Cold Hard Hugs started out from some weird desire that gripped me one day to write something that just had a cuddle in it.

For a guy who writes dumb stories that (quite often) feature considerable amount of bodily fluids, inexplicable suffering and general misanthropy I also have a big soft spot for squishy, small stories where people say nice things to each other and cuddle. I don’t know why. And I read them and I look and I think “I couldn’t do that”. But this one time I clearly felt I wanted to. So I did. Sort of?

The other part, I think, was that I’d just found out about Aigis, the robot girl from Persona. And I was all like “Robot girls always look like hot girls, that kinda seems like having your cake and eating it” so I thought I’d avoid that.

Of course, Aigis has a reason, but I didn’t know that at the time…and that reason doesn’t apply in this story. Aigis is also great, and her S-Link ending is super cute. But I digress.

But whatever! First person smultz with a robot girl and hugs and nonsense! It’s probably awful.

#1_Out Of The Rain

Tillie was not human, but I did not hold that against her.

One of those living-machines that sort of just start popping up a few years back. The ones that could learn and grow and live and all that. I forget what their deal was. I was a younger man then, and that sort of news was only vaguely interesting to me. By the time I did start caring it had all sort of settled down and was just accepted. They were here, they were citizens like everybody else and none of the dire predictions that had been made had come true: they were not taking over, they were not leading an uprising, they were not stealing our jobs or our women. Many of them were women, in fact, or at least identified as such, and who could begrudge them that? They paid their taxes, they put their bins out. They were just folk. Robotic folks of metal and circuitry but really, how much did that matter?

They were rare though. Not totally unheard of but not exactly commonplace. A minority of minorities. When I went to uni I did not see any at all, though I heard we had at least one in attendance. All through first year I kept an idle eye out for them but never saw even a wisp of a hint of them. Second year eventually rolled around of course, and I needed somewhere to live that wasn’t halls. I perused around and about for options but found very little that appealed.

Eventually, thankfully, something popped up. Just one other person in a rather tiny looking property up the back end of far away from everything. I didn’t mind a walk, the price was great and they only needed one other person. I was one other person. The situation seemed ideal. I called up and arranged to have a look around. The girl on the other end seemed nice enough. The girl being Tillie, obviously.

I prided myself on my ability to be unfazed and roll with whatever came my way, so while I was perhaps a little surprised when I went round to have a look and found the door being answered by a robotic snake-girl, I like to think I got over it fairly quickly. ‘Snake-girl’ is unfair, too. Sort of accurate, but unfair. Uncharitable might be closer the mark.

From the waist up Tillie is perfectly humanoid – two arms, head (though the head is mostly just a speaker for a mouth and a large cluster of lenses for eyes with a smooth plate on top, but still) – but downwards from there she has no legs. Rather she has a big, thick tail thing on which she slithers around. Whoever thought that was a good idea I do not know, but she does alright with it and I’ve never heard her complain. I’ve only ever tripped over her once. Now I’ve learnt to watch my feet a bit more. Happily, she had a very good sense of humour about it. Unhappily, even with me being careful, she now actively tries to trip me up. In the name of fun, of course.

She was very upfront about things, which I appreciated greatly. Living arrangements would not be quite as they would if she was a flesh-and-blood human. She had little use for the kitchen, for example, and it was in a state of clear neglect when I looked around, but that was alright and it was nothing that I could not get used to. She was also very open about herself, even though I never actually really asked her any questions about life as a robot-snake-girl. Or living-machine-snake-girl, rather. She just seemed desperate to have someone to talk to about it, and about anything really. She answered questions I hadn’t even asked.

Had she always been that size? No. Would she grow? Yes, but only a little bit more. How? I wouldn’t understand. That had actually been her answer, word for word. ‘You wouldn’t understand’. I left it at that. I never pretended to know the first thing about robotics, least of all the sort of quasi-magical hyper-tech robotics that led to machines like Tillie.

And ‘machines’ was an acceptable term, apparently, at least according to her, and I was willing to take her word on it given she was the expert. If she thought I wouldn’t understand how she was supposed to grow bigger I was more than willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. Wouldn’t be the first thing in the world to happen without me understanding it, and certainly wouldn’t be the last. ‘Living metal’ I think I heard someone say once, and someone else might have said ‘nanomachines, son!’ but I couldn’t really be sure.

So that was life. Me in a (small) house with a living-machine girl. The novelty – such as it was – wore off, and things settled into a rhythm. We became friends, as people who live in such close proximity are often in danger of doing. I forget to take the bins out, she leaves the lights on, Wednesday was movie night; stuff like that. It’s so mundane it’s almost comforting.

Oftentimes our different studies would see us not bumping into one another for a day or two at a stretch but we would always seem to find time to talk at some point or other. Typically, this involved her talking to me or at me, which was fine. I am a good listener, I’m told. More weirdly, I actually found myself talking back to her on occasion. I’m not a good talker, but it just seemed easier with Tillie. Maybe it was the lack of a face. Maybe it was just her approachable manner. Who knew.

One day, sometime in the Summer, it rained. This was not unusual, and it wasn’t the first time. That didn’t make it any more pleasant, of course, and it was bucketing down in sheets. Worse yet, I was right outside on my way home when it happened. In seconds I went from content and bone-dry and to unhappy and completely sodden.

I tried running, but I hit puddles and soaked my trousers. I tried walking and just got rained on more. Eventually I gave up trying to be clever about it, gritted my teeth and just bent my mind and body to getting home. I did too, eventually. Shutting the front door behind me and standing for a moment in dripping numbness I saw from the corner of my eye Tillie emerging from her room just off the hallway.

“Hey, we’re out of milk, so- oh my God, you’re soaked!”

I was so taken-off guard by thinking what on earth Tillie could be using milk for that I was even less prepared for her rushing up to me. With a flick of lower body she crossed the hall and was practically nose-to-nose with me before I could blink. It was only me still wondering what the milk might be being used for that kept me distracted and therefore upright.

“I, uh, yeah. Sorry, I’m probably dripping on the floor…” I said, trying to back up as politely as possible and shrugging. I also shivered, because now that I wasn’t being constantly hammered with rain my body had the breathing room it needed to notice just how incredibly cold and wet it was. Naturally, given that it was an English Summer, it was one of those random days when it was inexplicably chilly for no discernable reason.

“You need a towel! Wait right here,” she said, pointing sternly at the ground I was standing on before shooting off towards the bathroom.

Another feature of life with Tillie was that I had the bathroom all to myself, because obviously. My towel was there, and was presumably the one she was getting, seeing as she had none of her own. Sure enough, moments later she returned with my towel in hand and bundled me up in it before I could say thank you.

“Th-whoa!” I yelped and was pulled off balance, dragged in a tangle of limbs and damp cloth down the way and into the tiny little lounge whereupon I was roughly and unceremoniously toweled off. This did very little to actually get me dry, as it was clothes that were wet, and neither of us were making any moves to remove them. I found her efforts oddly charming though, and decided to just let her get on with it. Eventually my head popped out the top of the towel, hair sticking off at angles, and the sight of it gave her pause.

“Oh…this isn’t really helping, is it?” She asked, a touch sheepishly.

“It’s nice, but it’s the clothes that are wet, so…”

“Oh…”

She stood there – ‘stood’; if that’s what one does on a tail, which I assume it is – still holding the towel, though it was slowly starting to drop as her arms fell. I decided swift action was needed. Taking gentle hold of the towel myself, I took it from her hands, smiling in what I hoped was a friendly way.

“Tell you what. You wait here – right here – I’ll go put on clothes that are dry, come back, and we can enjoy being dry together. That work?” I asked, making sure to point at the floor so as to mirror what she’d done mere minutes before (it was the little touches). She nodded mutely. I’d had weirder ideas. I departed.

Getting dry and changed was easy, even if I was trying to be as fast as possible. Wet clothes went in a heap on the floor that I would deal with later, dry clothes went on my body where they would stop me being naked right at that moment. I knew how clothes worked. I was downstairs again in minutes where Tillie was coiled on the smaller of the two sofas. I joined her, because the larger one was empty and cold. We sat in silence for a moment or two.

“Being dry sure is good,” I said, resting an arm along the back of the sofa. Tillie nodded again, just as silently as before. Odd of her to be so quiet, I thought. Very out of character. By this point I would have expected at least one joke at my rain-soaked expense, but jokes came there none.

“You’re still shivering,” she noted. I was, but only just. I grinned it off.

“Ah, it’s nothing. It’s why I’m huddled up to you. Stealing heat, you know,” I said. This did not quite get the response I’d hoped for; a muted half-laugh and a look down into her lap where her hands were resting. Is it still a lap if you just have a tail-thing? I call it a lap. I really take having legs for granted.

“Sorry I’m not warmer but, you know…” she did not finish her sentence. Her lights turned a rather odd colour, one I couldn’t easily put my finger on. Sort of red, but lighter. Times like this, my difficulty with colours became something more of an issue.

Lacking most of the traditional ways of expressing how she felt – facial expressions, mostly, which counted for more than you’d expect – Tillie had other options open to her. Body language was one, though I was always naff at reading that, and another was her lights. These were set in various, largely symmetrical points across her chassis and coloured to reflect how she felt. I think I remember her saying once she had some level of control over them, but only about as much as a flesh-and-blood person would have over their face, say. Most of the time they just sort of glowed a dull yellow-ish, which I think meant happy. This made sense, given how chipper she was.

Light red was a new one though, and it took me a minute or so to realize it was actually probably closer to blushing. This thought, for which I had no evidence, hit me in the gut for reasons I couldn’t fully put my finger on and I coughed without meaning to.

“No no it’s fine, you’ve been far too nice to me anyway given I just showed up and started getting everything wet. Stupid to be out, really.”

“It’s not your fault,” she said. I’d heard these words before from others, but somehow this seemed the first time I’d heard them so sincere. I couldn’t think of anything to say in response and so both of us went quiet.

I liked Tillie. I liked her a lot, actually. More than I or she probably knew. She was just so friendly, and there was an earnestness about her I found endlessly lovely. There had never been a day I’d had that was so bad Tillie couldn’t have made it better somehow.

Not that I’d ever told her, of course. How would you follow something like that up? What could you possibly say if someone said it to you? I wasn’t the best with words, and while I could just about put ‘I liked Tillie’ together in my head I knew if I tried to get them to come out of my mouth they would come out wrong, and things would be just be horrible. Besides, things were just fine without saying them, so why ruin a good thing? That was my excuse, at least.

But, sitting there on the tiny sofa with her next to me – rain lashing down outside the only noise in the room and the lack of anything to say stretching on and on – I found myself thinking more and more about it. I really did like her. And while I’d only moved into the house because it was a) cheap and b) no-one was else was (likely because of Tillie, through no fault of her own) it was still one of the better things I’d done, I thought.

And that was entirely down to her. It didn’t seem fair for her not to know, somehow. I didn’t know why. I didn’t really know a lot of things, and the more I sat there the less I did know. Until my mouth seemed to act on its own.

“Would you…like a hug?” I asked, heart in my throat. The words were out before I was even aware of them and my brain was a few seconds behind in noticing them. The bottom fell out of my stomach but I managed to hide it and not make any horribly strangled sounds of shock.

She still had her head down but it whipped up at this, lenses buzzes as they focused on my face. That sort of thing was still hard to get used to, and as blank as they were you could still tell there was something bright behind them. Something more than just the glow they always had. Windows to the soul and all that. I was never any good at philosophy. Which was pretty amusing, my choice of degree considered.

“What?” She asked, her voice tiny. I held up my hands.

“I mean, uh, it’s fine you don’t. I just thought you might, I, I don’t know, I’m sorry, I just-“ I panicked and backpedalled, falling over my own words only to be stopped by her speaking.

“Yes.”

“Yes?” I asked, double-checking. She nodded, glancing down to her lap furtively, seemingly afraid to look me in the face now.

“Yes please. If you don’t mind?” She asked, wringing her hands.

“I don’t mind. You don’t mind?”

“I don’t mind,” she said. That settled that.

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