Mabu loves Reo, but he is unable to show it properly. At least, that’s what Mabu can determine must be the problem.
He could tell that he had done something wrong the moment he saw Reo again on that rooftop, from the way he recoiled when he spoke his name.
“Mabu would never look at me like that!” Reo sobbed, and Mabu’s newly fitted mechanical heart sunk in his chest. The otters hadn’t prepared him for this sort of outcome.
The empire’s science couldn’t replicate everything, but clearly simulating pain was easy enough.
It seemed obvious to Mabu then, that this would be the end of things. He was a failed experiment, an inaccurate reproduction, and as such he would just have to return to the darkness that had consumed him after the blast. And Mabu supposed he would be no worse for it.
But evidently, something prevents Reo from ending things no matter how many times he grips Mabu’s heart in his hand.
Even if Mabu is unable to determine what exactly that is.
Mabu doesn’t understand how Reo moves so quickly between emotions.
One minute he is cursing Mabu for assuming a face and an identity—“that isn’t yours to take, damnit”—then the next he is losing himself to anger anytime Mabu requires maintenance.
Yet for all Reo’s supposed jealousy, when Mabu reaches to touch him, he jerks away as if burned.
“You’re not Mabu,” Reo hisses, hot tears pricking at the corners of his eyes. “You’re just a doll they built to mock me.”
It must just be the complexities of the human capacity for emotion, Mabu reasons. The otters can’t program that, but he remembers well enough.
So he thinks, if he can only learn to cook the way the real Mabu had, then maybe Reo will desire him again. If he can learn to eat the meals Reo and the real Mabu would take together, then maybe things will go back to the way they were.
Everything has its price, but Mabu finds that it isn’t so hard to fall into the arms of the chief science officer, nor is it difficult to pretend that this is just practice for when Reo will hold him like he held the real Mabu.
One day, when he is perfect, the breath on his neck will be Reo’s again. Then they will return to the life they had together before the blast tore a cavern between them.
So each time, when he is finally touched, his body shudders with the memory of when this wasn’t just a part of maintenance. Mabu’s cheeks flush and his lips part, eyes filling with adoration even when the hand closes around his throat.
The science officer isn’t Reo, but if Mabu is very good, he might be able to make Mabu real for Reo again. And for now, that is enough.
So Mabu tries. Across from Reo he spoons breakfast into his mouth, chewing and grinding it all to a pulp, then dutifully swallowing down the composite muck. He pointedly ignores the textures: grainy broccoli, slick, worm-like noodles, the viscosity of the sauce.
Mabu fights the reflex to gag, forcing it all down his throat and into his stomach where it weighs awkward and heavy in a vessel unused to being filled. But for all his effort, even when he manages to choke half of the meal down (and resist the urge to wretch it back up), not-Mabu he remains. Worse even, is that Reo’s frustration—his insistence that he is sharing space with an imposter—seem only to be reinforced.
So Mabu resolves to try harder to make this update a worthwhile addition.
When they return from work, Reo sullenly cooks for two as he does every night, and with care he sets the table. However, when Mabu moves to lift his chopsticks again Reo reaches to still his hand, eyes fixed on the table.
“Don’t,” he says, and Mabu’s hand goes pliant, releasing the utensils. His eyes remain on Reo who returns to his meal. He rarely initiates contact, even as small as this.
“Don’t bother.” And all Mabu can hear now is defeat in Reo’s voice. Another failure.
This meal, like every meal, was an offering for the real Mabu.
For him to eat it would be a disgrace.
Mabu lies awake in his futon. Reo has laid it out in the center of the room beside his own as he does every night.
Mabu watches Reo return from the bath toweling his hair, his expression vacant. After smoking his last cigarette of the night, Reo crawls into his own futon.
Their life has taken on this steady rhythm, Reo living as he had with the real Mabu. The only difference now is that he does everything alone under the watch of a specter, silent as a shrine.
Once Reo falls asleep Mabu turns onto his side, staring at his back through the wall of darkness. Some nights he rests as well, but sleep serves no real function now other than to soothe Reo. Evidently it is a useless feature, another failed update.
Reo is restless, in ways that do not align with the memories Mabu possesses: as he tosses, his futon slides farther across the floor, as if even in unconsciousness he is seeking to put space between them.
When the whimpering starts, Mabu sits up.
Reo kicks at his covers like a rabbit caught in a hunting trap, using the last of its strength for one last bid at freedom. His hand flies out from under the sheets, thudding uselessly against the floor.
And as fast as his name is cried, Mabu is at Reo’s side.
His hand hovers above Reo’s tanned cheek, searching for some clue for what to do. In his memories Reo doesn’t cry out like this, not when they would lay together, his chest fitted to Mabu’s back.
Mabu brushes away a tear with his thumb, trying desperately to summon whatever he once could provide, whatever not-Mabu lacks.
“What are you doing?”
Mabu looks unaffectedly at where Reo’s hand grips his wrist like a vice.
“You cried out,” Mabu explains. “For h—“
“It was just a dream,” Reo mutters, releasing Mabu’s wrist the way he might flick water from his hand.
“Go to sleep,” he orders, turning his back to Mabu again. When Mabu doesn’t return to his futon Reo slams the covers down in aggravation, sitting up.
“What?” he snaps. But Mabu holds his stare, gaze steady.
“Reo,” He begins calmly, “Perhaps... if you were to hold me like before, your sleep would be less disturbed.”
“What the hell are you on about? Go and lay back down.” Reo scoffs and looks away, aggravated and unsettled. But Mabu moves fearlessly into his space, touching Reo’s cheek as he closes the gap between their chests.
“I know you miss it. We could try and fulfill those desires.”
Reo hisses, shoving Mabu and knocking him onto his back so that he is above him now, pinning his wrists where they can’t touch him anymore.
“Shut up,” Reo snaps, voice cracking. “I would never betray Mabu like that.”
Tears fall onto Mabu’s face, and it reminds him of a time early one summer, the feeling of laughter and Reo holding a deteriorating newspaper over their heads—a poor shelter from the torrential sun shower.
“We could try,” Mabu repeats, voice quiet.
“We can’t! We can’t do anything.” Reo shakes his head where it hangs heavy between his shoulders.
“I was promised that he would be returned to me for my service, but instead I’m stuck with you. I killed him, and now I spend every day killing his memory by tolerating your existence!” Reo’s shoulders shake, first with restraint, then with the weight of holding himself up.
When his grip loosens, Mabu reaches up again to wipe a tear from Reo’s cheek. He doesn’t know how to tell Reo that he didn’t kill Mabu, or that it wasn’t his fault. He doesn't know how to say that Mabu took the force of the blast because he loves Reo, and that he would do it again if it would make Reo stop hurting.
Mabu doesn’t know how to make Reo understand that he still feels for him as much as before.
“I know. I’m sorry you made that sacrifice for me,” he says instead.
Reo collapses against his chest, letting out an unrestrained sob that quickly deteriorates into the heaving, shaking cries of grief. Mabu lifts his hands to Reo’s hair, easily finding familiar patterns.
Reo shudders, arms wrapping around Mabu’s chest.
Like this, things almost align with Mabu’s memories. Only then, Reo never cried like this.
“Reo, I need to tell you something,“ Mabu tries again, but against his chest, Reo’s head shakes.
“Please,” Reo begs, holding tighter. “Please, just let me remember.”
Obediently, Mabu falls into silence.
That, at least, he can provide.