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Felix has never seen Sylvain uninjured. Only slightly less or more injured. That’s the job.

He comes grinning and without complaints. Comes with gashes from face to collar. His little finger gone, or his mouth torn wide from the corner, like his smile wasn’t up to snuff.

Sylvain sweeps in today and says, “Pretty me up?” musical and expectant.

Like Felix has ever turned him away.

He waits until Sylvain is right in front of him, blocking his light, before setting the steel rotator cuff he’s tinkering with to the side.

“What’ve you done,” Felix asks, direct though not unkind. Basically small talk.

Sylvain sits, pulls his shirt off over his head, awkward with the use of just one hand.

“Nothing, honest,” Sylvain says. “A little give and take.”

“I should see the other guy.”

Obvious problem is a hunk missing from Sylvain’s side. A broken wrist. A couple of his fingers are bent to shapes they shouldn’t make, the tips of them pointed back at Sylvain. Felix starts a mental catalogue of fixes and materials.

“Other guys,” Sylvain says, s stretching to a hiss while Felix probes the edges of the wound.

“Soldiers these days, so demanding,” Sylvain sighs, deep and disingenuous. “I have so much to offer, and the one thing they ever want? I’m not allowed to give.”

He swoons like he’s forlorn but talks as though walking a stage. Like a comedian from the old days, a put-upon everyman.

Felix listens for the words of it and sets aside the rest. Waits for the act to let up.

Sometimes, while Felix is patching him up, he catches Sylvain just watching him. No smirk, no pretense.

Like now. He glances away from the missing piece of Sylvain’s side. Sylvain meets his eye and doesn’t slide on anything for cover. Sylvain’s focus is calm and considering.

Looking is a reciprocal action. When Sylvain lets Felix see, what might Felix do with what he learns?

Who will Felix decide is there?

“On the table,” Felix says into the space between them. A matter of inches.

Sylvain’s gaze, still and fixed. He salutes lazily with two fingers, one crooked. He does what he’s told.

His programming won’t allow for anything else.

 

+

 

Androids feel pain, as a matter of design. In the early days, theorists on ethics committees ate each other up arguing over it.

But they weren’t bankrolled by the billionaires behind the actual production, who listened when their scientists said pain was a good warning, and a more effective deterrent than any replacement they could manufacture.

It’s considered dangerous, that Sylvain lay on Felix’s operating table with his pain receptors switched to inactivity. It’s not how most would do repairs.

The only risk here, in Felix’s estimation, is that Sylvain won’t be able to let Felix know if he makes a mistake. Pain as a line of communication. Felix mitigates this by being very good at what he does.

He flips the switch without Sylvain asking. Sylvain is programmed not to ask.

A figure of speech—it isn’t much of a switch. A spot down the center of the spine: tiny little pinhole behind synthetic skin and flesh. Only a specialized tool accessible to those in Felix’s trade and adjacent fields disables it. You mess up, do it anything short of clean and exact, and the whole android locks down paralytic.

Beside the pain masterlock is a feature left off of widely-known schematics. Just as small and even tricker to reset is the mechanism that unbinds an android from their ongoing commands. Theoretically, it’s used for transfers of ownership. In reality, it’s a backdoor for tactical loss of control and plausible deniability.

There are situations when it was useful to have an android detached from orders. Like at war, as Sylvain’s territory always was.

It’s said to make them better killers. The natural state of rampage is apparently a better siege than could be programmed.

The problem baked into disabling command, the same as its benefit: it did away with inhibitions. A gun that could pull its own trigger. A machine, with only digital impressions of morality between it and the ability to sow death and disorder.

Sylvain, Felix gathered, was good enough at killing without extra measures. Felix doesn’t begrudge or envy it. He was good at it himself at one time.

All else aside, Margrave Gautier would never abide an untethered Sylvain. The man loves the look of his hand when wrapped around a leash.

It’s an open secret. When his first son slipped his bonds, the Margrave bought another and commissioned him to look like family. A do-over, without his eldest’s scarred face or the failures of his war record. The Margrave designed a version of him younger and loyal and lethal. Designed him perfect, and paid Felix to keep him that way.

 

+

 

Felix walks Sylvain up the stairs, insists it’s to see there’s proper fit and flex in Sylvain’s newly grafted skin, and Sylvain leans against the doorframe to tell him it’s fine.

“If a problem crops up, which would be a first,” Sylvain says, “it’ll be because of something I did, not you.”

“As if everyone would know the difference,” Felix scoffs. “Don’t go and fuck it up.”

Sylvain’s eyes glitter. Engineering or otherwise, it’s some kind of marvel.

“I’d lay down and die sooner than damage your professional reputation,” he says, solemn as a joke, and crosses his heart.

“I’m explicitly asking that you don’t. You’d be a big loss as a customer.”

“Aw, Fe, could you buy what we have? With money?

Repairs on Sylvain net Felix some of his highest single-session earnings. It’s not what sets him apart.

Felix lays a hand briefly on Sylvain’s shoulder, near to the join of his neck. He feels warm. His flesh gives like any human Felix has ever touched, which doesn’t amount to many.

“Just be careful,” Felix says grudgingly. “For your own sake.”

Maybe they both need to hear it.

 

+

 

A supposition: if Felix holds Sylvain apart in his mind, on the basis of some— feeling, then what is it exactly that Felix... likes, about him?

Wouldn’t it amount to the fact of what he’s programmed to be?

There’s a blur to Felix’s other patients. Unfailingly polite. Courteous, unassuming types mostly, though some act with a shade of Sylvain’s bearing. They joke, meet his eye, are cheerful in the face of his reticence.

In none of them does Felix find the same mix of careless and careful. They don’t have the weighted presence Sylvain does. Not one feels like they’re challenging Felix, twisting steps ahead and looking back to see if he’ll follow.

Or does Felix’s affection begin where Sylvain’s programming fails. No one would’ve purposely written into him this excess of needless quirks. His sharp and contrary way of being.

Easy to write off: a computer misfiring, too smart for its own good. The humanity leaking in through the flaws as humanity does, and is.

 

+

 

Months go by with only echoes of Sylvain. One of Felix’s clients quirking a smile just-so, anything nearing a blasé comment, hair the wrong shade of red.

Felix gets a call. The line isn’t secure so there’s no specifics but he knows the number. He’s not speaking with the Margrave, but with a handler.

Felix needs the rap of a knuckle on the doorframe to know he’s there. It’s never been the case before.

Sylvain’s smiling. He gives a little wave from where he’s seated in his wheelchair.

Both his legs are gone at the knee. Felix takes the stairs two at a time.

“You should really have a ramp,” Sylvain suggests. “Maybe a lift.”

Felix scans Sylvain hard like the story of what happened would be somewhere on him.

“You’re right,” he says distantly, can feel himself frowning. “Sylvain—”

“Aren’t you gonna help me in?” Sylvain says, blinking and coquettish.

Felix swallows. “Yeah. Sure.”

 

+

 

“One of you flesh-and-bloods stepped in to save me,” Sylvain says, while Felix unwraps the dressing on his thighs. “Can you believe it?”

Felix does. Easily. His mouth is dry.

Very little rattles him, even when it comes to people that can bleed out, and have, while he’d watched.

Maybe it’s the disconnect. Sylvain is here trying for their usual banter, when—

when a human would’ve had the mercy of passing out. To live awake through it must’ve hurt beyond anything Felix can imagine. Lose one and then it’s hard not to lose the other.

Felix struggles with the idea that Sylvain was in a position to allow it at all.

“This is going to take a long time,” Felix says, exhaling tightly. “Did they tell you that?”

“How long is long?”

“A week. Maybe more. I need to order parts,” Felix says. “Rebuilding from scratch, for fuck’s sake.”

Sylvain smiles. “They said you could leave me powered down somewhere out of the way.”

Felix stills over Sylvain’s knees. Shakes his head. “May as well put you to work,” he says, and doesn’t look up.

 

+

 

Felix fits him with temporary prosthetics, serviceable but unsophisticated. Won’t do for long-term wear. So though he has freedom of movement, Sylvain mostly looks bored.

But Felix watches him run his eyes over every piece laid out on the work table. He doesn’t ask questions. Felix doubts he has anything to learn.

That’s days. Nights don’t present a problem but a choice.

Felix lives in his workshop—not a euphemism: the whole of his living space is behind a door at the back that he never leaves open.

Sylvain stays on the couch. First person besides Felix to ever see the place.

He looks good there, under warm lamplight: jarring at first, then settling into the visual and mental landscape with frightening ease.

Seeing it makes Felix’s sense of chronology double back on itself, like there was something he’d left behind.

It seemed a long time gone that Felix bloodied himself under the orders of a man whose heart he’d trusted, far past the point where he could stand to look him in the face. Felix had grown marginally less stupid in the intervening years.

The sensations he’d thrown himself into all manner of combat to avoid were commonly called feelings. Dodge them long enough and they crop up in tricky places. They’ll freeze your hands when you need them to move. Make you insist you’re for yourself when everyone can see you’re for a madman. Allow the madman to run himself to ruin because you never learned how to shake him awake.

Maybe love would have done it.

 

+

 

Sylvain cooks him breakfast. Sylvain warms his shower. All morning and into the afternoon, Sylvain regales Felix over the crackle of the soldering iron.

“—this other one, busty, kinda mean-hot, she wasn’t trying to hide it at all. I think there’s a type of girl who feels more in control with one of us. Like she doesn’t compromise or lose anything, because it‘s not like it’s real anyway—“

Felix lays down straight, clean lines of molten metal.

“—from a small town, mostly service droids, nothing advanced like we have here. I think he was surprised that I was warm. Said if I hadn’t told him, he wouldn’t know the difference.”

Felix sets aside what’s shaping into the bones of Sylvain’s left foot. His eyes are gritty, a headache pushing at the backs of them. He reclines in his chair, his arm over his face.

“None of that,” he says, behind the dark of his sleeve, “ever happened, did it?”

He uncovers just one eye to squint at Sylvain’s mouth lifting to a smile.

“No,” Sylvain answers. “None of it.”

 

+

 

“You don’t need to do that.”

Sylvain is in Felix’s kitchen again, reaching for pots and pans he’d cleaned that morning, dried carefully and put away.

He smiles at Felix. Felix recognizes it. Sylvain’s brand of the appeasement all his other clients tried to offer.

“You can say you don’t like my cooking if you need to, Fe.”

Fe.  

Sylvain calculating distance, dressing it as closeness. Felix doesn’t even need him to say something that matters; he just wants to hear something true.

“Sit,” Felix says, quiet and firm.

Sylvain sets down a pan with a muted clank. Smile intact while he complies.

It should amount to something, Felix thinks, vague and irritated. He pulls together the makings of a sandwich.

Felix is making choices. He’s shared against his better judgement. There’s no one left to know him now. If there were, they’d say that what Felix means is in the things he does.

“You don’t need me here,” Sylvain says suddenly, undoing the quiet that was the rule before Sylvain came into his apartment, his life, to make it the exception.

Felix sets his plate down gracelessly. Sinks into his seat to face Sylvain.

Sylvain’s face is sober. Examining. Maybe he looked like that the whole time Felix had his back turned. He seems finally like someone Felix has met, someone who’s refused to introduce themself.

“I don’t,” Felix confirms.

Sylvain nods slowly, like it fits into a preexisting theory. He curls a fist on his leg, in a motion he must expect Felix not to see.

“Think about what it means,” Felix says, voice brittle with feeling, “that you’re here anyway.”

Sylvain looks at him, eyes a bit wide. “Fe—”

Felix cuts in. “How did it happen.”

“What?”

“Your legs,” Felix hisses. “Everyone knows you hold the border alone most of the time. You aren’t sloppy and you aren’t stupid.”

“Felix,” he says, grim laughter in his voice. “Of course I’m not stupid. I have a multi-billion dollar brain.”

Don’t—”

“—how is it that you wire together my insides, replace my skin, and you still don’t like being reminded of what I am?”

“I fucking know what you are,” Felix spits. “It’s not service or entertainment. It’s more than whatever the fuck you’re playing at.”

Sylvain stiffens, then smiles slowly. Different from any Felix has seen. A little sick under the single bulb that hangs above them.

Then it resolves into something else, an arc ending quiet and pained.

Sylvain lays both his hands on the table, palms up.

“You’re on the mechanical side of things mostly, right Felix? You ever study the code of it?”

“A bit. Not much,” Felix says tightly. Machinery, electrical engineering—it made more straightforward sense.

“Do you know how the most detailed AIs are made?”

Felix shakes his head, cautious, watchful.

“They’re not,” Sylvain says quietly. “They’re born, and usually, they die. Then they’re made.”

“You—” Felix’s eyes fly across Sylvain’s face, looking for the lie.

“Sylvain Gautier died age nineteen, waterlogged and bleeding into his skull. Dragged up from the bottom of a well. Never made the news; I wonder why.”

Sylvain’s face, simple and grave.

“I didn’t—” The implications of every loss, every body walking around, with hearts and without. How the distinctions begin to blur around him. “I never knew of you,” Felix breathes.

“But you do,” Sylvain says. Turns his hands flat. “What’s left, you do.”

 

+

 

Felix sits in the scraping quiet of his bed for hours before he wanders to the living room. Sylvain is on the couch, reading.

He follows, when Felix takes him by the hand; he lays down between Felix and the wall; he looks at Felix with his head pillowed on his bicep.

“You let them cut your legs off,” Felix says flatly. “To get here. To get time to convince me.”

“Yes and no,” Sylvain says. Voice soft and unrefined. “I just wanted the time. Away from them. Close to you.”

Felix closes his eyes. Sylvain walked around pretending he wasn’t what he was—two people, one in a coffin someplace and also the man they made of him, to ensure he’d still be of use.

Felix walked around pretending like he didn’t have anything to pretend at. Like he hadn’t failed the consuming and singular purpose he’d once assigned himself, then never again laid hands on something that might matter.

“When your legs are done,” Felix grits out, “you’ll be able to go anywhere you want. I’ll make sure of it.”

 

+

 

Sylvain, on his table for maybe the last time. He smiles just once at Felix, a closed-mouth see you after, before he settles onto his stomach.

Felix doesn’t think about what’s right, or legal, or smart. He does what he’s decided to do. His hand is steady on the tool that will put Sylvain back under his own power.

It’s almost nothing: no noise, hardly any pressure. A silent key in a silent lock.

When he seals the paneling back up, Felix rests a hand on Sylvain’s skin for no purpose he would readily name. Unlike him, to linger.

“Okay.”

Sylvain rolls over. Felix watches his face, wary, professionally curious, and with the larger, more abstract feeling that he’s staring at the hinge the next part of his life is set to swing upon.

Sylvain almost looks confused. Brows furrowed, nearly worried, like he’s taking stock of something complicated and internal. It must be what Sylvain had referred to as what’s left: organic code, too complex to be programmed, inherited from his own ghost.

Sylvain sits up, slowly, and reaches out a hand to Felix’s face. He could snap Felix’s neck, easy. Felix tips so slightly into the hold.

“How does it feel?”

“Weird,” Sylvain says, drawing Felix down. Felix goes with the motion. Whispers, because Felix is so close now, “Good, I think.”

He kisses Felix. Not the simulacrum of a kiss but a kiss, slow and searching.

“It’s going to be dangerous for you,” Felix says against his mouth. “Whether you stay or you run. Wherever you go.”

“Dangerous for you, too.” Sylvain lays his head against Felix’s shoulder, looks up at his face. “But if we’re multiplying negatives, maybe we have a chance?”

“Together, you mean.”

“Yes,” he says, level. “Together.”

Felix lets himself card a hand through Sylvain’s hair.

“I can’t tell who the liability would be,” Felix says eventually.

Sylvain threads their fingers: slow, deliberate, a reclamation of time. Every second from here on is borrowed.

“Both,” Sylvain laughs. “Neither. But someone has to keep my parts in place.” His voice dips quiet, like his next words are for himself. New orders. “And for you I’ll do the same.”