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As I Lie Here All Aflame

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It was a dark and stormy night, and though the clouds rolled and the rain came down in sheets hard and fast against the windows, the air was too chilled to lend itself to lightning. The fire had been kindled hours ago, and now flared fat and bright with a single-minded intent to reduce the logs upon which it sat to charred embers.

Victor had pulled two armchairs, lush beyond anything Igor had ever felt despite Victor’s insistence that they were old and moldering, to sit before it, for once pausing in their endless anatomical experimentation to partake of a nightcap.

“We deserve it,” Victor had said, pouring a brandy. “Between the two of us, we can accomplish things the world has never known, and tonight we’re drinking to it.”

Igor had taken the toast but begged off a second drink and Victor had eventually relented, grumbling; now they both sat, Victor with his snifter in one hand and a book of science spread forgotten over his lap, and Igor opposite him with his mug of tea balanced on the broad arm of the wingback.

The shadows of the room stretched and flickered as Igor shifted in his seat, quietly struggling to flex his shoulders back without drawing Victor’s attention or upsetting his tea. A month ago he wouldn’t have thought it possible, but now he could feel the bones of his back – scapula, vertebrae, ribs – under mere skin and muscle, and not the burden he had believed he had been born with and would carry forever.

A cyst! All those years, and to think it could have been relieved at any time by a madman with a syringe and a rubber tube.

What Victor had neglected to tell him – but then, Victor had neglected to tell him anything at all until the operation was already well underway. Igor curled his fingers around his mug. He didn’t hold that against his host, really. The pain and fear – the feeling of being trapped with someone at your back, and no way to throw them off – had been a worthwhile price to pay, and he had only had to endure it but a few minutes. It was an animal fear, he told himself, more so than any true mistrust of the man. He could forgive Victor his eccentric medical practices in exchange for being able to stand upright for the first time.

But what Victor had neglected to tell him was that, while the procedure had hurt, the pain was going to continue. Oh, he had warned that Igor’s body would want to sink back to its familiar hunched and loping form; hence this infernal brace that dug into his shoulders and bit into his hips, a blessing and a curse of a thing – mostly a blessing – but every step hurt him to his core. At the end of the day it was all he could do to retreat to the bathroom, shed his armour, and let the steam curl around him until he could crawl to his bed and collapse, pathetic and exhausted, into the soft mattress and let it cradle him into sleep.

He should have known. Had he stopped to think, it was to be expected, really. A body cannot unlearn a lifetime of muscle memory in a single day, nor, indeed, a single week. His muscles were being used as they had never been before; he needed to give himself time to readjust, to relearn, and he was determined not to fall back on bad habits.

But it hurt.

Victor’s gaze flicked over.

“Sorry,” Igor grimaced, letting his shoulders drop again, and took a sip of tea instead.

“I could fix your back, you know,” Victor said conversationally. The fire licked at the grate, begging for another log.

“I rather thought you already had,” Igor replied drily.

“I did quite a bit,” Victor agreed, without an ounce of humility, “But clearly, more yet remains. I imagine it hurts rather considerably, does it not?”

“It does,” Igor admitted. He twined his fingers through the handle of his mug as he raised his eyes to meet Victors’. “It was a drastic adjustment, but I’m sure –”

“Physiotherapy,” Victor interrupted.

“I’m sorry?”

“That’s what any doctor would recommend – any doctor who was worth listening to. A set of exercises to be repeated daily until your body has adapted to its new shape and walking upright has become second nature to you. Strengthen the muscles; gain some flexibility through the spine.”

“I’ve been doing stretches every night; it’s just…”

“It hurts,” Victor finished, and Igor thought there was something almost like sympathy colouring his voice. “That’s why I was going to offer an alternative suggestion.”

Igor brushed his hair back and nodded, curious. There were only so many things one could do to help him, after all, and the most obvious were already well underway.

Victor set his drink down and held up both hands instead, fingers splayed in a parody of a wave. Their shadows skittered like spiders across the floor. “Massage,” he announced grandly.

Igor blinked. “You mean to suggest… yourself.”

Victor leaned forward, his eyes glinting dark and eager. “Indeed. You are by now familiar with my work – you know the extent of my knowledge of the human form. You can imagine how it might be applied to helping your cause.”

A pillar; a needle’s stab; the shock of rough callouses on his skin and the bite of leather and steel around his ribs. Igor swallowed, his mouth suddenly dry. He was familiar. But this – this was an offer.

“I couldn’t possibly – ” Igor began, but Victor cut him off with a wave and a scoff.

“Nonsense. I promised you a whole new life outside of that place, and that is exactly what I intend to give you.”

“You’ve done so much already; I can’t begin to repay you.”

Victor leaned in close like he was about to share the most private of secrets; only, Victor never really shared anything, a voice in Igor’s head suggested in a murmur. He gave, and he pushed, whether you wanted it or not.

Igor cut the thought off at its root before it could grow any further. It sounded too much like treason, and Victor –

Victor –

“There is no debt too great to repay,” Victor said in a low voice, his face half obscured by the light of the fire. “Sometimes it just takes a little imagination to see how to do it.”

Igor’s fingers clenched around his mug of their own accord. The circus always had ideas about repaying debts; for all it liked to call itself a family, you had to earn your keep. It was a writhing, squirming, incestuous mess of a family that loaned its daughters and its boys out to strangers with eyes that burned bright with the fire of unspeakable things.

Not Igor – he had never been one of them, the dirty, crawling thing that he was.

That he had been.

No one wanted to touch him. Indeed, the only touch he ever felt was the brusque blows from his fellow performers – the toe of a boot or the back of a hand – except Lorelei. She would rest her hand on his shoulder sometimes, leaning over him to look at his drawings, and though he knew her hands were tough from her hours of training, her touch was feather light, and such that he should barely be able to feel it through his shirt and jacket. And yet it lingered like electricity, warming him to the bone, and if he dared – if he dared to imagine the touch of skin – even to shake the hand of a living, breathing, human, to feel their pulse against his –

Madness. A fantasy. The nearest he got to a human body were the cold and analytical studies of his books, flesh laid bare in ink and paper.

But Victor touched. He touched and it was like fire, excruciating and sudden, the shock of it more painful than any kick to the ribs had ever been. Victor touched, and he gave – and he took – and he never asked, and though this was phrased as an offer, Igor knew better than to assume he could refuse.

“If you think it would help,” he hedged.

“You know it will,” Victor said. “I’ve seen you in action, remember – you’re smarter than this. You’re brilliant; you wouldn’t be here if you weren’t.”

Igor felt his face warm and he hastily lowered his gaze to stare into the depths of his tea.

“So yes, of course it would help,” Victor continued, “But I can’t force you to do it.”

Igor made a soft noise in the back of throat, but said nothing as Victor went on.

“And it’s of no consequence to me whether you want to make a full recovery or not; I can still make use of you as an assistant whether you walk bent double with a limp or not, but if you can learn to brush your hair and eat with a fork and knife, I see no reason why you shouldn’t learn to accept a helping hand in this matter too. As it were.” His voice softened and affected a lilt; he leaned in, his elbows on his knees, and Igor mirrored him without a conscious thought.

“I promise I’ll be gentler on you this time,” Victor said, and Igor felt a shiver run through him from his toes to the back of his neck that was entirely at odds with the smothering warmth of the room.

“I suppose I’d be a fool to refuse,” Igor said, and Victor smiled like a wolf, all teeth and sharp delight.

“I knew you’d see sense,” he said, and stood, downing the last of his brandy in one quick swallow followed by a grimace as it burned its way down his throat. Igor watched his adam’s apple bob, distracted, before noticing Victor’s hand outstretched and waiting before him.

“Oh, you mean right now?

“Why wait?” Victor was still smiling that predatory smile, the same one he had worn immediately preceding his charging Igor that first night, but there was something in the way he held himself that seemed as if he would make his excuses and withdraw unless Igor took his hand.

Did Igor want him to withdraw? He wasn’t sure. He was out of his depth in this, floundering in Victor’s wake, and that alone made him hesitate. He knew his desire to see Victor pleased could easily override his own, more personal needs. He had left behind his whole world for the man – had seen a man die, and taken another’s identity, and to think that six months ago – less, but Igor was trying not to think of how many things of such import had happened in so little time – he had thought he would live and die on his knees in the dirt as an object of ridicule to strangers, night after night –

He owed Victor everything. Was that not reason enough to let the man have his way? And besides, did Victor not speak the truth in this? It would only help Igor’s perpetually aching muscles, would it not?

“Why wait,” he echoed, and allowed Victor to pull him to his feet. Victor’s grip was firm, his palm warm and strong against Igor’s, and Igor shivered again as the touch jolted up his arm to tingle, dangerous and intoxicating, around his heart.

Well, and there was that, Igor thought, breathless even in his own mind. The thought of a touch, of more than a hand on his shoulder or the brush of palm to palm – that might go a long way in making him the model human being into which Victor was so eager to shape him.

He took a step towards the sofa that lay beyond the fire’s glow, but Victor tugged him further on, towards the shadow of the stairs.

“Are we not…?” Igor began, though he made no move to resist Victor’s direction. Victor kept his hand captive as he led on, and they mounted the stairs as one.

“The sofa?” Victor asked. “It hardly offers enough room, and I intend to do this properly. You’re my assistant – my prodigy, Igor – and I want you taken care of to the best of my abilities. Which means we require a little more space.”

The two of them combined barely took up the space of an average sized man, Igor thought, but said nothing. His palm was sweating in Victor’s and his heart only beat faster as he hoped Victor wouldn’t notice, but Victor swept down the hall to the room nearest the end without letting go.

The door swung open heavily and Victor lit the bedside lamp. The fire’s warmth didn’t reach so far upstairs and though it wasn’t uncomfortably cold, Igor’s skin prickled, lamenting the loss of their hearthside comforts. The rain lashed against the windowpanes, and the rattle of wind against the rooftops could be heard as it couldn’t downstairs.

Victor finally dropped Igor’s hand as he turned expectantly to face him.

In the circus, there was no such thing as having your own private space. It had taken Igor a full week of long, sleepless nights to grow accustomed to the silence of his room, but adapt he eventually did. In the circus, he had thought nothing of the others’ proximity, regardless of it being day or night. He had little sense of privacy; it had meant nothing to him. Now, he was acutely aware of the space Victor took up, standing in the bedroom that had been designated Igor’s.

“Right,” Igor said, when it became apparent that for once Victor was not inclined to speak first. “How shall we do this, then?”

“Yes,” said Victor, still standing as though he weren’t quite sure what to do with himself. “If you would remove your shirt and lay down on the bed, we can proceed from there.”

As Igor unbuttoned his shirt and shrugged out of the brace, he was struck with the sudden thought that Victor was in fact more uncomfortable about these proceedings than Igor was. It was an alien notion, that Victor could be anything less than a hurricane of confidence and bull-headedness, and yet –

Igor let the brace drop and looked over to see Victor frowning, his hand pointing as he approached.

“Why didn’t you tell me it was bruising you so badly?” he demanded, stopping short of laying hands on Igor where the bruises stood stark against the white of his skin around his shoulders and his waist.

Igor shrugged. “It seemed inconsequential.”

“That thing is supposed to help you,” Victor growled, clearly frustrated by Igor’s apparent lack of self-care. “It defeats the purpose if it’s just causing you further pain.”

“I did sketch a few improvements,” Igor admitted, “Only, I haven’t had time to put them into practice, what with all the…” He waved his hand vaguely to avoid having to specify.

“I’ll design you a new one,” Victor declared, “And don’t say it’s unnecessary, because it’s not; you’re important to me, and I won’t have you going around in that sort of discomfort any more than I’d have you going out in that facepaint you used to wear. Why are you still standing there? Get on the bed already! Good god, man, I swear – ”

Igor made it to the bed with only the slightest of limps and lowered himself face first into his pillow, where he was grateful to hide from the scrutiny of Victor’s gaze, which had been categorizing his every movement from across the room.

“I don’t suppose,” said Victor, coming up to the side of the bed, “You have much experience in this.”

Igor eased back from the pillow enough to see most of Victor’s form and said, “No, but I understand the theory behind it.”

“Then you know it will likely hurt before you begin to feel its benefits.”

“Unless you’re planning on stabbing me with another giant needle, I think I should be fine.”

“Acupuncture!” Victor said brightly, his mood swinging up out of the somber tone it had held the past few minutes. “I had always wanted to try needle therapy, you know – but perhaps not at the moment,” he amended. “I can wait until I find a more willing victim.”

“Unless you want to try it on your dead animals in the basement, I rather doubt you’ll find a more willing victim than I,” Igor noted through his pillow.

“I – well – I think you may be right,” Victor said, and coughed a little, as if he had something caught in his throat.

He sat down carefully on the edge of the bed by Igor’s head, gingerly, and putting as little of his weight on the mattress as he could. Igor shifted back obligingly, though without raising his head too far from its resting place. He couldn’t say precisely why it was so important to avoid looking Victor directly in the eye at the moment, only that there was some undercurrent moving through the room and through the both of them with a power that made his stomach clench and the back of his neck tingle, and he didn’t want to look up and see that same charge reflected back at him in Victor’s gaze. It was too much, all at once, and he wouldn’t be able to make any sense of it at all if he had to look at Victor at the same time.

“Let’s just get to it then, shall we?” Victor murmured, and Igor buried his face as he felt the bed dip under Victor’s knees.

Victor’s weight settled by his side, a warm and solid mass pressed up against his right flank, and Victor rubbed his hands together before placing them both firmly down over the flats of Igor’s shoulder blades. The loose skin that lay flaccid over his upper back gave way slightly, but if Victor found it off-putting, he made no mention of it.

The touch, while expected, still made Igor flinch.

“You’re in knots from your neck to your tailbone, aren’t you?” Victor asked, mostly to himself. He ran his palm in a broad stroke across Igor’s neck, and Igor cringed away from it. Victor heaved a gusty sigh that rivaled the howl of the wind outside.

“Sorry,” Igor said sheepishly. “Just go ahead with it; it’s fine.”

“It’s no good if you’re going to be stiff as a board the entire time. Surely you don’t find my touch that abhorrent.”

“Not at all,” Igor assured him, “Only I don’t think I can help it, so you might as well just – ahhh.”

Victor cut him off by digging the heels of his hands into Igor’s shoulders in a deep rolling motion that pressed Igor’s face further into the pillow and elicited what Igor could only embarrassingly describe as a moan.

“Ah, there we are.” Victor sounded pleased with himself.

There indeed, only there was quickly becoming Igor’s entire body. Victor’s hands roved up and down his back, lightly at first as he felt out the problem areas. The problem areas, Igor thought from a distance, were most of him. He didn’t articulate the thought, trusting Victor to find out on his own, and not trusting his own voice to form words instead of shapeless sounds.

Victor’s wandering exploration ended and he turned his attention back to Igor’s shoulders and neck, gently rubbing small circles into his skin until Igor finally felt himself loosen. He sighed, his breath warm and damp against the pillow, and he let his hands, previously curled into the bedsheets, go limp.

Victor noticed, of course, but made no comment. Igor counted his breaths to ground himself as Victor began his second sweep, deeper this time; he worked his fingers into the juncture of neck and shoulder, and Igor shut his eyes. Splenius capitis; trapezius; splenius cervicis; he broke off with a silent gasp as Victor shifted his position.

“Sorry,” Victor said, not sounding sorry at all, “But this is getting more… involved… and I need a better angle.”

“Right,” Igor choked out, as Victor swung a leg over and settled himself heavily atop Igor’s thighs.

“You understand,” Victor said, leaning over him again to resume his laying on of hands.

Igor understood little at this point, but through the haze of endorphins and body heat he imagined that this must be how animals feel. His mind was awash in sensation and little else. There was no room left for analysis or contemplation; his world was reduced to Victor’s hands on his skin and the echo they left in their wake; the weight of him, supple yet immovable; the heat that burned from the two points of his hands and his thighs, and the heat that radiated from his whole body, bent low over Igor’s back, close but not touching.

“You must let me know tomorrow how you feel,” Victor murmured, “I can make adjustments for future rounds, only, this is the first time I’ve done this in practice. I’m not hurting you, am I?” He pressed his thumbs into either side of Igor’s serratus posterior inferior and Igor’s only reply was a drawn out “Uhhhnnnnnf.”

“Oh good,” Victor said, and Igor could almost feel his smug smile.

Igor huffed out a laugh. “Do I need to tell you you’re doing a good job?”

“I do like to hear it, but I appreciate that words are a little difficult for you right now.” He leaned closer, putting more weight on his hands and bringing his front nearer to Igor’s back as he continued his work. “There are women in the city who do this professionally, you know,” he said casually. “It’s a viable business for them. I would have suggested you go there, only I rather doubt their medical credentials could compare to mine. Or yours, for that matter.”

Igor found his breath and struggled to engage in the conversation Victor apparently felt the need to hold. “A masseuse?”

“Yes! It has a better ring to it than prostitute, does it not? In any case, I felt you might not appreciate being offered up to their tender mercies when I could offer an alternative in the comfort of your own home.”

“Are you… comparing yourself to a sex worker?” Igor asked, a bit at a loss and already regretting having opened his mouth.

“Not at all! I don’t suppose you had any girls like that in your troupe, did you?”

It was never said out loud, except after hours in the dark. Outside, the wind rattled the latch of the window, seeking a way in. “It’s not really something you can advertise.”

“Of course not,” Victor agreed, his hands at the small of Igor’s back. “No, some things simply aren’t talked about.”

Igor hummed and closed his eyes as Victor’s touch gentled again, the worst of his knots relaxed, and he lost himself in the easy rhythm of it all. Victor made one last leisurely pass up the trail of his vertebrae to his shoulders and back down again to settle at his waist, and Igor felt weightless and formless in his contentment. He breathed deeply, already half asleep, and wondered if it would be bad etiquette to drift off before Victor had even left the room.

“That’s your back done,” Victor said quietly. “Do you want me to keep going?”

“What, and do it all over again straight away?” Igor asked.

“No,” said Victor, his palms at the base of Igor’s hips, and his thighs still bracketing Igor’s. “Do you want me to keep going.”

Igor blinked awake and took a deep breath that shuddered only slightly on its exhale.

“It would be a shame to stop with a job half done,” Victor said, but his hands were already retreating.

Igor didn’t want to turn to see if Victor looked like those men at the circus. Was that wolfish expression still on his face? Was there an all-consuming fire burning in his eyes? He thought – surely not, not with the way his hands were so light, and the way he had stood so hesitantly when they first entered the room, but – he didn’t want to turn and see.

“No,” he said. “No, we’ve already come this far, haven’t we?”

Victor’s hands moved down past his hips and Igor pressed his face directly into the pillow till he couldn’t see and could barely hear. His body tried to clench up instinctively as Victor worked him over, but he was too far gone, his muscles too lax, for anything to come of it. The touch shouldn’t seem nearly so intimate now that it was tempered by the coarse fabric of his trousers, but it was much harder to pass off as a medical procedure.

“You seem a bit tense,” Victor finally commented, digging his thumbs into the crease at the top of Igor’s thighs. It sent a bolt of pleasure straight up Igor’s spine and he groaned, thankfully muffled. “It’s no good to anyone if it’s just going to make you more uncomfortable.”

“Just unexpected,” Igor managed as Victor moved down the meat of his thighs. This was physical touch as Igor had never experienced – focused, single-minded, and intense. It was touch as only Victor could give it, he thought, though the thought seemed wild, like it had sprung fully formed from his head. His brain was shorted out in a haze of overstimulation, too many sensory details to catalogue at one time. This is why, he thought, the heart and the lungs operate independently of the mind. Victor’s hands were running along his inseam now, too firm to be ticklish, and Igor flattened his hips against the mattress in a barely conscious bid to offer more of himself to them.

“Is it good?” Victor asked from somewhere above him. Igor heard the words but couldn’t respond beyond an exhalation. He turned his face till he could see the glow of the lamp through his closed eyelids, and it washed the inside of his head a dark, warm red.

“I wasn’t comparing myself to them,” Victor said. “I only meant, there is little you could want out there that I can’t provide you with in here first. And better.”

“Right,” Igor agreed blindly. “Of course.”

Victor’s hands gentled again as he made his way down Igor’s calves, and with them lightly circling his ankles, Igor's body felt as limp as a marionette lying loose on the floor; he let out a sigh that came all the way from his bones.

“Better?” Victor asked.

“Mmm. Thank you.”

Victor swung his legs over the edge of the bed again to sit properly, his hands by his sides, fingers curled as if they weren’t sure what to do with themselves now that they weren’t touching anyone. He flexed them absently as he gazed at the wall near the door.

Igor rolled his shoulders and let himself sink deeper into the mattress. He couldn’t yet feel the chill of the room, still held at bay by shared body heat, but he expected it would feel pleasant when it did return – a cool and gradual reminder of reality. He turned his head to regard Victor sideways, eyes half lidded with comfort and still spotted through with the after-image of the burning lamp.

“You do believe me, don’t you?” Victor asked, perhaps of the wall.

“Generally, in most things,” Igor replied.

Victor did look at him then, startled, but his lips curled up in a pleased smile. “When I said I could give you everything you could ever want,” he specified.

“You already have.” Igor folded his arms up under the pillow, relishing the stretch along his sides. “What more do you think I require?”

“Company,” Victor said, his smile dimming as the wind whistled through the window.

“You’re sitting right here.” Igor’s eyelids were dropping, and he felt as though his words were coming from somewhere very far away inside him. He could still feel Victor’s warmth; he was close enough to touch, if Igor would only reach out his hand, or Victor his. The bed was warm all over, and Igor thought he might never move from it again.

“And what of your angel Lorelei?”

Igor blinked.

Victor took it as an answer to a question Igor couldn’t begin to understand, and his smile returned, this time bitter. “There, you see? You don’t believe me at all.”

“Lorelei is my friend,” Igor said. He struggled to put order to his mind and understand what Victor was talking about; he somehow doubted it would make much difference. The problem with Victor’s conversations was that he could never tell where the man was trying to go with them – they were labyrinthine at the best of times, but more often than not he was simply operating under some form of logic unrecognizable to anyone but himself.

“Am I not your friend?”

“Victor, you’re everything.”

That, finally, gave Victor pause; he looked down at Igor as a slew of emotions writ themselves across his face – wonderment, suspicion – a million more Igor couldn’t begin to parse. “Say that again,” he ordered.

“You’re everything.” It was simple; honest; unguarded; but as if it had thrown a switch, Igor felt his body thrum with that curious charge again, and he scarcely had time to prop himself up on his forearms before Victor leant in, his thumb light on Igor’s chin, and pressed their lips together.

Igor froze, wide-eyed, as he caught fire. Victor held him there like that a moment longer, cupping his face, his beard rasping against Igor’s jaw but his lips soft and warm and tingling with electrical energy the likes of which Igor had never known. When Victor pulled back his eyes were bright and feverish, desperately searching Igor’s face for something Igor didn’t know how to give. Igor stared back, just as desperate to give it, but too frightened to say.

“You’ve never…” Victor began. “…With a man. I just – I had assumed, what with…”

“I’ve never been kissed by anyone at all, man or not,” Igor managed, failing entirely to keep the shock from his voice, and not caring one bit. “Or touched, or spoken to kindly, or given a name to answer to. Whatever you assumed, I haven’t – I’m not –”

Victor reached for him again and Igor let him; Victor took his hand and with the other stroked the hair that fell into his face, too thick and heavy to curl behind his ear. He touched his temple, his cheekbone; pressed his thumb to the imprint of his philtrum and traced the line of his lips. Igor held still save for his trembling. When Victor kissed him again Igor was no better prepared for it; he thought he ought to close his eyes and part his lips, but he was frozen in place. Victor directed everything absolutely; his hands on Igor’s shoulders, gently urging him back further onto the bed so Victor could move closer; his mouth, urgent and pressing. It was too much, too close, too soon. Igor pulled back abruptly and Victor made a tiny unwilling sound as they broke apart to pant, sharing the same breath, nose to nose.

Igor finally shut his eyes; when he opened them Victor was no further away, but his desperation had dimmed and Igor felt no need to broaden their distance.

“Have I offended you?” Victor asked.

“No,” Igor replied automatically, before pausing to give it thought. “No, not as you might think.”

“I imagine even the circus wouldn’t protect you from society’s view of men like… men with certain inclinations.”

“You’re my friend regardless, Victor,” Igor said, and covered Victor’s hand with his own when Victor turned to look at the door. “If you’ll still have me, that is.”

“You know I would.”

“As a – an assistant, I mean. As your assistant.”

Victor turned to regard him for a long moment and Igor held still for the examination, only fidgeting his fingers and for the most part meeting Victor’s searching gaze. The kiss had left him breathless, adrenaline urging him to action when there was none to take, and as it began to abate he wanted nothing more than to sink back down to the pillow and let this whole strange night drift into his dreams till it might be forgotten, or at least made soft and hazy, by morning’s light.

“My assistant,” Victor repeated.

Igor nodded, hopeful to the last.

Victor darted forward and kissed him once more, and though Igor rocked backward with the force of it, he never thought to struggle away. Victor retreated quickly enough, sitting back on the edge of the mattress and looking at Igor in awe.

“You’d let me, wouldn’t you? If I asked – if I wanted –”

Igor had no answer. Victor’s kisses felt like being consumed by fire, and Igor didn’t know how such a sensation could be sustained. It was a wondrous kind of fire, though, the flames of which might prove addicting if one could only work through the terror of it.

He bit his lip and Victor groaned, throwing both hands up to cover his face as he flung himself to his feet.

“You’ll be the death of me; I can see it now. I should have known – this is why I don’t like people, Igor – they only prove themselves distracting! And intoxicating, and infuriating, and, if one lets them, heartbreaking, in the end. It’s madness, I tell you.”

“Victor –”

“Don’t worry, though; I need your wits more than I want your body, and I can keep you on as my assistant without – without making any… untoward advances. You have my word, for whatever that’s worth. And I do consider you a friend, you know. I do. Maybe the only one I have.”

When Igor judged it safe that Victor had paused, he said, at a loss, “Thank you.”

Victor nodded brusquely, one hand already on the door handle.

“Before you go,” Igor said, “I just want you to know – I meant it, what I said about you not offending me. Only, I don’t… I don’t feel I can…”

“It’s fine,” Victor said with a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Completely understandable; no need for you to explain. Best, perhaps, for us not to bring it up again.”

“Victor…”

“Honestly, Igor. I’m probably drunk anyway – it’s likely I won’t even remember this, come morning.”

Igor nodded, sadly certain that, while Victor was not remotely so drunk, this entire incident would be forgotten all the same.

“Good night, Igor.”

“Get some sleep, Victor,” Igor said softly, and the door clicked shut behind him.

Igor eased himself down to lie on his back, hands folded over his sternum as he gazed at the ceiling’s featureless expanse. The last of the adrenaline left him and he lay boneless and heavy in his bed, his body exhausted but his mind still turning. The wind was quieter now, though not yet dead, and the rain had lessened to a steady drum. The cool air finally reached him and raised his skin in tiny prickles across his forearms and his chest, and the oil of the bedside lamp burned low. He mustered the last of his strength to worm out of his trousers and pull his nightgown over his head, and, reaching out to turn off the light, he let his bed take him.

His lips still burned with phantom touch and he wondered for one wild moment what it would have been like had he allowed Victor to continue. He didn’t have to imagine Victor’s weight atop him, or the strength of his hands or cleverness of his fingers. But beyond that, he had little to go on except Victor’s oft-repeated mandate, backed by what he had glimpsed in his time at the circus: That it would hurt, before it got better.

In a wilder moment he imagined what it might have been like had they been Lorelei’s lips on his, but that made his heart beat faster in a panic and he drove it back into the depths of his subconscious. She deserved better than what half-formed fantasies he had to offer.

Outside, the night finally settled. Igor closed his eyes and breathed deeply and let himself feel every muscle in his body, one by one, and appreciate how far he had come. That he could even lay flat on his back –

He drew the covers up and sleep crept in incrementally till his world was dark and ponderous, and when he dreamed, it was of sparks that lit him up from within.