Dear lord, it's DONE. I've 8932645 Engie/Snippy fics scattered all over my HD/tumblr/google drive, but this is my first one, let's say, complete. It's not too shippy, so you might enjoy it even if you don't get why they are so adorable. Or I might just convince you, let me know!
Suggested soundtrack: Snippy and the Geiger Counter and Flying Prohibited, from the official soundtrack, and Calling and the Main Theme from The World Ends With You OST - Inky
THE SCIENTIFIC METHOD
Charles' knees hit the floor as he lurched forwards.
His trembling hands did nothing to assure his grip on the porcelain as he coughed his insides out, but he managed to pull himself into a sitting position.
Great. He thought briefly, before bile rose up to his throat and he had to avoid puking on his pants. Great, let people you don't like drag you into doing something you don't want to. It's not like you aren't bullied enough.
It brought memories of high school. For a brief moment, he wondered what sort of fucked-up deity he'd offended to spend half of his life with his head down a toilet, but nausea struck him again and he finished emptying his stomach with a wet cough.
Well, there went my two cups of coffee, he stifled a laugh. Looking on the bright side, though, that was all he'd had for lunch. If he ran back to the bar, maybe he could get drunk enough on his remaining credits to spend the rest of the night blissfully unaware of his surroundings. His "friends" wouldn't even notice.
Charles finished spitting up bile and rolled onto his back. The floor spun with him and he ended up staring at the ceiling, which was – his mind stated clinically in a spurt of logical thinking – dull and antiseptic, like a hospital. It smelt clean as well, for a restroom, which he'd the autobots that hovered above his head to thank for. They blinked at him, recognition sparking in the cold blue dots where the eyes should've been. Charles blinked back.
Soap spray hit him in the face.
"THANK YOU FOR USING OUR RESTROOM SERVICE. WE HOPE YOU'VE HAD A PLEASANT EXPERIENCE!" One autobot chimed in, rubbing a cleaning rag rather vigorously against his mouth. Now he tasted dirt and lavender, which, he supposed, was marginally better than tasting vomit, if you didn't think too much of what the robots were cleaning beforehand. They had just pried his lips apart with a set of pincers when their engines stopped. "OH, NO! IT APPEARS YOU ARE HAVING CONNECTION OR FINANCIAL ISSUES. RESTROOM SERVICE COSTS: FIVE HUNDRED CREDITS. FIVE, ZERO, ZERO, ZERO. YOUR TOTAL CREDIT COUNT IS: ZERO. UNFORTUNATELY, WE'RE NOT ALLOWED TO OFFER FURTHER SERVICES. TRY LOGGING OFF AND ON AGAIN. IF THE PROBLEM PERSISTS, WE RECOMMEND YOU FIND: A – AN OFFICIAL DIRECTORATE MAINTENANCE ASSISTANT OR B - A JOB."
The robots eyed him expectantly as he tried to get a hold of the walls to get up. The chirpy, automated voices felt like a hole puncher to his head, punctuating every syllable with a screech that made his brain ache. The overlapping neurosignals, typical from a crowded club, made sure Charles' brain ached more than usual.
"YOUR CURRENT SKILLS ARE LISTED AS: ZERO. YOU HAVE NO CURRENT SKILL SET. PLEASE EQUIP A SKILL SET BEFORE ACCESSING A JOB LIST."
Go! Charles thought to his legs. Move! But they weighted same as lead, apparently, and he all but stumbled out of his stall. The bots flew behind him sporting an identical look – something in between helpful and menacing.
Argh, he was really out of it! Since when did machinery look like anything? But the glint in their round little eyes was unmistakably human…
Charles hit the water button and pushed his head in the sink. A cold jet splashed against him, sending shockwaves down his body as drops of water sneaked down his neck and under the collar. It left his vest soaked, but drowned the voices of the bots at least. Charles held his breath as long as he could.
"... AS YOU HAVE THE APPROPRIATE BODY MEASUREMENTS. NO PREVIOUS EXPERIENCE NECESSARY. IF YOU ARE OVER EIGHTEEN, PLEASE CONSIDER APPLYING FOR THE POSITION AT THE ADULT ENTERTAINMENT BOARD OFFICE LOCATED IN THE THIRD FLOOR. TESTS MIGHT BE ISSUED..."
He breathed in deeply and pushed his head under the stream again.
"... AND OUR PSYCHIATRISTIC TEAM WILL ASSURE YOU IT'S A VALID CAREER PATH. REALLY! "
Maybe he would drown in the water basin if he tried hard enough. Charles dug his fingers into it and held his breath for as long as possible until one firm hand yanked him away.
Bwah. After years of experience in a dead-end job, facing a cast of disagreeable superior officers and struggling with nightmares, depression, and the horrors of public transportation, Charles had coined the perfect sentence to express disgust at his predicaments. In this case, predicament was another human being.
Charles swatted his arm away, adjusting his soaked clothes with a glare that dared, just dared the man to say anything about them. He knew it! It was just his luck that someone would find him trying to drown in the men's room. Puking his brains out was at least… not weird. Charles braced himself for The Look that was sure to follow. It'd be worth it just to get kicked out of the club; his coworkers could probably accept that as an excuse. Unconnectable Snippy, such a freak of nature, LOL!1!one!1eleven.
The man blinked at him. What was with the stare?! Sure, he was used to being gawked at like some zoo animal, but couldn't he get any privacy in a goddamn restroom? It made him outraged. If he wanted to off himself in a damn water-filled basin, he should have that right! You there!, he wanted to scream, shaking his finger aggressively. What the hell are you looking at?!
He ended up just flapping his mouth like an idiot. When Charles finally found his voice, the robots cut him, shoving their lithe metallic bodies between him and the man.
"ADMIN PRIVILEGES RECOGNIZED," they squee-d in unison. "CHIEF ENGINEER ALEXANDER GROMOV."
"Please, no unnecessary formalities. It's doctor, actually."
"DOCTOR ALEXANDER GROMOV!"
Doctor Aexander Gromov.
Reality hit Charles in full force. He even wobbled a little.
The man shrugged.
"I might have a couple of PhDs." Pause. " Or four."
"That's not what I-" Argh! A tremor shook his entire body. Charles was vaguely aware that he looked like a drenched cat. He probably smelled like cat, too (Not that anyone would know. Cats became extinct before he was even born). The frustration he'd simmered through weeks boiled over, and before he knew it, Charles had his finger against Gromov's nose.
In his defense, Gromov kept completely still. But then, it was the expected reaction from anyone who faced a lunatic in a cramped space. For a split second, Charles felt pity for him: Gromov looked like a frightened animal, eyes wide open, darting towards the door as if to measure in how many seconds he could reach the way out.
Apparently, the autobots were just as attentive.
"0.7345 SECOND." A robotic voice blurted helpfully, making Gromov groan and slap his forehead. He faced Charles with both arms lifted in a universally recognized peace signal.
"Look, whatever you think I did, I promise you…"
"DR. GROMOV! DO YOU FEEL THREATENED BY THIS UNRECOGNIZED USER?"
"We can exterminate him for you!"
No, no, no extermination! Charles waved his arms quickly, feeling his throat alarmingly tight. His erratic heartbeats calmed down only when the autobots lowered their laser beams at Gromov's command - "No extermination, Чёрт возьми! Aren't you maintenance robots? Why do you even have weaponry installed, urgh."
Sounded like someone else was also having a bad day. Gromov's pasty cheeks had became a deep shade of purple as the robots flew around him making ridiculous suggestions, from turning Charles into dust to opening his zipper and aiding him in doing his business. Charles could only stare dumbfounded as Gromov went still for a minute, whispering to himself and, seconds later, the strange automated pair shattered into the floor.
The sound made his entire world shake. Charles stumbled to the side, losing his grip on reality as the world flashed black and blue, a storm dragging him into the cold of a deserted landscape. When he pushed forwards, his foot sank into snow, but the flashing lamps of the club still overlapped with this new world. He blinked a couple of times and there was Gromov on top of him - no, not Gromov. A strange hooded figure…?
Charles snapped his eyes shut. When he opened them again, he found Gromov, analyzing him with so much focus that Charles felt rather flattered.
"Bwah?" he asked. What happened? But Gromov didn't reply, holding him under his cold, calculating gaze. Maybe that was how machines felt, being checked on when they had to be repaired. Except machines didn't feel anything, dammit, and he was human, human! Charles waved his arms, aggravated by the prospect of Gromov opening him up to turn him into a DEX or something. Suddenly, the apologetic, weird scientist had gotten so serious. He'd even - Charles realized, twisting his body around - dragged Charles over to one of the waiting seats.
... that was quite considerate of his boss.
Charles turned white. His boss. He'd never really seen Gromov, so he'd mostly just imagined him to be some arrogant bastard with a freaky computer fetish. Not someone so… whimpy. And rather pathetic, to be honest, even if he had suddenly spurted a serious side.
Argh! He didn't actually want to be remembered as the weird guy from the restroom. AND he'd called his boss an asshole to his face. Time to crawl away, slowly… If he were lucky (which he wasn't), Gromov would be so wasted he wouldn't ever remember him in the next morning. Ha, him? Just a lowly G-Directorate employee? As if. He was a nobody who didn't even matter. That was the notion most of his coworkers had about him, anyway. Doctor and Chief Engineer Alexander Gromov was such a hotshot Charles had never actually conceived the two of them would ever meet.
"Don't move!" The order made him still. Much to his dismay, if there was something Charles was good at, it was obeying. "If you have a concussion, it's going to be worse."
"So," Charles asked drily. "Those PhDs you have…"
"Yeah?!" Gromov lightened up. Showy bastard.
"Is one of them in the area of medicine?"
"Great, thanks, bye-" Gromov propped one hand against his shoulder and forced him down again. Ouch!
"I think I'm quite qualified to diagnose you." There was that tone again. Charles' vision swayed, but he wasn't blind enough to miss the air of superiority in his face. Goddammit, what an ass. "After all, I did major in every science class offered, and one of my doctorates is in mechanical engineering."
"I'm a human, not a DEX, you dolt!"
"Almost the same thing, structurally speaking. You see, once you apply the principles of logic..."
His mind trailed off. It all went black for a while; Charles lost notion of time, but when he finally woke up, Gromov was still talking.
".., and that's how my first published paper made a coherent theory out of Sheldrake's inane babblings."
"That's… very insightful." Charles groaned. Gromov beamed, immune to sarcasm. Or maybe he understood it, but thought too highly of himself to care, Charles wouldn't know. "And my problem, did you figure that out?"
Gromov fidgeted as if, for the first time in his life, he hadn't known what to do, and wasn't quite used to that feeling.
"It might be your neural interface." Charles rose an eyebrow. "Or the absence of it. I've searched, but it might've fallen down the sink when you were trying to- Why did you even did it, anyway?"
"I was drunk," Charles said stupidly. He'd just noticed his G-Directorate issued vest was pried open and couldn't put his mind around articulating a proper response...
Gromov saw he'd seen it.
"I was trying to find it." He coughed, sounding a little too huffed for his own good. "Just ask your superior officer for a replacement, I'm sure you won't be the last person losing your gear tonight. " And then he added, in a much lower tone: "Honestly, 'bonding' parties…"
Amidst the haze that clouded his mind, something at least made sense. As the Chief Engineer, of course Gromov would be there. If some lowly employee like him had been dragged, kicking and screaming, to the opening of the G-Directorate's latest 'Entertainment Facility', Gromov was probably the one who built it or something.
"I don't have a neural interface." Charles snarled. I'm unconnectable, he almost said. He didn't like that word much; it usually went accompanied by uncontrollable laughing and pointed fingers. The way Gromov stared at him then was so intense it made him blush.
Gromov opened his mouth.
Dammit dammit dammit.
"Charles… Charles Snippy." An expression of shock crossed his face, quickly replaced by dull contentment at recognizing the name. "My first and only subordinate to ever ask to be transferred to the Dead Zone."
Charles tried banging his head against the metal seating of the couch. As he was resting against Gromov's leg, he only managed to push his nose against the engineer's thigh. Ugh, he was such an idiot. Just how many unconnectable employees were there in the Directorate?
"That's me." He grunted.
Gromov rolled his eyes as if saying Duh, captain obvious. The guy would never entertain the idea of being wrong, would he? Only, instead of snorting at him, Gromov crossed his arms.
"That makes sense. I think" - and his 'think' sounded like 100% of certainty - "I know what's wrong with you."
"Oh yeah?" Doubtful. A team of scientists had studied him for months after his arrival at the G-Directorate office. Being unconnectable subjected him to a variety of compulsory tests, but nobody had ever figured out why he couldn't connect, much less the reason behind his frequent nightmares and migraines. As far as he knew, it was just a common night in the life of Charles Snippy.
Gromov smirked, probably laughing internally about his ignorance.
"It might be too much for you to take at the moment-"
"No, it might be too much for you literally. That's what a sensory overload is."
"Well, I don't care! It's my life you're talking about!"
Gromov raised both hands again. It seemed like it was his basic instinct when confronted. Well, at least he wasn't protecting his face and hiding in a corner… Not while Charles was incapacitated, at least.
Good, Charles thought bitterly. The least he deserved was an apology by the Directorate's top scientist. Having Gromov cower in fear wasn't exactly what he expected, but it did make a cozy warmth spread through his body.
"You're still stressed out." Gromov coughed, as if he wasn't the cause! He even dared to brush his fingers lightly against Charles' neck. "Pressure against the skin can stimulate the receptors and ease the load in your nervous system. Can I…?"
No! He did not feel comfortable with some random stranger grabbing his shoulders! But then… that was a little hypocritical, wasn't it, considering where his face was buried right at that moment. A massage didn't feel like such a bad idea, honestly, not with his neck feeling like it had been twisted into a knot.
Charles scoffed at the idea that someone, somewhere, would totally pay to be in his place. Snuggling the scientist who built ANNET… yeah, Dr. Gromov was real cuddly.
"Okay," he replied warily. "Just a little, though."
In his experience, people connected better with machines, and not… him. Gromov was the same. Charles bet he had all the textbook knowledge, that finding the right spots was easy for the scientist. Just like he said: humans and machines were the same. Press here, twist over there. Your limbs didn't have to be artificial to get rusted, organics too could malfunction. Gromov was likely to hesitate - not because he lacked experience in fixing broken things, but because Charles' breathing softened as his hands worked against terse shoulders. Because Charles' skin was warm to the touch and, if Gromov's fingers lingered too close to his neck, he'd find the pulse to a beating heart.
Charles wondered what Gromov was feeling, why he'd done that anyway.
For science, probably. The 1% was a mystery, after all.
"Don't get tense again. You're going to undo all my work."
"I think you're the one who's anxious."
Gromov's jaw tightened.
Whine whine whine. Charles rolled his eyes, but grudgingly admitted he was feeling better. His head, that felt like it'd topple over given any sudden movement, was suddenly back into place again, firmly resting on top of his shoulders. Gromov wasn't as dexterous as he'd made himself out to be, but his fingers kneaded the rigid muscles steadily, making Charles keen when his thumb squeezed a particularly painful knot.
"Yeah. Alright," Gromov said stiffly, even though his hands kept moving. They'd fallen into a slower rhythm, applying less pressure and crawling up Charles' spine. "You shouldn't have been invited here."
Woah, so much for being considerate. Yeah, you go, Gromov, before I can change my mind and think you're nice.
"I know I'm not exactly the soul of a party, but…"
"You're too sensitive."
"Only for someone who's more used to computers."
Gromov heaved a sigh. Charles felt stupid almost immediately.
"I mean it. All of this…" Gromov gestured around, making Charles miss the pressure of his hands before he could busy himself with Not Caring. "The ANNET system brought us a string of endless possibilities. You can't see it, can you? It doesn't really matter. The world can, and the world demands more."
"People always demand more," Charles said quietly, but Gromov ignored him in favor of his speech. Weirdest of all, it didn't seem typical Directorate bullshit. When he looked upwards, Gromov was staring into nothing, lost in the little world inside his own head.
"Why confine yourself to reality? Our brains are not designed to differentiate between what's virtual and what's not. Explaining in words even you can understand, haven't you ever had dreams that felt too real?"
Charles wet his lips.
"More times you can imagine."
Gromov shrugged, as if he'd been expecting nothing less.
"Then there's no difference between you and an ANNET user. The brain doesn't merely process information, it also creates reality. We never actually experience the real world, we only perceive it through an image generated by our minds. Your eyes aren't bluer than a summer sky created virtually - it's just a filter telling us what we see, or what we want to see…And of course, people want to have fun, they want to see and do things. You can sing with your favorite star onstage one day, be a soldier fighting a war the next one. What if you could control your dreams like that? That's what navigating the Grid feels like."
"But everyone looks-"
"Numb, I know." Gromov's voice was pained as he finished Charles' sentence. "There was a… Not a flaw, mind you. My calculations were precise. I just didn't expect people to…"
"Get bored so quickly." He rushed in to correct Charles. "Every day they yearn for something new. They aren't satisfied with playing war against his friends in an AR game anymore, they want to hurt if they get shot. They want pleasure wired straight into their minds. Every second they don't feel is wasted on them."
"Well, that's people for you. What does this have to do with anything, though?"
"Nothing is impossible for me, you know," Gromov bristled. "This house was the Directorate's latest idea for me to implement. You feel too much, people feel too little. You walk into a place designed to heighten people's sensations and sensibilities and your brain short circuits."
"How so?" Charles' mind was spinning. "I thought this was just a… club, you know."
Not his sort of place, but regardless. Gromov groaned at that.
"Don't you even read your emails? It isn't hard, I swear, I can even teach you how to."
Gromov was so kind if he was willing to spend his precious time teaching and talking to some lowly pencil pusher like him. Charles kept his mouth shut. Not only he knew how to access emails, he also used them to complain about his superior officer and his freaky AI girlfriend.
Gromov adjusted himself in the seat, pushing his chest forwards like a stupid bird.
"Of course you have the expected entertainment; the bar in the first floor and in the third-"
"Ugh, don't even talk to me about the third floor." Charles flushed. "Not that I've been there, but I've been, uh… "
Propositioned wasn't quite the right word. Gromov did a double take at that and looked - really looked - at him, but after a coughing fit he seemed to recall his composure.
"In between, you have the dance floor. Music delivered straight to the user's brain from his specified playlist, the usual." He skimmed over such an uninteresting subject. "But beneath that, there's a low frequency tune, a rhythmic pulse that fills your ears from the moment you cross the entrance door. And stroboscopic light, which is also programmed to blink in a pattern. It was all carefully calculated to trigger a chemical response from the guests' brains."
Charles mouth fell slack.
"In short, you've drugged us?"
"That's it, yeah." There was no shame to him. Gromov looked rather proud instead. "But there shouldn't be any side effects to it. I mean, to a normal person. Someone used to navigating ANNET would only feel a pleasant buzz…"
"Are you only feeling a pleasant buzz?"
"It might be a psychostimulant. It increases serotonin receptor binding, dopamine release… "
"Euphoria, empathy, increase in our feelings of well-being while fear, anger, and stress suffer reduction, urge to communicate, enhanced tactile sensations…" Which explained Gromov's niceness - and how the scientist's hands had ended up tangled in his hair, for Charles' total embarrassment. Gromov was petting him, and didn't seem to realize he was doing so. "Without the usual side effects. But taking in consideration you don't experience the usual release of neurotransmitters browsing the net and look very - to put it unscientifically - grumpy,I believe the sudden discharge is being enough to make you experience dizziness and headaches for the moment. As you're suffering the physiological effects, though - increase in body heat, impaired speech-"
"That's my normal way of talking!"
"Oh. I'm so sorry. But as I was talking, since you're experiencing the physiological effects, I'd say it's a matter of time until your body adjusts to your recently acquired capacity of feeling good. I suppose that must be new for you. " After giving it some thought, Gromov added: "You're welcome."
You've drugged me, your egghead.
"Oh yeah, I feel great," Charles said sardonically. Yet his headache had passed, as well as the urge to puke in Gromov's designer shoes.
Bloody hell. Could he be any more obnoxious?
Even his pants were custom made. They smelled good - like those little trees sold at stores to put inside cars. Equal parts fresh and annoying, because the last time any of them had ever seen a tree was never.
The fabric was so comfy, though.
"You're stroking my hair, Gromov," he finally thought to say.
"Well observed. You know, observation is the first step to the scientific me-"
"Are you going to stop?"
"I'm conducting an experiment."
"I just gave you a hypothesis that I want to test."
And there we go again.
"You're high, Gromov. You should think about getting a lift home."
"Why, are you offended?" There was a wary tone to his voice. Big news. Charles was starting to realize Gromov always sounded wary when he wasn't busy being a grade A jerk or a total geek.
"Because you're treating me like I'm a lab rat? No," Charles replied, surprised after realizing that, yeah, he wasn't really annoyed at that. Should have, but.
He didn't know if he'd ever exchanged so many words with a single person. Did his mother even ruffle his hair? He couldn't remember.
"No, because I wouldn't be doing it if I wasn't under the influence of mind altering substances. Probably."
"You brought this over on yourself," Charles concluded. For someone so brilliant, Gromov was also a total idiot. He'd wondered about it more than once, too: how could the mind behind ANNET be infatuated with it? How could a man who'd shown to be extremely gifted write incoherent babble about finding the luckiest person in the universe, about super-heroes and time travels? Because, yes, Gromov was a genius (not that Charles would be admitting it so soon), there was no way around it. Nobody offered the world eternity in a machine if they weren't. But Gromov… "I guess I'm just used to this, being a guinea pig, with all the compulsory testing the Directorate puts me under."
"That's so sad."
"Come on, Gromov. I'm not the one with the virtual girlfriend."
A switch flickered in Gromov's head.
"The complaints. That was you."
"Look, Gromov, I didn't mean-"
"At least I can have anyone I want, Charles. I suppose you'd want to create a girlfriend too, seeing that being unconnectable might put a damper on your love life."
That… derailed into a childish argument pretty quickly, hadn't it? It was marginally better than Gromov being pissed at him, Gromov having the power to fire him and all - but not very much, to be honest. How old were they, twelve?
I'm not saying anything. I'm a mature and responsible adult – unlike Gromov - I'm not enabling him.
"Well," He started talking before he could process it. Aw, bloody hell. "If you can have anyone you want, then how come you're hiding in the restroom like a socially inept teenager?"
Gromov laughed nervously at that, stopping only to give Charles the most pity-filled stare he'd ever gotten in his life (quite a feat, if he'd any say in it).
"Think about it. I'm going to give you three chances."
"Come on, Gromov, I'm not dumb."
"One shot, then."
Jeez, no need to be a genius to figure out Gromov was awkward around people. Just how much of a social outcast did you have to be to create a virtual interface that looked like a naked girl? And run for hiding just after arriving a party. Charles knew all about that.
Wait a minute.
Gromov was hiding in the restroom. Charles was hiding in the restroom. Gromov still had his hands on his hair.
Gromov was right. He was a moron.
Charles rested his hands on his lap and twiddled his thumbs while waiting for an appropriate answer to come around. Thank you, Gromov, I never felt more ridiculous.
"This is probably not a very good idea," he settled on an answer, throat constricting until he lacked the air to breathe a proper response. Turns out, it wasn't his throat, or his chest, or any part of his body malfunctioning again due to the lack of sleep. Just his brain, wired incorrectly, short circuiting once Gromov leant forwards and smashed their lips together.
Very "not a very good idea". The insistent pressure Gromov made against his lips, trying to pry them open, made Charles lose focus on reality, as if it was just another nightmare conjured by the network's inability to figure out his mind. It was his boss there, not a figment of his imagination. Gromov kissed like he talked, scientifically, pausing for added effect just when Charles thought he could get into it, if he closed his eyes and pretended he was someplace else. Someone else.
"You taste like lavender."
"You don't even want to know."
Charles' lips tightened. Gromov looked like a total idiot, staring at him without really seeing Charles there, without understanding when Charles burst into laughing, completely dumbfounded by the ridiculousness of their existence.
"You're transferring me to the Dead Zone tomorrow. You owe me."
His chest tightened but, for the first time in his senseless , continuous state of being, he felt fine.