It certainly wasn’t the first time Damerick had been stuck in his creative parlor due to some message from Wilkins he couldn’t understand, but it never ceased to be annoying. Although two years had passed since they had established that cohabitation agreement, some words still ended up lost in translation. The lighting seemed fine and Wilkins’ silhouette contoured the opposing wall without much deformation, so Damerick could identify all of his movements; yet, he failed to grasp the tiniest bit of information.
Waving his hands again, Wilkins replayed his speech. A series of gestures, really, since he didn’t possess a voice nor a means to produce sounds, much to Damerick’s dismay. Enthralled, the spectator refused to blink until his companion was done. He didn’t; in the end, however, he didn’t understand any of it either.
“I surrender!” Damerick smacked the machine beside him, as if punishing it for his shortcomings. The metal absorbed part of the impact, but a sharp noise echoed in his ears, increasing his overall discomfort.
That wasn’t the first time he and Wilkins fell so out of sync, but beyond shadow of doubt, the most frustrating one to date.
“Can’t you just slither inside me for a minute and write it down?”, asked Damerick, tired of guessing.
Wilkins crossed his arms. He found this proposal awfully rude.
“But I’m not a scientist.” A snort. “I’m a fixer! I have no idea what I’m doing. You do. If you could give me clear instructions, even for one second, it would do wonders for our project. You know that, Wilkins. Don’t look at me like that.”
“Like what?” This much Damerick could understand. “I don’t have eyes.”
“Don’t be snarky.”
In a world of metallic prosthetics and full-body exoskeletons, scientists and inventors thrived with exotic requests and clients who always searched for ways to improve their quality of life and broaden their unnatural parts’ applications. While cyborgs and even fancy machinery, although fairly common, were frowned upon, there never ceased to be a demand for such positions.
Damerick had been perfectly aware of all this growing up, yet still chose to be a fixer, the man on the lowest end of the food chain, who connected the wires and checked for leaks after everything else was complete. Truth be told, he lacked the smarts to pursue either one of the other professions, and they required an early investment in education he wouldn’t have been able to afford. Nonetheless, he loved his job and enjoyed his routine at his tiny shop in the outskirts of the city. Wilkins was the one suffering with his life choices.
“Do you want to try again?” Damerick asked, a bit calmer.
The doorbell chimed before Wilkins could so much as waver.
“Dame, dear, are you here?” A sweet voice came from the store. Heeled steps approached the counter at full speed. “It says you’re open…”
“I am…” He checked the calendar over his tool counter, ungloving his hands and washing them at the sink in the back. “We are open, Mrs. Amaral. Just a moment. Behave,” Damerick added to Wilkins in a whisper. The shadow bent in a hunchback and wobbled, laughing at him. “This should be quick. I won’t forget our discussion…”
Once through the heavy leather curtains, he donned a smile to greet his customer, an old lady who had scheduled an appointment for that afternoon. Being the owner and sole worker of the place, he usually stayed at the shop to guard it and greet anyone that so much as glanced at his door.
Thanks to the invention, the last few months had been spent in constant migration between the front—the store itself—and the back of the shop, where Damerick stored his tools, supplies and also where he lived, on the upper floor. It hurt his business, that had never been great to begin with, but he was trying his best to adapt. Grinning helped in most cases. Mrs. Amaral already responded well to his efforts.
“You scared me for a moment!” said the woman, joyous as usual. “I would hate to go somewhere else for my pills…”
“I hope you never have to, Mrs. Amaral. Your visits always brighten my shop.”
“Don’t even start, Damerick!” She chuckled, leaving her purse on the wooden counter.
A fat lady in her sixties, she was tall and quite charming, almost towering Damerick with her heels and big hat, atop with a feathery adornment. He imagined himself carrying three shadows for a moment. The stress would be too much to handle.
“You know I’m being nothing but honest,” he flattered her a little more. Only three steps away from them, Wilkins pretended to retch.
“And that is one of the reasons I keep coming back. I’ll admit I also love your herbs. Have you got anything fresh?”
“Indeed I do…”
He beckoned her to follow him to the stall in the corner where he kept the ripe good. There were all sorts of combinations and collections of flowers, branches and leaves meant for tea, spices and ointments, tied with a colored ribbon to indicate their purpose. Most of products he received ended up as a byproduct of his shop, but some clients, such as Mrs. Amaral, believed the fresh plants could better retain their properties or simply preferred to create their own recipes.
“This is a combination of lavender, honeysuckle, sage and rosemary, great to warrant away evil spirits and fairy energy. Additionally, they leave behind an amazing smell,” explained the fixer while raising each nosegay. “The blue one is perfect if you want to make some tea. Chamomile, hibiscus and fennel. I also have some dried hibiscus in the back, to save you some trouble.”
“I enjoy the trouble. What is that orange one?”
“Oh, my brand-new concoction of passion fruit flower, foxglove and deadly nightshade, straight from the south. They have relaxing properties and can grant you a good night sleep after a stressful day. But be careful to only take small doses, as they’re pretty strong.”
“You had me at good night sleep. I’ll take two,” Mrs. Amaral grabbed two nosegays of the flowers, some pollen dusting the counter gold. She smelled them and sneezed, giggling.
“Great choice. Anything else?”
“Only my pills. I shouldn’t even be buying these flowers, but I can’t resist!”
“And you won’t regret them,” said he as they returned to the main area of the shop. Wilkins watched them from the cabinet where Damerick stored ready-for-sale medicine, glued onto the wood as if he were an exotic carving. He busied himself by enacting a hanging and enveloping the cabinet to impede anyone from opening it. His movements were repetitive, a human-sized cuckoo clock.
Whenever he disliked a customer, he went through huge lengths to let his sentiments known, which the fixer tried to compensate by being excessively polite and gentle. It was either that or turning on all the lights in the building, to rob the place of shadows for a while. Damerick avoided resorting to childish gimmicks for his own good. Once down that path, he feared they would reach a point of no return.
Rooted in front of the cabinet, he took a deep breath to give Wilkins a window to integrate himself with his shadow, then opened it and grasped the bottle he had left for Mrs. Amaral.
“Do you remember the posology? Once every night…”
“Before bed, yes. And can I—”
A rasping cry cut her question short, and Damerick caught a glance of Wilkins vanishing from behind a leg prosthetic model and into darkness. The leg wobbled briefly in its metallic support.
“There was… there was something—!”
“Mrs. Amaral, what happened?” He lifted the foldable counter and hurried to her side.
“Didn’t you see that?!” She pointed at the leg, horrified. Her flowers lay on the ground, half-stepped over by her staggering feet. “I think it was a man!”
“A man?” Damerick did a little spectacle of looking around, puzzled. “There are no other customers here. Are you feeling well, Mrs. Amaral?”
“I… I don’t…”
Mindful of his surroundings, the fixer knew Wilkins remained quiet now that the damage had been done. He could still remedy the situation if she didn’t accredit the vision to magic. It would take one word from her, one alone, to disgrace him. Charges of witchcraft ranked among the most serious crimes someone could commit after Giles Hamerson and more often than not, innocent people were sentenced to death for it.
“Maybe you should sit down,” suggested he kindly, pulling a chair for her. He took the woman by the hand to help her and she almost smiled. “Would you like a glass of water?”
“No, there’s no need for that. I’ve bothered you long enough… I could have sworn I saw something… And that leg moved!”
“It’s only a model, Mrs. Amaral. I’m a fixer. None of the prosthetics you see here are real.”
“Oh… I didn’t know that.”
And for a moment, Damerick wished he had lied. Maybe a defective prosthetic was a more plausible tale than a sudden psychotic break.
“Should I do a check-up on your knees, Mrs. Amaral?” he tried to bounce back. “Rust and oxidation can intoxicate the bloodstream and lead to a series of harmful side-effects if not treated properly.”
“My last one was only two weeks ago… I think I have been too stressed out. That concoction of yours will come in hand.” She realized the flowers had fallen and sighed, rueful. “I ruined them! I’m so sorry, Dame…”
“Don’t worry. I’ll get you fresh nosegays. Just wait here.”
He scurried toward the stall and picked the prettiest ones he could find. A stink-eye to the corner where Wilkins still hid, and he returned to his customer.
“There you go.”
“Thank you. I’ll pay for the ones I ruined, of course.”
“No need for that, Mrs. Amaral.”
“I insist, my dear. You shouldn’t lose any coin because of my own neglect with my health…” On her feet, she proceeded to the counter. “I better head home and rest.”
“Are you sure you don’t want a glass of water?”
“Is there anything else I can do for you?”
“Yes, take my money.”
He laughed and finished the transaction.
Damerick was still waving the woman goodbye when he noticed Wilkins approaching him, head down and dragging his feet.
“Oh, we’re not talking right now.”
Wilkins threw himself on the counter.
“Cut the melodrama. You almost had me arrested because of that! And look at that mess!” The ruined petals and leaves stained the floor. “If only you could clean it up, but no! It’s all me!” A series of gestures commenced to his left. “I know you’re bored, Wilkins, that it sucks to be just a shadow, but you can’t ruin my life over this. Don’t you understand that—”
The bell rang. It was all over now. Mrs. Amaral would have no doubt about her mental capacities and call a clerk, an Inquisitor, who would put him in cuffs and take him to prison before Damerick could finish his heated speech.
“Are you busy? I can come back some other time.”
That was not Mrs. Amaral, even his crotch could tell that.
Wilkins was nowhere to be seen.
“Please come in.”
Longer hair, blond streaks brushing his shoulder and occasionally covering his eyes. Despite the warm weather, he still wore gloves and an indigo coat, never breaking a sweat, whereas Damerick had to dab his forehead with his hand and that on his apron before approaching the counter. Countless metallic parts placed around the shop and none was reflexive enough to allow a quick check on his appearance.
“Has it been three weeks already, sir?” Damerick asked, averting those gray eyes, as he had been staring for too long. A goatee. That was also new.
“I’m afraid so, yes.” The man leaned on his cane, trying to peek inside the door behind the fixer, that led to his creative parlor. A heavy leather curtain hid its upper half from customers. “Were you talking to someone? I don’t mean to pry, but I overheard you saying…”
“It was nothing, really. Should we proceed with the shot?”
“Please.” Instead of walking towards the foldable part of the counter, which had just been lifted open, he raised his right arm. “I also need you to check the exo for rust.”
“Will do. You know the way, right?” Damerick encouraged him to go first with a brief gesture.
He seized on the opportunity to admire the man’s rear, though hidden under two, maybe three layers of clothing. He needn’t much to ignite his fantasies. Not that Damerick indulged the habit of gazing at his customers’ bodies. Only that one. A Vermeer, of all people, because apparently, he had a death wish. Duke Vermeer. Duke. Duke. Say it louder, Dame, say my name.
“There’s… nobody else here.” The clear hint of surprise on Duke’s voice urged Damerick to close the leather curtain behind them and resume the service, or he might be drawn into his perversion pit and never return.
“I run the shop on my own. I believe I’ve mentioned that before,” he replied, but Duke kept studying the room, in search of a third person. “Please be seated. Isn’t it hot in there?” He jerked his chin to that long coat, still astonished that no drop of sweat could be spotted on Duke. In addition to the high temperature outside, his creative parlor lacked windows, a sultry, narrow room with no ventilation.
“Oh, no, not at all.”
“I can hang that for you, Lord Vermeer.”
Duke winced to his mere suggestion of movement.
“I’d like to remove only the right arm, if that’s alright. You’ll still be able to assess the exo.”
With a nod, Damerick swallowed his frustration. They were repeating the same dialogue they did every time. Duke Vermeer was widely-known for obsessing over his personal space and never allowing anyone to touch him, which sounded like cruel gossip until he came to the shop to take his first serum injection. His odd choice of wardrobe, leaving everything to imagination—not that Damerick needed much incentive—, paired with his haphephobia justified the sobriquet he acquired from the townsfolk: The Virgin Seer. Well, half of it.
About a year after they met, though the job of a fixer involved some level of physical contact, they had never touched each other’s skin, not even by accident. Along with those endless layers of fabric, Duke came armed with his cane, an exquisite stem of oak topped with a diamond-shaped emerald, which he used sometimes to establish boundaries between the both of them. There it was, right beside him, propped against the wall.
Deeming it safe, Wilkins finally reappeared and, as Damerick suspected, floated straight toward the stone. He loved to orbit around it, captivated by the iridescent glow it projected on the surroundings, the holes it drew in his shadowy figure. His heart beat faster for jewels and money, a flaw and a virtue in one. Wilkins always managed to identify the city’s nobility while they strolled down the streets, even when they tried to blend in with the common folk to head on to their shady businesses. A skill to be admired.
“Will you place your arm between the claws, sir?” Damerick asked with a smile.
His heart, on the other hand, throbbed in hopes of making the right move, smiling at the right time, anything that could cause Duke to fall in love with him. Or at least with his body. If sentiment wasn’t on the table, lust certainly spread its legs on it and waited for someone to pound it hard. The precise moment had never occurred to him. Damerick was unable to tell when that man had shifted from any other customer to the protagonist of his wet dreams. Either way, now all there was for him to do was picture himself ripping Duke’s pants off and burying in his mouth in that...
Duke goggled at him.
Sudden reactions like this assured Damerick that there was in fact something off with this man, that the other half of the sobriquet also held water and Duke was The Virgin Seer, or a seer, a clairvoyant, a witch… a plain weird person at least. Sometimes he gave the impression that he could read your thoughts. A far-fetched theory, given the scarce evidence and the rest of his family, that would never stand for a heretic in their midst. Yet, it felt entirely possible. Are you reading this, Duke? I know I sound like a pervert, but I like you. I really like you.
“Of course…” Duke smiled back, folding his right sleeve until the elbow—two layers—to reveal the exoskeleton underneath. One of kind, a hybrid of flesh and metal. He placed it in the claws, then Damerick secured the arm, donned his gloves and put on his magnifying glasses.
A snake bite, he was told. In order to drain the poison without killing Duke, the doctor chose to remove all bodily fluid from the area and replace it with a titanium-steel alloy to prevent complete loss of motor functions.
Although metallic prosthetics had become a part of everyday life since the destruction of the Old Varijn and, despite the stigma, could be found in people from every social caste, the beauty and craftsmanship with which Duke’s exo had been built mesmerized Damerick every time. It never oxidized nor showed any signs of rustiness or scrapping. To be honest, he couldn’t understand why Duke even bothered to go there at all, since he bore no interest in Damerick either.
“Ideally, I should examine the entire exo to check for rust,” said the fixer with what he hoped was the utmost professionalism. The coat still covered the upper arm and the shoulder; however, it was safe to assume the rest was as unscathed as the bits he could see.
“You’re doing your best to undress me…” Duke chuckled.
You have no idea.
“Fair enough, Mr. Rodin. You win.”
Below the coat, an ivory long-sleeved cotton shirt was pulled up until the shoulder. Duke removed the first and hanged it on his chair. He unbuttoned his leather waistcoat, all the while making Damerick inquiry how, oh how he wasn’t melting to death inside his parlor. His deft fingers didn’t go unnoticed, since the movement to undo the lace in his shirt wasn’t something simple even for a person who had used an exo for over a decade. That arm of his was younger, yet he motioned it as he would have his original, flesh and bone one.
But no stellar mechanical work in the universe would have robbed Damerick’s attention of that bare chest. Hidden from any sunlight, safe from lascivious eyes, except his own… Duke was slim, with hair on his pecks and down his navel. As expected, his exo was thinner than the other arm, and...
I wish I could touch you.
Damerick was fully aware of Wilkins inflating his chest to make fun of him under the table.
Either his powers warned him of imminent danger or Duke was simply shy, but one second in and he hunched his shoulders forward and clasped his hands, silent. Shots didn’t require all that, only a free path to his elbow. He must be already regretting his request.
“Please,” Damerick asked him to sit. “I’ll will be quick.”
The exo back in the claws, Duke lowered his eyes to the ground. Shrunk in his seat, he barely looked like a member of nobility, the most famous archeologist in all Varijn, but a scrawny teenager, scared of his doctor.
Damerick showed him a warm smile. “Don’t worry. I won’t touch you; I promise. Can you help me with the shot, like usual?”
And he kept his promise throughout the examination, feeling Duke’s gaze following him around. Even his mind was clear—think abandoned islands and a vast expanse of sea… You can do this, Damerick!—out of respect for Duke, just in case the rumors were true. Although the metal and the joints wouldn’t alter, the tension on the man’s shoulder eased ever so slightly, to Damerick’s content.
“How do you take such great care of it?” he asked as he released his client, genuinely curious.
“Of what? The exo?”
“Yes. It’s exquisite. A real work of art…”
Now that he had analyzed every inch of it up close, it seemed more astonishing than ever. No scratches, no dents, not even a single grain of dust. If Duke told him he always replaced the piece right before going to his shop, he would believe it. Maybe money was behind it. Wilkins had a point; it could provide all sorts of incredible things.
“You’re too kind…” Duke righted himself, caressing his arm. “I do what I can. After all, this is the one thing that keeps me from being a broken human. You have to be careful.”
Damerick furrowed his brow.
“You’re not a broken human, sir.”
“Then why do they call you a fixer? Human exos and prosthetics… That’s what you work with, isn’t it?”
“I don’t fix broken people, only their broken metallic parts.”
“Some would disagree,” said he, halfway through his shirt.
“You mean the nobility?” Damerick refrained from mentioning Grandmaster Barrow Vermeer by name, or he might offend Duke.
“Yes, although I’ve heard commoners refer to them as Devil’s tools as well. Maybe it had something to do with Giles and his machine.”
“Exos were the one good thing that came out of that man’s lab. They should be thankful for it. In the past, whenever a worker lost a limb or hurt himself in a factory, chances were he’d be thrown in the street and starve to death because no one would offer him another job. Now, you can blow up half of your face and go back to your routine within weeks, without facing any major issues. If that’s the Devil’s work, I hope he keeps sending us his blessings.”
He was so inflamed by his speech that it took him a couple of seconds to read in Duke’s utter lack of response that he had gone too far. As both a fixer and brother to a girl who needed prosthetics from a very young age, he was always prepared to defend his profession and the people who depended on it. A fine gesture, as long as he chose his words carefully. Virgin Seers were perfectly capable of reporting him to the authorities, and that one happened to belong to a family of Inquisitors.
Instead of flashes of him and Duke naked in bed, his mind was now filled with his own hunched figure shuffling on the scaffold, the purple smoke making him cough, as a crowd awaited his execution. He liked his intestines as they were. Inside his body.
“I’m not… I’m not a Devil worshiper. I…”
“I know what you mean,” Duke assured him, raising his left hand. “And it’s very kind of you. Just don’t go around saying exo’s are the Devil’s blessings,” he added with a grin. “Most people might not understand it.”
“You’re right, sir.”
Agony piercing through his skin, Damerick tidied his desk while his client finished dressing. He didn’t even mind the awkward silence that fell between them, glad to busy his hands and half his mind with something. Wilkins, by the wall, covered his face in sheer embarrassment. The fact that he had stopped ogling at his stone to watch them illustrated how big of a mess that was. If a romantic relationship with Duke had ever been a possibility, it wasn’t anymore.
Damerick was trying to cope with that when the very object of his sorrow cleared his throat.
“Do you like historical exhibitions?” Duke asked, smoothing the wrinkles on his sleeve. “About art or… well, historical findings, this kind of thing.”
“I don’t usually go to the city center, unless I really have to.”
Too many people around, too many eyes to notice Wilkins.
“There will be a new exhibit at the castle starting this week. We acquired some material on our last expedition to the Old Varijn and the king wants to display some of it to the public before he adds it to his private collection. Since you like Giles’ work, maybe you should come and see it. It’s very interesting.”
“Oh…” Damerick blinked, lost as to why he was… “You’re an archeologist, aren’t you?”
“Yes, I am.” He grinned. “The pride and joy of the family.”
“I might come. If I manage to close the store early.”
“Great! I’m sure you’ll like it.”
“Will you be there?” Damerick asked. “To present the exhibition?”
“I should go for a day or two, but not all of them. My office is nearby, so…”
“The Culture Department.”
And there they were, naked on Damerick’s bed again.
Duke grabbed his cane, to Wilkins distress, and glanced at the exit. “Is everything alright then? Should we go back to the counter?”
Damerick, who expected a little bit more, nodded. He led the way, separating them again with the foldable counter. Wilkins crawled to his feet in a split second, no doubt still staring at the emerald through the glasses between fixer and client.
“Thank you… for not touching me,” said Duke while rummaging his pouch for coins. “It was very thoughtful of you. Not many people understand…”
“It’s a matter of respect, that’s all.”
Although I would love to put my hands all over you… He had to fight a sigh.
“Still… Thank you. I hope to see you soon, Mr. Rodin. At the exhibit.”
“I’ll do my best.”
The money already on the counter, Duke smiled and tipped his hat, stepping out of the shop.
The bell had barely rung before Damerick threw himself beside the coins, his face hidden underneath his arms. He grunted, a muffled angry sound at first, then frustrated. Deeming it safe, Wilkins sat by his left, going through his body in an attempt to pat his shoulder.
“What the fuck was that about?” he finally raised his head, aware of his extra shadow. “Do you think he likes me?”
“He’s so weird… And so sweet. And so…” Damerick sighed. “I half want him to read my thoughts…” His laugh filled the room when Wilkins pointed at himself, utterly offended. “Not because of you, of course! Since I can’t touch him, that is the only other way to reach him.”
Jumping to the other side, Wilkins bent over, his limbs loose, and began mimicking a puppet and its erratic movements.
Damerick narrowed his eyes. “The Heavenly Delights? That’s hardly a way to reach him…”
The shadow suddenly donned a top hat, which he used to greet the fixer, and a cane, that helped him walk in place.
“Blond, gray eyes… You’re right. Beverly must have one.” He grabbed the coins. “Should we lock up then?” Wilkins assumed his strolling position by Damerick’s original shadow, satisfied to have lightened his mood. “We’ll resume our work on the machine once we get back. And sorry I yelled at you. Although I think I will end at the scaffold one of these days…” he continued as he turned off the lights.
Wilkins didn’t even have the decency to contradict him.
Merci pour la lecture!