiny gasp and thought: There. I've ruined everything. In a moment he'll tear himself free in a fine fury, and then —
But he didn't flee, and Devon opened his eyes a couple of seconds later to find KITT still gazing up at him. At least the frown was gone, replaced with a unique combination of startled bewilderment, unabashed amazement, and intelligent calculation. "Wait. Are you trying to tell me that…?"
He simply nodded. "Yes. I am."
He smiled kindly, wanting to kiss him all over again. "I'm afraid so. From the moment I looked into your eyes for the first time."
"Devon." He finally blinked, still looking stunned. "I… I don't know what to say."
"You don't have to say anything, KITT." He shifted his hands back to the AI's slim shoulders and started to take a step away: he'd already gotten more than he'd dreamed possible, far more than propriety and ethics could ever condone. Only an apology remained. "Nor do you have to feel —"
KITT pursued him that half-step, maintaining full body contact with an edge of aggressiveness that was far from unpleasing. "Don't." He lifted his chin, gazing up with half-hooded eyes, and just as suddenly assertiveness became surrender. Devon's hands knew it a second before his conscious mind processed the signal, and were already on KITT's back and almost down to his waist by the time he had the presence of mind to be amazed. "Don't you dare!"
It was an alchemical instant — Mercury and Sulphur, moon and sun, youth and age entering the sacred conjunctio. He felt it strike them like lightning, a divine gift of transcendent grace.
Man. Machine. Something of both. It didn't matter, not anymore.
Had it ever mattered?
He bowed his head to his lover's mouth.
In the warm aftermath, curved around each other amidst tangled sheets, he pressed a kiss to KITT's smooth throat and murmured against it: "Utterly intoxicating, darling boy."
A drowsy mumble in return, unintelligible: it might have been I know, or I love you, or quite possibly I'm sleeping. Smiling, he drew the gracile body even closer and closed his eyes, the better to drink in the relaxed cadences of its breathing and its heartbeat against his own. For the first time in forty-four days he wasn't lost and he wasn't yearning. For the first time in decades, he felt the peace that only one thing had ever truly granted.
And now, two. And this essence contained no bitter poison: he could quench his thirst from its well forever, no matter how vast the physical differences that separated their spirits.
As he finally let the shadows embrace him, he reflected that addiction was a treasure worth any price — and any danger.
He touched his glass to KITT's, and they shared a smile beneath the summer sky.