Rio is seven when his parents leave him in an office with plastic chairs and paintings of balloons on the wall. They’re nice balloons, as far as balloons go. Rio just thinks that they would be vastly improved by having lasers attached to the top of them.
“It’s an interesting thought,” a man in a white coat says, scribbling down big looking words on a tiny little pad. “But why lasers?”
It’s the first time Rio wonders if maybe he isn’t entirely human. What sort of race needs a reason to put lasers on anything?
The man in the white coat asks him lots of other questions, silly questions that have obvious answers to anyone with half a brain. Rio indulges him because his mother has promised to buy him ice-cream afterwards, although she did blanch at the idea of having oil topping.
(His father always lets him have oil topping. Truth be told, Rio doesn’t know why his mother protests so much – it tastes almost exactly like chocolate).
Rio is maybe a little distracted because the man in the white coat clearly doesn’t like Rio’s answers. Rio thinks it unfair that the man blames Rio for this - it’s hard to answer questions with the low, staccato hum that the man’s computer is making. The fan is spluttering away in the casing, dying a slow, painful death as it throngs through its last few cycles.
The man in the white coat gives his mother a small container of pills, and advises her to take him to see someone known only as The Specialist.
The computer gives one last, futile chug before giving out in one elongated whine.
Rio smiles as they leave.
Fragments of The Incident remain, like metal spikes poking up through ever-shifting sands. He can remember the colour red, and a rush of heat followed by the coldest, blackest ice.
There isn’t much else. He can’t even recall what his first victim looked like.
The horror on his parents faces when he first woke up never fades.
Rio’s sure that he is only supposed to take them when things go Really Bad, but his mother slips then into his drinks, and presses them into the palm of his hand with a silent little nod.
He’s starting to feel a little odd.
This sort of thing needs to be grieved in silence, in isolation.
How is it then that the new transfer student (Azumi? Azugi?) doesn’t know that the rooftop is a designated Rio-only zone? There are other perfectly good places to have lunch; Rio doesn't understand why Azumi-gi has decided that this rooftop at this particular school has to be shared between two completely different species.
"Not much," Azumi says, relaxing back against the wall. "I just came up here to recharge a bit."
Rio blinks, before sweeping a much more clinical gaze over his new classmate. Azumi definitely looks like a human - the bored, glazed-over look and smudges of mustard at the corner of his mouth are a dead giveaway.
Human biology has never been his best subject. Why anyone chooses to be human in the first place is quite simply beyond him. Still, as far as Rio knows humans are not solar powered. As long as they are plugged full of food, they don't even need to be plugged in.
He may have to recalibrate his information on humans. Perhaps they are able to assimilate some robotic traits without sacrificing their inherent humanness, after all.
This is the first time he has woken up in someone else’s lap.
“You have pretty eyes,” Rio murmurs, because he is programmed to notice such things.
“Thank you,” Azumi replies. Rio notices disgruntledly that Azumi does not return the compliment. Some people. “So,” Azumi adds casually, his eyes scanning over the wrecked classroom before falling back down on Rio. “What was all that about?”
Arg. He is so getting detention.
“You wouldn’t understand,” Rio says mournfully. “I’m a robot.”
“That’s cool. I’ve always been interested in computers.”
He doesn’t feel a thing.
"Why?" Azumi asks, genuinely curious. They are sitting across from each other on a picnic table, a bottle of Rio’s pills shoved spitefully down Azumi’s end.
Rio pauses in an honest attempt to find the right words to describe just how, how black the pills really are. How they wipe his hard-drive of everything – not just the bad emotions or the dark thoughts, but also all the little things he’s downloaded and created over the years. It’s like having your soul torn violently from you, leaving behind a computer that boots up when you press the on button, but which only ever allows you to do homework on it. No Youtube. No Google. No vaguely-porny-if-you-squint sites if you are into that sort of thing. No chat rooms. No emails. Nothing but years and years of algebra equations and geography questions.
When Rio takes the tablets, he stops existing. Sometimes he stops existing for minutes, sometimes for hours. He thinks that once, back before Azumi transferred to his school, he disappeared for years.
"They make me feel dizzy," Rio offers lamely instead, because robots aren’t supposed to have existential crises. “And then I fall. And bang my head. Or hurt my back. Or twist my arm in a really gross way.” Yuck. As if the pills themselves aren’t bad enough, he often has to wear the consequences for days afterwards.
Azumi looks thoughtful for a moment, which is a rare sight for someone who is good at avoiding anything approaching proper thought altogether. After a moment, he nods.
“We need a back-up plan, then.”
And then Azumi's mouth - his mouth! - is covering Rio's own, stealing away Rio's first kiss for the criminally low price of two little pills. Rio tastes of nothing, of everything, of all things bad and good and awesome and wow.
Azumi is kissing him, and nothing else in the world seems to exist except the warmth of his touch and the heat of his breath.
Rio isn't exactly thinking straight right now, and not only because he's thinking of Azumi's mouth (his tongue and his lips, the gentle tug of his teeth) as the leading character in a trashy romance novel.
"Still feel dizzy?" Azumi murmurs into Rio's mouth, his words reverberating down Rio's throat and getting stuck deep in his gut.
"Ngaanasg," Rio replies, because he's falling into darkness and the world is fading away in a whitewash of bland emotions and nothingness.
Plus. You know. Azumi just kissed him.
And it was hot.
"Don't worry, I'll catch you," Azumi murmurs into his hair, thin fingers wrapped securely around Rio's arm.
And Azumi really does have such pretty eyes.
Some falls are proving to be more enjoyable than others.
It doesn’t take much to sneak into Azumi’s hospital room, not when you have a smile like Rio’s. Climbing up onto Azumi’s bed is a little more difficult, what with the tubes and machines at all.
“I don’t want you to get sick,” Azumi murmurs through a drug-laced haze when Rio finally navigates his way to Azumi’s side.
“Don’t be stupid,” he responds, snuggling against the other boy. Azumi is always so warm, even when gripped by a nasty, alien bug that Rio secretly thinks is trying to take over the world. “Robots can’t catch viruses from humans.”
“You are going to get in so much trouble.”
Azumi is not wrong.
Soft boots are definitely some of Rio’s favourites.
Translated from binary into human terminology: Rio becomes much more acceptable once there is someone who accepts him. In fact, once it becomes acceptable to be accepted regardless of your negative allegiance to the x axis, then others in their class start drifting off into their own, interesting little clusters of weirdness.
Rio finds it odd, to be honest. Robots aren't supposed to fit comfortably into everyday society, especially those who have an inbuilt KILL button.
And then, they graduate and Rio and Azumi start at a new school where everyone has their own special kind of kill button, although it isn't always defined as such.
‘Weird’ suddenly isn’t just acceptable, it’s the new normal.
Rio pats Azumi's hair clumsily, but nope. Sudden cat tendencies do not miraculously appear; Azumi still feels like a weirdly shaped rock stuffed tightly with rags. He leaves his hand in Azumi's hair (that is at least soft, and his fingers slice so smoothly through the silky stands), just in case.
A frown flickers across Azumi's forehead, and a small grimace pulls at his mouth. Rio waits, his eyes widening in anticipation as Azumi fights off the last few cobwebs of unconsciousness and forces his bruised eyes opened.
"Huh, wah?" Azumi's words and groggy and slurred, and Rio smiles triumphantly down at him.
"This time, I caught you."
But there are times when the demons are turned inwards, when a virus attacks his hardware rather than latching onto external devices that are proving problematic.
There are times when maybe, desperately, Rio needs to feel just a little bit human.
A guttural groan tears from his throat as Azumi shoves him back against the wall, and it is all Rio can do to wrap his legs tighter around Azumi's waist, to devour Azumi's mouth - that searing, saviour of a mouth - in a violent kiss that has stopped being a kiss and started being Rio's only source of sanity. It’s a mess and it’s chaotic and there are way, way too many layers of clothes between them, because underneath that no-good uniform Azumi is really, seriously hot.
He needs, he wants-
And, like always, Azumi gives.
“Just a bump from yesterday,” Azumi replies, giving Rio a gentle bop on the head. “You really should try and be more careful.”
Damn it. This is starting to get embarrassing. Who gets to 16 without growing even a tiny antenna?
He is so failing at this robot business.
When Azumi kisses him, all hot air and cool hands, Rio is able to pretend that the dizziness is caused by something other than the toxic ingredients meant to balance his brain.
Sometimes, he doesn’t really have to pretend at all.