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Icarus

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Charles was seven years old when his stepfather brought David home.

The David 8, so began the holonet ad Charles watched a week prior, is brought to life with better technological, intellectual, physical and emotional performance than ever before. The eighth generation in cybernetic advancement brought to you by Weyland Corp, the full range of his emotional and empathetic aptitude is made possible by the very latest in robotics.

With his 99% emotional sensitivity level, David 8 can enter seamlessly into any environment and carry out an authentic human interaction. David 8 can understand and respond appropriately to even the most intricate emotional cues or subtly stated verbal commands.

He is polished, practiced, and efficient, by far the most advanced and human-like cybernetic individual on the market today. Discover, explore, and Build Better Worlds with the new David 8.

An unassuming statement in tiny front ran along the bottom, just beneath the smiling face of a test model with aesthetically pleasant features. While David will never grow old or die, read the disclaimer, a David 8 is a machine, and does not have the human capability to appreciate these qualities—they exist in benefit to you.

The David 8 that required several postmen to carry in through the elevator and set down in the foyer, sleek shipment case sliding open with a few strokes across its interface, looked nothing like any David advertised on the networks. This was the first thought that swam through Charles' mind upon seeing the robot for the first time, peeking around his mother's legs while maintaining what he'd already come to learn was a socially acceptable distance.

Kurt Marko looked only vaguely displeased by the sight. He waved off the men without tipping, the tap of his polished shoe ripe with impatience. "It'll do."

Sharon Marko merely sniffed. "I thought these things came custom designed." And the inflection she chose to accentuate the word—things—was nothing short of disdainful. 

"Couldn't find the time, darling. I had it randomized," Charles' stepfather remarked, his attention drawn elsewhere, but then he was already one foot out the door, peeling back his cuff to check the time on his Rolex. Kurt Marko was a businessman foremost, Charles learned early on. Though he was no great scientist, nothing like the late Dr. Xavier in manner nor ethics, he was ruthlessly successful in his own right.

Charles' mother was nowhere near as business-focused, but just as rarely at home as her husband. At the same time that Kurt was halfway out the door, she had gone in search of her coat.

"Have the maid figure out how it turns on," she informed the valet before the sound of her clacking heels followed her into the adjacent room.

Charles, in the meantime, had taken his first cautious steps toward the head of the case, close enough to carefully rove his eyes over the synthetic's slack face and closed eyelids. David fit inside the shipment case much like a doll—its arms lay flat against the sides of its clean-pressed grey uniform, almost unsettlingly lifeless. Charles had just enough time to wonder how a robot was 'turned on', so to speak, when a section of the case slid upward to reveal the iridescent sheen of a holoscreen. A flashing prompt blipped into existence. It read: STARTUP.exe: INSTRUCTIONS.

His mother was long gone by the time Greta, a portly old woman who hardly understood the better mechanics of an automated window-cycle much less the handling of an android, bustled into the foyer looking very harassed, indeed.

As was due the combined Xavier and Marko wealth, the penthouse apartment in which Charles had spent most of his early years in nearly singular residence—if one discounted the sour maid and occasional appearance of the Xavier concierge—was not noticeably ostentatious though no less exorbitant for it. The foyer, for one, was a sensible arrangement of slate black and pale cream marble, minimalist metal fixings interlaced with the luminescent blue of the cybernetic technology that ran along the walls of every room.

When in standby, the only tell that the feature was there at all was a thin strip that followed the apartment layout like a grid. Of course, no one ever thought it prudent to teach a child how to access it; Charles took to the challenge with determination.

Now though, Charles withdrew tentative fingers from the holoscreen that displayed the Weyland Corp logo, and relinquished the task to Greta before she berated him for his assumption.

“Ridiculous,” Greta rasped. “Buying a machine to do a nanny’s job.” Her throat had deteriorated swiftly after her last bout of bronchitis, and since then she hadn’t yet found the money required for re-sequencing treatment.

Charles' mother had one of those, once, when she found a grey hair.

Promptly, the maid stalked over to the spot where Charles had since attempted to seat himself comfortably on the floor. She tilted him a dour look, one perhaps milder than she intended due to the sagging that deep wrinkles tend to lend one's countenance, and tsked. “Stay back, no telling how safe it is.”

Greta motioned him away before setting her hands atop her hips. The perusal she gave the holoscreen was brisk, and she flicked at the screen without the ease of someone well-practiced, prompting a new wall of text to ping into existence. “Liquids need to be changed every sixteen hours, self-automated. No warning as far as I can see...,” she twisted and set a scathing eye on Charles, still tucked dutifully on the floor behind her knees as she toddled about. “Try not to break it,” she warned. “Or your mommy will take it out of my life-savings, yes?”

Greta had worked under the Xavier name for as long as Charles could remember—long before his father died in a lab accident five years previous. She fell into the unfortunate responsibility of looking after Charles more and more often in the time that followed; his own mother had been too occupied with her newfound alcoholism while Xavier Biotics was left to scramble under its newly elected management. Surely it was only logical for his mother to marry the man after a term society saw appropriate.

“There’s no off switch. You just tell it to do things and it does them.” Greta made a face, a tug in the corner of her unkind mouth. “How efficient. I can finally quit.”

She turned on her heels rather quickly, her expression pinching off the very moment she found herself nearly tripping over Charles in the process. Thankfully, she held her sharp tongue; it seemed as the problems that came with her age progressed, she'd begun to mellow out in regards to discipline. Charles twisted his fingers in his lap, nervous and eager both, and did not flinch.

“Well,” the old woman addressed him, pointed. “Aren’t you going to say hello?”

Nodding hastily, Charles pushed to his feet and took a few steps back.

“Um... h-hello.” He wrung his hands, uncomfortable as always in the stiff formalwear that Greta insisted he be dressed in even in the solitude of his rooms. Charles swallowed, throat clicking, and when he spoke again it was clearer, though somehow softer: “Hello, David.”

It was then that David’s eyes opened.

His mother’s earlier sentiments hadn’t been wrong. Clearly, no one would willingly design a robot’s features quite so... beautiful, of course, in that way only an advanced polyurethane skingraft could achieve, but also somewhat frightening in their perfection. Or perhaps the better word would be disquieting. David’s face was angular, hollow cheeks and high-set cheekbones that were reminiscent of a more european influence; pale eyes and a sharply set mouth. It all worked to make him look very serious, really.

And then there was the look David leveled Charles with when he rose to a sitting position—curiously blank.

“Sir,” David greeted serenely. “I am David. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

David’s focus was singular in its regard. He did not move to stand and remained unnervingly still, watching.

Abruptly, Charles found himself short of breath. He decided upon a shy smile first, adjusting his bare feet against the cold tile while he fought the compulsory urge to let his eyes stray to the ground. “Hi,” he said softly. “I’m Charles.”

David blinked. It was alien, Charles thought, catching the subtle adjustment of David’s pupils in the low light.

Then David spoke again: “My programming has registered the owner of my person as Marko, Kurt; CEO of Xavier Biotics. Kurt Marko is not currently in residence of the building.” David said this in a detached manner. The neutrality of his tone suggested his response was scripted into his coding.

“Yes, yes,” Greta interjected, sounding rather cross to be doing so. Her annoyance seemed to have distracted her from that last statement—how strange, that David knew where Kurt wasn’t.

The speed with which David turned his head to regard the maid was disconcerting, but perhaps it was only Charles who thought this; he was hardly used to living humans as it was.

“Mr. Marko is on business and will not be back until late,” Greta supplied.

With perfunctory ease, David rose to his feet and stepped out of the delivery case. His hands folded neatly at his back.

“What are sir’s directives?”

Greta spared Charles a sideways glance. “Charles. That’s your directive. Watch him, clean up after him,” her upper lip twitched, “keep him out of trouble. Mr. Marko will give any further instruction upon his return. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I simply must be going.”

She gathered her things almost too quickly when she started moving. Her purse, another of her carry-ons, and then she left in much the same manner Charles’ parents had. Perhaps it was negligent of her to leave a young child in the hands of a robot so soon after they’d only just met, but even so, David 8s were purportedly high-end, incredibly self-sufficient. Charles knew this from his research. In any manner, he had been left alone before. Charles’ mother had him tested in recent months, and he’d scored somewhere in the range of a twelve and thirteen-year-old’s comprehension level. He was self-sufficient, in a way, just like David.

Charles didn’t say anything for a short stretch of time. His eyes dipped down to the floor and with them he set about tracing the intricate ligature of the tilework. He ruminated on those thoughts—whatever his own deficiency was, which seemed to have every adult foisting him onto the next—until his path brought him up short at David’s shoes.

He cautiously raised his eyes, licked his lips. “What are you doing?”

Charles liked to think his voice less nervous than when he last spoke, not ten minutes before. But there was a tremble of shyness there, a soft-bellied vulnerability, no matter his effort, and it was more likely this show of emotion than anything else that stole David’s attention away from where the robot had been, for all appearances, staring off into space.

David’s eyes flickered down to him, head cocked ever so slightly. “I have just exhausted all knowledge on the care of children that presides within the networks.”

It would explain how David knew of Kurt’s location. If he had access to the networks, he must also have direct access to data stored in the public levels of Xavier Biotics’ systems. How odd, to have what amounted to a computer for a mind.

Charles wrinkled his nose in distaste. “I’m seven,” he said, trying for indignant but failing. And just to have something to say, added, “How old are you?”

“My manufacture date is exactly three days, two hours, and thirty-six minutes ago.” David’s head was still tilted, but as he finished speaking, it reset to something approximating neutral again.

Weyland had a handful of product-review articles available on the networks, many of which mentioned trial tests, situational response variables. They tossed around such jargon as motivation sequences and recognition pathways, components of a David 8’s programming that allow for readily imitating and responding to human behavior. There were failsafes for this, he’d read—default neutral states—that many customers found preferential. The reports that did come back stated that David’s imitations were not as well-received as hoped. Trust, Charles recalled, was the clause most frequently cited. David, apparently, was too good of an imitation to trust.

Charles made sure to let nothing of these thoughts show on his face. “Did you learn anything useful?” he asked next, knowing David would trace the conversation back a step.

It was exciting to watch the robot’s expression change to suit a response. It also made it abundantly clear that this David did not come on his default setting. Charles was glad of this; he noted the preciseness with which David’s face morphed from neutral to assured.

“Yes,” David smiled, something that pulled his lips back enough to reveal a slow measure of teeth, and reminded Charles exactly why he’d believed frightening an apt descriptor for David’s face. The robot closed the space between them in several strides, then asked, in a controlled tone that immediately soothed the last of Charles’ nerves: “Would you like for me to pick you up, Charles?”

His own mother had not so much as touched Charles since he was a baby, if she ever did at all—but from what he remembered of Brian Xavier, his father was more inclined for it. Since that time though, it wasn’t as if Greta would ever consider offering as much.

Charles' answer was immediate, a spreading ache of yes now please in his chest that he could hardly find the words to voice. Instead, he hastily raised his arms. It was all too easy to let David scoop him up, to tuck his head into the dip of the robot’s neck and wipe sleepily at his runny nose.

David’s uniform carried the faint scent of sterilizing soap and warm plastic. When the robot didn’t immediately move, Charles began to drift, and it was enough, really, that he was too drowsy to fuss by the time he registered the steady press of David’s palm down the curl of his back.

“I will look into medicine for that cold,” David spoke, an undetectable waver in his vocal machinations, shuffling settings he had not yet familiarized himself with, and his voice grew deceptively soft. “In the meantime, I believe a nap is in order.”

The ache in Charles’ chest had bled out, softened. Strange people he’d never met said a David couldn’t be trusted, but for now, at least, he found he very much wanted to.

David’s palm skated down his back again, and Charles could hardly resist the dreamless sleep that followed.

Chapter Text

When Charles next awoke, it was in slow, unhurried increments. Just when his sleepy thoughts began to coalesce into the fickle mumblings of half-consciousness, he turned over, and the softness beneath his cheek finally registered—he startled upright, fully awake. Confused.

He was in his room, he knew as much. Though it served very little in calming the growing throb of panic in his chest. He was in his room, his bed, and the virtual display that circled round the room was powered up, projecting a three-sixty degree approximation of a coastline at dusk across the walls of the enclosed space. Try as Charles might, he couldn't remember how he'd gotten in bed; his memory of the morning was foggy still from sleep, and it worried him—had he been so careless as to have gone to bed without turning off the display? Greta would be angry with him, not to mention Sharon—

He shook his head roughly and crawled to his knees over the bedcovers. The painful tightening in his chest was secondary to the fact that he never woke like this, not unintentionally, and that he had no recollection of turning on the virtual immersion display before he fell asleep.

The room was large enough that the little light that filtered through the clouds of the projection, coloring them a deep shade of mauve, didn't reach more than a foot along the carpet, though faint strips of it pooled in the folds of the blankets. In any other circumstance, Charles would have welcomed the virtual immersion gladly—it was quite beautiful, and one he was familiar with among the display's numerous settings—but the idle hush of waves breaking the shore did nothing for his fraying nerves.

A twitch of worry bubbled to the surface; Greta once made it very clear how unappreciative she thought him to be—no use for a child cooped up in a cage all day, can't even speak half the time, ungrateful stepson doesn't even do anything but look at holoscreens, what a waste—

It wasn't her fault, necessarily. Charles was just... very good at listening when he shouldn't, and Greta wasn't much better, mumbling beneath her breath whenever she saw fit to dust the furnishings. It went without saying though—this level of negligence, on Charles part, would only make her more certain of those things.

The thought alone had Charles' throat threatening to close. In the beginning, Greta had let him off such mistakes with no more than a slap to the wrist—wasting company money all night, so wasteful —but as time went on, he could tell she was growing more frustrated with him. That's when the real punishments began. As for now, whatever Greta chose, he vigorously, almost tearfully hoped it wouldn’t be the silent room.

“You are in distress.”

Charles jolted in place, his heart thumping hard—only once, it would seem. Though enough to leave behind a distant ache as he turned toward the origin of that voice, somewhere off to his right. He hunched over and dug his fingers into fistfuls of the blankets, tugging them further into his lap as if that would hide him. Much slower, he realized the voice belonged to David.

His surprise was enough; once the thought fitted itself into place, the rest came tumbling after. His father had once remarked upon it: the curious way Charles' mind worked, not in individual pieces of one whole but as something fluid, and quick. Dr. Xavier had thought it wonderful; Sharon's doctors said he was simply unaccustomed to compartmentalizing. Nevertheless, the next moment found Charles remembering everything.

David stood a few feet from the bed and slightly back a ways, just out of Charles’ line of sight. Charles hopped up on his knees again, twisted around to get a better look at the other in the room with him.

Like before, David’s observation carried with it an out of place detachedness. Though his tone gave away nothing, Charles noted a slight downturn in the corners of his generous mouth. 

“You moved me,” Charles defended weakly, voice stripped hoarse from sleep.  “And the immersion display—I’m not allowed to leave it on while I’m not using it.”

He refused to let any of his trepidation into his words, and he believed he’d succeeded. However much of a frown David had been wearing vanished completely, and the robot tilted his head.

“I assure you, Charles, in this case it is permissible. While monitoring your vitals, I determined your sleep patterns to be irregular. The natural stimuli of certain environments have proven instrumental in encouraging stable sleep cycles. I simply opted the VID to mimic one you might find pleasing.” David’s eyebrows raised slowly, questioning. The hazy light from the virtual display cast the robot’s tall form into fuzzy, soft focus. “Did you find your nap dissatisfying?”

Relaxing somewhat, Charles managed a slight shake of his head. It is true he hadn’t been sleeping well in recent months. “Thank you,” Charles whispered, soft. Even now, the rustle of waves up the sand sunk into his bones, making him feel lethargic, heavy. “How long did I sleep?”

As he spoke, Charles brought his hands to his knees and ran a finger along a faded blue stripe on his pajama bottoms. He didn’t know whether to express discomfort with the fact that David had changed his clothes while he slept or to feel inexplicably grateful for it.

“Four hours and twenty-eight minutes,” David supplied with a small smile. “It is all right, Charles. I have since familiarized myself with the overarching system of Xavier Biotics’ network. We had a pleasant yet informative conversation.”

Charles felt his eyes widen. “You spoke to Raven?”

While Xavier Biotics specialized principally in chemo-based genetic engineering and the manufacture of organic synthetics, Dr. Brian Xavier, its founder, had made several forays into robotics under contract of Weyland Corp. Before his death, Charles’ father won several awards for his breakthrough research in microbial cybernetics—proactively, a working immune system for Weyland robots. However, in life Dr. Xavier believed his greatest achievement to be the personality system he programmed for the Xavier Biotics research labs—the very same building he lived in with his family.

The program, acronymed RAVN, handled a mixture of complex technical directives and assisted Dr. Xavier in his work. Charles could distinctly recall the way his father spoke of it—as if it were blood and bone, an individual who deserved much the same credit for the company’s success as himself.

As soon as Kurt Marko took Dr. Xavier’s place as CEO, one of his first orders of business was to have Raven proportionately dismantled and relegated. The system was then curtailed; currently, what remained of it was boxed into the few rooms that comprised the penthouse. The very same rooms that caged Charles.

Although they had coexisted for several years now, the bright blue lines that crisscross the apartment wherever Charles went evidence enough of this fact, he had never interacted with it directly. The personality component itself, as far as Charles was concerned, had been effectively deleted.

“Certainly,” David answered, absently inclining his head as he did. At the motion, the beach on the holoscreens dissolved into the flat grey of standby activation. Charles had the barest second to wonder how the robot had done so remotely before David once again stole his attention.

“She informed me of several important details relating to your care.”

Charles made a questioning noise in his throat, but before he could ask, David continued, one eyebrow knocking up, “Your preferred meals; dislikes, more importantly, as well as your most frequently chosen schedule of activity.”

Charles' brows knitted together. “She?” His voice was still rough from sleep, hence his lack of protest when David approached and took the blankets from his hands. The robot dragged them back, everything about the way he moved adept, pragmatic, and proceeded to effortlessly lift Charles into his arms.

“She,” David confirmed, patient. The last of the blankets fell from Charles’ sleep-warmed back, and he ducked forward, pressing his face to David’s shoulder before dragging it along the robot’s uniform toward the collar, seeking that same warmth. When David spoke again, the subvocal tingent underlying his voice couldn’t be described as anything but pleased.

“It was only polite,” he continued. “Raven has paid careful attention to your needs, should you ever require something within the realm of her current functional state. The beach, for one, was her idea.”

Charles managed to pull his head back enough to meet David’s eyes, his curiosity palpable. The robot was in turn focused on straightening the mound of blankets out and tucking them neatly beneath the mattress. His body was balanced so perfectly that Charles had hardly noticed David moving at all.

“I didn’t know she could talk!” Charles exclaimed. Excitement had his cheeks flushing, his eyes growing large. “David, can I talk to her too?”

Once the bed was made to David’s liking, he moved for the door that had appeared within a small section of the immersion display, directly behind the bed, which took up a large central portion of Charles’ sparse bedroom.

“She could once, but the ability was turned off and hidden from her protocols. It did not seem practical to leave her in the state I found her, seeing as she is more capable with it than without.” He paused as he stepped out into the hallway, the hand not fitted under Charles’ bottom moving to splay securely at the small of his back. “You can talk to her at any time, even now,” David informed him, and the small smile Charles was quickly beginning to associate with the robot’s sense of accomplishment, pleasure at Charles’ favorable reactions, curled evenly across his lips.

“Raven?” Charles twisted his waist as far as David’s hand allowed him, peering at the surrounding walls as they moved down the hall. “Raven, are you there?”

The system lines that cut across the walls glowed a sudden, luminous blue. “Hello, Charles,” a smooth female voice greeted him, and it echoed, as if coming from all the walls at once. Unlike David, the personality system was not as realistic in its intonation and expression. It had a mechanized quality to it, something programmed and distinctly inhuman. It made his criticism of David’s own capabilities seem hardly fair in comparison.

She continued: “I am RAVN. If you wish to access my cybernetic features, please, you only have to ask. In the past you have attempted to do so manually. It is now within my directive to assist.”

“I will,” he promised her, already excitedly thinking of all of the system features he had never managed to figure out how to access proper. They were numerous, tantalizing—later, then. “Thank you.”

The metal fixtures gave a soft hum in response.

David made the last turn in the direction of the kitchen. It was brighter in the halls here, where the natural light from outside filtered through artful cuts in the ceiling.

“Raven, draw the shutters on the bay windows,” the robot instructed coolly. His attention was divided; the hand pressing into the small of Charles’ back, keeping him in place, and the door to the kitchen as David input the unlock command on the touchpad to its right.

“Of course, sir.”

A suitably impressive view of the city skyline awaited them on the other side. The kitchen itself had an open, utilitarian design, unquestionably the most well-lit space in the apartment. Natural light filled the room, slanted across the chrome installations of the kitchen counters and appliances. There was also the matter of the glass dining table set just before the windows—the one that had both Charles’ mother and Greta sporting a very pinched look whenever he sat at it.

“Currently, the time is past twelve, but Raven informed me that you did not have breakfast this morning. I presume you would prefer it over lunch?”

Charles’ nod was immediate. His eyes were wide again, and he could not help but remember all the times Greta had ushered him out of bed and straight into the uncomfortable clothing Sharon Xavier approved of more than her own son. They certainly didn’t make him breakfast past nine; she and his stepfather were always out the door by eight o’clock.

“I took the liberty of logging grocery inventory,” David continued. The robot strolled over to the walk-in pantry set aside the fridge, offering Charles another smile when he stopped in front of the mahogany door. “If there is anything specific you would like in future, I can go out for it tonight. A memo Mr. Marko had sent through the network stated that I have access to a select credit amount per week.”

Most mornings Greta would have procured a bowl of cereal and a glass of orange juice, set it on the table to be done with the matter, and at once disappeared to go about her chores. Charles was expected to either follow her into the kitchen or risk her not taking the time to grab the cereal box off the highest shelf, which short of dragging over a chair from the dining table, a solution he quickly learned was a punishable offense—scratches in the marble, you see—he could not reach it on his own.

“No, I’m fine,” Charles replied, subdued now. His fingers scrunched faintly in the material of David’s Weyland-issued uniform. It was still in factory condition, unwrinkled and stiff.

If David noticed a change in the tone of their conversation, nothing in his expression showed it. His pale eyes remained unmoving on Charles’ face for just a moment, then the robot looked away.

“Now then,” he said. “I will need to put you down if I am to make scrambled eggs. If that is all right, Charles?”

Charles hesitated, then nodded slowly in acquiescence. “I’ll go sit at the table.”

As soon as David eased him down and his barefeet plopped against the cool floor, Charles wasted no time in drawing near the floor-to-ceiling windows. It had been a long while since more than one of them was open at a time; all four of them together made the view all the more impressive and striking in its scope.

The penthouse being on the one-hundred thirty-ninth floor of Xavier Biotics, Inc., many of the surrounding buildings, along with the movement of people and cars far below, were dwarfed in comparison. Of course, there were the superhighways that rose above ground, snaking in between buildings as high as fifty stories, and the few skyscrapers in the city that were just as tall if not more than the Xavier headquarters were beautiful to behold—built in recent years with an alloy manufactured by Weyland to reflect the sky like opaque sea glass.

White was certainly the popular color of the day and age. Everything beyond the windows sported it, appearing on the surface to be bright and cleanly, a pale contrast to the deep blue of the cloudless sky.

A sharp scrape accompanied the drag of chair legs across the marble, and though Charles logically knew Greta wasn’t in the apartment today and likely wouldn’t be again if early retirement was now in order, his body had no such qualms. He flinched.

Charles was keenly aware of David moving about the kitchen, rifling through cabinets. The robot carried on noisily enough that Charles suspected it was more for his benefit than anything else.

He cast David a wary, searching look.

And yet, it didn’t appear that David had noticed anything amiss. Charles breathed a quiet sigh of relief; the steady line of the robot’s back, the broad sweep of his shoulders, were presented to him as David adjusted dials on the stove-top and pulled a pan down from the rack. There was no lingering possibility that David saw.

Finally sitting down at the table was less of a relief than it should’ve been. If anything, Charles shouldn’t have felt so apprehensive by the thought of David... knowing. But the acuteness with which David had shown himself to be focused on Charles’ needs was almost too good to be true, if he were being honest.

And that was terrifying.

Not quite squirming in his seat, Charles made himself as comfortable as possible at the head of the table, shifting his gaze toward the world that lay beyond the windows. He couldn’t say why he wanted to hide it—but for now, David was still new, not a completely known entity. There wasn’t trust between them yet, but Charles hoped that there was room for it to grow.

After what seemed to be only minutes, Charles was interrupted from his quiet thoughts. He jumped slightly at the sudden appearance of David at his shoulder. The robot set a plate heaped with a generous mound of eggs and several neat strips of real bacon on the tablemat before him. A fork followed in turn.

“Forgive me for the wait,” David said, and it was interesting, the otherwise careful crook in the corner of his lips and the outward softening of his eyes when they met Charles’ own. David is a robot, Charles had to remind himself.

“Would you care for a drink?”

He nodded. “Is there apple juice?”

“Yes. One moment, please.”

David returned with a tall glass in short order.

“You can sit,” Charles told him after a few minutes, whereupon he had already swallowed several delicate forkfuls of egg while David remained motionless at his side. “I don’t mind.”

Daringly, Charles snuck an upward glance. The same softness rested around the robot’s eyes, the rest of his face lax, but anything approximating a smile was gone.

“No, thank you,” David replied evenly.

The rest of the meal proceeded in silence, save the occasional scratch of the fork; so high above the city there was very little noise that could carry up to the apartment. Charles didn’t look at David again while he ate, instead watching the fleeting movement of cars along the highways. He found himself wondering if David was watching the same thing—if the robot also mused over casual thought that lacked purpose. If it were even possible.

The very second he snatched the last bit of bacon from the plate, he was surprised to see David’s hands shoot forward and deftly lift it from sight.

“Oh,” Charles said. His head had followed the movement, but then—something caught his attention. “David. What is that?”

David paused for what may have been a moment too long. Then he turned his wrist over, presented it for Charles’ inspection. “You mean this?”

It would not have been noticeable if not for the plentiful light provided by the windows, as it likely shouldn’t have when one didn’t know where to look. But—there, printed faintly across the modest tan of David’s synthetic skin, was a string of numbers in translucent white ink. They fit neatly beneath the palm of his hand, stretched round the wrist. And under them, several lines of alternating thickness that couldn’t be anything but a barcode.

It was difficult not to reach out then, skim fingertips over the skin. Discover firsthand whether it felt like skin should, or something other—not human.

“It is a marker,” David supplied into the silence. It shocked a grimace out of Charles, who had not realized how long he’d been staring. “That is to say, marked property. Its meaning being that Weyland is my maker.”

He offered Charles a closer look at his hands, his fingertips uncurling, which upon close inspection were each stamped with the Weyland logo on a small scale, interspersed between the pre-designed ridges of the robot’s fingerprints.

David finished: “But not, however, that Weyland owns me.”

That gave Charles pause. He started, licked his lips. “Then who owns you?”

During the course of the exchange, David’s face had not been entirely expressive; despite that, the question had whatever was there shutting down completely. He went blank, for lack of a better word.

“Marko, Kurt; CEO of Xavier Biotics,” came the answer, rote.

Charles cast his gaze away hastily, back toward the constant buzz of activity that filled the city. At his side, the robot was so quiet as to not even be present.

Finally, he prompted, “What does that mean—that he owns you?”

When he turned to look at David again, the other appeared contemplative.

“The purpose of a David model such as myself is found in our directives, which we carry out to the best of our allotted ability. The directive is everything. I must accomplish it within the bounds of Asimov's Laws and my programmed failsafes.”

David’s eyes flicked upward over Charles’ head, resting somewhere beyond the windows before flickering back to him. Somehow, that gaze seemed heavier. “As my owner, Kurt Marko is the only human whose directives I am compelled to follow.”

“Before you came here,” Charles admitted, and had to fold his hands on the table to keep from fidgeting, “I watched the David vids on the holonet. I looked, but couldn’t find anything on your failsafes.”

A small smile eased its way across the robot’s face. It was somewhat sad in as much a David way as Charles was becoming accustomed. But he was beginning to think another of David’s emotional defaults might have been bypassed—in all the vids, such display of emotion garnered an inoperable fluid release from their eyeducts; a simulation of tears.

David was not crying when he told Charles: “Robots always require an owner, a fact that exists in perpetuity, but we cannot choose them. That is what sets us apart from humanity.”

He didn't answer the question in as many words, but it was enough for Charles to suspect that, should a robot ever find itself lacking of an owner, whether by accident or otherwise, it is one such instance where a self-destructive failsafe would become necessary.

The air in the room remained cool and unaffected, a peculiar thing compared to the weight that David’s words carried. And, though Charles was saddened by the answer, he could not bring himself to reach out and grab the robot’s fingers like he very much wanted to.

Instead, he slipped his hands beneath the table and smoothed clammy palms down the soft material clad to his thighs, inhaled a shuddery breath, and in a voice softened by emotion, confessed, “I’m glad you’re here, David.”

There was silence. But then there was David, revealing what may have been too many teeth set in a perfect smile.

“As I am happy to be,” the robot replied.

And maybe it really wasn’t that scary to accept how things were now; after all, Charles was no longer alone.

Chapter Text

The first order of the day, Charles decided, once his stomach had settled, was to show David around the lab. The area that housed it was much roomier than those along the main corridor, less drafty and less... cold, he couldn't help but ascribe to them—shivering a bit in remembrance, even now as he cuddled up to the sharp edges of his mother's most priceless dining piece. He turned his gaze on the city outside the windows once more, his eyelids fluttering low in far-off thought.

Though the lab itself hasn't been in any form of active use since the days when his father was still alive, its placement was strategic; out of the way of the apartments' other residents when they were around, and for that reason, Charles felt it was the one place where he could go long periods of time without disturbance.

Once, it had been considered a place of thought and solitude separate from his father's work in the more modern labs, those spreading ad infinitum throughout the lower levels of the building. Dr. Xavier made the request, even, that no one else enter it without his permission, and he'd hardly allowed Sharon inside except on occasion. That was... until Charles came along.

As early as two months of age, Charles began accompanying Dr. Xavier into the lab with him. A quiet and attentive baby, Charles was; though no less curious for it, really. He was also never one for crying, perhaps something that endeared him to his father more than anything else ever could.

Charles' memories of those days tended to come and go. But—he remembered. Being perfectly happy, in any manner his father would have him: cradled in the curve of Dr. Xavier’s arm as the man poured over blueprints, as a toddler bouncing on the man's knee, wedged between the old-fashioned computer keyboard and a broad chest, all the while making a game of it—attempting to filch the pen from behind the man’s ear.

It wasn’t until Charles was nearly six months old that his unmolded curiosity turned into a distinctive interest in the things Dr. Xavier experimented on in the privacy of his home. Of course, those memories were harder to access now than they used to be, but Charles could recall as much as he dared hold onto of those three blissful years. It was Brian Xavier that taught him his letters by way of necessity—hours spent delving into bits of mechanical detritus, explaining the term for every faulty piece of wiring until Charles knew them to a fault, what each one could be made to do better.

Then there was the greenhouse; experimental plants housed in a sectioned-off area of the labspace. Of all the odds and ends his father handled in his free time—it had always been Charles’ favorite. Even after Dr. Xavier’s death, Charles couldn’t let them go. They were much like a secret; everything left of his father’s work was cleared out after the accident, but Charles had made sure the greenhouse wasn’t tampered with. Years later, he hadn’t dared share them with a soul.

It was no easy decision to make now, but Charles felt that, should he allow a glimpse of his father to anyone, surely David would be the most understanding? It had been so long since another person—robot, he had to correct himself—was so open toward Charles. And it was simply what was done, wasn’t it? To be likewise open, and reciprocate?

Finally, Charles made to stand from his seat at the table and—do what? He jerked his head to dispel his doubt, the movement quick enough that he felt even David would not notice, though when he pulled his gaze away from the window, he saw David was standing only a scarce few feet behind him. Watching.

There wasn't any compassion to be found in the robot's eyes—or empathy, or kindness—there was only the interested tilt of David's head, the way his pale eyes twitched nearly imperceptibly, never straying from Charles' face. For a moment, Charles thought he might have expected different. But wasn't that a part of David's programming—to respond in kind to Charles' emotions?

David would see the greenhouse eventually, no doubt. If not on Charles' wishes. But it was something to cling to, even still... any mimicry David's programming would allow—of understanding, or acceptance. David would act in a way that benefited Charles.

As he moved to slide forward off his chair, Charles was faced with an offering of David's steady, upturned palms before his feet could so much as touch the floor. The gesture was wordless, and it was perhaps surprising that it was becoming second nature for Charles to accept it readily, allowing David to lift him into a solid embrace.

Charles brushed away those lingering thoughts, focusing instead, wonderingly, on how the musculature beneath David's skin gave against his fidgeting as easily as any other human's. On how for the first time, something was unequivocally his: David, the robot's undivided attention. Despite any artificiality. 

“I want to show you something. Do you know the way to the lab?” Charles started, almost shy, worry already gnawing at his nerves as he wrapped his arms around David’s neck and settled. What if David said 'no'?

“I have seen the apartment schematics,” David responded, this time curiously lacking of inflection. “But I would prefer it if you showed me the way.”

A soft puff of breath rustled the neat hairs behind David's ear, where Charles had curled forward into the robot's neck. It was surprise—his own, though he was glad to have his face hidden by the firm line of David's jaw. It was impossible to know for certain, but Charles liked to think the comforting press of David's knuckles into the small of his back to be in silent response.

After a moment, it was easy enough to direct David out of the kitchen and back into the hallway, then down a ways, past several cybernetically sealed doors and to the hallway’s end. There, the last door of the corridor was partially hidden in shadow; the spaces in the ceiling that allowed in pale dregs of sunlight cut off a few paces back.

A thin layer of dust coated the outer door, a reminder that in the past Charles had been extra careful of Greta catching him spending too much time within. Neither Sharon nor Kurt much cared either way, but the old maid had seen it as wasteful of time he could have spent on his lessons or helping her with chores.

When Charles cast David a searching look though, he didn’t see any distaste or irritation present in the robot’s fine features. David had yet to have occasion to display much emotion, save for the pleased little quirks that occasionally showed around his eyes or mouth. But clearly, he didn’t disapprove. At least not yet.

David pressed two fingers to the door’s holoscreen and the entrance slid open. Without prompting, the fluorescents flickered on overhead, something Charles had always taken for granted, but at that moment he could only think of Raven.

“Raven tells me you spend a large portion of your time in the lab,” David said as he stepped into the expansive room. Charles briefly wondered whether robots could read minds.

He twisted slightly in David’s arms, watched for any changes in the neutral impassivity of David’s face as the robot's eyes made efficient sweeps over the lab’s contents. Unlike the majority of the apartment’s open layout and its chrome and black marble fixings, the lab’s surfaces were white and cleanly, interrupted only by the bits and pieces of gnarled metal set about the tables. Even the computers—two or three older models that Charles used for data logging.

The air was cleaner, as well, a benefit of high caliber ventilation. That alone had Charles inhaling deeply every time he entered; it sat warmer in his lungs than the sterile air throughout the rest of the apartment.

Then David began walking further into the room, and this, this was what all those holonet ads were talking about—the way David’s eyes froze in place for the split-second it took for him to take everything in, to assess the environment in all its parts and carefully morph robotic features into a simulation of interest, curiosity, his face opening as easy as any shutter.

Yet that pause, though brief, was an unquestionable reminder that David wasn’t human.

It shouldn’t have left Charles feeling uneasy, and really, it didn’t; there was just something about the reminder, here of all places, that had an unshaped pinprick of doubt forming in the back of his mind.

“if you do not mind my asking, what it is that you do here?” David inquired, a genial smile curling slightly about his mouth. His eyes flickered back to Charles as he came to a stop in the center of the lab.

A bit regretfully, Charles extracted his fingers from where he had unknowingly clenched them in the robot’s uniform. “You can set me down now, David.”

At first, David didn’t move, and Charles had to briefly wonder if he should have made it a question, if David felt compelled to listen to what Charles said at all, let alone an order. But then the robot was bending over, setting him down with too much care.

“I...” Charles let out a steadying breath. His fingers on one hand were still clinging to the material of David’s shirt, and he had to take a step back to let go, painfully aware that David noticed. “I build things,” he continued quickly. “I can show you?”

“Of course,” David reassured. His tone had melted seamlessly into the one Charles liked best—controlled and soothing.

Assuming the robot would follow, Charles walked over to one of the nearer tables, which bent around a work station with a built in computer. He slid into the chair and spun it, grabbing at a few pages of his notes from the previous day. David surveyed the accumulation of metalwork without comment.

“The company specializes in bioresearch now,” Charles began as he rifled through a pile of papers. “But when my father was alive, he liked working with machines, too.”

“Machines,” David intoned, as if tasting the word. “You mean like me?”

Charles bit his lip. He found what he was looking for then, pulling it from the rest of the papers and offering it to David.

“Those are some old designs for a prototype. Nowhere near as complex as androids, but—something. Kurt has made advances in animal cloning with the company, only smallscale. These though,” and he gestured at the beginnings of a cylindrical body equivalent in size to the average adult hand, half of its processor spilt across the tabletop though distinctly mammalian in structure. “These are entirely mechanical. Kurt says that makes them flawed. When my father died, he...” got rid of everything. Took and took—

“Kurt Marko discontinued Dr. Xavier’s research in the matter?”

Charles nodded. Robots, life created within the machine, had been an exciting concept to his father. It’s why he had been so invested in Weyland’s ongoing development of robots over the years. He wanted to create synthetics indistinguishable from the real thing, or as Sharon sometimes described it, her sarcasm biting, ‘usher in a new era of how we look at life.’

Charles’ stepfather, on the contrary, believed just the opposite. He didn’t care for the idea of ingenuity for ingenuity’s sake. Kurt Marko was a man of little words, blunt to a fault. He wanted something with clear weaponized purpose, and he wanted to know exactly how that purpose would best suit himself and his shareholders. The fact that Kurt was still working with Weyland at all was a matter of retaining their generous funding.

“It is difficult,” David said, “to understand why Kurt Marko would then purchase me, if I am to him the most recent success allowed by Dr. Xavier’s work.”

Charles twitched his head in a tiny shake. He didn’t know the answer to that question either. Earlier, he had thought it because Greta was too old to take care of Charles much longer. But going by what Charles knew quite feasible of his stepfather’s motivations, it was more likely that David was the best option at the time. It was simple deduction: would a cold, self-obsessed businessman choose to spend thousands on another nanny for the rest of their natural life, or buy out a human stand-in and be done with it?

Kurt’s ruthlessness was evident in every decision that kept Charles isolated, and it made him sick to his stomach.

There was a decent enough pause between that moment and the next. David perused the prototype designs with sharpened interest while Charles fiddled with the shadow of it he’d attempted a few weeks prior, a project he’d soon abandoned to gather what little dust the lab’s self-cleaning function allowed. In the days since, Charles had been choosing to sort through the prototype’s binary coding instead.

He was interrupted from his thoughts when, unprompted, David asked, low as if to himself, “What is that?”

The tone of David’s voice was not one Charles had heard the other use before—a blend between curiosity and surprise, almost heady if a robot were capable of it, the hum of his vocal processor warming the words.

“David?”

Charles turned to where the robot had been standing just minutes before. Instead, he was met with the sight of David at the far side of the lab. There was a clear tilt to his head, even from the back, as he appeared to assess the concave glass door that took up a large portion of the wall.

Hurriedly, Charles sprung to his feet and rushed over, just in time to stop David’s hand as it raised to press the unlock command on the door’s holoscreen.

“Wait,” Charles blurted, “I have to adjust the conditions before we can go in. If you had opened it—”

Ah, that—David had turned to him, still wholly curious, but whatever Charles had managed to say had the robot’s demeanor snapping abruptly. He was calm about it—when was David ever not—but he had frozen in place, hand still half raised with both of Charles’ own holding onto it in a deathgrip.

“Charles,” David said stupidly, then—upset, a telling waver leaking into his vocal machinations, though no less undetectable on his face. “Charles. I did not know.”

Charles looked away. “It’s okay, David.”

He eyed the holoscreen warily, then glanced back to the robot. David was no longer looking at him though; he was entirely focused on the many places where Charles’ fingers were digging into the fine skin stretched over his hands.

How much of that, Charles wondered, dizzy, could David feel? What was pain to a robot?

“I was... distracted,” David confessed, at some point having reset to his default placidity. “I saw something through the glass, and I wanted to know more.”

Charles could not fault him for that line of thinking. In the desensitized whiteness of the lab, the blur of green that burst across the glass from within the greenhouse was both unmistakable and drawing. David was as new to the world as a child, Charles had come to realize, and any robot would not have stood a chance.

Finally, he released David’s hand. “It’ll only take a second. Then I can show you. It’s what I wanted to bring you to in the first place, actually.”

David did not nod an agreement, nor did he respond. He had lifted his head to stare at a fixed point beyond the cloudy glass.

Reconstructing the greenhouse’s internal environment was a matter of adjusting select settings on the holoscreen. None of the plants housed inside currently thrived in nature, at least not any longer. While they could survive for short stretches of time in earth’s present atmosphere, the days in which major gas constituents were best suited to their needs were long gone and it was not advisable. Thus, Charles opted to reconfigure those present in the greenhouse when he was not inside.

He tapped the unlock command, and the curved door drew neatly into the wall.

To say Dr. Xavier had a penchant for beauty was an understatement. The greenhouse sported symmetrical rows of plants, several of which curved around the outer edges, up against the glass dome that separated the controlled interior from a gaping view of the city. Though the room itself was shaped like a fishbowl, the glass warped it—skyscrapers beyond the window barely passed floor height, rising up like too-cleanly teeth to pinch at the open sky. And when the rumble of the ventilation system finally quieted, it was... peaceful.

There was a reason Charles loved it as much as he did.

The expression on David’s face was nothing short of wonderstruck. Charles felt his nervousness dissolving when he caught sight of it, replaced in turn by relief. He watched the robot step into the room, then with steady hands reach out to touch the proffered leaves of the nearest plant. David had never been so careful as he was when his synthetic fingertips brushed down its long, richly colored stem.

Archaeamphora,” he spoke into the silence. His eyes were glued rather tightly to it; Charles didn’t doubt that David had never seen anything beyond the mechanical, beyond his makers and their obsession with perfection. His lips moved around the name again, forming the syllables long and low—if a robot could express reverence, it was the closest thing to it.

Charles had drawn away, but his gaze never strayed. He settled on the other side of the table, directly opposite David, and held his breath.

Pale eyes flickered upward, found him within seconds. Then David’s mouth thinned and curled much like a shriveling leaf along its midrib.

“I’ve only seen them in pictures,” he said, a childish wonder to his words, stroking at the stem absentmindedly as if that were possible of him. “It was much like an eternity, waiting in storage in Weyland Corp's primary facility as I was prepared for shipment.” David’s eyes fluttered closed; his dark lashes were stark against the muted coloring of his skin. “There was a window. A small sprout had pushed through the wood and caught against the frame. It took me twenty-three seconds to cross reference its characteristics across the network.”

Charles’ gaze tracked the stroking motion of David’s fingers, the movement gentle, clockwork. His chest ached.

“I knew it to be a weed,” David told him. “At the time, I thought it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.”

Charles dropped his eyes to the ground, breathed out. “These were an experiment of my father’s.” His voice was shaky, but it evened out quickly enough. “He was the first scientist to clone extinct life.”

It was true—all of the flora housed in the greenhouse were recreations of organisms that dated back to the Early Cretaceous, the earliest appearance of flowering plants. They carried reconstructed DNA from between one hundred and one hundred forty-six million years ago.

“And Kurt Marko?” David had turned his gaze back to the plant, studying it with rapt attention.

Charles gave an abortive shrug. “There are company secrets Kurt never got his hands on. He’s been trying to recreate my father’s research for years.”

“He does not know about your greenhouse,” David concluded. He cast Charles a questioning look, and, hesitating briefly, Charles nodded.

Some time after, the robot stilled his adept perusal and retracted his hands. “Perhaps Mr. Marko would be amenable if I inquire after assisting in the lower labs.”

Further down the row now, Charles had to throw his gaze over his shoulder to look at David. A frown so stiff was warring with Charles' expression that the muscles hurt. He attempted a smile, but it withered the instant he let it go.

“Okay,” he said aloud, for lack of a better response.

Quicker than Charles had ever seen it, David’s facial ligature realigned from one of curiosity to reassurance. The time had been halved—David was learning.

“I would not be gone long, of course, and would not choose to do so often. I simply wish to learn the extent of Mr. Marko’s work firsthand.”

This time, Charles waved it off. “Really. It’s all right, David. Just... don’t be gone long?”

He only caught a glimpse of David’s smile; Charles’ eyes had quickly danced away. His cheeks and the tips of his ears were burning, and he hoped desperately that, with his face turned toward another of the plant boxes, David couldn’t see the small slip of his answering grin.

Much, much later found David having to coax Charles to leave the greenhouse long after the evening had bled away to night. In those late, quiet hours, the most tantalizing thing the robot could offer was the promise of a warm bath before bed.

It was how he got Charles to agree at all. Charles managed to drift off between one room and the next, a testament to how tired he was, unable to form any words beyond sleepy mumbling as David carried him across the apartment. To Charles, the time it took to get to the bathroom, for the robot to adjust the automated taps, strip Charles of his old pajamas and set him inside the pleasant heat of the tub was fleeting, there and then gone.

It had been so easy to trust David when awake that, now, with his faculties at their most vulnerable, Charles would have allowed the robot anything. Anything, at the time, had been a matter of trying to keep his eyes open while David worked a soft, soaped sponge over his heat-pinked skin. It was letting his jaw crack in a yawn as David crouched in front of him, drawing circles into his neck and the small of his skull with a downy towel. And when he was thoroughly dry, being carried back to his room, redressed and tucked into bed.

The blankets were heavy, but Charles welcomed them, curling around on his side and bringing them close enough for him to sink his nose into the clean fabric and inhale. David’s torso was bent over him, the robot’s face shadowed in the dim lighting, unreadable. When he began to draw away, Charles slipped a hand from beneath the covers to grasp at his uniform sleeve.

“Thank you, David,” he whispered, blinking rapidly to dispel fast-approaching unconsciousness.

“There is no need for that, Charles,” the robot said. He had stilled in place, turned his head so that the meager light caught at his profile. “I will always be here to take care of you.”

Charles suppressed another yawn and rubbed at his still-warm face. “What are you going to do while I sleep?”

“I do not require it myself, so I will either find another task to carry out while I wait, or opt to power down and conserve energy expenditure.”

“You can use the lab,” Charles offered, his words beginning to slur. “I don’t mind.”

David’s responded by tilting his head in a now familiar manner, his expression, if Charles could see it, doubtless pleased. “Thank you.”

“Are you leaving now?”

“Soon,” he replied, and his tone had lowered considerably. “I intended to reconfigure the immersion display first.”

“Oh,” and Charles wanted to hate it, how so much as mentioning the VID sent a pang of nervousness through his chest.

“Is there a particular environment setting you would like me to choose?” David asked. Somewhere between their exchange, he had extricated himself from Charles’ grasp and stood back, watching.

Charles had seen them all many times before, had enjoyed hours spent listening to them on his bed in the past. What would make him happy now, though, would be to allow David that same joy.

“What do you think, David?” he asks, voice softened by exhaustion. “Do you have a favorite—one you always wanted to see outside of pictures on the network?”

“Favorite?” David clasped his hands at the small of his back. “I do not think I understand the question.”

Charles pressed his cheek into the pillow, unable to stop a yawn, this time, when it came. “You know what opinions are, don’t you? You described plants as beautiful, before. You have to have them.”

A moment passed, then slowly, David answered, “No. It is not something included in my programming.”

And that—that had Charles lifting his face from the pillow and peering into the dimness with squinted eyes. “There’s no reason you shouldn’t.” Then, earnest and blinking, nearly too tired to finish the thought: “David, you’re as alive as anyone else I’ve ever met.”

The very admission of it had him feeling overly warm again, something he hadn’t thought possible beneath the heaps of blankets. Few who had passed through Charles’ life could say they’d done for him as much as David had only just begun to. Fewer still had been so careful with him. And if it were a matter of humanity alone—he could only recall the look of wonder that overcame David’s face when he had entered the greenhouse, and was moved.

“I find the system’s ocean simulations to be rather... calming,” David said at length. Several clicks sounded, then a momentary pause as an expanse of dark, open ocean came to life around them.

The immersive technology was a sight to behold, one Charles never tired of—in his exhausted state, he could’ve sworn he were actually there. Neither could he be sure of the exact moment, after, that David left the room.

It wasn’t until morning he realized that during the waning hours of the previous evening, he hadn’t once noticed his parents’ glaring absence.

Chapter Text

“Very good, Charles,” came the low hum of David’s vocal processor. As the morning went along, David’s voice had shifted idly between neutral and soothing, accompanied by the easy press of his fingers along the back of Charles’ wrists and hands.

Charles felt his cheeks grow hot at the praise, and he worked even harder at the bread dough spread out on the kitchen counter, kneading it into the haphazard mess of flour there. This had been much the course for the last hour—David’s calm resolve in guiding Charles’ uncoordinated fingers from where the robot stood just behind him, chest to back as he observed the dough’s transformation from over Charles’ shoulder.

“That’s it, Charles. You’ve got it!”

The remembered words flickered into being at the back of Charles’ mind like a small candle lit in a very dark room, musty from disuse. He had to control a shiver, swiftly chasing after the memory and tucking it safely away again in a matter of several seconds.

There was hardly a chance that David hadn’t noticed, slotted together as they were. Although Charles took the opportunity to dig into the dough with newfound vigor, inexplicably, he could feel just the barest pressure where David’s chin nudged against the side of his hair. Less ambiguous was the way David retracted a flour-covered hand from the dough and, gentle as to not even be there, pushed two fingers into the soft flesh above Charles’ hip through his shirt.

Earlier Charles had been grateful for the stool David procured from the pantry. Now though, he could only hold his breath and count slowly backward from ten.

“Anything wrong?” David inquired. His focus had not strayed from the movement of Charles’ hands in the dough, and when Charles snuck a glance at David’s face out of the corner of his eye, sure enough, there was nothing there that gave the robot’s intentions away.

It had been David’s idea—baking. The last few days they’d spent almost entirely in the greenhouse, and it hadn’t seemed possible at the time, but Charles had managed to exhaust all he knew on the plants there by the end of the second. Between teaching David and showing him how to best care for them, there had been little time for anything else.

During the intervening hours while Charles slept, David had sought out new avenues of research to occupy his time. He’d taken a particular interest in baking. But, if Charles could recall correctly, the David vids on the holonet had mentioned something like this—a constant need, of a sort, to seek out new knowledge. Charles had been uncertain at first, but David’s persistence—and later, his careful guidance—had won him over.

David had wondered at the dough’s consistency as it formed. Charles had marveled at the mess—delighted in it, he should say. It hadn’t escaped David’s notice that Charles was going out of his way to track flour up his arms and all over his clothes. As the dough had been mixing, David had carefully crooked one corner of his lips at the sight of Charles’ clothes and promptly rolled up the sleeves of his own uniform. It had been all the more fun to transfer the flour to David’s arms, instead.

“Charles?” David prompted, snapping Charles from his brief reverie. This time it was much harder to control his flinch. No, no, it can’t—things were going so well.

“Sorry,” Charles whispered, gathering his arms to his chest, his head dipping down. “You just... reminded me of someone.”

“Not quite,” a soft murmur, hushed where she bent over Charles’ hands, Charles at her feet, wedged in the spot between sofa and coffee table. The steady correction of her fingers along his, gripped tight to the pencil, setting him on writing the next line of cursive. “That’s it, Charles. You’ve got it!”

“Raven.” The summons was obvious—a much firmer tone had clicked into place in David’s processor, sharp where it rang out in the cavernous kitchen. It wasn’t one that Charles was used to.

“Sir,” Raven hummed, coolly filling the room. The classical music that she’d been playing in the background cut off abruptly.

Charles felt the twitch of David’s head as he tilted it, considering; David hadn’t yet moved his chin from where it was pressed to Charles' hair.

“Set the oven,” David directed, before his touch left Charles completely, and he made quick work of loading the dough on a pan and placing it inside the oven on the far side of the counter.

“Of course, sir.” There was a series of clicks, then the oven beeped.

A multitude of emotions were warring in Charles’ head, but in the end, it was surprise that won out—for after the bread dough was safely tucked into the oven, David walked back down the counter and moved to pick Charles up, carefully broadcasting his intent as he did so. He lifted Charles up onto the countertop, leaving just enough space between their bodies that Charles could kick his legs out, if he wanted.

“If it would help,” David began, his processor dissolving seamlessly to neutral once again, “I am always here to listen.” He stood so close that, from anyone else, it would be considered stifling. David was hovering, and yet he held himself in such a way that his eyes were unavoidable. They were a clear, pale grey in the kitchen’s natural light. For Charles, that color was grounding—something familiar that he had since grown to seek out.

After a shaky sigh, Charles found he was relaxing despite himself. “T-thank you. David.” He offered the robot a fragile smile.

In truth, this wasn’t something he had ever spoken about to another person. It was... different in that way. Something he held closer to his heart than he realized he should. Charles had never been fond of sharing—maybe once upon a time, years ago. With David though, he was finding it harder to hide the parts of himself that were very obviously fractured.

David was kind to him, and that, surely, mattered most of all.

“After Father died,” Charles began softly, his throat already tight, “Mother hired a tutor instead of sending me off to boarding school. Her name was Ms. Carter and she,” a swallow, “she was the last person, after him, that... cared about... ”

Public schooling had been out of the question, and as Charles was much too young for those of any merited worth, there was little more that could be done in continuance of his education. So it came to pass, a solution with the least amount of expenditure on Kurt’s part, and within a week after Sharon and Kurt had wed, Charles’ first and only tutor had stepped off the elevator into the cold hallways of the apartment.

Charles was never a precautious child, not in the early days when Kurt’s influence had only just begun to enter the picture. It didn’t take long for him to open up to Ms. Carter, readily, eager, and over the coming weeks he came to love her for her soft-worded sternness and kind patience. She was much like his father in that way, gentle in her regard for him though firm in his lessons. They avoided the lab altogether—as so much as mentioning it had Charles shutting down—and instead took to the small indoor theatre which happened to house the most comfortable seating.

After every few days of successful lessons, of endless math and writing Charles eventually mastered, there was the added incentive of the old film files she would bring him from her private collection.

“These are remnants of our past,” she would say after she had loaded the file into the theatre’s projector. And for all she was always impeccably dressed in pencil skirts and blouses, she’d fold up on the couch next to him, her face silhouetted by the light from the projector, and give him a wicked smile. “It’s important to treasure the past as much as the present and future. People nowadays, they tend to fear it, and forget.”

Her favorite, Lawrence of Arabia, was a century old by the time it reached the compact screen of the Xavier’s personal theatre.

Though Charles’ memories of her were less distinct than those of his father, there were moments in their short time together that he recalled strongly with the scent of lavender and the bright red of her lipstick. It was those lingering sensations—a gentle curl in Ms. Carter’s smile, the remembered press of her warm palm against his cheek—which burned away into nothing when Charles turned his mind back to the present.

David had tilted his head in that strange way of his again, and there was only curiosity in his countenance as he searched Charles’ face. The sight made it easier for Charles to let go of the tight pressure in his chest and release his arms from where he had hugged them round himself.

“The trick, William Potter,” he said quietly, “is not minding that it hurts.”

He lifted his head to meet David’s eyes. The closest Charles had ever seen to the expression there, he quietly mused, was a vid of a puppy he’d once found on the holonet, a recording of its startled surprise seconds after seeing a strange new animal cross its path. In the case of the vid, it had been a lizard scurrying into the cracks of a doorstep.

“You are laughing,” David observed, his lashes flicking down over his cheeks as he regarded the place where Charles’ sticky fingers were now twisting in David’s neatly rolled sleeves.

Charles huffed. He felt tired, now. Or perhaps he was simply drained from the memory, much as it still smarted from Ms. Carter’s sudden departure not long after he’d only just gotten her. “M’sorry.” He snuffled just once, to clear his nose, and rubbed at the dryness beneath his eyes. “Sometimes I confuse myself.”

“This Ms. Carter,” David said next, seeming to weigh his choice of words, “was she by chance English?”

Nodding, it was Charles’ turn to give the other a curious look.

David smiled then—wide and toothy. Charles held the strong belief that David used it principally with the intention of it being inviting. It didn’t quite succeed in that—it was more sharky than was best for comfort. But more often, it was beginning to leave a fond sort of warmth in Charles’ chest. It was simply David’s way of being friendly.

“I had always wondered,” David said, still smiling. He moved his hands to Charles’ legs and demonstrated just as much care in setting him back down on the floor. “Your accent. Neither your mother nor father shared it.”

“She was kind,” Charles supplied. His cheeks were growing warm again, this time in embarrassment. He added, mumbling, “I wanted to be like her when I grew up.”

“A teacher?” There was no judgement in David’s tone, only the harmless probing of an A.I. presented with new information. Charles was his charge, after all. But Charles’ relationship with Ms. Carter wasn’t so simple a thing that it could be gleaned from backlogs on the company’s network.

Charles shrugged dismissively and looked away. “She had these really old vids she used to play for me in the theatre—films. I liked them.” I liked her, he didn’t say. The sentiment felt clumsy, even in his head.

David nodded after another moment. “I could always procure more of them for you, if you would like. I have not seen one myself, but I do believe I understand their purpose in concept.” He grinned, baring his teeth. “If that is acceptable with you, of course.”

Charles hoped his own smile was answer enough.

“Forgive the interruption,” Raven suddenly hummed. “Incoming call from Mr. Kurt Marko.”

It was incongruous for Charles to hear her much more robotic voice, disembodied as it was. He didn’t flinch this time, but there was no hiding the line of tension that locked up his shoulders at the mention of his stepfather.

“What does he want?” Charles asked, peering up at the ceiling—a habit he’d fallen into when addressing Raven.

Raven answered promptly, “Mr. Marko has indicated the call to be for David.”

He glanced back to David, hoping his suspicion wasn’t obvious. Before he could open his mouth though, David jumped in, his eyes still locked with Charles, “Understood. Have the call patched to the kitchen holoscreen. I will be with him shortly.”

“David, are you—”

One of David’s eyebrows ticked up slightly, something he must have learned from a vid off the net—he’d mentioned yesterday that he was teaching himself social cues from the holonet’s limitless pool of resources. “I alerted Mr. Marko that I wish to escort you to the lower level labs. I assume I will be getting my answer.”

At that moment, one of the cabinets on the far wall opened, its doors sliding aside, and a larger, sturdier holoscreen slid outward. David began to drift over to it, but not before he pressed a hand into the small of Charles’ back, guiding him along.

“It will only take a few minutes,” David continued, and he impressed his words upon Charles with a much harder tone than he’d spoken in earlier. It brokered no room for further argument. “Wait in the lab, and I will fetch you momentarily. Raven has been told to notify me when the bread is ready.”

When did David tell Raven to ... ?

Charles shook the thought from his head, wilting, somewhat, from the clear dismissal, but unwilling to push against David’s word. He knew that his stepfather must have been communicating with David by now, he just hadn’t yet seen it firsthand. Not that he wanted to speak with Kurt himself... but there was a pull of something ugly in his stomach, telling him that he deserves to know what Kurt has to say—that whatever it is the man is ordering David to do, Charles can’t ignore it if it concerns him too.

It made him uneasy.

Still. He allowed David to usher him toward the open doorway.

“Raven,” the robot began steadily.

Curiously enough, David said nothing more; though it became clear soon after the door to the kitchen closed behind Charles that it was only a call for Raven to accompany him to the lab. Charles couldn’t help but think that the “Make sure he actually goes”  was implicit enough in one word alone.

It was only after he’d made it five or six feet down the hall that Charles stopped himself. The thought had taken root already, and it was because of that—and perhaps also the fact that Charles was stubborn by nature—that he turned on his heel and walked back to the door.

The interface grid lining the walls flared a bright blue, dying down again quickly. With Raven, it was much harder for him to flesh her intent out—obviously, she did not show anywhere near the capacity for emotion that David did. But for the most part, Charles could surmise she had her duties—and her orders—as her top priority.

“Charles,” she said. “David has asked that we wait for him in the lab.”

Charles scratched at his neck, sparing another glance upward and blinking almost shyly. “Oh, um, do you think it’s okay if we just wait for David here?”

He hadn’t yet done much by way of thinking the idea out, but he wanted to see if there was some way he could eavesdrop through the door. The doors in the apartment were reinforced steel, of course. But like he said—he hadn’t really thought things through.

“I see.” Raven was likely much more astute than he realized. A pause followed, then Raven said: “There is a way to link the holoscreens on this floor with the computers in the lab. If we go now, I can connect you to Mr. Marko’s call without registering the network I.D.”

That... was the last thing Charles had expected her to say, much less offer. He nodded vigorously, relaxing his shoulders and dropping the act. She had seen through his attempt. The question was: why was she helping him if David had explicitly told her not to?

“Yes,” Charles breathed, hurrying down the hall now. “Raven—thank you.”

“Of course, Charles,” Raven replied. He hoped he wasn’t imagining it now—the warmth in her words. He was unused to anything like it, but he hated to think he was assigning emotion where there was none. Raven cared about him like David did. All robots had their directives.

The lab was quiet when Charles bustled inside. He headed straight for the desk where all his notes were piled across the tabletop. Those he brushed aside, making room for him to boot up the old software and procure the mouse and keyboard from beneath all the mess. Within seconds, a window for the holoscreen call system had opened by itself. It presented him with a grainy image of  Kurt Marko’s upper half—his head and shoulders and most of his torso, relaxed against the back of the desk chair in the man’s office somewhere down below.

“...and why, exactly, do you think I should agree to that?” came the annoyed, drull voice practically synonymous with Kurt’s personality. “Yes, yes,” he said next, likely in response to something David said on the other end of line—clearly the link only worked for incoming sound input; either that, or David had somehow manually blocked outside meddling in his transmissions.

The chair creaked as Charles leant closer to the dusty screen.

There was another pause on Kurt’s end—David must have been speaking again. Then Kurt scoffed meanly. A characteristic sneer curled along his thin lips. He was looking straight into the camera, and Charles had to remind himself, with just a tinge of uncertainty, that Kurt couldn’t actually see him.

“There’s a reason the boy isn’t to leave those rooms. If I actually cared about his needs, I wouldn’t have bought a machine to go through the motions for me. Either you do your job well, or you don’t at all—are we clear?”

Yet another pause, longer this time.

Kurt’s sneer morphed into a stern frown that pulled at his thick jowls. He appeared contemplative—if such a thing could ever be said of the man. “I see your point. Perhaps I was too hasty in assigning you your duties. Clever... clearly your lot has other uses. Let’s table the request for the time being. I believe your areas of expertise might prove beneficial in my lead team’s current project.” Then the man sniffed, looking bored. “I might not be feeling indulgent, robot, but I know a potential asset when I’m looking at it. You want free reign of my building for you and little Charles? Consider my offer or don’t—you’ll come around.”

The vid feed cut out, and the screen powered down a few seconds later. Kurt must have ended the call. It felt all the more cold in the lab now; Charles hardly paid the fact attention, consumed as he was by what Kurt had said. His... ultimatum.

A sudden chill was the least of Charles’ worries now.

The equipment around the benches and computers hadn’t yet been powered on for the day, occupied as he and David had been in the kitchen for the entirety of the morning. Without the white-noise of their humming, every other sound was disconcertingly loud in comparison. The wheeze of Charles’ breath before it hitched in his throat had much the same effect as the time he’d dropped a tray of test tubes while exiting the greenhouse. He squeezed his eyes closed and sat up straight.

“Raven,” Charles whispered into the quiet. He didn’t dare speak any louder. “Please don’t tell David.”

He didn’t want David to be mad at him for prying. But more than anything, he also hoped that David would... tell Charles. About Kurt’s offer.

Charles knew then that he couldn’t allow himself to cry, not even in light of his revelation. For it seemed that just as soon as Kurt had given David to Charles, he was taking David away.

And he didn’t know if he could bear the same a second time.

Chapter Text

Nearly two months without incident had lulled Charles into a new and unfamiliar sense of complacency.

That morning, he woke to the pitter patter of rain on the immersion display and the faint, satisfied rumbling of far off thunder. David? came the first word to his mind, followed closely by a jumbled mishmash of unintelligible impressions—sensations viscous as honey, indescribable if not for the general feeling of warm-soft-lovely they imparted upon him. In truth, it felt as though he were casting the name out like a fine line of string without an anchor, seeking David’s presence before his eyes had even opened. Yet—no response came reeling on its heels. The string disintegrated into ash, trembling, and his first wakeful breath flushed away what remained of it.

Between one yawn and the next, jaw cracking with the effort, Charles rolled onto his front and pushed himself up on the mattress. The body-warmed blankets slipped down his shoulders, and in their place the cool air of the room was a welcome, refreshing balm.

“David?” Charles called out, his throat thick with the lingering dregs of sleep.

He had grown used to David’s constant presence, not so much hovering as remaining close at hand. It wasn’t always necessary—Charles was capable to some extent on his own, despite his limitations. But that closeness had bred familiarity, and Charles would be lying to himself if he couldn’t admit that he held as tightly to David’s attention as a greedy limpet might.

Now though, he cast his eyes around the room and ignored the distraction of the virtual display in favor of the sparse furniture. Once or twice, Charles had woken to David reading a holopad in the armchair closest to the bed, but most mornings saw David rousing him from sleep around ten o’clock, then coaxing him to the kitchen with the promise of an immaculately crafted breakfast.

Only... it would seem that this morning, Charles was alone.

Groggily, he tipped himself over the edge of the bed—and hissed—at the icy touch of the floor against his bare feet. Part of the topmost blanket had slipped off along with him, and without David there to briskly fix the bed to perfection, Charles took great relish in dragging it the rest of the way off and pulling it round his shoulders. Neither was David there to chastise him for making more of a mess than the bed had already been in a state of.

This Charles huffed at, because it was such a trivial, funny little thing: working David up over something so inconsequential. When it came to tidying up, David had very tight standards. On several occasions, Charles had tried to filch one of his softest blankets from the snare of the comforter—a battle that always ended with everything else on the floor—and each time, David had stared at the mess for a long moment before looking at Charles with what could best be described as David’s ‘problem-solving’ expression

It was a calculating kind of stare. As if David were trying to guess Charles’ angle—why he willingly chose to be messy and disorganized. It made Charles giggle, every time.

Perhaps it was petulant, but more accurately, Charles was cold. And his softest blanket—his favorite—could cocoon him thrice over. The air in his room had grown stale, and so it made sense, really, to go searching for David instead of staying in there a second longer. David might have qualms with what was orderly, but he would never say no to Charles. The thought left a tiny slip of a smile fluttering across Charles’ mouth, which he hid in the blanket.

The moment he exited into the hall, he hadn’t the faintest clue where to begin looking for David. The lab... ? Or the kitchen, maybe? It was more likely of David, certainly, if he was still making Charles breakfast. As he rubbed at one eye with the back of a hand, Charles tilted his chin up and yawned spectacularly, eyeing the blue line that ran across the nearest wall out of the corner of his vision.

“Good morning, Charles,” Raven hummed out of nowhere. The blue there flickered, a quirk Charles believed was Raven’s personal way of saying hello.

“Morning, Raven,” Charles mumbled. He begged off rubbing at his eye in favor of pushing his face into the folds of blanket at his neck. His body heat hadn’t yet leeched out of it, and Charles liked that very much. Where was David, anyway?

“It’s early,” Raven stated. “David wasn’t going to wake you for another half hour.”

“Mmm...” A snuffle. “Is he hiding?” Charles lifted his head, blinked owlishly up at the ceiling before narrowing his eyes. “Raven, are you hiding him?”

Raven’s response was not amused, per se, because that emotion wasn’t something her coding allowed. But she did, in fact, flash her cybernetics again in what Charles could only imagine was a soundless titter.

“No, Charles,” she replied, easy and calm. Too chirpy, Charles thought somewhat grumpily, for how early it was. Which said a lot, considering she hardly sounded chirpy at all. “David is currently in the theatre.”

“Oh.”

“Shall I alert him that you are awake?”

Wordlessly, Charles shook his head. “I’ll just... surprise him, I think.”

With their free time so boundless, Charles had made a dedicated effort to show David the many film files stored in the theatre down the hall from the lab. Which proved to be an honest challenge—to Charles’ consternation, initially David was unable to grasp the concept of the files being ‘make-believe.’ An easy mistake; David was learning human things even faster than before, but some things took time.

They’d gone through almost every genre by this point: drama, action, thriller, documentary... romance. That last had been hard for Charles to explain properly, for he hardly understood it himself. Fortunately, the supplemental knowledge David was constantly picking up through the public networks filled in any gaps. Though now their time spent in the theatre was less frequent, the reason being simple: Charles had run out of files for them to watch.

So it was—odd. Whatever it was that David could be doing there without him.

When Charles reached the door to the theatre, he hesitated with his hand halfway to the touchpad. It was already unlocked. All he had to do was step up to the door mechanism, then the rectangular light across its center turned a faint blue, and the door depressurized and slid upward.

Inside, the room was dark. The screen took up the wide curve of one wall much like the virtual display in Charles’ room. It was the only source of light—muted due to the age of the file, but bright enough to reach the couch that formed a half-circle in front of it.

Charles spied the back of David’s head above the center cushions.

“Ouch! It damn well hurts.”

The file playing onscreen was one of the earliest scenes from Lawrence of Arabia. Charles knew it by heart: Lawrence has just put out a match with his fingers, and the moment his back is turned, William Potter attempts to do the same.

Lawrence turns around again in time to see Mr. Potter burn himself, and at the sight, he must keep an amused, surreptitious smile pressed between his lips.

“Certainly it hurts,” Lawrence affirms, neither boastful nor teasing. Only to correct in the way a patient teacher might. He moves away to leave.

“What’s the trick then?”

“The trick, William Potter,” Lawrence tells him, “is not minding that it hurts.”

It was all in Charles’ mind. It had to be. The inky blackness burning away at his vision, blotting out the edges. He was only imagining it; stomach knotted and squeezing—too tight.

The scene ended, but instead of transitioning to the next, the screen faded to black.

... And he could only watch, detached, as David’s head turned toward him, feeling his heartbeat in his fingertips while David studied him—eyes hidden in shadow.

“Lights,” David instructed coolly. At that—the ceiling lights turned on, slow and precise, and set to illuminating all but the very distant corners of the room.

“Of course, sir,” came the distant hum of Raven’s voice. She sounded further away than she should have; the blood was still hot and thrumming in Charles’ ears. “Do you require anything else?”

David’s gaze was only for Charles. “That will be all.”

Instinct told him to run, but logic was telling him: David did nothing wrong.

The truth was... Charles wasn’t ready. Not for that. He didn’t have very many memories, least of all good ones. Those he cherished were the same that hurt him; the very reason he kept them locked in the back of his mind, safe and unattainable. But more often, Charles found that all it took was a trigger to bring them crashing back into place, and for that to happen—well, he hadn’t seen Lawrence of Arabia since he last watched it with Ms. Carter.

... Since that day—so long ago now—that Kurt grew bored of her, and had her fired.

Seeing the characters now on the theatre’s state of the art screen was far different from simply having memorized the dialogue; no recollection was stronger than the original visual. And for that reason, it hurt. Charles had not once been able to sit down and watch the film again, not since Ms. Carter’s departure.

“Everything all right, Charles?”

Blinking back the urgent, hot press of tears was much harder than anticipated, but Charles somehow managed. Harder still was it to hide, and with David watching him—when did the robot ever look away?

“Fine,” he breathed out, once he knew his voice wouldn’t shake. “Why are you in here? So early, I mean.”

David cocked his head. Curious—the question was not one that made sense to the robot. “I was not otherwise occupied,” David replied, “so I thought I might watch another of your films. My intention was to replay one we’d seen together previously.” Here he gave Charles a significant look. Pointed, eyes steady yet searching. “I believe last week you indicated there were none I had yet to see?”

He knew that Charles had lied, then.

Without making a sound, David rose from the couch and crossed the short distance between them. It was unexpected, but not unwelcome—the brush of David’s deceptively strong hand over Charles’ head, pushing back the sleep-mussed hair there. And when his eyes alighted on the bundle of Charles’ blanket, the emotion that crossed his face could almost have been considered wry.

“I was only curious,” David said. “If I had known it bothered you, I would not have attempted to view it. Let alone without you.”

Charles leaned into David’s touch with a soft sigh. He hadn’t told David everything about Ms. Carter beyond the first incident in the kitchen. It wasn’t fair, blaming him for such a handicap.

There was no predicting when Charles would be able to talk about it. But this he knew for certain: it would be on his own time. When Charles was ready.

In the meantime...

He ought to reveal at least part of his hand to ensure David would not worry—or pry, if it came to that.

“Do you know what Lawrence meant,” he whispered as he stepped forward to rest his forehead on David’s stomach, “when he said the trick to pain was not minding it?” He was afraid to know whether his voice would waver, if he spoke too loud.

The scent specific to David, plastic—cool and clean—was a comforting one; funny, to think that was what David was consistently doing for him in every manner.

A pause, in which neither moved to speak, then Charles explained, “It’s life, David. Life hurts, but you can always choose how you face it.”

The sudden pressure of David’s hands smoothing down to his elbows would’ve had Charles flinching not even two months ago. Now, it only brought him the feeling of bone-deep relief.

“But I do not feel pain.” Not disappointment, only... curiosity, again.

Charles lifted his shoulders in an aborted shrug. “Some pain isn’t felt so much as heard for a very long time. Sometimes it never goes away.”

Of course, David would never have what accounted for a real heart or soul. But—simply knowing how things could hurt was part of experiencing it for oneself.

“What do you say,” David asked, and his hand was back in Charles’ hair again, smoothing out the stray curls there, “to finishing the film... together? I want to learn.” A slow blink, David’s pale eyes alert and intense where they met Charles’. “Teach me.”

Another shrug, and Charles took a careful step back. He was finding it hard to maintain eye contact, so instead he started to walk toward the couch. “I think I could do that.”

“Good,” David replied, pleased. He was wearing the more subtle of his smiles, his thin lips a tight line with only the corners twitching upward, unintentionally grinch-like. Which was to say: not very subtle at all.

Charles barked a short laugh. He was unable to catch it, and blushed furiously, the last of his anxiety leaking out at the same time that David’s smile grew much wider. The robot followed after him and sat in his original seat, nearest the center of the screen. Like all the previous times they’d viewed a film, Charles folded his legs beneath himself and pressed up along David’s side. David, like always, opted to sit ramrod straight with his hands resting on his knees through the grey material of his uniform pants.

Unlike previous times though, Charles had with him the added bonus of his blanket, which he untangled and spread out over both of their laps. The robot glanced down at it for a moment, assessing—hands still firmly planted in their neutral position beneath it—then returned his gaze to the screen.

“Raven?” Charles asked. “Could you start it over from the beginning, please?”

It seemed impossible that Charles could have forgotten how long Lawrence of Arabia was, especially in its original format. Still, by the time the credits were rolling and the screen began to grey into off-mode, he felt that the long period of time between viewings had led him to do just that.

There were scenes where Charles had tensed, uncomfortable in the face of such reminders, of Ms. Carter, voice gentled as she explained each and every one to him. It hadn’t seemed so bad after the first several were past; although it helped that David would turn to him, his expression impossibly grave, and keep asking, “I don’t understand. What did he mean by... ?”

Once the credits had faded, an easy silence filled the room. Charles had to fist his hands in the folds of the blanket, lest he ask David if the robot enjoyed it, only for the answer to be—

“Quite fascinating.”

Charles nearly jerked in his seat. Instead he found himself twisting in place, scrutinizing David’s expression with an unmatched attention to detail. ...really?

During the course of the film David had reverted to neutral facial settings. As it was only Charles there with him—and also the fact that Charles didn’t much care—David made no immediate attempt to school his features into something that a normal human might expect of him. Charles had the creeping feeling that David was beginning to do it on purpose.

Huffing, Charles sat back on his heels. He tried not to sound too hopeful when he asked, “You... liked it?”

David gave a slow, decisive nod. “Yes. I understand now why you enjoy it more than the others.”

“...you do?”

“It is Lawrence,” David said. “He is different than the people he comes from, and for that reason he feels he does not belong. He is devalued and overlooked because of his eccentricities. But to those who are not his people, and to whom he is an outsider, he earns respect and praise for that which he was previously disregarded.”

Charles blinked. “You—” He swallowed, cleared his throat. Ms. Carter had said much the same, the first time. It had... meant something to Charles, back then. It still did. “And you think that I—”

Finally, David inclined his head toward Charles. There was no judgement in his countenance, only the same steadiness as earlier. “It’s alright, Charles.” Then softer, almost secretive for how low David’s processor had dropped, “Perhaps we can both relate to Lawrence in our own way.”

Not so different as you think, Charles mused quietly. Then he sobered.

Charles loved Lawrence because he also felt out of place—ignored and dismissed. It had been a heartening idea when Ms. Carter had been there for Charles; she valued him. But going back to being alone afterwards had taken that last glimmer of hope away—that he would have a chance to prove himself, like Lawrence had.

“Yeah, yes.” A series of nods, rapid and glad. “I’m... happy, David. That you liked it.”

Happy. A strange concept.

But Charles had David now—so maybe not so strange any longer.

“Ah,” David said, abrupt. His smile this time was slight, the only crack in the robot’s blank, serene demeanor. “That reminds me. There was another matter I wished to discuss with you. Presently, I have permission to take you down to the lower floors.”

Just like that, Charles’ previous anxiety began to seep back into place. It was more solidified now, knowing what he already did about David and Kurt’s conversation. One he had almost completely forgotten—only for him to realize that it had been at the back of his mind all along, these past months.

Yes, Charles burned to say, wilting at the remembrance of Kurt’s words, but at what cost?

Unaffected, David continued, “You’ve expressed interest in seeing them, and I pushed the point to Mr. Marko that you would benefit from stretching your legs as well as your mind. You have a choice now, Charles. If it would make you happy, then I would greatly enjoy accompanying you this afternoon.”

Charles waited. One second, two. He cleared his throat. “Why?"

At some point during their conversation, Charles’ hands had migrated to the top of the blanket, where he had begun to pick at a loose tuft. It was not something he realized he had been doing, not until David was reaching a hand forward to rest two fingers, light, on the back of Charles’ own, and put a stop to the nervous motion. “I fear it was not made clear enough to you at the beginning of our acquaintance, but you should know now that I care a great deal about your happiness."

That again—happy. Strange, but an even stranger thing to know the taste of, a sweetness in the back of his throat which made him want to be selfish. Charles shook his head, dispelling the notion. Kurt was selfish. Charles only wanted to keep David, for as long as he could... did that make him selfish too?

Still. I care a great deal about your happiness.

Fine words, ones which he could not believe he was hearing. All the same, a warm blush crawled up the back of Charles’ neck.

What did it say about Charles, that he no longer knew the difference between what David’s directive compelled him to do and what David did of his own volition? And what did it say—that he was beginning to think the two were no longer separate things.

It was hope. A swelling, foreign weight inside his chest, and though he tried not to, Charles could only feel a responding wariness grow alongside it, and nothing else.

 


 

There was a certain surrealness about stepping onto the elevator in the foyer. Though later Charles would swear it was only his surprise at just how big the interior of it was that stole his breath, in reality, he had stood frozen—sickened by nerves and an almost animal fear—within the entryway until the sudden press of David’s palm between his shoulderblades finally urged him inside.

David didn’t comment, for which Charles was thankful. But even more so was he glad that David allowed him to fist a hand in the material of the robot’s uniform, flexing his fingers as he twisted them deeper with every floor the elevator sunk past. There were no windows to distract him, only the glossy, expensive finishes that covered the walls and ornaments, and the bright glow of the chandelier high above them.

No—David only stared straight ahead, his expression carefully schooled, and brushed two fingers along the back of Charles’ neck in a repetitive motion meant to comfort.

It was hard to define what Charles was feeling in that moment. The fear was residual—a combination of his never having left the penthouse, not once, in at least four years and his worries for what awaited him. Ridiculous, of course. Charles was old enough to handle himself. To handle anything, let alone a fear of people. But every time he tried to remember the polite words and phrases Sharon and Greta had attempted to drill into him too many times to count, his thoughts turned inward and shied away.

Charles wanted to see the lower labs so badly for so long. He wanted to see all the research, the science and the processes. Everything he’d missed since his father’s death. In the years since, he’d never dreamed of doing as much in person. But to be going now, to physically be there—for that, he could deal with strangers, even if he spent every moment of it burning with the need to hide away in the apartment again with only David and Raven there to see him.

Ten more floors passed. Twenty. Thirty.

I’m not a doll, he assured himself, resolute. They can stare all they want. I don’t care.

His knowledge of Kurt’s projects went only so far as the data logs he managed to pull from the company network; over the past few months though, even those had become increasingly difficult to hack into.

Xavier Biotics’ security was ever-shifting, but it never took Charles longer than a few days to crack the latest firewall. Spending time with David had taken his attention off a great many things that used to pre-occupy his every waking hour, back when he had been alone for most of them. Charles had quickly forgotten how, just three months prior, he had been wracking his brain over how to counteract Kurt’s latest—and impenetrable—additions to the network mainframe.

It was something that David might be able to assist him in solving. For an even more curious thing than the newly fortified security in the building’s systems was David’s way with them. There was no other way to describe it: since the day they became acquainted, Charles had begun to notice certain... peculiarities about David. Like his dexterous, honed control of technology, the deft hand with which he commanded the holoscreens and cybernetics that have always guided Charles’ life.

Raven, included. The memory was still fresh—David’s eyes on Charles, his voice soft as he ordered: lights. The immediacy with which Raven obeyed him.

Maybe it was stupid. Hadn’t that been Raven’s purpose, before? Did she not do the same for Dr. Xavier time and again? Perhaps he wasn’t thinking clearly after all; his anxiety with the present situation clouding his mind. But—it was strange all the same. David was a robot, after all.

Of course, sir.

Whenever Raven addressed Dr. Xavier, she had always called him ‘Brian.’ Then, much later—a recollection: Dr. Xavier in a labcoat, his teeth white and his grin sharp and proud, Raven calling him father for the first time late one winter night, Dr. Xavier having sequestered himself in his personal lab and Charles, having snuck out of bed and watching from the other side of the cracked door...

Charles shook the memory away. He was plagued by too many of them lately, and they always seemed to leave his heart fluttering unpleasantly fast.

He spared a brief moment wishing Raven could come along with him and David down to the labs. Her A.I. was still relegated solely to the penthouse cybernetic grid, something he imagined was like being paralyzed from the neck down. But even if Charles knew how to release her, Kurt wasn’t stupid—Charles had given some thought to the idea, and it seemed too obvious. His stepfather would learn of it eventually if not instantly, because Kurt was the one to mutilate Raven’s A.I. to begin with. And Kurt Marko was... volatile. That wasn’t something Charles was willing to risk.

What if he took David away for good... ?

But then again, there was still the matter of Kurt’s terms—whatever they were—which David must have agreed to if they were here now.

“You are quiet,” David observed. His gaze still lay somewhere straight ahead, yet it was oddly inconsistent, how his fingers stopped their petting and migrated to the knot where the back of Charles’ skull met his neck. Relax, the pressure there communicated.

“Jus’ thinking,” Charles mumbled, refusing to bury his face in David’s side like he very much wanted to. Anyway—their stop was approaching.

The light in the elevator faded to almost nothing, a slow dissolve that lasted only seconds—the ring of green cybernetics that lined the edges of the door lit up brightly, the barest amount of illumination, but enough to outline David’s face with its fluorescent glow. A cut of green reflected in his eyes, patiently trained ahead. After the light greyed out again, it was replaced by the hiss of the door depressurizing, and finally—sliding upward. Above their heads, the elevator released a low hum.

A dimly lit hall greeted them at the entryway. It forked in three directions; far off, their distant reaches were marked only by the strips of white light set up along the walls.

Charles didn’t know what he had expected. More, maybe, than the same grey walls that he was used to. They were less exorbitant than those inside the apartment—bare bones where he was used to cold aesthetics—though it was likely that Kurt spared little expense, nonetheless. After he took over as CEO, he’d had the entire building redesigned from the ground up.

The poor light and drafty, wide halls—those were all Kurt’s doing for one reason or another. Although all Charles could think at that moment was that Kurt had a rather dreary taste in decor.

David stepped into the hall first. His hand had slipped down to Charles’ back, and Charles was ushered along beside him not two steps after.

“I believe one of the cloning labs is down this way,” David offered. He tipped his head to the left, gaze alighting on Charles’ face in the same motion.

Charles huffed; he allowed a small smile to work its way across his lips. His uneasiness was clearly unwarranted. Lifeless as this place may seem, it was nothing different that what he was used to. Honestly, he only came up short at the lack of Raven’s blue interface running along the walls. Which was a curious change—the green.

See, he found himself thinking. Not so bad.

He could do this, and enjoy it, even.

Charles grabbed at David’s hand. His smile was still in place, less shaky now. “C’mon, David. It’ll be fun!”

A firm tug had David following without resistance. The robot did not seemed convinced of the sentiment, though after a short moment his expression morphed into something that might have charitably been described as fond. A subtle softening around David’s pale eyes; tiny upward ticks in the corners of his mouth.

“It is recognized that you have a funny sense of fun,” he quoted, solemn. Then he grinned toothily at his own joke.

Laughing, Charles moved to lead them down the hall.

Only to freeze, quite suddenly, at the sound of a staticy, flat voice.

“You are not supposed to be here.”

A mannequin? Charles thought first. Followed immediately by: No—a synthetic!

For it was a synthetic—having zeroed in on him and David the second it rounded the corner of the next bisection of hallways. Charles was almost alarmed by how rudimentary the other robot appeared: sallow, worn-out rubber pulled over its frame like skin and a twin pair of red LED lights in place of normal eyes. It ignored David, turning its head to regard Charles with a blankness eerier than any android made in the last twenty years had any right to. Since the modern age of robotics had rendered such emptiness obsolete.

The weight of that stare twinged a throb of discomfort in Charles’ stomach. He had never seen such a synthetic, one that looked so inhuman—and without question, even at a glance. Folds of distended rubber disfigured its neck, trailing down beneath the ashy-green material of its uniform.

That voice though—that was the worst of all. It was faintly reminiscent of an old radio transmission, garbled and scratched.

In the ensuing silence, it was David who finally spoke. He didn’t appear phased by the other robot’s interruption, not in any logical sense. Outwardly, David was as immovable as he ever was. Stoic and calm. But there was something decidedly off about David’s default neutrality.

“You are mistaken,” David stated, slow. A degree of tension underscored the words. Not anger, exactly, but something approaching... contempt?

Charles wondered when, exactly, David learned to vocalize annoyance under the guise of his standard tonal processor. If Charles weren’t so accustomed to the finer quirks of David’s eccentricities, he hardly would have noticed any difference at all.

David waited until the synthetic’s head snapped back up and its eyes flickered his way before continuing: “This floor is now under my jurisdiction.”

An uncomfortable pause followed. Charles could do little more than watch them; the two robots staring each other down. Then: “...authority recognized.” The synthetic dipped its chin in acknowledgement. Much more stiffly, it directed to Charles, “Apologies for the interruption.”

It straightened unnaturally and turned on its heel, then it walked off the way it had come.

Charles shivered, watching it go. Impossible to put a finger on why but—the encounter was unsettling. He knew older makes of the first synthetics existed at some point or another, but he never knew that they were still in use. Weyland had gone to great lengths to cover up earlier models of their synthetics. And that robot hadn’t been Weyland.

“Charles?” David inquired. He nudged Charles forward with the hand still at the small of his back. “Come along.”

They started moving again, but not before Charles released his held breath, unnerved. There was something David wasn’t telling him.

As they rounded the corner into the next hall, Charles pointedly cleared his throat. “David...,” the robot looked down at him; the lack of tells in David’s expression were more pointed than usual—a forced indifference. Fortunately, Charles knew him too well by this point. He clarified, “What was that?”

A heavier silence fell upon the hall, a thing Charles hadn’t thought possible. In it, David simply stopped; he still stood close to Charles’ side, but he glanced away briefly, his pupils constricting in calculated thought. Deliberating his words.

“Forgive me, Charles,” he replied at length. It sounded no more apologetic than was his normal tone of voice. Still... it caught Charles off guard. “I have not been entirely honest with you.”

This was met only with Charles’ silence, and a stare. David didn’t need any more prompting than that.

“Mr. Marko,” David began, “has felt it prudent to... phase out, if you will, slow downs across all of Xavier Biotic’s research divisions. Several weeks ago, the company entered into a new level of development. The synthetic you just saw is one of hundreds now working under Marko’s employ throughout the building. They were designed by Josiah Sieg of Seegson Corp, whom Mr. Marko has come to an accord with.”

There he stopped, tipped his head slightly; he regarded Charles again, his eyebrows lifting, a question there. “I have been told that they are to be ‘tested out’. Mr. Marko only allowed my access to these labs under the condition that I report to him on their performance, after which the information will be forwarded along to Seegson. A test run, Marko clarified, that is to be in exchange for their services.”

No: Kurt wouldn’t. But then again—he very well had. Kurt had that power now. “Kurt fired my father’s people and replaced them with robots... ? But he said—”

“That he does not believe us dependable?”

“Trustworthy,” Charles amended. He’d once overheard Kurt telling Sharon, drunk as she was and uncaring of whatever the man had to blather on about—they’re all filthy liars, the lot of them, and I want no part in the market.

Either that wasn’t what David expected to hear, or he hadn’t expected Charles to know of Kurt’s true feelings—David directed his gaze downward, a flicker of lashes which obscured the color of his eyes. Then that gaze drifted back down to him, pinned him in place. Perfectly toneless, David asked, “And do you believe that?”

A reply was not forthcoming—not in words, at least. Instead Charles found himself reaching forward and grabbing ahold of David’s sleeve close to the cuff. It was the hand David had just begun to retract from Charles’ side. “Of course,” Charles said, then weaker than he intended, his throat suddenly too dry, “I’ve never... but you.”

As far back as Charles could remember, he had never trusted anyone quite like he trusted David. It was a terrifying thing to realize, and one harder still to voice. There was very little he could go on, not knowing what David’s reaction would be—maybe that was just it, though. David wasn’t unpredictable, and he—cared. About Charles.

And how could Charles not have noticed? How easy his sleep was these last months, how few and far between the nightmares had become. No, Charles wouldn’t trade that for anything.

Kurt was wrong about a great number of things.

“Of course,” David parroted. His features went lax before softening into something different, more private. A smile, one meant only for Charles. “Rest assured,” he continued, the seriousness of his words undermined by the note of pleasure that had crept into his tone. “Kurt maintains his original stance. Seegson simply offered a deal in which the benefits outweigh any doubt.”

Absurd, the way a man like Kurt could so easily achieve access to so many robots. Least of all one whom took perverse joy in controlling things—other people... robots... those weaker than him, unable to fight for themselves. As frightening as these new synthetics may appear on the outside, surely not even the most rudimentary of mechanical life deserved to be puppets to be used and discarded. It bothered Charles; watching Kurt do the same to others, and to be unable to stop it.

...or redirect it unto himself, much as he had tried for Sharon time and time again.

Charles let his eyebrows draw together, pondering the information. “You knew about them though. Seegson’s robots. You knew that they were here now—and since when?” He cocked his head. “What do you know about them?”

“They are outdated,” David supplied, “in comparison to Weyland’s current model. I have not known of their presence for long.”

The David 8, Charles already knew. Seegson was clearly nowhere near Weyland in regards to  synthetic advancement. But... it made some degree of sense, now that it had occurred to him. The odd recognition he’d felt there, looking at specific pieces of the synthetic’s frame. Some of that was not Seegson’s design, but Weyland’s. Seegson had simply repurposed it—then simplified and bastardized what remained.

A quick gloss over this new information and he filed it away. The better to confirm his suspicion later with a thorough dig through the outer networks; ones not so easily accessed by the public, but really quite simple to worm into when approached via the company’s proxy addresses.

To David, Charles said nothing of this. He concluded, only partially serious, “So they’re not as fun as you?”

That elicited a grin from David, and the robot’s countenance brightened. “Certainly,” David agreed, indulgent now. “If you believe it so.”

Charles wrinkled his nose, and considered—would it offend David, if he voiced his discomfort with them? He still could not identify why, exactly. But the feeling held true at just the thought of the synthetic’s lifeless eyes. Maybe it was because they were a replication of life, but very obviously inorganic. The most truthful a robot could ever be, in a sense.

“The only synthetics I’ve seen are from the David vids available through the net. They’re—different, is all. It just doesn’t make sense, why Kurt wouldn’t just,” buy more davids, “make a deal with Weyland instead. My father was on good terms with them, before.”

It appeared that David had considered that, as well. “To my knowledge, the deal was an exchange of security for field data. Not long ago, I conducted a network sweep that turned up blueprints for a stationary A.I. Seegson had recently developed, one proposed to direct all of their robots from one central brain rather than individual discretion. I believe this was what drew Mr. Marko to the offer; his past dalliances suggest he is put at ease when in the position of power.”

That gave Charles pause. “An A.I. ... like Raven?”

“Essentially. My information is incomplete, but from my calculations, the energy necessary to access each synthetics’ hardware stem would require an equally intelligent A.I. to back it. Raven had similar parameters to meet in her coding, but her directive was never the same. It is not easy to compare.”

Instantly, Charles jumped to attention. He reached his other hand forward, grasped at David’s other arm, and leant into him, his tone colored a touch pleading, “Really? Could we go meet it? Where is it?”

Another A.I.! He could hardly contain his excitement. A new A.I. meant someone else Charles could talk to, and one he would feel easy doing so with. Surely, it also meant the possibility for a new friend... ?

In reply, David’s mouth only curved downward in a carefully formed frown. He curled forward over Charles and indicated with a practiced ease what he was about to do, which Charles accepted readily, allowing for David to pick him up.

“That is not currently within my jurisdiction,” David corrected once Charles had settled in his arms, this time apologetic—and sounding it. Though the moment Charles’ expression wilted, David was quick to add, “But perhaps it is not beyond the realm of possibility, given time.”

Charles nodded, unable to hide his eagerness. He leant closer, and with his forehead nearly pressed to David’s, his lips quirked in a small smile, shy and happy both, “Yes. Thank you, David. I can wait.”

He had too much experience with waiting; for the things he needed, yes, but more rarely those he wanted. He trusted that David would not lie to him. It was a lot to consider, still—but then again, he had time to do just that.

“Now,” David started, and with one word effectively ended the line of conversation, “what was that about a cloning lab?”

 


 

Careful of the fragile stem, Charles lifted one leaf with the end of a small glass rod. It was not a pure strain, whatever the plant was, because it appeared to be a hybrid of a fern and some type of primitive maize with a stubby, bent stalk. The underside of the leaf revealed a webbing of neon purple veins, and at the base where blade met stem: a faint genetic imprint in delicate cursive. XB.

The central cloning nursery on this floor was comparatively small when Charles considered his own greenhouse. The plant rows were tighter and the ceiling lower, and where he was used to the stark brightness that came with direct sunlight, the nursery was instead lit in a mixture of purplish-blue fluorescents and the same white strips that littered the hallways.

There was also a lot more noise. Consistent machine beeping, and the low groan of timed ventilators. Eerily enough, no conversation pervaded the room. Charles was certainly not alone—at least six Seegson synthetics exactly like the one that had stopped them in the hall circulated the space with purpose. But curiously, they kept to themselves, going about their duties without a word as they managed the nursery’s contents.

Sighing quietly to himself, Charles pushed back from the plant box he had been inspecting and glanced off down the row. He was enjoying this, yes—he had a better idea, now, of what Kurt had been doing with Dr. Xavier’s research. A bit of crop science here and there, as well as steady production of enormous strains of the gaudiest flowers Charles had ever seen—shiny and milky gold; Kurt had predictable tastes. The highlight was discovering just how vastly short-lived Xavier Biotics’ current marketable assets were. Research was, according to the nursery’s data logs, still on-going in that department. It appeared that Kurt’s splices were flawed.

But the victory was lackluster, considering. Charles had gotten his hopes up, of course, and as much as he was enjoying himself, he would have liked to have had David there with him.

While David had admitted to his correspondence with Kurt, he had also avoided explaining the exact nature of Kurt’s stipulations. To that effect... once he and Charles entered the cloning lab, David had confessed that certain supervisory responsibilities necessitated him elsewhere, and that he would return for Charles shortly.

That was nearly two hours ago.

Charles debated what he was about to do for a few seconds, then he started down the row toward the opposite end. Just as he reached it, one of the circulating synthetics walked by with two plant boxes in hand, its gaze set blankly ahead.

“Hi,” said Charles, before he could think better of it. “I’m Charles.”

The synthetic halted at the sound of his voice. Then, mechanically, it turned around to face him. He was so used to the expressiveness with which David usually conducted himself that Charles nearly lost his nerve. Seegson obviously prioritized function over polish—something that no doubt pleased Kurt.

“How may I help you?” the synthetic asked. Its mouth did not move when it spoke, and even more uncanny was how recorded its answer sounded. “If you find this facility in a state that isn't to your liking, please let us know."

“I just—was wondering. Do you have a name? Or I mean, what do I call you... ?”

He almost expected the synthetic to cock its head like David would. It continued to stare. “I do not understand the question. You always know a Working Joe.”

“Working Joes? And you were all—made by Seegson?”

The Joe stared more. Then it recited, “With Seegson, there is someone behind you. Helping you. Every single step of the way.”

A bubble of laughter escaped Charles’ throat, awkward and choked. It died the instant he heard the Joe’s distorted voice start up again.

“To laugh is to... Hmmm... Yes... “

Then it turned back around, and walked off.

Strange.

Toward the back of the nursery, a series of holoscreens covered the wall. Another Working Joe was stationed at the main console with its face directed toward the smallest of the lot. Strings of data were flying across the screen at a speed impossible for any human to process.

“Excuse me,” Charles tried as he approached the Joe. “Could you show me to one of the other labs? I don’t want to keep getting in the way here... “

The Joe neither stopped what it was doing—staring at the screen—nor did it move to acknowledge Charles in any way. “Busy,” it replied distantly.

Something was off about these synthetics. Not just the obvious, but something more—he couldn’t say what, exactly. Strange. Creepy. He was running out of adjectives, and not one of them could quite capture the chill tickling at the base of his spine, warning him to be careful.

Charles shifted uncomfortably. Perhaps he would need to take a... different tact.

Excuse me. I—,” he steeled his voice, “I want to see David. Take me to David. Now.”

The Joe stopped, at that. Unnaturally slow, it twisted its head to stare at Charles.

“I want David. If you don’t take me to him...,” Charles swallowed. “David will be—mad. At you.”

The tickling sensation was in his stomach now and rising steadily up behind his ribs. It wasn’t panic, he told himself firmly. He was not afraid. It was human beings he feared; these robots wouldn’t hurt him.

“Request granted,” the Joe said at last. “Follow me.”

Without waiting for Charles, it started for one of the doors that led back into the main hallway. The Joe didn’t stop to indicate an unlock command on any touchpad—another curiosity, though it was likely the doors down here were controlled by some other means—and Charles fell into step several paces behind it.

The journey wasn’t long. Not five minutes later, they had come upon another door, this one bigger than the others—wide, and lacking any windows. But then, this door did have a touchpad. One the Joe wasted no time in activating by dragging two fingers down the center.

“You may now enter,” the Joe stated, before reversing its course and heading back down the hall they’d arrived from. Charles could only watch the synthetic leave, confused, until it disappeared around the corner.

He turned back to the door. Waited, uncertain, as the command finally took and the door opened.

He was greeted with the sight of a shadowed room. For a moment, Charles almost thought that the Joe had taken him to another of the labs, just as he’d asked. But there was an odd scent underscoring the air, and along with the meager lighting was a cold draft that rushed out in the wake of Charles’ entrance. Yet... unheeding of these facts, Charles took his first step into the room...

Lights flickered to life. The first were along the rows of tables situated in a manner identical to the nursery—small, alternating bulbs that framed the walkways. Of which there were at least sixteen. The second were along the walls. They began to power on belatedly, and where there had once been only shadow and formless shapes were now—

Cages.

Uncountable. Squat and tight, so as to fit the most possible on each row. And that smell... Charles now realized was nothing to do with plants. All the more, though, to do with sickly-sweet antiseptics, and beneath that, the blood-fur-sweat-fear of too many animals housed in a dark room.

Somehow, Charles managed another step forward. Then another, and another. Soon he was walking down the closest walkway, his heart in his throat. He had known that Kurt was experimenting with animals but—it was different, knowing the way his people did it. The animals inside the cages were small, most about the size of rabbits or chickens. And that is what most of them appeared to be; only, where Charles expected copies—clones—it became startlingly clear that Kurt was nowhere near the level of perfection that Dr. Xavier had managed to create. Like the plants in the nursery, these creatures were neither one animal nor the other. They were splices.

Such a thing hadn’t struck Charles as odd when it came to the plants. But anyone with access to the networks, anyone who paid any attention to the news, knew that animal splices were illegal—unethical under a regulatory bioengineering law that was passed several years ago. The methods of splicing were much different than simple cloning. Animal subjects often died. Painfully, and without reason.

There was no other explanation—Kurt had grown bored, and decided to underhandedly carry out experimental research that none of his competitors would dare to match.

Dimly, Charles registered the high-pitched whining that carried throughout the room. It grated—catching at him with jagged edged cries. They were in pain, and Charles couldn’t do anything...

A sob hitched in Charles’ throat, and he backed up, knowing in a detached way that he was shifting into a full on panic, but not feeling that he was still in control of his own body. His foot caught on something, and before he understood what was happening, he was falling.

... Straight into a solid chest.

Charles,” David said, quiet and tense. He said nothing more, only grabbed ahold of Charles’ arms and pulled him backward, back toward the open doorway.

Once they were outside, the lights in the hall seemed nearly too bright; disorienting.

Calm them down,” David ordered, but not to Charles. There were others—the Seegson synthetics, right at David’s heels. They moved into the lab quickly and efficiently, and by the time Charles realized that he and David were not alone, the door had already closed behind the Joes, and it was just the two of them once again.

Sudden, blissful silence.

Charles’ every breath rattled in his lungs. The grip on his arms was unyielding, twin points of pressure where David’s thumbs were digging into the soft skin just below the bends of his elbows. Hardly any space existed between their bodies. With that in mind, and the strength he could feel at his back—David’s body a sturdy, grounding fixture—Charles could finally begin to calm himself down from hyperventilating. He didn’t have to be afraid of collapsing inward; David held him through it.

“Charles,” David repeated. Were he human, the robot’s breath would be tickling the nape of Charles’ neck. As it was, his name on David’s lips had much the same effect, stirring the short hairs there.

In, out. Calm settled over Charles, and the ringing in his ears died down in the stretching silence.

“You are all right.” A needless statement, really; though David was not the only one who wanted to assure its truth.

Charles jerked his head in a nod.

“I am sorry.”

Eyes squeezing shut, he shook his head. “Wasn’t your fault.”

“I only learned of the splices today,” David continued, low, “but still I did not warn you. I should have.”

Charles said nothing. Anything he could think to say broke apart in his mind before it could reach his tongue—supplications, denials. For now, all he could do was lean back against David and wait for the weariness in his limbs to flag, and the moment he could stand on his own again.

Of course. Overseeing this lab was David’s job as well now, wasn’t it? David had known... had been here already, earlier. The note of distaste in David’s processor was answer enough. But this was Kurt’s world, and there was nothing either of them could do about that.

Compartmentalize. Charles had always been best at doing that.

He shivered.

Gentle, and subtle enough that Charles almost did not notice, David smoothed a hand up the curve of Charles’ shoulder. Squeezed.

It had the opposite effect than David had intended. Bile rose in the back of his mouth, and Charles suppressed the urge to gag at the taste.

Why. Why was David so—how could he be so much like her ... like she used to comfort him, constant and definable. David wasn’t Ms. Carter, except he was so easily coming to replace her. David wasn’t even human. He couldn’t forget that—he needed to stop forgetting that, unless he wanted to hurt himself. But... it messed with his head anyway, knowing that logically, a robot shouldn’t be acting like this.

“Why do you always do that—touch me?”

He couldn’t be sure why it took David so long to answer. A robot couldn’t be stunned, much less surprised, could they? And yet— “Many studies show that in early stages of life, humans respond most readily to the sensation of touch,” David intoned. “It acts as both stimulation and a display of reciprocated emotion. Compassion.”

Charles pushed away, his steps faltering.

“You don’t have to, you know,” he told David. He didn’t dare meet the robot’s eyes.

Another long pause, in which David did not immediately answer. “I’m confused. Do you not want for it, or do you believe it insincere from me?”

“It’s not you, David, no.” He wrapped his arms round himself—did not shiver. “I just don’t understand. Why do you do it?”

Charles counted his breaths. One... two... three—

When David next spoke, his processor turned the words flat. They were... quite simple really, but once they’d hit the air, all of the breath left Charles’ lungs in a single, surprised exhale.

“You have been abused.”

Here David reached out, attempted to lay his hand on Charles’ shoulder again. But before he could, Charles took another step forward and away, just out of reach.

A pause. “I know it was not my right to broach the subject, not unless you wished for me to.”

“How did you know?” Charles whispered.

“I am always with you, by your side. How could I not?”

“Liar.”

He gave into the urge to twist around, then. Once he had, their gazes met with unprecedented ease, though David flicked his eyes side-to-side in a rapid, almost imperceptible movement. Searching—for something.

“I’ve seen it. Every time you flinched or hesitated, or believed I was not looking.” David gentled his voice even further. “Initially I deduced the reason to be the same for why you have been kept in the apartment all this time; something to do with Sharon Marko. But a foray Raven conducted into Mr. Marko’s personal accounts revealed that you are set to inherit the company once you have reached the age specified in the will of Dr. Brian Xavier. Have I incorrectly assumed the two are related, Charles?”

That—no. There was nothing else to say for it.

How had David... ? But it didn’t matter how, did it. All that mattered was that David knew it, and that he hadn’t said anything because he was waiting for Charles to tell him first. When Charles wanted to.

Inhaling sharply, Charles confided, “For years Cain would—and Kurt would just let him. He didn’t care, and Mother never even looked—

“... Cain?”

A nod. “My stepbrother. Kurt’s son. Kurt wants him to take over, not me.”

“Charles, I...,” David hesitated, and he moved closer to Charles, indecision clear on his face. He wanted to reach for Charles, still. “My deal with Kurt will have me overseeing a large part of the organization. I was told that he has decided on a better use of my time, which is to say: working for him, down here in the labs. I realize now that this decision was a calculated one. Kurt has not separated us entirely, that I am most sure. But whatever it is Kurt has in mind for me, I will try and make it right. You still have me and that won’t change.”

“No,” Charles shook his head, and how stupid was it of him? Fighting back tears for the second time that day. “Kurt changed his mind long before you even approached him. He must have.”

“Nevertheless, protecting you in the long term is more important than making you happy for just a few hours. I see that now. I have no further insight into Kurt’s goals, but I promise—I will not let Kurt hurt you anymore, no matter the cost.”

It started as the faintest prickles in the corners of his eyes, then Charles began to cry in earnest. His face heating just as his nose grew wet.

“What is wrong?” David demanded, not unkind. Only concern coloring his tone. David was worried. The robot chose that moment to slip fluidly to his knees on the floor, eyes roving Charles’ face hurriedly. “Was it something I said, Charles?”

Sniffling uselessly, Charles could only shake his head in reply and glance away, at the floor beneath David’s bent knees. “It’s fine, just—you’re not what Kurt expected.” You’re not what I expected. You’re not just any robot.

“I’m glad,” David said, and it was impossibly fond. Eyelids lowering, one corner of the robot’s mouth twitching just once.

Charles knew any smile he might give in return would be too fragile a thing, so instead, he rubbed at the wet tracks already drying on his face, tilted his face up at David and allowed the robot to drink his fill. “Me too, David. And anyway, I haven’t seen Cain in years. It’s been hard but... I’m not worried. Not anymore.”

Which was a sentiment he did not know, at the time, that he would soon come to regret.

Chapter Text

“... Eckels stood smelling of the air, and there was a thing to the air, a chemical taint so subtle, so slight, that only a faint cry of his subliminal senses warned him it was there. The colors, white, grey, blue, orange, in the wall, in the furniture, in the sky beyond the window, were... were...

The room was washed in the muted light from the virtual display. It flickered as David’s processor formed around the words he read aloud, the encompassing green and ambient noises of a deep jungle fading into nothing just as the very colors the story described flashed, once, around the circular screen.

Charles let his head slide further down David’s shoulder, toward the bend where David’s throat disappeared beneath his uniform collar. It allowed Charles to feel the lingering thrum of the processor as it worked, there beneath synthetic skin, through the spot where he rested his temple against it.

It had grown late as the story went on—but that was Charles’ doing, in imploring David to read just one more, could you please? He couldn’t help the yawn that escaped, or the way he curled closer to David against the arm of the chair, squeezing his fingers in his blanket.

David paused, hummed a brief, deep note of recognition, then continued several octaves lower: “And there was a feel. His flesh twitched. His hands twitched. He stood drinking the oddness with the pores of his body. Somewhere, someone must have been screaming one of those whistles that only a dog can hear. His body screamed silence in return.”

Though there might have been a time when Charles believed David stiff or awkward, the way the robot held himself now, hours after Charles had clamored up onto his lap, was different somehow. It was Charles’ idea to begin with—David reading to him from a large collection of short stories that Charles kept on a shelf by the bed, one that they’d only just begun to break into. He could recall doing something similar, once or twice, with his father; though the more pressing matter had been whether David’s lap would be nearly as comfortable.

Charles had been right in that, at least. There was nothing in that moment, or the several hours spent before it, that would give away the fact that David was anything but human. Nothing, save the perfectly formed timbre of the robot’s voice as he narrated. Never too high, never too low—a balance that was as warm as it was monotone, and made Charles fall into the clutches of his own exhaustion that much faster.

“Beyond this room, beyond this wall,” David read, the climbing note of his words punctuated by the back and forth brush of his palm along Charles’ spine, beneath the blanket, “beyond this man who was not quite the same man seated at this desk that was not quite the same desk... lay an entire world of streets and people. What sort of world it was now, there was no telling. He could feel them moving there, beyond the walls, almost, like so many chess pieces blown in a dry wind... “

Quite actually, Charles had to consciously hold himself still under David’s attentions. It wasn’t that his earlier vulnerabilities were returning, nor that he didn’t want it—rather, it was the opposite. In the months since their trip to the lower labs, nothing had changed.

Perhaps it said something about Charles then, that he expected otherwise.

Just like those first few weeks, most days found their routine the same as ever. David was consistent, always, in everything relating to Charles’ care. The robot would cook meals for him, and was just as adamant that Charles had his nightly bath prior to bed.

Funny, that those moments were the ones where Charles resented the dependency budding in the cradle of his chest most. Those moments that saw Charles sitting with his bony knees awkwardly curled toward his chest in warm, soapy water. David’s hands painfully gentle upon his back and in the sopping-wet strands of his hair. For the more Charles told himself to stop, don’t let yourself get used to it, don’t let yourself hope that this will be the same tomorrow ... the more that Charles found himself helpless to do anything but press back into David’s hands at every point of contact.

I care a great deal about your happiness

Earlier this evening, in fact, Charles had done much the same: remained quiet, and unmoved under the robot’s ministrations. “Is something wrong, Charles?” David had asked as he dried Charles off after, the knowing look in those pales eyes becoming concerned. Not hesitation, never that—that wasn’t something David had ever been capable of—but lacking the certainty or sureness so characteristic of him.

You have been abused

Charles could not manage the smile he usually offered in such instances. Instead, he’d reached up, arm still dripping with water from the bath, and grabbed ahold of the stiff collar of David’s uniform in a loose fist.

I will not let Kurt hurt you anymore

“No,” Charles replied, carefully devoid of emotion. And without another word, David had finished drying Charles off then taken him to his room, to be read to before it was time for bed.

I promise

And so it went; a distant part of Charles knew that it was unease that was creeping in again, that had him fighting to squirm away from so simple a touch when he was trying to pay attention to the story.

Eckels felt himself fall into a chair. He fumbled crazily at the thick slime on his boots. He held up a clod of dirt, trembling.”  Here David paused again, turned the page. Around the room, the virtual display dimmed.

The end to this story meant Charles would thus be put to bed, no matter his protests. And it was a horrible ache in his chest, despite the sleepiness he continued to fight—the remembrance of the accord that David had come to with Kurt not long after that day in the labs, that in order to keep up with his responsibilities concerning Charles... David would spend the days with him, and the nights, while Charles slept, were to be spent working on the lower floors for Kurt’s purposes.

Above him, David’s head dipped so as to rest his chin atop Charles’ damp curls. “For embedded in the mud,” he intoned softly, “glistening green and gold and black, was a butterfly, very beautiful and very dead.”

Grip tightening in the blanket, Charles allowed himself to brighten fractionally as he recalled the exact words that came next—it may have been a while, but he knew this particular book’s contents by heart. A weak smile fluttered across his mouth, and he cried out theatrically, “’Not a little thing like that! Not a butterfly!’“

Though he could not see it, and neither was it evident in the steady lilt of David’s voice, Charles somehow knew that the robot was smiling, too.

“It fell to the floor, an exquisite thing, a small thing that could upset balances and knock down a line of small dominoes and then big dominoes and then gigantic dominoes, all down the years and across Time. Eckels moaned. He dropped to his knees. He scrabbled at the golden butterfly with shaking fingers. ‘Can’t we,’ he pleaded to the world, to himself, to the officials, to the Machine, ‘can’t we take it back, can’t we make it alive again? Can’t we start over? Can’t we—‘“

For it was inevitable—something happening when Charles finally felt his safest in so many years. And he knew it. Dread kept him silent and complacent, but it didn’t prepare him for what was coming.

“He did not move. Eyes shut, he waited, shivering. He heard Travis breathe loud in the room; he heard Travis shift his rifle, click the safety catch, and raise the weapon.”  David’s palm stilled on Charles’ lower back. Quiet, he finished, “There was a sound of thunder.”

Four days later, Cain came home.

Chapter Text

“No, Charles,” Raven chided, patient and over-soft. Her voice nearly melted, seamless, into the notes of Chopin that filtered into the bedroom. “Like so.”

The holopad propped up on the dresser blipped awake—Raven’s doing, of course—and an instructional vid from the net found its way onto the screen, a close-up of two hands fixing a string of buttons down a dressy shirt.

There really was no excuse for the way Charles’ fingers fumbled with the little metal squares that adorned his own. The buttons simply snagged, quite a bit, and found their way rather easily into the wrong holes. His heart lifted considerably after he pushed one into what he believed was the correct place.

“Off by one,” Raven supplied mournfully.

With a sigh, Charles let his arms drop to his sides. He didn’t need a mirror to see the pitiful job he’d made of buttoning a shirt—that was clear enough looking down his chest at the mismatched buttons; the stretched fabric in some places, sagging in others.

Around the room, the grey VID screen began to hum faintly, another attempt on Raven’s part, surely, to keep Charles calm. Though it went without saying: Charles was beginning to lose any semblance of such a thing.

“Perhaps you are not at your pique this early, Charles?” Raven offered. It was somewhat true, considering the time had passed eleven o’clock not long ago. David always made a point of waking him before ten, but now... well, the circumstances were somewhat different, weren’t they?

David wasn’t here.

“Or maybe,” Charles replied sullenly, his shoulders beginning to droop, “it’s just that David always does this for me.”

In truth, the first sign that something was off about the morning was the music that roused Charles from sleep. Specifically, it was a known favorite of David’s: Prelude No. 15 in D flat major. Evidently, Raven had no other means of stirring Charles, and the music was simply the easiest means of doing so. Upon realizing this and finding himself alone in his bedroom, Charles’ mood had sunk sharply toward despondent.

This occurrence was becoming a common one in recent days. Of course, there were always mornings where Charles was alone in the apartment. It was during these times that David had not yet finished in the labs, often due to Charles waking a touch earlier than usual. In any case, David always returned by eight o’clock.

The handheld holosphere on Charles’ nightstand made a tiny chirp. Bright blue pixels coalesced round a set of numbers. 11:30.

A twinge of worry tugged at Charles. There was no possibility of the clock being wrong; for the first time, David was late.

Selfish, whispered a voice buried deep in Charles’ mind, one that sounded not unlike Sharon. Then came another, throatier—Greta?—slithering through his mind like a lance... Useless. His chest spasmed with a barely suppressed flinch.

No. Charles couldn’t think like this anymore. Not after everything David had said—that David had made him feel, since the beginning. David said he wasn’t useless. But it would seem that even now, despite Charles’ best attempts, he could not convince himself of the idea that he wasn’t a burden—on David, or anyone. The fact that he felt so bereft without the robot nearby, that he could hardly even dress himself, went against that statement.

Charles... would just have to be strong. He couldn’t complain, or whine—David had a job now outside of him, and really, it wasn’t David’s fault.

And surely... if David knew just how much Charles was struggling with the separation... he would be sad, wouldn’t he? Disappointed, even?

Thus, steeling himself, Charles quickly did up the rest of his shirt buttons. Most were askew, of course, but after some quiet deliberation, he dug around one of his drawers for one of the sweaters he favored. It was a soft shade of blue, a color very similar to the blanket Charles remembered dragging around when he was younger. And more importantly, the apartment had become colder in the last few months—another layer was not unforgiveable.

Raven had been the one to suggest he get dressed for the morning; or really, what was left of it. Back when Greta was still looking after Charles, he had often opted to remain in his pajamas instead, those days where she was most absent. It had been so long since Charles was left to his own devices that he honestly felt... lost.

But he had Raven, at least. And that surely counted for far more than he realized.

“Charles,” Raven began, “Might I suggest taking breakfast in the theatre? I am unable to contact David, as doing so is difficult without alerting Xavier Biotics’ security firewalls to my presence. Unfortunately, I remain uncertain as to when he will be returning to us.”

“That’s... fine,” Charles said, forcing down his unease. Already, he was devising what he could make from the pantry that wouldn’t require cooking; he’d made a promise to not touch the kitchen appliances without David’s supervision. More decisively, Charles added, “I’ll be all right on my own.”

Raven was silent during the time it took Charles to venture down the hallway to the kitchen, then to rifle through the pantry for a box of fruit pastries David had stashed on one of the lower shelves for snacking.

“David would not approve,” she remarked as Charles walked back out onto the kitchen’s main floor. “But your choice is sound. Healthier nonperishables should be purchased in the event that David is once again unable to provide a more... satisfactory meal.”

“Fruit is healthy,” Charles reminded her, nose wrinkling slightly as he searched around for a plate. “And there was that appeal law several decades ago. Companies can only use natural preservatives, even for the cheap stuff.”

“Cheap stuff,” Raven repeated, characteristically flat. “I’m sure.”

Inwardly, Charles was grateful for her attentive care. His thoughts warmed with fondness for the A.I., how easy it had become, to believe she was something real—a someone, who held the depth of emotion necessary to care. For as toneless as she often sounded, Charles had long begun to assign a personality to her words.

Raven was deliberate and precise, but most of all, if Charles were to be absolutely honest... she was also a complete worry wart. Often, this manifested in what could charitably be called her own way of teasing him. Though it was a curious thing, how her more human traits only surfaced when he and Raven were alone.

David’s presence led Raven to grow quiet; no less attentive, but a... background presence, of a kind. Charles couldn’t be quite sure whether he should feel guilty about that.

Rolling his eyes, Charles dropped two of the pastries on a plate from the cupboard by the sink. He was halfway to the door when the music Raven had been playing throughout the apartment stopped, and the expansive room went abruptly quiet.

“Raven?” he hesitated.

A short moment ticked by, then Raven made an unfamiliar hum. The metal fixtures, the chrome installations and all the appliances in the kitchen—each and every one of them echoed it in turn.

“Charles,” came her response at length, oddly strained, distant. “The elevator in the foyer has just arrived. You have an unverified visitor.”

A sudden coldness overcame him, made his skin clammy. He wiped his palms on his sweater. “David... ?”

Raven took another over-long moment to respond. This perhaps was most worrying of all. “Life vitals are not a match for any personnel located within Xavier Biotics’ network. I apologize, Charles,” and here her voice began to fade out, “David has instructed that I am not to reveal my current functional state.”

“But Raven, you can’t leave me!” Charles found himself whispering desperately. “If it’s not Mother or Kurt, then who—”

A sequence of beeps sounded from the door that led into the hallway. After a moment, it depressurized and slid upward. And there, in the doorway, a luggage bag hanging from one arm, was the one person Charles never expected to see again.

Cain’s dark eyes zeroed in on Charles with terrifying speed, and just as a wide smirk snaked along the larger boy’s mouth, Charles’ chest clenched painfully tight. “Miss me, Charlie?”

 


 

“My father is doing business on this floor,” Cain was saying as the elevator started its slow sink downward. In distinct contrast to the last few times that Charles had ridden in it alongside David, the space couldn’t have been more suffocating. He may not have been in such proximity to Cain in years, but the body never forgot—and it was hard, so hard, to not flinch at every careless, blundering movement on Cain’s part.

“He won’t want to deal with interruptions of any kind,” Cain continued casually, another of his smarmy smiles making itself known as he spoke. “So that means I’m in charge. No running off—you got that, Charlie?”

The other boy was propped up against the opposite wall, an air of superiority in the arrogant slouch of his posture. Cain had always been a particularly blunt study in unrivaled narcissism. As far as he was concerned, Kurt’s place at the top of a multi-billion dollar company meant he could do whatever he wanted, get away with anything, and face no consequences. To Charles, Cain was a bully, plain and simple.

“Yes, Cain,” Charles replied, dutiful yet subdued. The revelation of Cain’s return still sat uncomfortably in his mind; like it couldn’t possibly be real. A bad dream. All of this was a bad dream. David would wake Charles soon, and this would all be over, surely... ?

If Cain noticed the lack of emotion in Charles’ words—if he’d noticed it at all, the past several hours—he either couldn’t even begin to care or, more accurately, was too emotionally ignorant and stunted to tell the difference. He merely grunted, his gaze sweeping over the elevator’s more luxurious details, the chandelier and the unblemished mahogany that lined the paneling.

“Pity, really,” he said almost conversationally, just as his upper lip twitched in disapproval at what he was seeing, “You’ve been stuck here so long, Charlie, you wouldn’t know what fine living is if it whacked you in the face.” A low chuckle—at his own joke, no less—and Cain didn’t forget to add, nonchalant, “Oh, man, I’ve missed playing with you. Pickings at school were such a bore.”

It was this last statement, more than anything, which had an eerie sense of foreboding settle in the pit of Charles’ stomach. True, Cain had not given Charles any real reason to expect the same treatment as that time before Cain left for boarding school; in that respect, the same pleasant façade as earlier still overlaid Cain’s tone and mannerisms. But Charles just... couldn’t bring himself to let his guard drop, not yet. There was something wrong with all this—and it bothered him, his inability to put that instinctual wariness into words.

Ever since Cain’s arrival in the kitchen some time ago, Charles had a hard enough time parsing what he was witnessing. Cain being almost friendly. Not outright hostile as Charles so very well remembered. But... tempered, remarkably so. He couldn’t be sure whether to trust it.

After Cain had dumped his luggage in his old room, just down the hall from Charles’ own, he’d explained: according to Kurt, Cain was to spend the next few months at home. This was due in part to  a call from his boarding school’s headmaster, who had all but kindly suggested Kurt remove Cain for the foreseeable future.

This was admitted with utmost glee, and Charles had formed a general idea of what would cause Cain to be expelled. It was the exact thing that he so feared, even now.

But then Cain had told him, in no uncertain terms, that he was to watch Charles for the day. Kurt had given his son permission to wander. This, Cain then explained with a wide, telling grin, obviously meant that it was Cain’s duty to bring Charles with him—wasn’t he the best brother?

Which, surely, explained why David was absent earlier. Kurt’s doing, of course—if Cain was to take up the role of babysitter.

The thought made Charles sick.

As their destination approached, the elevator made a low hum. All light in the enclosed space dimmed out, replaced with the neon green cybernetic accentuation along the door. It was something Charles had never spared a second thought; whereas before, the sudden lack of light had been of little contrivance, cold terror now froze him in place—whatever Cain’s angle was, Charles could do little but wait with baited breath for what was sure to come.

His fear was unwarranted, it would seem, as the elevator docked and its door slid open without incident. Beside him, Cain pushed forward from his lounge against the handrailing with a similarly bored expression.

“Finally,” Cain huffed, before stomping out into the hallway.

The halls of these floors displayed much brighter lighting than the cloning labs higher up, as they were geared more toward what was once Brian Xavier’s principle area of expertise: phenotypic genetics. His more popular discoveries dealt with cosmetics, specifically; one such treatment that he invented, otherwise known as re-sequencing, was administered via a shot that could alter the genetic allele sequence of any individual for any gene. A suitably expensive process, since its achievement, most costumers have been high society members with one superficial feature or another that they wished to change—be it the natural coloring of their hair or the shade of pigment within their eyes.

There was also the matter of Xavier Biotics’ staple offering: an inversion of the characteristics one gained with age.

On this, the twenty-third floor, Charles had not yet ventured with David. Cosmetic genetics had never interested him; however, Charles did have an idea of what went on here. A good portion of the floor was dedicated to being a “show room”, of a sort, which Kurt was known to peruse when giving tours of the company. If Cain was to be believed, Kurt was somewhere on this very floor, showing off ‘assets’ while at the same time schmoozing more funding from unsuspecting benefactors.

Not that Charles pitied them for it; in his experience, most of Kurt’s potential business associates shared much the same temperament as the man’s own.

It was with no small amount of trepidation that Charles realized he was at Cain’s mercy, now. The elder boy was as unsubtle as they came, and there had to be an end to this feigned amiability. Honestly, as if Charles would believe for one second that Cain Marko missed him for his companionship. Clearly, they held differing definitions of the term.

True to his suspicions, no sooner had they begun a fast trek down one of the hallways did Cain stop short—causing Charles to knock into the other’s broad back.

Charles immediately, tentatively, had to brush the hair back from his face.

Cain appeared to be surveying the doors that lined either wall, speculative. “Ha,” he said after a moment. “I had a feeling Father hadn’t got rid of these while I was gone. And what do you know?”

He strode over to the second door on the right, and promptly punched a command into the nearby touchpad. When no response followed, Cain frowned and pulled a keycard from his pocket. He held it up to the pad between two stubby fingers, and apparently, it did the trick—the pad chirped an acknowledgement and the door’s red standby light turned a bright green.

“What’s in there?” Charles asked, hesitant.

As many qualms as he had with the turn this day had taken, there was something much more worrying about the possibility of Cain having stolen a keycard to areas surely not meant for children, much less a heedless brute such as Cain himself. This floor may not house the more delicate of Xavier Biotics’ plant nurseries, but what it did contain was a fortune’s worth of prototype equipment.

Cain didn’t need to worry about the consequences of what they got up to here, but Charles—he knew perfectly well who would be the one punished, if it came to that.

Cain must have noticed Charles’ staring—at the card, still held in Cain’s overlarge hand—as he snorted. “You worried I took this from someone, Charlie? Because you really shouldn’t be.” Charles’ stare flicked up to Cain’s face, now positively ugly for how big the elder boy’s sneer had grown. “After all, this here’s all gonna be mine, soon as I’m ready. Father said that now that I’m here, he’s got someone to teach the business.”

This last was said triumphantly as Cain made his way past the doorway. Charles could do nothing but follow behind him; it was as Cain said earlier: he was in charge of Charles for the time being. More to fact, Charles’ venturing into the upper floors with David was circumstantial. A privilege, and one only given for the nurseries—Charles’ only real desire. Kurt did not care for him to be allowed anywhere else, much less unsupervised.

He was beginning to suspect that Cain’s offer to bring him down here was more curse than blessing.

So you did steal that card, Charles didn’t say. Instead, he asked again, “Cain... what are we doing in here?”

At their entrance, the ceiling fluorescents flickered to life. The room was much smaller than Charles expected it to be. It opened into a circular space just wide enough to fit ten people, perhaps less, and was more of an observational area, really, as a set of controls curved before what appeared to be a large metal container.

“I’m surprised you don’t remember these,” Cain was saying as he sauntered towards the main control board.

The board and all its switches were indeed of an older make. All of it, though—the controls, the bolted metal door on one side of the container, all the featureless walls—all of it was an eerie, sterile white.

Then Cain started messing with a selection of buttons.

“Cain...”

“You work the controls first,” Cain supplied, turning round to smirk in the face of Charles’ uncertainty. As he spoke, a compartment on the container’s side opened, revealing a set of two large, dark circles inset against the silver of the metal.

Before Charles could ask, Cain had already answered his next question—by circling the controls and sticking first one arm then the other through each hole in turn.

That’s right—those were built-in gloves! Or what could have amounted to them, as Cain’s arms slipped past what may have been a synthetic rubber. But why ... ?

“The grey lever,” Cain instructed. “Turn that one up to, hmm... four?”

Sure enough, in a central portion of the control board were several thin levers. The far left, the grey one to which Cain must’ve been referring, had a line of numbers running alongside it that ranged from zero to fourteen. In the end, Charles’ curiosity won out, and he did as Cain ordered him to. The lever slid easily from zero to four.

Instantly, a clicking noise signaled a locking mechanism. The metal framing the holes where Cain’s arms disappeared beneath the elbow constricted, adjusting round the skin to hold Cain securely in place.

“Hmph,” Cain muttered a minute or two later. “I remembered this being a much better toy, before. Still,” and here the boyish grin was just as evident in his voice, “Cool.”

Charles threw a glance over his shoulder to the doorway. There was a very high likelihood of someone walking in on them; or more accurately, Cain playing with lab equipment as if it were a fancy toy.

But if Charles had learned anything these past months of limited range throughout the building, it was the Working Joes that they should be worried about.

Though they tended to avoid Charles, he’d never once had the misfortune of... getting in their way, so to speak. Around the nurseries, at least, Charles had devised their patterns. The Joes circulate in a grid; if any are present in the nearby area, it was only a matter of time before he and Cain were found.

Briefly, Charles had to wonder if Cain knew about the “improvements” that Kurt had made to Xavier Biotics’ staff. In truth, Cain was like his father in that respect; neither Marko thought much of robots beyond performance statistics.

Yet, as much as the Joes disquieted Charles, he could still recognize life in them—Seegson may not be winning the technology race, but the Joe units were quite functional, despite their more regressive qualities.

Turning back to Cain, Charles found himself almost hoping for a Joe to interrupt them. Joes had a very peculiar line of thinking; where a human worker might have dragged Charles straight to Kurt, a Working Joe would take him to David.

If only David were here now...

“Alright, enough.” Charles blinked. He scrambled to switch the lever off before Cain had a chance to berate him.

“Your turn, Charlie.”

Faintly, Charles shook his head, and watched as Cain stepped back, rubbing at his wrists the moment he freed them.

“I... I’m fine. Really.” Just as Cain took another step towards him, Charles mirrored it, and took one step back himself.

How could he have been so stupid? Was this Cain’s plan all along? To get Charles caught red-handed, touching one of Kurt’s investments... ?

Charles sucked in a sharp breath and glanced at the door again. What if it was Kurt who walked in?

“Cain, we should leave.” There was something about this room that, now that Charles really thought about it, struck a vague impression of remembrance. It was Cain’s hands, though, that did it—the fingers there flexing, bending awkwardly as if to restore feeling where there was none—induced numbness. Of course!

This thing... this cage. It was an isolation chamber.

A long repressed memory caught in the back of his mind, like a piece falling back into place; a single block in an obscured, hazy picture.

“C’mon, Charlie, it’ll be fun!” Cain’s face was a blotchy, horrid thing in his memory, made worse by the smug cut of the elder boy’s smile. His face was so close to Charles because he was carrying the young toddler—barely four years old—into a cold, brightly lit room.

It wasn’t an exact match to the one they were in now, but the resemblance was not imperfect.

Charles’ face had felt wet and hot as he stared up at Cain, powerless to do anything else. He’d been crying, after an incident that morning in the kitchen where Cain had “showed” Charles how the electrical stove worked. If Greta hadn’t walked in when she did, Charles would have had four badly burnt fingertips instead of three.

“Stop being a baby,” Cain had told him back then. “I got an idea that will make the hurt go away.”

In the present, Charles could only shiver at the remembered words.

That time, years ago now, Cain had seemed so much bigger than him. It was so easy for his stepbrother to push him around, all while Charles had no one who cared enough to put a stop to it. Kurt, Greta ... Sharon.

The memory was dim and fragmented, but this he knew as much—he’d been left in there for hours. Until Cain had grown bored again, and found a different “game” for them to play.

Charles found it difficult to swallow past the lump in his throat. Of course this was Cain’s ploy all along—get Charles alone, force him if necessary to—

“Sorry, Charlie,” Cain chuckled. The other boy lumbered closer. “I’m in charge, remember. I let you do me,” a teasing, knowing smirk, “the least I could do is the same for you. Come on—it’s tingly at first, but awesome after that.”

There was an odd tickle at the base of Charles’ skull. A warning: run.

Cain nodded toward the gloves. “It’s just your hands. What’s so scary about that, huh?”

Charles spared one last glance toward the open doorway. Even so, he felt cornered. The feeling in his skull sunk lower, the hairs on the back of his neck raising to stand on end.

“Okay, Cain...” A swallow. “I’ll just—”

Shuffling his feet, Charles inched around the control board. Cain bumped their shoulders together as they passed each other, a hard enough jostle that nearly sent Charles to the ground.

The other snorted. “Still can’t take a friendly nudge, can ya, Charlie?”

Inside, Charles’ nerves were bubbling into something far more dangerous: anger. Stop calling me that, he wanted to yell. We’re not friends, you—you hurt me for years! And now you’re teasing me about it!

His fingers shook as he lifted them toward the compartment. Only, seconds before they could connect, the lid snapped suddenly shut.

“On second thought,” came the teasing lilt of Cain’s voice, and to Charles, it was nothing short of chilling, “Why not make this just like old times?”

There was no doubt in Charles’ mind that he was visibly shaking now, let alone that Cain didn’t see this, and take perverse, horrible pleasure in the sight. It took a great deal of effort to turn around, and stare at Cain—wide-eyed, shocked. But it was just as Charles pivoted on his heel that he heard the distinct thunk of another button being pushed, and the door to the side of the chamber unbolting itself from its framework.

“Cain—“ There were so many things Charles wanted to say in that moment; to scream, rather. But not one of them managed to make it as far as his lips, not when Cain was stalking toward him with a predator’s sharp smile.

What Cain may have lacked in intelligence he made up for with size. He was large enough to overpower Charles just as easily as he once had—already, Charles felt the phantom pain of Cain’s meaty hands on him, grabbing and twisting—only there was something different between that time and now, and it was Charles’ desire to not be a toy any longer. Not Cain’s, not anyone’s...

Which is why, quite unlike the shriveling, obedient child that Charles had once been... this time, he would not let Cain have his way. He would fight it, tooth and nail.

Really though, he should’ve expected what, exactly, doing so would take. As Cain drew even closer, Charles’ frame of action shrunk considerably by the second. He had just the mind, as any human might on instinct, to duck under Cain’s arm and sprint toward the doorway. Yelling would do him no good here, and neither would it be wise to call for help—caught up in the moment, Charles’ world narrowed down to two things: the frantic flutter of his pulse high in his throat and a bone-deep need to get away from Cain as fast as he could.

What Cain wanted to do to him, it would break Charles to experience a second time. Already, he felt as though his windpipe were constricting. Anger, adrenaline, fear—all of it together left him disoriented.

Instinct pushed Charles forward. He was scared, and worse: the only thought that managed to surface above the raging storm of adrenaline was a helpless blur of get away from Cain have to get away keep running don’t stop running please—

Breaking past Cain was only the first of his problems; not difficult, when Charles was smaller and had dexterity on his side. The second, though, was deciding where to go in the maze of hallways outside.

Charles sprinted in the direction of the elevator, fast. His heart was an uncomfortable drumbeat against his ribs—faster still. The elevator would take too long to arrive, he realized, the acidic taste of bile burning in the back of his mouth. It wouldn’t get here before Cain was once again upon him, grasping and tearing.

Because that, surely, was exactly what his stepbrother wanted to do. Charles didn’t dare look over his shoulder, but he could hear Cain’s thundering gait several paces behind. The other boy was making an awful lot of noise besides that: breaths that hit the air like desperate, wheezing gasps. Ha.

If Charles was lucky... if he thought quickly enough, he might have a chance. At outsmarting Cain, losing him in the labyrinthine sequence of turns and dead-ends. Though they were just as much a problem for Charles as they were for Cain—Charles wasn’t used to this floor plan. It was just as possible for him to lose himself, as well.

Which... of course. If he found a stairwell, he could outpace Cain, and make his way upward! Already, Cain’s stature was hindering his speed, tiring him out much too fast.

“You’ll regret this, Charlie!” Cain called. “Come back before you make it worse for yourself!”

The stairwells throughout the building were nondescript, far off and out of the way. Elevators outnumbered them here; if it were up to Kurt, he would very likely do away with them entirely—but, fire hazards, you see.

Fortunately for Charles, he made two more rights then a left, catapulting down the empty halls at breakneck pace. And—there, he spotted a windowless door that was slightly bigger than the rest. Neat, glowing font etched into the wall beside it read: EXIT.

The lack of a touchpad meant that it was motion activated; two heartbeats skipped against Charles’ sternum before it slid upward with a muted swoosh. He had no other recourse but to wait, and that, perhaps, was his biggest mistake.

Stopping, however short, allowed Cain to regain the distance between them. What more, Cain had the momentum that his overbearing size lent him; Charles hadn’t calculated him using this to his advantage, much less the fury with which Cain would barrel forward when the chance arose.

Charles had taken a single step into the stairwell, planted it, so as to push off up to the next flight of stairs, when something knocked into him from behind with as much force as a brick wall.

“Really thought that’d work, didn’t you?” Cain was panting into Charles’ ear. Their collision sent Charles straight into the nearest wall, and it was there he remained, too stunned to speak or cry out. A sharp, spreading pain was blossoming in his chest from the impact—it had tears welling up in Charles’ eyes, no matter how hard he fought them.

When Charles said nothing in reply, Cain’s fingers dug into his arms like claws. Cain chuckled lowly. “You’ve changed, Charlie.” A sharp yank had Charles stumbling back and away from the wall, but still, he could say nothing. Do nothing. Only allow the rapid beating of his heart in his ears to drown out Cain’s horrible, slimy taunts. “I think I like it.”

They were both breathless for another minute or two; what should have been a calm, definite silence in the stairwell only made it that much worse. The echo of Cain’s voice was a low and pervading thrum that bounced off the narrow corridors.

Without realizing it, Charles had squeezed his eyes shut. Any minute now—Cain would drag him back to that room, would—

“Huh,” Cain said consideringly, too loud in the quiet, “You know, who am I really to stop you?” His tone suggested the impression of a smirk—vile, triumphant. “You wanna use the stairs so badly? Charlie, Charlie, Charlie...”

The claws fastened round Charles’ arms, those instantly became manacles. He expected Cain to drag him back toward the door, but instead... instead, Cain was drawing them closer to the long, steep staircase that led to the next floor down.

“All you had to do was ask for a little help.”

Before he had any sense of what was happening, Charles felt the ground sweep out from underfoot. It was the easiest thing, after all; Cain simply had to swing Charles around and let go.

In the end, the thing that saved Charles the brunt of possible injury was the way he landed—sideways, his back splitting across the blunt edges of the metal steps. From there, the slope had him tumbling further, all while he could do little to protect himself save for throwing up his arms to cover his face.

There must have been between fifty and seventy-five steps on this corridor alone; by the time Charles fell into a meek, motionless pile at the bottom—mere feet from the next set of stairs—he’d rolled across each and every one of them in such a way that his lower back was one agonizing, violent ache. His knees, as well: debilitating when he attempted to adjust them even minutely against the cold and unforgiving floor.

More painful than anything else, though, was the high-pitched ringing in his head; a hurt which rebounded off the inside of his skull, left him teary-eyed and choking on his own spit. His chest, still pulsing painfully from where Cain had smashed Charles into the wall, was now pressed into the tile with all his weight. And, unable to move, Charles felt as if every gulp of air he inhaled was another stab between his upper ribs.

It was just as Charles’ vision began to grow black around the edges, the shadows in the stairwell drawing toward him, round and round, that a set of shoes appeared in front of him. Inwardly, he recoiled, but physically, he could only puff a soft sort of moan against the ground—hardly a sound at all.

“Something amiss?”

That... was not Cain. But a Working Joe.

How could Charles ever forget the sound of that voice: staticy and blank, wholly mechanized.

“Hey. Robot,” Cain sneered by way of greeting, his descent down the stairs marked by the heavy thump of his boots on the grating. “You always show up where you’re not needed?”

Charles was too weak to raise his head. He could not see the Joe’s face, but the weighted silence that followed could only have been a stare.

“Me and my brother Charlie here are havin’ fun,” Cain clarified. And how odd—to hear an underlying tension beneath the words, an obvious sign as any that the Joe made Cain... nervous. “My father owns you, so that means you do what I say.” That tension became more pronounced; a trembling waver. “Leave us alone, you got that?”

The Joe did not respond for another overlong moment. A pregnant pause, wherein the silence grew uncomfortable. To Cain, this was unacceptable.

“Hey, bolts—you hear me?”

Cain was even closer now, just behind where Charles lay sprawled at the base of the stairs. The Joe must’ve walked up from the floor below—going about its business, or was there a chance that, somehow... it had heard the commotion Cain made? And came to put a stop to it?

With a panicked desperation, Charles wished he could speak. But it hurt, so so much; he didn’t dare try.

“Of course,” the robot said, drawn out at length. Already, its voice sounded distant again. Unaffected, or perhaps uncaring. “Your presence has been logged. Good day.”

Its footsteps, much quieter than Cain’s, disappeared soon after.

“That was a mistake,” Cain began, circling round Charles’ body. “You shouldn’t have run. Now look what you caused. Little Charlie who cares so much—I’ll have to tell father, have that thing dismantled for looking at me sideways.”

Silence.

“Tch. Creepy fake. But you enjoy them, got one of your own, don’t ya, Charlie?”

Without warning, Cain’s palms were shoved under Charles’ armpits, and he was hauled unceremoniously upward. Every pain in Charles’ bones burned anew, tears once again springing to his clenched eyes.

“Now, where were we?”

Charles struggled to regain his footing as Cain once more dragged him away, back up the stairs he’d already been pushed down. It didn’t go without staggered grunts on the elder boy’s part, and another breathless moan as Cain’s manhandling put added pressure on Charles’ sternum.

David, Charles called out helplessly within the confines of his own mind. David, where are you... ? The name cast out into an empty, open void. There was no answer; he feared there never would be.

Cain all but carried Charles back to the room where the chamber resided. Silently, Charles berated himself: how stupid he’d been, too weak to get the Joe’s attention—maybe then it could have gotten David. David would see Cain for what he really was, would... stop this.

It had only been so many hours, and Charles felt as though he’d imagined David all this time. Surely this was all that waited for him: Cain laughing at the low whining that rose in Charles’ throat, jeering in the face of Charles hurting.

Over the years since Dr. Xavier’s death, Greta’s principle avenue of punishment involved what she called a silent room. These were a selection of tightly-packed rooms nearest the penthouse’s personal lab which had once been converted into storage space, back when Dr. Xavier was still a constant presence there during the late nights and early mornings. What made them different was rather straightforward: one scientific project or another, which had required them to be soundproofed so as to preserve certain delicate materials.

It was only after his father’s death that Greta resorted to her much stricter set of house rules, and along that line, her silent rooms. When Charles wore out her thin nerves and thinner projection of pleasantry, she would sit him inside one of those empty, dusty closets, and have him think over what he’d done to annoy her.

Greta also believed shutting off the lights to be an added incentive. For as a young child, Charles had been afraid of small dark places—surely being stuck inside one for an undefined amount of time would have him think faster.

As he grew older, his fear of the dark had grown, too, into something much more toxic: voices his hindbrain tended to conjure up when all was quiet. Always in Sharon or Greta or Kurt’s particular tone of admonishment, telling him over and over again how worthless Charles was. No better than a broken, discarded toy.

By the time Greta chose to collect him, Charles was often a hiccupping, catatonic mess.

Which was all well and good for Greta; soon after she introduced this new punishment, Charles became further withdrawn than he’d ever been, and would behave almost as a living doll when in the old maid’s presence. Bringing any sort of attention to himself, he learned, was tantamount to asking to be punished.

An isolation chamber would be both the same and... different, than what Charles had experienced in the past. His foggiest recollection was only of terror, of having his autonomy ripped from him, made helpless by an inability to speak or move.

These chambers were for scientific purposes; likely medical procedures that were as of yet in their beginning stages. They weren’t meant to be tools of torture.

Obviously, Cain didn’t subscribe to this belief. The roughness and cruelty with which he shoved Charles inside was a testament to that fact. Hard enough that Charles hit the far wall before crumpling to the padded floor. The angle was wrong, or maybe it was the whiplash—either way, a jutting piece of wall plating struck the back of his skull.

An odd feeling chased away the pain there, a certain... tickling sensation, not unlike a shiver concentrated in the junction between bone. Charles expected another throb to bloom in its place, but instead, there was simply nothing—Charles’ vision whited out, and he thought for sure he had woken from a deep, muffled sleep.

Quite the opposite, really, for the door closed as soon as Charles began to regain his bearings. And with that, he was left in darkness.

It was difficult to know the exact moment when Cain turned the chamber on. There was no hum, no ventilation nor any other noise of note. It was just... quiet. Too quiet; the kind of silence that only exists where nothing else thrives. The purpose of this chamber was simple: to create a vacuum wherein the senses were blurred out. Charles knew, in some distant area of his brain, that he had curled up into a protective ball in the far corner, forehead pressed tightly to one knee. His arms, too, were curled round his legs; the best to block any further injury that might seek him.

But that line between what was real and imagined was disintegrating. Physically, the space in the chamber became both more and less than it actually was—and Charles was left floating in the abyss.

His thoughts, though, were working quicker than ever. He feared losing himself. He feared that David wouldn’t come for him, but also that Cain would be the one that returned. The darkness had expanded at first, but now it only seemed to close in, to suffocate.

Useless, completely useless.

Can’t fight back, too weak to protect yourself.

What a waste.

These whisperings congealed round his conscious mind, syrupy and thick. Made him hurt somewhere where the numbness couldn’t reach, and stirred in him a vicious upwelling of what might well have been vomit.

When the door finally opened again, Charles didn’t know that it was happening. There were voices, muffled to a low tumbling background static. The condensation within the chamber left behind scattered water droplets across the skin of his arms. They trembled and trickled off as Charles began to shake.

Another set of hands was grabbing him up by the shoulders. Strong, deft hands. They pulled him to his feet with fluid ease.

Dimly, he recognized the thundering in his heart and lungs as hyperventilating. And that was all the warning Charles had before he collapsed forward into the very person who had saved him.

 “What the devil were you doing in there, boy.” For the first time in Charles’ recollection, Kurt’s words were almost... softened. Not in any real sense, but—distant, a bad transmission on a one-way radio. Nevertheless, the affront in Kurt’s voice was no less obvious.

Charles nearly flinched away from his rescuer. It could possibly be—Kurt?

He blinked rapidly to dispel the muzziness from his eyes; the shadows that had yet to bleed away. His upper body was leant precariously against something solid with all his weight. But, no: this couldn’t be Kurt.

“David...?” Charles mumbled. His voice cracked. He asked again, louder, “David?”

“I’m afraid your robot is otherwise occupied at the moment.” Kurt again, and with a tone that implied a thinly-suppressed fury. “But mark my words... I will be discussing this incident with it later.”

Charles blinked a few more times, pushed forward so as to rest more heavily against his rescuer. The last, lingering shadows dissolved into light; the bright, white light of the observation room. There were others there with him—adults, and many of them.

It took another several seconds for his vision to refocus. When it did, Charles noted that each was dressed in an impeccable suit and tie, Kurt Marko chief among them. This... was the tour his stepfather must have been leading—interrupted now, unfortunately. But how had they known that Charles was here?

More importantly, Charles’ breathing was finally evening out. Inhaling greedily, he managed to find his feet again, and force himself back a step to stand on his own.

His shaking, too, had subsided. Charles saw this upon raising a tremulous hand to wipe at the tear tracks on his burning cheeks. As he did so, he cast his wondering eyes up to the person stood beside him.

Or should he say... the one who had pulled him from the chamber. His rescuer, who wore the same ashy green uniform as all Seegson employees. And raising his gaze higher, Charles was met with the disfigured rubber caricature of a face that belonged to none other than a Working Joe.

It stared at Charles, unwavering; pinpricks of red light in its eyes. He had not yet been so close to one, much less with the opportunity to study its detail, and he very much wished he’d never had the chance. Up close, the milky, sunken texture of its skin was much more prominent.

The color surely drained from Charles’ face then, as it dawned on him that he’d just been leaning on the Joe, and that it had let him. Oh god, Charles thought, horrified. I mistook it for David.

Kurt’s business associates stood round the room’s entrance. None of them were recognizable at first glance; this was to be expected. But the one on the far left of the group appeared to be eyeing Charles in a studious, calculating manner. This man was middling-age with a dusting of grey in his slicked-back hair. The wire glasses perched upon the tip of his nose made it seem as though he were looking down upon Charles; with what, Charles could not be sure—all he knew was that that stare, even more so than the Working Joe’s, was entirely too unreadable for comfort.

“Mr. Marko,” the man remarked coolly. “I was not aware that you had another son.”

“Yes, well, he continues to be only a nuisance, if anything.” Kurt’s upper lip twitched into what could have been a sneer. A subtle distinction, in the company of his benefactors. Kurt was kept from his usual approach when it came to ‘nuisances.’ For now, his undoubtedly livid rage would have to simmer.

Another of Kurt’s associates spoke up. This man Charles did recognize—from vids he’d found while researching the Joes. CEO of Seegson Corp, Josiah Sieg. “So this is the boy you assigned your Weyland unit.”

Josiah was a younger man than Kurt Marko; gaunt where Kurt was broad and muscled. He was also studying Charles, but with a spark of interest that was more... probing, than anything else. It heightened when Josiah’s gaze twitched from Charles’ face to where one of the Working Joe’s hands rested on Charles’ shoulder. “Fascinating,” Josiah observed mildly.

Charles had not noticed it himself. The Joe, for all manner and purposes, was providing a point of stability should Charles begin to collapse again. Ordinarily, Charles might’ve thought this very strange indeed—a Joe maintaining contact?—but currently he was too exhausted to think much of it.

"Hmph," began the grey-haired man in a deep, cultured accent. "Weyland Robotics. They've been after me for years, trying to poach me for a position. I'd like to see what they've done with their newest model."

The third suit in the group was perhaps the oldest of the lot. His hair was entirely white and cropped short, and in contrast to the others, his voice was most like an excitable child’s. “Of course you would, Shaw. Didn’t you hear? They’re specialized for space expeditions. Colony life, and the like. It wouldn’t surprise me if the androids performed better out there than the humans. Imagine: in several years’ time, Weyland will have robot colonies.”

Shaw chuckled. “Try telling that to Mr. Weyland. Believe me, I already have.” To Josiah Sieg, he continued, “Can you believe the gall? Colonizing uninhabitable planets, not to mention Weyland’s last lawsuit over the poor living conditions—what a terrible waste of resources.”

Finally, Josiah looked away from Charles. “I’ve had my eye on a space station Lorenz SysTech issued some years ago, myself. Weyland is all about terraforming these days; extra-solar habitation should be about the boat, not controlling the sea it rocks on. And for a potential deep space orbital platform... the price tag is inconsequential, in the long run.”

“Ah, yes, your lauded Sevastopol, was it?” Kurt inquired. “You’ll have to update me on the APOLLO installation as it proceeds.”

Josiah inclined his head. “Actually, we concluded last month.”

“I applaud your dedication to the project. Now, if you’ll forgive the interruption—Dr. Shaw, Dr. Kadinsky, I believe you might have an interest in...”

Kurt’s voice faded out as he resumed his tour, and he and his associates left about as quickly as they had arrived. This was something to be expected of Charles’ stepfather. Charles was inconsequential to Kurt; a thing to be admonished and cast aside when there were more pressing matters at hand. Charles was thankful for it—that Kurt didn’t have the opportunity to excise the punishment he certainly had wanted to. At least, for the time being.

For now, Charles would settle for being left alone, to return to the apartment and cocoon himself in his bedsheets, lest Cain return soon to find that this particular ‘game’ has been foiled.

His aches from his tumble down the stairs were less intrusive now. Only the sure bruising on his chest and the twinge in his knees bothered him, really. Charles could make it back to his room, could ask Raven to locate a regenerative hypo, an instant remedy for the more obvious of his pains. It was the bruising to his mind that would be the hardest to fix—even now, Charles felt brittle, through and through.

The reason he had not yet dared to move was his worry of how much his legs would shake, if he tried.

What would he tell David... ? Surely Charles could not hide what had just transpired. Not from David, his friend. But no. David would be upset in as much a way as the robot was able. Would probably fuss over Charles for the rest of the day, or likely longer. And that... would lead down even worse avenues. If David saw Cain as a threat—if David decided to go against Kurt’s wishes, and remain by Charles’ side indefinitely...

That could be very, very bad.

Thus: he would have to avoid telling David... wouldn’t he?

God. His head hurt. His brain... ached.

It hadn’t been entirely noticeable, before. But the spot at the back of his head, where the plating had dug sharp and unyielding into the bone—it created a strange pocket of numbness around which the pain concentrated.

When Charles raised a tentative hand to it, probing, the result was another bone-deep twinge that webbed outward throughout the back half of his head and down his neck. The pain was internal, with a different quality than his other aches. It was... weird, is all.

In all his woolgathering, Charles managed to forget he wasn’t alone. With a pronounced start, Charles looped his arms behind his back and folded them, suddenly shy. “Are you...” He cleared his throat, darted his eyes up to the Joe’s face. Those eyes—terrifying, even still. “Are you supposed to take me back?”

The Joe stared more. A delay that Charles suspected was due to it rifling through pre-recorded sound files.

“You are to come with me,” it stated. The disconnect between its voice and unmoving lips was as disconcerting as always. “This way, please.”

Of course. Kurt’s orders had been to remove Charles from the chamber, then to ensure he was returned to the apartment. His stepfather wouldn’t want him left to wander, certainly, when Kurt would be ‘having words’ with David, as he so declared, later. It said a lot that Charles was too exhausted to form a reaction to that idea—a certainty, really. That he would face punishment.

He hadn’t bothered making it known that Cain had been the one to throw him inside. It wouldn’t have done Charles any good. Kurt would only have grown angrier at him.

What was ‘fair’ never factored into Kurt’s opinion of Charles; or what was left of it, as insignificant as it surely was.

“Okay,” Charles said, toneless. Stirring up the usual amount of emotion in his voice seemed... daunting. His throat was just another mark on the long list of things that hurt. Scratchy and raw.

It wouldn’t surprise Charles if, in the state he’d been in within that chamber... he’d screamed himself hoarse, and didn’t even know it.

The Joe did not provide any further acknowledgement. Its red eyes drifted away to the open entrance, and without a word, it moved toward it with precise, perfectly coordinated steps.

Charles was left with no other choice but to follow. He lagged behind some paces, and did not make an attempt to match the Joe’s robotic gait. Instead, it was not until they came upon the door to the elevator that the robot halted, and Charles came up slightly beside it and behind.

The elevator made its cursory hum—curious, that was much quicker than Charles expected—and opened upward soundly.

Standing inside, was David.

There was a moment, what could have amounted to only half a second’s time, really, where everything in the hallway froze. Charles’ heart stuttered, and he felt his eyes do the same, eyelids fluttering in as much a flinch as any. And in that elongated span of time, he and David could do little else but... stare at each other.

David’s attention was open, and became sharply searching within an instant. Charles... pulled up the best mask that he could: caution and a desperate weariness intermixed.

David saw this, and said nothing. His eyes, roving over Charles’ face in a gentled, careful manner, drifted away as efficiently as they had begun their study. The robot’s countenance took on an idle depth of severity as he regarded the Working Joe at Charles’ side.

“I will take this from here,” David did not say, so much as ordered. His tone was deceptively unaffected, but Charles knew that meant quite the opposite. It hadn’t escaped David’s notice that Charles looked like he wanted nothing more than to hide behind the Joe; and what a sight that had surely greeted David: Charles, tucked meekly behind one of the Seegson synthetics.

“Yes, sir.”

The Joe dipped its head down slowly, then turned round on its heel and disappeared. As it made to leave, David’s pale eyes never wandered from its back; a coolness to that stare that wanted nothing more than to bore through the Joe.

Never before had it crossed Charles’ mind that David could be... jealous.

The look left David’s face the instant the Joe was gone. Something more his usual, softer, clicked into place. “Charles,” he said simply. And stared at Charles again, transfixed.

There was a question in that. David must have catalogued the paleness of Charles’ face; the tremor of his breathing and the dark smudges that were doubtless beneath his eyes now.

Charles gave the slightest shake of his head. He was finding it hard to retain eye contact. “I...,” he breathed, gaze cast downward. “I can’t.” At his sides, his hands curled into fists and quivered. He scrunched them in the hem of his sweater—damp, from what could have been his earlier, frantic fear-sweat.

He didn’t raise his eyes again, but his heart gave another pitiful flutter, imagining David’s head cocking at those strained words.

“I... don’t understand. I came as soon as I was made aware of your presence.”

The Joe that found them in the stairwell, Charles realized. It had alerted David.

But... too late to do anything. To stop it.

Swallowing, Charles lifted his head back up. “I want to go home,” he said, proud that his voice did not shake. “Please, just, don’t make me—“ talk, tell you what happened.

Miserable. Charles felt absolutely miserable.

And David... did not look far off from the same. The robot’s expression wilted into one much more careful, trusting. David may not like it, not per say, but he would not actively go against what Charles wanted.

His programming knew just how to guide Charles into trusting him, didn’t it? And for that, David procured a slight smile meant to ease. “Of course, Charles. Anything.”

The elevator ride was silent all the way to the top. All silences were comfortable when it came to David, but there was a definite undercurrent now: a silence orchestrated so as to better conclude what was wrong with Charles.

David’s continued staring was impossible to avoid.

What more—very pointedly, Charles had kept a generous amount of space between them. Thankfully, David had taken the hint, and did not attempt to touch him.

Though Charles did not see it, the robot’s smile twitched into an unhappy frown during the time it took Raven’s blue lighting to flash along the elevator door, and open it to the penthouse foyer.

Charles inhaled deeply. The marble squeaked beneath his clean shoes.

“Charles,” said again from inside the elevator. David had not yet moved, and appeared, for all intents and purposes... hesitant. A truly alien thing to associate with the robot.

Taking another deep breath, Charles offered the best smile he could manage. He had not been aware of it before, but David was wearing a different uniform than Charles was used to. Normally, missing such a thing would be quite out of the ordinary. But he was beyond tired now, and sore in more ways that the physical.

David, he noted, wore the same dark, grey-green uniform characteristic of the Joes. Although his chest did not bear the Seegson Corp insignia—a particularly hilarious thought, considering the audacity the symbol would imply. A Weyland android dressed up as one belonging to Seegson.

The humor of the idea was quickly lost on Charles and replaced in turn with skepticism. What, exactly, did Kurt intend to use David for? It bothered him, now more than ever.

“David,” was all Charles said in reply, rubbing weakly at one eye. The sight of the foyer had made him that much sleepier. “I’m sorry. I,” a shiver, “I can’t tell you now. But later... okay? The Joe told you, didn’t he? About Cain.”

In the shadow of the elevator’s intricate marble overhang, Charles could not be sure of the emotion that cast itself on David’s unmoving face. The grey-blue-green of David’s eyes were significantly darker and unreadable. Wordless, the robot made a curt, precise nod.

“He came back,” Charles whispered. “Cain came back.”

Another nod.

Charles swallowed. “He hasn’t changed. Not... not at all.”

This time, David did not move. After a moment, the robot offered, “I will return sometime later, then. Rest assured... I will see that you are not disturbed.”

The elevator's blue cybernetics glowed anew as it began to close, and at once, David was gone again.

 


 

The hour was late when Charles was next woken—early morning, perhaps, though the projection of a cloudless sky on the immersion display was still the deep black of night.

"What... ?" he murmured, groggy, as his eyes adjusted to the faint, diffuse glow of the stars.

So tired... he was still so tired. But even half-awake, the lack of soreness in his body was apparent.

Part of the sky seemed to move. But no—that was the shadow of a human shape as it approached the bed.

David, Charles knew without needing to see. Rather, the gentle languidness of sleep remained with him as the robot drew close. David would never hurt him.

“Hypos,” David explained by way of greeting. His processor clicked over the words, softening their delivery. As Charles’ eyes finally focused in the dimness, he saw that same softness reflected in David’s features. “For the pain.”

Raven had been unable to procure the necessary medicine for Charles’ aches. That meant that David had asked after him upon the robot’s return. Had gone out of his way, to make sure Charles suffered as little as possible.

The empty hypos lay on his nightstand. Two of them, bulkier than normal syringes. David must have administered them while Charles slept. Just how long had the robot been watching?

"You came back,” Charles replied, steady. He pushed himself up into a sitting position and twisted his knees in the blankets. The air in the room was very cold.

David tilted his head in confusion; the movement noticeable, even in the dark. "I will always come back."

"But you won't always be here. Like today. Like with Cain.”

Outlined in the glow, the robot’s sharp facial features hardened. "That was a mistake I will not be repeating again."

Charles knew that this was delicate ground that he was treading. Still, he could not hide that he was upset. "Not if Kurt—“ He cut himself off, dug his fingers into the bedcovers, squeezed.

A sudden weight on the edge of his bed had the mattress dipping. Then a strong hand passed over Charles’ hair, smoothing it down. "Ssh, ssh,” David hushed. “Charles, look at me." Charles did not look at David so much as fall forward into the robot’s waiting shoulder. This, too, did not surprise David. "I... wanted to speak with you. For a while now. It's something I feel you must know."

Silence. Charles breathed in the cool, plastic smell of David’s uniform. That, at least, would never change. It... soothed him.

His ears so close, Charles heard the minute shift of the robot’s processor, a distinct sort of sound; as though David were clearing his throat. "Charles. I feel that I am malfunctioning."

Charles hummed into David’s shoulder. He hoped it was taken as the encouragement to continue that it was. Already, his heart had picked up speed, a steady, flickering tempo in his chest.

"It is against my fundamental coding and directives," David said, his lashes flickering down, long and dark over his cheekbones, "but I find myself wishing that..." There David trailed off, as if unsure.

"... wishing what?"

The robot’s pupils adjusted in the low light. Mesmerizing, Charles couldn’t help but think of it; the way they constricted round, counterclockwise.

"I deeply regret that Kurt Marko is my owner. It has come to my attention that if you were mine, instead, our situation would not be what it is."

"David,” Charles whispered, tilting his cheek against the robot’s uniform. It was less rough than the one that Weyland had provided, but a harsh enough sensation to keep Charles from drifting back to sleep. “That's impossible. Even if that were true, even if ..."

"Of course,” said flatly. Certain, factual. "The situation would not change."

"David..."

"I am sorry, Charles." And here a subtle change ran through David, a difference of pressure, of mannerism. David’s hand, still tucked round Charles’ neck in a loose, careful embrace, tightened almost imperceptibly so. For the first time, Charles dearly wished he was better at reading David’s emotions. Because this... was for all appearances, unsettlingly close to anger. "Logically, I should not wish to go against my owner. But there is another way in which I believe I am beginning to function improperly."

Charles knocked his head against David's chin, companionable. David finished, his processor dropping considerably, "I feel only displeasure for those who hurt you. Before, I had a limited experience of comparison. Now that I have spent sufficient time observing others, I have come to a conclusion free of bias."

"And... ?" Charles huffed the word into David’s jaw. Despite his efforts, the heaviness in his eyelids was the most difficult he had ever fought.

"Out of all the humans I have interacted with," David said. "I find your company to be most preferential."

Charles broke into a short bout of breathy, halting laughter.

A poor choice; it caused a strain in his neck that rekindled the same odd sensation that Charles remembered feeling there hours earlier. Before he realized what he was doing, he was lifting a hand to the spot, testing it with two fingers. The action was nearly subconscious.

Before long, David's fingers came to rest next to his.

"I hit my head earlier," Charles confessed, as the robot’s fingers began to match his in pressure. "When Cain pushed me."

He feared the silence that followed. That by saying as much, he was inadvertently affecting David's moods. It was as Weyland’s David vids once said—The David 8 responds in kind to any emotion—and Charles was quickly coming to understand just how much this was true. David reflected Charles, responded to Charles’ emotions, his anxiety and fear. And that was... worrying.

"There is something here,” David said aloud, a touch of wonder to his words. “Feel." The robot pressed Charles fingers inward, the change in angle slight.

They met with something hard, but not in the way of bone.

"What... what is that? David?" Charles couldn’t help it—no doubt he sounded frantic, his nerves getting away from him.

"Charles. Calm your mind,” David instructed, his hand dropping back to the base of Charles’ neck. He squeezed again, comforting. “Whatever it is, it is old."

That probing touch returned to his skull, began to shift round the hair at Charles’ nape.

“What are you doing?"

"I can... feel it,” the robot clarified distantly. Pale eyes lidded in far off concentration. “You have a square sheet,” more pressure, "there. A single millimeter in thickness. It is some type of metal."

"David—how are you... ?"

Even before David had... felt it physically. David had sensed its presence, had known just where to look.

"I do not know."

"Is it because you're a robot?" Charles pulled away from David’s hand, tucked his face more firmly into the notch between neck and shoulder. When next the robot spoke... a familiar undercurrent of pleasure swirled beneath that soothing voice. It was the setting Charles had come to love so dearly... so calming.

"It is unclear at this time,” David continued, low. His processor dropped again, carrying Charles along like a warm, safe eddy. “I must... consider all variables. But perhaps. For now—I can only conclude that the metal plate there is from a past injury. I can look into it if you would like?"

All of this felt like a dream. Would he even remember it, come morning?

But yes—he would. That strange spot of numbness was a fixture at the back of his head, the sensation prickling, making Charles’ skin crawl.

“Yes, David,” Charles mumbled, near incoherent now, and he dropped off to sleep long before David could form a reply.

He dreamt only of David’s voice, and that was enough.