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Spoonful of Sugar

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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.

***

He goes into berserk mode for the first time when he is five. Rio doesn’t really remember it all that much, only that someone said something to someone else. His brain ... it sort of malfunctions, and it’s as if all his inbuilt memory gets wiped clean by an external hacker.

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.

***

He doesn’t like the pills. They’re big and bulbous, and he can taste their tacky muckiness in his throat in the seconds before everything else fades to black. He only takes them because his father looks at him with sad eyes, and because his mother is barely able to look at him at all anymore.

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.

***

"What do you want?" Rio finally asks grouchily when the silence moves officially from 'quietly hostile' to 'prepare to lock down Madagascar'. He is antsy and tired, and the last thing he wants to deal with right now is the complexity of lower life forms. The morning after a deadly rampage is never easy. According to eye-witness reports (ie: The Specialist) the official death toll from his latest deviation from normality is monumental: four pot plants, three chairs, and the goodwill of at least one half-decent classmate.

This sort of thing needs to be grieved in silence, in isolation.

Alone.

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.

Huh.

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.

***

The other kids don’t like him much. They think he’s kind of unhinged. Rio doesn’t get it, because he’s done some calculations and it turns out he’s the sanest person he knows.

***

Rio is used to waking up in weird places after one of his blackouts. There have been empty classrooms and clinical smelling beds, even the occasional strait-jacket on days when he’s been really bad (they’re actually kind of comfortable, in a shoulder dislocating way). Once, when he is nine, he wakes up in a rubbish bin. Rio’s still not entirely sure how he ended up there, but he thinks that the trash is perhaps a more appropriate place to dump malfunctioning equipment than a hospital.

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.”

Azumi shrugs.

“That’s cool. I’ve always been interested in computers.”

***

It’s not until his 10th birthday that Rio fully recognises his robotic heritage. The realisation comes to him when he goes home with his new parents instead of his old ones after a meeting with The Specialist.

He doesn’t feel a thing.

***

"I hate them," Rio says bitterly.

"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.”

***

He doesn’t just have to take the pills when he hits berserk mode, although he takes them much less often after New Mum arrives. Rio thinks he could almost handle them if that were the case. The pills have to be taken every morning with breakfast, and no amount of sugar on his cereal can drown out the bitterness he feels as he swallows each one down.

***

There is too much anger, too much heat, and Rio loses his last, hopeless grip on all things nice and normal as the rage roars. He tries to latch onto something - anything - sane, but the rage scours through him, turning all rational thought to ash. Panic flashes through him, and he blindly reaches out, needing to, needing to-

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 has been days since he’s been allowed to see Azumi, and that is just not acceptable. Rio understands words such as ‘quarantine’, ‘infectious’, and ‘how many times do we have to tell you, no?’. Rio also understands how none of these words apply to him. Humans can be so stupid, sometimes.

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.

***

It’s not that Rio is defective, Azumi whispers into Rio’s ear as one of those kinky hands slides up the back of Rio’s shirt. Rio has always, always approved of how naughty those hands can be, and how they seem to have gained some sort of sentiency all of their own. It’s just that sometimes the wires in Rio’s brain get a little bit crossed, Azumi adds, teeth scraping across his earlobe and teasing forth a totally undignified gasp from Rio. They all need an occasional upgrade, even if the virus-of-the-day hasn’t completely destroyed their firewalls but has just allowed through a few, inappropriate pop-ups.

Soft boots are definitely some of Rio’s favourites.

***

FYI: humans can, in fact, pass on a virus to a robot. And, hospitals suck.

***

Mathematics is simple when your brain has been configured around equations. One outlier on its own is an oddity, something that needs to be scrubbed from the data set completely least it throw all the other normal, perfectly consistent results into disarray. But when a second data point dares detangle itself from the pack, if it allows itself to get caught in the gravitational pull of that outlier? Then, a tiny solar system of two can exist on the outskirts of all that is known and good. Instead of being a mistake, the two outliers indicate a developing trend.

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.

***

Azumi's head feels kind of awkward in Rio's lap, nothing like a cat at all. Rio's not entirely sure why he expected Azumi to feel like a cat, especially since Azumi rarely purrs and would look ridiculous with kitten-ears.

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."

***

Sometimes, all he needs is the taste of Azumi on his tongue and the flirty touch of his hands on Rio’s hips for all the demons in his head to recode into nice little lines of 0101101101. Those times, when the blackness creeps into his mind and takes away all his thoughts and emotions - violent, happy, everything he has ever been and ever wished to be - those times he comes back eventually to his senses and wakes up in Azumi’s arms.

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.

***

“Can you see anything?” Rio asks hopefully as Azumi combs carefully through Rio’s hair. Azumi is thorough in his search, stroking through the golden strands with his fingertips as Rio sits impatiently in his lap.

“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.

***

The dizziness, that loss of self, never really leaves Rio. It doesn't matter if he downs the pills bitterly via a glass of water, or if he is drowning instead in the warmth of Azumi's mouth. The side effects are always the same.

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.