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Saying No

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John was no programmer. He'd never been into robotics or new wave tech like most of his friends back when they were kids. He'd taken only the mandatory tech classes at school. At work, he was forever filing reports in the wrong subdirectories, and sometimes he had trouble with the more complicated functions on his phone. He hated his synthetic leg with a stubborn, fiery passion. MXs were way, way down on his list of priorities, and if they happened to get themselves blown to bits in the line of duty, or in any other line, John had zero problem with that.

But Dorian, somehow, was different. When he tried to figure out why Dorian did some of the things he did, John's brain had a tendency to go off into logic loops or stall out completely. It was the little things, like Dorian being amused at John's expense, like him not taking no for an answer, like him choosing to take things with good grace and humour rather than blank robotic stoicism. Like why he would be tearing a bar napkin into tiny pieces in front of him instead of just sitting there doing nothing, running diagnostics or filing reports or doing some other unseen bit of processing inside his head. His fingers were long and elegant, the nails short and clean, and two days ago John had seen him punch a renegade robot's nose into its skull. A few weeks back, he'd seen him flip a van.

Sometimes watching Dorian was fascinating.

Dorian was looking thoughtful. "So 'man' is okay, and I can say I'm your partner, but I shouldn't call you 'my friend'."

John was swallowing down the dregs of his beer and could only frown in response.

"It's hard to tell where to draw the line sometimes," Dorian said. "Human boundaries can be very subtle. Usually I get it but you should tell me if I ever overstep."

"So now you're worried about boundaries? After you show me your junk while I'm driving?"

"Sure. I mean, we kid around a lot but that doesn't mean I want to get on your nerves for real. It makes for a bad working partnership."

John floundered a little. Four beers on an empty stomach could do that to a guy. "I guess it's okay. It just, uh, kind of reminds me of my father. It was something he always used to call people."

Dorian nodded. "Got it." He looked up from his napkin. "You think Rudy's having fun?"

John looked across the bar to where Rudy was waving around what had to be his third or maybe fourth martini, and was talking animatedly with a tall, slender blonde who was smiling and looked like she found him utterly charming. John had known this would happen. McQuaid's was supposed to be a place of quiet introspection and watching the occasional ballgame. Now Rudy had control of the jukebox, people were dancing, and already a couple of the regulars had offered to buy Dorian a drink, asked what had happened to his face, and when they heard that he was a cop, thanked him for his service. Between the two of them, they were ruining his bar. John sighed and signalled for another beer. If Dorian was going to get to drive his car, John intended to make it worthwhile.

"I think he's having the time of his life."

"You think he knows she's pre-op?"

"You have got to stop scanning people's..." John gestured vaguely with his hand. "... nether regions." This made Dorian grin. "Rhonda's a lady. She'll steer him round the curves. Anyway, Rudy's... open. I don't think they even have a name for how open Rudy is."

"Omnisexual," Dorian supplied.

"There you go." John took a sip of his fresh beer, and pointed his bottle at the various abrasions on Dorian's face. "You better make sure he's sober in the morning before he starts patching you up. You don't want him leaving purple scars on that pretty face."

Dorian swung his gaze round, looking at John with amusement and surprise. "You think I'm pretty."

John did his best to look unimpressed. "You're very well put together."

"It's okay, John. This is the future. It's okay to find me pretty." Dorian tilted his head a fraction. "But I thought you had a type."

"Ugh. You are not my type. And stop trying to figure me out. I have lots of types. A guy can have layers." He looked at the bottle in his hand. "I'm going to need something stronger than this to get through tonight."

"Rudy seems to like the martinis."

"I'm not drinking martinis."

"You like scotch?"

"I'm more of a bourbon guy, but I'm not drinking either with you."

"How come?"

"Because I'm the only one getting a buzz and you have perfect recall."

"I could turn my processors down to fifty percent."

"No."

"I swear I won't remind you of anything inappropriate you say or do."

"I swear you need to work on your poker face."

Dorian grinned, telling John everything he needed to know.

The rest of the evening passed in a happy blur. Rudy disappeared at some point, a huge smile on his face, arm in arm with Rhonda. John got soundly trounced playing darts with Dorian, spent too long choosing songs to put on the jukebox, songs that he hoped would get the nose-crinkle of disapproval from Dorian, and knew that he'd been talking too much and answering too many questions. He dozed off on the way home, purposefully not getting sucked into a conversation about how he should let Dorian drive more often. Dorian shook him awake when they arrived, a strong hand on his shoulder, and led him up the stairs to his apartment.

He didn't say anything as Dorian steered him through the apartment in the half-light, looking around him with wide eyes, no doubt gathering endless titbits of information about John by scanning everything in sight.

"I like your apartment's management system, John."

"Figures. No accessing the security logs."

"I wouldn't dream of it."

"Ha. See if you can get it to play the classic rock station for my alarm in the morning. I keep getting easy listening, no matter how many times I tell it otherwise."

"She thinks it's better for you to be woken up by something soothing."

"She does, does she? Tell her she makes my coffee too weak."

"She thinks you've over-caffeinated. She'd also like a name."

John sighed. "Okay, Betty," he said, addressing the ceiling, "give me classic rock and you got yourself a deal."

"You've made her very happy."

"I'm so pleased," John said, injecting as much grouchy sarcasm into the words as humanly possible. The backs of his legs hit the mattress and he sat down heavily. "I'm good, I'm good," he said, batting away Dorian's hands. "You can go back to your pod now."

Dorian sighed. "Yippee."

John pulled off a boot. "Say hi to the Ken dolls for me."

"You suck," Dorian said without inflection as the second boot hit the floor with a thud. "Don't forget your leg."

John hesitated. No one but his doctors had seen him without his synthetic leg attached, but then Dorian was all synthetic and John was drunk, so what was the harm? He fumbled the sequence for disengaging the leg twice, his fingers not doing what he wanted.

"You need help?"

"No. I got it." He let Dorian take the leg from him and pulled the sheets up to his chest, feeling exposed and tired and stupidly annoyed. "I haven't done this in a long time. Not since..." He shook off the memory. "Not fair that you can't drink."

"Plus I have perfect recall and I'm recording this for posterity."

John scowled, which only made Dorian smile. He was always smiling. It was driving John crazy. He didn't know anyone else that cheerful.

"I hate you."

"I'm leaving you water and aspirin."

"I love you," John said, and flopped back into his pillows, turning over to lie on his face.

"I'll put your leg on to charge for you." There was a pause. "You need a bucket?"

"No, mom."

"See you in the morning, my friend."

John grunted and closed his eyes.

 

---

 

There'd been talk, back in the beginning, about ethics, about adopting those age-old laws of robotics, but they hadn't stuck. It turned out that a robot that couldn't pull a trigger wasn't anything but a liability to their human partner. Now there were protocols upon protocols built in to ensure that no human got harmed except the ones who crossed all the wrong lines. The logic-based MXs followed orders for the most part, called out their pre-vetted warnings to any perp they pinned down, and John hadn't heard of a single one of them firing when it wasn't justified. In fact, even with human officers accidental shooting stats were way down all across the country.

When Dorian had a gun in his hands he looked confident. He looked determined.

He looked pained.

John was getting used to having him there. He was getting used to trusting him. They worked well together. Their solve rate was way above average. Maldonado was delighted; Detective Paul less than impressed. John had never once wanted to push Dorian out of a moving vehicle into oncoming traffic. He figured this was progress.

Grateful relatives and friends sometimes hugged John, clinging a beat too long, all their worry or relief or pain of loss tied up in the tight press of arms, the warmth of another human being looking for comfort, looking for a connection, or trying to convey their thanks. Dorian generally didn't get the hugs, which rubbed John the wrong way. Dorian was more polite, more helpful, usually more sympathetic, while John had his grumpy, jaded cynic façade honed to a fine edge. The kids, though, anytime there were kids involved, they wanted to hug Dorian, or they asked him for a light show, and Dorian always obliged.

After the thing with the collar, the one that didn't explode and turn him to hamburger, John's hands wouldn't stop shaking and sleep was a tangled mess that left him exhausted. He let Dorian drive again, and Dorian took the keys and wisely said nothing. John hunched down in his seat, dark glasses on, and clutched his coffee like a lifeline. (He'd learned not to leave it sitting in the holder with the lid off. Bad things kept getting dunked in there, usually parts of Dorian.)

"Hey," he said. "You don't want to go and see that other DRN again? The other you?" He couldn't have said why he was thinking of it then.

Dorian looked away, out of his window, seeing god only knew what in the cluttered cityscape. "No. I don't think so."

"You wanted to help him."

"And I think I did. He is what he is. I can't change that. I can't get him reinstated as a cop. He's not miserable. He's just... not what he should be, and he knows it. It's sad."

"You know, for a robot, you've got a big heart."

"Thank you, John. That means a lot."

"Yeah, well, you've also got a big--" Dorian glanced over, lightning fast, and John felt a jolt go through him. "-- head."

Dorian did that thing where he barely moved a muscle but let John know there was a whole lot of mocking going on.

"Laugh it up, buttercup," John said, mooching down in his seat and closing his eyes. "Wake me up when we get there."

He didn't sleep, but Dorian didn't say another word until they were a couple of minutes out from their destination.

 

---

 

Dorian was quieter than usual after John's brief undercover stint with Stahl. His eyes followed John around the bullpen, and once John noticed he was too aware of it: an itch between his shoulder-blades. He sat through a briefing with Maldonado, signed off on Stahl's report, updated a couple of open cases, and passed a bunch of research over to Dorian, stuff it was foolish to keep trying to do himself when Dorian could get it done in a fraction of the time. Dorian accepted it with barely a word and sent it back before John was expecting it, beautifully organised and incredibly helpful and practically gift-wrapped and tied in a big red bow.

It was only afterwards, when they were alone, sitting side-by-side at John's favourite noodle bar that Dorian started acting halfway normal again.

"Your accent was terrible."

John paused with his chopsticks, loaded with noodles, halfway to his mouth. "My accent was perfect."

"But I think you looked good in make-up."

John's face heated up. "Oh, really."

"Mm. Mostly it was the eyeliner."

"And you can chalk that up as something you won't see again in this lifetime."

"Pity," Dorian said, and it should have been mocking, his own brand of humour, like all the endless digs about John's hair, but it rode out on a little sigh, and it sounded like he really meant it.

"How can you even... You can't have kinks. I don't buy that you can have kinks."

"Who's talking about kinks? I can appreciate art and beauty as much as the next guy. I think eyeliner is pretty. The way it defines the eye and creates aesthetic illusion... Is it so bad that I can find beauty in you, even if it takes make-up to do it?"

"Gee whizz, I feel so goddamn flattered right now. I can still get you transferred to the space station, y'know."

"You wouldn't," Dorian said, sounding certain. "You'd miss me too much."

John grunted, nondescript, and went back to his noodles.

 

---

 

"I know you only asked Rudy to let me stay with him to keep me out of your hair," Dorian said, appearing at John's shoulder.

"Good morning, John," John said, pouring himself a coffee. "How are you today, John? Sleep well?"

"But he keeps wanting to look at my insides." Dorian pushed back his shoulders, looking unhappy. "It's a little unnerving. I'm scared to go offline."

"Well, that doesn't sound creepy and bad-touchy at all," John said, making his way to his desk.

"He means well," Dorian said, following him. "At least, I think he does. But that doesn't mean I have to like it. He just can't help himself."

"Yeah, you're irresistible."

Dorian pulled off a neat little shoulder shrug like he was both accepting a compliment and writing it off as an unavoidable side-effect of simply being who he was.

"I can't stay there."

"You don't have a lot of options."

"Tell me about it."

"You could always go back with the MXs. At least then you'd be..." John trailed off, knowing that no matter how he finished his sentence, it would probably lead to Dorian sulking for half the morning.

"Rock and a hard place, John. How come I don't get a salary?"

"Oh, no." John held up both his hands. "I'm not touching that one with a ten foot pole. You got complaints, take them to the captain."

Dorian shrugged out of his jacket, hung it on the back of his chair, and sat down at his desk. "I don't like complaining."

"What?" John widened his eyes. "All I get are complaints."

"I spend far less time complaining than you," Dorian said, lights running over his face as he connected with the network. "I can show you a breakdown analysis if you want."

John lifted his mug. "Thanks, I'll pass."

"But it's not the same. I can complain to you. Just not the others."

"And what did I do to deserve this honour?"

Dorian sighed, like it should have been completely obvious. "I'm a robot. I don't get to complain about my living conditions. No one wants to hear it. It makes people uncomfortable to think about me having needs. You're my partner. We share things. You're different."

John was quiet for a long moment, watching Dorian work. "Oh," was all he eventually came up with to say.

 

---

 

Dorian had been staying with Rudy for a couple of weeks and complaining about it for almost as long when John appropriated a small room at the precinct. It was little more than an unused storage closet one level up from the basement, but out of the way and big enough fit in a recharge pod. Maldonado had signed off on it straight away, which meant John had practiced his respectfully-not-taking-no-for-an-answer face in the mirror for nothing. Rudy was probably going to be crushed, but John figured he'd get over it. It was a good thing having Rudy around to run tests on Dorian and check him out when he got damaged, but Dorian had been pretty damn clear about what he thought of invasion of privacy and having his memories accessed while he was offline.

The more he thought about it, John wasn't too sure he was happy about it either.

Dorian paused in the doorway, looking around the cramped, badly-lit room like it was a five star suite. "You did this for me?"

"No, I just made a few calls, called in a few favours. It's not much," John gestured into the room and ended up rubbing the back of his neck, "but there is no budget for rehousing discontent robots, so this is the best I could do."

"So you did do this for me."

Dorian turned to him and smiled, another one of those endless smiles, and it was driving John crazy because he knew that smile, he'd been on the receiving end of that smile enough times in his life to know what it meant. It meant Dorian could see the stupid want in him -- and it really was stupid -- and he knew exactly which of John's buttons he was pushing in return. Maybe he even knew how long John had been feeling this way, despite his attempts to shake it off, and wasn't that just embarrassing as all hell.

They were standing too close, both of them in the doorway, and John swayed in before he realised it was happening. There was a beat where he knew he could just go for it, Dorian's hand in the air between them -- not to stop him, but reaching out -- but John pulled back instead.

"Uh, no," he said, his voice pitched low, not meeting Dorian's eyes. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to... I just can't."

"No problem." Dorian was still smiling, though it no longer lit up his whole face. "This is really great. Thank you, John."

 

---

 

John thought he'd gotten away with it, that sleeping dogs were actually going to lie for once in his life, but only because Dorian didn't say anything about it, right up until he did.

"Why not?" he asked out of the blue, looking out of the window as John drove, and John's back straightened a little. He thought about playing dumb, but it was a conversation that needed to be had, so maybe it was better just to bite the bullet and get it out of the way. He was the human here. He was the one in control.

"You're my partner."

Dorian made a game show buzzer sound, not actually replicating the sound, just making a stupid noise that made John blink in surprise. He wondered where Dorian picked it up. All his mannerisms, his jokes, his little habits, the things that made him smile. Was it all programmed? All part of Dr Vaughn's Synthetic Soul? Or were they all things that had been learned along the way?

John sighed, figuring he owed the truth. "You're a machine," he said. "I like you. I even respect you. This..." He gestured between the two of them. "This works way better than I ever thought it would. I'd be worried about screwing it up even if you weren't... You're a machine," he said again, his eyes on the stop light in front of them. "I couldn't trust it."

"You couldn't trust me."

"No, I do trust you. I already owe you my life, man. I meant if there was... more. I couldn't trust it. I'd go crazy thinking it was all me and you were just... responding to code or doing it because you thought you had to or something."

"So you do find me attractive."

It wasn't a question, and when John glanced over, Dorian was smiling. That fucking smile. John couldn't handle it.

"Don't... don't do that," John said. "I'm trying to... This isn't a game, Dorian. It's not something you can change my mind about."

"Don't worry about it. I have a whole bunch of sexual harassment subroutines screaming at me right now."

"Shut up. You do not have sexual harassment subroutines."

Dorian grinned. "You'd be amazed at the subroutines I have. But don't worry; your virtue is safe with me."

John scowled and tried to settle into his seat, but couldn't get comfortable. "Pity about my sanity."

"That no man can help you with."

 

---

 

They got caught up in a stupid-ass convenience store stick-up, just because John had wanted coffee from the place across the street. It was something they should have been able to handle in their sleep, but the store was tiny with no decent line of sight and there was a pregnant woman inside taken as hostage when the robber realised there were cops outside. So Dorian left his jacket and his gun in the backseat of John's car, and walked right on in, ignoring everything John was yelling at him from across the street. He did it calm and easy and obvious, hands in the air, and got shot minutes after walking into the store.

He took the robber down shortly afterwards, non-fatally, and the pregnant hostage walked away, badly shaken up but unharmed. The EMTs hovered around her, speaking in low voices, tripping over themselves to keep her calm, monitors beeping in the background. There were no techs around to look at Dorian. He'd been hit twice with a shotgun blast: one to the shoulder and one to the ribs that had taken a chunk out of him. Far too much purple was visible, all those indecipherable wires severed and twisted. Dorian's eyes were glassy and light flickered over and over his skin, but at least, John told himself, he wasn't fading in and out like the last time he'd been shot.

John's hands were tingling and he could actually feel his lip wanting to curl up in a snarl. Dorian quietly asked to be taken back to the station to see Rudy, and John felt like punching him. He was cycling through insults, trying to decide what was appropriate for letting your partner know how stupid he was, how goddamn idiotic. How he may have been a synthetic but that didn't make him superhero. How it certainly didn't make him unbreakable or expendable.

He got a little side-tracked when Dorian flung his left arm out with enough force to shatter the passenger-side window of their car.

"My arm is malfunctioning."

"No shit," John said, eyeing the window, his anger leaching right out of him. "It'll be okay, right?"

Dorian tilted his head. "Are you expressing concern for my wellbeing, John?"

"Just for my car."

"Oh," Dorian said. "I thought you were mad."

John gritted his teeth. He gestured to the visible wiring in Dorian's side and in his shoulder. "I just hate seeing parts of you exposed like that. It ain't right. But it will be okay, right?"

"No," Dorian said, and John's heart thumped too hard in his chest. "I need to shut down my arm. It's a safety hazard like this. I need you to go in and manually sever a connection for me until Rudy can look me over."

"Aw, man, no. I hate poking around inside you."

"It's not like last time."

"Good, 'cause we're all out of chewing gum."

Dorian's arm gave a violent jerk, and narrowly missed John's head.

"All right," John said, holding up his hands. "Point made."

"The emergency repair kit is in the trunk. Rudy may have to replace the whole limb. I can't be sure. I'm not getting adequate feedback from my diagnostics."

"He has spares, doesn't he?" John slammed the trunk, the small emergency kit in his hand.

"He's well-equipped to deal with whatever repairs are necessary."

"Okay, then." John opened the kit and set it on the hood. "Walk me through it. I can't screw you up any worse than you already are, right?"

"Negative," Dorian said, and John rolled his eyes. "The damage is done. You just need to completely disable my arm until we get to Rudy, that's all."

"Yay," John said, and pulled back a flap of Dorian's skin and tattered t-shirt, clippers at the ready.

"Just there, under the socket joint. Those three wires clipped together. You need to cut through them. Try and get them all in one go." Dorian shuddered violently and John flinched, but the damaged arm only twitched.

"Here?" John asked, touching the back of the clippers to the wires, and when Dorian nodded he snipped through them. "Okay? That's it? We're done?"

Dorian nodded again. John lowered his head and breathed, slow and even. Dorian took John's hand and laid it on his ribs, just under the entry wound. John was suddenly very aware of how close they were standing, how quiet it was by the car away from all the human bustle.

"I like it when you touch me. The warmth, it's very pleasant."

John's fingers tightened minutely on Dorian's ribs. "Are you seriously flirting with me right now?"

"Absolutely not," Dorian said, and his gaze slipped to John's mouth for just a second and away again.

"Aren't you in pain?"

"Pain is a choice. It can be disconnected."

"Dorian..." Dorian waited patiently for whatever it was John wanted to say. John glanced at Dorian's damaged arm, hanging useless at his side. "Get in the car. I'll take you to Rudy."

 

---

 

John stayed while Rudy made his repairs. Rudy kept up a steady stream of chatter that John zoned in and out of. He watched Rudy's hands move, wrist-deep in Dorian's chest, watched him attach a new arm -- the old one briefly examined and summarily tossed in a trashcan -- watched him inject the short-lived nanobots that speeded up the process of knitting Dorian's skin back together.

"Annnd, we're done," Rudy said. He pushed his magnifier out of the way and sat back in his chair.

"He doesn't need a new chest plate?" John asked.

"Nope. It looks bad, but the damage there is mostly superficial. With the new arm in place, he should be good as new. Run your own diagnostic if you like," he said to Dorian, "but it's reading as all systems go."

Light danced over Dorian's skin. "Looks good," he said. He rotated his arm: shoulder, elbow, wrist, then curled and uncurled his fingers. "Feels good. Thank you."

"So," Rudy said, clapping his hands together. "How about a drink? Boys' night out? I could murder a martini."

"This wouldn't have anything to do with Rhonda?" Dorian asked, smiling when Rudy blushed beet red.

"A gentleman doesn't kiss and tell," he said, wearing a private little smile of his own. "But I'd certainly like to try for round two."

They both looked in John's direction.

"Not tonight," John said, already walking away. "I've got a thing. But you guys knock yourselves out."

He taped up the car's broken window, drove straight home, and poured himself a large glass of bourbon. He stood in his little galley kitchen with the lights on their lowest setting and stared at the glass partition wall, his eyes unfocused. It felt like about half an hour later, give or take, when his door alert chimed. John thought about ignoring it. He lifted his glass and took a healthy swallow. The alert chimed again. John sighed, and tapped twice on the kitchen interface. An image of Dorian standing in the hallway appeared.

"Yeah?"

Dorian looked up at the door-cam. "Can we talk?"

John hovered over the access button for a moment, then tapped it, and the screen faded as he heard the familiar sound of the front door opening. He turned his back to the counter and folded his arms over his chest. Dorian appeared, his hands in the pockets of his jacket. He stood in the centre of the apartment and stared at John through the partition wall, shadows falling over his face.

"This is your 'thing'?"

"Drinking alone in the dark is a thing."

"I came to say thank you. You left in such a rush I didn't get a chance before."

"Don't thank me. I'm still angry. What you did today was reckless and stupid."

"That's what I'm here for. I get to walk into situations that no human officer--"

John screwed up his face, disgusted. "Don't give me the speech. I've had it up to here with the speech."

"Mara Edgeworth left a message for us at the station. She wanted to say thank you to both of us. I wanted to pass that along to you."

"Who the hell is Mara Edgeworth?"

"The pregnant woman we help--"

"You helped."

Dorian took a breath and pushed his fists deeper into the pockets of his jacket. "She's in the third trimester. It's a boy. Her second."

John touched his glass with just his fingertips then nudged it out of reach. "Better you than her, right?"

"Than them," Dorian said softly. "And, yes. Of course it was." It was infuriating that he was so calm, and that he was right, as usual, and that his expression gave nothing away. It would have been so much easier if he lost his temper too. He walked around the work station into the kitchen. "But I really came to say thank you for taking care of me, even if you were angry. I really wanted to see you." Then he was stepping closer, much closer than John was happy with, but John had nowhere to go. He got his hands on the edge of the counter behind him and held on tightly.

"I need you to stop this," he said in a hoarse whisper. "It's twisting me up. Can't you see that?"

"You were betrayed by your ex. I can see how that would--"

"This has nothing to do with her," John ground out, suddenly furious, eye contact no longer a problem. "Nothing at all."

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to--"

"Don't act dumb with me. You read people too well. You're usually the smartest guy in the room. You know what this is about." John gripped the counter until his knuckles hurt.

"You don't want to fall for a robot," Dorian said quietly.

John clenched his jaw. "Yeah," he said, his face hot. "I don't want to fall for a robot."

"People do it," Dorian said, in that same quiet, calm voice that shouldn't have been tying John's stomach up in knots.

"You're no sex-bot, and I'm not delusional enough to think--"

"I feel, John. I do. You know that."

"No." John started shaking his head. "You're all wires and relays and fucking code. I don't care how realistic it is. I don't care how different you are or what kind of soul the doc put in you. You mimic, that's all."

He thought about a child's hand holding a toy train. He thought about Dorian's reaction to a mistreated sex-bot and to an orphaned six-year-old boy. He thought about the way Dorian looked at him, how he'd been looking at him for a while now, while John doggedly made believe like nothing was going on.

"Fuck you," Dorian said. "You have no idea what I am."

John had never heard him sound like that, hurt and angry, not when things got under his skin, not when he'd been shot in the head, not when he was running on low-power, never. He wasn't even sure he'd ever heard Dorian swear before. Dorian was usually so calm, so patient.

"You're not human," John said, because he had to, but he felt like an asshole, and his voice was far from steady.

"Yeah, but I'm working on it." Dorian leaned in. John sucked in a sharp breath but stayed where he was. "You're in my head," Dorian said. "I think about you all the time."

"You're crazy. Everyone told me that you were, but I didn't listen. I just liked that you weren't--"

"Soulless?"

"Don't put words in my mouth."

"I'm not crazy. Let me kiss you."

John's throat wouldn't work, but he shook his head.

"I've never kissed anyone before, not really, but I want to kiss you. I want to know what it's like. I've wanted to ever since you woke me up."

"Just because you imprinted on me or whatever, you can't... you can't do this to me. It isn't fair."

Dorian laid a hand on John's chest, gentle, and John was shaking. "I didn't imprint on you," he said. "We don't work that way. Listen to me. I won't change for you. I won't be a mindless doll. I'll annoy you and make fun of your hair and make you eat gross stuff because it's funny. I won't let you watch what you want on TV, and I'll still want to do my own things. I love that I get to want things around you and you listen to me. I won't pursue this thing between us if it isn't working out or if it gets in the way of our work."

"What... what do you even want? I mean, big picture."

"I want to work. I want to solve things. Solve people. It's fascinating. There's logic to cases, and I have tools I can use to help, but people... people don't make sense. But figuring them out, helping them, that's what I love."

"What else?"

"I want to learn. I want to experience things. I'd really like to talk to someone about a little vacation time and spending money. But mostly I just want to feel." He leaned in a little, enough to press their chests together, his hands resting lightly on John's hips. He was solid and familiar. John wanted to grip and hold, but he kept his hands on the counter behind him, immobile, his fingertips white.

"What do you feel now? With me?"

"Heat. You run hot, John. My skin... I know it's not the same for you, but I can hear your body. I can smell you, taste the pheromones. It's easy for me to tell you want me."

"That's bodies. I can't help it. That's lust."

Dorian smiled faintly. "That's okay, man. That's a start."

"How can you even... sex. What does that even do for you?"

"You want a diagnostic or you want me to show you?"

John closed his eyes and said, "Tell me first," which wasn't at all what he meant to say.

"You want me to convince you. Tell you it'll be okay."

"No," John said, opening his eyes, uncertain. "I just want you to tell me that--"

"It'll be okay. It will. I get sensory input from my skin. Temperature, pressure, when you sweat... that's so hot. I really like that. It makes it difficult to concentrate on anything else. I get the difference between a punch and a brush of skin. They're worlds, galaxies apart. The build-up, John, the uncertainty of what's to come, where you're going to touch me..." Dorian licked his lips and John's insides went hollowed out and achy. "I've thought about it a lot. It would be so intimate. It's... overwhelming."

"You're crazy," John said, little more than a whisper. "You're nuts."

"So they tell me." The smile again, and John knew he was so, so screwed, because he was still kind of angry, and he was trying so hard to be strong, but his will was crumbling, and he could see that Dorian knew that.

"John," he said, in close enough that John could feel it.

John meant to say no. He meant to say stop. Instead the distance between them disappeared and Dorian made a soft sound of surprise. John did his best to hold back, trying so hard not to give in, but soon they were really kissing, deep and hungry, John's hands on Dorian's face. It was Dorian who broke away first, his eyes huge and luminous, staring at John like it was the first time he'd ever really seen him.

"Now I see what all the fuss is about," Dorian said. He touched his lips with his fingertips and then touched John's, and John's stomach clenched with want.

John frowned at him, twisted up and turned on, torn between taking what was standing in front of him, being freely offered, and doing what his conscience and his common sense were screaming at him and walking away.

"John? You okay?"

John took hold of a fistful of the lapel of Dorian's jacket and tugged a little at the material. His thumb brushed over Dorian's collarbone, his skin cool and soft but still speckled with purple, not done knitting back together. "You keep making me talk about this stuff. I hate that. You never take no for an answer."

Dorian went very still. "Tell me if you want me to stop. I mean really stop. Do it now and I'll never bring it up again."

John took a couple of short breaths. "I don't know what you're doing to me here."

"You know exactly. You know better than me. I've never done anything like this before. It's kind of terrifying."

John tilted Dorian's face up so he could look him in the eye. "Never do anything with me unless you want it, you hear me?"

"I wouldn't. I don't work that way. When have I ever done stuff just because you told me to?"

"I can't help doubting," John said, hating himself a little. "That's kind of my default setting."

"I know. It's okay. We can work on that." Dorian slipped a hand under John's t-shirt; cool on the small of his back. "You want to, uh, work on it a little with me?"

"Smooth."

"Give me a break. I told you, this is all uncharted territory. Maybe next time I'll have some better lines for you."

"Next time?"

Dorian gripped the hem of John's t-shirt, hesitated for a moment, looking for something in John's eyes, then lifted the shirt over his head. John raised his arms to make it easier, and it felt like acceptance. Dorian laid both palms on John's chest and watched intently as he smoothed over John's skin, his touch feather-light. John spread his legs a little to put them at the same height.

"You've really never done this before? What about alone? Never... tried out the equipment?"

"It seemed unnecessary."

"How about now?"

Dorian looked up. "Necessary. Essential. Top of my to-do list."

They kissed again, open and wet and a little rough around the edges.

John pushed Dorian's jacket off his shoulders and tugged him in by his hips so they were flush against one another. "You can feel this?"

Dorian blinked several times. "Yes," he said, sounding eager, sounding breathless.

"You're hard," John said, his voice rough.

"Yes. It's very strange. I didn't initiate it." Dorian rocked his hips, making John swear. "I think I like it."

"That's the general idea," John said, and gently pushed Dorian an arm's length away.

Dorian frowned. "This is precisely the opposite of what I wanted."

"Come with me," John said. "If we're doing this, there's a nice big bed just over there."

"Oh, okay," Dorian said, the frown melting away, and let John lead him.

Dorian stood by the bed, looking down at the rumpled sheets.

"Sit," John said when it became clear Dorian wasn't going to make a move, and he sank to his knees between Dorian's thighs.

Dorian fisted his hands in the sheets as John unbuttoned his shirt, ghosting light touches over soft skin and firm muscles -- flesh that felt real to the touch and gave a little when John squeezed -- and over the jagged purple scar on his side that would probably be gone by morning. He'd touched Dorian before, helped patch him up, seen parts of his body when Rudy was working on him, but this was all kinds of different. It didn't look like Dorian's chest was moving with any regularity, but his abs were clenched and the muscles in his arms were corded where he was twisting his hands in the sheets. He had a faint dusting of hair on his chest and stomach, and his shoulders were a thing of beauty.

Dorian sucked in a breath when John popped the button of his jeans. "Wait, John, you don't have to--"

"I want to. Ah, I like to. It's been a while but... I like to. I mean, if you want me to. But we can do whatever. Whatever you want. We can figure out what works."

"Oh," Dorian said, light curving along his jaw. "Then, yes, please." He lifted his hips to let John tug his jeans down his legs. John couldn't help but stare. "What? Am I... is it okay?"

"It's not like I haven't seen it before. You weren't so bashful last time."

"This is a little different."

John sat back on his heels but kept his hands on Dorian's thighs. "Are you seriously nervous right now?" Dorian shook his head a little too rapidly. John ran his palms up Dorian's thighs. "Don't be. It's very nice. Very..." He ran his thumb up the underside and loosely circled his fingers around Dorian's dick, making Dorian gasp. "... real."

"I don't know what to do."

John smiled. "This part's easy."

Dorian carded his fingers through John's hair, hesitant, like he wasn't sure if he was allowed to touch. "Would you... come here, please, John, just come here."

John grabbed his long-neglected lube from the bedside cabinet, and popped the cap with his thumb as he tugged open his jeans. He squeezed some out onto his palm and crawled up the bed towards Dorian, who was watching him with wide eyes. John took both of them in his hand and rolled his hips into it.

Dorian sank back onto the sheets, looking shell-shocked. "Oh my god, that's amazing."

"Give me your hand," John said, and linked their fingers together. Dorian squeezed a little too hard and John hissed. "Easy. Like this."

"Sorry, sorry. Got it," Dorian said, and twisted his wrist, making John groan.

Dorian looked torn between watching John's face and looking down to see them moving together. John couldn't look away from Dorian's face, wanting to see every reaction to what they were doing, every little sign that Dorian was getting off on it. Dorian caught him watching and smiled, a big, beautiful, happy smile, and that was all it took for John to lose it all over Dorian's stomach. Dorian worked him through it, gentler than before, until even that was too much, and John held his wrist to stop him.

"Wait, wait, let me... I have to..." Dorian rolled them on the bed so he was on top. His hand on the back of John's neck, he fucked the line of John's hip, riding on lube and come and sweat. He was a solid weight above John, a comforting weight rather than making him feel trapped or pinned, and so strong, lost in what he was doing.

Dorian went still above him, his eyes unseeing, all the pathways on his face lighting up, sending an eerie blue glow over half the room.

"Did you just...?"

Dorian smiled, a new one, totally blissed out and dazed. "I don't know. Yes. I think so. I wasn't sure if I could. I feel so... overloaded. The input is killing me. I may need to reboot."

"Sweet talker." John nudged him until he rolled over and sprawled out on the other side of the mattress.

"No, it's amazing. My body is amazing." John rolled his eyes. "This is all really amazing. It's very inefficient but that kind of adds to the experience." He sat up like he was hinged at the waist. "We need to go again."

"Sorry, human guy here. I'm going to need a minute."

"How long is your refractory period?"

"Jesus, I don't know. Why don't you time me?"

"I am."

"Oh my god." John's eyes widened. "Stop doing that immediately."

"I think this time you should penetrate me."

"Christ, you're going to kill me. And don't say penetrate."

"Fuck me, then. Let me feel it. Or I could do you, if that's something you'd like. I just think I should experience this from all sides, don't you?"

"Going to kill me," John said, and pulled a pillow over his face.

 

---

 

He wasn't an idiot. He knew he was watching Dorian too much. Things like that didn't go unnoticed for long around the precinct. Things like that were liable to get John in a whole lot of hot water. He did his best to ignore it. He drank too much coffee, returned a dozen phone calls, de-cluttered and reorganised his desk, and was generally not much use to anyone, but he certainly looked like he was getting a lot done.

He figured that Dorian had plenty to be happy about recently. After his glowing performance appraisal and John's high praise of his police work -- putting the ominous threat of decommissioning firmly in the rear-view mirror, something Dorian could talk about calmly but John knew really scared him -- and then this new thing between them, something John wasn't anywhere near ready to put a name to, Dorian's general demeanour should have been sunny, his smile off the charts. Instead he was looking kind of miserable.

John looked up again and this time Dorian was looking right back.

"You're wearing the new leg."

John lifted his leg and waggled his foot. Then he felt stupid, like a prize poodle doing a trick, and lowered his leg again.

"No squeaking?"

"No. She runs like a dream."

"Good," Dorian said. "There's a 72% chance that Detective Stahl is going to ask you out."

John choked on his coffee.

"I've been monitoring her vitals. Her heart rate rises perceptibly when you're around. She's wearing her hair down and looks in your direction 2.7 times as much as before you asked her to go out for a drink."

"Stop," John said. "Just stop." He lowered his voice. "Valerie... Detective Stahl and I are colleagues, that's all. There's nothing there. It was mostly you putting the idea in my head, for god's sake."

"Things change. You've put the idea in her head now. I guess you've grown on her."

"Huh," John said. "I guess I am quite charming." Dorian didn't crack a smile. John narrowed his eyes. "Are you jealous?"

Dorian came as close to scowling as John had ever seen. John raised his eyebrows in surprise.

"I have work to do," Dorian said, and walked away.

Stahl did ask him. She did it casually enough that if it hadn't been for his conversation with Dorian, John wouldn't have read a thing into it and probably would have gone without a second thought. He opened his mouth and thought about just saying yes. She was a beautiful, competent, kind woman, way smarter than him, and, yes, her voice did things to him. Maybe this would be a good thing. Maybe this was a choice he should make. It didn't have to mean anything, but if it led to something more then...

His gaze flicked to Dorian and away again the second he realised he'd done it.

"No. I can't," he said, and lifted a pad at random off his desk. "Sorry. Paperwork calls."

"You do know we don't call it paperwork anymore, right?"

"I got the e-memo, sure."

"Okay," she said with a smile. "Maybe another time."

"Sure thing," John said, and watched as she walked away.

He made himself sit without looking up, and worked steadily through several weeks' backlog, real work this time: filing overdue reports, updating case files, and checking the absolute minimum number of boxes he could conceivably get away with on a bunch of new health and safety bullshit. That way he hadn't lied, work was being done, and everything was right with the world.

When he finally sat back and stretched out his back, the office was nearly empty, his desk one of only a few still in a pool of light, a lone MX occupying the corner desk, manning the phones.

He went down to Dorian's room, making himself walk slowly, practically a stroll, but when he got there, there was no answer to his knock, and when he opened the door the room was empty, the recharge pod powered down. There was a desk and a chair that hadn't been there the last time he'd visited, a jacket hanging on the back of the chair, a couple of battered paperback books sitting on the desk. On one wall was a poster he didn't recognise, probably from an old movie: a robotic woman, her exoskeleton crudely fashioned from large metal segments, sitting in a chair with wires attached to it, with large rings of energy passing over her. John stared at the poster for a long time.

He got out his phone and brought up Dorian's name, skipped past the call icon and hovered over locate, then just ran his thumb over the screen a few times and put it back in his pocket without choosing either option. He went back to his desk, grabbed his keys and his jacket, shut down his computer, and went home.

When he arrived at his floor, there was a dark figure sitting outside his door. Dorian raised his head when the lights came on and rose fluidly when John approached. John could feel his heart beating hard and fast, which meant that Dorian could sense it, but there wasn't a damn thing he could do about it.

"Is this going to be a thing?" he asked, relieved when it came out sounding normal. Grouchy, but normal.

"I didn't mean to come here. I'm sorry. I'll go."

"Well, you're here now. Want to come in?"

Dorian glanced down the hallway towards the elevator. "Sure," he said, sounding anything but, and followed John into the apartment.

John shrugged out of his jacket and tossed it into the wheelchair, and went to the kitchen.

"Tea?" Dorian asked, sounding surprised.

"Camomile." John made a dismissive sound. "Betty's suggestion. And by suggestion I mean she refuses to make me coffee past six p.m."

"She's looking out for you."

"She's a tyrant. You want some?"

"No, I'm good. Thanks."

Dorian looked around the apartment. His eyes passed over the large painting hanging over John's bed, and John was waiting for a comment but it never came. Instead Dorian focused on the target sheet hanging on the other wall, three neat little bullet holes in the chest, three in the head, all practically dead centre.

"I can't believe you framed this."

"Shut up, man. I broke the record. That's a near perfect score."

"Says you."

"Pah. We can't all have..." John waved his hand vaguely. "... laser sighting and-and-and gyroscopic balance."

"You know neither of those are things that I have. I'm not even sure you know what they are."

"Yeah, but you know what I mean."

"Just barely," Dorian said, toying with the collection of globes on a shelf, making the smallest one spin. "You play?" he asked, gesturing to the guitars that John hadn't picked up in longer than he could remember. Dorian walked over and dragged a light finger over the strings of the acoustic. John wasn't surprised to hear that it was out of tune.

"I dabble."

"You any good?" Dorian asked.

"I can hold my own."

"You should play for me some time. I like bluegrass."

John tilted his head, amused. "Okay," he said, drawing the word out.

Dorian fiddled with a couple of the tuning pegs, and strummed across the strings again. This time they were perfectly in tune.

"Next time you go on a date, you should play for her. Playing someone music can be very romantic. It bares the soul."

"Next...?" John frowned. "Yeah, okay, I'll do that."

Dorian looked up. "Have I said something wrong?"

"No. No, just you don't seem... Why did you come here, Dorian?"

Dorian straightened. "I shouldn't have. I'll go."

John held out his hands, palms up. "If you'll notice, I'm not actually on a date. I was at work, where you should have been, and then I came home. If you'd stuck around, you would have known that. No drama. Instead you decide to disappear and then come here and confront me?"

"Oh," Dorian said, looking small and unhappy. "The time it took you to come home indicated that you had ample time to go for drinks with Detective Stahl."

John raised an eyebrow. "You mean you didn't access the precinct's logs or hack my phone or track me on traffic cams or do your little breathalyser trick the second you saw me?"

"I was trying not to be..." Dorian shook his head and looked down at his hands. "I apologise for jumping to conclusions."

"Dorian..." John started, taking a step towards him, wanting to take the awkwardness away but not having much of an idea of where to start.

"I don't want you to go on any dates with anyone but me," Dorian said simply. "But you've been very clear. I'm a robot. I have no say over what you do or who you do it with."

John experienced a sudden strange burst of anger in his chest. He unclipped his gun and shrugged out of his shoulder holster, setting both on the counter. "Synthetic person," he snapped. "Or android, or whatever the fuck it is I'm supposed to call what you are." He walked to the bathroom before Dorian could say anything else and closed the door firmly behind him.

He cleaned his teeth, just out of habit, and splashed cold water on his face, glaring at himself in the mirror. When he went back out, Dorian was still standing in the same spot.

"I should go," Dorian said.

John scrubbed a hand through his hair. "Dorian, if you're going to go all crazy robo-stalker on me, perhaps we should discuss that."

Dorian looked so lost, so human, that John's heart ached. "I'm doing everything I said I wouldn't, aren't I? I'm sorry if I'm making you uncomfortable. This is just a little harder to deal with than I thought. I want to assure you that I would never do anything... well, crazy."

"Crazier than this?"

"Right," Dorian said. "Exactly. I would never do anything crazier than this."

"Why don't you tell me what's really bothering you?"

Dorian's face looked pinched and closed off. "I should really go."

"Dorian," John said, taking a step closer. "Just spit it out."

"I don't like it that you're... that you could choose someone else. Someone human." He looked up, his gaze painfully blue and vulnerable. "It hurts."

John swallowed past the lump in his throat. "You said pain was a choice. You could disconnect it."

Dorian shook his head. "I can't disconnect this."

"Dorian..."

"I know it's not what you want to hear, that it's too much for you, that you're worried about me losing it, but this isn't... I can't..." He clenched his hands into fists and turned his face away.

John crossed the room and kissed him, swallowing down Dorian's pained little whimper.

This time it was Dorian who held him at arm's length. "Don't do this if you don't mean it. I think I've proved that I'm not really capable of doing things by halves. Not when it comes to you."

"You really mean that, don't you?"

"Of course. I told you, you're in my head. That's not a choice. It just... is."

"And you'd stop now if I asked you to."

Dorian gave an unhappy shrug. "If I had to."

"I'm not going to ask you to."

A flare of hope lit Dorian's eyes before he lowered his gaze. "You could hurt me."

"I could," John said gently. "That's the chance you take. But I can promise to try not to."

"Do you even know what you're getting into?"

John took a moment to really think it over. "I think I've stopped seeing you in terms of human or robot," he said. "I just see you as Dorian. You're different. You're special. And I like that. You're way over on my side of the uncanny valley." He put his hand over his heart. "And you complete me."

Dorian didn't lift his head but John heard the soft snort of laughter. "You're such an asshole, you know that?"

"It has been brought to my attention on occasion, yes."

"So, I'm not as crazy as I thought?" Dorian asked, sounding hopeful. He glanced up. "You want to do this?"

"I want to try." John smiled softly, and knew he looked hopeless. "You're in my head, too."

Dorian slid his hands down from John's shoulders to his wrists. "Now you're just telling me things I want to hear."

John stepped in closer. "I'm trying to get in your pants. Is it working?"

Dorian nodded. He smiled when John kissed him and John bit on his lip because, christ, there was only so much a man could take.

"This is inadvisable," Dorian said, dragging John in by his hips.

John groaned, rutting up against him helplessly. "Everything about you is inadvisable, and yet here I am."

Dorian bit at his jaw. "That may be one of the nicest things you've ever said to me."

"You're compiling a list, aren't you?"

Dorian pulled John's shirt out of his pants and started unbuttoning it. "I like lists. They're very soothing."

"Tell me again why I got stuck with the crazy DRN."

"I think maybe that says more about you than it does about me, John."

"I think maybe you should blow me."

Dorian's pupils visibly dilated and John suffered a startling moment of thinking that whoever had designed Dorian had done a really, really good job.

"I think that's a great idea," Dorian said, and picked John up.

John would have complained, vociferously and at great length, because he was the picker-upper, damn it, but he got all caught up in wrapping his legs around Dorian's waist and trying to continue kissing him as Dorian walked across the room and dumped John on the bed. There was little finesse to them getting undressed, clothes pulled off and out of the way until they had skin on skin. They kissed for a long time, just rocking against one another, hands trailing over skin, neither of them in a rush until Dorian started licking and biting a path down John's body.

"John?" Dorian said softly. John looked down his body to where Dorian was staring up at him, one hand wrapped around his dick. "Don't come in my mouth, okay? That would be... really hard to clean up."

"Got it," John said. "I'm all over-- holy shit fuck buckets." Which was apparently all his brain could come up with when he was suddenly deep-throated.

There was a hum of amusement, that John could feel everywhere, then Dorian actually stopped the incredible things he was doing to pull off and chuckle at John's expense.

"Smooth," he said. "This is your version of pillow-talk?"

"Shut up, shut up." John strained towards Dorian, his hands fisted in the sheets. "Judge me later. Just do that again."

For once, Dorian did as he was told.

 

---

 

"I really should go." Dorian sat up and John grabbed his wrist. Dorian looked down at him on the bed.

John thought about what it would be like. He thought about going back to just being partners. He thought about seeing Dorian every day and pretending like there wasn't this thing between them, like he didn't see Dorian as so much more than the sum of his parts.

"You really need to stop saying that. Stay here tonight. I'll get you back early to recharge if you need it."

Dorian touched John's face with his fingertips. He smiled, that damn smile again, and it tied a ribbon around John's heart and pulled the knot tight.

John tossed his head to dislodge Dorian's touch. "Don't get all mushy. It's not a proposal or anything."

Dorian's expression didn't change. "You said you didn't want to fall for a robot."

"Android-type person," John said. "Almost human."

"Working on it," Dorian murmured.

"You still want to go?"

"No," Dorian said, and let John pull him down onto the bed.