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Concrit much appreciated. This is chapter 11 of Cliffton book 1, now edited and hopefully beta-ready. If you are looking for the older version for comparison purposes, it is here Slight warning for minor violence. Also, this chapter took For. Ever. to write. Ughhhhhhh.

If you're reading Cliffton for the first time, here are the previous chapters so you can catch up:
1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10

I watch the artificial flames crackling in the fireplace before me, and I'd smile if my metal face were capable of it. Never mind that the fireplace is ridiculous, and so's the fake wood of this Splinternet café's "log cabin" walls. It's rarely cold enough on this side of the fence to merit a fire, and there's not much wood to be found since there aren't any trees.

None of that's the point, because I'm actually feeling relaxed for once. I'm not sure if it's the ambiance or the simple pleasure of sitting in big, squishy chairs with a group of friends, chatting about nothing in particular. It's a luxury I rarely had back home, not with all the things that needed to be done on the farm -

Did I really just call these three idiots my friends? Lands alive, what's happened to me?

"Why'd they make this place look like a log cabin when no one over here's ever even seen a log?" My robotic voice automatically sounds disdainful, even though I'm only trying to make conversation. No one seems to mind. They're probably used to my voice by now, even if I'm not.

"I've seen lots of trees!" Wes pipes up, practically jumping out of his overstuffed chair. The mound of whipped cream atop his fancy SynthBrew drink jiggles as the liquid underneath sloshes perilously. "My parents had orange groves!"

"I'm sure they did, rich boy," I snicker. "Don't tell me - you had a personal staff of robots who picked each orange as soon as it was ready and made you freshly-squeezed juice every morning."

"Y- yeah." Wes grins sheepishly. "Except our kitchen staff's people, not robots. Stuff tastes better when it's made by human hands, y'know. How'd you think I learned to cook? Our kitchen manager Mandy taught me. Sweetest lady ever. I still go see her every time I visit my parents and I always give her a big hug!"

"Wow, whole groves of trees." Brendan smiles as he sips his own drink. "Bet that's pretty. I've only seen trees in the AgriMuseum, and the few that grow over by the fence." He moves his cup away from his face, and I notice a dab of whipped cream on the tip of his nose. If I had a tongue, I'd be tempted to lick it off. Except I don't, so I catch his eye and make a wiping motion where my nose'd be if I had one of those. Brendan's cheeks turn cutely pink as he picks up a napkin and dabs at his face.

"Devin's pretty!" Wes grins and looks over at his best friend, who's fidgeting distractedly with a napkin.

"Huh?" Devin jumps slightly, shifting in his seat. "What's wrong with log cabins, anyway?" he wonders aloud vaguely. "They're fucking homey." He leans forward, plucks a tiny cup of HyperBrew from the table before him, and knocks it back in one gulp. Then he slams it down on the table, neatly arranging it in a line next to four empty cups and one full one. "Fuck," he grumbles, "almost out of fucking shots."

"Why're you so fond of log cabins, Princess?" I snort. "Did you grow up in one or something?"

"Don't want to talk about where I grew up. Fucking boring." Devin flops back into his chair, draping his long legs over one armrest and leaning against the other. He focuses intently on a rip in the knee of his jeans.

Conversation effectively killed. Oops. I'm usually so good at this - it's disagreeable not to be.

"Did you guys see the smashball game last night?" Brendan asks. "It was a real nail-biter."

"It was, wasn't it? If Bronson hadn't scored that last minute field goal - man." I've had so much free time in the past month and a half it drives me batty, so I've been following the sports matches on neurovision. Even with its complicated rules and odd exploding ball, smashball's by far my favorite sport from this side of the fence. It's fast-paced and action-packed - and the well-muscled players certainly don't hamper my enjoyment, either. "Hey, I didn't know you were into smashball."

"Yeah, used to play in school." Brendan's grinning, his eyes shining earnestly and a slight flush in his cheeks. He keeps talking, but I'm distracted by the mental image of him in one of those skintight explosive-proof suits.

"Hey, speaking of sports, did anyone see this week's rocket race?" Wes bounces up and down in his seat.

"Rocket racing's not a sport." I snort, and this time my disdainful tone's fully intended. "It's just a bunch of guys sitting in chairs while they move machines with their minds - and they only know how to turn left, anyway. Besides, rich boy, what do you know about rocket racing? Aren't country people's sports considered beneath you or something?"

"My family doesn't think like that!" Wes squeaks defensively, his eyes so huge I think they might fall out of his face. "And anyway, rockets! Why wouldn't I watch it? I keep trying to get him to watch it too, but he won't." He pauses and looks over at Devin, who's staring off into space. "Devin, dude - " He pokes his roommate in the arm, hard. "You should've seen the hydroelectric cooling system on the second-place rocket this week. It was incredible!"

"Don't like fucking sports, Wes." Devin reaches for his last HyperBrew shot and tosses it back. Then he stands up, stretches, and leans against the back of Wes's chair. "Think I'm gonna go play some SimFighting. Fake fire's giving me a fucking headache. Say goodbye before you go shopping, okay?" He gives his roommate's shoulder a tiny squeeze before wandering off toward the back of the café.

"Oh yeah - I almost forgot!" Wes's face breaks into a huge grin. "Brendan, dude, I can't wait to go shopping together! It's gonna be so much fun! You can show me all your favorite foods, and Kalen's, too! It's too bad you don't eat anymore, Calla. You'd love the stores here if you did. So many choices! Completely different from the ones back home - or at least that's what Devin says. I, um, never really went shopping back home because we had a lady that did that for us, but there's so much cool stuff you can buy, and all the storekeepers are so nice, and - "

He's still going, but the words blur together after a while. I needn't have worried about being agreeable enough to keep a friendly conversation going. Wes's agreeable enough for both of us, and he'd make conversation with a wall if he had to.

* * * * *

Wes and Brendan haven't been gone long when I start to feel restless. Sitting here alone, I'm forced to notice just how many people are eyeing me like a prize sprinch at the county fair. Apparently, robots don't usually hang out in Splinternet cafes. If I had skin, it'd be crawling from all the eyes that are on me. I stand and head for the back of the café.

Devin's easy to spot, and completely engrossed in his SimFighting match. It's no effort at all to sneak up behind him. I lean in close and whisper in his ear. "Recognize any of your little Splinternet 'friends', Princess?"

He screams and jumps out of his chair, knocking it over loudly. Wonderful - even more attention. He blushes bright red while frantically looking around the room as if he's actually trying to answer my question. "Doesn't look like - "

"It was a rhetorical question, you fool."

"Oh." Devin runs a hand over his hair self-consciously and then looks away. He's suddenly intent on smoothing out a nonexistent wrinkle in his T-shirt - a faded black thing with cartoon girls and monsters on the front. "What'd you want, anyway?"

"I'm bored, so I'm going outside. Want to join me?" I ask. "You look like you could use some fresh air."

"Pretty fucking creative, Calla." Devin crosses his arms over his chest and glares. "Like I haven't heard that one before. Fucking supposed to be this pale. Always have been. Don't need any fucking fresh air."

"Sensitive much, Princess? I meant you were blushing, which you're doing again now." Like I've even noticed his skin color, or anything about him besides his annoyingly pretty face and bad attitude. Now that he's pointed it out, I suppose he does have a lighter complexion than most people from our side of the fence. Apparently, it's a sore point, but what isn't with this boy?

"Come on, let's go," I say a little more gently.

"But my game - " Devin protests.

"As if you can't play this silly game at home whenever you want. Why'd you even bother coming out with us if all you were planning to do was hide alone in the back, anyway?" I take hold of his arm and start dragging him toward the door.

"Fine, whatever," he grumbles as we go. "Too fucking crowded in here anyway."

Outside, it's definitely not crowded - the tables and chairs in front of the café are all empty. It's late fall, and most of the people passing by have on light jackets or sweaters. Of course, I can't feel the cold, but my readouts do include temperature data. It'd be far cooler than this by now back home, and Devin seems perfectly comfortable in his short sleeves as he sits down. Apparently, the people over here can't tolerate weather that's not sweltering.

The weather only holds my attention for a moment, because I'm too mesmerized by the City surrounding us. Back home, I didn't make it into town much. Women didn't have much business there, especially not ones who came from a farm.

Besides, town didn't look anything like this. I still haven't tired of the sight of these buildings, so shiny and elegant - or of the idea that a girl could've designed them. Everyone always told me I was good at art, but architecture wasn't an Acceptable Profession for women, and art wasn't a profession at all. Here, women can do anything - or so Wes says. I wonder what I could've done if I'd grown up on this side.

"Enjoying the scenery too, huh?" Devin's voice breaks into my thoughts. "Check out that one over there."

"What in the whistling winds are you babbling about, Princess?" Whatever he's pointing at, it certainly isn't a skyscraper.

"Him!" Devin gestures vaguely toward a sidewalk full of people. "That dude over there!"

"Oh, that kind of scenery. I should've known." Of course he's checking out men, and there're at least ten of them over there, but I know which one he means. He's clearly drooling over the tallest, thinnest, blondest one in the bunch.

"You really can't resist the tall blonde ones, can you, Princess?"

Devin turns an impressive shade of scarlet and makes a strangled noise. "Nothing wrong with having a fucking type."

"Hmmm, I suppose not - but I prefer a guy with more... girth," I say.

"I bet you fucking do." How does Devin manage to make everything sound dirty?

I scan the bodies in the crowd until I see a nice, substantial-looking guy. He's not as huge as, say, Brendan, but very few men are. Still, this one looks like someone I might not be able to snap in half, and that's saying a lot these days.

"That one over there - now, that's a hottie." I try to point, but my left arm only jiggles oddly and doesn't move, so I use the right. Wonderful. I've got to have Kalen and Devin check that out when we're back at the house.

"What is it with you and Wes?" Devin mutters. "Both so fascinated with fucking muscles."

"Aww, is the pwetty, pwetty pwincess jealous of the big, bad men?" I can't help laughing.

"Not fucking jealous." Devin glares at me. "Just saying there's nothing wrong with thin dudes."

"Well, you certainly don't seem to have a problem finding 'friends'. There are obviously quite a few men around here who share your tastes. Pardon me if I happen to prefer a man who doesn't look like he'll break if I get a little rough."

"Hey!" Devin actually looks offended. "Who says I can't handle it rough? Not that fucking fragile, okay?"

"Too much information, Princess." I roll my eyes.

"You're the one that brought it up." He jams his hands in his pockets and scowls at me. A moment later, his eyes light up. "Ooh, look at that one. That's my kind of fucking man right there." He points to one of the tallest, skinniest guys I've seen on this side of the fence. A beanpole like that's not my type, but the guy beside him - now that's the sort of boy I can get behind... or underneath. Or preferably on top of.

"Let me guess which one you mean," I snort. "Me, I'd much prefer his friend."

Then I notice the RoboCart filled with groceries in front of them. Is that - ? It is, isn't it?

"Is that - " Devin's had the same realization, judging by his horrified expression. "Th- that's Wes and Brendan."

It's a good thing my face can't show emotion, or Devin would never let me hear the end of it.

"We must never, ever fucking speak of this again." Devin clutches at my shoulders frantically. "You fucking hear me? If you tell Wes I said that, I'll - I'll - " He lapses into a dazed silence, apparently giving up on coherent speech.

"Don't worry, Princess. Your secret's safe with me." What's he going to do, blush me to death?

"Wait just a fucking minute." Devin eyes me suspiciously. "You... you've got a thing for Mr. Muscles, don't you?"

"Absolutely not." I make my eyes glow evilly, and I keep my voice as stern as I can. Sure, I've fantasized about Brendan a few times, but I certainly don't secretly pine for him the way Devin does for Wes. Besides, there's no way I'd tell Devin if I did. He'd only tease me mercilessly about it for all eternity. "Now close your foolish mouth before I laser you."

* * * * *

"Neural interface looks okay," Devin mutters. "Much as I can see of it, anyway. If Kalen'd fucking move so he wasn't blocking my fucking light - " He cuts himself off with an impatient little grunt as Kalen leans over him to examine my arm.

"I see how it is," Kalen snaps. "You're going to ask for my help and then complain about how I do it? Now what else does that remind me of? Oh, yeah - the cleaning!" He takes a step backward, staggers, and nearly falls over. "Seriously, Devin? Trying to trip me?" He shoves Devin, who grabs onto me to steady himself.

Are these two for real? My brain casing's still open and they're crashing about with sharp objects in their hands. Someone's going to get hurt if they don't cut it out - and by "someone", I mean both of them.

"Could you idiots knock it off?" I snarl. "I'm perfectly capable of destroying you with only one arm."

"Your arm looks fine, CallaBot." Kalen gives me a dismissive nod and turns back to Devin. "I'd love to stick around and help you figure this out, but I don't have the time. I have to go rearrange all the dishes in the dishwasher so they're 'positioned the right fucking way', remember?"

"Dishes don't get fucking clean if they're - "

"Let it go, Princess." I shake my head. "Just let it go."

I think I can actually hear Devin's teeth grinding as Kalen walks away.

"Gonna go up to my lab for a nanosecond," Devin finally says after another ten minutes or so of digging around inside my head. "See if I've got a spare neuromotor override chip we can try. Think this one's going bad." He's gone just long enough to make me nervous. The grin he's got on his face when he returns doesn't exactly ease my mind.

"I've got brothers back home," I warn him. "I know the look of a boy who's up to no good."

Devin's wide-eyed expression does nothing to convince me I'm wrong. Neither does the moment at dinner when my left arm suddenly shoots out and grabs Kalen's water glass. Except then it dumps the water all over Kalen's lap and I'm far too amused to complain. There'll be plenty of time later to talk to Devin about what he's done.

Getting a hold of the sneaky little bastard's harder than I expected, because I don't seem to have control of either arm now, or any of my body. After dinner, I get up from my seat as planned, but instead of pulling Devin aside, I walk into the kitchen. Next thing I know, I'm sneaking up behind Wes and throwing my arms around him.

"Hey!" Wes squeaks breathlessly as I squeeze him tightly. "You know I like boys, right?"

"Yes, you dolt," I sigh. "Or at least I know you like a boy, and I'm pretty sure the whole City knows."

I've got half a mind to tell Wes that boy likes him back. Except I did promise Devin to keep his secret, didn't I? Never mind the fact it's the worst-kept secret ever. If Wes doesn't know already, he and Kalen are the only ones. I've got other ways of dealing with Devin that don't involve breaking my word.

Except those ways involve physical intimidation, and it looks like they're going to have to wait. By the time I regain control of my limbs and disentangle myself from Wes, Devin's nowhere to be found. I'm certain he's hiding out in that attic lab of his, but I can't even come near it. Each time I try, I find myself turning around and walking off in the opposite direction.

"I know you can hear me, Princess!" I holler at the ceiling. "And you can't hide forever. Robots don't eat or sleep, but you have to do both. I'll be waiting."

How long can Devin possibly hold out up there? I've seen the way he practically falls asleep standing up after just a few late nights. He's going to need SynthBrew, sooner rather than later, and I'm fairly certain he doesn't know how to make his own. Except I've apparently underestimated him, because it's dinnertime before he slinks down the ladder, half-awake and probably half-starved. I still can't get anywhere near him, but he's going to pay dearly when I do.

Especially after Brendan comes out for dinner, and I find myself... touching him. I'm running my hands up and down his body while he gapes at me like I've gone mad. This is so unfair. It's not like I don't want to touch him, but my metal hands can't feel a thing. My mind can't enjoy it either, because it's occupied by thoughts of what I'll do to Devin when I get my hands on him.

All the while, he leans against the wall, watching. His grin's a mile wide and I really might kill him.

"Uh, Devin? Dude?" Wes's eyes are huge, darting from me to Devin and back again. "You've gotta take a look at CallaBot's neural interface. She's been acting really weird lately. Last night, she even attacked me, just like this!" He flings himself at Devin, throwing his arms around him and nearly knocking him over.

At long last, an opportunity!

Devin knows it, too. His eyes widen, but he can't seem to get any words out. Wes is probably squeezing him so hard he's incapable of speech, and that's exactly the opening I need. If Devin can't talk, I bet he also can't reach whatever remote control thingamajigger he's been using on me. My robot reflexes spring into action and I pin him to the wall.

"Kalen, get in here!" Wes shrieks, jumping onto my back and beating at my impervious metal body with his tiny, useless fists. "Calla's gone crazy and she's trying to kill Devin."

Something tells me Kalen's not about to stop me right now.

"Get off me, you twit. This is between me and your little boyfriend." With two working arms, I'm nearly invincible. I swat at Wes like an annoying insect with my right, and hold Devin firmly in place with my left - maybe a little too firmly, because he cries out in pain. That only makes Wes's punches grow even more frenzied, though not any more accurate. I ease up the pressure I'm putting on Devin's chest, ever so slightly. It's not like I want to actually kill him.

Puny humans. So easily broken, and I keep forgetting that. You'd never know I was one for 17 years.

"Wes." Devin apparently wasn't kidding when he said he could handle it rough. His eyes meet mine without a trace of fear. "Calla's right. This is between her and me. And you have to stop trying to fucking protect me. Gonna get yourself killed one of these days."

"Well, isn't this a touching little scene?" I snicker as Wes finally lets go of me. "Now give me the remote, Princess."

"What remote?" Devin flutters his eyelashes, all false innocence. "Don't have any fucking remote."

"Whatever you call the whoodazzle you're using to control my body," I snarl. "You know I'm going to get my hands on it one way or another. And if you ever want to see it again once I do, you'd best hand it over like a good little boy."

"Don't fucking think so." Devin smirks infuriatingly. "You want it, you're gonna have to take it from me."

That self-satisfied look on his face is more than enough to tell me the device's nowhere I'd like to be putting my hands. He's probably shoved it right down the front of his pants, if he's anything like my brothers, and thanks very much but no thank you to that. Besides, there's more than one way to make a boy behave.

"I don't suppose you've got it hidden under here." I slide my free hand under his shirt.

"The fuck, Calla? You know I don't swing that - " When I start tickling his ribs, Devin cuts himself off with a screech that'd be ear-piercing if I had any ears. "You can't - " His whole body spasms and his arms lash out in a futile attempt to fend me off. "Stop - fucking - touching - me," he chokes out between helpless giggles, before he's too overcome to speak.

"Oh, I'll stop, all right - just as soon as you hand over that clicky thing of yours." I pull my hand out from under Devin's shirt, going for his armpits instead. He's laughing so hard he's practically sobbing as he tries with all his might to curl up into a tiny ball. Since I'm blocking his way, he only succeeds in awkwardly collapsing into my metal chest.

"Fine," he gasps, his whole body going limp against me. "Whatever. Just... fucking... stop."

I do, half-expecting Devin to resume his taunts the moment I let him go. It's what my brothers would do, after all. Instead, he backs away from me, watching me all the while like I'm a poisonous snake about to strike. He retrieves the remote - of course, it's exactly where I knew it'd be all along - and holds it out.

"Suppose you want me to disable my link to your neural interface." Devin shoves his hands into his pockets, his eyes never leaving my own. "Need the remote to open my attic. Squeeze it once, then follow me. And don't fucking touch me, okay?" He stares at me coldly for another moment before he turns and walks away.

That's when I notice all three of my other housemates are still in the room, Brendan and Kalen both wide-eyed in their seats like they've been watching this week's smashball match. Wes jumps out of his own chair, clearly about to go after Devin, but I grab his arm. "Let me talk to him." He nods silently.

"You're angry," I say as I poke my head into Devin's lab a moment later. It's a statement, not a question.

Devin's humming something under his breath, sitting on some sort of mechanical chair gizmo behind a table, his legs folded beneath him. He shrugs and doesn't even look up from whatever he's playing with. "Want me to fix your shit or not?"

"Actually, I'd just as soon not have you messing about in my inner workings until you've calmed down."

"I am - " Devin stops himself, but he still won't look me in the eye. "Fine, I'm fucking mad. Trusted you not to go too far."

"Are you serious?" I snort with involuntary laughter, though I'm sure that's only going to make things worse. Except how in the cerulean skies am I supposed to respond? "I'm not the one with a gadget that controls people's bodies."

"Never mind." Devin huddles over the table like a schoolboy hiding his work. "It's fucking stupid anyway."

He looks so small, all curled in on himself like that, and I can't make heads or tails of him. I don't know what I did wrong, or how to make it right. Puny humans. I keep forgetting how breakable they are, especially this one.
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