The first time Dr. Stilinski saw Stiles, he was a bit of wire and mesh. A set of blinking lights. A switch.
And yet, the doctor could see the boy Stiles would become. He could see a child fully-formed, eager-eyed and tender - a laughing child, a loving child, one to call his own.
And so the doctor welded and worked, and slaved and sweated, all the while humming songs and telling stories, so that the boy, once he woke, would be educated in what it meant to have a human heart.
He'd never have a heart, of course. Not a real one. But Dr. Stilinski was ever the optimist - or perhaps he was simply desperate, the grief of his wife's passing, mid-childbirth, having driven him mad.
He gave the droid his wife's eyes. Her one-sided dimple. Her honest greed for sweetmeats and unhealthy things. He also gave the boy her curiosity, her ridiculous giggle, and her tendency to flit from one topic of conversation to another, like an eager magpie.
He… did not know what to give, of his own, that his wife would have liked to see in their son. And so he gave the droid the qualities that he remembered his wife complementing, such as the surety of his hands and the steadfastness of his loyalty, and his perfect (or so she called them) hugs.
Stiles came to life on December the 23rd, one night before Christmas Eve, and had constructed fifteen different presents for the doctor, from spare circuitry and bric-a-brac, before the day had passed.
"Merry Christmas, Dad," said the boy, and leaned in to peck him on the cheek.
Dr. Stilinski held his overfull Christmas stocking in his hands, bulging with tiny automated birds and aluminum butterflies, and felt a great lurching within himself, as if his heart were breaking once again, or as if it were being put back together, piece by agonizing piece.
The last time Dr. Stilinski saw Stiles, he was unconscious and had a broken arm, wires sticking out of his elbow-socket.
He was dangling from Peter Hale's grip.
"A very clever device, this," said Mr. Hale, who owned Dr. Stilinski's labs, and, for all intents and purposes, his life. "Your best work, even, one might say."
Dr. Stilinski didn't move. He'd known it would come to this.
"How long have you been hiding him? Days? Weeks? Months?"
"Eight months," said Dr. Stilinski, hollowly, "and eleven days."
"That long? And you didn't think to, oh, I don't know, share your invention? With me, your employer? The one who funds your research?"
"You would take him," Dr. Stilinski answered, "and make him do cruel things."
"Cruel things?" Mr. Hale tilted his head. "Like what? Eliminating a few competitors? Recruiting a few sponsors? Seducing a few clients? Entertaining the crowds at our 'puppet shows'? None of that is cruel, doctor, if the subject is a toy. Toys are meant to be toyed with. That is their purpose."
"He won't cooperate with you. Not for long."
"Then reprogram him."
"I can't. He was made the way he was. To change him would break him. You know that."
Mr. Hale knew that, indeed. He'd seen a great many of his droids broken by reprogramming, and it was obvious, from the gleam of speculation in his eye, that he was loath to ruin such a promising project before testing it on the field. "Very well," he said, at last. "I'll take him as he is."
"At least let me fix his arm."
Mr. Hale let him fix Stiles's arm. He watched impatiently, as if sensing that Dr. Stilinski was taking longer than usual, that he was lingering over the synthetic skin, that his fingers were pausing too often in the midst of repairing a torn wire or a patch of twitching, regenerated tissue.
When Stiles's eyes fluttered open, they were as bright and lovely and faithful as ever.
They weren't bleak, at all.
"I'll come back to you, Dad," he promised, fiercely, as if he did not know that this was the end of his childhood, that it was the end of their family.
"No," said Dr. Stilinski, and cupped the face of his almost-boy, his almost-son. "You won't."
Stiles only looked uncomprehending.
Still, he followed Mr. Hale out the door, because Mr. Hale owned his programming, now, and what he commanded, Stiles would do.
The doctor - the doctor had never ordered Stiles to do anything.
Stiles didn't understand orders, which was why he kept glancing back at Dr. Stilinski, even after Mr. Hale had taken hold of his arm, and he looked so confused, as if he wanted to ask his father why his own feet were carrying him away from home, why he could not seem, despite his dearest wish, to turn around.
He… he couldn't turn around.
He would never be able to turn around.
The door closed behind them.
Dr. Stilinski sat there, in his empty lab, and wept.
The first time Derek saw Stiles, it was onstage, shoving away another droid and scrambling back with an expression of - horror? - on his face.
It couldn't be horror, surely. Androids were incapable of emotion.
"Which unit is that?" he asked his uncle, who was watching the show with a strangely eager look on his face.
"S-19-21," Peter Hale answered, eyes never straying from the stage, as two more droids appeared to secure the rebel to the display stand. "A new acquisition."
"He's… very convincing."
"Yes," said Peter, with relish. "He is, isn't he?"
Derek felt a spasm of distaste, at his uncle's reaction, that had more in common with a sort of lupine hunger than it did with anything - human. And wasn't that ironic? "We should let him off the stage."
"Why?" Peter gestured at the audience, at the slavering masses that always set Derek's teeth on edge. "They like it. Verisimilitude, and all that."
Onstage, unit S-19-21 shrieked.
Derek was lunging forward before he knew it. "Release him," he barked, and the droids stripping S-19-21 of his clothes turned to Derek, as one, smiles fixed on their faces.
"But, sir," said one, "we have not yet completed Display Lambda-Nine-Theta."
Faced with a prime directive in that commanding tone, the droids immediately desisted, letting S-19-21 go. He stumbled off the display, pale and wide-eyed, shaking as though -
He couldn't be a droid -
"You," he said, and the unit's gaze snapped to him, with the swift inevitability of programmed obedience. Well. "You're coming with me."
S-19-21 was gasping. Gasping, and following Derek on the way out of the auditorium, chased by disappointed howls and catcalls from the audience.
He expected his uncle to stop him, or at least say something, about how this was bad for business, how Derek was displaying an appalling lack of forethought - but his uncle only watched him go, smiling, inscrutable.
Derek… didn't know what to make of that, but then, he rarely knew what to make of his uncle, or of himself, for being a part of all this.
Once they were in Derek's office, Derek seated the droid in the chair facing his desk, and sat down, himself.
"Y-you. Do you want - " S-19-21 stuttered to a halt, breathed. "Sir. Do you want me to perform for you, personally, sir?"
An android that stuttered. Wonders never ceased. "No."
Soft-mouthed, young-skinned, and, for all intents and purposes, optimally synthesized for sexual service, the droid nonetheless didn't seem very inclined to perform sexual service. This could be a fatal flaw, or merely a momentary malfunction, but… either way, S-19-21 was uncannily capable of mimicking human emotion. Eliciting sympathy. "In that case," S-19-21 swallowed, "th-thank you, sir."
"What for?" Derek was genuinely curious; with a human, the answer would be obvious (you saved me), but with a droid, one never knew.
"You saved me," said S-19-21, blushing, and Derek - Derek jerked.
He realized that his hands were clenched too tightly on the arms of his leather chair. "You're… you're very human."
S-19-21 looked at him oddly. Oddly, like Derek was the one not performing to expectations. "I'm not human, sir."
"Yes." Derek sighed. "I know. I just - why don't you obey, then?"
"I obey, sir."
"As long as it's not - a display?"
"That was my first display, sir. I've been loaned out in private, but - "
"Nothing, sir. What would you like me to do, sir?"
Test. Derek had to test this droid's emotionality, his convincing facsimile of emotionality. "Strip," he commanded, "and turn around in a circle. I want to see your construction."
S-19-21 was on his feet instantly, pulling his own clothes off, although his face was -
It was -
The words 'resigned' and 'betrayed' didn't belong in this context -
The droid's fingers shook -
Stop, Derek almost said, but that would defeat the point, so he just - waited. As the droid finished stripping himself.
And turned in a slow circle.
And got… stared at, because Derek was staring -
"You don't have solder-marks."
"I do, sir. But most of them are not visible to the human eye - "
"As good as having no solder-marks."
"Yes, sir," said S-19-21, eventually. He was still turning - flex of thigh and buttock -
"That's enough," said Derek. "Stand still."
S-19-21 came to a halt, facing him. "Would you like me to service you now, sir?"
S-19-21 brushed a hand across his own belly. "Would you like to watch me service myself, sir?"
"No. Who made you?"
The droid's expression clouded. There was no other word for it. "My father, sir."
"Your - " Father. Of course. Only a creator who'd emotionally bonded with a droid would be capable of programming it in this way, although how such a creator could then part with his creation, Derek didn't know. Unless… "Was it Dr. Stilinski?"
S-19-21's breath caught, and in a flash of inhumanly fast movement, he was kneeling at Derek's feet, an action taken entirely without command, of his own volition.
How was this even possible?
"Do you know my Dad? You - you know him, don't you? Have you met him? How is he?"
Derek was staring, again. He couldn't help it; the droid's eyes were so bright, so human, so close -
"Please, I - I need to see him, if you'll - " S-19-21 placed his hands on Derek's thighs and leaned in - "Please. I'll do anything. Any - I'll perform onstage, I - I won't resist - I'll put on the best performance, get the most clients - "
"That's." Derek's stomach twisted. "Don't - "
"Please - "
"Shut up," he said, and S-19-21 shut up, his voice truncated as if he'd been choked -
The droid wheezed.
S-19-21 blinked wet lashes, nodded frantically, and took a few gulping breaths of air. Like he needed air. Like he thought he needed air.
Derek watched him, disbelieving. The boy was trembling. No. No, the droid was - "You may speak again. What'll you do if you see him? Your… Dad?"
"I. It's his. It was his birthday, last week, and I. I made something - f-for him. Like I used to - "
"You made something?"
"A little robot. A little bird - "
Derek was stunned. A droid, capable of building another machine, from an entirely original design?
"But I couldn't give it to him. I couldn't help making it, anyway - I just - please. If I can't. If I can't see him, would you. Give it to him? For me? Please. That way, he'll know I'm all right. He'll know - "
"But you're not all right," Derek blurted, before he could think about what he was saying, and S-19-21… looked at him. Just -
"Tell him I am," he said. "Please. Sir."
Derek was, inexplicably, sweating. He felt sick, as if he were some perverse kidnapper of human children, not a perfectly legitimate businessman in the industry of entertainment droids. "Get up. And - and put on your clothes."
The droid did as he was told, without delay, but his eyes remained fixed on Derek's with a fierce desperation, as though he was still begging Derek, still -
Still on his knees -
Had Uncle Peter -
No. "Bring me the bird, tomorrow," he said, "and I will take it to your… maker."
S-19-21 froze. He was still in the act of buttoning up his shirt.
"You've also been reassigned. To me. Since you can construct droids, you will help me make the daily rounds and pinpoint malfunctions and probable causes. It'll save us an immense amount on processing and repair costs, if we don't have to delay for diagnostics, as well." Why was he explaining his reasoning to a droid? To himself?
"I… won't have to. I won't have to perform onstage, sir?"
"Or privately," the droid echoed, dizzily. He was gawking at Derek, as if Derek was an avenging angel or perhaps just a merciful one.
Suddenly uncomfortable under S-19-21's scrutiny, he snapped: "We're done here. Tell my uncle of your reassignment before returning to the dorms."
But S-19-21 didn't take the dismissal for what it was, since it wasn't, apparently, explicit enough. Instead, he stepped forward, shirt still half-buttoned, and Derek didn't even have the time to flinch before the droid was bending down and -
- kissing him.
On the cheek.
Derek experienced a frisson of pure, mind-numbing shock, but then, S-19-21 was moving away, smiling, like - like a person, a child, a happy, astonished child. Not the unwavering, artificial smiles pasted on droid-faces, whether or not they were being sexually used or beaten or literally taken apart, but a true smile, one that grew, that parted the mouth and warmed the eyes.
"That's what my Dad did," said S-19-21, as if Derek had actually managed to put together enough words to ask a question. "When I did something good."
"What," Derek cleared his throat, "what was 'good'?"
"Oh, when I washed the dishes. Or - or won against him in chess. Or made a new kind of bird. Or laughed."
"Laughing is good?"
"Of course it is, sir," said the droid, as if Derek were the one ignorant of human feelings. "You should do it more often. I think - " S-19-21 dimpled. "I think it'd suit you. A lot. Sir."
Derek gaped, as the droid shuffled from foot to foot, grinning at him shyly.
Grinning. That -
That was ridiculous, it was -
"I don't need advice from a droid."
"No, sir." S-19-21 was still grinning. "I mean, yes, sir. I mean, why would you, sir? Did you know that some of the consulting techs call you Sourface, sir? They think you're terrifying. But you're not, obviously, sir, because you're kind, and you're generous, and you're - you're wonderful - "
"Quiet," Derek said, gruffly, feeling uncommonly ruffled. "Do you - do you always talk this much?"
"Dad says I get it from my Mom, sir."
"Whoops! Wasn't supposed to say that. I - I'm sorry, sir. Maybe you could ask my Dad, when you meet him?" S-19-21 bounced on his feet, like an eager schoolboy waiting for recess. Derek was beginning to realize that being distressed or submissive was not the droid's natural emotional state. Not that droids were supposed to have emotional states. "I think you'll like my Dad. In fact, you're like my Dad."
"I'm like. Your Dad."
"Yeah! You're just like him." A tiny line furrowed between the droid's brows. "Well, except that you're taller. And narrower."
Narrower? What was Derek, a geometric shape?
"And… stubblier." S-19-21 made a weird, swiping motion over his own face. "Like that."
"Like - like what?"
"Like the pirates."
The. The pirates?
"Of the Caribbean. My favorite movie. Although Dad got sick of watching it, I think."
"I'm like your Dad," Derek said, slowly, "and I'm like a pirate. Does that mean your Dad's a pirate?"
"No! Huh?" S-19-21 looked confused. "Wait - "
Derek felt a dangerous, telling twitch taking shape at the corner of his mouth, and raised his own hand to hide it. He'd be horrified at himself, except that the he was too shaken to manage any proper, primary-color emotion. "Go. You - you need rest." I need rest, he didn't say.
"Yes, sir!" The droid saluted, of all things, and bounced toward the door. Derek wondered how he managed to bounce around all the time without rattling all his screws loose. Metaphorically speaking.
"Uh, by the way," said S-19-21, poking his head back in through the door, just when Derek thought he was finally safe in his silent office. "My name's Stiles!"
The boy - the droid had a name.
A name and a bounce. And a preference for adventure movies. And a dimple. And a - a smile, a real smile, paradoxically more real than any smiles Derek had ever seen on humans.
Once the droid's (bouncing) steps had faded away down the corridor, Derek sat back in his chair, tipped it back, and looked up at the ceiling.
His uncle would call him a sentimentalist.
His uncle - his uncle wouldn't reassign Stiles, not in outright violation of Derek's order, as they preferred to keep a united front before the consultants and the clients - but he might do so, at any time, if he thought Derek was getting… attached.
Derek had never gotten attached. To a droid, let alone to a human being. Not after Laura had died.
Dr. Stilinski, said the computer, when Derek accessed the manufacturing database. Chief Scientist for Hale Enterprises. Forty-two years of age. Widowed. Latest discovery: Empathic reconnection pathways in the positronic brain. Latest funding…
Derek tuned out, and studied Stilinski's photo. Just an ordinary middle-aged man, a bit pudgy around the middle, with wrinkles at the edges of his eyes.
Nothing remarkable about him, at all, and certainly nothing that would warrant comparing Derek to him, but -
Those were sad eyes.
Was that what Stiles had meant, when he'd called them alike?
Derek shut off the computer and pinched the bridge of his nose.
He must be going mad.