Music Box (1930s) — In Need of Repair

by Koiwa Shishiko (小岩 獅神)
illustrated by ylfdragon

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/167651.html)

Matthew found the shop with little trouble, but at first he entertained the possibility that he was mistaken. He paced the opposite side of the street, he watched cars pass by, he watched the lights change. When the sun dipped behind the buildings and foot traffic between the metro stations picked up, warm yellow lights were lit inside the shop and those that lined the street with it. It glinted off glass faces and gold buckles, and it slid down glossed leather like water. There were worse things to be mistaken about, he decided, and he crossed the street and entered the shop.

There were no customers. Matthew had been watching the door for nearly a half hour and he’d seen no one come or go, but he was still surprised to suddenly be alone with the shop’s proprietor. He looked young — very young, younger than Matthew. He glanced up at him briefly and, apparently detecting no obvious signs of wealth about him, looked back down at what he was doing without a word.

Matthew looked over a display case near the counter. It was full of watches all telling the same time: seven twenty-six. The handwritten labels beside them made him suck on his teeth.

The man at the desk cleared his throat and asked, “Is there something I can help you with?” His voice was crisp in the manner in which it did not attach to a ‘sir’ to the question. I must look like a shop-lifter, Matthew thought.

“Um,” he said. Instead of anything intelligent, he pointed at the case and asked, “Did you make all of these?”

The man stared at him. “No,” he said.

“Oh.”

“My father makes most of them.”

“Oh!” Matthew grinned. “It’s just weird, you know? I didn’t think people still made watches. I thought they all came from factories in China or something.”

“Well,” the man said, “most of them do. But if you’ll excuse me, I’m afraid we’re closing in a few minutes.” The innards of a pocket watch were carefully scattered over a small work area on the desk, and he was holding some sort of tool that was shaped like a pencil. Right now it hovered motionlessly over the gears of the watch as the young man looked up at him; there was a tiny screw at the end of it.

“I, um…” Matthew coughed. “I actually… I have something I want to show you.”

He’d looked back down at his work again, but he glanced back up at that, frowning. “Show me?”

“You can close the store first,” Matthew said. “If you want.”

“It’s fine.” He offered a small, forced smile. “What is it?”

“Well… okay, so is this the same Ellis Time Pieces that’s been here for… you know, however long? You’re the same owners?” He smiled hopefully. “You’re an Ellis?”

“Christian Ellis,” the man said. He lifted a finger to point to something behind Matthew; it was a little sign that read EST. 1889 and then something in Latin. “And yes.”

“Great! Okay, so… this is kind of a long story. Um, Matthew, by the way.” Christian’s expression of mild impatience didn’t flicker. “I have something of yours. I think. You… well, I don’t know, your father maybe, one of you made it. I’m not sure how old it is. I got it on this online auction site. You don’t really know who’s selling it to you, so–”

“I know how eBay works,” Christian said.

“Right. Well, all right, but I don’t know what it is.”

Christian raised an eyebrow. “It’s not a watch?”

“I don’t think it’s a watch.”

“Why did you bid on it if you didn’t know what it was?” Christian asked.

Matthew shrugged. “It looked cool.”

“Well.” Christian set down the tool he was holding and pushed his chair over to a clearer spot on the counter. “If it looked cool. Let’s see it.”

Matthew shrugged out of his backpack and set it on the floor before he started rifling through it. By the time he stood up again, Christian looked downright bored. “Here it is.” He set the item on the counter. It was a small wooden box with a curved lid, closed by a sloping brass clasp.

Christian cocked an eyebrow. Matthew gestured, inviting him to investigate, and Christian gamely unlatched the box and pushed it open. Inside was a spare jumble of more brass, wheels and springs and screws, none of its purpose obvious. Christian stared at it for long moments and finally asked, “This is one of ours?”

“There’s a stamp on the bottom,” Matthew said. Christian turned the whole thing over, revealing a small logo pressed into the wood: ETP. The top stroke of the T covered its neighboring letters like a flat little umbrella. “It took me a while to trace that to you guys,” Matthew continued. “You were never a really big company or anything.”

Christian set the box back on its base and frowned at its workings. “If it’s a music box,” he said, “it’s missing its cylinder. But we’ve never made music boxes.” He ran a fingertip over the teeth of one over-sized gear. “You don’t know how old it is?”

“The guy who sold it to me said it was from the thirties,” Matthew said, “but I don’t know. It doesn’t really look that old, does it?”

“If it is, someone’s taken good care of it.” Christian turned back to his little work area and picked up a magnifying glass and a lamp. He eyed the innards of the box under the light and said, “A component’s been removed… here.”

“Where?”

Christian pointed to a flat brass arm with a pair of small holes cut into it. “This accommodates screws and holds something in place. You can see lines here… where it used to be.” He shook his head. “If it’s too old to have had a battery that would have fit here, then it must have been wound with a key.”

Matthew bit his lip. “It didn’t come with a key.”

“Well, it didn’t come with its wind-up mechanism, either, so I wouldn’t worry about it.”

The door to the shop opened, and a women clearly accustomed to the uptown jewelry shops stepped in. Christian barely glanced up at her sidelong. “We’re closed, ma’am.”

built and photographed by ylfdragon

“It’s just funny that you’d say the thirties,” Christian said about an hour later, ignoring his beer almost entirely in favor of Matthew’s mystery box. “There have always been all these stories in my family about my grandfather.”

“Would that be the original Ellis?” Matthew asked.

Christian laughed a little. “No, my great-grandfather opened the shop. But his son — my dad’s dad — there was always a lot of intrigue around him.”

Matthew sipped his beer and watched the way Christian handled the box. Careful light touches, weirdly precise, tested the tension of an odd coil of flat metal perpendicular to the largest gear. “What kind of intrigue?”

“Oh… you know. Masonry and the like.”

“…Masonry?”

“The Freemasons.”

“Oh!” Matthew set his glass down. “That’s getting kind of deep.”

“Oh, no, not really. It was a popular pretension at the time. I don’t know if it has anything to do with this.” He sounded doubtful of his own skepticism. Matthew leaned forward a little, trying to keep his own growing excitement at bay, but he couldn’t hold it back.

“Can you fix it?” he asked.

Christian laughed. “I don’t know what it’s supposed to do. I don’t even know what it is.”

“I have two thousand dollars,” Matthew said.

“Two thousand dollars isn’t a lot.”

“I know, you make stuff for rich people, but I’m in college. It’s all I’ve got.” Matthew sighed. “Come on, man.”

Christian shrugged. “If I can find out what it is, fixing it shouldn’t be difficult. But one thing it definitely is not is a clock. I don’t know if I’m really your man.”

“But a watchmaker made it? Right?”

“He might have.” Christian sighed. “Might have.” He set the box next to his beer and gazed down the length of the bar sightlessly for nearly a minute, mulling it over. “You’re in college?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Matthew said. “State.”

“Why are you spending all your money on a little box? It might not be anything at all. It might be a hoax.”

Matthew shook his head. “I just want to know. It’s driving me crazy, you know? It’s got to be something. Even if it’s just weird art.”

“I doubt it’s art.” Christian shook his head. “Keep the money. My father has the business’s old books; if someone commissioned it, there’ll be a record of it somewhere. If not, you may be out of luck, but not necessarily. We’ll see.”

“Can you look this week?”

Christian shrugged. “I can look tonight. My father’s in Spain this week. That’s why I’ve got the shop.”

Matthew clapped his hands together with victorious finality and grinned. “Great. Thank you so much, man, I mean it.”

“Don’t worry about it.” Christian finally seemed to notice his beer; he downed it in a very impressive three swallows or so. “I’ll just need to borrow the box. You can come by the shop for it tomorrow, and I’ll tell you what I find.”

“Wait,” Matthew said. “Why do you need the box?”

“Well, to compare its components against invoices and orders for parts. Even if there’s no record of the box itself, these aren’t standard watch parts. I could still narrow the time frame down.”

“Um… hm.” Matthew wavered for a moment, and he said, “It’s not that I don’t trust you. But I paid a lot for it, and I don’t really want to just… hand it over to somebody I just met.”

Christian raised an eyebrow. “I assure you, I have no need to steal from a college student.”

“I know, but…” Matthew chewed on his lower lip. “I don’t know.”

“Well, decide,” Christian said. “If we stay here any longer I won’t be in any condition to pull an all-nighter for you.”

“Can I come by your house with you?”

Christian hesitated, and then he laughed a little. “Ah… I don’t know about that. I appreciate the beer, but I don’t really know you.”

“Well, you see how I feel, then.”

“I suppose…” Christian trailed off, frowning, and then shrugged. “What the hell. The library has a couch. You’re welcome to it.”

Matthew laughed. “How long is this going to take?”

“I have no idea. But there isn’t exactly a card catalogue. Some of those books probably haven’t been opened in fifty years.”

“I guess we’ll find out.”

Christian nodded. “Come on. It’s a few miles from here; we’ll catch a cab.”

Matthew was expecting a house, but Christian brought him to one of the city’s nicer pre-war apartment buildings, the sort where you buy instead of rent. Matthew trailed behind him and tried not to look like a late-night hook-up, but the doorman barely nodded to them. Christian juggled his keys briefly before letting them into an apartment on the seventh floor.

“It’s that way, through the kitchen,” he said, shrugging out of his coat and nodding towards a doorway. Matthew stepped around a small table carefully — other people’s apartments always made him feel like he was about to knock something over — and pawed at the wall until he located a light switch, illuminating a cramped kitchen yellowed slightly by years of afternoon cigarettes. Christian squirmed past him and the little dining room set through to another door and opened it. “In here.”

Calling it a library seemed generous — it was more like an expansive study, with a big solid desk in one corner that faced back out to the kitchen and, as promised, a couch to the right of that. The walls were occupied by identically high bookshelves. Not much that Matthew could see was clearly labeled. “You can put your things down,” Christian said.

Matthew set his backpack on the floor and bent down to fish the box out of it again. He placed it on the desk and opened it, letting its brass and glossed wood glint under the lamp. After a moment of consideration, he pulled his laptop out, too.

“The thirties, you said?” Christian asked. He was kneeling and eying a shelf of books at knee level. “Was your source any more specific than that?”

“No,” Matthew said. “Sorry.”

“Well.” He grasped a ledger book from the far end of the shelf. “We’ll start with January, 1930, then.” He twisted to sit cross-legged with his back against the bookcase. “I really doubt my parents have wireless,” he said.

“Well, someone in your building does.”

“Tsk.” Christian opened the book and squinted at the first page. “…We’re going to be hampered slightly by my grandfather’s handwriting.”

Matthew asked, “But you can read it, right?”

“More or less.” He let his head fall back against the books behind him with a soft thud. Matthew had no new email; he eyed him for a moment over the top of the laptop screen. Christian looked young, but he didn’t look… high school young or anything.

“Are you in school?” Matthew asked.

Christian took a moment to answer him. He was skimming over pages rapidly but turning pages carefully. “Like… university, you mean?” Matthew nodded; Christian shook his head. “I’ll have the business when Dad retires.”

“So… you make watches, then?”

“I… well, for the time being, I repair them.” He turned another page, and his dark eyes fell down its length steadily. “That’s most of the work that comes in.”

“Do your watches break down that much?”

Christian smiled. “Not just our watches. I’ll fix any kind of watch.”

Matthew blinked. “Even digital watches?”

“Most people who bring a digital watch into a repair shop just want the battery changed.” He shrugged. “But that’s an easy five dollars.”

“Only five?”

“It takes less than a minute to do.” He turned a page every ten seconds or so. “I don’t know why people can’t change watch batteries. They can change others kinds of batteries.”

Matthew had no idea how to change a digital watch battery. “Can I help?” he asked. “Maybe you can start at 1930 and I’ll start at 1939 and we can meet at the middle.”

“I would prefer that you not,” Christian said. He didn’t even look up. Matthew clicked on the inbox button again, but nothing new loaded. He folded the laptop up and put it on the desk. He picked up the box again, running his finger over an exposed gear and spinning it on its axle. That made something below it turn, too, but that didn’t seem to lead anywhere else.

“Have you ever even seen something similar to this?” he asked. “If it were a clock, it would have a face, right?”

“I told you, it’s not a clock,” Christian said. “It isn’t built anything like a clock.”

Matthew watched Christian read for a few quiet minutes; after a time he set the first ledger aside and picked up the next one. “Freemasons, huh,” Matthew said.

Christian’s eyes hesitated in their skimming. “So they say.”

“Are you a Freemason?”

Christian laughed. “Of course not.”

“But it’s easier to get in if you’ve got family who are members, right? There’s… um, there’s a word for that, right?”

“A Lewis,” Christian said. “Yes. But I don’t have a lot of time to waste on secret society nonsense. And it’s all old men, anyway.”

“But you think this might be related to them,” Matthew said. “That’s why you brought it up at the bar.”

“Mm.” Christian shrugged. “Could be. It sort of… feels like the kind of thing my grandfather was into, along with all that.” He was thoughtfully quiet for a moment. “Secret things.”

“Secret things,” Matthew repeated.

“In any case, we’ll never know if you don’t let me go through these.” He waved one hand vaguely. “There’s a television in the den.”

Matthew didn’t want to watch television. He smiled anyway, though Christian wasn’t looking at him, and let himself back into the kitchen.

It didn’t look like the home of someone who made his living off of building tiny expensive things for rich folks. It did look like a home that had been in the family for a while, though. Knickknacks cluttered shelves, and furniture looked like it had taken root in the carpet like trees as the rest of the apartment grew up around it. He wondered if Christian lived here. He hadn’t said. Maybe making watches was just as expensive as selling them, at the end of the day.

Certainly nothing about the place suggested Freemasons. He didn’t know if he’d necessarily know if it did, though. What suggested Freemasons, aside from squares and compasses? There were crocheted throws on the sofa and little glass and clay figurines on the coffee table. There was indeed a television — it looked older than he was. Matthew couldn’t imagine anything more interesting than Wheel of Fortune on such a set, so he left it alone. There were more bookshelves here, but they held only novels and old magazines.

There was a framed photograph of Christian on a shelf at eye level. He looked about ten, with a bowl cut and big blue eyes, smiling at the photographer against a blue backdrop. He was holding a gold pocket watch. Matthew smiled back. Cute kid.

Beyond the den was a hallway that appeared to lead to bedrooms. He was trying to decide how nosy he was feeling when Christian called, “Matthew!” from the library.

He was sitting at the desk when Matthew came back in, with one of the ledgers open in front of him. He was flipping through a second book rapidly. “Find something?” Matthew asked.

“Think so,” Christian said. “September, 1934. He made note of ordering the box itself, or… one of the same dimensions, anyway, but he doesn’t say what it was for. He also ordered some parts from a clock supplier catalogue. And… some other things.” He glanced up and smiled. “Pretty sure this is it.”

“So what are you doing now?”

“Well, he kept project journals, but they weren’t for the business and he wasn’t very consistent about them. Still, worth a look…” His hand hesitated, and then he flipped back a page and squinted at the handwriting. Matthew held his breath.

“Hm,” Christian said.

“Hm?”

He shook his head. “No mention.” He closed the book and eyed the box. “All right.” He reached for the ledger again. “All right. Let’s try to recreate this. We’ll make a list of everything he placed an order for that week.”

“Got it.” Matthew grabbed his laptop and retreated to the couch with it. Still no new email. He opened a new Word file and said, “Shoot.”

“One box of Lebanese cedar…” He paused frowning. “This is not cedar, the cheapskate. Main wheel, suspension spring… escapement.” He gnawed on his lip while Matthew typed. “The measurements match up, so this is what we’ve already got. Now… copper wire. Brass fittings…” He picked up the box and examined the remaining clockwork. “This space must have held a kinetically-powered mechanism, but he would have had that sort of thing in the shop already. The question is, why was it removed?”

“I don’t know,” Matthew said.

“I have a hunch,” Christian said. “In precision instruments, you have something called a jewel bearing. It allows a metal pivot to work with high accuracy and low friction. These days we use synthetics, but before those were widely available, watch-makers used diamonds, emeralds, garnets… that sort of thing.” He shrugged. “They’re tiny. Not really worth a lot. But if I were going to strip something from an old watch mechanism, it would be the parts with jewel bearings.”

“But you said this wasn’t a clock.”

“It’s not. But it was made by my grandfather, and my grandfather was a watch maker.”

“All right,” Matthew said. “So… you think it was a precision instrument? What… what does that mean?”

“Hang on,” Christian said. He was reading the ledger again. “He ordered flowers that week.”

Matthew’s hands paused over the laptop keys. “Flowers?”

“Forget-me-nots. Marigolds. Cherry. Honey-suckle.” He hesitated. “It goes on for a whole page. Just mounds of flowers.”

“For your grandmother, maybe,” Matthew offered.

Christian said, “Wait here. I’ll be right back.”

He returned presently with what in a normal household would have been the entire contents of the mother’s junk drawer. Here, though, it was just a toolkit of sorts, containing a seemingly random assortment of screws, wires, cogs, wheels, watch faces and housings. He turned on the desk’s lamp and started pulling out carefully selected pieces, comparing them against what was in the box. Matthew felt excitement stir in the pit of his stomach.

As soon as Christian was satisfied, he left the library again, but now he only went out to the kitchen. He looked around, frowning, and then reached for a vase on top of the refrigerator that held a bouquet of roses slightly past their prime. “Seriously?” Matthew asked.

Christian shrugged. “It’s past eleven. I’m not going to a florist.”

“Yeah, but…” He watched as Christian dumped the vase’s water into the sink and shook the stems off. Rose petals fluttered onto the counter around him. “The flowers can’t have anything to do with… anything.” Christian came back to the library and tossed the flowers onto the desk. Matthew felt almost bad for them. “And those aren’t the right kind anyway.”

“Make up your mind,” Christian said. He pointed to a coil of flattened metal in the box and said, “This is a mainspring. It’s essentially a piece of clockworks’ power supply. It’s supposed to be in a case called a going barrel.” He picked up one of his own pieces, something flat and circular. “That’s this. But here, the mainspring is attached directly to the recoil. That isn’t exactly a standard configuration.” He picked up a spool of copper wire. “This is going to be sloppy, I’m afraid.”

“Be my guest,” Matthew said.

Christian cut off several pieces of the wire, picked up a pair of pliers, and finally went to work. It was hard to watch what he was doing, given the tiny work space, but he could see that he was attaching parts of the box’s mechanism to other parts with the grace of a surgeon. After a few minutes, he sat back and carefully pushed on the top gear: the motion somehow pulled on the mainspring, drawing its coil tighter. It took several minutes of patient winding before it reached full tension, and Christian drew his hand back.

The mechanism snapped into violent and brief life. The mainspring’s tension released at all once, and the box jerked on the desk as all of its gears and cogs spun vigorously for a few seconds. “I hope our thief enjoys his fragment of an ounce of diamonds,” Christian said.

“That’s amazing!” Matthew cried. “You’re amazing!”

“I haven’t done anything,” Christian said. He was smiling anyway, glancing at Matthew sidelong to confirm the sincerity of the praise. “I just cheated our way around the need for a wind-up key. Winding it up that way isn’t good for it. We’ll have to fix it properly later. Now…” He pointed to another space. “What goes here?”

“A flower?” Matthew said. He was joking, but Christian plucked the bloom off of one of the roses and eyed it thoughtfully; it threatened to fall apart in his fingers. “No, really. What’s a flower going to do?”

“Maybe nothing,” Christian said. He picked up another piece of copper wire and speared the rose on it, pinning it together. He bent his head over the box again and carefully threaded one end of it to the brass piece with the screw holes. He attached the other to a piece that Matthew couldn’t identify.

“That isn’t going to do anything,” Matthew said. “It’s just going to shred it.”

Christian sat back and frowned. “Right?” Matthew said. “You can say if I’m wrong. I’m trying to keep up with you.”

“No,” Christian said. “You’re right.”

“So why are you sticking flowers in it?”

“I think…” Christian hesitated. “I think it is supposed to be destroying something. But it’s supposed to do so in a very particular way.” He pointed and said, “This spot held a spindle. That spindle held something to be acted on by the mechanism.”

Matthew watched Christian wordlessly.

“I’m going to try something unlikely,” Christian said.

“Unlikely?”

Christian reached into the toolkit again and dug around; he eventually pulled out the sort of battery kids use in science projects in middle school to light tiny light bulbs. Matthew had thought that the middle school science project market was all that was propping up the lantern battery industry. “You’re going to wind it up and attach it to a battery?”

“Not quite,” Christian said. “Not the mechanism itself.” He pulled out a handful of tiny alligator clips on wires. “This is certainly not how the machine originally worked,” he said, “but I’m willing to bet this will approximate it.” He attached the clips of two wires to things inside the box, and then attached the opposite end of one of those to the battery. He held the last one free.

“What on earth are you doing?” Matthew asked.

Christian shrugged. “I’m experimenting.” He started the slow process of winding the mainspring again; when it was taut enough that he could no longer turn the gear with one finger, he looked up at Matthew and grinned. “Count to three.”

Matthew laughed. “Um, okay. One… two…” Christian opened the alligator clip and held it poised over the remaining spring terminal. The rose in the box was only held together now by the wire that pierced it and squeezed lopsided by the clips on either side. “Three.”

Christian released the gear and the alligator clip at the same time, sending the mechanism into its flurry of activity again as he closed the circuit on the battery. The box hissed, and Matthew smelled something like burning incense. Then the mainspring bled out the tension in its coil and it fell still and silent on the desk. A single curl of white smoke rose from it.

The rose had been reduced to something the size of a raisin, shriveled and black on the copper wire that held it. Christian reached it to touch it and then whipped his hand back with a gasp. “Hot?” Matthew asked.

“Hot,” Christian said. He picked up a screwdriver and tapped it with that instead; what was left of the flower dissolved into ash and tumbled down to the bottom of the box. When it did, though, something more solid within it audibly struck the wood. Christian felt the sides of the box carefully before he picked it up and turned it over. The charred remains of the flower floated out, and with it something small and red tumbled and bounced on to the desk.

“What it is?” Matthew asked. Christian picked it and held it under the lamp: it was about the size of his smallest fingernail, oblong, and blood-red. Rose red. “Is it a jewel?”

Christian shook his head. “Too light. And too… warm.” He let it roll on his palm. “It feels like… amber or something.”

“Amber is a jewel,” Matthew said.

Christian glanced up at him. “Technically, amber is a resin.”

“We can call anything a jewel, as long as it’s pretty.” Matthew plucked the little red gem from Christian’s hand and held it up to one eye. It was like colored glass.

“I suppose,” Christian said.

Matthew lowered it and laid his free hand against the side of Christian’s face, tilting it back so he was looking up at him. Christian fell abruptly silent. “Thank you for doing this for me,” Matthew said. “You really are amazing.”

“I…” Christian blinked. He really did have lovely eyes. “I don’t even know what I’ve done yet.”

“Well,” Matthew said, “let’s find out.” He pushed his thumb between Christian’s lips, opening his mouth, and slipped the little piece of the rose in. Christian wasn’t prepared for it, and he coughed hard as it tumbled down his throat.

Christian shoved away from him. “What the hell?” he shouted. “Are you trying to kill me? You don’t even know what that was!”

“Roses aren’t poisonous,” Matthew said. “People make tea with them.”

“That’s rose hips!” Christian said. “Are you crazy? God, you must be, what was I even thinking.” He put a hand to his head. “I have to… I have to go induce vomiting or something, I–”

“No, you don’t,” Matthew said.

Christian stared at him. He looked panicked and hurt. “Just calm down,” Matthew said.

“Who are you?” Christian asked.

Instead of answering, Matthew kissed him. For a moment he wasn’t sure how that was going to go — Christian was very tense, and the taste of his mouth was bitter and medicinal. But he did relax by degrees, every muscle releasing its tension like a properly cased mainspring, and he finally closed his eyes and let his lips part.

Matthew awkwardly kicked his backpack off of the couch and pulled Christian down to sit with him; Christian tumbled down into him like he was drunk. “Feeling okay there?” Matthew asked.

“Yes,” Christian said. He kissed him again. “Yes, I feel wonderful.”

“You do feel wonderful,” Matthew said, and Christian laughed. “Is this something you’ve, um, done?”

“Ah… I beg your pardon?” Christian asked.

“You’re not, like, sixteen, are you?”

“I’m twenty-one,” Christian said.

“That’s very precisely legal.”

“Why, thank you.”

“For the beer I bought you, anyway.” Matthew smiled, and Christian smiled back. He was going to have hell to pay for this later, he sensed, but for the time being he kissed him again, and Christian made a very pleased sound in his chest.

Making out in a library was a very strange feeling. Christian’s fingers sank into his hair and lazily rubbed his scalp, and Matthew was frankly surprised by how good that felt. His fingertips were roughened and very careful, very sure of how they moved. They only lost their sense of purpose when Matthew drifted from Christian’s mouth and kissed his throat; they paused there for long moments, and then slid down to carefully attack Matthew’s collar.

“Mnph,” Matthew said. “Hey.”

Christian was halfway down his shirt’s buttons before he glanced up. “Yes?”

“This is okay?”

“This is very okay,” Christian said. He slid his hands into Matthew’s shirt and skimmed his ribs; Matthew shivered hard. Christian dropped his head and kissed his chest lingeringly, and then again, lower.

“You just, um…” Matthew swallowed. “You didn’t really seem to like me very much before.”

Christian glanced up and shrugged. “Yeah, you’re kind of annoying. But you started it.” He finished undoing Matthew’s shirt and pushed it off his shoulders. Rose hips, Matthew thought, watching Christian shrug out of his own shirt. I need to remember that.

He didn’t realize how chilly it was until they were both half-bare. Christian moved to straddle his thighs as Matthew leaned back into the couch, and he became aware simultaneously how cold he was and how hard he was. But Christian leaned into him, grinding against him, and he was burning up. Matthew wrapped his arms around him greedily and pressed his mouth to his throat and collarbone to drink in that heat. Christian squirmed in his lap. Soon enough, he slipped his hands between their bellies and unbuckled his own belt.

The backs of his hands and knuckles brushed Matthew through his clothing, and he bit down on the inside of his lip to stop himself from making a sound he knew would be closer to a whine than a moan. Christian unfastened his slacks and pulled his prick free. Matthew wanted to object — he wanted a better view — but Christian’s tongue was in his mouth, and he was jerking himself off, and Matthew knew better than to make him stop. He pushed the open flaps of Christian’s pants back further instead, baring him back to his hips, and thrust his hands into his underwear to clutch his buttocks.

Christian gasped against Matthew’s cheek. He worked himself faster, and Matthew’s eyes closed with a sort of unearthly bliss as Christian adjusted things so he was deliberately petting him through his clothing with his strokes. He groped at his ass with as little subtlety as he could manage, kneading at it like a cat, and soon Christian broke off from sucking on his tongue to fall against his shoulder as he came. It mostly ended up on Matthew’s stomach.

For nearly a minute, they were both still. Christian was very comfortably settled against Matthew’s chest, but Matthew was not comfortable, and he let this be known soon enough. Christian chuckled at his squirming and said, “All right. All right.”

“All right?” Matthew asked.

Christian straightened, open clothing and all, and slid off of Matthew gracelessly to the floor. “Oh God,” Matthew said. “Please, please.”

Christian laughed. He had a very pretty laugh, Matthew thought distantly. “Am I making you beg?” He pushed Matthew’s knees apart and reached for his zipper. “No begging.”

“Oh,” Matthew said. “Um… yes?”

Christian grinned. “Yes is good.” He unfastened Matthew’s pants and reached into his clothing fearlessly to tug his cock out. He licked its length from base to tip, teasing, and then dipped his head to take it into his mouth.

Not begging was suddenly extremely difficult. He wanted it faster, deeper: he wanted it all at once. He pressed his fingers into the back of Christian’s neck, trying to urge him, but if anything it made him go slower. His lips were a hot ring on him. He wanted to melt back into the couch, but the rest of him was too cold. “Yes,” he whispered.

Christian nearly swallowed him at that, just that little word. Matthew shouted and clutched his hair, and Christian worked him with the rough part of his tongue. It was so good that he was a little surprised when Christian pulled back and jerked him off wet; he hadn’t even realized how close he was then. He came on himself as Christian had, and he didn’t care.

It had all happened very quickly, but by the time it was over Matthew was panting like he’d just finished a sprint. Christian stood up unsteadily and left the room; Matthew was only awake enough to feel oddly threatened by the possibility of abandonment in this very slightly creepy room. But Christian returned soon. The last thing Matthew consciously took note of before he slipped into sleep was that the blanket Christian had draped over them was the crocheted throw from the den’s sofa.

The room was at the same level of brightness when he woke up as it had been before, but Matthew could see sunlight making its sleepy way through the curtains in the kitchen. Maybe it wasn’t a cigarette patina that had made it look so yellow before, he thought. Maybe it was just the bulbs.

He sat up and rubbed his eyes. He turned and saw Christian sitting behind the desk. The box was as they’d left it the night before; Christian was looking at his laptop screen.

“Hey,” Matthew said. As the cloudiness of sleep left him, he found a need to repeat himself. “Hey!”

“Sorry,” Christian said. “Your inbox beeped. I was curious.”

“What are you doing snooping on my email?”

Christian asked, “Who are you?”

Matthew swallowed. “What do you mean? I told you–”

“Your first name and your supposed occupation, yes,” Christian said. He pointed to the box. “You didn’t buy this on eBay. You bought this from Smith and Sutton.”

“I didn’t say I bought it from eBay,” Matthew said.

“I didn’t even know they had a website. I thought they were permanently stuck in the year 1925.”

Matthew said, “It’s new. I think. I don’t really see what that has to do with anything.”

Christian picked up the box. “You paid thirty-five thousand dollars at auction for this.”

“How do you know about Smith and Sutton?” Matthew asked, trying not to let his voice shake.

Christian rolled his eyes. “Please. We’ve been dealing with those jackals for nearly as long as the shop’s been in business. Now,” he said, “I would be very hard-pressed to believe that your state school education is worth in total as much as thirty-five thousand dollars. So you had best start explaining yourself.”

“I got a loan,” Matthew said.

“Why?”

“I thought it might be worth something!”

“A piece of junk is only worth as much as you’re willing to pay for it,” Christian said. “Why this broken machine?”

“Okay,” Matthew said. “Hell. Okay. Please don’t be mad. I… I kind of lied about a couple of things.”

“Yes,” Christian said. His demeanor was now very much the one he had shown at the shop. “I figured that out, actually.”

“The box belonged to my grandmother,” Matthew said. “She commissioned it, but my mother sold it after she died. She didn’t understand what it was.”

Christian cocked his head. “Go on.”

“I’ve been trying to track it down for a few years now. By the time I found it, it had been taken apart. I don’t know what happened to the rest of it. I don’t know anything about machines, so I brought it back here.”

“What is it?” Christian asked. “And why didn’t you just tell me what it was from the start? I would have done a much better job reassembling it. This is barely a notch up from spit and baling wire.”

“It reduces a thing to its heart,” Matthew said.

Christian frowned. “Its heart?”

Matthew nodded. “Everything can be reduced to something that is its basic essence. A soul that survives its death. It works best on plants, and then you can use it in… things. Sometimes a fruit’s heart is poison, and sometimes it’s panacea. Sometimes it’s, um…” He laughed a little. “Unpredictable.”

“That’s some pretty good alliteration for state,” Christian said.

“That’s some pretty good snobbery for a kid that isn’t even in college.”

“You juiced me?” Christian asked. “With… what, a rose?”

“A transmogrified rose.” Christian stared at him, and he hastily added, “And I didn’t mean to! Rose was your idea! I’ve never really used it before.”

“You’re a witch,” Christian said.

Matthew sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “Don’t call me that, that’s gay.”

“You’re also gay,” Christian said. “You’re a gay witch.”

“I’m bi, thank you, and we don’t call ourselves witches. Not in my family, anyway.” He stretched, and his back creaked. Sleeping on couches was not all it was cracked up to be. “And I didn’t tell you because you wouldn’t have believed a word of it. You would have thrown me out in a second.”

Christian leaned forward. Matthew was pleased to notice he was still shirtless; he couldn’t be that mad. “So what are you, then?” he asked. “Alchemists?”

“No,” Matthew said. “We are just people who do business with alchemists. And I would be very pleased, Mister Ellis, to do business with you.”

Christian stared at him. And, very slowly, he smiled.



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