by Shinju Yuri (真珠百合)
illustrated by calintz
“The sun is shining,” said Walter. “It’s a beautiful day outside.”
“Please die,” said a lump in the middle of the bed. The lump had curled all of the blankets around itself and as Walter watched, attempted to tuck itself more tightly together.
“It’s wonderful out,” said Walter enthusiastically. “It’s all snowy and look, there’s a cardinal outside the window, waiting for you!”
“Please die horribly,” amended the lump. “Somewhere else.”
“….maybe you can live,” said the lump grudgingly.
“Would you like me to bring them over?” said Walter.
“Are you crazy?” said the lump, so outraged that one eye actually appeared from the blankets to glare at him. “And get crumbs on the bed?”
“Okay,” said Walter, and scooped the lump up, blankets and all, and carried him over to the fire.
The lump squawked.
Walter sat down on the big wing chair with the lump of blankets curled on his lap. He pushed the blankets aside until Frederick’s shining black head emerged reluctantly, like a turtle poking its head from its shell. Frederick’s eyes were still tightly screwed shut and he was scowling bitterly. He hated cold, and he hated mornings, and he thought that cold mornings were some sort of personal insult toward him from the universe. He really did look a bit like a hedgehog, thought Walter. His hair was sticking out everywhere from the blanket and he had something of the same groggy but annoyed look that hedgehogs got in the winter. He bumped his nose against the side of Frederick’s temple. “Strawberry jam?” he said in his ear.
Frederick shivered, but scowled to make up for it. “You are an insane person,” he said. “I don’t want crumpets. The blankets will get all greasy and horrid.”
“We could take you out of the blankets,” suggested Walter logically.
“I will freeze,” said Frederick, glaring at him. As Walter knew that Frederick was not wearing anything under them, he had to concede some of the point, although how Frederick thought he was going to freeze on someone’s lap next to a fire in a warm room was beyond Walter. “I’ll be a lump of ice and then –”
“Look, I have your robe,” said Walter hastily. “Nice warm robe? All heated and everything.”
Ten minutes later Frederick was bundled into his robe and had woken and cheered up sufficiently that he was glaring out at the window at the cardinal and chewing a crumpet as if it had done something to spite him. Walter figured he had about five more minutes before Frederick finished waking up enough to realize that he was still ‘lazing around’ and should leap off Walter’s lap and rush off to do things.
“We’re snowed in,” he said.
“I don’t believe you,” said Frederick. “I have a thousand things I need to do today. It can’t be snow–” He caught Walter’s eye. “Oh hell,” he said.
“Two feet,” said Walter apologetically. “And I can’t use the machines to clear it because they’ll just ice it over and then they’ll break.”
Frederick slumped down onto Walter’s chest. “Dammit,” he said.
There was a silence for a while, a comfortable one while the kettle on the little steam warmer whistled softly and merrily and the fire crackled and snapped to itself. The oil lamps around the room cast a soft golden light. Walter was very aware of Frederick’s light warmth lying against him. He began to stroke Frederick’s hip absently, as if he was a cat. Frederick was in a rare quiet mood, soothed by the warmth of the fire and the fact that he couldn’t go anywhere, even if he wanted to. He leaned his head against Walter’s chest and put his hand on Walter’s neck, not quite inviting a kiss, but making it clear that a kiss would be acceptable. Walter hid a smile in Frederick’s black hair and then kissed him softly.
Frederick curled closer, his hand sliding up to wrap around the curve of Walter’s neck. His mouth parted lazily and Walter kissed him deeply. Frederick’s hands curled in, pulling Walter closer. Their tongues met and curled around each other lazily. Frederick tasted of tea and a bit of strawberry jam. Walter pushed aside the red velvet of Frederick’s robe from his white shoulder. Next summer they would have to go to the country until Frederick got some color to his skin. Frederick was too pale. Frederick made a funny little catching noise in his throat when Walter kissed the corner of his neck and shoulder. Walter palmed one of Frederick’s nipples, rubbing his thumb over it slowly. He lifted his head to see that Frederick’s face was flushed, his eyes very dark and half-closed.
Frederick pulled Walter’s head down and kissed the side of his mouth, little playful kisses. Walter chuckled a little, delightedly, and kissed him back.
“Brocade,” said Frederick, without warning, frowning at Walter’s chest.
“What?” said Walter, pushing the other shoulder of Frederick’s robe off. As an afterthought he bit softly on the curve of Frederick’s shoulder to see him shudder and feel him dig his nails in.
“Your robe,” clarified Frederick, biting the side of Walter’s neck in revenge. “You need a new one. Blue and gold.”
Walter was momentarily sidetracked by the thought of himself wandering around in a blue-and-gold brocade dressing robe, especially since he inevitably wandered out to the shop and thus chose his robes for their ability to be scrubbed free of stray machine oil spots without killing anybody’s back in the process. He was really quite close to the automatic clothes laundering machine. “What?” he said, and then cursed feelingly as Frederick slid down, opening Walter’s robe, and bit one of his nipples carefully.
It was like clockwork. Strange and confusing clockwork, as they half-tumbled to the floor, as Frederick made a long arm for the oil, as they kissed and touched each other. It was like clockwork. You just had to look at it long enough to see how it worked and then it made perfect sense. Frederick’s breath catching as Walter’s fingers slid in him, as Walter slid them out again and prepared them both. The way he closed his eyes for one moment and then opened them again, dark and intensely blue as Walter slid in, It was like the meshing and smooth running of gears. The thrum of his heartbeat as Walter put his head on Frederick’s chest, breathing in spicy sweet musk and soap, was like the beat of a piston running in smooth but quick time. It was the entire world, he thought. This was the entire world.
Frederick gasped, almost a sob, and his arms tightened convulsively around Walter. Walter shuddered hard and thrust one more time.
The world, he thought. This is our entire world.
They moved back to the chair afterward. Frederick was a boneless, relaxed puddle of warmth on Walter’s lap. Walter almost hated to break the mood. Almost. If he was going to ask it would have to be now.
“I got a letter from Mother,” began Walter, stroking Frederick’s back.
Frederick went rigid.
“Why are you so scared of her?” said Walter.
“She wrote me a letter saying she hoped I would take care of her little Wally! She’s insane!” said the man whom Walter had personally observed climbing up the side of a building in driving rain and leaning over two feet to open a window, while Walter tried to breathe. Also —
“She just wants you to come with me for Christmas,” he said. “And if you don’t go with me you’ll have to go to your family and didn’t you say that last Christmas they bought two cases of brandy and Christ alone knew how much sherry, wine, and port and still had to send out for gin Christmas Eve?”
“And that your Aunt Marabel got into a fight with your Aunt Florabel and practically had to be pulled apart with engines? And then your grandmother–”
“Okay so maybe my family isn’t exactly festive,” said Frederick sulkily. “It’s better than some people. I knew this bloke at school.”
Walter really did not want to hear about the bloke Frederick had known at school. The blokes Frederick had known at school were, as a rule, more insane than Frederick and from even stranger families. “I don’t care about him,” he said. “I really would like you to come with me.”
“His first cousins,” said Frederick, happily, “they were from a brother and sister who married a brother and a sister and on Christmas Eve they –”
Walter covered his ears and hummed desperately. Frederick looked dourly pleased with himself, and ate a crumpet. Walter waited a second and when Frederick continued to munch, uncovered his ears cautiously.
“Under the mistletoe,” said Frederick, who had an evil streak a mile wide.
“Arrgh,” said Walter.
Frederick drank his tea in vindicated silence. Walter waited for a minute and tried again. “I think it would be nice,” he said. “You could — you could look over my old blueprints?” he tried.
Frederick paused. “Unpatented blueprints?”
“Well,” said Walter, rubbing the back of his head, “One of my old schoolmasters said they might as well be but I never really bothered.” He felt a little guilty about bribing him like this, but whenever Frederick visited home he came back wound up like a bad spring and spent days jumping at nothing and being as cold and brittle as thin glass, and Walter hated it. He was a little worried that Frederick would have an awful time and refuse to come with him ever again, but it couldn’t be worse than Christmas with his own family. “And they’re just little things,” he added. “Like there’s the self-winding spit for cooking. Mum kind of liked that one. Or–”
Frederick put one hand on his wrist and looked up at him. Walter looked back at him and for a moment he had a terrible feeling that Frederick could tell what was going through his mind. Then Frederick smiled, suddenly and very sweetly.
“We’re going to go through all of them,” he said. “And on the 27th we’re going to the patent office.”