by shukyou (主教)
illustrations by lord_mune
The first thing I noticed were his hands, which were stained beyond all washing by brown-black grease hiding in the creases of his knuckles and beneath what little of his fingernails hadn’t been bitten down to the quick. They were delicate, though, I could see by the way that he set his glass on the bar and ran his fingertips around the damp rim where his mouth had just been; he touched it like he’d touch a lover, I thought, long before I knew he’d never in his life touched a lover that way. The scent of new money rolled off him, not in that flashy, obnoxious way tasteless barbarians turn gilded lilies with a few extra notes in their billfolds, but like a man who’d come to enjoy all the things that wealth could get him but still didn’t feel like he fit in any of the places you had to go to get those things. He waited until the starched-collared bartender had wandered his way to the other end of the bar before inclining his head in my direction and saying to me, “I’ll buy you a drink if you let me see that arm.”
My head throbbed from a high receding too rapidly, and all I could think was, I didn’t come to London for this.
Ah, but I had come to London to get fucked — or at least get by in the world while getting fucked, which is in my experience the only way to do it — and this was the closest thing I’d come to a proposition since my last one eight months previous, and that had led to scandal and disarray the likes of which I would sooner have avoided. This was what I had been reduced to, then: propositioned by fanatics of anatomical curiosities, kept like a sideshow grotesquerie at the cost of a few bright copper coins. Oh, how the mighty had fallen.
And yet, I was frankly so shocked to hear someone outside the medical profession talk about it instead of around it that instead of insulting his parentage and storming off, I decided the worm looked fat enough on the hook to warrant at least a nip. “Laphroaig,” I said, figuring the price of admission that would call whatever bluff he was playing. Men will promise to fly you to the moon to get you in their bed, but they have to show a rocket already on hand or their credit’s no good.
I expected him to refuse, or at least to negotiate a better rate of exchange; new money, after all, remembers when it wasn’t, and as such can be profligate sparingly. Instead, however, he took his just-touched glass of whisky and slid it toward me, leaving a damp trail across the surface of the mahogany bar. “Man after my own heart,” he said, and though the corners of his lips lifted in private amusement, his grey-blue gaze stayed fixed far below my face. Satisfied for now with the exchange, I took the drink with my good hand and allowed him to lift my heavy, grotesque orthosis with both of his.
I braced my jaw against the coming grind of flesh against artifice and let what was left of the laudanum breathe through my blood — but I barely felt anything as his gentle fingers encircled my wrist and braced my forearm, nudging my too-loose sleeve upward until he could see the place where silver metal clamped into inflamed and scarred skin. His lips parted slightly as he conducted his examination, and the tip of his pink tongue darted out from the corner of his mouth, a gesture of concentration I’d come to know intimately, and I looked away.
The gentlemen’s club was quiet that night, as it tended to be on Mondays, which is why I had come. I’d run into more than a few old lovers and acquaintances since I’d left the hospital, and the one thing those encounters had taught me was that I wasn’t ready to stop avoiding them yet. Everyone addressed me with two mouths, one that spoke sympathy and the other that spoke curiosity, and no one could hide that the latter made more noise than the former, though everyone tried. I wanted to tell them all to go to hell, but a constant dose of painkillers made me unable to care enough about the situation to do so. It was a sad state of affairs, not even being able to summon the energy for proper hostility. The few familiar faces I saw that evening did me the courtesy of pretending not to see me, which was the greatest kindness I could have asked from them.
“This is really terrible.” His voice brought me back from my reverie and reminded me that I had given over care of one of my appendages to this odd gentleman. Investigative journalist, I figured first, before I realized that it didn’t fit his fiscal attitude; a well-indulged family eccentric, I guessed next, only that made the new part of the money incongruous. One of those machine perverts, then, I concluded, and decided that if he asked me for a wank on it, I would give it to him, on account of my being bored to the point of physical discomfort — which was, after all, why I’d ventured outside my suite in the first place. I’d never thought of myself as an exceptionally social person until my social options had been pared away to nothing.
And then there was still the business of his having my arm. The other problem with laudanum was that it made it so difficult to sustain a single train of thought. “Begging pardon?” I asked, dashing my English grammar on the rocks of my Italian accent. Never underestimate the power of being underestimated.
“The work,” he said. Using both his hands, he rotated my arm until the palm was facing upward, then rubbed a circle into it with the ball of his thumb; I could feel the touch as pressure first, then warmth, but nothing more specific. “It’s terrible work, the quality, just … wretched.” Those delicate fingers traced the bolted seam that ran from wrist to elbow, then slid back down just as lightly to press at my wrist joint. “How much movement do you have?”
Not a wank, then, but to wank for him; I had his number as far as what he wanted, but lacked the skills to fill his need. “Too little.” I flexed my wrist forward the half-inch span the metal’s range of motion would allow, then touched together my index finger and thumb, the only fingers I could ever get to respond.
Instead of mere disappointment, the expression that turned his features was pure dismay. “Well, no wonder. There’s no give in the joints here,” he pointed to my thumb, “or here. And the metal’s all wrong, too thick, it must weigh … fifteen kilos?” He looked up toward my face for the first time, and all I could do was shrug; I wasn’t in the habit of placing individual sections of my body on scales. “Feels like. Whoever did this … no, didn’t know what they were doing. Cheap work.”
I wasn’t precisely in the mood for explaining that I hadn’t had a lot of choice in the matter of my reconstructive surgery, owing to my having spent the days around it alternating between opiate hazes and strict unconsciousness, so I busied my mouth with his price of admission. I flicked my tongue across the place his lips had been and tasted cigarette smoke, then let the whisky pour in and burn all the way down my throat. It was good and it was expensive, and while one of those things didn’t necessarily mean the other, when it came to fine alcohol there was usually a correlation. I wondered if he’d light up a cigarette after he’d finished getting off with or on me, and made plans to steal it, just as soon as he got done with whatever compulsion demanded he substitute insulting my hardware for foreplay.
At last, he put my arm back down on the bar, though he kept his fingers braced on either side of my wrist. “I could do better.”
I suppose I could be forgiven my confusion, especially since my first instinct was to assume he meant better than me, in which case I’d have been well within my rights to finish the rest of the whisky and throw the ice cubes in his face for spite. But no, he was still looking at my arm, and sheer curiosity trapped me faster than it caught cats. “Better how?” I asked, letting the ice swirl around in the glass, trying to look disinterested. I’d found the kind of men who found me in this club enjoyed disinterest; they were so accustomed to having poor wretched underlings fawning over their every move that a little hard-to-get went a long way.
“Well, there’s….” He balled his hand into a loose fist, then wedged it into the center of my palm. “Try to squeeze as hard as you can,” he said, and I did, though as hard as I could was barely bringing my fingers to touch his hand, much less applying pressure. “I figured, if the wrist was that bad, the fingers would be worse. Either the hydraulic system’s leaking pressure somehow or … well, it doesn’t look like you’ve got any articulation either way, so maybe it doesn’t matter that the pressure isn’t–”
“Sorry,” I interrupted, not wanting him to continue on under the false impression that I might be listening, “are you a doctor?”
He laughed at that, genuinely surprised, and raked a hand through his short, spiky hair; even in the dim haze of the bar lights, I could see a few threads that reflected back white amidst the otherwise dirty blond cut. “God, no,” he said, shaking his head. “Just a mechanist.” He reached into the inner pocket of his jacket and produced a tan card; the printed letters on it confirmed that he was an airship designer and engineer by the absurd name and title of Augustus Marie Featherstonehaugh, Ph.D. “Call me Gus.”
I squinted at the writing on the card as I took it from his hand. “That’s very many letters,” I said, reconsidering my earlier assessment about the age of his money; most families had to be illustrious for a long time to justify being pompous enough to wield a surname like that.
“Hence calling me Gus.” He took my artificial index finger and bent it back and forth as he spoke. “If you were to let me take this apart, I could see what I could do about making it better.”
This had gone beyond the level of machine pervert right into the realm of the surreal, and I began wondering how quickly opiate dependency could start causing such vivid hallucinations. “You want … to break my arm?”
“Not break it.” Gus shook his head. “Fix it. Repair it, rebuild it. It’s … well, it can’t be comfortable.”
It was uncomfortable, in fact, to the point of being nigh-unbearable, but that wasn’t something I advertised for fear that the same people who had cobbled this together in the first place would take it upon themselves to rend it apart and make it worse. I had nightmares like that sometimes, of being strapped down again, watching as the white-gloved hands cracked the metal case open like a tortoise shell and exposed what was left of muscle and bone beneath…. “And you do this often?”
“Not even once,” said Gus, without a hint of apology for his inexperience in the matter. Perversely, that made me feel better.
“…Why?” I asked at last. It was a question I tended to avoid, because it never helped; it only complicated things, gave me someone else’s absurd reasoning to manoeuvre around. I’d learned young that when you’re getting by on your good looks, it’s better just to assume that all people are capricious and strange, reap the benefits they offer at the time, and bail out before the system collapses. Of course, I’d learned recently that getting by on your good looks only works so long as you have and are willing to use them.
Gus chewed on this for a moment, then brought a cigarette and lighter out of a silver case in his pocket; he proceeded to start one with the other, all with an air of concentration so great I wondered if he might otherwise forget which one was supposed to go in his mouth. But he didn’t seem stupid, or even mildly half-witted, just … thoughtful. “It hurts me to see something as ugly as that on someone as beautiful as you.”
And there it was, finally, familiar ground: the awkward proposal of the well-off but socially inept, the compliment followed by a sheepish smile followed by a tentative hand placed somewhere intimate on my body. Except we’d hit the intimate touch first off, and Gus still had that same look of investigative sincerity on his handsome face, and now here I was, confused again. “…Well, why not?” I shrugged, because I honestly couldn’t think of a compelling reason otherwise; I was fucked up and at ends enough to try anything once, and if it went badly, well, there wasn’t much left of me to miss. “I wasn’t going home with anyone else tonight.”
If my slip to more a competent grammatical structure troubled him, or if he even noticed, he didn’t let it show. “Well, finish your drink,” he said, tucking his cigarette into the corner of his mouth as he went for his billfold. “Don’t want to let it go to waste.”
“Salute,” I toasted him as I did what I was told. “By the way, my name is Enzo.”
His expression never changed, and he never met my eyes. “I know who you are,” Gus said, and every word was a puff of grey smoke that surrendered to the air.
All the way back to his home, I leaned my cheek against the cold window of the cab door, wondering why a man who billed himself with the word ‘airship’ wouldn’t be bringing us back in one of his own. I was tired, though, and talking already seemed like too much effort, to say nothing of asking questions, so I shut my eyes and let the rhythm of the mechanical horses’ hooves keep time for me. Gus, for his own part, said nothing, and the one time I lifted my head enough to see what he was up to, I saw him staring out the window, looking but not seeing, while the tips of his fingers twitched the way a cat’s paws do when it’s dreaming, performing fantastic and wholly imagined feats of skill. I suspected I could have opened the door and fallen out of the cab onto the street, and — had I managed to do it with a minimum of noise — he might not even have noticed.
The next thing of note was the underside of a half-inflated dirigible, something I hadn’t known I could recognize until I saw it, its silvery belly almost close enough to touch. Gus paid the driver and I got out of the cab, expecting the dank chill of the London night and instead finding the warm, dry interior of a half-lit workshop with doors at one end large enough to drive a carrage inside. Bits of airships hung on the walls and from the rafters like trophies at a hunting club, mounted whole and in parts, giving the impression my host might be inclined less toward sending them up and more toward shooting them down. The ceiling was higher even than the gaslights could reliably reach, disappearing into a canopy of starless darkness. I tilted my head back to get a sense of its scope, but half-drunk and beyond good sense as I was, I succeeded only in toppling myself backward, and I might have fallen had a strong arm not wrapped itself around my waist. “Come on,” said Gus, with no hint of mockery in his sweet, soft voice, “this way.” He made no effort to disentangle our bodies, and even twined his other arm with my good one, locking our fingers together as he led me through the maze of iron gratings and walkways that snake-and-laddered through the aeronautic wonders that loomed silently in the darkness.
At last, I felt him begin to lower me somewhat — a process made more complicated by our being of the same height, but less by his weighing at least twice what I did — and I realized there was a ratty couch beneath me intended to be my resting place. “Let go now,” he whispered, a gentle instruction, and I did, collapsing along its too-short length. It smelled of oil and burnt-out engines, and I turned onto my right side, proffering my left arm even as it meant my nose wound up pressed into the back cushions, amplifying my discomfort.
“Oh, no,” Gus said after a moment, taking my arm and placing it gently atop my hip. “I can’t start tonight. It’s too late. The good light’s gone.”
With a scowl, I turned back to him. “Then why else did you ask me home with you?” I asked, trying to keep my annoyance out of my voice, just in case the answer did turn out — unexpectedly — to be sex, even though I’d concluded back at the club that even though I had little idea of what precisely was occurring, the odds of its being related to my carnal pleasure were low.
“I didn’t.” As matter-of-fact as could be, Gus turned on a tap in the wall and filled a tin cup with water. “You just came with me.”
Had I? Thinking back, I supposed I had. Well, this was either a new personal low in seduction attempts or a spectacular vindication of my father’s admonitions about how I just didn’t listen when people talked to me, I wasn’t sure which. “Oh.” I rolled onto my back, folding both my arms atop my stomach and feeling the way they rose and fell as I breathed.
He shrugged and drained the cup, then filled it again and offered it to me. “It’s all right,” he said, waiting as I shuffled myself into a seating position so I didn’t spill everything down the front of my very expensive waistcoat. “I don’t mind.”
Not even bothering with the pretense of ambidexterity, I took the cup with my good hand and sipped the water, recoiling a little at the strong alkali taste. “It’s just that….” I shut my eyes and took a deep breath, then let it out through pursed lips, trying to construct the end of that sentence in the way that made me seem the least pathetic. “I’ve grown used to living — staying — with others. I guess it … makes a habit.”
“You can stay here.” Gus had gone about the business of straightening the explosion of schematics and mechanical parts that lay scattered about the small room, and the more I looked, the more I realized what a catastrophic state surrounded me. I suspected he hadn’t had many guests here in some time, if ever. “While I work, you can. I don’t mind.”
On any other night, I might have laughed off his offer, thanked him with a sincere-sounding brush-off and asked him to call me back the cab that had so recently departed, taken my remaining limbs and remaining pride back to my semi-permanent lodgings at the Savoy, where the sheets would have been changed and the towels freshened and everything returned to nearly the same anonymous state as that in which I had first encountered it; I could have come back here in the daylight, or not at all, depending on how his offer of reconstructive engineering appeared when considered in the sober light of day. But that night had already darkened my humours and whipped my spirits raw, and venturing out a wounded man into the world I’d once tread like a lion … well, there wasn’t much pretense left about anything after that, not even to myself. “I’ll call for my things in the morning,” I said, mostly into the cup of water, then added, lest he think me some colonizing force taking advantage of his hospitality, “just a few, to get me by.”
Gus shrugged again, and I decided I’d never met a more inexplicably agreeable man in all my life, which made me just nervous and suspicious enough to want to keep an eye on him without actually riling me enough to do anything about it. “I live here alone,” he said, not a ploy for sympathy, just a statement of fact. “You can stay here on the couch, or there’s a bed upstairs.” He nodded over his shoulder to a narrow staircase I hadn’t noticed before, one that started from behind a half-opened door in the corner and disappeared upward, with walls close on either side.
I tapped on the side of the cup as I considered my options. “Is it a big bed?”
“Got it as a wedding present, so … big enough.”
There was so much to dissect in that sentence and I didn’t have the energy to tackle even a fraction of it. “Beautiful.” I placed the tin cup on a stack of books that was approximating a side table and stood, heading for the stairs. I was halfway up before I realized he wasn’t following me, and all the way to the top before I figured that this had been an either/or proposition; thinking I’d opted for half the bed, I’d in fact reserved the entire bed, kicking my gracious host ungraciously out of his own quarters without having meant to at all.
And what quarters they were. If I’d found his workshop a mess, his attic bedroom was even more of a disaster, with books, clothes, tools, parts, and all manner of unidentifiables scattered around; I had to squint for a moment in the dim light before determining which great heap of personal items was his bed and which was just a great heap. Yet as I looked closer, I could see that this wasn’t a mere random configuration of junk — there was an order to all these objects, one I had no hope of determining but an order nonetheless, the scattered leavings of a meticulous man who would know in an instant where to find even the most inconsequential piece of debris. By a moment’s decision about my own comfort, I’d landed myself at the heart of his sanctum, and I was suddenly uncomfortable about being left there alone — for a variety of reasons, one of which was becoming ever clearer as I considered the unpleasant prospect of sleeping in my suit.
“Gus!” I called down, and I heard a brief shuffling below. “Gus, will you come?”
“What’s wrong?” he called back, though I heard no corresponding ascending sounds.
I tugged at the top button of my shirt. “Gus, will you … please come help me with my clothes?”
There was a small pause, and then he climbed the stairs to the bedroom; he’d already unfastened his vest and pushed his suspenders off his shoulders, and the latter hung down from his pants around his knees. He took a look at my outfit and drew in a breath as though he meant to say something — but whatever it was, it disappeared into an exhale, and he came toward me, navigating his way expertly through the stacks on the floor. I extended my arms to him, and he unfastened the cuffs of my shirt, freeing my wrists.
“Thank you,” I said, letting him take the lead in my disrobing, moving only so much as it made his job easier. “I have the hotel staff to help, usually, but….” With my arms at my sides, I let him push my coat back off my chest, and when it was free, he took it from me and lay it flat atop a chest-of-drawers.
“I don’t mind,” he said for what seemed like the ten millionth time that evening, and I began to wonder if he was possessed of some verbal tic related to that phrase. He held out his arm for balance as I slipped off my shoes, and when he hesitated before getting to my trousers, I did as much of the actual unfastening as I could manage single-handedly and left him only to the business of easing them down my slim hips and thighs. Each time I removed another article of clothing, he flattened it and stacked it atop the other pieces, until I was down only to my stockings and undershorts; I took a step back then and slipped my way out of everything, until I was completely naked before him.
This, I assumed, would be the camel-breaking straw: seeing me, bare and half-drunk, seated at the foot of his bed, my knees slightly spread and my hair curtaining my eyes. Gus, however, simply nodded at a job well done, and appeared to be making a retreat when I sighed and scooted over to the far, unslept-upon edge of the mattress. “Gus,” I called for him again, “please stay here. In your own bed. There’s room here, you said it’s big.”
Gus scratched at the back of his neck, surveying the situation with a skeptical frown. “I don’t mi–”
“I don’t care if you don’t mind.” I pulled back the covers and tucked my lower half beneath them, just in case the idea of getting into bed with a naked man was not high on his list of desirable arrangements. “I’m asking. Please.” I didn’t know how much of a selling point it would have been to point out that I hadn’t shared a bed with another person in many months, so I kept that out of my persuasive argument, but it was all true. “Don’t let me kick you out. I would feel bad. A bad guest.”
I could see his expression teeter on a tightrope of uncertainty, then finally topple over the side closest to acceptance. “All right,” he nodded, “just let me go turn out some lights.”
“Take your time,” I smiled, resting my head against the pillow. It smelled of him, that same oil-whisky-tobacco-sweat scent that hung around everything he touched, and I burrowed my face into it, letting it become familiar; it made me half-hard to think of that smell and his body, but only half, and that was easily overridden by exhaustion. I was nearly asleep by the time he reached the bottom of the stairs, and deep into dreaming by the time he returned to take his own side of the bed.
He wasn’t there when I woke up either, though I’d woken up alone in enough beds to know the difference between when I’d had a partner and when I hadn’t. I rolled over to his side of the bed and felt the last vestige of his body warmth lingering against the sheets; I wanted to lean into it, to roll around in it until it covered me, but a jabbing pain from my elbow demanded attention. Denied sleep, I pulled on only my trousers without a stitch beneath, snatched a bottle from the pocket of my coat, and padded downstairs.
He was sitting at a high drafting table, poring over complicated schematics with a wax pencil in one hand and a mug of coffee in the other; he wore loose clothing, a long-sleeved shirt and pair of overalls both marked with faded oil stains. A pair of tiny spectacles with secondary magnifying lenses sat perched on his nose, and the grey end of a cigarette smoldered in a nearby ashtray. “Buongiorno,” I mumbled at him as I proceeded to the same sink I’d seen him use the night before and drew a glass of water.
“Buongiorno,” he responded without looking up, his accent so flawless I thought my ears must have been playing tricks at my expense. “How did you sleep?”
“Not long enough.” I unscrewed the dropper that served double as the cork to the bottle and squeezed the bulb, filling its glass body with the rust-coloured liquid; it was an easy enough gesture to manage one-handed, which was part of how I’d convinced the physicians to hand over my dosing duties and release me from the facility. Twenty drops went into the tin cup, and I swirled it around, letting its bitterness spread throughout the body of the water.
Gus watched me as I performed my little ritual, and if he had any opinion on it, neither his expression nor his mouth chose to comment. “It’s nearly ten.” He pointed to a tall grandfather clock that stood against the far wall and looked perfectly normal for the face, then had mechanisms growing out of its body like vines, sneaking along the walls and into the ceiling; I wasn’t certain if it powered something else or if something else powered it.
“As I said.” I took a drink from the cup and swallowed it fast, biting back the shudder that crawled up my spine. “Not long enough.”
That brought a funny smile to the corner of his mouth. “My cats don’t even sleep that much.”
“You’ve cats?” Having spent a brief time as the lover of a middle-aged baroness with an entire feline armada, I knew how a place tended to look when cats had the run of it, and nothing I’d seen so far suggested that to be the case here.
“Strays, really.” He nodded out toward the rest of the workshop. “I feed them a bit, and the roof keeps out the rain and the chill for them, and they keep the mice from gnawing wires and chewing holes in the canvas.”
With a brave steadying breath, I took down the rest of the drink, and it was a minute before my gag reflex had subsided enough to let me speak again; this was why I preferred diluting my medication in something stronger than water, but at this point I was more needy than picky. “Plus, cats and ships are supposed to be lucky, aren’t they?” I asked, when as if on cue a grey-pawed tom sauntered through the open door.
Gus clucked his tongue and stood, and the cat regarded him for a minute, engaging in a sort of face-off before turning and retracing its steps out of the office. “They don’t usually come too near,” Gus explained, “but Papageno … he’s bolder.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Like the opera bird-catcher?”
“Thought it was a good thing to call a cat.” He reached for my orthotic arm and I let him take it, breathing as deeply as I could through the ache. “Do you want to get started?”
I nodded, and he led me to the couch, helping me ease into a reclining position that allowed my left arm to hang off the side of the couch; at my gentle suggestion, he dashed upstairs to the bedroom and retrieved a pillow to put behind my back so the well-worn arm of the couch didn’t dig too deeply into my spine. He brought a small rolling worktable on which he braced my arm, and clipped onto the table’s side a bright-bulbed lantern. He seemed to have no qualms about touching me, and indeed was more than willing to place hands on my bare arm, chest, and shoulders until I was satisfied with my position — though at no time did he seem particularly aroused or intrigued by the contact. Yet he did not even approach the same detached handling I received from my physicians, because he was so gentle and thoughtful throughout, never letting go until I had assured him of my security. I thought that perhaps I might one day figure him out, and be awarded some scientific prize for my deconstruction of this human enigma.
Arranged and settled to my comfort, I shut my eyes and listened as he pulled up a chair on the far side of the worktable. I tried to relax, but there was something tugging at my brain, something I had neglected to point out, surely some piece of information relevant to his task…. And then there was the click as he placed a small tool near the joint that held the arm to my elbow, and my eyes flew open. “You can’t take it off,” I said, sounding a bit more panicked than I supposed the drug should have allowed.
Gus frowned, but held steady, one hand bracing my bare bicep. “I was only going to examine–”
“No, you can’t take it off. It doesn’t come off.” With the great effort it always took, I pinched my thumb and forefinger together. “Those are still my bones beneath. And some muscle, I think. I don’t know how much. I’m sorry.”
That gave Gus visible pause, and he froze for a moment, then put down the screwdriver. That, I feared, would be the deal-breaker; I could see in his pale blue eyes the look men get when confronted with the true enormity of the task at hand, weighing reward against the potential for catastrophe and deciding just how much of this they’d signed on for. Nice try, then, a lovely idea, but just unreasonable at the end of the day–
“Let me make some sketches,” said Gus, standing to retrieve some items from his drafting table. “This may take longer than I had thought.”
“…But you’ll still do it?” I asked, and it was not until confronted with the possibility of failure that I realized how much, in the span of a single night, I had hung my heart and hopes on the idea that something, anything could be different, that the pained and self-pitying routine into which I’d sunk might not have to be the rest of my life.
He looked me in the eye then — for the first time that I could remember, met my gaze and held it, still and unafraid — and wide-eyed, said simply, “Of course,” as though the prospect of giving up on his plans for me would be unthinkable to him. And I, bolstered by his confidence, found reason to smile.
I hadn’t noticed I’d fallen asleep until the knock on the door startled me awake. “I’m sorry,” said a bespectacled young man, who had the flustered, gawky charm of a career academic, “I’ve brought these for Dr. Fanshaw?”
I’d been staying with Gus for three days already, biding my time, napping often, and making myself useful as I could; I’d even tidied his entire bedroom, mostly in a fit of pique when, upon receiving my things brought over from the Savoy, I’d found nowhere to put them. He’d given me a tour of the hangar and a bit of the surrounding neighbourhood, though the area in which he’d taken up residence was primarily industrial, without much entertainment value within walking distance unless one were unusually amused by large machine parts. Thus I’d begun to consider myself quite familiar with my new lodgings, yet had no idea what the man meant. “Who?” I sat up and tried to straighten myself as best I could, though I could tell my sleeping position had left my coarse, dark hair skewed at a frightening angle.
“Dr. Fanshaw,” the man repeated, and he gestured to the thick stack of books he had tucked under one of his arms. “He asked if I might bring them by.”
Still hazy from just waking, I stood and straightened myself as best I could. “I think you have a wrong place, si?” It was amazing how automatically my accent thickened when encountering someone new, particularly someone as cute as this fellow, who looked barely older than I, but whose eyes had locked tellingly on the gap between the unbuttoned folds of my shirt. Not that I was in any position at present to show him anything further, but any interest at all made me feel better about myself.
“Corbin!” Gus’ voice rang out off the high ceiling of the hangar, and the man’s face lit up with recognition.
“Dr. Fanshaw!” he called, and gave a bright wave. “I’ve brought the anatomy texts!”
I could hear Gus’ approaching footsteps, and I wondered what little thing that might make this whole exchange make sense I’d missed. “Great, thank you. You can just put them right in there.”
Corbin gave me an inquisitive look, and I sat back on the couch, gesturing to indicate he should use whatever flat, available surface he could find; I’d tackled the bedroom out of sheer necessity, but felt no call to re-arrange anything down here. With a polite yet awkward smile, Corbin nudged aside a few papers and set the volumes horizontally atop another stack of books. Gus stepped in behind him a few seconds later, and when Corbin extended his hand, Gus took it — though most of the enthusiasm was brought to the handshake by its younger participant, and for all Gus gave a friendly smile, he kept his eyes downcast the entire time. “From what you told me, this should be enough to get you started, though if you find a need for something more specific, please, let me know.”
“No, no, these should be good.” Gus nodded as he eyed the spines of his new acquisitions. “Very good. Thank you.” I cleared my throat a bit, and he turned to look at me — then turned back to Corbin as his sense of social graces kicked in. “Ah, Corbin, this is Enzo, that I was tell you about. Enzo, Corbin Jeffries.”
“Pleasure,” said Corbin, stepping forward and extending his hand, and I reasoned that he was worth standing for. “I’m in my second year at Bart’s,” he explained as he shook my hand, answering the questions I frankly hadn’t planned to bother to ask; he reminded me of some small purebred dogs I’d met: friendly and handsome enough, but vibrating with an energy so nervous it approached malignant. “I take it the arm in question is, ah, yours?”
I raised my orthotic so he could see it more clearly, though held it back just far enough to indicate he shouldn’t touch, and to his credit, he didn’t try. “Yes, mine.” I was no longer feeling so charitable toward his charm as I had before, but bringing up the issue of my arm with strangers was always guaranteed to put me in a foul mood. …Except, of course, with Gus, but three days with him had already convinced me that he was probably one of his own mechanisms run on an inexplicability engine, and I would be better not to waste my energy pondering the imponderable.
“Fantastic,” he nodded, though his grin faltered a little as I took less care to keep my smile indulgent. “Just fantastic. Well,” he turned back to Gus, “ring me again if you’ve need of anything else, I’m more than happy to provide.”
“Very helpful, yes, thank you.” Gus allowed a quick handshake as a parting gesture, then watched from the door as Corbin retreated to the hangar’s street entrance. “Nice lad. His mother’s a cloth merchant I’ve done business with for years.”
“That’s nice. Who’s Dr. Fanshaw?” I rubbed at the joint of my elbow, working out some of the stiffness built up while I’d been napping.
Gus looked up at me, as puzzled (for once) as I was. “I am.”
“No, you’re not, you’re….” I reached into the breast pocket of my shirt and pulled out his card, which I’d stuck there to make sure it didn’t get laundered with the rest of my articles from that evening. “Mr. Feather-stone-hog.”
“Fanshaw,” Gus corrected, pointing to the card as though that mess of letters could possibly help make his point. “The t is … well, I guess most of the letters are silent.”
I squinted at the card again, cursing the ridiculousness of English; my only saving grace was that native English speakers often thought it cute when the handsome young foreigner asked for directions to places like the Thaims River or the Green-witch Park. “And you said you weren’t a doctor.”
Gus pointed to the card again, though now at the letters at the end of his name. “Not a real doctor. Well, not a medical doctor.” He nodded to the books Corbin had brought. “Though if I get good enough at this I’ll consider a second career.”
It occurred to me then that any sane man would have taken what little of his own flesh remained on him and beat a hasty retreat from the amateur meddlings of a man who self-identified as ‘not a real doctor’. But my arm was in large part metal now, so perhaps real doctors were no longer what I needed. “Just make sure your first patient pulls through,” I warned, taking back my previous position on the couch; I settled my arm on the worktable, so he could have a look at it if he so desired, and made every attempt to return to my interrupted nap.
I was awake and shouting before I knew I was either, and the sudden awareness of my condition just served to fuel my panic. I tore at the sheets, wrenching my elbow at a terrible angle, and might have done myself even greater damage had I not suddenly found myself encumbered by fabric, swaddled as one might incapacitate an infant; a hand pressed against my chest, pressed hard, to the point where breathing was a heavy prospect that required great concentration, and that need to focus drew my attention away from the phantoms that had haunted me up from sleep. “Easy,” I heard a voice say, and it was Gus’ soft tenor barely an inch from my ear, so close I could feel the brush of his moustache against my skin, “it’s all right, now, easy,” and I became easy, just like that.
He held me so for a moment in the dark, until my struggling had ended and my breath no longer came in noisy rasps; then I could feel a shift in the bed, and I was no longer weighted down, merely bundled and left to my own untangling. “Sorry,” I whispered, for all the good it would do me. “It’s nothing, I’m sorry.”
“A nightmare?” he asked, though his question sounded as though he already knew the answer. Even with my eyes wide, I could see nothing in the night-blackness of his room, but I could feel the way the mattress shifted as he rolled farther away from me.
My elbow throbbed, and as I drew it from its wrappings, I could feel the telltale wetness of blood on the sheets. “You … excuse me, please,” I said, and tread a path I fortunately already knew, one that took me around the end of the bed, across the recently cleared floors, and into the pale marble bathroom just beside the top of the stairs. The pain was already starting to creep from my arm toward my belly, making my stomach clench, and I willed myself to breathe past the sick that climbed the back of my throat. I pulled the door shut behind me, but did not latch it, and flicked the switch that brought a row of bright bulbs to life.
Owing to a combination of sedatives and restraints, I’d passed the few first months of my hospital stay without further injury. The latter I had of course left behind when I’d ventured into my own life again, but only the former kept the night terrors at bay — and even they had become no match in recent memory. I braced my left hand against the white porcelain lip of the sink basin and rotated my arm as far as joints and nerves would allow. In the bald white light of the room, bright smears of blood appeared to glow against luminous steel and pale skin. Naked, I stood trembling before the room’s only mirror, trying to gauge the extent of the damage and fight back nausea at once.
“Let me,” Gus said, and I jumped, having heard nothing of his approach. He plucked a fresh-laundered towel from a stack and ran it under water from the sink, then swept it gently over the my skin, shaking his head as he did. “That’s why I’ve been readying more of a ball-and-socket design,” he said, as much to himself as to me. “You can’t expect something that anchors into your skin like this to have enough practical flexibility.”
I shut my eyes and leaned into him, letting my head rest against his shoulder as he tended me with those gentle mechanist’s hands. “Is it bad?” I managed, unable to look; I’d always been tender about the sight of blood, and my own was no exception.
“Oh, it’s terrible, just–” I tensed, and he stopped mid-sentence, then inhaled sharply. “Oh! No. You’ve nearly stopped bleeding already. The arm is bad, ugly. You’re good.” The damp, warm cloth traced easy circles against my skin. “Beautiful.”
I didn’t feel that way, but I also felt no strength in me to contradict him. “I….” Upon further consideration, what I did feel was disgusting, smeared with blood and caked with lingering sweat and still trembling almost too hard to stand. “I’d really like a bath.”
Without comment, Gus helped me brace myself against the sink, then turned to the large claw-foot tub mounted against the wall; he turned a few knobs and the copper pipes began squealing their way to life, first spitting out steam, then gushing hot water into the bath. Leave it to a career mechanist and airship doctor to have the most amazing water heater in, as far as I was concerned, the universe. He rolled up the long sleeves of his nightshirt and ran a hand through the water to test its temperature, then came back to help me in.
After barely a week, and of his own volition, Gus had become the finest nurse that had ever laid hands on me; he only ever had to be asked or told anything once, and from that point on would do it without question or complaint until given orders to the contrary. I’d managed quite well to tend to my own hygiene since leaving the hospital, mostly with buckets and sponges — but now I was shaken and tender from the nightmare, and still at least a quarter asleep, and all I wanted was to sit in a hot tub until I became a raisin. I took his arm with my good hand, and his slipped his other arm around my bare waist, guiding me across the chill floor and into the steaming bath. I was about to plunge in completely, immerse myself like Nemo’s submarine, when Gus caught me beneath my left shoulder and shook his head. “Probably don’t want to get this wet.” He folded a towel instead and perched it along the rim of the tub, then lay my metal arm out along it. Denied the opportunity to soak the part of me I’d most wanted clean, I sulked and sunk down until I was covered to my nose by the warm, copper-smelling water.
Seeing me like this made Gus laugh, which in turn made me unable to keep down my own smile, and I emerged past my chin again. “Wash my hair?” I asked, even though I knew I could have phrased it as an order and Gus’ response would have been no different. He eyed the task before him, then stripped off his pyjama top and hung it over the hook at the back of the door, completely unselfconscious about either his body or mine.
And he was spectacular, make no mistake. Neither his ill-fitting work clothes nor his fine suit did justice to the broad, handsome man beneath them. His muscles were built and strong, well-suited to his daily tasks of hoisting heavy machine components, and his chest was lightly furred with hair the same blond as that on his head. Despite close quarters, I’d not yet seen anything of what might be found below the waist, but if the way his pyjama pants sat against his hips was any indication, I was very interested in a more thorough examination.
I’ll not be modest about it: I’m attractive, and I’ve had enough people tell me so to know that I’m not alone in this assessment of my features. As such, I’d been using my looks since the scandalously young age of twelve to get what I wanted in or by the way of physical affection and companionship, and had come to realize that being attractive meant that even the people least inclined toward having sex with me still wound up thinking about it, a kind of thinking that was easy enough to exploit. Despite having starved my already-slender frame gaunt with hospital food and opiate breakfasts, and despite the monstrosity that had colonized half my arm, I knew I still turned heads. If I couldn’t be bold, I could be subtle, and if I climbed naked into someone else’s bathtub or bed, the owner knew what I wanted.
Except for Gus. He ran his hands through my hair, soaping it up and rinsing it out, then proceeded to wash the blood from my arm, then continue on to my shoulders, then down my back, all the while silent and attentive, yet never once indicating or betraying any sexual need. He spread his fingers over my face as he poured the water over my head, careful to block any soap from my eyes, and when I inclined my chin so my lips brushed against the skin of his smallest finger, he neither pressed closer nor pulled away. When he guided me back against the far end of the tub so that he could get a better angle toward tending my arm, I went and allowed my body to rise buoyant, until the half-hard hill of my prick rose like Atlantis from the sudsy ocean, giving him both the view and the permission to take it — and he neither turned away nor looked. He personified the maddening middle ground between attraction and repulsion, the center where he neither noticed nor cared, and I wondered for a fleeting moment if his pyjama pants were liars and he’d lost his cock and balls in some terrible accident, rendering him the most masculine eunuch in human history.
I also wondered how long he intended to keep on with his bathing duties, as I realized I’d relaxed myself into a comfortable doze, and when I came back, he was still stroking my shoulders and hair, and my cock had stretched itself to its full dimensions, resting against my stomach and still only half-hid by water. I cleared my throat, and his hands stilled, the hover of a child not sure if what he’s been caught doing is wrong. “Gus?” I asked, aware that sleep had leadened my mouth with the vowels of my native language. “Can you … excuse me for a minute?”
His touch stuttered, then full-on stumbled as, presumably, the reason for my request became clear. “Of … of course.” He stood and dried his arms, then left the towel hanging from a hook within my easy reach. “Just … pull the plug. When you’re done. That’s all.” With a quick clearing of his throat, he slipped past the door and shut it behind him.
Modesty and decency are two commodities I’ve often been accused of having been born without, and here proved no exception. I didn’t try to make a show of myself, precisely, but neither did I take pains to conceal my actions as I wrapped my good hand around my cock and gasped. It wasn’t the first time I’d gotten off since my injury, but it was the first time I’d really wanted to — instead of just responding to physical urges or abject boredom, I had a fantasy worth fixating upon, and that was Gus’ hands. The water splashed in the tub as I ran my fingertips up and down the length of my hard erection, thinking about those hands, the way they’d felt on my back and hair, the way I wanted him reaching into the water and rubbing me off, dragging his big flat thumb over the slit at the tip, letting me suck and bite at the fingers of his other hand, promising me with the same voice that had told me easy that I could suck him off next, take his fat cock into my mouth and blow him until those great strong hands balled into fists in my hair and held me tight as he came down my throat–
Even if I’d wanted to, I would’ve had no hope in hell of keeping myself silent; I bit my lip and cried out wordlessly as I came, adding my semen to the bathwater, laughing a little as my exhausted brain told me I looked like a bit of a whale, spurting little white jets into the air. At last, I let go and melted back into the water, splashing myself a few times for cleanliness before I climbed out. I gave myself a quick drying-off, as much as I could manage, and slipped back into the bedroom as naked as I’d left it.
He wasn’t asleep, I could tell from his breathing, but he was doing a good enough job of pretending, so I decided to allow it. Instead, I slipped under the covers and fluffed my pillow up against my head — and then, in a fit of mad boldness, leaned over in the dark and planted a kiss against his bare shoulder. “Thank you, sweet Gus,” I whispered, though he gave no response, and shortly after I closed my eyes and fell back into dreamless sleep.
“What happened to her?” I asked. It felt intrusive, but I was done up on twice my usual dose of laudanum and still having to make an effort to avoid thinking about how Gus had the largest metal panel on my forearm half-disconnected, and if he expected me to lie there in silence and listen to every scrape and squish his tools made, he had another think coming.
“What her?” With my good arm curtaining my eyes, I couldn’t see his expression, but could draw from memory the little line that furrowed his thick eyebrows whenever I said something strange.
“The her the bed was for. The one you married.”
A little clatter announced his trading one tool for another, and I wondered if my drug-influenced choice of conversational topic perhaps had not been the best for keeping Gus talking. Nonetheless, after a moment he gave a resigned little sigh. “Didn’t work out.”
“I sussed that out, or she’d be here objecting to me.” I’d yet to see more than a half-dozen people come and go through Gus’ shop in the time I’d been there, and the only woman among them had been Mrs. Szabó, a stout Hungarian woman with limited English and strict ideas about what should and should not be touched in the service of tidying up the place. I’d given her a pleasant smile, and she’d returned it with a suspicious glare, so I’d mostly allowed her a wide berth as she’d gathered the laundry, scrubbed down the bathroom, and placed new cold and pre-made dishes in the icebox (the seeing of which had solved for me the mystery of where we got our meals, since I’d never seen Gus so much as peel a potato) before toddling off. I doubted she was the wife in question, but stranger things had surely happened.
Gus’ fingers twined through my metal ones as he held my arm steady. “I agreed to marry her as part of keeping her father’s business in the family. He was the head of Barton Aeronautics. It didn’t work out with either of them.”
“Barton?” I searched my mental library for the company name and came up with nothing. “Never heard of them.”
“They went out of business. Two years after I started my own garage.”
That pleased me on Gus’ behalf, and I laughed, riding the narcotic semi-euphoria that almost distracted me from the exploratory surgery below my left elbow. “Then why did you want to join his business in the first place, if you could do better on your own?”
“I…” Gus sighed. “I was twenty-five. And I didn’t think I could do better on my own. And then it was the only option I had, after she asked for an annulment.”
My mind caught on his use of that word: in the deeply Catholic society of my youth, annulments had been the not-infrequent response to the impossibility of divorce, available to those who could make a sufficient case that what they’d gotten out of marriage had been so different enough from what they’d expected from it that it would be better for all concerned that it had not happened at all. But I’d spent so long in a place where public-record divorces were regarded as unfortunate fact, not terrible secrets, that the choice was noteworthy. “How long were you married?”
“Twenty-seven days,” Gus answered flatly, and it was all I could do to remind myself that staring at him in disbelief would no doubt include seeing the carnage of my arm, and I wanted to avoid that. Such a short marriage, declared invalid on the grounds of a lack of fulfillment, combined with Gus’ having evidenced thus far no degree of comfort with or even response to any sexual impulses…. Though I of course could not ask for confirmation, certain things about his history were yet beginning to be made clear.
“And that was….” I frowned as I tried to determine his age from his barely lined face and slightly greying hair, made a stab, then revised on the low side. “What, fifteen years ago?”
“Eighteen,” said Gus, and I was glad I’d guessed low.
“Did you love her?”
Gus hummed in the negative with all the cold frankness time allowed. “Did you?”
I uncovered my face just enough to let him see my frown. “I don’t know, have I met her?”
“Not my wife.” There was a whirring sound, the noise of a screw’s being rapidly loosened, busy hands at busy work. “That doctor’s wife.”
It was quite literally only the state of my arm that kept me from excusing myself and running away, definitely out of the room, possibly even out of the country. “I….” I was not surprised to find that he knew the details surrounding the incident, especially considering I’d gone with him to the hospital a few days previous and authorized the release of all my medical and police records to him, but the confrontation froze me in place. Leave it to Gus to ask what everyone else wanted to know but didn’t dare voice.
He cleared his throat. “Sorry,” he said, “shouldn’t have.” His mechanist’s fingers never stilled, operating of their own accord far below the haze of awkward conversation.
“No, no, it’s … no.” I took a deep breath, feeling the laudanum pressing at the edges of my lungs, and let it out in a long thin stream. “No, I didn’t. I wanted to, I even thought I did at the time, but I know now I didn’t. And that’s terrible.”
“No,” he said, with the same utter calm as he ever possessed, as though I’d called a spanner a drill and he’d taken it upon himself to correct my terminology. “It’s not.”
I cleared my throat and felt the corners of my eyes prickle with hot tears — and here I’d thought they’d gone dry months, even years ago. “She’s dead because of me, it seems the least I could do.”
“The way the papers tell it, he stabbed her, not you.”
I gave a dramatic sigh, bored to tears of semantic platitudes. “Because she’d been with me, so it’s all the same. And I don’t think she really cares the difference anymore.” Another deep breath steadied me, and I shook my head. “I’m sorry, I’m shouldn’t yell at you.”
Gus made a noncommittal noise. “Sometimes you just need to yell. It’s all right.”
I opened my mouth to say something, anything, but nothing came, and eventually I shut my lips with one last sharp puff of air to punctuate my foul humour. I’d never been a private person, and had in fact made my much of my way by being a decorative flourish on the arms of several notable individuals — but it still wasn’t fair, that anyone in London could pick up a slightly dated newspaper and learn everything about me tabloid journalism considered worth knowing. It wasn’t fair that all of literate society could no doubt recount the tragic tale of the royal physician, Dr. Raghnall Waldegrave, and how he’d butchered his unfaithful wife Clarissa, set to mutilating her young lover’s body with acid, and subsequently forfeited his fortune to that young lover on account of the police’s having arrived, alerted by an observant maidservant, before he’d had time to boil off more than the flesh of one arm.
It wasn’t fair that I had to bow and scrape for every scrap of information about Gus’ life, but he’d come to our meeting already armed with every piece of barter I could possibly offer in trade — and the unfairest blow of all was how he could trap me like this, leaving me at the mercy of his myriad interrogations with no easy escape. The more I thought about it, the angrier I got, until I had clenched my teeth so hard I feared they might crack. “I think we’re done for today,” I snapped, my voice leaving no uncertainty about how my consent had been withdrawn.
I expected some protestation on his behalf, but received none; I could feel him stop in the middle of his task, put his tools down, and begin the job of closing my orthosis. The more I thought about the injury, the more my arm began to throb with the ache of traumatic memory, until the skin I no longer had felt as though it were being boiled away again. “More laudanum,” I gritted through clenched teeth.
Gus’ response was an uneasy sigh. “So much isn’t good for you.”
“I don’t care!” I jerked and might well have torn some machinery loose had his right hand not pinned my bicep to the table. “I’m in pain! Can’t you tell? Are you that much of an fucking idiot? Or do you really not care? My God, what a bastard you are,” I railed, having descended into Italian at some point without having made a conscious switch.
The metal casing of my arm clicked shut, and Gus did up the fastenings with frightening efficiency. “It’s safe to look,” he told me, his voice noninflected, and by the time I opened my eyes, his face was turned away and he was walking out the door into his workshop, his body held the same as it ever was, neither the weight nor the pace of his stride giving anything away.
It emphatically was not safe to look — next to his mechanist’s tools were a set of doctor’s implements, and my blood still clung to the blades and tips of their silver surfaces — but I could push past those and make it to the sink. Cradling my bad arm to my chest, I fumbled at the bottle of laudanum, trying and failing to untwist the cap with a tremorous hand. At last, the final turn gave way, and I poured the dropper’s unmeasured contents straight onto my tongue, fighting back the urge to gag at its unrelenting bitterness. That settled, I stumbled up the narrow stairs and fell face-first onto the bed, clenching my knees up tight to my chest, waiting for something, anything, to break.
When I woke again, the light from outside the window had gone, and I was alone. The ache in my arm had subsided and my mouth was a desert, so I declared myself fit enough to venture downstairs in search of water.
However, I bypassed both the sink and the arterial clock that told me the time was just past eleven, and instead followed the sound of a phonograph and the smell of cigarette smoke out into the hangar. I moved quietly, careful not to be a disturbance, though I doubted I could be heard over either the roar of the music or the resounding echo that returned to it; I feared I might startle some cat into revealing my presence, but they must have bedded down for the night, for I saw none of them. Strings swelled as I got closer, until I came around a half-welded fuselage and found myself standing in front of a great airship engine. It was easily three times my height, and its body held so many crevices and gaps that I didn’t see Gus within it until he reached for a tool from his belt; his shirtless back was to me, and he made no move that indicated he saw or heard my approach.
I recognized the piece as soon as the voice on the recording began singing: Un bel di, a haunting aria that had some years ago been the only highlight for me of an otherwise dreadful evening at the theatre. Something was strange, though, and I had to listen closely until I realized that in the production I’d seen, the song had featured a solo soprano; yet here she was joined by a man’s voice of rich yet untrained quality, singing of great longing in a tone far more vibrant and warm than I’d ever heard any recording capture–
The tenor’s line was interrupted by a brutal line of fantastic Italian and English profanity as Gus’ hand slipped and a spanner went tumbling to the workshop floor, and I darted back into the shadows as he hopped from the machine to retrieve it. After a moment of grunting with the effort of climbing back into the heart of the beast, his voice rejoined the recorded soprano’s melody, absent and comfortable, performing for no one but the music itself. I wait a long time, he sang as he tightened great metal bolts, but do not grow tired of the long wait.
I slipped back through the hangar, feeling the chill of the metal walkways beneath my bare feet, until I entered his office; there I found a pen and a scrap of paper that looked blank enough to be unimportant. I’m sorry, I wrote, and I folded the note in half, then stuck it into the gap between the door and frame just by the handle, where he was certain not to miss it. That completed, I climbed the stairs, removed as much of my attire as I could manage on my own, and lay on the far half of the bed to wait.
Some hours later, I was roused from fitful sleep by the press of weight on the other side of the mattress; and when I woke the next morning, he was still there.
It was at that point I decided to seduce him.
Certainly there had been a great prior body of convincing evidence presented to me that I should engage in this pursuit, that it might be salubrious to the both of us in the long run; but until then, it had been at best a carnal fantasy, an idea fueled by the speculation that he could benefit from several orgasms and the certainty that I could as well. When I woke to find him beside me, shirtless and deep in slumber, I was filled a deep longing to kiss him — and just keep kissing him, pressing our mouths together again and again until I had somehow communicated to him what it had meant to me to see him like that, to hear his rich voice as he worked, perfectly unselfconscious and himself as beautiful as he tended to accuse me of being. …And then, of course, we could take to what came naturally next between two naked, beautiful bodies, but that was a secondary concern.
I sensed that might have gone over poorly, though, and I was still plagued with a nagging self-consciousness about my grotesque appendage, so instead I feigned sleep and rolled closer to him in the way sleepers do when they are chilled and divine a warm presence nearby. I pressed myself against his back with not too much deliberation, just the dreamy disconnected flops of the truly asleep, until my lips brushed somewhere near the top of his right shoulder and my cock was nestled up against the curve of his hip. It was something of a contortion, and involved lying on my left arm, which I never did during real sleep due to the considerable discomfort — but he needed to know none of that. Settled there, I closed my eyes and steadied my breathing, waiting for him to make the next move.
I didn’t have long to wait. Barely five minutes later, I felt him stir — and then freeze, the way he did when caught in uncertainty. His breath grew louder, then a little ragged, and I heard him lick his lips and swallow, which I interpreted to mean I was having the desired effect.
And then he rose and disappeared into the bathroom. After a pause I judged too brief for anything properly sordid, I heard the sound of urination and washing-up, and then the door opened again. Subtlety, then, would not be the way to approach this task.
Thus I was not only still naked when he emerged, but also awake and atop the covers, and fully hard to boot. The erection hadn’t been difficult to conjure; rather, it had been the perfectly natural conclusion to being so close to him and imagining what business he might have had to attend to. Instead of covering myself, I stretched catlike across the bed and gave him a little wave with my good hand, leaving my other draped across my bare belly. “Good morning.”
“Good.” Gus cleared his throat. “Morning.”
I wanted so much to look and see how much he was looking, but knew that the moment I investigated his response too closely, he would notice and pull back. “What’s your schedule today? Have you got someone coming in?”
He was clearly tense, and I almost felt bad for putting him in such an uncomfortable spot — but in my experience, everything pleasurable came only after a series of terrifying warm-ups. “Yes. At three.” He cleared his throat again, though I wasn’t surprised his first attempt hadn’t worked. “To get the engine for Mr. Sullivan.”
“Mm.” I raised my right arm above my head, feeling the pleasant pull of sleep-tightened muscles renewed for use. “Do you want me to come down or to stay away?”
The question gave him pause, and I tried not to let my delight show on my face; if conversation was becoming even more difficult than it usually was, I was surely doing something right. “You … do what you like.” He reached for a discarded-yet-clean shirt from atop a pile of wooden crates and pulled it on with haste, doing up the buttons with frankly alarming speed. “You can be there. It’s fine. I don’t mind.”
Despite my best efforts, a wicked little smile curled at my mouth. “Is everything all right, Gus?” I asked, my voice saturated with false concern.
“Just fine. Everything is fine.” Shirt done, he pulled on a vest and proceeded to fix it nearly to his throat. “Everything’s just fine. Great. Just fine.”
“Would you like to get your hands on me this morning, then?” I asked, innocent and bright-eyed as though there might be no more than a single meaning to such an inquiry.
His hands slipped mid-fastening, and I worried he might snap one of the horn buttons of his vest in two. “Yes, we can get some more work done.”
With a languid roll, I flipped myself over onto my stomach, turning my head so he couldn’t see me see him seeing me — oh, he was making this a difficult business, but I appeared to be making progress, and I wasn’t going to stop now — and stretched my mechanical arm out before me. “I don’t know what you did, but it doesn’t hurt as much today,” I told him, and it surprised me even as I said it to realize that was true.
“That’s good. Very good.” A third throat-clearing proved just as insufficient as the first two. “No laudanum today, then?”
I hadn’t expected him to bring up the issue, given how it had been such a shouting point the day before, but leave it to Gus not to know when to leave well enough alone with touchy subjects. Truthfully, I had given my response to him a critical examination and decided I was most of all upset that I’d gotten so upset. I’d been warned about the substance’s addictive properties, and had even made jokes of my own about dependency, but when faced with the potential of actual addiction … well, I was frankly insulted. I’d spent years being lover, kept boy, plaything, and short-term companion, but I wouldn’t play bitch to anyone or anything. And Papa had said my bald stubbornness would never come to my aid. “Just a little,” I pouted prettily, “please, Gus? But you put it in the cup for me from now on. You decide how much.”
I couldn’t see his face well from my awkward angle, but I could read the line of his body language in the periphery of my vision, and could watch tense shoulders slacken somewhat at the concession. “Just a little. A very little.”
“Just a kiss.” I took the thumb and forefinger of my metal hand, placed them a hair’s breadth apart, and pressed them gently to my lips.
Gus’ eyes went wide, and even despite the bedroom’s imperfect light, I could see him blush — not just a polite pinkening, but an actual apple red, spilling out past his cheeks toward his hairline; his light eyebrows and moustache stood out against his flushed skin. “Just a little,” he said, his voice weak, “perhaps later tonight.”
I shook my head and rolled back on to my back, using the pillows from his side of the bed to prop myself into a seated position. “No, now. Before you work.” There was a difference between being beholden to a drug for every waking moment and wanting proper anaesthesia before a procedure about which I was already terrified, and I felt it proper to exercise my awareness of it here.
Gus shoved his hands in his trouser pockets, his eyes downcast. “If that’s when you want it.”
I spread my knees a fraction and said with my most meaningful smile, “Oh, I want it.”
That, I was certain, had pushed plan into action: here I was, sprawled on his bed, naked and willing, obviously hard, at his mercy and yet trusting completely, telling him in all but the most explicit terms that I wanted him to bed me! He shifted his weight on his feet, and I envisioned that his next move would be to come forward, into my arms, between my thighs, until all thought of visitors and mechanisms fell away. Could there be a man yet made, out of flesh or stone, that would decline such an opportunity?
Apparently, there could. “Tea first, then,” Gus said, and he started for the stairs with telltale speed. “I’ll go make that now.”
“I’ll be … I’ll be down in a moment,” I stammered after him, unable to conceal my slack-jawed surprised at his hasty departure. Just for good measure, to see if a more direct innuendo could change his mind, I added, “After I take care of some things!”
“Take your time!” he called back, and I heard the kitchen sink begin to run.
Abandoned in the bedroom, my naked, needy body left to fend for itself, I indulged my pettier spirits and allowed myself a bit of a sulk to commemorate what I perceived as a miserable failure. And yet, even I could not keep such ill spirits entertained for long, not in the face of certain truths: one, he had been looking at me, and even if I hadn’t won the reaction from him I’d hoped, I’d won a reaction, and it was more than I’d had the length of our acquaintance prior; two, he hadn’t responded in the negative, which meant I was free to continue until I achieved some more definite verdict; and three, the pleasure I’d gotten from his looking at me had readied my prick nearly to ache, and I found myself hard-pressed to keep myself low when there was that need to be indulged.
I’d had little call to engage in masturbatory activities after my surgery for many reasons (among them being that though right-handed in all other matters, I’d grown up more comfortable pleasuring myself with my left), yet living with Gus had brought me to needful hardness twice within the past week, and that was a blessing difficult to undervalue. Stretched on his side of the bed, with my face half-pressed into the pillows that smelled of him, I wrapped my good hand around my cock and began to stroke myself the short distance to orgasm. As I did, I again made no pretense about disguising my activities, and even gave a gasping cry that was far more theatrical than sincere as I came, spilling my seed all over his sheets; later, he could clean it up or not, as he saw fit, but either way, every time he looked at it he’d have to think of me.
From downstairs, I heard the distinct sound of a poor teacup’s teetering on the saucer in its owner’s hands, then succumbing to the pull of gravity and the firmness of the kitchen floor, and I could only smile.
Not wanting to impose upon him to the point of discomfort, I set the plan to the waiting phase, opening myself to let him make the next move in his own time. The downside of that plan became apparent within hours: the representative for Mr. L.L. Sullivan, an insufferable banker I’d once met at one soiree or another, arrived at precisely a quarter past noon that day with a new set of specifications for the engine of his currently in Gus’ care and a work order for five more modified just like it. As Gus was the sort of man who believed that anything worth doing right was doing one’s self, saying yes to the project meant that he, as his own enterprise’s sole permanent employee, disappeared into the workshop, reappearing only for meals and sleep (though I had enough nights nodding off and waking alone that I had reason to suspect he might instead be commandeering the piles of heavy oilcloth that would one day become air bladders as his temporary bed).
Thus, though we continued to occupy the same four rooms and adjacent hangar, we ceased seeing one another for more than a few minutes each day. Gus made his very sincere apologies for neglecting his work on my arm, and I made similar apologies for taking up part of his living space while no longer being an active project, and we each told the other not to worry, circumstances being what they were, we didn’t mind. And had I minded, what could I have done? It was hardly my place to demand attention in the face of paying projects; I considered briefly offering to pay rent myself, only to discard the idea as both too insulting and likely an insufficient incentive to keep Gus from his mechanical marvels. There was simply nothing for it.
So I busied myself with what I could find, which involved a great deal of sleeping and reading the less technical books Gus kept around the place. I made friends with Mrs. Szabó by offering (mostly through gestures) to help her with the tidying-up, and she put me to use with whatever household tasks she felt I could manage one-handed; she chattered at me all the while in Hungarian, never seeming to care that I couldn’t understand a word, and it came to so she kissed me hello and good-bye on the cheek every time she arrived or departed. I walked the neighbourhood on windy evenings, enjoying the fresh air as the breeze blew the pollution from the factories away. I set up Gus’ spare phonograph in the bedroom and listened to recordings of various operas, many of which starred the same bel canto soprano I’d heard in the workshop that late night, a woman by the name of Beverly Featherstonehaugh, who (after a quick calculation with the age of the recordings) appeared to be the same mother he’d disappeared for dinner with on several occasions since the start of our acquaintance. Eventually I washed the sheets myself, and that was a touch depressing.
I also, over the course of several days, the contents of which I shall not recount here, mule-headedly rid myself of my laudanum addiction. It was an unpleasant mess, all things considered, and for the first time I was pleased that Gus’ work kept him so occupied, that he did not have to see me so weak and languid, gripped by sweating and brittle aches. My arm still pained me, but far less already given his brief attentions to it, to the point where it was unpleasant but manageable without additional narcotic. I do not know whether or not he noticed my condition, but if he did, he was polite enough not to mention it, and as I never again mentioned needing the little bottle I’d entrusted to him, he never offered.
Without Gus’ more regular habits to keep me on schedule, I came unmoored from any strong sense of night or day, and thus was surprised to wake one day and find it was morning, I’d fallen asleep in the bathtub again, and Gus was in the room with me, shirtless and barefoot, trimming his sideburns with a pair of tiny scissors. “Oh, hello,” he said when he heard me splash with the startlement of waking. “I didn’t want to disturb you.”
“No, no, it’s … I shouldn’t sleep here.” With a great grunt of effort, I hauled myself to my feet, mindful of the slick bottom of the tub; I hadn’t been asleep long, I could tell by how the water still held some heat, but still long enough that my odd one-arm-out position had given me a tightness in my shoulder. I shivered and grabbed a towel from the nearby rack, then proceeded to dry myself off as best I could. With a nod, he gave a careful snip, then held his finger horizontally beneath its lowest border, measuring its straightness. “You’re very precise. You get a look, like you’re planning something.”
“Want to look neat.” Gus shrugged and picked up a straight razor, frowning as he considered his face in the mirror. I was glad I’d never been much of one for growing a beard, because the business of shaving one-handed approached more trouble than it was worth, and I felt the fewer barber visits on my calendar, the better. “Not very sinister.”
“Maybe not.” I yanked the cord of the bathtub plug, letting my impromptu bed run down the drain, then perched on the wide lip of the bathtub, the towel tucked beneath my bony bottom mostly so I didn’t slip off. “I like to watch you work,” I told him, and it was less an attempt at seduction and more a statement of fact; I wasn’t awake enough yet to have my full wiles in operation, and going off painkillers had meant the constant pain in my left arm no longer contented itself at a dull roar, contributing to my feeling distinctly un-sexy most of the time.
Gus snorted, and the side of his moustache nearest me quirked with his smile. “I’m sorry I’ve been so busy. Two more days and I’ll be done.”
I waved away his words, shaking my head. “I understand. You have a real job.”
That brought a brief shadow over Gus’ features. “I … don’t think of it like that.” He ran his razor under the hot tap, washing away the tiny hairs he’d scraped from his face, then knocked it against the basin to shake loose the extra droplets.
“You know I’ll pay. For materials, and for your time, when it’s completed.” I stretched out my metal arm before me, looking at the way it shone in the bright bathroom light; I could see where Gus’ tools had left scratches and score marks along its cheap surface, wounds he assured me his creation would never show. “I know we never set a price, but I trust you to be fair.”
He frowned and shook his head, then stopped both as he brought the tiny scissors back up to his upper lip, snipping away any offending hairs. “I don’t want you to pay me. I need to do this because it needs to be done. Because I need it to be done.”
“Because it hurts you to see something as ugly as that on someone as beautiful as me?” I asked with a smirk, recalling his words from the night we’d met. At the time, I thought they’d been at best hyperbole; after spending nearly a month with the man, though, I was now convinced that it had been a statement of the most unvarnished truth, unbelievable at the time because I’d never met anyone in the world who thought about people or machines like that.
Gus nodded, as straightforward about it as he ever was. I’d been called beautiful before, of course, by artists wanting to sketch me, lovers wanting to flatter me, social hopefuls trying to buy my attentions with words — but never in my life by someone that wanted nothing from me save that said condition should continue. To him, I was beautiful in the same way that water was wet or warmed air was lighter than chilled air, as a fact so absolute that saying it made it no more or less true than before it was voiced.
“Well,” I said, ruffling lingering droplets from my damp, matted hair, “you’re very handsome yourself, you know.” He snorted, and I smacked my hand against the side of the tub for emphasis. “I’m telling the truth! You are.”
He cast a glance out of the corner of his eye that suggested he didn’t believe me, but that he wasn’t going to push the issue. “Then that’s something, coming from someone as pretty as you.”
“So handsome. And with a very handsome moustache.”
“Hm.” Gus gave the scissors one last decisive snip, then put them on the edge of the basin before splashing water across his face. “And now it’s perfect.”
“Perfectly handsome,” I added, and he rolled his eyes as he damped a towel across the lower half of his face. “I like men who look older, anyway.” I smiled, pushing the joke as best I could, and was thus a bit put out when he turned his back to me and began the business of putting away his grooming implements. “Does it … bother you, that I’ve had many lovers?”
I didn’t know what I’d expected his answer to be, but was unsurprised when not a single muscle in his body moved except to replace objects into the medicine cabinet. “No,” Gus said, his voice unreadable. “It make no difference to me. Though you have lived quite an exciting life for someone so young.”
It occurred to me then the question had never come up, and I narrowed my eyes. “How old do you think I am?”
Gus shrugged. “Twenty-five?”
“Two years too many,” I said, and Gus shrugged again, conceding the correction. I stood from the edge of the bathtub and used my towel for a second pass across my damp hair, leaving it in what must have been a frightful state, because Gus reached over and smoothed some of the more ragged locks back from my face. “Ugh, I need a haircut.”
“I could cut it for you.” Gus let his fingers rake through my hair all the way to the back of my neck, where some strands had begun to brush ticklish patches of skin. “It doesn’t have to be right now. Sometime.”
“Sweet, sweet Gus.” I tilted my head so my lips brushed the inside of his forearm, and true to form, he neither pressed closer nor pulled away. “How did I get so lucky to find you?”
He shrugged again, close enough that I could feel his body move with the gesture, close enough that I could have closed the gap with a turn of my neck and a stretch of my arm. “No one else wanted me?”
“That can’t be true,” I laughed, and a placed my good hand against his bare chest, turning so as not to place the orthotic between us; if he thought it was ugly, I was probably best keeping it out of the equation. Let him see what was beautiful, what he could have if he just came close enough to take it.
But he gave me a pat on the shoulder and drew away, out to the bedroom. “True forty-three years and counting,” he said, and proceeded to pick up a shirt and sniff it, frown, and put it on anyway. I considered it a tremendous accomplishment on my part that at that moment I refrained from wrenching a length of copper piping from the wall and bashing in his stupid handsome head.
The operation, when it finally happened, was a miserable ordeal.
Gus, to his eternal credit, always did everything as best he could; he was gentle and attentive, and his dexterous hands made work far more speedy than it otherwise would have been. Yet even his exceptional skill could not decrease the central horror of the event: my flesh, metal though it was, was in essence being removed, and another put on in its place. Every time I so much as thought about it, I cursed myself for having kicked my narcotic habit and went instead for the nearest, most alcohol I could find. Thus I was well beyond drunk, closer really to unconsciousness, when I closed my eyes, stretched myself across the couch, and told him to have at me.
Before starting, he’d shown me what he claimed would be my new arm, and I’d oohed and aahed appropriately, despite how he could have shown me a bucket of scrap metal and it would have had the same meaning to me. If I squinted, I could perhaps make out the shape of what would become thumb and forefinger, but I could just as easily have looked into the clouds and found the same figures. This was so far beyond my area of expertise that my body might as well have had no part in it.
I heard the telltale crack of tight metal’s being separated, and winced as I felt the anchoring claws retract from my skin. “Last time ever,” said Gus, and he stroked my hair in a reassuring manner.
Nodding, I reset the damp washcloth spread over my eyes, which was there both to cool my brow and to block out any temptation I might have had to check in on what was happening to my immediate left. The darkness, however, seemed to multiply every sound, until every noise conspired to provide my imagination with a horrible counterpart image: snapping tendons, tearing muscle, scraping bone. I took several deep breaths, trying to calm my heart. “Could be worse, could be worse,” I muttered.
“Worse than when they put the first one on?” asked Gus, whose soft voice still served to drown out the sounds of his work.
“No, no, I don’t remember that.” I swallowed down a sick feeling that was rising in the back of my throat. “When he hurt it in the first place, Waldegrave, when he did. He didn’t let me get drunk first. Just poured it on, bit by bit. Not a nice doctor,” I said, though the last word descended into a whimper as Gus touched something sensitive with a sharp edge and a spark of pain shot through my arm.
“Sorry, sorry. One more time,” he said, and it happened again, but then was over. “There, no more of that.”
I took another deep breath, held it for a ten-count, and let it out through pursed lips. “Did your wife cheat on you?” I asked, and the question was out of my mouth before I even knew I was thinking it; leave it to alcohol to make room for such magical moments. “Is that why she wanted out, because she had someone else?”
He was silent for a thick, heavy moment, but before I could muster either retraction or apology, he cleared his throat. “Why do you want to know?”
“Because … I do. Because it makes no sense to me, why a woman would leave you. After she married you,” I amended, because I could certainly see why a woman might be inclined to leave Gus — sometimes women leave for strange reasons, and strange was something Gus did quite well — but not what might come to light after marriage that hadn’t been blindingly obvious before.
“Because I couldn’t,” he answered, his tone as unsentimental as ever, and before I could ask for clarification, he added, “in bed.”
“Oh,” was all I could say. Now, of course, I could see all the signs of the past with a wretched sort of clarity, but hindsight always wears better glasses. “…At all?”
“At all. Hold steady.” He unlocked a bolt near my thumb, and the jolt pained me so much I cried out — though it would indeed have been worse had he not warned me. I felt a gentle tug and heard an awful sort of peeling sound, and realized this must be what it was like to have the back of my hand lifted away; only the most stubborn resoluteness and biting the inside of my mouth to bleeding kept me from vomiting.
Again I tried to remind myself that it had been worse the first time — except that I was quickly coming to realize that, in many ways, it hadn’t. For starters, I’d had no compunctions about screaming my discomfort at Waldegrave, as I’d already been given cause to raise my voice at him, first about finding him over Clarissa’s lifeless body with bloodied clothes, then about waking up from an unexpected dose of chloroform to find myself strapped to an autopsy table. Screaming, as it’d turned out, was quite a cathartic response to pain, and though I’d been in fear of my own life throughout the ordeal, the sensation of having my flesh burned away with acid had been so overwhelming that it had blocked out all anxiety about the particulars. And though memory distended the event for miles, the truth was it hadn’t been more than five minutes from the time Waldegrave had started in on my punishment to the moment the police burst through the door.
This, however? Gus had put a conservative estimate on the procedure at six hours, and the chime of the monster clock told me only ten minutes of that had passed. I can’t say I wanted it to hurt more, but it was quickly turning out that waiting for bursts of pain was almost as bad as experiencing them, as my brain took each previous shock and multiplied it a thousand times by way of anticipating the next one. Though it pained me to admit it, Waldegrave’s long-winded pontificating on my crimes — which by my estimation amounted only to affording both sexual satisfaction and an escape from an abusive marriage to a beautiful woman who’d had neither — had at least distracted me from having to listen to the sound of my own injured flesh. “Did you try again?” I asked, my need to hear something that wasn’t the sound of Gus’ tinkerings overweighing my good judgment about inappropriate topics.
“I tried again.” There was another slight jolt, and I felt something slide off the top of my thumb. “A few times. I never could.”
“Well, maybe you just didn’t find her–”
“Enzo,” Gus said, and the sound of my name silenced my natterings. “You … really don’t want me talking about her and trying to concentrate. You just … don’t.”
“Fine, fine,” I said, sounding a little more petulant than I’d intended. “That’s fine.” I settled back down against the couch, trying not to fidget too much, but unable to stop the nagging certainty that if I could just crawl out of all of my skin, matters would improve. “Can you at least … put on some music?”
His hands stilled. “What, now?”
“Yes, now! I can … hear you.”
“Hear me what?”
“Doing … things. Whatever you’re doing. And I don’t want to. So, can you?” I tried to look as cute and persuasive as I could with a damp towel over my face and part of my internal workings exposed.
He gave a soft sigh, but I heard him stand and shuffle about for a bit, and a moment later, the tinny opening notes of La traviata came from the horn of his phonograph. “Better?”
“Much,” I nodded, and willed myself to relax, concentrating instead on the sweet swells of bright strings. I was still only a bald amateur as opera appreciation went, and in more than a few cases I wasn’t sure ‘appreciation’ was quite the word for it, but had come to a fondness of certain composers, and Verdi was certainly one among them. I focused on first on the sounds of overture, then to the voices that joined the orchestra. “Is this your mother as Violetta?” I asked as a beautiful soprano trilled through the air.
“She sounds better in person.” I could hear the smile in Gus’ voice as he spoke of her; if he’d spent his life as a man only a mother could love, at least he’d surely had no difficulty reciprocating the affection. “She’s retired now, for the most part, but sometimes she’ll still take a role.”
That same slipping sensation came over my index and middle fingers, and I tried not to envision what an exposed mess I must be. The chorus on the record struck up a drinking song, and I steadied my breathing until it came and went in time to the meter; I was nothing of a performer and even less of a composer, but my elder brothers and I been all subjected to the same aristocratic classical education the customs of our family’s station had demanded, and some things had managed to stick despite my best efforts to pay my tutors as little mind as possible. “You can take me to see her next time she’s on stage.”
“I’d like that,” said Gus, and he took a deep breath. “All right, this is going to hurt, and I’m sorry. Are you ready?”
“Just be done with it,” I moaned, drunkenly languishing in my pitiful condition. I felt one of his strong hands brace my bicep against the table, holding it against any movement, and I grit my teeth against one another, breathing in short, cold gasps. Over my own anxious sounds, I heard him draw in a deep sigh, and then he grasped the heavy band around my wrist, the one he’d once explained controlled what little motion I had in my fingers, and pulled it free.
I couldn’t have held myself in check if I’d tried; a cry of sheer white pain tore from out of my lungs as I arched my back up off the couch, and I might well have wrenched everything loose had his strong arms not been able to hold me in check. Sweat rolled down my cheeks, mingling with the tears of agony that had spilled out of the corners of my eyes, and I tasted salt and blood in my mouth. As I ran out of breath, I collapsed back against the couch, sobbing in ragged gasps of air. It hurt, worse than the first injury, worse than anything, and if I’d had enough sense for words, I would have begged him just to saw the whole monstrosity off and be done with it. The prospect of having to live my life truly one-armed seemed at the moment preferable to extending this agony.
Barely had my head hit the pillow beneath me, though, than I felt his lips pressed to my temple, and a new cool, clean cloth replaced my previous blindfold. “I’m sorry,” Gus whispered, his voice weighted with misery; I didn’t know if that made it better or worse, how much it wounded him to wound me. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. That’s the worst of it. I’m sorry, shh, I’m sorry.”
I turned my face as close to his as I could, leaning for the comfort of his touch, and concentrated on the rhythm of my lungs until my breaths no longer stuttered and I could fill my lungs more than halfway again. “Sing too?” I whined, because I was tired and hurt and it was the only thing I could think to demand that didn’t involve amputation.
Bless him, he didn’t hesitate longer than it took the tenor on the recording to claim that if Violetta had a heart, she wouldn’t make light of his professions of love. Are you serious? he sang softly, doubling his mother’s weightless soprano the octave down, and when the recorded Alfredo gave his assurance that he was, asked, How long have you loved me?
I lay my head against his shoulder, tender and blinded and scared, yet comforted by having him near — and found that unlike Alfredo, until the words of the duet asked, I’d no idea I had.
I slept the next two days, in and out of consciousness, and suspected somewhere in the middle of my haze that Gus had taken my earlier charge seriously and spiked the glass of water he helped me sip. It kept me down, though, and between my moments of waking, I had no dreams, and every time I opened my eyes, Gus was barely a word away.
At last, I woke up and felt no real need to go back to sleep, which was a change in circumstance. Fog-brained still, I fumbled with the business of sitting up, though I made such a catastrophe of myself that instead of getting upright and fixing a few pillows behind me, I slipped back down beneath the sheets and wound up with a pillow atop my face. I gave it a disgruntled tug and tossed it to the floor, and in that moment became aware of a pair of perfect impossibilities: one, the pain I’d born for months upon waking was no longer with me, and two, I’d just saved myself from smothering by using my left hand.
I brought it back before my face, wide-eyed, and gaped at the metal surface. My old orthotic had been utilitarian at best, oh-so-generously affording me the approximate range of motion of a crab; I had been able to grasp and bend with some small facility, but the main concern had obviously been serving as a second skin. Gus’ design, however, was breathtaking. The metal was lightly engraved with an intricate artful design, which appeared to have no practical use yet which must have taken him hours, if not days, to complete. The pads of my fingertips — my fingertips, they had become so easily to me– swirled with ridges as delicate as the fingerprints I’d lost, their tiny ridges gleaming in the early daylight through the open curtains. I held my hand before me, palm facing up, and willed my index finger to curve; it did, a graceful beckoning, bending at each of the three joints that accommodated the similar, real bone structure beneath.
“Ah, you’re awake,” said Gus, and I jumped, having only then noticed his presence. He sat sprawled in an armchair that I’d only seen before half-buried beneath his clutter, looking half-awake himself, and as I turned, he smiled and scratched at his mussed hair.
“Am I?” With an anxious heart, I tried to bring all four fingers together to touch my thumb, and felt overcome with emotion when their surfaces met with a light tap. “No, I think I’m still asleep. I think I’m having a wonderful dream about an amazing man who built me an impossible fairy arm.”
“No magic,” he said, sitting up a little straighter. “Just good mechanics.” He grabbed a cigarette case and lighter from a nearby table, and presently the air was full of thin grey tobacco smoke.
I shook my head, still stretching and turning my arm for a careful exploration of my new boundaries. “It’s the same to me. You could tell me the elves came in the middle of the night and forged it for you, and it would probably make more sense to me than whatever you really did.” I gave him a grateful smile, then noticed a blanket across his knees and frowned. “Did you sleep in the chair last night?”
“Didn’t want to disturb you,” Gus explained, and when I stuck out my lower lip in an exaggerated pout, he rolled his eyes. “You were the one stealing all the covers. There wasn’t an inch of room left for me.”
I began to protest, but a quick examination of my state, to say nothing of the number of pillows and blankets I’d commandeered, proved him correct. “Get a bigger bed.”
Gus snorted with amusement, sending little puffs of smoke out over his moustache. “You’re a demanding little thing, did you know that?”
“My demands get met, I get greedy.” I shrugged. “It’s what you get for appeasement.”
That brought a full laugh to Gus’ lips, a short bark, and he rose. “With a pout that pretty, I bet you’re used to getting anything in the world you want.” He walked over to the side of the bed and handed the cigarette to me, and I took it from him with my new metal hand; there was a moment of negotiation in the hand-off, and I was scared to death I might drop it and burn something irreplaceable (such as myself), but I succeeded it getting it from him and bringing it to my mouth. I took a deep breath from it, then fell back against the pillows as I sighed the warm smoke from my lungs. “If you’re awake for good, I’ll make tea.”
“A new bed,” I repeated, returning the cigarette to him, “and a machine that makes tea come upstairs by itself.”
“The most demanding stray I’ve ever let in.” With a cluck of his tongue to let me know how ridiculous I was and how much of a saint he was to put up with me, he turned and started downstairs.
“Maybe a little elevator,” I called after him, raising my voice as he got farther from me, “or a little cup with legs! You make the tea and pour it in, and the little cup comes up the stairs, bum-bum-bum-hello! I have your tea!”
His only response was a long-suffering sigh so loud I could hear it all the way upstairs, and I laughed, rolling around the bed with glee. We were both in unprecedented high spirits, it seemed, and I supposed we each had every reason to be — after all, he’d proven himself a true genius and I’d had my lost limb returned to me. It still ached, of course, but it didn’t hurt the way it had before, the constant fire in my joints that only the laudanum could medicate to a hush. I closed my eyes and brought the back of my hand to my mouth, feeling the delicate swirls and ridges as I brushed my lips across the strange surface; down below me, the bright copper kettle whistled its readiness, and I smiled so wide I began to cry.
When the key to solving all his mysteries finally dawned upon me, it was an epiphany so obvious that I wondered how I’d gone the length of our acquaintance without understanding something this fundamental about dealing with the man.
I’d invited myself over in the first place, and he’d never set a limit on the duration of my stay, but I’d always assumed deep down that upon completion of the project, one or the other of us would launch into a well-it’s-been-fun speech, and that would be that. But as the days moved on past the operation, he never said anything about my departure, until I became concerned that he might actually be biding his time until I left of my own accord, too polite to say that he’d rather have his space back. I made a few vague references to returning to my hotel, but he neither encouraged me to go nor dissuaded me from leaving.
That evening, we were both relaxing in his office, having finished dinner some hour or two before; we had taken up posts on opposite sides of the couch, I with a collected volume of Italian poetry on my lap, he fixated on poking some sprocket with a screwdriver and muttering foul words at it. I’d never heard him say so much as a mean word about anyone he knew, but he could curse a blue streak at whatever clockwork was vexing him at any given moment. He’d poured us both whisky, and I’d had mine slowly, practicing all the while the mechanics of drinking with my left hand; large movements had come easily to me, but the more detailed ones still took some dedicated control, and not spilling expensive alcohol on its way to my mouth was a fantastic incentive not to screw up.
I was halfway through one of Leopardi’s canti when I was struck by a truth: Gus was a simple man. In no way was he stupid, of course — in fact, I’d swear on a library of Bibles that he was the pinnacle of mechanical genius — but neither did he seem the slightest bit inclined to the same social customs I’d absorbed from birth. He had little grasp of innuendo and no room for anything save honesty. And thus I turned to him and asked, as point-blank as I’d ever phrased anything in my life, “Gus, do you want me to leave?”
He frowned, paused, resumed tightening whatever facet of the device had caught his attention, and then placed the entire mess, tools and all, atop the coffee table. “No.” He fixed me with his deep, sincere eyes, even though his gaze fell a bashful foot lower than my face. “I don’t.”
Well, that was getting somewhere; I thought of how others might well have been offended at such a bald suggestion that their hospitality might have reached its end, and of how Gus was not like others at all. “Do you want me to stay?”
After another thoughtful pause, he nodded. “I like having you here,” he said with his usual definitive clarity.
I closed my book and placed it on the coffee table beside his work, then turned and tucked my legs up underneath me, resting my metal arm along the back of the couch. “Do you want to have sex with me?” I asked, tossing aside all my weeks of careful seduction technique and delicately timed innuendo out the window. What, I reasoned, was the good in keeping something that had accomplished naught?
“I….” He opened his mouth, but nothing more came out than that, so he closed it again — which wasn’t encouraging, to be frank, but at least I was certain that had the answer been a flat no, he would have said as much and been done with it. Instead, he took a deep breath and let his gaze fall even farther, all the way to where his hands folded in his own lap. He didn’t seem shocked by the proposition, however, and that was its own telltale heart. “We’re friends,” he finally offered, less an answer and more an explanation for why there might be no answer.
“I sometimes have sex with my friends,” I pointed out, which was true, despite how I hadn’t in quite some time — and as attempts at levity went, it fell flat. “I just … thought you might want to. So I asked. If you don’t, it’s fine too! We’re still friends.”
He placed a hand across his forehead, shading his eyes, and I might have taken the gesture as one of exasperation had I not seen how tense he had become. “…I don’t know!” he finally managed through clenched teeth, sounding more upset than I’d ever heard him, and I felt like a man who’d just inadvertently stepped on a kitten. “I never understand what to do or what to say or how I should act–” He bit off the last word with an agonized grunt.
“I’m sorry!” Despite my better instincts, I reached across the couch and placed my good hand over the one of his that lay, balled, on his thigh, and though I expected him to retreat, he didn’t pull away. “Gus, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. You’re an amazing friend. You do and say and act just fine. I promise.”
“There’s … never been anyone like you.” He dropped the hand across his face, but still kept his eyes downcast. “I only know how to fix things. That’s all I do. That’s all.”
“You fix things very well.” I nodded and squeezed his hand, feeling how slender my fingers were compared to his.
“I had to make it beautiful,” he said, and I could follow the line of his gaze now to where my arm lay stretched across the back of the couch. “Like you.”
I smiled and pulled my body closer to his, until my knees came to rest against the side of his thigh. “I’m really grateful,” I said, suddenly afraid that I might not have conveyed that enough; Gus was hardly prone to sentiment, but that didn’t mean he didn’t deserve gratitude. “You’re the best, sweetest, gentlest, most wonderful person I know.”
“If you leave,” he said through gritted teeth, his words bursting out so sharply that I suspect they pained him to say, “and go off and become some old sot’s ornament and fade into your poppies again, I’m going to break every single damned thing in this house, and some on the outside too.”
For a moment, I was dumbstruck, and I might have commented on how funny it was to find me at a loss for words had the moment not been so deadly serious. “If you want me to stay, I’ll stay.” I tucked the fingers of my good hand beneath his chin, lifting his face so that he could see how much I meant it. “Simple as that.”
His cheeks were flushed with the effort of speaking, and I could see red vines streak across the whites of his eyes, toward the mottled blue halos of his pupils. “I’ll build you a new arm every month, I promise.” He gave a decisive nod. “So you’ll want to stay.”
Only through the greatest show of effort did I not laugh at that either — not because I thought it a sentiment worth mocking, but because he never failed to surprise me with the simple clarity of his feelings. “You don’t have to do that.” I held up my hands between us, both palms facing him. “I’ve got two now. It’s a good number.”
If he got the joke, his expression gave no indication. “I’ve got designs for other cases, it’ll be easy to to put them on and take them off yourself, so you can match–”
“Gus!” I took his face in both my hands this time, and his eyes grew wide; I could feel him tremble, a flutter beneath his skin, a panicked animal not realizing that the hands that hold it belong to the doctor, not the hunter. “Can I kiss you, please? Just a little?” I felt as though I were walking a tightrope, in grave danger of falling into the pit below, where lived the misguided implication that Gus’ body would be the price of my staying — and yet I had to do something, or he might simply vibrate himself into collapse.
He swallowed, licked his lips, and swallowed again. “That … would be a good idea,” he nodded, though he made no move toward me, and even at this proximity could not bring himself to look me steady in the eye.
Alas, his own work maxim proved accurate here: anything I wanted done right, I had to do myself. I leaned forward and touched my lips to his, only a light touch at first; I could feel his breath from between his parted lips, so I moved to seal them with my own, teaching him the truth that kissing is better than breathing. I realized presently that he was following my lead to the smallest detail, that he trusted me here as much as I trusted him with my own skin, and that this was just as terrifying for him as the operation had been for me. I was determined, however, that this would have just as triumphant an outcome.
At last I pulled back, giving us both a thin space between our mouths. “Not so bad, is it?” I smiled, touching the tip of my nose to his.
“Did I do it right?” His eyes were still shut, and his chin still held at the same angle where I’d left him. I’d never had someone so completely at my mercy before, and it made my heart hurt to think how lost he must be, if even this simplest meeting of bodies was a source of anxiety for him.
“You did it perfect,” I told him, enunciating the p enough that our lips tapped together again.
He cracked one eye open, giving me a skeptical look. “Really?”
“Crossing my heart.” I took my finger and traced an intersection over the left side of my chest, in case he had any cause to doubt me.
That was enough to lift the corner of his mouth into an uneasy smile, and a pink blush had crept into his cheeks, making him look even younger than I was. “Can … we try some more now?”
I laughed and nodded. “Your turn, though. You come here and kiss me now.”
Gus cleared his throat and straightened his shoulders. “Don’t be angry with me if I do it wrong,” he pleaded, and before I could tell him I didn’t make it a policy to get mad about anything during sex that wasn’t deliberate malfeasance or crass negligence, he gave a desperate lunge forward and locked our mouths together once more.
This time I wasn’t so gentle. I parted my lips wider, drawing him deeper in, and was delighted to feel him jump with surprise as I flicked the tip of my tongue against his. He was quickly becoming a very dedicated and attentive kisser, because every time I moved, he moved with me, and everything I tried, he was willing to follow suit. We kept like this a while, joined nowhere save our mouths, like a pair of adolescents who’d no idea what else might transpire once clothing came off — until I began to inch closer, working my way into his lap. To do this, though, I needed to alter my grip, and as I held his shoulder with my right hand, I let my left drape behind his neck, careless and sensual, not paying attention to how my thumb brushed against the back of his neck–
He jerked as though someone had touched a live wire to his skin and moaned into the kiss, and it was all I could do not to devour him right then and there. Instead I felt for him again, careful to play off the deliberate touch as another accident, and he gave the same sharp reaction, this time being so bold as to lean into the contact. I laughed and broke from the kiss, this time making no secret of my intent as I traced the fingertips of my metal hand — his metal hand — lightly around his bare throat.
“Do you like that?” I purred into his ear. Gus gave a whimper and a nod in reply, and I laughed, nipping at his earlobe. “You like your own work.”
“I….” Gus’ breathing was heavy with his arousal, and he gripped at my thighs, likely less for sensual reasons and more for some near anchor. “I think I do.” I brushed my metal thumb along the close-shaven line of his jaw, letting him feel the pressure and texture, grinning with wicked delight at the clear response it won me.
“Do you trust me?” I whispered, and when I felt him nod, I slipped from his embrace and stood beside the couch. “I’m not going anywhere,” I promised, still looking down at him, maintaining eye contact as much as I could with someone who wasn’t that inclined to make it in the first place. That was all right, though; I didn’t really need him looking at my face. I wasn’t wearing much — only a loose long-sleeved shirt I’d appropriated from him early in my stay, claiming it was easier than my regular attire to slip over my former monstrous arm, and a pair of pyjama trousers with nothing on beneath — and was grateful I’d dressed so well for the occasion without even knowing it was occurring. I took my time getting the shirt off, gripping the hem and drawing it off over my head. He’d seen my bare body before on several occasions, but there was a difference between seeing something and seeing something you know is yours. Shirtless, I next reached for the tie of my pants, but stopped short, letting my arms fall loose to my sides. “Gus, will you help me undress?”
He had of course also helped me dress and undress before, often with the frightening efficiency of an engineer, but this time he could hardly manage to undo the hasty tie I’d done to keep the drawstrings in place. At last, his fumbling fingers tugged the right string and the knot came loose, and the pants slid off down my narrow hips, their descent only briefly impaired by the business of getting past my attention-seeking cock. I kicked the pants from my ankles and crawled, completely naked, into his lap, settling the bulk of my weight on my right knee. “Do you want me like this?” I kissed his ear and placed my left hand flat in the center of his still-clothed chest.
Gus was still for a moment, so still that it did occur to me I might have caused an aneurysm, which would have been an unfortunate personal first. Then, however, he cleared his throat and nodded. “I want you,” he said, a fumbling statement that he then turned into the more definitive: “I want you!” He turned and looked at me, first my body and then my face, wearing an expression of wonder like he’d just been struck with some pure divine revelation. “I want you!”
“Well, you can have me!” After a moment of being startled by his sudden passion, I laughed and pressed a kiss to his forehead.
“I’m sorry.” He closed his eyes and laughed along with me, a sound of airy relief. “It just … took a while to click. Rusted gears turning. Very old engine.”
“Handsome old engine,” I purred, and I stroked his chest, undoing the buttons of his shirt with my left hand. It was a far, far more laborious task than it would have been with my right one, but that was hardly the point, and by the time I was to his belt — having exposed only his undershirt, but again, hardly the point — he was trembling beneath my touch, and an unmistakable rise had formed in the front of his trousers. “Trust me. And don’t fight me.” He nodded, his eyes shut, and I bent in to kiss at his neck.
There was in my experience nothing so crippling for men as the fear of poor performance, and nothing that could be more ruinous to an evening than the anxiety that uncertainty produced; I could only imagine that in Gus, whose last sexual attempts had been bitter failures almost two decades previous, this anxiety had ratcheted itself up to the level of crippling terror. Thus, there was nothing for it but the direct approach. I loosed his belt and slipped my hand beneath his trousers, then drew out his cock, not for logistics so much as that I could see it for the first time. It was all my imagination had hoped: short and thick, with a large red head, and very responsive when caught in my metal grasp. “Good God,” Gus gasped, and I took this as the purest sign of encouragement I could imagine.
As I’d spent the last several days practicing handling objects, though I was hardly an expert with my new hand, I was confident I could manage this. I nipped at Gus’ throat, feeling the light stubble beneath my teeth, and he gasped again while reaching for me, winding up with one hand in my hair and the other clamped on my left bicep. I passed on any opportunity to remark on how different it must have felt to hold me like that now, and instead stroked his cock, moving with as much speed and force as I trusted myself to manage, all the while moving my mouth wet against his throat.
He was done almost before we’d begun, groaning and grabbing at me as he came all over his shirt, his pants, my hand, and I think some on the couch, for good measure. This was the orgasm of a truly long-denied man, and I held him through it with nothing short of delight at having accomplished such a difficult labour. As triumphs went, it wasn’t half bad. Finally spent, he collapsed back against the couch, and I curled my body against his while untangling fingers from his prick — which, despite its great exclamation only moments previous, appeared already poised for a second round. “That was beautiful.” I kissed the corner of his mouth, which was too engaged with breathing to respond in kind. “Just amazing.”
“I’ve never….” Gus opened his eyes and blinked a few times, then shut them again. “That is, no one’s ever….”
“Made you come?” I said the words against his throat, and he nodded, still fumbling a little with words and gestures. “I want to do it again,” I said, and I felt his breath catch. “When you’re ready, I want you to come upstairs with me, and I want to get into bed with you, and I want you to put your hands all over me.” In case he’d missed that part of the demand, I leaned my body into his, jabbing him in the side with my cock; it wasn’t the most romantic gesture, but I was realizing quickly that perhaps this was better without all the artifice and dancing about, having a partner so curious and sincere. “When you’re ready.”
“In … a minute,” he sighed, leaning back into the couch cushions. I leaned forward to kiss him, sweet and slow, and spread my knees farther, slipping close enough for our chests to touch. Between us, our cocks jutted up, and I reached for them with my right hand this time, wondering for a terrible moment if he might indeed be at heart the machine pervert I’d suspected at first, only in this for my attachments. However, no sooner had I wrapped my warm, fleshly fingers around his prick than I felt it twitch in my grasp, just as responsive, banishing the passing fear that he might not be interested in me. On the contrary, as he kissed me, I felt increasingly certain of his dedicated, all-encompassing interest.
I hadn’t been as long without the touch of another as he had, though my several-month abstinence had been the longest I’d gone without sex since I’d started having it, and need made me greedy beyond my promises to wait for his approval to start. “Please,” I begged into the kiss, “I need you, Gus, I need you to touch me.” Lest he somehow think this euphemistic, I reached for his right hand and placed it square between us, and bless his instincts, he wrapped his fingers around my shaft as he might his own. “Perfect,” I assured him, “just hold steady,” and I began to thrust my cock into the hollow of his hand.
I blame having spent much of my life as a sexual object, but I am both a very greedy and ostentatious lover, and here was no exception. As I felt his strong fingers brush along the surface of my cock, I moaned into his ear, begging senselessly first in broken English, then in similarly broken Italian. I’d intended to maintain control of the situation, but it had been so long and I was so hard for him that I found myself lost into the touch, rocking wildly on his lap, locking my hands behind the back of his neck for support. I rode him just like this, doing most of the work yet still demanding his participation as a key element. With my head back in ecstasy, I couldn’t look to confirm, but knew he was watching me, watching what he did to me — and that thought carried me over into orgasm, until I was soaking his shirt and my belly with my come, sighing out his name.
At last I collapsed against his chest, panting and laughing, feeling better than I’d felt in years, perhaps in my entire life. “Just like that,” I told him, giddy as he gathered me into his arms. “God, you do that so well, I’m never going to let you leave the bed again.”
“Really?” he asked, his voice hesitant; he stroked my bare back with his semen-slicked hands, and I laughed at his carelessness, figuring there wasn’t much he could do to me now to make me need a bath more than I already did.
“Really truly. Oh!” I took a deep breath and let it out in a long sigh. “I love the way you feel when you touch me.”
Gus cleared his throat. “Because … I thought I might not be any good.”
I leaned back on his thighs and grabbed his face with both hands, forcing him to look me in the eye so that there could be no doubt. “You are amazing,” I promised again. “So forget everything before. Forget being afraid. I’m here right now and I’m telling you I want more of that, until I can’t walk.”
“I thought,” Gus sputtered, swallowing as he scrambled for the words, “that is, wasn’t I … fast?”
“Fast?” I reached down and squeezed his still-hard cock, giving him a wicked smile. “Fast only matters if you can’t reload.”
His pale eyes went wide, and he followed my gaze downward to the continued evidence of his interest. “We … could do that.”
“Fantastic.” I slid off his lap and started for the stairs, picking up my discarded clothing as I went and using the shirt to clean my belly. “I want to get into bed and suck your cock now, if you’re ready?”
Gus had pulled himself halfway into a standing position, but my question knocked his legs out from under him, and he fell back to the cushions again. “I don’t know how I’m going to make it upstairs at this rate,” he pointed out, frowning up at me from where he sat, still fully dressed except for his unbuttoned shirt and his hard red cock peeking out from his pants, looking like he’d just been run over by a steam train and come back for more.
“You’re the genius. You’ll figure something out.” I tossed him a wink and started up the stairs, one slow, deliberate step at a time, and was surprised not at all to hear him follow shortly after.
It’d seen the expression on his face before, on the faces of wounded animals who begged to be put out of their misery. “Can we go home now?” he mumbled into his champagne flute.
“Soon,” I promised, watching the crowd; I suspected the toasts might start in another half hour, and those would be half an hour themselves, and then we could go — but I didn’t dare tell Gus my estimate, lest he jump out the window and shorten the duration. He’d found a quiet corner of the ballroom in which to lurk, out of the way of much traffic, and despite his lengthy protestations about how wretched social events were, I’d gotten him to admit that they were better when I came along to field the inevitable small talk. “You look so handsome in that suit, and I’m going to love getting you out of it.”
I caught him mid-sip, and he choked a little on his champagne; I drew my handkerchief from my coat pocket and handed it to him, and he dabbed his mouth while glaring at me. “I feel like a fool.” He gave the assembled partygoers a pained glare, a silent repeat of his earlier inquiries about why one had to attend social events for business purposes, to which I had apparently provided no sufficient answer.
“You look amazing,” I said, because he did; he was done all in a fine brown suit, complete with top hat and tails, which didn’t look a bit natural on him, but that was part of its charm. I reached to straighten the brim of his hat with my metal arm, which for the occasion sported shiny silver plates complete with thin, intricate copper inlay, the better to offset the copper threads running through the otherwise blue silk of my vest and tie. He hadn’t made me a whole new arm a month, despite his initial promises, but every other week or so he’d come to me with another set of the interchangeable plates in a different design, always so proud of himself that I could never even suggest that surely I wasn’t worth the effort. To him I was, and that was what mattered.
He blushed and took another sip of champange. “Not when I’m standing next to you,” he said, giving the left half-sleeve of my jacket a tug. I’d had all my clothing tailored so the lengths mismatched; if people were going to talk, then by God, I was going to give them a good look at what they were going to talk about.
“Wasn’t that the point?” I grinned at him, and he managed a sheepish smile in return. “Now come on. There’s the Countess Dupree. I used to spend time in her nephew’s company, and I heard her current airship fleet gave her fits all the way from Moscow. Time for you to say hello.”
Gus didn’t understand the value of strategic networking, but that was all right, he didn’t have to — he had me, for that and for so many other things. “Fine, fine,” he sighed, offering me his elbow. “But you do all the talking.”
“Of course.” I slipped my metal hand into the bend of his arm, hugging him perhaps closer than was strictly necessary. “And in the taxi on the way home, I’m sure you can find something good to put in my mouth to make me stop.”
He shot me an anxious glare, but there was a pleasant expression hidden just beneath the surface, and I laughed, stepping forward into the celebration, confident and unafraid, with him ever at my side.