Through Uncharted Seas

by Aosora Hikaru (青空ヒカル)
illustrated by Nebulosity Çiélon

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/274229.html)

illustrated by Nebulosity Çiélon

The way the moonlight reflected off the metal was beautiful. Asher took a step back and pushed his glasses up his nose, then blew out a sigh of relief.

The robot was complete. At least, he hoped it was. The blueprints had given way to a sculpted titanium “skeleton” which had been buried beneath polished silver “skin.” The wiring itself had taken three months. The engine, and all the handcrafted gears contained therein, six. Asher had built other things before, invented other things of his own creation, but this was definitely the biggest and most-involved invention he’d ever created.

And now all that stood between him and either an unnervingly lifelike automaton or a fiery death was an empty boiler and a pitcher of water.

“Here lies Asher Baumann,” he murmured as he picked up the pitcher. “Inventor, madman, flaming idiot.”

It took a few tries to get the ignition going to heat the boiler, and Asher had begun to worry he hadn’t set the thing up right, that somehow he’d made a fatal flaw in the blueprints and why hadn’t he tested this before now

The boiler roared to life and Asher held his breath for far too long, waiting for the telltale sound of water boiling. The steam started to seep from a few gaps in that silver shell — he’d have to solder those later — and then the gears started to click.

And then those eyes, the beautiful turquoise lenses he’d so carefully selected from countless crystals, illuminated the workshop.

“Oh, God,” Asher murmured.

The robot’s jaw hinge creaked as it opened and closed its mouth a few times. When it spoke, the voice was very even and measured, each syllable distinctly enunciated from the one before. “I am not programmed to be a deity.”

The programming, that’s right. Asher had written a very basic set of commands for the robot’s day-to-day functioning, transcribed into punchcards which sat in a variety of slots in the robot’s back. Each card, filled with holes the size of pins, contained the data the automaton would need to be reasonably self-sufficient.

“No, you’re not.” What did one do when engaged in conversation with their own creation? How did you even handle such a situation? It wasn’t like speaking to a child; this was a fully aware being (if you would call a robot a being) with no real time to ease in to any sort of easy discussion.

Asher cleared his throat, then asked the only question he had planned out ahead of time: “What would you like to be called?”

The robot stood, frozen, its gears clicking as it read all its punchcards in quick succession. Asher hadn’t programmed a name because he hadn’t thought of the right one. In a fit of romanticism, he figured he would ask the robot itself — after all, what would most people give to have the opportunity to choose their own name?

“I have no name,” the robot’s optics flickered in an imitation of confused blinking. “I do not know what I should be called, Master. My programming states to defer to you if I encounter such an error. What should I want to be called?”

Asher had forgotten about that caveat he’d added to the programming, or at least forgotten to add a secondary if-then statement making it not apply to the name question.

People named children after themselves, didn’t they? Though it would be awfully presumptuous to use his first name for this creation.

“Ezra,” Asher said. He’d hated it, growing up, but his middle name seemed to suit the robot. “You are Ezra.”

“I am Ezra,” the robot repeated. “Am I a male, Master?”

“Yes. You are created to model a human male.”

The gears clicked as Ezra checked his punchcards again. “I am human?”

Asher shook his head. “You are not human.”

Again, the sounds of gears clicking echoed through the workshop. “I see. I am Ezra, an autonomous mechanical man, created for his own use by one Mister Asher Baumann, inventor of sundry mechanical and steam-operated items. I am not human.”

Everything seemed to be working out well so far. His workshop hadn’t exploded in a rain of molten silver and steam, and the robot — Ezra — was answering questions appropriately and retaining new information. “Well done, Ezra.”

“Thank you, Master.”

***
“This is where I am to be introduced,” Ezra said, in a matter-of-fact sort of way. They stood before the doors of a large mansion, the windows glowing with the light from lanterns and a roaring fire within. Every month, Asher met with a group of other inventors, comparing notes or blueprints, or even unveiling their newest creations.

When Asher had first presented the blueprints for the robot — Ezra — a year ago, they had scoffed. They didn’t believe it was possible, especially not for Asher, who had never presented anything more complicated than an automatic bread toaster.

Outside, Ezra stood a respectable pace behind Asher and adjusted his cloak. He had been picking up on Asher’s mannerisms, all his little tics and habits, and incorporating them into his daily actions. Given that Asher was prone to nervous fidgeting, this made Ezra look like a giant metal nervous wreck.

From behind Asher came a noise which resembled metal grinding combined with a hiss of steam, a sound Asher had come to realize was Ezra’s attempt at mimicking clearing one’s throat. Of course, Asher hadn’t confirmed Ezra’s statement, yet. For a robot, he could be impatient.

“Yes, this is where you are to be… introduced. Unveiled is probably the more accurate term. None of the individuals in there believed I could build you at all, much less make you work.”

Ezra shifted his weight as Asher took a deep breath and opened the door. “They were mistaken, Master. You have done a fine job of my creation, if my opinion carries any weight here.”

“It does,” Asher murmured. “After all, I tell God the same.”

As they walked into the foyer of the mansion, Ezra’s footsteps echoed against the stone floor. If the guests inside hadn’t known they had arrived before, they certainly did now.

A servant greeted Asher at the entrance to the ballroom, a bright grin upon his face. “Mister Baumann, we were not sure we would have the pleasure of your com–” His eyes grew wide as Ezra came into view, all seven feet of him towering over Asher, the light of the chandeliers reflecting off his skin and casting glowing reflections on the walls around him.

“Yes, I regret I was too busy to send a confirmation of my attendance ahead of time.” Asher gave the servant a moment to collect himself. “This is Ezra. He is the reason I was occupied.”

“I see,” the servant murmured, his eyes still like saucers even as he tore his gaze away from Ezra’s stoic face back to Asher’s. “Please, Mister Baumann and, er, Ezra, follow me.”

The reactions of the inventors and other interested parties in the ballroom itself were no different from how the servant’s had been. Once Ezra’s heavy footfalls echoed through the space, the entire room fell silent and turned to see what all the noise was.

Asher would have been lying if he had said he hadn’t been proud of their response. After having been doubted — and laughed out of such gatherings as this — for so long, it was satisfying to have vindication.

At length, the host of the gathering stepped forward. “Asher, so wonderful to see you!” His voice wavered a bit, a tremble of fear coloring the words. “I see you’ve brought something tonight.”

“I am not a thing,” Ezra said.

That was interesting. Asher hadn’t recalled programming such a strong reaction to that into Ezra’s punchcards. “Of course, Ezra. He meant no slight against you. You must remember,” Asher said, turning to Ezra and clapping a hand on the automaton’s arm, “Metal men such as yourself are not exactly… common.”

Ezra gave a small nod, the gears in his neck clicking with the motion. “Of course, Master.”

Asher turned back to the host and smiled. “Marcus Vaughn, I’d like to introduce you to Ezra. I completed him a few weeks ago, and thought you’d all like to meet him tonight.”

Marcus furrowed his brow, looking first up at Ezra, then down slightly at Asher. “You mean to tell me you built this?”

“I showed you the blueprints over a year ago, Marcus. You said I could never complete it… and yet, here he is.”

“And he’s completely autonomous. Not a man in a robot suit or controlled by a remote in your pocket?”

Ezra visibly prickled at the insult, or at least he did to Asher’s trained eye. He didn’t have much capability to express emotion, but the eyebrows Asher had thoughtfully installed drew together, and Ezra’s jaw shut with an audible clank.

“You’re offending him, Marcus.”

“It has emotion?” Marcus raised his own eyebrows, looking suitably impressed. “That’s quite the achievement.”

“Well, he has some. Ezra, if you could please turn around and remove your cloak so I might show Marcus your programming?”

Pulling at the ties for the cloak, Ezra said, “Of course, Master.” The sounds of gears and cogs turning grew louder without the cloth muffling it, and Asher could see Marcus’ expression grow slightly unsettled with the sound. Ezra carefully folded the cloak over his arm, then turned to face away from Asher and Marcus. He curved his back out, exposing the slots for his punchcards.

Punchcards?!” Marcus exclaimed. “You’ve programmed this… this entire robot with punchcards?!”

Asher nodded. “Ezra, deactivate slot 3. I would like to show Marcus one of your cards.”

“Yes, Master. Deactivating slot 3.” A few gears clicked, then the third punchcard from the left popped out just enough to grasp. “Slot 3 has been deactivated and is safe for removal, Master.”

“Thank you, Ezra.” Asher pulled the punchcard free, and held it out for Marcus’ inspection. “I used a very fine apparatus for reading it, so I could fit a lot of information into these cards.” He ran his fingertip over the remaining slots, some of which were empty. “He has space for expansion of his programming, if I were to decide to specialize his knowledge.”

Marcus took the punchcard and turned it over in his hands, inspecting it from all sides. “That’s absolutely incredible. And this has everything he needs to know to operate and behave?”

Asher took the card back and nodded again. “Yes. The programming took me weeks, almost as long as it took me to wire his chassis.” He carefully inserted the punchcard again, then patted Ezra’s arm. “All done, Ezra. You can activate it again.”

The gears whirred and clanked as Ezra drew in the card, activated the slot, and straightened up. “Thank you, Master.”

“Marcus!” Another attendee joined the group, watching Ezra with a cautious eye. “And hello, Asher. Care to introduce me to your… assistant?”

“Of course! How could I have been so rude!” Marcus laughed, extending a hand to the room. “Asher, please, tell us all more about your creation!”

Asher smiled and led Ezra to the front of the crowd, and a hush fell over the room again as Ezra walked behind him, uncovered now except for a simple pair of trousers. The good thing about Ezra’s stature was that he commanded the attention of the room with absolutely no effort on his part.

Those in attendance watched with rapt attention, oohing and ahhing in all the right places as Asher talked about Ezra’s talents and even had Ezra demonstrate a few, such as his strength and flexibility.

“Excuse me,” one man interjected. “You say he was modeled after the ideal human male. How, ah, perfect were you in these replications?”

“I’m not sure what you’re getting at,” Asher said.

Another voice called from the back of the crowd, “Is he anatomically correct, or did you create a castrated mannequin?”

A laugh rippled through the crowd, with a few teasing calls of ‘eunuch’ and ‘pervert’ to enhance it.

Asher gave them a few moments to calm down, then looked to the automaton at his side. “Ezra.”

“Yes, Master?”

“Please remove your trousers. I believe those in our company would like to see all of you.”

Ezra nodded, and in the utter silence in the room, you could hear each gear and hinge creak and click as he bent to remove the trousers, straightened, and folded them over his arm again.

“As you can see,” Asher said, with the staunch determination of an artist defending his masterpiece, “I have modeled him after a human male in every way.”

In a quiet voice, a woman near the front asked, “Does it… work?”

“He has no programming for it, but there is a mechanism in his pelvis, yes.”

Asher felt a strange sense of embarrassment, speaking so frankly about Ezra in front of him as though he weren’t there — or powered off, or what have you — but looking at Ezra, staring straight ahead with no reaction, helped to ease it a little. He hadn’t programmed Ezra with any sort of body shame, anyway. Why would he need it? It would have wasted space on the punchcards.

“Ezra, you may dress yourself again.”

“Yes, Master,” Ezra replied, then unfolded his pants to pull them on again.

Asher turned to address the group again. “Does anyone else have any questions?”

“How is he powered?” Marcus asked, and Asher was glad for the conversation to go back toward mechanics again, instead of staying on Ezra’s anatomy.

Later that evening, as they left the gathering, Ezra made that same grind/hiss mimicry of a small cough again.

“Yes, Ezra?” Asher said, as they waited for the steam-driven carriage to come around to pick them up again.

“Master Vaughn is rather inconsiderate.”

Asher glanced over at Ezra, attempting to hide the slight alarm he felt. Had Ezra noticed Asher following Marcus around like a lost puppy? Asher had thought he was being subtle about it. He still hadn’t moved past Marcus’ final snub a year prior, when after a few fitful years together he had denied ever having had feelings for Asher in front of the very group of people they had spent tonight with.

Ezra had no need to know any of that. “That was uncalled for, Ezra.”

Ezra bowed his head. “I apologize. Let us discuss something else.” He brought his gaze up, meeting Asher’s eye. “Master, you looked uncomfortable as you discussed my anatomy with the group. Why is that?”

Asher shifted, his mouth pulling into a small grimace as he pushed his glasses up. “Well, Ezra… quite frankly, I feel as though I shouldn’t talk about you like that.”

Ezra canted his head to the side, not-often used gears squeaking in protest. “I do not understand.”

“You are aware, Ezra. You aren’t entirely reliant upon me, you have autonomous programming which allows you to have some facsimile of sentience.” Asher reached up to run a hand through his scraggly red hair, trying to find words he didn’t seem to have. “It feels wrong. I wouldn’t speak of another human as though he weren’t there, so why should I do it to you?”

“I am not human,” Ezra said, a note of matter-of-fact finality ending the phrase.

“No, but… it’s hard to explain. It’s basic respect.”

Ezra stepped forward as the carriage arrived, and opened the door for Asher. “I see.”

***
“Ezra, please hand me the spanner,” Asher said, elbows-deep in a complicated engine. Building Ezra had turned out to be a benefit in multiple ways — not the least because he was essentially an assistant. An extra set of hands, an extra filter to pass ideas through. He could do calculations far faster than Asher ever could, and the help had made ideas possible the likes of which Asher had never dreamed of before.

“Of course. 10 millimeters, I assume?” Ezra held out the spanner and Asher chuckled as he took it.

“You measured it, didn’t you?”

Ezra nodded. The sounds he made when he moved had grown quieter with time and overuse of the gears, but Asher suspected Ezra oiled his joints when he had the opportunity. Ezra was not human, as he was fond of reminding Asher; however, it seemed to Asher that Ezra had a tendency to try to emulate humanity more than the automaton was willing to admit.

Asher tightened a few bolts, then handed Ezra the spanner back. “So about those calculations we did earlier. Do you really think this engine will be more efficient? Yours is the best engine I’ve drafted to date, and I don’t trust my calculations for this one…. They seem too good to be true.”

Ezra’s cough-analog had grown better, now mostly sounding like a sudden burst of water boiling. “Actually, Master, your calculations were incorrect.”

“They were?” Asher frowned. “So I was right, then, and your engine is still better. Damn, and we’ve nearly finished the thing. I guess we’ll have to find another application, I can’t subject you to–”

“No, Master, that is not how they were incorrect.” Ezra crossed his arms over the front of his torso, his eyebrows raised. “The engine is actually, in theory, twice as efficient as mine.”

Asher sputtered, nearly spraying the tea he was drinking. “What?”

“Twice as efficient,” Ezra repeated. “Your prototype engine wastes less heat energy, funnels the steam more effectively, and has a greater water storage capacity. It is a more efficient engine with fewer moving parts, which reduces its maintenance requirements.”

“Let me see those blueprints,” Asher said. Ezra handed over the papers, and Asher spread them out on the workbench. “I don’t remember designing it this way,” he murmured.

Ezra shifted his weight, the floorboards under him squeaking in harmony with the gears and hinges in his chassis. “I modified the design, Master.”

Asher frowned. “You… modified the design? Why would you do that?”

“I simply wished to help, Master.” Ezra looked as uncomfortable as a robot possibly could. “I saw ways the design could be improved, and took the opportunity to assist you.”

“Ezra, is there anything else you have done this to?”

Ezra remained silent.

Asher straightened up, stepping in front of Ezra and looking up at the automaton as best as he could, being more than a foot shorter. “Ezra. Tell me what else you’ve modified.”

“I would prefer not to, Master.”

“Ezra, you must tell me what else you have modified. I need to know; it’s very important.”

Gears clicked, Ezra reached behind his back, and with a rustle of paper against metal pulled out several punchcards.

Asher’s eyes grew wide, his breath catching in his throat as he stepped back. “Oh, my God. You’ve modified your — what have you done, Ezra?!”

“I — I did not –” Ezra stammered, his voice stuttering as though he were unable to make steam pass through the vocoder. “Please, Master, I did not intend to frighten you!”

The punchcards in Ezra’s hand could have been bombs for how Asher stared at them. “Ezra, you can’t change your own programming! Oh, God, I don’t even know what you’ve done. What damage you could do!”

“That was not my intent!” Ezra said again, gripping the punchcards so tightly they began to crease between those titanium digits. “I simply wanted to… I wanted to…” he dropped his gaze, his hand dropping to his side.

He looked so defeated. He slumped so far that though he stood seven feet tall, he gave off the overwhelming appearance of a scolded child. Asher drew a careful breath, then said, “You wanted to…?”

The voice was so soft when Ezra spoke, Asher could hear the steam hissing beneath the words. “I simply wanted to know how it felt to love.”

“What?” Asher breathed. Ezra was just a robot, wasn’t he? Just a construction of metal and steam, right? How could he even have a desire to know human love? Asher hadn’t programmed Ezra with that desire.

“I saw how you behaved at the debut ball.” Ezra kept his gaze directed to the floor, his voice still overlaid with steam. “You watched Mister Vaughn longer than necessary. You lingered.”

Ezra’s intuition was incredible, for being something else Asher hadn’t programmed him to have. “How did you realize this?”

“I am not human. I do not need to sleep,” Ezra said. “I have an excess of time to read. And think.”

“So you read about love?”

“I read about many things. And realized I was… incomplete.”

Asher frowned again. “Ezra, you were made as complete as I intended you to be.”

“But I am not human,” Ezra said.

“You were never intended to be human!”

Ezra’s shoulders slumped and he dropped the punchcards onto the floor, then walked out of the workshop. Asher cringed as the door clicked shut behind the automaton, and he ran his hands through his red mop of hair again.

“What have I done?” Asher said.

The only response was his voice echoing back from the floorboards.

***
Asher could hardly believe it. He’d gathered up and inspected the punchcards after a few hours, and Ezra had been telling the truth after all. The programming was elegant in its simplicity, and Asher would need to take notes as to the cleanliness of the code so he could emulate it in the future.

Each punchcard held several sets of programming, all with the single goal of giving Ezra human qualities. Emotions, realistic responses, logic leaps and inferences he hadn’t been capable of before.

He knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he needed to apologize to Ezra. He had grossly misjudged Ezra’s intentions and actions, and metal or not, Ezra had given himself the capability for emotion. If Ezra wanted to be human, then the least Asher could do was treat him like it.

The problem now was figuring out where an emotionally compromised robot would hide.

After searching through the house for the better part of an hour, Asher found Ezra outside, under the shade of a sycamore tree. Ezra looked up at Asher’s approach far earlier than Asher expected him to.

“Master, I will destroy the punchcards. I will revert to your initial programming. Please do not disassemble me, I assure you everything will–”

Asher held a hand up, the punchcards plainly visible in his palm. “No, Ezra. I looked them over. I want you to reinstall them.”

Ezra’s eyebrows went up in surprise, and he opened and closed his mouth a few times before speaking again. “Truly?”

“Truly.” Asher nodded, then held the cards out for Ezra to take. “I was wrong, and honestly should have known better; in fact, I know you better than that.” When Ezra accepted the cards Asher stepped back to give the automaton room to stand. “Please understand that it was a mistake, Ezra.”

Ezra’s words had the hiss of steam behind them as he spoke in a low murmur. “I am simply glad you are not going to deactivate me.”

“I could never do that,” Asher said, the corners of his mouth turning up in a smile as Ezra went through the process of reinstalling his punchcards. “I believe I’d rather die myself before I could kill you.”

On the one hand, Asher wondered if he imagined that sad look on Ezra’s face; on the other hand, he felt a strange sense of pride knowing he’d created this face and given this creation the capability to make that face.

“I am not human,” Ezra said, his mechanical voice still somehow carrying a note of sadness (though Asher wasn’t sure he didn’t imagine that, either). “It would not be murder.”

“And that’s where you’d be mistaken, Ezra,” Asher said. “It would be murder. That programming, those extra punchcards… wanting to know love? Knowing you lacked it and knowing it held you back? That’s more human than most humans could claim to be.”

Ezra looked down at the ground for a few long, silent minutes, then back up at Asher. “I am sorry, Master, but I do not understand. You told me I was not designed to be human, but you just said–”

“That you’re more human than most humans could claim to be, yes.” Asher smiled. “More human than I am, even. I didn’t even trust you, or give you the benefit of the doubt like I would have to a man.” Asher stepped forward and put his hand on Ezra’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, Ezra. You deserved better.”

“I– thank you, Master.” Ezra’s eyes were wide, his eyebrows raised and mouth slightly agape in a perfect representation of surprise.

Asher shook his head and moved his hand up to gently push Ezra’s jaw closed again. “No need to thank me for basic decency, Ezra. I mean it, you deserve better than what I gave you.”

Ezra nodded. “I understand, Master. Thank you for explaining.” He shifted his weight, then looked up at Asher. “Master, if I may ask another question…”

“Of course, Ezra. You know you don’t need to ask.”

“How do humans show love?”

Asher frowned. “I’m not sure what you’re asking, Ezra.”

Ezra shifted again, his hands coming up in front of him, fingers lacing together and coming apart. He was fidgeting, Asher realized, and he reached out to take Ezra’s ice-cold metal hands in his own. “Ezra, elaborate.”

“I saw some individuals at the debut ball. They held hands–” He paused meaningfully, glancing down at Asher’s hands holding his own, then back up at Asher. “And they kissed. I have read other things, as well, other… physical ways of showing affection.”

Asher canted his head to the side just slightly. “I’m still not sure what you’re getting at, Ezra.”

“I want to, Master. I wrote those programs for you. Because I think you deserve love, and I… love you.”

***
Asher had let a few days pass without really acknowledging Ezra’s admission. He didn’t know how to react, how to respond to a robot — a machine — telling you they loved you.

He hadn’t created Ezra to love. He didn’t know how to process this at all.

It grew more awkward between them, mostly due to Asher and not so much because of Ezra. Being a machine gave Ezra the advantage of being able to carefully meter his responses. He could strip all emotion from his voice. He could keep human body language out of his programmed physical routines. Asher had no such luxury.

Finally, as he had Ezra’s boiler cover opened, measuring the cavity to ensure the new engine could fit, he blurted out, “Ezra, what made you decide I was worthy of your love?”

Ezra canted his head to the side, a human gesture he hadn’t exhibited in nearly a week — not since he’d made the admission. “I do not know what you mean, Master. All humans are worthy of love.”

“Well, yes, I know, but what made you choose me?”

“Is it not obvious?” Ezra sat up, taking the tape measure out of Asher’s hands and closing his boiler again. “You created me. You are my reason for being. You are deserving of nothing less than my undying devotion.”

Asher let the obvious response lie silent, that of course it would be undying, because it could keep going long after Asher himself had turned to dust and Ezra was rusting to pieces. “That doesn’t answer my question.”

“You want to know why I decided I needed to program more routines.”

“Yes.” Asher sat back, wiping oil-slicked hands off on the pants of his coveralls. “I want to know why you decided I deserved more than simple devotion. I could have had devotion from a toaster, Ezra. Why do I deserve more?”

“Because,” Ezra said, “I saw how Master Vaughn ignored you. You deserve better than he. I will be better. I will be yours.”

Asher sighed, scrubbing a hand down his face. “Marcus and I were together once, a long time ago. It is not your role to fill the hole in my heart, Ezra.”

Ezra folded his hands on his lap, looking Asher in the eye. “I believe it is.”

“And how do you propose you would, if I were to agree to it?”

“I want to be yours,” Ezra repeated. “Just as another human would be.”

This was completely unfamiliar territory. “I don’t know, Ezra.”

Less than a month ago, Ezra had been like a child to Asher. Ezra had been named after Asher, as a father gives a child his name. Now, Ezra had made it clear he wanted to be Asher’s lover. Such a dramatic shift, and not one Asher was sure he could handle.

“What is it you’re confused about? Is it the fact that I am not human in body, though I have made strides toward humanity in a more conceptual fashion?” Ezra still had that matter-of-fact tone to his voice, the one that occasionally made Asher feel stupid for not coming to the same conclusion sooner.

“Ezra, I built you, with my own hands, in an image I desired you to have. I named you after myself. I am, for all intents and purposes, your father.” Honesty was never a bad choice.

“I am not your child,” Ezra said. “I am not human.”

Asher shoved his hands into his hair, tugging at the curls as though the pain would awaken him from this dream he hoped he was having. “I know that, Ezra! This is… I never expected to be propositioned by one of my creations.”

Ezra’s eyebrows knitted together as he contemplated this. “I never expected to have this need.”

“Need for what, Ezra?”

“For companionship, for an individual to care about me as I cared about them. For you.”

Asher drew a deep breath, then let it out in a long sigh. “I don’t know if I can, Ezra. I don’t know if we can. How would that work?”

Ezra stood up slowly, and Asher had a moment of regret for how tall he had made Ezra. It was uncomfortable and intimidating to look up at a robot towering a foot taller than you.

“I would be willing to discover how it would work, Master.”

Asher certainly did not expect to ever be propositioned by an automaton, especially not one he’d built himself. He stared at Ezra, eyes wide, unsure quite how to respond to this. “Ezra, I… I don’t know.”

“All I want is for you to explain it to me,” Ezra said. “I would like if you told me how humans showed love.”

How does one explain sensual actions — much less sexual ones — to a thing made of metal and gears, running on steam and punchcards? “Well, er… you can show it through… through touch.”

Ezra did not respond, simply waiting silently for Asher to continue. This was going to be harder than he thought.

“Uh, they can do something as simple as resting their hands on their, er, lover’s knee, or they could run their fingertips over their lover’s skin. Even something like that can show affection.”

Ezra started to reach out, then hesitated with his hand a few inches from Asher’s arm. “May I, Master?”

“Please don’t call me that,” Asher whispered.

“I am unsure as to why you would make this request.”

“This is… this is not the time for you to call me that. It’s not right anymore. Please… just Asher.”

Ezra stared into Asher’s eyes, still unmoving, his hand frozen above Asher’s forearm. The gears in his back clicked — that must be how he had been modifying his programming, he’d been using the reader to punch new holes, how genius! — and Ezra blinked. “Asher. May I?”

Asher took a deep breath, then nodded.

The first contact of Ezra’s fingers — cold, unyielding, but still so gentle, so cautious — sent a shiver down Asher’s spine, and he visibly shuddered. Ezra froze, but when Asher nodded, he dragged his fingertips slowly up the exposed skin of Asher’s arm. It was so much more gentle than any other lover’s touch had been, and Asher found himself wondering what else Ezra could learn to do.

“That feels wonderful,” Asher said.

Ezra nodded slowly, gears clicking just loud enough to remind Asher that this was not a human he shared this intimate moment with. “I had longed to do this.”

A few long moments passed in silence as Ezra explored Asher’s exposed skin with his fingertips. First the forearms and hands, up to Asher’s neck, then slowly, gently, cupping his hands against Asher’s cheeks. Ezra’s hands were cold, so cold without any sort of body heat, and Asher shivered again, but the longer Ezra left his hands there on Asher’s burning cheeks, staring into Asher’s eyes, the warmer the metal grew.

Ezra’s voice was low, almost too quiet to be heard. “This is where a human would kiss you.”

“Yes,” Asher murmured.

“But I cannot.”

“No,” Asher said. “I did not give you lips.”

Ezra stayed quiet, gears clicking audibly, then leaned forward and touched the bottom part of his faceplate to Asher’s lips.

This was a different sort of feeling, as Ezra’s “mouth” was warmer and a bit moist from the steam. If Asher pretended, it was as though it were an actual human man — admittedly one who wasn’t very good at kissing. In response, Asher pressed a soft kiss against Ezra’s faceplate, and when Ezra pulled back again, Asher smiled.

“And how was that?”

“Better than I anticipated,” Ezra said. “I did not expect to receive a kiss in return.”

Asher let out a soft chuckle, and felt his cheeks growing even warmer under Ezra’s hands. “That’s generally how a kiss works, Ezra.”

“What should I do next?” Ezra said, his voice still soft.

Asher caught his lower lip between his teeth, chewing it with thought.

Ezra moved a hand from Asher’s cheek, resting the fingertips — now warm — against Asher’s mouth. “Please do not do that,” he said.

“I’m not sure exactly you want, Ezra,” Asher said, when Ezra pulled his fingers back again.

Canting his head to the side again, gears creaking loudly in the silent room, Ezra said, “I simply wish to learn, Asher.”

“Well,” Asher drew a breath, trying to sort his thoughts enough to speak, “most times, a human couple would… continue to kiss. But I don’t know if that’s what you’re getting at.”

Ezra’s gears clicked as though he were thinking. He moved his hands down from Asher’s face, and said, “I do not think that would do us much use.” He gestured at his mouth, then continued, “But what should I do next?”

“Ezra, are you–” The thought of what he was about to say made the words catch in his throat, and Asher had to stop and clear his throat before continuing. “Are you trying to proposition me?”

A moment of silence stretched out for an uncomfortable span of time before Ezra spoke. “Yes.”

Asher stared at Ezra, into those beautiful turquoise eyes he’d so carefully selected, and realized something.

He hadn’t built Ezra to be a surrogate child. He hadn’t built Ezra to show off his technical skills, nor had he built Ezra simply to be an oversized assistant.

He was lonely, and he had built Ezra for companionship.

If Ezra wanted this so badly, could Asher truly say no? Not when his loneliness gnawed a hole into his very soul. Not when Ezra’s thirst for knowledge and experience lined up so marvelously with what Asher needed.

He leaned forward again, and ghosted another soft kiss over Ezra’s mouth. When he pulled back, Ezra blinked slowly.

“Why did you do that?”

“To show you what a human would do to show you love,” Asher murmured. He stood up straight and brought a hand to the zipper on his coveralls, then hesitated for a moment. “Ezra, I want you to understand there are many types of love. You’re asking about physical love — love between two people who wish to become one, become partners. Sexual partners.”

“I know, Asher.”

Asher caught his lower lip between his teeth again for a moment. “All right. This isn’t the only way to show you love someone. I want you to understand. You don’t… we don’t have to do this.”

Ezra slowly stood from the chair he’d been in, stooping enough to take Asher’s face between his hands again. His skin had lost some of the heat they’d absorbed from Asher’s flesh before, but it wasn’t as shocking as it had been the first time. “Yes, Asher, I know. I would like to, however. I have thought about this. I am certain that this is what I want.”

Asher drew a deep breath, then nodded. “Then I can show you what humans do.”

Ezra looked down at the hand on Asher’s zipper, then dropped one of his own from Asher’s cheeks, gently grasping Asher’s hand and pulling the zipper down in a slow, fluid motion.

The way the coveralls parted, exposing Asher’s flesh inch by inch, sent a squirming sensation through Asher’s stomach. He rarely felt self-conscious, considering most of the other men he’d enjoyed the company of had been built similarly to him, but compared to Ezra, he felt woefully inadequate. Where Ezra was built to be slender and lithe, Asher’s stomach curved out in a soft swell, all flesh and fat where Ezra — were he human — would be firm and muscled.

When Asher dropped his eyes in shame, Ezra cupped his hand under Asher’s chin and lifted it with a gentle touch. “Asher, are you all right?”

“Yes,” Asher said, “I’m just…” he gestured to Ezra, then to his abdomen, swollen through years of physical neglect in favor of inventing and creating. “I don’t look like… I’m just a little insecure, I suppose.”

Ezra lowered his hand and splayed his fingers out on Asher’s chest. The touch was once again shockingly gentle for how strong Ezra was, and Asher could feel his heart beating against the metal digits. Slowly Ezra moved his hands to push the coveralls open, exposing even more of Asher’s skin. He took his time, and Asher felt horribly, unnervingly exposed there under Ezra’s gaze. Every so often Asher could hear gears clicking, not from Ezra’s limbs.

“What are you doing?” Asher asked.

“Attempting to record this moment,” Ezra said. “I would like to be able to remember it as it is. It will never be this way again.”

Asher furrowed his brow and was about to ask Ezra why he’d want to remember this, remember himon him. He was, Asher noted, still lacking an erection. Had he not programmed that capability for himself yet?

Perhaps he should have discussed this with Ezra before venturing down this path.

Of course, that thought quickly disappeared when Ezra pushed Asher’s coveralls the rest of the way down, leaving him standing there in just his shorts, with the coveralls gathered around his boots. “Ezra, I can’t take–”

“I know,” Ezra said, and bent to untie Asher’s boots one by one, removing them with a careful, fluid lift of Asher’s heel followed by a smooth pull on the boot.

It wasn’t something Asher had expected a lover to do for him, much less Ezra, who had been created for assistance. It was such the unexpected gesture that he had no idea what he could say. He opened his mouth to start to thank Ezra, but the automaton held up his hand. “No, Asher. Do not thank me for this. I am doing it because I care about you.” He took Asher’s hand in his, helping Asher balance as he removed the coveralls leg by leg.

And there Ezra knelt before Asher. Inside his shorts, Asher could feel the blood pounding in his cock with every beat of his heart, and the fabric stretched uncomfortably tight over his erection. There were a few moments of silence as Ezra stayed there, taking in the view with gears clicking, and Asher shifted to try to relieve some of the pressure.

Ezra reached up, then hesitated. “May I…?”

Asher nodded. “Please. God, please, Ezra.”

“Is it painful?” Ezra asked. Asher noted that he still had no erection of his own.

“Only because you’re ignoring it and it’s smashed into my underclothes.”

“I see.” He hesitated a moment more, then laid his hand over the bulge in Asher’s shorts. Involuntarily Asher pushed back, and Ezra raised a single eyebrow, and pressed just the slightest bit more firmly against Asher’s cock.

Asher closed his eyes and groaned softly. “Stroke it,” he said, his voice low.

Gears clicked and then Ezra started to move his hand, and somehow he had the perfect level of pressure, and the way his hand felt, hard and unyielding so unlike flesh, was amazing. The only bad part was the friction, now, the way his shorts were rubbing against that delicate skin. He groaned again, this time more in discomfort than pleasure.

Ezra, perceptive as always, stopped and brought his hand back. “Was I doing something wrong?”

“No,” Asher shook his head. “It was just… the cloth against it…” He gestured to his shorts.

Without another word, Ezra hooked his fingers in the waist of Asher’s pants and pulled them down. Asher’s cock bounced free, and Ezra caught it in his hand, stroking along the length in one fluid motion.

Another moan, lower and deeper, slipped out from between Asher’s lips, and his eyelids fluttered closed. Ezra’s cautious curiosity worked well for him, and he took his time exploring with each stroke of Asher’s cock. He lingered in places which made Asher make better noises, moved on quickly from other places with less enthusiastic reactions, and overall proved to Asher that Ezra was, in fact, a very fast learner.

While Asher had never expected to find himself here, he found the experience quite overall enjoyable. Ezra was an attentive lover, better than many Asher had enjoyed the company of before. He leaned in, nuzzling his cheek against Asher’s stomach, his eyes closed. Somehow the fact that Ezra enjoyed this as much as he did made it all the better for Asher, and he let out another soft moan.

“You’re very good at this, Ezra,” Asher said, his voice breathless with pleasure. Each stroke of Ezra’s hand brought him closer to his peak and, truth be told, this wasn’t how he wanted to go.

When he put his hand on top of Ezra’s, slowing his strokes, he had to be quick with the explanation. “I want to try something else, Ezra.”

“Was that not enjoyable?”

“Oh, no, it absolutely was. I would just… Ezra, do you have programming for… to let you attempt…” Asher gestured at Ezra’s pelvis, where the automaton’s cock still hung limp.

Ezra nodded and stood, and Asher could hear the telltale clicking of gears which signaled Ezra reading programming or memories. After a moment a different set of clicks started, and Asher was unable to tear his eyes away from the sight of Ezra’s cock straightening in front of him, each jointed plate clicking into place to create a smooth, seamless shaft.

It was a beautiful, and it was large. A thrill surged through Asher’s stomach, twisting it in the most amazing way. “Wow,” he breathed.

“I remind you, Asher, you designed me.”

“Give a man a moment, Ezra,” Asher said, reaching down to idly stroke himself as he felt the sudden need to moisten his lips. “I want to remember this, too.”

Of course, what Asher didn’t entirely want to admit was that he couldn’t decide what he wanted to do with Ezra first. Would Ezra have any enjoyment from Asher touching him? Would Ezra feel any sort of pleasure, even emotional, from Asher tasting him? Would this all simply be for Asher’s benefit?

The best thing to do, Asher supposed, was ask. “Ezra, what… what do you want?”

“You,” Ezra said, simply.

Asher smiled and let out a soft chuckle. “Yes, I know. But… what do you want to learn more about?”

“I want to learn about what you enjoy.” Ezra raised his eyebrows just enough to give the illusion of a smile. “I want to learn what makes you the happiest, Asher. Show me what you find pleasurable. Let me learn how to please you.”

“Well,” Asher drew a shaky breath, then gently pushed Ezra against the workbench, “there is one thing I enjoy doing, but I’m not sure what exactly it would do for you.”

Thankfully Ezra responded to the nudge, because there was no way Asher could have moved the automaton himself. With Asher guiding him, he leaned against the workbench, legs slightly spread apart. Once he was settled in place, Asher sank to his knees in front of him.

Ezra’s cock was cold in his hands, and the sensation of metal instead of flesh in his hands nearly unnerved him enough to stop, but Asher reminded himself how quickly Ezra’s hands had warmed up against his cheeks. Ezra looked down at Asher there, and raised his eyebrows further. Asher held a finger to his lips though, urging Ezra to stay silent, then moved forward and ran his tongue up the full length of Ezra’s cock.

The metal was still cold, a shocking contrast to his tongue, and the surface was much smoother than any he’d encountered before. The way his lips wrapped around it felt perfect, as though he’d subconsciously made it the perfect girth for such an activity. Ezra made a little sound of surprise when Asher started to move, gliding along the length of the cock in long, smooth motions. It felt lovely in his mouth, so heavy and solid, and each second of attention Asher gave the cock made it warmer yet.

Even though Asher knew this gave Ezra no physical pleasure, he hoped the mere sight of how much he enjoyed himself would make it worth it for Ezra. He glanced up at Ezra as he moved, driving himself nearly deep enough to choke himself, and took pride in the fact that Ezra watched him, a hand hovering over Asher’s head.

Without breaking the tempo, Asher reached up and took Ezra’s hand, lowering it onto his hair. That was thrilling, to place that much trust in Ezra — so much more than he’d have to have placed in any human before. Ezra was much stronger, and could exert much more force in any movements he made.

Thankfully (and perhaps a touch disappointingly), Ezra did nothing more than press his fingertips against Asher’s scalp. It was interesting, of course, how much Ezra seemed to be doing just because it made sense, or perhaps through some self-programmed intuition. The reactions he showed right now, with Asher on his knees with Ezra’s metal cock in his mouth, were so natural, so nearly human, that Asher could easily imagine it was a man he was making love to and not a machine.

And then Ezra let out a low moan, the sound carried with a hiss of steam, and it sounded so real, he couldn’t help but echo with one of his own. He threw himself even more fully into the effort, moving faster, not even the least-bit self-conscious about the sounds he was making between his moans and the suction of his lips breaking over that smooth crown at the head of Ezra’s cock. Between his own legs he could feel his blood pounding through his cock. It was so hard, and the air on the fluid gathering at the tip gave it a bit of a welcome chill to contrast the heat of his arousal. He couldn’t stand the feeling of neglect anymore, with how absolutely aroused he was with nothing happening, and he wrapped his hand around his cock, stroking in time with his lips gliding around Ezra’s.

Ezra’s fingertips pressed even more firmly against his scalp until they weren’t, and then there were smooth hands against his cheeks: one warmed by resting on Asher’s head, the other cold from the workbench.

They urged him back to look up at Ezra, and beyond the sight of that glorious cock, shining and slick with his own saliva, was a very contented-looking automaton; at the least, Asher imagined he looked contented.

“You love doing that,” Ezra said, and there was no hint of judgement in his voice.

Asher could feel the flush coming back into his face. “I do. Giving pleasure like that is as good as receiving it, to me.”

Ezra ran his thumbs over Asher’s burning cheeks. “I want to give you pleasure, Asher. However you would prefer.”

That was a prospect Asher had to consider. Ezra couldn’t return the favor — even disregarding the fact that he had no real lip articulation, there was nothing inside Ezra’s mouth that could facilitate such an act. To be honest, the thought of Ezra even attempting to go down on Asher made him want to shudder and cover his bits.

Ezra could just use his hands again, and that was nice enough when he’d done it earlier, but Asher wanted something more. He’d been considering having Ezra inside him since he had first really took in the full potential of Ezra’s hard cock, but now that he had taken it into his mouth he couldn’t banish the thought from his mind.

And, conveniently enough, a bottle of thin lubricant oil rested on the workbench mere inches from Ezra’s hip.

“Get up on the workbench,” Asher said, taking Ezra’s hands in his own to move them aside and stand up. He took the bottle of lubricant and squeezed out a small measure onto his fingertips.

Ezra slid his hips back to sit on the edge of the workbench, but Asher reached out with his unslicked hand to move the equipment behind Ezra and urged him back further. “No, I need room for me up there too. Just trust me.”

“As you say,” Ezra said, sliding back until the backs of his knees met the edge of the workbench. Once he was in position, Asher leaned forward and reached his oiled fingers behind him. Ezra watched, silent, but with eyebrows slightly raised.

As Asher pushed his fingers into himself he let out another soft moan. He took his time with this, with slowly stretching himself to prepare for what lay ahead — he couldn’t rush into this, not with well-endowed he had built Ezra to be. This was something that could be phenomenal, if he could be patient about it.

Ezra reached out to embrace Asher’s upper body, supporting Asher’s weight against himself so Asher could let go of the workbench. With his ear against Ezra’s chest, Asher could hear the soft bubbling of the boiler, feel the ticking of his clockwork through the metal. He matched the pace of his fingers against the ticking of Ezra’s mechanisms, his moans growing a little louder and more needful as he continued to spread his fingers to urge himself to relax.

As Asher’s breathing picked up, Ezra’s hands slowly moved down Asher’s back, caressing every bit of skin he could reach. “You look beautiful like this,” Ezra said softly. “The way your face looks when you’re feeling pleasure is beautiful.”

Asher let out a soft laugh, then withdrew his fingers and took the bottle of oil in his hands again, squeezing out another generous portion into his palm. “If you thought I looked good then…”

It took a bit more rearranging to get Ezra reclined enough to allow for Asher on his lap, but with Ezra settled in again Asher slicked the oil down the full length of Ezra’s cock. He was perhaps a bit overzealous with application, but he figured that with the apparatus being made of metal and not flesh, more was probably better than less. He clambered up onto the workbench with Ezra’s help, and knelt over Ezra’s lap, legs spread wide. “Are you ready?”

Ezra gave a nod, and Asher slowly lowered himself onto Ezra. The first press against his opening forced a gasp from his lips — Ezra’s cock had lost all the body heat it had absorbed from Asher’s mouth before — but once the head had passed that first ring of muscle it was one of the best sensations Asher had ever felt.

“Oh, God,” Asher gasped, clinging as tightly to Ezra’s shoulders as he could as he sank further down, Ezra’s cock going deeper inside.

“Is it uncomfortable? Do we need to stop?” Ezra’s eyebrows were furrowed, and he rested his hands on Asher’s hips. “I do not want you to hurt yourself, Asher.”

Asher paused for a moment and took a shaky breath. “I won’t hurt myself. It can simply feel too overwhelming at first. I’ll adapt.” He drew another breath, then settled down, his thighs resting on Ezra’s, his cock so hard in front of him. With a low moan, he moved his hips in a small circle, then started to move up and down again.

Ezra watched him intently, hands once again growing warm from Asher’s flesh, though not as quickly as the metal cock inside Asher did, surrounded as it was by the searing heat of Asher’s ass. Ezra made small noises of interest each time Asher moaned, each time Asher shifted his grip or changed his angle.

The cock was so flawless, so smooth, gliding over it was effortless, but still each movement brought new waves of pleasure, and all Asher could do was cling to Ezra’s shoulders and keep the pace he had set. The cock felt so wonderful inside of him, stroking against every one of his most sensitive areas. He dropped his forehead to Ezra’s shoulder, panting with the effort, his thighs quivering with exhaustion.

“Do we need to stop?” Ezra asked again.

“No, no…” Asher said, shaking his head. Where the skin slid against Ezra’s, a sheen appeared from the sweat on Asher’s brow.

“Can you continue?”

Asher let out a breathless chuckle. “Give me a moment.”

Ezra shifted his hands from Asher’s waist to rest under his buttocks. “Do you require assistance?”

Asher looked up at Ezra, blinking as he adjusted his grip on Ezra’s shoulders. “I… think that would be appreciated.”

After a brief nod, Ezra cautiously lifted Asher by his hips, and lowered him again. Asher helped with the movements, pressing with his screaming muscles again, until Ezra had a pace and angle Asher loved. At that point Asher could lean into Ezra again and just ride the movements, his breath quickening again with the pleasure.

With a low moan Asher let go of Ezra’s shoulder with one hand, wrapping it around his own cock. He started at a leisurely pace, nearly matching the one Ezra kept. It was ecstasy, but Asher needed more. He craved more. This had dragged on long enough, in his opinion, and he was damn near ready to burst.

He started to move faster, sliding the cock in and out of him faster, and Ezra adapted quickly, assisting Asher with the movement instead of supporting him entirely. To match, Asher stroked his hand along his own cock faster, drawing soft gasps and moans from his lips.

With all the anticipation and all the pleasure building up to this point, it truly didn’t take long for Asher to tumble over the precipice. With a cry echoing off Ezra’s metallic body, Asher spurted through his fingers, the fluid splattering across Ezra’s torso and onto his own.

Ezra froze as Asher rode out the final waves of his climax, and it took Asher a few more moments beyond that to realize what had happened.

“Oh my God. Ezra, I’m so sorry.” Asher let out a loud groan as he lifted himself, Ezra’s cock sliding out of his hole as he did so and leaving behind an uncomfortably empty sensation in its stead. He took a steadying breath before letting go of Ezra and climbing down off the workbench. “Let me go get a cloth to clean that.”

Asher stopped, though, as Ezra looked down at the mess on his stomach. After a moment he lifted a hand, running his fingertips through the splattered drops. “This is fascinating.”

“And you’ll rust if we don’t clean you up. I should have thought about that earlier, I’m sorry.”

Ezra shook his head, staring at his fingertips. “Do not apologize. I… truly enjoyed that.”

Asher smiled, and went to get the cleaning solution.

***

Things between Asher and Ezra after their tryst had been awkward at first. Asher wasn’t entirely sure how he should behave, as he’d quite obviously never dealt with such an arrangement before; after all, how many people could say they’d slept with a thing of their own creation?

At length, Ezra approached Asher after another stilted conversation. “Asher… are you uncomfortable with me?”

“What? No! No, of course not!” Asher was firm in his denial, but still was unable to meet Ezra’s eyes, instead focusing on the toolbox in front of him.

“Are you uncomfortable with our intimacy?”

Asher continued to focus on the toolbox. The wrenches weren’t organized by size, and how was he to find the correct wrench if they weren’t even in their right places?

“Asher.” Ezra laid his hand over the wrenches. “Please do not ignore me.”

Asher sighed. “I don’t know if what we did is right, Ezra.”

“I do not understand.”

Asher shoved his hands into his hair, tugging on the curls in frustration. “I used you, Ezra.”

Ezra’s joints and gears creaked again as he canted his head to the side. “I do not agree.”

“What do you mean? You got nothing out of that, not really. I used you for my own pleasure.”

Ezra shook his head. “No, Asher. I was not simply an object in your pleasure.” He brought up his hand, tipping Asher’s chin up with his impossibly cold, smooth fingers. “I greatly enjoyed watching you receive pleasure from something I had, something I did. And I would not mind that happening again.”

Asher blinked in surprise. He opened his mouth to speak, but Ezra shook his head again. “Do not feel as though you must question every good thing which happens to you. I have told you the truth. I would not — cannot — lie to you. I enjoyed your company, and I would like it to happen again.”

Asher let out a soft laugh, then nodded. “Thank you, Ezra. I feel much better, now.”

Things, then, assumed a new normal between them. Ezra continued to modify his programming to allow for a wider range of emotive abilities and expand his capacity for love, and Asher started to assist him with the modifications.

A few months later the next ball invitation arrived in Asher’s mail, and it gave him pause.

“What is wrong, Asher?”

Asher looked down at the envelope in his hands. “It’s an invitation to another inventor’s ball at Marcus’ house.”

Ezra plucked the envelope from his hands, tearing it open with deft fingers and pulling out the invitation inside. “Ah. ‘Mr. Marcus Vaughn requests the presence of one Mr. Asher Baumann. In addition, Mr. Vaughn politely requests of Mr. Baumann to bring his automaton assistant, Ezra, so we might see him again.’ I see.” He looked up at Asher, an eyebrow raised. “One would wonder who they are truly inviting to this ball.”

“Of course they want to see you,” Asher said, taking the invitation back. “I’m sure quite a few of the ladies in attendance had ideas about your… configuration.”

“As if you know nothing about that,” Ezra said, a hint of the dry humor he’d been programming into his speech patterns coming through.

“Indeed,” Asher said. He set the invitation aside. The ball was happening the following night, so he had time to prepare. Ezra didn’t have a suit yet, and that would need to change. He couldn’t bring his peer to a ball underdressed like he could his creation.

When they arrived, they were greeted again by the same servant, who reacted much more calmly at the sight of Ezra this second time. Asher was sure Marcus had given him a warning that Ezra would be in attendance, so the servant had time to prepare himself for the sight of a seven-foot tall metal man.

He led them to the ballroom, where Marcus turned from the large group he was speaking to and greeted them with a warm smile. “Asher, so lovely to see you again.”

“The feeling is mutual, Marcus,” Asher said, shaking Marcus’ extended hand firmly. “I’m sure you remember Ezra.”

Marcus looked over at Ezra, an eyebrow raised as he took in Ezra’s appearance. “I remember him wearing a lot less clothing last time.”

“Asher felt I required appropriate attire for the formal occasion,” Ezra said.

Marcus turned his gaze back to Asher, the other eyebrow raised now as well, his expression incredulous. “Asher?”

“Asher felt it was inappropriate for me to refer to him as ‘Master’ when that is not what he is.”

Asher gave Marcus a cocky half-smile. It was wholly satisfying to confound Marcus after having been regarded as inferior for so long. For once, Asher was in control.

“Are you sure you can control him, Asher?” Marcus looked concerned, even perhaps a bit terrified by Ezra’s matter-of-fact attitude.

“He does not need to be controlled, Marcus. He’s completely autonomous.”

“You’re treating him like a man, not a machine.”

Asher let out a soft laugh, colored with bitterness only a spurned lover could bring. “I’m treating him better than you ever treated me.”

By now some heads had turned to the conversation, not only due to Ezra’s presence, but also the tones of Asher and Marcus’ words. They had kept their relationship private, for the most part; but it was hard to hide anything now with how open they were about the discussion.

“Marcus, is that true?” A woman to his right said, and judging by her proximity to him, he’d been pursuing her.

Asher’s suspicions were confirmed when Marcus turned to her, taking her hands in his. “Of course not, darling, please don’t let him–”

“Ezra, let’s go,” Asher cut in. “I don’t want to listen to him spin another web of lies.”

“As you wish, Asher,” Ezra said, taking Asher’s hand in his own and leading him away.

In the carriage, Ezra watched Asher in silence until Asher couldn’t take it anymore. “Ezra, what’s on your mind?”

“You will not be able to attend any of those balls again.”

Asher shrugged. “I never cared for them after Marcus abandoned me.”

Ezra reached across the carriage to clasp Asher’s hands. “Will you be all right, Asher?”

“I think I will,” Asher said. “After all, I have you.”



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