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This story arc has been published as a novel!

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Beyond the Uncanny Valley of the Doll's House

Nereid sat on the edge of the table, leaning forward to watch Brainchild as she worked on Citizen Pain's face. Pay wasn't turned off, as he had been when the internal wiring and programming work was being done. He had a couple of wires run into the back of his head, neutralizing the sensation and motor circuits in his face.

"What is that you're using?" Nereid said, fascinated.

Brainchild paused in carefully running the silver rod down the center line of Pay's face and looked over her glasses at Nereid. "It's a molecular fuser, and I told you before that you need to shut up while I'm working."

"Ah," Nereid said, hunching her shoulders. "Sorry."

Pay's gaze flicked to Nereid, then away. It disconcerted her to see his face so devoid of expression while his eyes were open and moving.

Brainchild lifted the rod off Pay's chin and stood back to examine her work. She touched up a spot on his upper lip, then another spot behind his jaw. "Just a few more minutes, Pay, and you'll have an ear again on this side."

He nodded slightly.

Brainchild lifted the second piece of synthetic flesh from its nutrient bath, shook it gently, and then mopped the pink, fleshy, complicated inner side with a piece of gauze. She pressed it into place, shifted it around, then said, "Hold this, please."

Pay held it firmly while Brainchild used the molecular fuser to seal the edges in place. Then she batted his fingers away and continued to run the fuser over the rest of the surface, presumably to fix it to the surface underneath.

Finally, Brainchild sat back and inspected her work. "It looks and feels pretty secure to me. Want me to turn on your sensors now?"

Pay nodded again, and Brainchild leaned over to a device on her right. Pay began running his face through a rapid, jerky series of expressions, from scowling to smiling to horror to laughing.

Nereid watched the diagnostics with a strange feeling in the pit of her stomach. It felt, to her, more like staring over a cliff and imagining the fall than the revulsion that some smart guy thought would be the result of watching artificial humans move.

Pay finally said, "Thank you, Brainchild. All seems to be adequately sealed to the infrastructure. Indeed, I am certain that my self-healing mechanisms will take care of the rest."

"Good," Brainchild said. She reached for the wires at the back of his head, then hesitated. "You still want your hair to come in white? I can change that, you know."

He smiled, perfectly natural, and Nereid felt her stomach do something else, a pleasant little flip-flop. "Indeed, I enjoy the contrast to the cliche of the white-haired villain."

Brainchild shrugged and tugged the wires out. "Okay, but if you start getting a strange compulsion to wield a giant sword, let me know."

"Did you run all your latest anime fanfic into my database as you threatened?" Pay said, laughing.

"I'm not that desperate for feedback," Brainchild said, standing and tucking her equipment in her pocket. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a few episodes downloaded that I need to watch."

Pay laughed again, and Nereid laughed hesitantly too. Brainchild turned a strange look on her, unreadable and... something else, then quirked a corner of her mouth in something like a smile before departing.

Pay's big, brilliant smile turned on Nereid, and it was like being caught in headlights. Dazzled, Nereid just sat and admired his features, complete for the first time in months.

"How do I look?" he asked, opening his arms in an expansive way.

"Gorgeous," she said, then bit her lip. She took a deep breath, clenched her fists. Now or never!

She lunged forward suddenly, off the table and against his broad chest, and stretched up to kiss him square on his beautiful mouth.

He was surprised, she could tell.

She broke the kiss by rocking back down on her heels, then dared to look up at him.

His smile was charmingly crooked. "Nereid," he said. "Indeed, I had no idea."

His blue eyes filled with tears and he pulled her into a powerful hug.

She sighed contentedly into his shoulder.


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