M-21 was used to having someone in his space, someone close enough to reach out and touch, or someone touching him in turn. That had been how the M-series had reconfirmed their existence with each other. When they couldn't talk because they were too weak after a new round of experiments, or when words weren't needed to give each other support. They would just reach over and give whatever they touched a squeeze, or if they were able, they would shuffle over and lean on the other.
It was how they had kept warm in the Union as well, huddling together in the corner of the lab room. It hadn't been like the Union had cared enough about them to give them blankets.
He'd gotten so used to someone always being so close to him that it was painful to see Frankenstein and his Master stand so close to each other, even if neither of them touched.
It reminded him of what he didn't have. Couldn't have any more.
"Master, I made a new manual to help you learn how to play games," Frankenstein said, handing the book over, smiling when his Master took it from him.
There was only so much he could punish himself, and watching them together was more than enough for him. M-21 turned and left the living room.
* * *
M-21 dropped his arms when he heard someone walking towards him, in case Frankenstein or his Master saw him being pathetic, clinging to himself.
When M-21 turned, it was Frankenstein's Master that was walking up to him. Had he finished reading his new manual already? Or was Frankenstein just giving it to him?
M-21 took a step back, giving Frankenstein's Master access to all of the balcony, but he walked towards M-21 instead. M-21 frowned at him. What did he want?
"You are allowed to ask," Frankenstein's Master said, and M-21 stared at him.
Frankenstein and his master had given him so much already. His life, a roof to sleep under, food. They didn't have to - the two could have sent him away to fend for himself against the Union and that was their right to. It would have still been softer than what the Union would have done, who would have killed him straight away for trying.
M-21 twitched at a soft pressure on his shoulder. While he'd been distracted with his thoughts, Frankenstein's Master had raised a hand to pat him there.
It wasn't the impersonal touch of a scientist, trying to touch him as little as possible, like he was dirty or diseased. It didn't have the same confidence his comrades had either. It was...gentle. Uncertain. It belied the strength M-21 knew he had, enough to stop M-24's punch with no effort.
He wanted more, to lean in and have more of the kind of touch he was used to. He didn't though, gritting his teeth against the urge. Frankenstein's Master didn't know him, didn't know how much that meant to him, and he shouldn't.
Frankenstein's master lowered his hand against, gave him a small nod and then walked away.
M-21 didn't chase after him even though one part of him wanted to. That would be enough for him, for now.
* * *
M-21 turned away from the sink to make sure he had gotten everything, moving out of Frankenstein's way as he carried the last of the bowls to the sink. He heard Frankenstein put the last of the plates into the sink.
"Thank you, M-21," Frankenstein said, and M-21 turned to stare at him. Frankenstein was thanking him? What?
He missed Frankenstein's movement, only feeling Frankenstein pat his shoulder after he'd done it.
Why were both-
M-21 backed off and almost ran for the door, before he broke and embarrassed himself by asking for more.
* * *
He could be content with the scraps he got. They would be enough.
...No, they wouldn't and he knew that. But he would have to get used to it.
He just had to forget what it was like to always have someone there around him.
Easy. That's all he had to do.
* * *
M-21 braced himself as he collected the plates afterwards. He could do this without reacting to Frankenstein's touch, or trying to anticipate it. It wasn't as if Frankenstein would thank and pat him every time he helped clean away the table.
He should do more for Frankenstein anyway, before his documents were processed for the school.
So that meant washing up the dishes as well.
M-21 stared at the suds that had built up in the basin, and was about to start when Frankenstein cleared his throat behind him.
Frankenstein had a pair of pink gloves and apron folded in his arms. M-21 had seen him wear those before when he had been washing the dishes. Why...?
"You need to wear these while washing the dishes to ensure that you keep clean," Frankenstein said, smiling at him.
Was that really important? He would dry up soon enough if he got wet anyway. But if Frankenstein wanted him to wear those while cleaning the dishes, he would. "Fine," M-21 said, taking them from him. He wrinkled his nose at the smell, but it was bearable, and he'd smelled worse while working at the Union.
He slipped the items on and he flexed his hands, getting used to the feel of the material against his skin.
Frankenstein moved away once he put them on, and M-21 didn't try to scrutinise his relief and disappointment too closely.
When he slid his hand into the water, that was even stranger, feeling it press against his skin, but not wetting his hands.
Cleaning the plate wasn't hard - most of the trouble was trying to keep a proper grip with the gloves on but he'd gotten most of the food off and-
A hand edged into the corner of his eyes. One covered by a pink glove. The hand was also palm up, asking for something.
When M-21 glanced at Frankenstein, he got a smile in return.
Something obvious, and Frankenstein hadn't pointed at anything, so that had to mean it was whatever was in his own hands at that moment.
Which was the plate. Which meant Frankenstein was asking for the plate. M-21 handed it over, watching him as he rinsed it off.
And that meant Frankenstein was intending to stay there by his side and clean the dishes M-21 washed.
He had been relieved that he hadn't been patted on the shoulder, but this was worse.
M-21 dropped his gaze back onto the soapy water in front of him, concentrating on that. Frankenstein didn't say anything as he washed the plate but he stared at their hands when he passed the plate over.
He could just...reach over and touch. Or Frankenstein could do that. They were close enough to.
But Frankenstein wasn't a comrade. Would be offended if he tried to touch him – Frankenstein touching him on his own terms was one but, but it was another if M-21 tried to do it.
So he would just bury his wants and ignore them.
The rest of the time passed in silence, M-21 making sure to not look at Frankenstein or try to lean in his direction. M-21 sighed as he passed the last dish to Frankenstein. Finally, he could go.
"Is there something wrong?"
M-21 tried to not twitch. Frankenstein had noticed! So he was still obvious. Fuck. "No," M-21 said. "Nothing." He would be better if he could just leave and not be reminded of what he was used to.
"M-21," Frankenstein said, and M-21 couldn't walk away, waiting to see what he would say, "if there's something you need, you are free to ask us without fear of repercussion."
There it was again. That offer. Frankenstein and his Master made it sound so easy, like no effort was needed.
Of course he should have fear of repercussion. His well-being had depended on not needing anything or bothering the scientists with anything unnecessary. Touch was unnecessary for him to live.
He'd demanded a phone from Frankenstein to push at them and see where the boundaries were. He hadn't expected to get a phone.
What he wanted...was too personal. Too needy. Even if both Frankenstein and his Master seemed willing, there was still too much of a chance that would change if he asked.
Why would anyone else but fellow experiments want to touch him anyway?
Even though Frankenstein and his Master had seemed fine with it before...
No. He was being too hopeful. "It's nothing to worry you with." No-one did anyway.
He peeled the gloves off, took the apron off and left.
* * *
Could he do it? It had been offered to him twice already. There might not be a third. He'd been lucky enough those two times, and maybe it had been a one-time deal and he's lost the chance after that.
Frankenstein and his Master didn't know what he wanted though. How could they just offer like that without knowing what he would asked?
He wanted it though. Needed it. It was painful without touch, like when he'd needed the pills to live.
M-21 wrapped his arms around himself again, gripping his upper arms. It wasn't the same. He'd never felt like this, had never reached this stage. M-24's arm would have gone around his shoulder a long time ago, drawing him close and M-21 would have been able to take in his scent and feel his warmth against him.
And he was pathetic for that reason. It wasn't something he would be able to get, even if Frankenstein and his Master had offered. If he asked, they would say no.
His heart and body didn't listen. His heart hurt; he wanted someone to touch him or to touch someone else, and M-21 sucked in a shuddering breath, rubbing at his eyes in an attempt to slow the steam of tears.
* * *
He was glad they didn't draw attention to it like a Union scientist would, telling him it was another sign of weakness.
He was sure they were watching him as he ate, but he didn't check, keeping his attention the food. He couldn't be bothered lifting his head to check, keeping them out of sight further through a curtain of hair. He was just...tired. He'd cried until he was exhausted, his sleeve soaked with his tears and his throat hurting from trying to keep himself quiet.
"You don't need to help me with the dishes today," Frankenstein said, and good.
M-21 nodded and got up from the table, leaving for his bedroom. Retreating.
He could feel their eyes watching him as he left.
* * *
But he couldn't doing that. He couldn't keep running away at every little thing, at the possibility of closeness, at the fear of stepping wrong and all of it being rejected.
He had to decide what to do.
M-21 slid down the door, bowing his head over his knees. He took a few breaths, a hand in his hair.
He couldn't just forget his comrades, their presences. His tattoo peaked out from under his sleeve, and he snorted, pushing his sleeve back to study it.
And that proved his point. Everything reminded him of them because they had always been with him.
He sighed, tilting his head back to stare at the ceiling as he rubbed a thumb over the familiar lines. He couldn't forget their presences as if they didn't mean anything to him.
That was why he was trying to find their names.
He closed his eyes, taking deeper breaths. He would do it. He would go ask - he couldn't deny that he needed it. If at least he could get rid of the fucking uncertainty.
He got up with a sigh.
Now he just had to figure out how to ask.
He stepped out the room and paused at the sight of Frankenstein coming down the corridor. He hadn't thought he would see him that fast. But he wasn't going to run away anymore. M-21 exhaled, walking towards him after closing his door. "Frankenstein?"
Frankenstein smiled at him. "Yes?"
...Shit. What was he supposed to say now. "You said I could ask you for something if I needed it?"
Frankenstein nodded, looking at him. "I did, and that offer is still open."
Okay, good. Which meant he had to ask now? M-21 hesitated, wanting to rub his tattoo. He didn't, keeping his hands by his sides, flexing them instead. "I don't have any right to ask-" He didn't, not when he was a guest in Frankenstein's home. "-but..." M-21's gaze drifted away, unable to look at him. He swallowed, but kept going.
"My comrades and I were close," he said. "During hard times, we would comfort each other." Why was he talking about that? Why couldn't he just spit out what he wanted straight away?
M-21's throat closed up and his chest hurt, at the thought of the loss of his comrades, the lack of their touch.
"How did you do that?" Frankenstein asked, his voice soft.
"Touch," he managed to get out. There. He'd said it. M-21 braced himself to be mocked for his weakness or his request to be rejected.
"And that's what you ask of us?" What... Why wasn't Frankenstein... "For us to touch you?"
M-21 nodded, still unable to get his mouth under his control.
M-21 turned his head back towards Frankenstein when he heard movement, and hah, that was Frankenstein - moving towards him? Not away?
He couldn't be, but Frankenstein was, walking towards him, and M-21 watched him lift his arm. He couldn't be.
M-21's breath stuttered when Frankenstein lay his hand on M-21's shoulder and no, it wasn't enough. It was still too distant.
"Like this?" Frankenstein asked. "Or more?"
M-21 squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head. "More," he whispered, bowing his head, trying to cage the hope in his heart that Frankenstein would give him that much.
Frankenstein stepped closer and wrapped his arms around M-21's shoulders. M-21's eyes flew wide as he sucked in a breath. It was like a punch to the head, the shock of his body finally getting what he needed.
"You can ask for this whenever you want," Frankenstein murmured.
He - he could? This wasn't a one-time deal? "I… Okay." His voice croaked, but the happiness in his chest threatened to overwhelm him.
M-21 sagged in relief, leaning into Frankenstein. He didn't have the familiar scent of his comrades, but there was a warm body around him.
He wasn't alone.