From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

The Armature of Flight

“So, what will you do once you have the world in your hands?”

“Stop it.”

“I’m just asking.”

“You just want me to say what I’d rather have in my hands.”

“That hadn’t occurred to me. Though now that you mention it—”

***

Leo sat alone, nursing a decent whiskey and staring idly into the mirrored backsplash of the bar. In the smoky glass, reflections merged and mingled. Couples and small groups, men and a few women, dressed in shapeless sweaters and dungarees. Younger than him, mostly, and paying him no mind. He wasn’t one of them, not in the ways that mattered most. But they had enough in common, and they kept the police from their door.

Even here he could have had his choice of company, as long as he wasn’t fussy about a grafted tail, or an arcane tattoo, or some other exotic modification in an unexpected place. But he wasn’t in the mood for company just then. So when the man came through the door—tall and incongruous in his double-breasted suit, looking, in the smoke and the dark, like nothing so much as Leo’s more exotic shadow—Leo turned his attention back to his whiskey, and tried not to notice the other man’s approach.

“You don’t look like you belong here.” The newcomer claimed the next stool over and motioned for a drink. Polished white cotton peeked out from under the jacket, a single thread snagged at the wrist. Cufflinks dusted with diamonds, heavy ring to match. The attempt at a patrician accent would fool most people, he supposed.

“Neither do you,” Leo said, then looked to make certain. Bare-headed, black hair groomed into curls and hastily reordered, eyes over-bright. Overdressed, yes, but no outsider.

“We could always be out of place together,” the man purred. “If you like.”

“We could, if I were looking for company.”

“That’s all right. I’m not, either. I just thought—” and he smiled, as polished as his fingernails and as bright as his eyes—”you might have time and inclination for a drink or two.”

For how high a price? But Leo waved the bartender over anyway.

The other man stopped him, hand light on his forearm. “It’s all right. I’ll take care of it.” The hand lifted as quickly as it had descended. The eyes averted, the smile faded. “I’m off duty.”

***

His name was William Langley, and if Leo had had any sense, he would have lied about his own.

“Deventer?”

“Yes.”

“The shipping Deventers?”

“Among other things.”

William went quiet. Already Leo understood that this was not his usual state. “Count Deventer?”

“That’s my grandfather. You wouldn’t mistake us, believe me.”

William didn’t laugh, didn’t even smile. In the filtered streetlight coming from the half-open window, he looked like he might jump up and run away. “I didn’t know,” he whispered.

“You wouldn’t have looked at me twice if you didn’t think I had money.”

“Not like that. I just liked the look of you, all right? And now you’ll never believe me.”

“I’m sure I can be convinced.” He’d meant it as a joke, damn it, a come-on, something to lighten the mood; and he should have seen that William took it seriously, should have seen it even then.

***

They knew it would end. Sooner or later Leo’s grandfather would find him a wife, summon him back to fulfill his obligations and carry on the family line. But not just then, not just yet.

They shared an apartment where William knew the landlord, where nobody asked questions. Leo learned to ignore the strange bumps and creases of his neighbors’ clothes. He was safe among the modified; their crimes, their sins, were so much greater than his own. And in that safety he could forget, as long as possible, what lay ahead.

William insisted he could find them somewhere nicer. But Leo couldn’t afford what William wanted, not on a junior manager’s salary. His inheritance was still in the future, predicated on the very things that would tear him away. A wife, an heir.

William, on the other hand, could afford far more than Leo could offer. There seemed to be a limitless market for a handsome unmarked man pretending to be a rich boy gone wrong. And as the weeks and months passed without word, he became more and more like what he pretended to be. Sometimes Leo caught, out of the corner of his eye, William practicing a gesture, a motion of the head, like an errant shadow trying to rejoin its source.

It was comforting, sometimes, to think of William continuing on after, living Leo’s hidden life after Leo himself had stepped into his family legacy. But mostly he didn’t let himself think about such matters at all.

***

“There’s a cable,” William said. “From your grandfather.”

Leo knew before he opened it. A suitable marriage partner had been found. The date, time, circumstances of the meeting had been arranged. He had only to travel back to Devenport, meet the young woman, and agree to the selection.

“You’re going, ” William said. But he didn’t look at Leo as he said it.

“It’s not—it’s only a meeting.”

“But you’ll say yes.”

“Unless she makes me want to flee the room, I think I’m obligated to.”

“I’d like to be there to see that.” Leo could hear the smile in William’s voice by then, could hear that the smile was false.

“My grandfather wouldn’t appreciate it.”

“It was a joke, Leo.”

“I know.”

“We could—no. We’ve discussed this. Never mind.”

And they had, in the dark, where difficult things are said. How Leo’s parents had hated one another, taken lovers shamelessly and without discretion, until Grandfather in disgust had given permission for the divorce. How absolutely everyone had known, how the children taunted, and the parents pitied. How he refused to be that selfish, that cruel to his obligatory children, no matter how tempting.

They’d known they’d have to tear the whole thing down sooner or later. Too late to change the rules now.

***

William wasn’t home when Leo returned, not for three days after. All of his things were still where they belonged, though; he’d have to come back if only for an hour or two. In his absence, Leo imagined trying to make him stay. Telling Grandfather to go to hell, running off west together where the sun was always shining and people paid no attention to sin. But without his name and his inheritance, he’d be just another salary man. He’d never keep up with William’s bright jewels and brighter smile.

When William did return, hanging his overcoat in the closet, Leo knew at once there was something wrong. A catch in his motion, a stiffness in his stance. “You’re back,” Leo said, to break the silence.

“I had some business to take care of. Since you won’t be around much longer. Have to start thinking of myself, you know?”

“What have you done?” But William was already taking off his shirt to show him.

There were things in his back that hadn’t been there before. Metal sockets over the shoulderblades. He’d never thought William wanted that sort of thing for himself. Though there was good money in modifying your body to fit somebody else’s fetish—but it couldn’t be more than he was already pulling in.

“I’ve got a bit of a problem, Leo.” His voice was casual, his back turned, using the implants as an excuse to not look, not be seen. “Ran up a few debts, here and there. Nobody’d call me on them while I was with you. So, I was stupid. Don’t worry. I’m taking care of it now.”

“Taking care of—?” But it was coming together, even as he said it. Those limitless funds weren’t. Trying to prove he could keep up with Leo—and Leo hadn’t asked him to, damn it, hadn’t expected him to, and it didn’t matter anyway. Ah, but it had never been about Leo in the first place. All about William, and the fucking name.

“Do I have to spell it out for you? It’s good money. I have the right to take care of myself.”

Since you won’t. He put his hand on William’s bare shoulder. William turned like he was on hinges. “This isn’t about taking care of yourself. You’re mutilating yourself for a profit—”

“Not everybody thinks it’s mutilation.”

“How much are they paying you?”

“I don’t think,” William said, “that’s your business any more.”

It was the cold that got to him, and the dismissal, and the quiet. “Was anything ever my business with you? What else did you not bother to share with me?” Even as he spoke the words he knew they were untrue. Yet his tongue would not, could not call them back.

William grabbed his overcoat back off the hanger. “You always were a rat bastard, Leo.”

***

And didn’t come back until late that night, smelling of smoke and other men’s whiskey. Leo was still awake, had resigned himself to being awake till dawn or longer. Not waiting. He had no right to wait. Just being alone, and cursing his idiocy.

“I didn’t mean it,” he said.

William let the overcoat drop to the floor. “I know.”

***

The steel was as cold as ice in a glass, as warm as skin. Ritual etchings seemed to glow in the burgeoning light. “What are they for?” Leo dared to whisper at last, expecting no answer.

“Wings.” William shifted, winced audibly as muscle pulled against metal. “It’s experimental, that’s why—you can’t imagine, Leo, the money they’re throwing at me.” Illegal, too, but that went without saying. “When I go back they’ll screw in the skeleton, and when I can handle that, they’ll add the flesh. Swan feathers, can you imagine it? I’ll be an angel, Leo, a fucking angel. A rich fucking angel. How could I say no to that?”

“I wish I could be there to see it,” he said. Lied. He didn’t want his lover with hack-job wings on his back.

Wanted to remember him just like this, forever.

“No way. They’d never have it. Like your grandfather that way.”

“It was a joke.”

“I know. Always is, isn’t it? But it’s all right. They don’t expect me back ’til morning.”

***

And as dawn light shone through the bedroom window Leo pulled William close to him, whispered into the nape of his neck:

I don’t want to leave you. I want you to stay. Don’t fly away, love. Don’t fly away.

He lay perfectly still, so that Leo thought for certain he was still asleep. Only now he said this, of course, now that William had been marked, labeled. Now that what he asked for was impossible. Convenient, that.

William reached up, took Leo’s hand in his, squeezed, hard. “Someday you’ll let yourself have what you want,” he said, no sleep in his voice at all.

***

When Leo woke up, William was gone. When he came home from work the next day, William’s belongings were gone too. All but a few shirts, a favorite jacket, things for Leo to remember him by. And an envelope stuffed into the jacket’s lapel pocket, waiting to be noticed and removed. A phrase scrawled across the front: the world in your hands.

Leo poured the envelope’s contents into his palm. A glittering bead the size of a gumball, hanging from a watch chain. Now he saw how the debt had run up in the first place, a dozen or a hundred extravagant gestures just like this, and Leo too blind to see it happening.

He threw the jewel with force. It arced low, bounced among the cushions of the couch. He scooped it up, examined it more closely. A world made small, a globe to fit in the palm of the hand. Topaz earth and sapphire sea, diamond chips sparkling at points of permanent snow. White gold, or maybe platinum, marked the border of nations.

His arm reared back for a second throw, then went limp. He couldn’t bring himself to break the thing.

***

Over the next few days, Leo noticed other items missing from the apartment. Nothing of particular value: a saucer, an unmatched teaspoon, a shirt with a loose button. It took him weeks to admit why William had taken them.

***

One of the neighbors gave him a list of places to look, and he spent his nights canvassing the city, driving from address to address, looking for shadows, looking for wings. And in a row house in an unfashionable neighborhood he finally found them, dark fingers clawing at the amber light.

Leo pulled over, grabbed the keys out of the ignition, jumped into the empty road. The figure in the window turned. The armature of wings spread from his back like opening hands.

He never could remember what he shouted then, only reconstruct after the fact: words like don’t be an idiot and don’t butcher yourself and I’ll take care of anything you want, I’ll give you everything.

The figure stepped forward. Leo couldn’t see his features, no matter how hard he tried. Hands spread against the window, wide as wings.

He spun then. Metal scratched against glass. The window went dark. A moment later, the light on the doorstep came on, and three men stepped out, heavy men with heavy fists.

The men were waiting by the front door the next night, and the night after that. The second-story light stayed off. After a while, nobody came. The house went dark, quiet, cold. Newspapers gathered on the porch.

By then it was time for Leo to go home.

***

He had a story that he told himself, late at night, after his wife went to bed and he was left alone and silent in the house where he had once been a child. William had worked for a while, paid off his debts, put away enough to stay comfortable. Then he’d moved out west, following the sun, like he said he’d always wanted. Lost the wings, of course; couldn’t have much of a life, otherwise. Besides, Leo preferred remembering him without them.

Sometimes he reached in his pocket for the jewel, but it wasn’t there. William’s gift stayed in a box on top of the dresser, in among the cufflinks and the subway tokens, remnants of another, less portable world. If his wife had ever looked in the box, found the sparkling sphere, she never spoke of it.

He would have lied, anyway. That world was gone, a shadow cast away. He’d never see William again.

Sharon_MockSharon’s short stories have appeared in Clarkesworld Magazine and Realms of Fantasy. She lives in Southern California with her husband and an assortment of reptiles. Online, she can be found at kirizal.livejournal.com.

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