Caged Bird

by Domashita Romero (地下ロメロ)
illustrated by serenity_winner


Nneka bought her having only seen her once, in shimmering holograph in the catalogue pages. The price that hovered near her head had a long string of zeros next to it, but all that Nneka could see was the shine of her smile, the butterfly’s wing of each blink in her wide eyes. I want her, she had said to her handlers, and while there had been some fuss, some worry about what would become of her flesh and blood staff if she brought on an android, Nneka took no further questions. She authorized the movement of funds and then waited for her to come, fresh from the factory.

She was a one-of-a-kind, the manufacturer guaranteed. Others might have her face or her eyes, but at that price came a guarantee that nothing else in the world would have her programming or her personality. They’d asked if Nneka wanted to have her personalized; they had a whole array of questions and interviews that could make her specific to Nneka’s needs, make her know her every thought and predict her every movement. Nneka had enough people in her life like that already. She wanted her purchase to come as it was, a blank slate who had to learn her the hard way. They did learn, she’d been assured.

Nneka had only just awoken when she heard the movement in the drawing room outside of her bedroom, intruders upon her sanctity. Usually someone would be there as she woke, ready to guide her from bed, help her dress, stroke back her hair. But only wisp-thin fingers of anemic light came in through the windows as of yet. She was not supposed to be awake yet, but she rose from bed and drew on the storm-colored robe that was waiting for her on the chair by her bed, letting the clouds on its surface rumble as she wrapped it around her body. They would not want her to see yet, but she drew her braid over her shoulder and came out of her bedroom.

The maids were there, in a fuss around something in the center of the room, and her manager was there as well, already in a high-collared jacket of plum waves, muttering into the bottom of his sleeve. Nneka stood outside the door and waited, and when he turned his eyes grew wide like green grapes.

“Not yet, Nneka, not yet,” he said, coming to her to turn her back around and guide her back to bed. “She’s not ready yet.”

I am ready, though,” she said. Her voice was morning-rough but still she watched him quail at the sound of it. He bowed his head and turned to the maids.

“As you wish. Activate her, please.”

The maids nodded, and when they parted in a sea of blue and white, there was Nneka’s purchase. She was more beautiful than in the flicker of the catalogue, a stark picture of black and white in the cacophony of colors in Nneka’s suites. Her head was dipped slightly, the rise of her hair casting a shadow over her soft face, but then a maid pressed her fingers somewhere beneath her arm and her eyes opened, wide and clear. She smiled at Nneka like no one had ever smiled at her before, honest and true.

“Oh, good morning, Miss Nneka,” she said, in a clear, happy tone. “My name is Merry, and I’ll be happy to help you out with anything you need.” She blinked a few times and looked around the room. “Oh, it’s beautiful in here, isn’t it?” She tilted her head a little and smiled at Nneka. “It really suits you Miss.”

Nneka felt her mouth curling up a little. “You can leave us, thank you,” she said to her manager and the maids, and they were gone in a flurry of moments. Merry stood in place as Nneka drifted, her robe dragging lightning bolts across the floor as she came to sit in one of the drawing room’s chairs.

“I’m fully programmed in all household duties, Miss, in addition to any personal necessities you might need help with.” Merry stood straight with her arms linked at hands behind her back. Her suit was something historical, monochrome and clean-lined. Someone who came in now would notice her for being so plain, and then forget her again immediately for the same crime. “If you need it as well, Miss, I’m also very conversationally agile and outfitted with a full set of privacy protocols.”

Nneka let out a breath. She was the only living thing in the room now, and yet she was not alone. It made something lift from her that had been weighing on her for too long. “Call me Nneka, Merry.”

Merry tilted her head a little to the side and blinked a few times, adding this update, no doubt. “Of course I will, Nneka. I hope I can be a friend to you, in addition to anything else you might require of me.”

“I hope you can, too, Merry,” Nneka sighed, and felt lifted at how Merry’s smile got toothier at that. “Now, if you could please bring me some tea and breakfast, thank you.”

“Right away, Miss!” Merry said, already forgetting the permission that Nneka had given her as she headed out of the room to find the kitchens. It was something special, Nneka thought, that an android could ignore an order.

That night she brought Merry with her to the concert hall, riding beside her as her car floated silently through the streets, taking back alleys and strange high detours to avoid the paparazzi. It surprised her how Merry wasn’t silent; all she’d heard before of androids was how they were quiet, speaking only when spoken to. But Merry was full of constant wonder, remarking at the sights that passed by outside the window.

“The Kijani building really is beautiful, isn’t it, Miss? I wonder what the sunset looks like from the top of it,” she said as the car passed enough to see the the tip of that gleaming pyramid from above.

“Merry, if you just look, you’ll see the sunset from even higher than that,” she said.

“Oh, I know,” she said, and grinned at Nneka. “But it would be a different view from there, wouldn’t it? Just because you’re at the top of the world doesn’t mean you have the best view, don’t you think?”

Nneka took a breath and said, “Yes, I suppose it doesn’t.”

Merry did not help her dress at the concert hall; it was perhaps too soon to put Nneka’s costumers out of work just yet. Nneka stayed quiet and let them work on her, keeping her eyes down at the perfectly still tips of Merry’s black shoes as the costumers wrapped her hair high, twining it in shifting fabric a foot above the crown of her head and then spreading over it a net of lights that twinkled out the constellations as viewed from Luna. She held out her arms as they took her from naked to dressed, wrapping her in a robe of screens, each wrinkle of the fabric showing a scene from Earth Before, green trees and animals in the veldt. They would paint her face with shimmers next, make her eyes like a beacon and her lips a gateway for sound. She kept her eyes closed through it all.

illustrated by serenity_winner

Merry waited for her at the side of the stage before she went on. “Is there anything I can do for you before you perform, Miss?” Nneka shook her head, and Merry’s smile was soft. “I can’t wait to hear you sing.”

Nneka smiled at that. “I hope you like it.” A strange thought came to her. “Do you sing, Merry?”

Merry blinked, as though the question surprised her. “Oh… I know I do. But I never have. I’d be honored if you’d let me sing with you sometime, Miss.”

Nneka reached out to touch her face; she hadn’t expected it to be warm, but it was indistinguishable from living skin. “I would like that, Merry. Perhaps later.”

Merry’s grin was huge at that. “Oh, that would be wonderful!” She gathered her fist together in a little excited gesture. “I know you’ll do well out there, Miss! Please do your best.” She peeked out a little on to the stage. “Oh, there are so many people out there, and they’re so excited to see you.” She suddenly grabbed Nneka’s hand, darkening the twinkling filaments in her nails as she held her fingers between her palms. “I think the most important thing, Miss, is that you sing from the heart.” Merry laughed a little and squeezed Nneka’s hand up, bringing it close to her suited breast. “You’ve done this thousands of times, I know. But I hope this time it will be a little special.” She dipped her head a little and looked up at Nneka through her long lashes. “It’s the first time I’m hearing you, after all.”

Nneka took a while to find her breath, and then put her hand over where Merry’s curled over hers. “I will, Merry.” She blinked a few times. Tears would ruin the ruby dewdrops they’d planted in her lashes. “Thank you.”

She walked on to stage to a wave of applause, enough to take the breath out of her lungs. The light blinded her at first, as always; usually she would be happy to let it keep her blinded, let her just go through the motions until the concert was over. But this time she let her eyes adjust to the light as she came to the edge of the stage with the wings of her costume spread out behind her. Beyond the lip of it, she could see the crowd before her, all the ones who loved her, all the monsters and children, yellow and silver and colors she didn’t know. She parted her lips to sing the first note and saw them scream for her, saw them weep for her. The rubies in her eyes spread onto her cheeks as she watched the colors of them heave and ripple, as she heard them echo her every note. A kaleidoscope wanted her, wanted her shine.

But all she could think of was the one hearing her in the wings, that figure in black and white, hearing her for the first time. She let her voice soar for her.

The car took an even more convoluted path after the concert; no matter how many times she performed, they always wanted more of her. They loved her soul when she was singing, but wanted to get into her insides when she was offstage. She reached out for Merry’s hand in the car back, and Merry took it without a second’s hesitation. Her hand was small and delicate, nails short and neat, never to grow another millimeter, and she held it tight even as she kept her vigil of dreaming out the window.

She dismissed her staff again when she was in her suites, leaving only Merry. “Please, help me,” she said to Merry, and she knew what she wanted without any further explanation. She guided Nneka to sit in the soft chair in her bedroom and unwrapped her hair, folding the shimmering fabric and setting it aside. Her fingers were soft and gentle as she took down her braids, letting her hair spread out wide in curls, letting the ache leave her scalp for a while. She took her into the bath and washed the powders and tints from her face with a soft cloth, leaving her bare and clean.

“Would you like me to draw a bath, Miss?” Merry asked, and Nneka nodded. She was wilted in the chair by the vanity, drained and empty as she always was after a performance. Merry filled the tub with water, testing it with her own fingers to make sure it was the right temperature. Nneka lost herself for a moment — it could have been hours from the time she had given her assent to the time when Merry touched her shoulder next. “It’s ready.”

Nneka rose and Merry undressed her, unwinding fabric and untying belts to leave her bare. It made her feel free and afraid to be naked, perfect and afraid. She worried a little about Merry getting her suit wet as she guided her into the bath, but she didn’t flinch at all to get her sleeve wet a little as she made sure Nneka was properly rested in the water.

Merry sat by the edge of the bath as Nneka soaked, doing the best to let the tension of the performance melt in to the water. It was never enough though, not any more. It always lingered; there was always the promise of the next one, and the next one after that, her voice kept in a bottle for the rest of her life, until it died out. She brought a handful of warm water to her face. “Merry, could you sing for me now?”

“Oh, yes, Miss, I’ll try.” She paused for a moment, making a thoughtful little sound. “I don’t remember the words to your song, but I’ll do my best.” Nneka thought that surely an android would remember everything that passed through its ears, but then she didn’t care anymore as Merry brought her song to life in soft syllables in a gentle, breathy voice. It echoed off the marble walls of the bathroom, shivering in Nneka’s ears, and by the time Merry was finished, Nneka was crying.

“Oh, Miss, I’m sorry! I didn’t think I would be bad, please forgive me.” Nneka shook her head and grasped for Merry’s hand to pull herself out of the bath, heavy and dripping. She staggered with wet feet on the falsely warm floor.

“It was beautiful,” she said, her voice thick with tears as she leaned in on Merry’s shoulder, dripping water and tears on her. “I wish I could sing like you.”

Merry brought a hand up to brush Nneka’s curls back from her brow and the other to the small of her back to bring her in just an inch, the insinuation of an embrace. “Your voice is so beautiful, though,” she said, and there was sadness in her voice. “Everything about you is so beautiful. It just breaks my heart to see you sad.”

Nneka pressed her face to Merry’s shoulder; her suit had a strange smell, musty and chemical like a factory floor. “It’s always the same,” she said, and drew in a rasping breath. “It will always be the same. I’ll sing these songs forever and I’ll never do anything else.”

Merry brushed her fingers down the back of Nneka’s neck, soft through the water clinging on her skin. “I’ll be with you forever. I’ll never do anything else.”

Nneka let out a thick laugh. “And is that enough for you? Even androids have to find a way to be happy. Don’t you want more?”

Merry put her fingers under Nneka’s chin and tilted her head up. “I’m happy to be with you. I’ll always be happy to be with you.”

“Forever? You liked my song tonight, but you’ll hear it again and again and again.” Nneka’s eyes hurt already, rough from the tears. “I don’t want to sing those songs anymore. I don’t want to be here anymore.”

Merry brought her her curved knuckles to Nneka’s face, brushing away the edges of her tears. “What do you want, Miss? I’m here only to make sure you’re happy.”

Nneka shook her head a little. “I want to be anywhere else. I want to do anything else.”

Merry tilted her head, that strange thoughtful little expression that seemed anything but human. She tilted it the other direction and then pursed her lips a little. “There is something all androids know, Miss. We are all designed to outlive those we serve, and when we have finished our service, we are allowed to go somewhere else.”

“Somewhere else?”

Merry put her hand on the damp small of Nneka’s back and drew her near as she gestured out to the tiny window in the bath, to where millions of stars twinkled out. “There’s more than just here, Miss. There’s a promised land for everyone, don’t you know?”

Nneka’s breath caught a little as more tears welled. “I don’t think there’s one for me. They’ll keep me here forever.”

Merry gathered her up, grabbing both of Nneka’s hands in hers and pulling her close. She was getting Merry’s suit wet all over now. “I’d take you with me, Miss. If you wanted to go there right now, we could go. All I want to do is make sure you’re as happy as you can be.”

She looked deep into Merry’s eyes, found them wide and beautiful, dark and strong. She could look into those eyes forever and keep finding more things to love. “Please, take me. Take me anywhere but here.”

Merry smiled and brushed the back of her hand over Nneka’s cheek. “Anything you want, Miss.”

“Nneka,” she sighed, and put her hands on Merry’s face. “You must call me Nneka.” She brought Merry’s face to hers and kissed her softly. She wasn’t sure why she was surprised that Merry kissed back, immediately and without hesitation. She tasted sweet and the same time like nothing at all, warm and wet and Nneka simply never wanted to stop kissing her as soon as she started. It felt like her heart was beating for the first time as Merry rested her hands on her hips, pulling her in closer yet as they kissed.

“Nneka,” Merry said, soft and lovely. “I want to make you feel good. Will you let me, please?”

“Please,” Nneka gasped, and swayed on her feet as Merry’s fingers skimmed up the line of her spine. “Please, Merry, please.”

Merry kissed her throat, little explosions of heat spreading through her skin as she moved to her collarbone. There was no reason for an android to breathe, but she still sighed out over that line of skin there, making Nneka’s flesh prickle up. Merry’s pretty little hands rested at Nneka’s slim hips and guided her to sit on the edge of the bath, giving her just space enough to rest her weight while her toes just barely brushed the edge of the floor.

“I will always be with you,” Merry said as she dropped her head to kiss the dark crowning of Nneka’s breast, making her gasp as she wetted her nipple with the edges of her lips. She slid her arm around Nneka’s back to hold her in place as she suckled there, bent at the waist like she was bowing to an honored guest. Her other hand came to her other breast, softly brushing a thumb over her nipple until it grew stiff, until Nneka sighed out a note that no one in a concert would ever hear. Nneka’s toes curled as Merry went from one to the other, her mouth constant and giving. She’d never felt herself so wet before, hungry for any touch.

“Kiss me, Merry, please,” she gasped, and Merry’s lips were curved in a smile when she touched them to hers. Nneka could almost imagine she tasted her own skin on Merry’s lips, that hint of something truly human, but what had she ever needed of something human? All the humans in her life had only asked more than she could give, demanded she be something she could not sustainably be. Merry was something more, something less, something different, kissing her with a true desire that no one had ever kissed her before.

Merry drew her fingers up the inner curve of Nneka’s thigh. “Would you like me to?” she breathed against Nneka’s lips, and she only whimpered as she nodded. “I’ll make you feel good,” Merry said with a smile, her voice low and dark. Her fingers danced along the join where Nneka’s thigh met her body before slipping lower, slipping past her lips to tease inside of her. Her little, delicate fingers were wet by the time they drew forward, getting the rest of her slick. Every nerve in Nneka’s body felt awake the minute she touched her, and she gripped one hand to the edge of the bath and the other around Merry’s shoulder.

She teased her clitoris in slow circles, spreading warmth and wetness without rushing, making Nneka’s skin rise in goosebumps with every little roll of fingerprints over her skin. Merry was kissing her over her shoulders, her collarbones, down to dip for another taste of her breasts. It was only when Merry curled a finger inside of her that she realized Merry was humming, lighting out a little bit of Nneka’s own song in her own breathy tones, touching her in the rhythm of the song.

Please,” Nneka gasped, jutting her hips up off the edge of the bath, and Merry was there to catch her. Her fingers were a perfect fit inside of her, small and perfect as her thumb slid forward to rub her wetly, making her sing with every little rise and ripple of skin against skin. Nneka’s skin had dried from the bath but was damp again from her sweat as she moved. She had had lovers before, but none of them had ever been like this, devoting every ounce, every tiny millimeter of attention to her, to following her every reaction and only building from there, making her sigh and shudder and even scream.

Merry kept her hand tight around the small of her back to keep her from falling back into the bath as she came, tightening around her wonderful fingers and bucking against her hand. She fell limp against Merry’s shoulder when she was finished, breathless and feeling lighter than she had since before she could remember.

“Do you want to go now, Miss?” Merry said, and then she laughed a little into Nneka’s ear. “Do you want to go now, Nneka?”

Nneka nodded against her neck. Merry smelled like something clean, like air she’d never breathed, like a sky she’d never seen. “I want to go now.”

Merry helped her to dress, and they were gone before first light, out into the stars, to find the best vantage point for a sunset yet unseen.

illustrated by serenity_winner

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