by Shinju Yuri (真珠百合)
illustrated by calintz
He’d never fallen in love before but he’d always thought it would be like the feeling when you slotted something into place and knew, even before you turned on the steam and watched the gears begin to move, that everything was where it was supposed to be. Even before the gears began to move smoothly, faster and faster, until everything was a steady contented hum. He’d heard that it was something like a chemical reaction, though. If it was, that was all right, because he was used to them. The trick was to make big, gloriously horrible balls-ups of the thing and remember to duck if it blew. And do it over and over again until you got it right.
There was a slender young man on the opposite side of the room, cool and elegant-looking in the clothes that made Walter feel like a giraffe. He moved like well-oiled machinery, all smooth motion stopping precisely when lack of motion was required. Walter was trying not to stare at him but he wanted to take him apart to see what made him tick.
“Looking at young Rochester?” Walter turned to look at his host, who always made Walter itch to take an oiling can to him. There was something rusty and gritty about him. “Nice young chap, in his way. About the only one who hasn’t been hit by this cat burglar — not that he has anything to steal.” His host smiled his dry unpleasant smile. “His father’s made some bad investments, it seems.”
“You haven’t been bothered, either,” said Walter, out of a vague sense that he ought to make conversation.
“Oh no,” said his host, with a rusty laugh. “My staff is excellent.”
Walter took a tighter grip on his glass and thought about well-oiled gears clicking together as his host’s gritty voice droned on.
Frederick hated everything. He hated his uncomfortable clothes. He hated the pitying looks that he was getting from everybody in the room. He especially hated the bloody stupid farce of a party. He wasn’t feeling particularly fond of his father, either. ‘If we only knew what Walter Jennings was working on.’ ‘They say he’s near a breakthrough. Something big. Something that will make the engines better, faster, smaller.’ ‘If only someone was friends with him.’ Always with that pointed look at Frederick.
Frederick accepted a glass of champagne from a waiter and turned his face away from the pitying look of someone whose husband had helped bring his father close to ruin. Not that his father had needed much help, he thought bitterly. He glanced over at his host, droning away at some poor bastard. He’d heard that his host was feeling pretty smug because the burglar hadn’t hit him yet.
The man their host was boring glanced over as if he felt Frederick looking at him. He couldn’t see him clearly from this distance but he was rather tawny looking, a little big and awkward, with glasses perched on his nose. Frederick stared back at him rudely and then turned and drifted away. Later he’d have to figure out who Jennings was. Probably some dried up old man. With glasses, thought Frederick, not like the ones the tawny man was wearing, but thick ones. He probably spoke with an apologetic cough and only thought about his stupid machines.
Frederick liked watching dancers more than he liked to dance. The ladies in their sweeping silk dresses glowed against the dark of the gentlemen’s suits as they spun. It was like watching a moving painting, or clockwork figures.
“Do you dance?” said a voice behind him.
“No,” he said, turning.
“Oh,” said the person behind, sounding absurdly disappointed. “I thought you looked like someone who might.”
Frederick looked at him — and then had to look up at him. It was the tawny-looking man who had been talking to Mr Kemper earlier. This close, the impression of tawniness was even stronger: his skin was faintly golden, his hair was a light, almost dishwater blonde-brown, and his eyes, behind the glasses, were a sort of sunny color. “What do you mean?” he said.
“I was just thinking you looked like a nice person to dance with,” said the tawny man. “I don’t suppose–”
“You can’t dance with another man at something like this,” said Frederick, wondering why he didn’t feel more insulted.
“Oh,” said the tawny man, looking like a kicked puppy. It was something about his mouth drooped and his eyes looked at you, Frederick thought.
“I’m sure Mrs Kemper would be happy to find you a partner,” said Frederick.
The other man looked doleful. “I’m not really used to these sorts of parties,” he explained. “They make me nervous.”
That would explain his suit, which had strong symptoms of being stored often in mothballs, thought Frederick. “Have we been introduced?” he said, lifting his glass to his mouth with a haughty gesture that should have cowed the other man.
“No,” said the other man. “But Mr Kemper told me you were Frederick Rochester, right? I’m Jennings. Walter Jennings.”
It is amazingly difficult to be cool and haughty when champagne is coming out of your nose. Frederick choked and Jennings grabbed his glass before Frederick began pawing frantically at his nose, sneezing and cursing under his breath. Jennings thumped him helpfully on the back. Frederick took a deep breath, went into another spasm and finally recovered enough to stare at Jennings. His mind was in a terrible mess. This was Jennings? But he was too — too — Frederick tried to think of the word he wanted and could only come up with things like ‘too young, too attractive, too normal’. He didn’t look like a genius. He looked like he needed his suit properly pressed.
“Are you all right?” said Jennings, anxiously.
“Fine,” wheezed Frederick, stepping away from Jennings’ supporting hand. “I need some air.” He made for the balcony, followed by Jennings.
The night air was cool. He could smell the carefully cultivated flowers of the garden, and Jennings standing a little too close to him; he smelled like starch and faintly of mothballs and machine oil. Frederick almost wanted to step away but Jennings was radiating warmth. He thought briefly of his father’s hints and set his teeth.
“Are you that Jennings?” he asked. “The inventor?”
Jennings brightened, as if on familiar ground. “I make things,” he said. “Right now I’m working on an improved steam transmission system. The ones in use now aren’t very efficient, you see. There needs to be a way so they lose less energy during power transmission but I need to find a way to control the heat diffusion.” He stopped. “I’m sorry, you must find that very boring.”
Frederick had lost track of what he was saying after approximately the second word — he understood what each word meant but the combined total was like Greek — but he shook his head. “No,” he said truthfully. “I don’t.” There was something about Jennings’ voice that made him a pleasure to listen to, a slight lilting accent in it from somewhere besides the capital. Jennings’ voice wasn’t deep but it was very musical. Frederick had the uneasy feeling he could stand and listen to Jennings talk for a very long time. “I’m not bored at all.”
Jennings brightened and began to talk again. Frederick leaned against the railing of the balcony and listened to Jennings talk about gears and valves. Jennings had a pair of glasses with a funny hook on the left lens. He wondered what it was for. He wondered what Jennings looked like without his glasses on.
A clock in the ballroom began to strike eleven o’clock. It startled him enough that he straightened up. “I’m afraid I must go,” he said politely. The acid pack was probably melting its way through the lock by now.
“I expect you’ve got everything set up,” said Jennings cheerfully.
Frederick turned and stared at him. “I beg your pardon?”
Jennings rubbed the back of his head and looked apologetic. “Your shoes are two centimeters too tall for your apparent height and I think you have wires embedded in your necktie because it’s hanging wrong. And Mr Kemper said your family hadn’t been hit by the thief, and I heard he was one of the ones who did the thing to your family’s company.”
Frederick gaped at him.
“I’m an engineer,” explained Jennings. “I’m supposed to notice things.” He looked thoughtful for a second. “What are you actually taking?”
Frederick felt nauseated. “What — How did you — What do you want?”
“Want?” said Jennings, looking honestly confused. “I heard they cheated your father and he’s sick now.”
“I don’t like pity,” said Frederick tightly.
“I don’t pity you,” said Jennings. Frederick stared at him hard, trying to read him, and realized that it was actually true. There was something that suggested sympathy. But not pity.
“What do you want?” said Frederick again.
“Well I’d quite like to kiss you,” said Jennings. “And I think you’re a bit skinny and I think I can figure out a feeding machine. But not if you don’t want to.”
Frederick was suddenly glad he’d finished his champagne. “Are you always like this?”
“Probably,” said Jennings. “I don’t know, I’ve never really thought about it.”
Frederick pinched his nose, trying to stop the headache that was already gathering behind his eyes. “That wasn’t what I meant.”
“Oh,” said Jennings. He looked worried, as if he was trying to figure what was going on as it happened to him. “Um. Would you like to come visit me? I have a card somewhere.” He patted his jacket anxiously.
“Visit you?” said Frederick. He had to leave but the way Jennings was bumbling his way through blackmailing him had a sort of horrifying fascination.
“At the lab,” explained Jennings. “Um. Saturday?”
“Fine,” said Frederick shortly. Jennings made a pleased noise and pulled out a card case, produced a card and handed it to Frederick. He hesitated. Then he took a step nearer and bent down slightly. He kissed Frederick softly on the mouth. It wasn’t the most experienced kiss Frederick had ever gotten but as an expression of practical, immediate interest it was top class. Frederick tried to tell himself he was just stupefied with shock but a small part of his mind said that Jennings’ mouth tasted like expensive tobacco and faintly of port and he would quite like to go on kissing him for a very long time. Also, it continued, they were probably going to have to take off that tie. And the jacket. And the —
“What the hell,” said Frederick intelligently, and pulled away. He had the crazed thought that kissing a nearly perfect stranger was a better idea than getting his father’s company back and paying back the ones who destroyed it, and it made him move.
“I’ll see you Saturday?” called Jennings from behind him.
Frederick lifted his hand in a vague acknowledgement of the words, and fled.
It was his father that finally made up Frederick’s mind. He spent the entire week thinking that he would or he wouldn’t, but when the doctor put a gentle hand on his shoulder and told him that his father should be kept from excitements, and then his father glared at him and said, “If we only had something.” He stopped and stared at Frederick hard. “I heard you were talking to Walter Jennings the other night.”
“Yes, sir,” said Frederick. He didn’t mention what else he had done that night — Kemper was reportedly in an agony of fear. His fault for leaving sensitive documents where anybody might find them.
“You should cultivate that friendship,” barked his father.
“Yes, sir,” said Frederick dully.
Jennings’s house was surprisingly plain. It was a medium-sized brownstone without anything in particular to make you think a genius lived there. Until you rang his doorbell, which tootled “God Save The Queen”, wheezing in consumptive agony, and you watched a green marble rattle it’s way up a series of glass tubes and disappear.
(Frederick never did find out what the marble did. He thought it might have something to do with the way something went WAAAAUGH! WAAAAUUGH! at you in the workshop until you opened the front door, but he was never sure and he was frankly scared to ask.)
He was just about to brave the tootling doorbell again, or give up, when the door opened. “Yes?” said Jennings.
“If you’re in the middle of inventing things I can come back,” said Frederick, staring at the black streak of oil decorating Jennings’ cheek instead of at Jennings’ throat, clearly visible because Jennings only wore a shirt and braces. The shirt was rolled above Jennings’ elbows, and Frederick tried not to notice that inventing apparently did wonderful things to the muscles of your arms.
Jennings stared at him blankly for a second, and then his face lit up. “You did come!” he said. “Come in! Oh, mind the –”
Frederick tripped and Jennings pulled him upright with one arm.
“–mail, I forgot to pick it up.”
Frederick, who lived in a small flat and did most of his own housekeeping because he had yet to find a maid picky enough to suit him, cast a horrified look around the entryway.
“Sorry about that,” said Jennings. “Er. Um. Would you like to look around?”
Frederick opened his mouth, discovered he was about to demand to what the hell Jennings’ housekeeper thought she was doing, and closed it again. He was here because Jennings was probably going to blackmail him, and he was going to do something horrible in return, not to hysterically demand scrubbing brushes, strong soap and pails of hot water. “Thank you, Jennings,” he said. “I’d like that.”
“Call me Walter,” said Jennings. “Sorry for the mess. My housekeeper quit.”
“She didn’t like explosions,” explained Walter simply. “And Talitha says she can’t find anybody to work for me unless I faithfully promise not to blow things up at two am, and I can’t because of the project I’m working on. So she’s trying her best but it’s going to take a while, she thinks.”
“Talitha?” said Frederick, picking his way carefully through the mail and telling himself firmly he wasn’t going to sneeze because that would get more dust up his nose. “Is that your –”
Walter scratched his head. “Her mother went to school with mine and I think my cousin was in school with her. She’s doing radical things in low neighborhoods to promote women’s suffrage and she runs a very respectable employment agency. So she hires me housekeepers.” Walter opened a door and waited for Frederick to go through. “And if she has to go somewhere dangerous I go with her.”
Radical, female — something clicked. “You can’t mean Talitha Lachlan?”
“Fifteen respectable matrons got up a petition against her! She got their servants to strike until they had to pay living wages!”
“Did she?” said Walter happily.
Frederick tore his mind away from the slightly horrifying visions of Talitha Lachlan hiring a servant for a genius inventor. “Don’t you keep any servants at all?”
Walter shook his head. “I hire things done if I need them and I’m really quite close to figuring out how to do laundry entirely by steam-power. Except,” he said regretfully, “the boiler keeps exploding.”
Frederick followed Walter through a courtyard crammed with bits of pipe and half-assembled engines that looked like great clockwork puzzles. He was a little confused; perhaps Walter wasn’t going to demand anything right away but he should at least be making it clear that he was going to make a demand, if only so Frederick could stew over it.
The workshop didn’t look like much but perhaps that was because it was always being blown up. Frederick stepped inside cautiously and looked around. It was a large room with many windows and a lot of light: Frederick wouldn’t have been surprised to see an artist use it as a studio. There were machines in various stages of completion and benches and things Frederick didn’t even recognize, all piled into a sort of chaotic order.
Here was a machine, Walter said, that would play hymns in church if only he could find a way to mass-produce the parts. He pushed a button and it began to wheeze out A Mighty Fortress Is Our God in a resentful and reluctant manner.
It occurred to Frederick that it was still better than many of the organists he had heard, who could turn the Sanctus into something like a funeral march, only more gloomy.
The workshop was filled with bits of old pipe and even more mysterious machines than the steam-organ. In the center there was a machine that was giving off a soft hissing noise. Curious, he moved closer to look at it as Walter cast an agonized look at his desk and then moved quietly over to try to straighten it up.
“Be careful of those,” said Walter.
Frederick looked around at the great glass tubes, connected to a smaller tank. All of them were glowing with soft, clear light. “Are these lamps?”
“Oil isn’t very efficient,” said Walter, shuffling through his desk. “And of course it would be mad to have candles around this machinery, and I’ve never been able to design a really good candle.” He made a dive into a pile and sneezed. “It’s kerosene with a vacuum transmission system. There’s mirrors and things.”
Frederick looked around the workshop, filled with clear, steady light. “How many lamps? How much gas do you use?”
“Two?” said Walter, still stacking papers guiltily. “No, three, I had to add one for spotlighting. I’d say about five gallons a week, but of course most of that is for the worksh– Rochester? Are you all right?”
“Perfectly,” croaked Frederick.
“Only you look a little pale,” said Walter, anxiously.
“I’m fine,” said Frederick weakly. Five gallons a week! They were lucky if they didn’t use five gallons a day at the Rochester mansion. He backed cautiously away from the light producing machine and looked around some more.
Most of the wall were covered with schematic drawings and plans but there was an absurdly bright, cheerful sampler hung up among them. Frederick craned his head.
“‘Do Not play silly Buggers with the Laws of Physics’,” he read from the sampler.
“That’s, haha, Talitha’s little idea of a joke.”
“Did you?” he said, reading the next thing hanging on the wall, a neatly burned plaque.
“Did I what?”
“‘Did you Eat To-day?'”
“Is today Thursday?” Walter looked a little worried.
Frederick stared at him. “It’s Saturday,” he said, very carefully.
“Oh. Um. The tribblation regulator valve was um absorbing my attention?” Walter hesitated. “Are you sure it’s Saturday?”
Frederick thought what Walter really needed was a sign that said “Have you Slept in the Last forty-eight Hours?” next to the “Did you Eat To-day?” one. “Yes,” he said.
“Oh, dear,” said Walter, looking more like a puppy with mud on its paws than ever. “I was wondering why I felt a bit sleepy.”
Frederick pinched his nose. “So what have you eaten?”
“I’m sure I had some tea,” said Walter, proudly.
“Ah,” said Frederick, who had been looking around the small area Walter had set aside for his desk. “You mean besides this completely full, stone-cold pot?”
“Er,” said Walter. Then he looked vaguely annoyed. “That was supposed to be kept warm! I’ll have to fix it.”
Frederick sighed and pulled his cravat loose. Then he took his jacket off. It was damned hot in the machine shop. “Where’s your kitchen?”
“It’s over in the main house,” said Walter, looking puzzled. “Why?”
Frederick picked his way over the scattered debris of the machine shop toward the door. “Tell me you have canned food.”
“Well, yes,” said Walter. “But…”
Frederick turned around and gave him the look that cowed his father’s employees. Walter blinked at him. “Food,” said Frederick.
“Um,” said Walter.
Frederick stalked through the courtyard and into the kitchen, cast one scandalized look around the masses of pipes and chose a box that was obviously giving off heat. “Where’s your water pump?”
Walter reached above him and pulled a lever. There was a muted clanking sound and then a kettle fell out of a cupboard, was caught in midair by a mechanical arm, swung gently to where another lever twisted itself, where it hung beneath a pipe long enough to be filled with water and then was set precisely on the box giving off heat.
“Wow,” said Frederick, suddenly in love.
“It takes about five minutes for it to heat,” said Walter apologetically. “I tried a hot water tank but there’s not a really efficient way to do it yet.”
Frederick began opening and closing cupboard doors. Walter apparently lived on canned food and …. canned food, although there was something that might have technically been bread lurking in a box. Right now it apparently was supporting a small, green civilization. There was a sort of icebox which had some fresher bread, milk and eggs that didn’t appear to be actually ready to hatch in it. “Sit down,” he said. “I’ll figure out something.”
There was a short silence while Walter just stared at him, and Frederick shifted uncomfortably. Suddenly Walter smiled, an expression of extraordinary sweetness, and leaned over and kissed Frederick on the forehead. It was a chaste kiss, very light, and Frederick’s skin tingled even after Walter moved away.
“Thank you,” said Walter.
Frederick thought, Maybe he isn’t going to do anything. Then he thought, I’m being a fool. I must get those plans, no matter what.
They got to talking after Frederick fed Walter. Frederick leaned on a chair set backwards and listened. Walter, as it turned out, invented things or improved almost anything he saw. It was amazing. He couldn’t remember the day of the week half the time but he could look at something and make it better. He’d made a better bustle for ladies’ dresses, of all things, that folded neatly into a sort of fan when they sat. He’d figured out a more efficient way to run omnibuses, so that they used less steam for more time. He’d made safety features for the great engines in the factories that had cut injuries nearly in half. Steam, he said, was the most wonderful thing in the world, if only you respected it. He took Frederick back into the shop and showed him the blueprints for a project he was working on, intended for distribution in the Lower City. It would make lighting cheaper and more efficient, better for the poor people who lived there.
“I expect you have a good contract for that,” said Frederick.
“From the City,” said Frederick. “Aren’t they paying you?”
Walter shook his head. “This is a volunteer project.”
Frederick stopped abruptly, making Walter run into him. “What, for fuh-fuh-fuh-fr — for nothing?”
Walter leaned over Frederick’s shoulder. “It’s for the Lower City,” said Walter experimentally, as if testing a new chemical reaction. “To benefit the people there.”
“Benefit them all you like,” said Frederick, “but the City will use it in Upper Town and save thousands of pounds! And they won’t pay you sixpence!”
“That’s all right,” said Walter.
Frederick realized that Walter was still leaning against him. His chest was warm and a scent of soap and motor oil drifted around him. “Not for fuh-fuh-fuh – no money, it’s not!”
“Can you actually say the word ‘free’?” asked Walter curiously.
“Of course I can,” said Frederick. “Free food. Free market. Free –”
“Free as in giving someone something for no money, I mean,” said Walter.
“I can so,” said Frederick crossly. He opened his mouth and an expression of acute physical agony crossed his face. “For fu- fu- fu- fr — ”
“Go on,” said Walter, encouragingly.
“For fu-fu-fr– not for profit!”
“– for a period of no more than three months, with contract and fees, licence to be paid for in advance,” said Frederick, in a small, defiant voice.
“I can’t help it,” said Frederick. “I hear a sovereign coin clink and it does something funny to my head. I was the one everybody went to the tenth week of term if they needed money for sweets.”
“How did they even get near your father’s company?” asked Walter curiously.
“Father doesn’t like interference,” said Frederick.
“Huh,” said Walter, and leaned harder against Frederick. Frederick stiffened a little but it was time for him to pay the piper, it seemed; he relaxed deliberately against Walter’s chest.
There was no reaction.
Frederick was suddenly reminded of a dog of his acquaintance, who had an aggravating habit of choosing a victim and then leaning companionably against you and staring at you with liquid brown eyes until you relaxed a little, and then the next thing you knew there was a fifty pound animal on the couch beside you oozing over your lap with the steady inevitability of lava flow. And then you were stuck for at least half an hour while it slept. And if you tried to get it to shove off it looked at you reproachfully, tucked its head under your chin, and shed more affectionate black hairs over your cravat.
“Jennings?” he said. There was no answer. “Walter?” Walter slumped gently against Frederick’s back. Frederick yelped in surprise. “Get off me!”
Walter snored. Frederick realized, with horror, that Walter was totally asleep, almost unconscious; obviously the three nights without sleep had just caught up to him and hit him over the head with a mallet. He was draped over Frederick’s back and to Frederick’s complete terror he shifted slightly, made a happy noise and wrapped his arms around Frederick’s waist. Frederick looked around frantically and saw a couch, which was obviously there for when Walter collapsed while working on a project. It was fairly wide and it had pillows at one end. He made his way to it with agonizing slowness. Walter didn’t eat properly but he was still heavier and taller than Frederick, although some racehorse jockeys were heavier and taller than Frederick.
He backed Walter against it and tried to flop him down — which partly worked and partly did not on account of Walter simply tightening his grip as he slumped on the couch. Frederick stared at the ceiling, Walter’s arms pinning him to the couch, and scowled. “You bugger,” said Frederick sincerely. “If you’re faking this I will kill you.”
Walter responded by rolling over so he squashed Frederick and tucking his head in the corner of Frederick’s shoulder and neck. His glasses pinched horribly and Frederick tried to figure out a way to get them off. Unfortunately, he was good and stuck.
Frederick cursed under his breath and resigned himself to waiting.
When he slid lazily back to consciousness the light had changed to the diffuse, dreamy half light of dusk. He was warm and relaxed; something was wrapped around him and he felt safe, as if everything was all right and everything would always be all right. Someone was nuzzling his neck lazily and he arched his neck up and made a sleepy noise of contentment.
The nuzzling changed to kisses, soft and insistent. Frederick shivered deliciously and stretched out, his hand reaching back and wrapping around the other’s neck to hold him closer. The kisses stopped for a second and then a hand reached around and put a pair of glasses on top of the couch, and before Frederick could wake up enough to process this the arms returned again, drawing him close against a warm chest and the scent of warm male and machine oil.
Something in the back of Frederick’s mind was puzzled about this but he couldn’t think of what it was and didn’t particularly care. All that he cared for was that the kisses continue, that the hand stroking the side of his chest keep moving.
He shifted, purring deep in his throat as the hand stroked lower, sliding over his hip. Walter had amazing hands, large and well-shaped and muscular and one of them was practically treading his hip as he —
His rational mind chose that moment to point out helpfully that he was on a couch with Walter Jennings and being petted like a cat. Also that Jennings was making a low humming noise and chewing his ear gently.
Frederick woke up.
He went rigid in surprise and Walter’s hand stopped moving. He tried to figure out what was going on. He must have fallen asleep, he thought. But that didn’t explain — well, apparently he was about to give his all for Walter’s silence.
Something else in his hindbrain pointed out he was lying against Walter, warm and comfortable and that there were definite possibilities in the situation. One of them was pressed up against him. Also, that if he was going to play outraged virgin he would have a job doing it convincingly. He wanted this, he realized. Oh God, did he want this.
Walter was perfectly still. His hand was still lying on Frederick’s hip but his mouth wasn’t on Frederick’s ear any more, leaving it absurdly cold. Frederick realized he was waiting for a signal — because, said a little voice in the back of his head hysterically, he was a gentleman, gentlemen didn’t seduce people in return for silence unless they wanted to be seduced! — and that he was somehow making it silently, perfectly clear that he would follow along with what Frederick decided.
Frederick suddenly had a horrible feeling that he was wrong about Walter blackmailing him, but he couldn’t follow the thought all the way through and he wanted Walter to pet him again and he wanted him to move his hand about two inches further in and he wanted to arch up against Walter and let him chew his ear some more. To hell with it, he thought. He pulled his hand free from the cushion — Walter held exquisitely still, as if watching a chemical reaction that might go well or might burn his face off — and wrapped his hand around the wrist that wasn’t on his hip. He lifted it to his mouth and kissed it. Walter shuddered against him and clutched his hip. “Do you really?” he said.
“Yes,” said Frederick.
Walter shuddered again, and began to kiss and bite gently at Frederick’s throat and neck, anything he could reach. Frederick shivered again as Walter’s hand began to stroke his hip, and he ground back against him. Walter’s hand slipped closer and closer and Frederick was distantly aware that he was saying ‘oh God yes’ and ‘please’ and ‘touch me please touch me yes’, and that he was going to be horribly embarrassed about it later on. But that was all right because Walter was touching him, through his trousers but that wasn’t enough. Walter seemed to agree; he was unbuttoning Frederick’s trousers with as much speed as he could, shifting over so he could kiss Frederick urgently. Frederick closed his eyes and gave himself up to sensation; Walter’s warm mouth and tongue on his, Walter’s hands stroking him.
The last few buttons on his trousers came undone and then Walter unfastened enough of his shirt to stroke his hand down over his bare chest, making pleased noises and licking his collarbone. Frederick pushed at him enough to get Walter’s shirt open. Walter had smooth muscles with golden skin; he was beautiful and Frederick wished he could eat him up. He bit Walter’s neck and Walter arched above him, gasping. And then his hand returned to between Frederick’s legs and he was stroking him, wrapping his hand around him and Frederick lost track of the thought, only aware of Walter’s hands and Walter’s mouth and the building glory behind his eyes. “Oh God,” he said. “I’m going to –”
“Yes,” said Walter, his voice rough and dark.
Frederick shuddered again and again, coming so hard he thought he was going to die from it. White heat surrounded him and overcame him and he fell back limply onto the couch, panting. Walter stroked his hair and kissed his forehead and crooned nonsense at him.
Frederick pushed his head onto Walter’s shoulder, his heart slowing gradually. Everything in his world was dreamy and gold-tinted. Walter kissed his forehead and moved away. Frederick grabbed at his sleeve. “Hush,” said Walter, kissing him again. “I’m going to get something to clean you up.”
Frederick watched as he moved a little stiffly to the workbench and the water-tank there.
“I – I need to tell you something,” said Frederick in a burst of honesty. He had to tell him now or he never would. It would be horrible, he thought, to never tell him this, to always have to know what he had been going to do.
“Hmm?” said Walter, dampening a cloth.
“I was going to,” said Frederick miserably. “Um. I thought you were going to do –”
Walter turned around and looked at him and for a second Frederick was surprised by the hurt in his eyes, as if he was expecting something, as if he knew already but had hoped he hadn’t.
He didn’t know how it happened but one second he was sitting on the couch and the next second he was landing against Walter, knocking him back against the workbench. “I am a horrible person,” he said into Walter’s chest. “I’m sorry.”
“You are not,” said Walter, into his ear.
“I am so,” said Frederick. “I thought you were going to blackmail into — into — doing things and I was going to steal your plans for revenge.”
“Oh,” said Walter, sounding relieved. “That’s happened before. Not,” he added hastily as Frederick stiffened, “me blackmailing someone into silence, I mean someone trying to seduce me for my plans.”
“Did you let them?” demanded Frederick, in horror.
Walter cleared his throat. “You remember when the big tower clock ground to a halt and they found out the gears were never going to move again because they had overheated and sort of melted together?”
“My God,” said Frederick, in awe. “You gave them the wrong plans? That’s horrible, Jennings.”
Walter tilted his face up and smiled at him, the sweet smile that made Frederick’s heart do horrible embarrassing things. Like turn over in one big thump and then start beating again. “I’d give you the right plans. I’d help you get even with the people who stole your company.”
“You idiot,” said Frederick thickly. “What am I supposed to do with you?”
“I think,” said Walter, stroking his hair, “that maybe we should try this again.”
“What, the part where I think ‘aha! I must sell my honour dear’ or the part where you think ‘I should trust him even though he is shady as a … a shady thing’ or –” Frederick found he was still able to be sharp. He wished he wasn’t. It was stupid really, but he’d always been sharp edged and — “Sorry.”
“Or the part where we meet and I feel like I just found the right part to finish a machine,” said Walter, kissing his jaw. “The part where we’re two people who meet and fit each other’s lives.”
“Oh,” said Frederick, and pushed Walter down on the work table and wriggled his way further up Walter’s body so he was straddling Walter’s hips and Walter was making fascinating hamstrung noises. “I guess. We could do that.” He slid his hands over Walter’s chest. “But you have to let me take charge of your patents. It’s ridiculous how much money you could be making.”
“Hmm?” said Walter, who was probably a little distracted.
What he wanted to say, Frederick thought, was ‘let’s take care of each other’, but he couldn’t. Not yet anyway, and maybe not for a long time.
But he would.