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Loren and the Machine

written and illustrated by Yuriko Toru (百合子 亨)

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/353218.html)

The shop smelled like motor oil from a block away. Pushing the door open, Loren was hit with a wave of exhaust fumes and a grimy gray gloom. Peering into the darkness, she picked her way across the floor to a counter she could barely see under piles of scrap metal.

“Hello?” she called. The only reply was the continued growl of machinery muffled through a wall, followed by a grating squeal, a thud, and some furious cursing when the growl suddenly stopped.

“Hello?” Loren called again, louder.

The cursing stopped. There was a clank, then some scuffling noises and what might have been a “Yeah?”

“Is someone there?” Loren shouted uneasily.

“There in a minute!” called the voice from the other room, followed by some more cursing. Loren looked around for someplace to sit; not finding one, she settled for propping herself against the nearest sturdy-looking waist-high chunk of metal to wait.

The door behind the counter swung open, letting in a wash of fluorescent light from the shop beyond, which silhouetted the figure in the doorway. “Christ, is it this dark already?” the figure muttered, flailing for a light switch; the lights welled to life.

“Don’t sit on that,” the figure instructed as Loren blinked against the sudden brightness. Loren stood, squinting, as the figure removed their goggles and tossed them aside, smudging their face with oil as they brushed their hair out of the way. “Now. How can I help you?”

“Is Maxim Sharp in?” Loren requested meekly.

“That’s me,” the mechanic confirmed, extending a hand, then apparently thinking better of it, retracting it to wipe off on a leg.

“You’re — female,” Loren stuttered, catching herself just in time.

“Also a cyborg, yeah,” the mechanic said, gesturing to the left side of her face with a plated hand, and Loren ducked her head. “Hey, at least you didn’t say it out loud,” the mechanic — Mech Sharp, Loren supposed — reassured her, pulling the hair tie out of her hair only to readjust and tie it back again. “Anyways, what can I do for you?”

Loren hesitated. “I, uh. I’m here for Master Raymond. He said you’d know what to do?”

Mech Sharp snapped her fingers. “Right. The double-angle sockets. Is it Thursday already?” she muttered to herself, crouching out of sight to rummage through the contents of a nearby shelf.

“It’s Friday, ma’am,” Loren corrected quietly, inspecting her fingernails uncomfortably.

“Friday?! Ow, shit,” Mech Sharp cursed, as the metal shelves rattled. She popped up from behind the counter, rubbing the back of her head with her metal hand. “Is it really?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Loren confirmed as Mech Sharp passed her, heading for another set of shelves.

“Well, fuck,” Mech Sharp replied eloquently. “Oh, and don’t call me ma’am. Max is fine. If you really need the honorific, call me sir, fuck knows I’ve heard it enough.”

“Max,” Loren echoed, eyes tracking her movements as she shoved her way through the chaos of her shelves.

“Fuck, where did I put those?” Max lifted her hands away from the shelves and turned back to the room.

“I’d help you look,” Loren offered as Max lifted a couple of things to check underneath, “but I have no idea how I’d find them.”

“No, no, you’d make a mess,” Max told her absently, replacing what looked like a whole engine and sinking cross-legged to the three square feet of clear floor beneath her. “Where the hell are they?”

Loren stayed quiet as Max pondered, noting with some discomfort the quiet clicking behind the metal plating over the left side of Max’s face. She was about to break the silence when, with a sudden exclamation of “Oh!” Max catapulted herself off the floor and into the shop.

“You stay there!” she called back, as though Loren needed any incentive. She’d been in plenty enough shops to know exactly how much dangerous equipment was lying around in one, and the way Max organized things out front, Loren wasn’t going to trust that her shop was any less precarious.

A triumphant cry came from the depths of the shop; several seconds later, Max was swinging back into the room.

“Forgot to temper them,” she explained, holding up two metal pieces as she retrieved her goggles from the counter. “It’ll only take about ten minutes, are you in a hurry?”

“No, no,” Loren said. “Um, is there anywhere I could sit to wait?”

Max lowered her hands from her goggles and looked around. “Uhh… Oh! Yes.” Weaving her way over to Loren, Max shoved aside the shell of something vaguely mammalian to reveal a grimy stool, which she tested with one hand.

“There you go,” she pronounced, apparently deeming the slight wobble an acceptable hazard. “I shouldn’t be long, sorry to make you wait!”

“It’s okay,” Loren called after her, but Max had already vanished into the shop.

Sighing, Loren took a seat on the rickety stool as the ventilation system groaned to life.

“Sorry about that,” Max said later, scrubbing oil off her hands at a low sink. Loren hadn’t noticed it until Max had shouldered her way past a shelf and started washing. Loren had no idea how it ran, with no visible controls.

“It’s fine,” Loren replied, as the water shut off and Max flicked droplets off her fingertips into the sink. “Master Raymond doesn’t need them until Monday, anyways.”

“Until Monday? Oh, right,” Max mused, setting aside the filthy towel she’d been using, “weekends.”

“Weekends,” Loren agreed.

Max crossed to the counter. Sweeping a clear space with one arm, she lifted a lockbox up onto the counter and planted her hands on either side. “Right. Okay. Here are the sockets,” she interrupted herself, grabbing them off the counter and offering them to Loren. She took them carefully, surprised by the warmth still in the metal.

“You got credits for me?” Max prompted, almost gently, and Loren nodded, tucking the pieces safely away in her messenger bag and fishing out her wallet.

“Master Raymond said you only take cold,” Loren mentioned, as if she needed confirmation beyond the lockbox on the counter.

“‘Fraid so,” Max confirmed. “Credit machines are expensive.”

Not that expensive, but Loren knew better than to say so. She wondered how many clients Max had lost to her demand for cold credits. “One-fifty, right?”

“One-fifty,” Max agreed, and Loren passed over the stack of bills.

“I — I should go,” Loren stammered, watching with sick fascination as Max unlocked the lockbox with the tip of her mechanical thumb.

Max looked up, face falling as she saw where Loren was looking. “Yeah, okay,” she said. “Say hi to Ray for me.”

Loren made a noncommittal sound, stumbling around piles of scrap and trying not to knock anything over. The back of her neck prickled, but she paused, one hand on the doorknob and suddenly, irrationally, wanting to stay.

“Nice meeting you,” she managed weakly, before opening the door and slipping out into the evening.

She made it halfway down the block before her knees gave out and she sat down right there on the sidewalk, pulling her knees up to her chin and tucking her messenger bag against her toes. The image of Max’s face, with its dulled metal plating, swam to the forefront of her mind. She hadn’t gotten a good look at it; all she’d seen was a mass of grimy gray where there should have been skin, extending well up past her natural hairline. Her hair had covered it at the top, falling over the edge of the plating where it was too short to tie back. Her entire left hand had been the same, all machine with a veneer of cold metal. The tip of her thumb had held a key; what else could she be storing in there? Weapons? Illegal contraband? She could be smuggling drugs in her palm, hold federal secrets in her fingertips. Her sleeves had been rolled down; who knew how far the machine extended? Her whole left arm, her whole side could be metal.

Loren couldn’t stop the shudder that rolled through her at the image, and did her best to push it aside. She rose to her feet, slung her bag back over her shoulder, and dusted off the seat of her wool trousers, then pulled her jacket more tightly around herself and headed home.

“I met someone with a faceplate yesterday.”

Michal looked up from the paper cup of tea Loren had brought him. “Oh?”

Loren scrutinized the top of her coffee. “Yeah. A mechanic. Maxim Sharp.”

“How big was it?” Michal asked, taking a cautious sip. His hands shook slightly, but he didn’t spill. “How much did it cover?”

“‘Bout half,” Loren told him, and Michal grimaced. She pretended not to notice.

“Christ. How far back did it go?” Michal prodded.

Loren shrugged, raising a hand to the crown of her head. “Maybe there? I didn’t get a good look.”

“What did it look like?”

Loren took a sip of coffee to think about her reply. “Ugly,” she said finally. “Invasive. It looked like it hurt.”

Michal shuddered. Tea sloshed over the edge of his cup, and he quickly set it down. “Well, good thing I’m not getting one, then,” he said.

“Yeah,” Loren agreed. “Good thing.”

It was another week before Master Raymond called Loren into his shop with another errand in the mechanical district.

“There are the prints,” he told her, as she flipped through the stack of papers he indicated. “It’s a custom piece, so I need it made exactly to specifications, but not difficult to do. Don’t care where you go for it, but I need it by next Tuesday. All right?”

“All right, Raymond,” Loren said, gathering the papers against her chest and picking her way back out of the shop.

“Good girl. Grab yourself a bun on the way out, they’ll just get stale sitting there,” he offered, and Loren obeyed, grabbing a sticky bun from the box that had been gestured to and shouldered the door open. Out in the deserted lobby, she tucked the papers carefully into her messenger bag with what clean fingers she had left, shrugged into her jacket, and headed out the door.

She was just licking the last sugary traces of glaze from her fingertips when her feet brought her to a halt in front of a familiarly unmarked building, and her heart skipped a beat.

Well, why not? Raymond had said he didn’t care where she went, so long as the piece got made, and Max was a mech.

Before she could talk herself out of it, she opened the door and stepped into Max’s shop.

There was still some sunlight filtering through the cloudy sky, so it wasn’t as dark as it had been the first time Loren set foot in the shop, but there was a film of dirt on all the windows that would have left the room perpetually dim. Max was behind the counter, collecting a stack of pieces almost angrily as she talked. The man she was addressing stood in front of her, impassive as she stacked and spat.

… besoin de plus de trois jours,” she was saying. “Retourne mardi, et j’aurais fini. Ça va?

Je reviens lundi,” the man countered. He sounded like a broken belt sander.

Je n’aurai pas fini lundi,” Max replied evenly, adding one last item to the stack and sliding it across the counter. “À mardi.

À lundi,” the man corrected, taking the pile and leaving without another word.

Max sighed, raking a hand through her hair. Some of it pulled loose of her hair tie and fell across her eyes, dimming the glow from the metal one.

Loren cleared her throat, and Max started, looking up at Loren with her human eye wide. Recognition broke with a grin. “Oh! It’s you. What can I do for you?”

“I, uh, Master Raymond needs a custom piece,” Loren said, and Max’s human eye lit up.

“Have you got prints?” she asked, but Loren was already pulling them out.

“I didn’t expect to see you again,” Max admitted, studiously flipping through the schematics rather than looking at Loren.

Loren felt her cheeks burn. “Yeah, I. Sorry about that,” she managed.

Max waved the apology off with an oil-smudged hand, and that seemed to be that.

“So, will you do it?” Loren asked eventually, and Max looked up.

“This isn’t a difficult project,” she said, almost like a challenge.

Loren flinched. “I’m… sorry?”

“No, no, it’s just… you could’ve taken this to anyone. It’s not a difficult piece, any mech in the city could make it.”

“… I suppose.”

“There are at least seven mechs closer to Ray’s shop than mine, and you’d have probably passed at least four directly on the way here,” Max continued. “Why would you have come here?”

“If you don’t want to do it, I can go somewhere else –”

“I’ll do it, no problem, I was just curious,” Max countered, picking up the prints and holding them out of Loren’s reach. “It’ll be done by this time tomorrow, probably cost around sixty, seventy credits. And I only take cold,” she reminded, engrossed again in flipping through the prints. Her mechanical eye shuttered like a camera lens.

“Did it hurt?” Loren found herself asking.

Max looked up. “Did what hurt?”

“The — the faceplate,” Loren explained, gesturing to her own face. Max’s mechanical fingers twitched. “Did it hurt?”

Max just looked at her for a moment. Smacking herself internally, Loren ducked her head and turned to leave.

“Yeah,” Max replied, as Loren’s hand landed on the doorknob. “This one hurt.”

Loren didn’t stay to question any further. It wasn’t until she’d returned to work that she remembered it was Friday, and she wouldn’t be in tomorrow to pick up the finished piece from Max’s shop.

She couldn’t decide whether or not she was relieved.

“I saw the mech with the faceplate again today.”

“Oh?” Michal leaned forward, plastic mug clasped tightly in unsteady hands. “Did you get a better look at it?”

“Yeah, I did,” Loren told him, stirring sugar into her matching mug of coffee. The plastic was yellow and floral in a way that was either sad or cute. “I was right, it covers about half of her head. Starts way back here, under her hair, and cuts straight down the middle all the way to her lip. It’s got an eye, too, but misses her mouth.”

Michal shuddered. Tea slopped over his fingers, but if he noticed, he didn’t care. “What’s it made of?”

“Not sure,” Loren admitted. “Looks to me like steel.”

“That big of a plate, and it’s not even ceramic?” Michal’s incredulity was the strongest emotion she’d gotten out of him all week. “That’s appalling.”

“She’s got a hand, too, and lord knows what else,” Loren added, taking a sip of coffee. It tasted as sterilized as the hospital despite the sugar.

“Well, thank goodness I’m not getting any of that,” Michal said, quite decidedly.

“Thank goodness,” Loren echoed, but she couldn’t help but wonder what would have cost a person that much flesh.

Monday morning, Loren popped into Master Raymond’s shop just long enough to let him know she was picking up the part he’d ordered. She left him hanging halfway into the chassis of a custom-order Dragon, muttering something about the landing gear, and headed for Max’s shop.

Upon arriving, she was surprised to hear shouting from the workshop. Concerned, she reached for the door, but hesitated. How rude would it be for her to interrupt whatever was going on, by wandering uninvited into a shop, no less?

Max yelled again, something like panic tinting the edges of her voice, and Loren pushed the door open.

— quatrième fois que je t’ai demandé de sortir,” Max was shouting. Loren couldn’t see her, or whoever she was shouting at; she hadn’t realized the shop was so big. “Si tu ne quitte pas mon atelier, je téléphonerai à la police.

La police?” A voice like a broken belt sander laughed. “Et quand elle arrive, quoi? Tu lui diras que tu as des problèmes avec des clients tu ne peux pas avoir?

Part,” Max ordered.

Je retourne demain,” the man said. His flippant tone grated on Loren’s ears.

Ne retourne jamais,” Max demanded.

Au revoir, mademoiselle,” the man called, coming around a drill press and into Loren’s line of sight. He nodded to Loren, nodding hollowly.

Adieu,” Max corrected, stepping around the drill press herself. “Nous ne nous reverrons pas encore.

The man waved her off without looking back, and as the door shut behind him, Max swore under her breath, rubbing her hand over her face.

“What was all that?” Loren asked faintly. “It sounded angry.”

Max jumped. “Oh! It’s you. I didn’t see you there. You’re here for the piece, I take it?” she added, striding across the workshop to the workbench beside the door.

“Did he say something about the police?” Loren pressed, and Max sighed.

“I threatened to call the police if he refused to leave, and he said I’d have a hell of a time getting them to help me with a customer I’m not supposed to have,” she explained, pulling Raymond’s prints from under a stack of metal files and the piece from a pile of seemingly random pieces.

“What do you mean, a customer you’re not supposed to have?” Loren asked.

Max went deathly still. “Oh, I, uh. It’s because of the faceplate,” she said, far too earnestly. “There’s this misconception that anyone who’s had a brain augment or reparation isn’t supposed to do any work around machinery–”

“Which is bullshit, I’ve done the research,” Loren interrupted.

“Right, so it’s ridiculous that he thinks he can use that against me,” Max added quickly. “Here’s the piece.”

Loren took it. “How much?”

“Sixty-five,” Max said, as Loren placed the piece and prints in her bag and drew out her wallet. She counted out the credits and handed them over without another word.

“Wait,” Max told her as she turned to leave.

Loren turned back. “Yes?”

“… What’s your name?”

“Loren.”

Max smiled faintly. It made her skin pull strangely at the metal next to it. “Nice to see you again, Loren.”

Loren nodded once and left, trying to ignore how comfortable her name sounded in Max’s mouth.

“While I’m aware of your decision to refuse surgery,” the nurse said quietly, “I must inform you that if you wish to change your mind, you only have a month left to do so.”

“I don’t,” Loren told her curtly, “thank you. Now if you’ll excuse me, Michal’s tea is getting cold.”

The nurse nodded, stepping aside to let Loren pass, and she continued into the hospital sitting room, but she couldn’t shake the nagging doubt in the back of her mind, even when Michal challenged her to a game of cards for the first time in over a year.

“Loren,” Max greeted, peeling off her goggles with an honest smile. “What can I make for you this time?”

“I’m not here about a piece,” Loren admitted, nervous fingers twisting the worn strap of her messenger bag.

Max raised her eyebrow, smile fading into concern and curiosity. “Oh?”

Loren took a deep breath. “Iwannatalkt’youaboutyourfaceplate,” she blurted out, before common sense could dissuade her.

Max set her goggles down with a clack. “You want to talk to me about my faceplate,” she echoed.

“Oh, lord, forget it,” Loren begged, turning to leave.

“No, wait,” Max called, and Loren stopped, cheeks burning and hand on the doorknob.

“Why?” Max asked gently.

Loren sighed and lowered her hand. “… My brother has Will Parker Casey’s disease,” she confessed, bowing her head.

Oh,” Max breathed, and somehow in that one sound conveyed all the sympathy and understanding that everyone else had failed to share with paragraphs and monologues and months of condolences. Tears, hot and unexpected, spiked behind Loren’s eyes, and she swallowed hard and took a shaky breath.

“I can go,” Loren offered unevenly, still facing the door.

“No, no, it’s fine,” Max promised. “Look, um. Do you know Leo’s, on the corner? The coffee shop?”

“The one with the blue awning?”

“That’s the one. Can you meet me there in, like, five minutes?”

Loren turned to face her. There was an earnest energy in Max’s face which she found strangely comforting, for reasons she decidedly did not want to look into.

“All right,” she found herself saying, and Max’s smile lit up her human eye.

She almost didn’t go. In the end, it was only the fact that her route home took her past Leo’s anyways that let the decadent scent of tea and coffee and fresh baking reach her, and from there it was hardly a fair fight.

The shop itself was small and pastel; Loren ordered a simple coffee and a croissant and found a seat in a corner booth. She was waist-deep in her thoughts when Max slid into the seat opposite.

“Hey,” Max greeted, setting down her own drink and two cinnamon buns on a plate. “How’s the croissant?”

Loren glanced down at her half-eaten croissant. “It’s good.”

Max took the plastic lid off her paper cup and blew on it. The scent of Earl Grey tea wafted across the table. Loren let the silence fill the space between them like the steam.

“Your brother has Casey’s?” Max prompted eventually, as Loren tore a piece off her croissant.

“Yeah,” Loren replied, chewing thoughtfully. “We decided not to have the extraction and reparative surgeries, but…”

“Why did you decide against the surgeries?” Max asked, her tone totally non-confrontational as she sipped gingerly at her tea.

“We didn’t like the idea of the reparative surgery,” Loren said. “Well, Michal hated it. Didn’t want any ‘fucking programmable fake brain invading his life’ — his words, not mine,” she added quickly.

Max nodded, solemnly resigned. “And you?”

“In slightly nicer words, but I didn’t trust the security either.” She took a sip of coffee. “I’m sure you’ve heard the horror stories.”

Max hummed in acknowledgement. “All the time.”

“But so that got me thinking about cyborg tech, and that’s when I met you, and your pieces are so…” Loren trailed off, searching for a polite word for it.

“Rough?” Max supplied, and Loren ducked her head.

“That’s not how I was going to say it, but.”

“First off, don’t let my pieces turn you off cyborg technology forever,” Max said, snapping the lid back on her tea. “I’m a very particular case. Cyborg surgery and cyborg tech have saved thousands of lives and livelihoods, and the surgeries for Casey’s are some of the most carefully researched and monitored surgeries in the medical world.”

“I know,” Loren nodded, pulling off another piece of croissant and popping it into her mouth.

“I’m a firm believer in the good side of cyborg tech,” Max concluded. “Even if it’s not perfect yet.”

They sat in silence for a minute, sipping at their drinks and just listening to the quiet chatter of the coffee shop around them.

“What happened?” Loren asked finally.

Max sighed. Setting down her tea, she planted both forearms on the table. Her hands were clean, Loren noticed, except for what black oil would never come out of the creases in skin or metal.

“Shop accident,” she said simply. “I was working on the lathe and my sleeve got caught, pulled me right in.”

“Oh my god,” Loren breathed.

Max’s human hand went to the sleeve of her jumpsuit, unbuttoning her cuff and rolling it up to her elbow. “Fucked up my hand pretty well,” she mentioned conversationally, holding her bared prosthetic out for Loren’s inspection.

Without thinking, Loren reached out to hold it. The metal was surprisingly warm to the touch, and reached about two-thirds of the way to Max’s elbow. Her skin puckered around the seam. Turning Max’s hand over, Loren discovered that it hadn’t all been replaced.

“The lathe took off two and a half fingers, splintered one knuckle and most of the bones in my palm, and took enough flesh off my thumb and then back of my arm to require plating,” Max recited.

Loren shuddered. “How much else?”

“Took a good chunk out of my prefrontal cortex, scraped nearly through my skull most of the way back, ate half my face and about a third of my ear — oh, and nearly severed my arm. The surgery replaced the eye I lost and the damaged part of my brain, cleared the splinters out of the rest, restructured my face, and put some bone structure back in my shoulder so I didn’t lose the arm.”

“I didn’t know they made such integrated prosthetics,” Loren mused, leaving her gaze safely in Max’s palm. Scar tissue criss-crossed the inside of her wrist.

“They don’t,” Max replied. “At least, not for the general public. I made most of these myself.”

Loren looked up. “Isn’t that…”

“Illegal? Yeah. And dangerous, and painful.”

“Then why did you do it?”

Max closed her metal fingers around Loren’s. Her grip was solid and sure. “They didn’t give me any sort of attempt at integrated prosthetics for my hand,” she explained. “They gave me post-sourced skin grafts and promised me the same useless piece of ceramic disguise as they offer everyone. A mech can’t work with one hand, Loren,” she breathed, almost pleading. Her fingers squeezed Loren’s, and Loren flinched, but the pressure was human.

“So what did you do?” Loren asked.

Max released Loren’s hand and leaned back. “Booked it out of the hospital, lifted off the skin grafts, and started building my own.”

“Holy shit.”

“The tendon grafts were the most painful,” Max continued nonchalantly. “It was hard to get the tendon cables, especially fast enough that the skin grafts hadn’t taken yet, and then I had to solder them on myself.”

“Solder?” Loren squeaked. An image sprang to the forefront of her mind of Max, skin peeled back and pressing a soldering iron into her flesh, and she shuddered.

“Special type of wires, they’re soldered directly onto the tendons. Of course, normally they do procedures like that in places where there’s anaesthetic available.” Seemingly noticing Loren’s clear discomfort, Max continued quickly, “Then, it was mostly just a matter of replacing the lost bones with metal and putting on a shell. The contact sensors and attachments came later, after I realized they’d be worth it. Took me almost four years to get it to this point.” She flexed her fingers in a self-satisfied manner.

“Four years? So you would’ve been, what, twenty?”

Max chuckled. “You’re sweet. I was eighteen, actually, but it was longer ago than that. I’ve had the pieces for coming up on ten years now.”

Loren took a sip of her forgotten coffee to banish the lingering image of Max’s face, set in concentration and excruciating pain as she burned metal into her own flesh. “What did they give you for the faceplate?” she asked, words almost inaudible.

Max swallowed her mouthful of tea. “Ceramic,” she said. “See, the surgeries they do by default, they try to hide that you were ever hurt in the first place. Ceramic is a really good choice, aesthetically speaking,” she commented, pulling apart one cinnamon bun with her fingers. “Don’t think I don’t like the ceramics they do, it’s just that — ceramic is designed to hide itself, and I don’t care about that, I just need it to survive more than ten minutes in my workshop. So I pulled the faceplate they gave me and put on a metal one.”

“That’s why that man was saying you weren’t allowed to have customers, wasn’t it?” Loren realized suddenly, and Max froze, one fingertip in her mouth as she licked it free of icing.

Slowly, Max lowered her hand, chewed, and swallowed. “Technically, tampering with government-certified cyborg technology is against the law,” she conceded cautiously, “and any certified technician who does so forfeits their certifications.”

“So you’re running an illegal shop.”

Max sighed, pulling off another piece of cinnamon roll. “It’s a very general law, and there are a lot of changes that need to be made to government-funded cyborg tech, but yes. I’m running an illegal shop.”

“But those laws exist for a reason,” Loren pointed out. “Suppose you’d done serious damage? You’d be a danger to yourself and everyone around you.”

“I agree that the laws have a purpose, but Loren,” Max appealed, leaning across the table, “I had very little choice. I physically couldn’t have kept working with the pieces they gave me, I couldn’t afford anything useful and government-sanctioned in a million years, and there’s literally nothing else I can do. My only skills are as a mech; if I couldn’t work as one, I’d have no way to earn a living. I did what I had to, and I’m not ashamed of it,” she concluded.

Loren sipped her coffee and let silence fall again.

“You barely know me,” she pointed out once her coffee was all but gone and she’d finished off her croissant. “Why are you telling me all this?”

Max looked up from the very centre of her cinnamon roll.

“Because,” she said, with a sad smile over a deep sense of melancholy. “I like you.”

Loren opened her mouth to reply, but there were no words to say to that.

Max rose to her feet. “Want this?” she offered, sliding her plate across the table. Loren looked down at the untouched cinnamon roll left. “I got it to share.”

“I … thanks,” Loren replied, taking it.

Max smiled vaguely. “See you around,” she said, picking up her tea and heading out.

The cinnamon roll was delicious, but made Loren’s heart feel too tight. She pulled it apart and ate it piece by piece.

The day of Michal’s funeral was so bright it hurt. The sky was clearer than Loren had ever seen it, only the thinnest film of cloud covering the sun. The light stung her eyes more than grief did.

The service was tacky, impersonal, and uncomfortably long as too many people who knew him too little were called up to speak. When it was Loren’s turn, she stood behind the podium with nothing to say.

“I don’t have any funny stories or emotional speeches,” she said. “And I should, because he was my brother, but I don’t. Everything I needed to say, I said, to him, in the hospital over the course of the last year.”

She was tempted to mention that, of all the people present, she had been the only one to visit Michal as he gradually lost control of his motor functions. She was tempted to mention that he’d donated his brain and most of his savings to the WPC research foundation. She was tempted to point out that the people present who would miss him most would be the nurses who’d cared for him and who sat in the back row with dry eyes.

“We could almost see the sun this morning,” she said instead. There was something else — a metaphor, heavily symbolic and overly flowery — but it vanished from her tongue before she could say it. She made a dissatisfied noise and left, straight down the aisle and out the door.

She went home first, but couldn’t stay still, and soon enough, she was wandering, messenger bag over her shoulder and feet leading her where they wished. She didn’t even notice that she was in the area until her feet brought her to the front door of a familiar mech shop.

For a moment, Loren just stood there on the step, looking at the sign above the door. It hadn’t changed, but something else might’ve in the months since she’d been here last. It might’ve been reported and shut down, or gone bankrupt, or simply changed ownership.

“Fuck it,” Loren decided aloud, and pushed the door open.

The front room was at once completely different and exactly the same. The piles of apparent scrap still occupied every available surface, but their contents had changed; the clear inches of space on the countertop had moved from the centre to the end, and what looked like a completely mechanized dog lay on its side next to it, underbelly cracked open to reveal a jumble of multicoloured wires. The shelf in front of the window had been pulled forward a foot to let more light in.

Loren took it all in: the smell of motor oil, the irrepressible sense of Max’s presence filling the spaces between the mess. Reaching into her messenger bag, she pulled out a liquor bottle and cupped it in both hands to inspect the label.

She hadn’t moved when the inside door opened and Max came strolling through, but at the sound she looked up.

“Can I help y– oh.” Max paused, goggles halfway off her head. “Loren. Hi.”

“Hi.”

“Six months,” Max commented, regaining her momentum and setting her goggles aside. “Didn’t expect to ever see you back here, after… that long.”

Loren didn’t reply.

Max cleared her throat. “Um. Is there something I can do for you?”

“Do you drink?” Loren asked.

Max blinked her good eye. “Uh, not often, why?”

“Me neither,” Loren confessed, “but Michal left me this to drink after his funeral and I hated every single person there.”

Max reached out as if to touch the proffered bottle, then apparently thought better of it. “So he’s gone?”

“Last Wednesday night,” Loren confirmed.

“I’m–” Max stopped herself, and for that, Loren would always be grateful. “What time is it?”

Loren flicked her wrist to bare her watch. “Quarter to five.”

Max chewed at her lip for a moment. “I can close up early, if you’d like,” she offered, “but I’m not drinking here.”

“We can go to my place,” Loren replied.

“All right. I’ve just got a couple things to clean up, won’t be ten minutes.”

“I’ll wait outside.”

The outside air was cold and damp on Loren’s face; she breathed it in as deeply as she could as she tucked the bottle back away in her bag and jammed her hands into her pockets. The sky had darkened since that morning, and not because of the sunset; the clouds were heavy with the promise of rain. The streetlamps would be on soon. Willing her mind blank, Loren sat down on the edge of the step and listened to the city noise.

After what might have been either seconds or years, the door clicked open. Loren rose to her feet as Max turned to lock it.

“All right,” Max said, shrugging further into her denim vest. She’d changed out of her shop coveralls and into baggy wool trousers and a hoodie. The irredeemable mess that was her hair, she’d raked haphazardly to one side so it spilled more fully over her faceplate before tying it back. She shoved her hands into her trouser pockets and gave Loren an expectant look.

Loren catalogued the smudges of black oil still marking her face, grey metal and olive skin alike. She took in the faint shadows of her bared collarbones, the tense slant of her lips. The shoulder of her hoodie rested strangely, like it wasn’t resting on a shoulder so much as the skeleton of one. Loren remembered what Max had said about the accident nearly severing her arm, and wondered how accurate that thought had been.

“This way,” she replied with a jerk of her head, and they set off down the street.

They walked in a silence which Loren wasn’t sure was comfortable. Around the end of the block, it started to rain, a cold, dejected drizzle which only made Loren’s mediocre mood worse. She flipped her broad wool collar up against the back of her neck, Max tugged her hood up over her head, and they both tugged their warm layers more tightly around themselves and walked on.

It was dark enough for all the streetlamps to be on by the time they reached Loren’s apartment, though the walk couldn’t have been longer than half an hour. Loren had veered once, automatically, toward her usual subway station before remembering that cyborgs were prohibited from using the subway; instead, they walked the whole way, Loren shivering intermittently as the rain continued its depressing descent and mulling over the injustices of cyborg law. There was a narrow overhang over Loren’s building door, though; she huddled gratefully under it as her cold-stiff hands fumbled the lock open.

As Loren stepped into the dry warmth of her apartment lobby, Max hesitated in the doorway. “Am I… allowed in?” she asked, as if she’d just remembered she might not be.

Loren scoffed. “Don’t care,” she said, grabbing at Max’s wrist and dragging her inside so she could let go of the door. It wasn’t until she let go that she realized she’d been touching bare metal. She wondered at what point it had stopped bothering her to think about.

Loren wasn’t fond of the state of the elevator; it creaked whenever she shifted her weight, and it took longer to wait for than to just walk the four flights, so she’d never been able to convince herself it was worth it. Max followed her silently, leaving her hood up even as Loren flipped her collar down and unbuttoned her coat.

When they reached Loren’s flat, Loren unlocked the door and gestured Max through. She ducked inside gratefully, finally lifting her hood off as Loren followed her in.

“Make yourself comfortable,” Loren invited — an automatic invitation she’d never made a habit of using. “Oh, and please take off your shoes, I’m not a fan of street mud on my carpet,” she added, slinging her bag off her shoulder and into the corner.

Max shrugged out of her denim vest, hanging it on one of Loren’s coat-hooks before obediently unzipping her black boots and toeing them off. Loren’s coat went on its usual hook, her scarf automatically next to it on the hook Max had already commandeered, and she picked her bag back up and fished out the bottle of whiskey.

“Here,” she said, pressing it into Max’s hand, “take this into the living room, would you? Just through there, I’ll be with you in a minute.”

As Max followed Loren’s pointing finger, Loren dropped her messenger bag back in its place and pried off her shoes. Dropping them carelessly on the mat next to Max’s boots, she padded, stocking-footed, into the kitchen, rolling up her shirtsleeves as she went. One cupboard yielded two glasses; she grabbed a measuring cup from under the counter and filled it from the tap. She picked up the two glasses with one hand, and, carrying the measuring cup with the other, continued through into the living room.

“According to the label,” she told Max, setting the glasses and measuring cup on the coffee table, “this stuff is supposed to be served room temperature and cut fifty-fifty with water.”

“Sounds good to me,” Max told her, gesturing with the bottle as she read the label.

“Would you do the honours?” Loren requested, pulling hair-pins out of her hair.

Max twisted open the bottle with a crack. Loren pinned her bobby pins to the breast pocket of her vest and shook out her hair as Max poured two perfectly golden measures of alcohol. The perfume of Loren’s shampoo unfurled into the air around her, sweet and clean. Max’s eyes flicked up to Loren’s face, then steadfastly back down as she capped the whiskey.

Loren’s hair tumbled into her face when she leaned forward to grab the measuring cup of water; she raked it back impatiently and poured, the water swirling pale through the whiskey until they settled, even and golden in the soft lamplight. Loren set down the water as Max picked up a glass. Loren took the other, sitting down cross-legged on the carpet with the coffee table an unsubtle but comforting buffer. The whiskey smelled warm and flavourful, and Loren knew it would taste entirely different, but it was comforting anyway.

“A toast?” Max proposed, raising her glass, and Loren raised hers in response.

“To Michal,” she professed simply, and their glasses met with a clink.

The whiskey was bittersweet fire on her tongue and in her throat. She mused privately that there was probably some sort of analogy there and swallowed it down in three quick mouthfuls.

“Another,” she rasped, wincing. Her glass hit the table with a thunk.

Max swallowed the rest of her own drink and poured them each another. Loren topped them up with water, and they tossed them back in silence.

“So your brother left you this?” Max asked, pouring out third helpings.

Loren made an affirmative noise, pouring the water with both hands just to be careful. “He bought it especially for me to drink at his funeral. His exact instructions were, I think, to ‘Get as smashed as possible on the finest contribution the Irish ever made to society.'”

“I didn’t know you could get drunk off of potatoes,” Max commented, perfectly deadpan, and Loren couldn’t stop a burst of laughter.

“It’s called vodka, Max,” she retorted, still giggling.

Max smirked as Loren clamped a hand over her mouth to stifle her giggles. “True. To Ireland, then?” she suggested, raising her glass.

“To Ireland,” Loren agreed, and downed her drink.

“He bought it himself,” she continued, once she’d recovered, “because I don’t drink, and he was very insistent that I experience his favourite way of getting completely wasted.”

“How charitable of him,” Max proclaimed with mock solemnity into her glass, and Loren snorted.

“He was a selfish asshole,” she decided, and Max choked on a mouthful of whiskey.

“Fuck. What,” Max croaked when she regained her breath.

“Michal. He was an asshole,” Loren admitted, setting down her glass for Max to refill. “I mean, I loved him, but we never really got along that well. He used to prank me all the time, and viciously, too. He managed to alienate our parents and older sister far enough that none of them visited him once while he was in the hospital,” she added, peeling off her stockings and laying out across the carpet. “Probably the main reason we got along at all, actually.”

“Did they come to the funeral?” Max asked, and Loren laughed bitterly.

“Yeah. As if it’d do him any good,” she said wearily.

Max was silent for another moment, pouring more whiskey and mixing in the water.

“What about you?” she asked suddenly, and Loren jumped so hard she bashed her knee against the underside of the coffee table and made the glasses rattle.

“Fuck! What?” Loren said, sitting up. “What do you mean?”

“You said you hated every single person at the funeral,” Max explained, sipping delicately at her whiskey. “Assuming that wasn’t a huge exaggeration, you were including your family in that. Plus, you said Michal alienating your family was the main reason you got along. Something must’ve happened to get to that point.”

“Not necessarily, but.” Loren picked up her drink. “Yeah.”

There must have been something dark in her face, because Max’s voice was uncharacteristically hesitant when she spoke again. “What happened?”

Loren swallowed a mouthful of whiskey. “They kidnapped and tried to exorcise my first boyfriend,” she said, far too clearly, and followed it with another swig of whiskey to burn the aftertaste of the words out of her mouth.

Max set her glass down forcibly on the coffee table. “What.”

Loren shrugged as if it were nothing, when really, it wasn’t. “We were fifteen. About three months into dating me, he told me he’d figured out that he was gay.”

“Oh my god,” Max breathed, and Loren looked up. The look on her face said she knew exactly where Loren was going.

“We broke up peacefully, and my sister wanted to know why. I had no idea it wasn’t my place to tell, no clue why I shouldn’t say, so I told her it was because he was gay. She told our parents,” she finished darkly. The implications hung heavy in the air. Loren left them there; they were the right ones, anyway.

Max was silent for a long moment. Loren finished her drink and set the empty glass back on the table.

“What about Michal?” Max asked, almost a whisper.

“He found out before I did,” Loren murmured, shoving her glass out of the way to fold her arms on the coffee table. “I was sleeping over at a friend’s house. Michal heard the commotion in the attic, and snuck up there and freed Evan when they left him alone. Probably the best thing he ever did for me,” she chuckled humourlessly. “Definitely the main reason I still love him at all.”

“And Evan?”

“Committed suicide a week later,” Loren stated matter-of-factly.

Max’s mouth moved like she was chewing on her words. Shaking her head, she poured Loren another drink without speaking.

Loren felt a swell of gratitude rise in her chest, pressing up into her throat. She over-watered her whiskey and gulped it down until she could speak again.

“Dinner?” she offered, glancing at her watch and rising to her feet. “It’s getting about that time.”

“Is it? I’d better get going,” Max replied, getting up from the sofa and aiming for the door.

“No, wait,” Loren interrupted, throwing an arm out to catch her, and Max froze. Loren froze, too, arm looped far too comfortably around Max’s waist. They were close enough that Loren could feel the heat of Max’s body almost pressed to hers. The gentlest tug of her arm, and they’d be touching, Max’s side to her chest, legs nested together perfectly. Loren didn’t move a muscle.

“Stay for dinner,” Loren murmured. “I don’t like cooking for one.”

Max took a shaky breath against Loren’s arm. “All right,” she breathed, and Loren felt something give, something she hadn’t noticed until suddenly it was gone. She released Max, stepping quickly away and heading to the kitchen.

“That was incredible,” Max said, as Loren was clearing the plates off the coffee table, and Loren smiled.

“You’ve shown me your skills, only fair I show you mine,” she replied over her shoulder.

“So, you’re saying Ray hired you for your cooking skills?” Max called after her.

Loren laughed. “He hired me because I sassed him during the interview,” she corrected, stacking the dishes in the sink and running the hot water onto them.

“Even better,” Max retorted, and Loren turned off the water and headed back into the living room.

“Frankly, if you cooked for him, he’d ask you to marry him,” Max continued, but Loren barely heard her, because Max had taken her sweater off and she was leaning back against the couch with her eyes shut in a grimy white tank top that completely bared the dark metal which made up her left shoulder.

Max opened her eyes, the mechanical one shuttering open with a soft click. “Oh, shit, sorry,” she cursed, scrambling for the hoodie heaped carelessly beside her.

“No, wait,” Loren interrupted hurriedly, “don’t cover it.”

Max stopped dead. “I beg your pardon?”

There was a pause, and Loren looked at her, a feeling almost reminiscent of awe in the pit of her stomach.

“Mind if I look?” Loren asked after the brief silence.

Max stared at her wonderingly. “Go ahead.”

Loren sat down on the sofa by Max’s side. The prosthetic was bare, no casing to hide the metal structure. Loren leaned in for a closer look at the mechanism.

“Can I touch it?” she asked without thinking.

“Go ahead,” Max breathed.

For some reason, Loren was half-expecting it to shock her on contact. When it didn’t, she trailed her fingertips along the narrow piston. “Hydraulic?” she mused.

“Yeah,” Max confirmed. “Just to take some of the pressure off the muscles.”

“So are these tendon wires, then?” Loren traced one of the wires with a single finger.

“Yep. Those actually came with the original,” she added. “I reinforced them to compensate for the added weight of the hand, and the strength I needed just to keep working, but at least I could get away with not soldering them quite the same way.”

“What did they give you to start with?” Loren interrupted hastily, forcing back the resurfacing image of Max pressing a soldering iron into her bare flesh.

Max scoffed, but not at Loren. “Ceramic. What else?” she added, rolling her eyes.

“So did you pull it off and replace it, too?”

“It broke, actually,” Max informed her. “Painful fucking thing when the prosthetic half of your shoulder shatters, let me just say.”

“Jesus Christ,” Loren hissed. “How’d you get it out?”

“I was dating a very talented and rather loyal surgeon at the time,” Max reminisced. “I called her and begged her to help.”

Her. Loren sucked in a breath and let the pronoun buoy her up with possibility. “So she cleaned you up,” she said, forcing a casual tone. “Did she help with the prosthetics at all?”

“A little,” Max answered. “She wasn’t a cyborg surgeon, though. She mostly helped by providing me with painkillers, advice, and emotional support, at which she was remarkably good, at least until she broke up with me and moved to Singapore a month later.”

“Oh, god, Max.”

“Yeah. I mean, she had her reasons, but still. Anyways, most of the prosthetic is my design, and it’s almost all my construction.”

“How does it work?” Loren asked, less to allow the change of subject than out of genuine curiosity.

“Well, in the simplest terms, there’s the replacement bone structure, which is this bit, with the ball joint. That’s actually attached to the original screws that the surgeons put in to anchor their little teacup. Then the piston, which you can see isn’t actually attached at the top here, but held on by that ring, so it can react to any angle the ball joint can reach.”

“Oh, that’s brilliant,” Loren exclaimed.

“Thanks. Then there are the tendon wires, which, as I said, are reinforced heavily, because they needed to take a lot more pressure.”

“How much pressure?”

Max shrugged, and Loren was so distracted by the motion under her own fingers that she almost missed Max’s reply: “I can bench-press a Cobra.”

“You can bench-press a Cobra,” Loren echoed, eyes wide. She glanced down at the human portion of Max’s arm. Despite the slightly odd tension to them, her muscles certainly looked like the muscles of someone who could bench-press a Cobra. Cobras may have been only single-carrier motor vehicles, but they weren’t light.

“The hydraulic helps,” Max admitted. “Then, there’s the computing cable — that one, with the plastic; a simple computing circuit hidden under the skin on either side; the skin grafts I took off my hand — Keelie helped me with that, too — and a contact-sensitive coating, hooked up through the computers to the nerve wire.”

“Nerve wire?”

“Oh! Yeah, I had to run a nerve wire from my hand to the motherboard,” Max explained, turning her arm over and tracing one finger up a faint dark line under her skin, all the way to the edge of her faceplate, “so I just patched the shoulder onto it on the way by. I buried it as deep as I could, because nerve wires are fucking delicate equipment, but it was safest going over my collarbone, so I had to bring it up just under the skin.”

Loren followed the nerve wire delicately with a fingertip, through the slender inch of shoulder under the prosthetic that hadn’t been crushed in the accident. That inch of flesh must’ve been the only reason they let her keep the arm at all, Loren realized, as her finger trailed to a halt where the black of the wire was most visible, over her collarbone. “What does it do?” she asked.

“In short, it detects and transmits minute electrical impulses, like any nerve cells would do,” Max started. “It’s not as refined, obviously, and it’s very delicate, but it lets me know if something is touching any part of my prosthetics that’s been contact-coated, which they all have. You have to be ridiculously careful where you put it, too, because it picks up its own stimulation and surrounding nerve impulses, plus carrying its own input, so any sensation in the area can turn into a huge feedback loop after a while. Which is why I put it over my collarbone, which doesn’t tend to get sore, as opposed to my back or along the top of my shoulder, which gets touched a lot and often ends up in pain.”

“… So you could feel it when I touched your hand and your shoulder?”

“To an extent, but only very vaguely, especially with the shoulder. The hand has pressure sensors built in as well, which refine the system quite a bit. With just the contact coat, I can tell something is touching me — which is good, just having that awareness of my surroundings — but not how it’s touching me. With the pressure sensors, I can tell how much pressure there is.”

“That’s why you didn’t hurt me,” Loren realized. “In the coffee shop, when you squeezed my hand, you could feel how hard you were touching me.”

Max glanced over. “Yeah, I guess so. It’s gotten almost natural by now.”

Loren raised her eyes to Max’s face. The metal side of her face gleamed in the lamplight, dented and scratched and stained. The plating on her nose followed the exact same profile as the human side. In silhouette, it’d be almost impossible to tell there was metal there at all.

“Why did she break up with you?” Loren found herself asking.

Max huffed the faintest hint of a laugh. “For her own safety,” she said, with more true mourning in her voice than everyone who had attended Michal’s funeral that afternoon put together. “By helping me, she put herself in danger. She did what she could until she figured I’d be okay, and then she cut and ran. She told me it was for the sake of her job, and I believed her, but…” She sighed. “I’m sure she would’ve stayed despite the cyborg thing, if it hadn’t been for my tampering. But as it was, I think there were a lot of things that convinced her to go, and her job security was only one of them.”

“Have you dated anyone since?”

Max almost-laughed again, but this time it sounded a lot like a scoff. “Haven’t met anyone who’d want to.”

Loren teetered on the edge of a reply (You’ve met me, haven’t you?), unsure of how much truth was in it. While she fumbled silently with her words, Max looked over, eyebrow raised in an inquisitive arch.

“What about you?” Max asked. “Anyone else since that first boyfriend?”

“A few,” Loren admitted, swallowing hard against her suddenly dry throat. “Not in years.”

“Who ended it? Your last relationship, I mean,” Max clarified.

“I did.”

Max shut her eyes briefly with a wistful, humourless smile. “Aren’t you the lucky one,” she said. “To have that choice.”

Unlike me, Loren finished for her. Leaning forward, she pressed her lips ever-so-deliberately to the seam next to Max’s mouth where skin met metal.

Max sucked in a sharp breath, going tense. Loren pulled back gently, returning to her own space on the sofa as Max turned to look at her.

“What was that?”

“I like you, too,” Loren told her, and it was the most juvenile way to say it but Max looked at her like she was seeing the stars, and Loren had never seen the stars, but then Max’s hand curled around the back of Loren’s neck and pulled her in and their lips met and Loren forgot the stars altogether.

Max kissed like she was drowning, frantic and desperate, but so gentle as her hands came to grasp Loren’s face delicately, like she wanted to hold her there but was terrified to break her. Loren pressed one hand to the back of Max’s metal one, wrapped the other around the back of Max’s neck, and kissed back.

If Max kissed like she was drowning, Loren kissed like she could breathe the air Max needed straight into her lungs. Max’s mouth was soft and addictive, and it tasted like Loren’s cooking when Loren’s tongue traced her lip. Max made a startled noise and pulled away, but it was only to start talking: “Fuck, Loren, do you want, are you serious, you actually–”

“Yeah,” Loren interrupted, nudging her temple against the side of Max’s faceplate as a giddy grin bloomed across her face. Max made a sound like Loren was hurting her, cradling her metal hand around the back of Loren’s head and the other around her ribs and crushing her into a hug.

Loren squeaked, arms wrapping instinctively around Max’s shoulders for balance. Max was warm and solid in her arms, her grip on Loren strong but not choking. Loren shifted so Max’s metal shoulder wasn’t digging into the underside of her arm and buried her face in the side of Max’s neck, breathing in the comforting scents of motor oil and metal mixed with the tang of sweat she hadn’t had a chance to wash off. The spices from dinner and the warmth of the whiskey from earlier hadn’t sunk into that pocket of space yet; Loren revelled in it, temple against the warm metal of Max’s jaw.

“Hey, Max?” she murmured after a moment.

“Mm?” Max replied, releasing her.

Loren leaned back, propping her hands against the back of the couch so she could see Max’s face. “How about another drink?

Loren’s smile wouldn’t stay off her face, and the corner of Max’s mouth twitched up to match it. “Okay,” she agreed.

Loren twisted gently away, and Max leaned forward for the whiskey. Her hand on the bottle was steady as she poured; Loren followed with the water, and they each raised a glass, Max with an expectant look in Loren’s direction.

“To the stars,” Loren decided softly, and Max smiled.

“Now there’s a toast,” she replied, touching the rim of her glass to Loren’s with a clink. “To the stars.”

The whiskey didn’t burn as much as it had at first. It tasted like hope, Loren decided, which was an acquired taste after all — then she laughed.

“What?”

Loren shook her head. “I’m being unnecessarily poetic in my head,” she explained, grinning. “Nothing important.”

“Unnecessarily poetic about what?” Max inquired, and Loren kissed her to keep from answering.

Max kissed back, setting her glass aside and rescuing Loren’s from her hand. As she placed it carefully next to her own, Loren slipped Max’s hair tie free and tossed it aside to thread her fingers through Max’s hair. Max made a soft noise into the contact between them, and Loren chased it, licking sweetly into Max’s pliant mouth.

They kissed for what might have easily been an hour, sinking easily into a rhythm. They moved languidly, kisses building until Loren broke away from Max’s lips to trail her mouth down the side of Max’s neck.

“Loren,” Max breathed, like a prayer, and Loren placed a sucking kiss over Max’s collarbone. Max gasped, hand flying to clutch at Loren’s hair, and Loren pulled away to ask what was wrong before she saw the thin black shadow under Max’s skin.

“Oh,” she purred, eyes on Max’s face. “The nerve wire?”

Max nodded breathlessly, and Loren lowered her head to lick carefully over the dark line. She could feel it under her tongue, just the slightest ridge as she licked it again. Max shuddered under her, hand closing in Loren’s hair, just hard enough to make her gasp.

“Shit, sorry,” Max managed, loosening her grip, but Loren licked the nerve wire again and her hand snapped shut again, the other grasping at Loren’s hip.

“S’good,” Loren murmured against Max’s collarbone. “You?”

“Yeah,” Max whispered, thumb stroking over Loren’s hipbone through her trousers. “Yeah, keep going.”

Loren obeyed, tasting the salt of Max’s skin as she traced the nerve wire with the flat of her tongue. When Max didn’t stop her, she pressed a little harder, then sucked the skin between her teeth.

“Oh, oh, oh god, stop,” Max gasped, pulling at Loren’s hair, and Loren released her collarbone and pulled away.

“You okay?”

“Yeah, m’good,” Max murmured. “Just too much.”

Loren waited until Max’s breathing had evened out. Then she leaned down and captured Max’s mouth again, kissing her slick and filthy with promise.

Max’s hand slipped from Loren’s hair, tracing down her spine to rest on her other hip. Heart racing, Loren ground down against Max’s thigh.

Max made a startled noise and tightened her grip, and Loren cupped both hands around the back of Max’s neck and deepened the kiss, hips rocking almost infinitesimally in rhythm. Max’s mouth was molten against hers, her hands hot on Loren’s hips, and Loren found herself pulling away to grasp at the hem of Max’s tank top and ask, “Can I–”

“Yeah,” Max said, voice husky, and released Loren’s hips to let Loren peel her shirt off over her head. Loren heard it, rather than saw it, hit the wall, because her mouth was on Max’s again, hands tracing over Max’s waist and Max was hissing at the contact.

“Cold,” Max squeaked.

“Sorry,” Loren murmured against her lips, but didn’t stop touching, palms drinking in the feel of Max’s skin, the shape of her waist, the planes of her back as her hands trailed upwards.

The heel of her hand met scar tissue at the base of her ribcage; her fingers trailed over it. “Is this…” she asked.

“Yeah,” Max replied, and Loren continued without another word, reaching for the clasps of Max’s bra.

“Hey,” Max objected, pulling Loren’s hands away by the wrists. “Not fair. Wait your turn.”

Loren laughed, and then Max was laughing too and she couldn’t stop, even as Max’s fingers started pulling at the buttons of Loren’s vest, even as Loren shucked it off and started in on her shirt. Still swallowing giggles, she tugged her shirt free of her trousers and slipped it off to lie on the floor.

Max’s hands on her waist, warm and callused where they weren’t metal, stopped her diving in for another kiss. Loren waited, eyes on Max’s face as Max looked her over.

“You’re lovely,” Max said finally, like a confession, and Loren’s eyes pricked with sudden tears.

“Fuck, I — thanks,” she managed around the lump swelling in her throat, blinking hard. “Oh god, what the fuck. I’m okay,” she promised, laughing, as the first tears started falling. “I don’t know — fuck, I’m sorry, I’m fine.”

“Long day?” Max asked, with a sympathetic quirk of her lips, and Loren laughed.

“God, you have no idea,” she agreed, resting her forehead against Max’s. “You know, I had to go to this funeral today, and it was just awful, and it’s been a really goddamn stressful year all around, actually,” she realized.

“Do you want to keep going?”

“More than anything,” Loren admitted.

“C’mere,” Max murmured, and Loren let Max tug her into another kiss.

Max’s hands on Loren’s bare skin were intoxicating; she shivered as Max traced the river of her spine with her fingertips. Loren braced herself up with her hands on Max’s shoulders, and Max hesitated, but Loren ignored the edge of metal under her fingers, and once she had her balance, her hands started to wander again.

“Anything you don’t want me to touch?” Loren asked in a rush.

“Um,” Max replied eloquently. “I, uh, no, I mean don’t poke at the pieces, but that’s all, go ahead.”

Loren grinned against Max’s lips. “Great,” she declared with feeling, unhooking Max’s bra with practiced fingers.

Max let her remove it and toss it aside before going for Loren’s, who dived in for another kiss as soon as she was freed. Max kissed back, her hands on Loren’s bare shoulder blades, warm and grounding. Loren wove one hand through Max’s hair and pressed the nape of her neck to keep her close.

“Not to be the pushy one,” Loren gasped out eventually, as Max mouthed at her neck, “but I’d love to get a hand down your pants.”

Max snorted, burying her laughter in Loren’s neck. “Fine by me,” she said, and Loren’s hands flew to the waistband of her trousers.

Loren’s fingers were clumsy as she unhooked and unzipped Max’s trousers, but sure as she instinctively sought out Max’s clit. Max gasped, teeth closing over the side of Loren’s neck, and Loren made an embarrassing noise. She let her fingers wander closer in the tight space between them, and Max rolled her hips up into the touch. Her teeth freed themselves from Loren’s neck to make way for a breathy exhale, hot and desperate.

Panting, Loren shifted until she could get the right angle to press two fingers up into Max. Max was hot and slick and velvet around her, breath quick and damp against the side of Loren’s neck.

“Get these off,” Loren panted, and slipped her hand out of Max’s pants. Her knees hit the floor; she reached up to pull Max’s pants down with her clean hand. Max helped, thumbs — one metal, one flesh — hooking in her belt loops and dragging her trousers down her thighs. Tossing them aside, Loren looked up and lost her breath a little at the look on Max’s face — hair cascading over her faceplate, the faint glow of her mechanical eye shining through; her lips, parted and kiss-bruised; the flush under her skin; the way her remaining eye, dark and glinting with arousal, was fixed on Loren’s face.

Loren’s gaze returned to the sight directly in front of her, the elastic hem of Max’s underwear pressing into her stomach. She was lean and toned, her skin dusky in the low light and with a softness that Loren wanted to taste. On anyone else, the dark of the metal prosthetics would have been jarring; Loren drank in the shapes and shadows of her, the darkness of her hair and the olive of her skin, still smudged with black oil in places, and couldn’t imagine what she might’ve looked like without even the scar tissue decorating her forearm and over her ribs. If she was being honest, she didn’t really want to try.

Heart pounding, Loren met Max’s gaze and sucked the first two fingers of her dirty hand into her mouth.

Max’s chest heaved, fingers tightening on the couch cushions. Loren worked her fingers clean with her tongue, never looking away, and then hooked her fingertips around Max’s waistband and pulled her boxers down and completely off.

Loren’s hands dipped into the hollows behind Max’s knees, and she slipped them up over her bare shoulders, pulling Max even closer. This close, all she could smell was Max; her mouth watered, and she looked up and made eye contact one last time before closing her eyes and leaning forward, pressing an obscenely wet, sucking kiss to Max’s vulva.

Max made a startled noise and her hips jerked upward, and Loren’s hands darted to Max’s hips, pinning them to the sofa. She pulled away to lick her lips, and Max whined, hand flying to Loren’s hair. One metal fingertip brushed her ear.

Bench-press a Cobra swam up through the haze in Loren’s mind, and she pressed her forehead to Max’s thigh, suddenly dizzy with the realization of just how careful Max was being with her, how much damage she could do if she was careless.

“You good?” Max breathed, and Loren chuckled.

“Never been better,” Loren replied, voice throaty from disuse, and trailed her tongue up the inside of Max’s thigh.

Max cursed, and Loren laid her tongue flat against the base of Max’s slit and licked languorously upwards, savouring the saltiness. Max let out a high, breathy exhale, and her fingers wove into Loren’s hair, clenching when Loren snaked one hand up and slid two fingers back into her, crooking upwards and eliciting an honest, throaty moan.

“Fuck, Loren,” Max hissed, and Loren looked up, tonguing at Max’s clit. Max gasped, hips jerking against Loren’s hand hard enough to remind her that if Max wanted to get free, there was nothing stopping her.

“Fuck,” Max said again, “Loren, I’m–” and Loren hummed, pressing her tongue harder into Max’s clit. Max’s head fell back against the sofa as she tensed and fluttered around Loren’s fingers, and then she was arching up and coming, thighs clenching around Loren’s face, closing her off from everything but the pound of her own heart in her ears and the scent and taste of Max on her tongue.

Loren would have loved to stay there, with Max filling her senses and blotting out the world, but as Max relaxed back into the couch, Loren moved her hand from Max’s hip to her knee, tugging gently. Max released her immediately, and Loren leaned back on her clean hand, pulling her fingers out of Max and filling her lungs with clean air.

“Couldn’t breathe,” she started to explain, but Max just cupped both hands around the back of her head and dragged her up to kiss her.

Loren made a helpless noise as Max sucked her lower lip clean, bracing herself against the back of the couch with her dry hand. “Max,” she breathed into the sliver of time between Max releasing her lip and diving back in for another kiss.

Max’s hands were mercilessly fast as they stripped Loren of her trousers and panties, then dragged her up to straddle Max’s lap. “Tell me what you want,” Max murmured, and Loren moaned.

“Touch me,” she gasped, ragged, and Max trailed two fingers up her slit.

“Mm, more,” Loren purred, raking her clean fingers through Max’s hair and tucking Max’s head into her chest. Max teased at Loren’s clit with one calloused fingertip, and Loren let her head drop to rest her forehead on Max’s hair and breathe in the comforting shop-and-sweat scent of her.

“Go on,” Loren whispered, and Max obeyed, circling Loren’s clit with gratifyingly firm strokes. Loren shivered, and Max placed a wet kiss on her breastbone.

The slick on Loren’s fingers was cooling in the air, but she slid her hand back between Max’s legs. Max shifted her legs wider to let her, and Loren moved her knee to rest between Max’s thighs as she followed the rhythm Max set.

Max came first, shivering with her teeth against Loren’s collarbone, and Loren worked her through it until Max wrapped her free hand around Loren’s wrist to bring it to her mouth. Loren gasped as Max slipped her fingers into her mouth, and she pressed her lips to Max’s forehead as Max sucked her fingers clean and coaxed her to orgasm.

Loren closed her hand in Max’s hair as the pleasure crested, mouth falling open in a silent cry. As her vision cleared, Loren breathed against Max’s forehead, feeling the metal of Max’s faceplate against her lips and her fingers resting around Loren’s wrist. Her touch was delicate, and Loren marvelled at the level of control, the careful balance of the technology under the plating. It was art, she realized, with all the gravity of any passing thought — Max had built herself into a work of art.

Rising cautiously to her feet, Loren twisted her hand so that Max held her wrist and she held Max’s. “Come on,” she invited, stepping in the direction of her bedroom. “I’m exhausted.”

Max followed wordlessly, and Loren waited until her breathing slowed and her eyes — human and mechanical — were shut before she let herself sleep.

When Loren woke, it was still dark. She lay awake for a moment, unsure what had woken her until she realized the sheets were empty and cooling beside her.

Rising out of bed and throwing an open button-down on over her shoulders, Loren padded quietly out into the hall. The living room lamps were still on, but Max’s clothes were gone from the floor, and Loren’s were folded over the arm of the couch. There was a light on in the kitchen that Loren hadn’t left; following it, she found Max at the sink, fully dressed and with her hair tied carelessly back.

“Are you doing my dishes?”

Max glanced around at her. She didn’t seem surprised by Loren’s presence. “I didn’t want to leave them for you,” she explained.

“The sun isn’t even up yet.” Loren narrowed her eyes. “Were you leaving?”

Max looked away. “I shouldn’t have stayed this long,” she said quickly. “I’ve outstayed my welcome–”

“That’s bullshit. You’re still welcome, Max.”

“Loren, you were drunk–”

“Not that drunk,” Loren countered, suddenly deadly serious.

Max shot her a brief look. “You were drunk enough.”

“Not drunk enough to do anything I’d regret,” Loren snapped, and Max looked up again.

“You mean that?”

Loren just looked at her, doing her best to make her emotions clear on her face. “Come on,” she said gently, holding out a hand.

“Loren–”

“I want to sleep with you.”

Max gripped the edge of the sink with both hands. “Loren, please–”

“I mean actually sleep, Max, it’s — christ, it’s four in the morning, come back to bed. We can talk about this once it actually counts as morning.”

Max blinked, eyes fixed on the dishes in the sink. “I didn’t think you’d want to see me in the morning.”

Loren balked. “Fuck, Max, of course I want to see you in the morning. Now come on, it’s cold out here.”

“… Let me finish the dishes first.”

“Fine.” Loren hitched herself up onto the counter. “I’ll wait.”

Max turned back to the dishes, and they fell into a comfortable silence as Max rinsed and dried pots and pans, including the ones Loren had neglected from the last couple of meals. She had her sweater back on, hiding her shoulder, but her sleeves were rolled up, and Loren was quietly impressed that her hand was apparently waterproof enough to stand being completely submerged in dirty dishwater.

“You really haven’t been in a relationship since you were eighteen?” she asked eventually.

Max glanced over her shoulder, rinsing off the last saucepan. “No.”

“That’s so sad.”

“Why?”

“Why?” Loren gave her an incredulous look. “Because you’re great? Because clearly nobody’s bothered yet to see past the metal to the fact that it’s a mark of how clever, how technically skilled, how fucking strong you are? Because–” She stopped suddenly when she realized what she’d been about to say.

“Because what?” Max pried, drying her hands.

“Because,” Loren began, fumbling for the right words, “I think you’re an incredible person, and, hey, if I could learn to see it there must be somebody else out there who could, because last I checked, I was pretty damn stubborn.”

Max held her gaze for a minute. Then, slowly, she set down the towel and held out a hand to Loren. “Come on. Let’s go back to bed.”

Loren slid off the counter. “All right, but you have to stay for breakfast.”

“I was going to make breakfast,” Max admitted.

“What? No. I make breakfast,” Loren objected, taking Max’s hand.

“You made dinner.”

“Yes, but A, it’s my house, and B, I have to make you morning-after pancakes.”

“Fine. But I’m doing the dishes.”

Loren laughed. “I don’t know why you’re so insistent on doing my dishes,” she said, pulling Max back into her bedroom, “but if you’re going to make it a habit, you can stay.”

Read this piece’s entry on the Shousetsu Bang*Bang wiki.

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