Vincent tugged at the sleave of the new purple suit jacket Michael had bought for him. It was perfectly fitted, but it still felt weird to be standing at an art show wearing it. He got a few weird looks–after all, he was definitely the only one here with a tattoo covering half his face–but no one was even glaring at him like he didn’t belong. Somehow, it made him feel like he belonged less. Everything at the show that night was strict realism. Unicorns grazing on meadows of purple grass. A luminescent squid flying through a black sky. Vincent was still as in awe of the talent of these artists as he’d been at Esilenia’s so many years ago in primary school, but these weren’t the sort of thing he’d purchase for himself on a whim, and he was afraid to seem too enthusiastic about any of them for fear that Michael would buy them for him anyway. He’d technically “hired” Vincent as a transport driver for the past week, and they had yet to pass a day without embarking on some exorbitant adventure, much less make use of the humble groceries in Vincent’s icebox.
From the moment the green aeo magic had sprung from Michael’s fingers and lit up Shelby’s cabin, Vincent had known that finally, there was another human being in the world he could trust with his secrets. A human being he liked, no less. A human being who was caring and lovely, who listened to him prattle on about obscure fantasy art and narwhals.
He thought back to that night a week ago when he and Michael had sat next to each other against the wall, too drunk on coconut rum to make the climb to his bunk for the night, their faces lit by the green light emanating from Shelby and the toaster Michael had just accidentally brought to life. They traced each other’s fingers, in simple awe that they weren’t alone.
“So when did you find out?” said Michael.
“When I was six,” said Vincent. “I brought my toy car to life, then Dad smashed it with a baseball bat.”
“I was seven,” said Michael. “Mum shoved my clock in a burlap sack and threw it off the edge of our island. I wonder why they’re so afraid of us.”
“Because the government tells them to be,” said Vincent.
“AND BECAUSE SOMETIMES PEOPLE ARE SHITTY,” Shelby chimed in.
“Yeah, that too.” Vincent settled his head against Michael’s shoulder and let the world sway around them for a moment. Then, he shifted so they could see each other again.“Whatcha thinking about?”
Michael smiled. “Do you know what if feels like when you run your hand over some elaborately crafted machine, and you can just feel, like, this spark, this potential of who it could be?”
“And you know it could be flawed, maybe, but mostly you know it would be beautiful. Beautiful and vibrant and alive. And you could make that happen–it would be so easy–only it’s terrifying because everyone tells you it’s wrong, and it could go so wrong for both of you if anyone found out…”
Vincent nodded again.
“That’s kind of how I feel when I’m with you,” said Michael. “Like, metaphorically. Not like I think your an automaton.”
Vincent snorted. “I knew what you meant.” He threw his arms around Michael and kissed him on the cheek. “I think we could be beautiful.”
But they couldn’t be together. Not really. Michael was technically married to Emanuel, an asshole with the cred to ruin both their lives if he wanted to, and he probably wanted to by now. Emanuel and Michael might have only gotten married because they missed the deadline to choose their own spouses and the government paired them up, and what semblance of happiness they had might just be a sham for the benefit of Emanuel’s tier five friends, but divorce applications were rarely approved by the Perfectorate without dire cause, and falling for someone else didn’t even make the list.
“Hey, should we be hanging out in places like this?” said Vincent.
“You’re with me. It’s fine,” said Michael. He ran a hand through his hair. They’d dyed it all forest green the night before, and it suited him. But it wasn’t a disguise.
“Yeah, but like, what if one of these greeners recognizes you…and you’re with me instead of…?”
“The scandal!” Michael put a hand over his mouth in mock shock.
“No, I’m seriously asking, because….”
Michael held up a hand to cut him off. “I’m sorry to not let you finish, I really am, but I am unfathomably weary of caring about what these–greeners, did you call them?–think of me. So, are you going to go help me relieve that server over there of all those heavy, heavy shrimp he’s burdened with, or have I completely misread you, Vincent Coastrunner?”
“Well, I mean, of course I’m going to eat the shrimp…” Vincent shrugged. “I just…”
“Then come on, let’s go live a little.” Michael offered him his hand.
Vincent thought about pressing it, but he really did want the shrimp, and when Michael’s fingers closed over his, he felt a flutter in his chest that it was getting harder to ignore. “Hell, why not live a lot?” he said with a sheepish smile.
They made their way from the shrimp to a portrait of a stodgy looking senator to a tray of champagne to a picture of skyfaller in battle with a yellow-scaled void monster and back to the champagne again. They played a game where you had to engage an actual art aficionado in conversation for one minute. Every time they nodded along to your pretentious bullshit, you got a point. If you made it the whole minute before they walked away with their nose in the air you got five points. Vincent was winning.
“See, it’s pedestrian.” Vincent gestured to a landscape showing a waterfall crashing from one floating island to another. “A fine depiction of a rare geographic formation, sure, but surely more suited to a textbook than an art show.”
The woman standing next to him raised an eyebrow. “Bold of you to tell me that Rufus Canvasman is pedestrian. Look at his use of color and shadow! His technique is exquisite!”
“Technique isn’t everything,” said Vincent. “Where’s the artistic vision? That spark that catches you and lights something up inside you that you didn’t know was there before?”
The woman pursed her lips, seeming to legitimately consider what he’d said for some time. Then she gestered toward a bit of the canvas. “For me, it’s right there, in that little rainbow caught in the mist kicked up from the lake.”
“Hmm.” Vincent cocked his head to the side, really looking at the piece for the first time. He supposed there really was something beautiful about the little band of colored light catching at the bottom of the crashing falls.
“But something like that is different for everyone,” she said. “What paintings catch the spark in your soul if not this one?”
“Gladysa Brushdipper,” Vincent said, nearly forgetting the conversation was a game.
“Show me,” said his new friend.
“I doubt any of her work is displayed here,” said Vincent. “She gets written off a lot because her stuff is fantasy–stars, nebulas, whole spherical planets spinning in space–but I think there’s something to be said for showing people a glimpse of what they could only otherwise imagine. And her technique is just as good as this guy’s, in my humble opinion.”
His companion’s mouth twitched into a smile. “Maybe I’ll have to look her up if you recommend her so highly.”
“I mean I wouldn’t have gotten one of her paintings tattooed on my face if I didn’t think she was great.”
The woman stifled an amused laugh. “What greater endorsement could she ask for?”
She broke away from him and wandered deeper into the gallery. Vincent glanced at his watch as he hurried back to Michael. “Eleven points.”
“Eleven? And you were talking to her?” Michael gestured after the woman. “She’s an actual art critic for the Perfectorate Times! I was talking to some bistro owner last round and I only got three points!”
“Guess I’m more sophisticated than you.” Vincent glanced at his fingernails.
“I’ve been faking it in this world for the past year. I should be dozens of points ahead of you!”
“You underestimate how many of these things I’ve snuck into,” said Vincent. “Plus, my jacket is cuter.”
“Look, if you’re going to use that against me, you can give it back!” said Michael.
“Oh, you want to wear my jacket?” said Vincent with a cocked eyebrow. “Look at us, just two teens at our graduation ball.”
Before Michael could quip back, someone from across the room called his name. Michael stiffened. He glanced over his shoulder just long enough to see who it was, then turned back to Vincent. “What do I do?” he whispered.
“I tried to ask you for a game plan before it happened,” said Vincent, the playful banter giving way to an edge of real annoyance.
“I know.” Michael froze as Vincent watched a blond woman in bejeweled heels click toward them.
Vincent sighed. “There goes your unfathomable weariness with this mess, I guess. Come on. Pretend you didn’t hear her. Let’s go.”
“But what if…?”
“Let’s go,” Vincent repeated. He grabbed Michaels wrist and tugged him toward the exit. A moment later, Michael had matched his pace.
“Thanks,” he whispered. “I froze up. I just…”
“Realized how ridiculously stupid we’re being?”
Michael pursed his lips, then nodded.
“Don’t worry. It happens to the best of us,” said Vincent. He squeezed Michael’s hand. “Now where’s the dumbest place we can go next?”
They finished the night at a gastropub that Vincent could tell Michael thought was slumming it but absolutely wasn’t. Gas lights burned in colored bulbs and a band in the corner played inoffensive smooth jazz.
Michael had just ordered them their second set of elaborate but overpriced cocktails. Vincent stared into his and stirred it with a tiny umbrella. It was purple and had mint sprigs floating in it.
“You know, you don’t have to buy me all this stuff,” he said.
“But it is.” Michael swiveled on his stool to face him. “Remember when we first met, and me offering to provide for you was this whole big deal because I was a tier three citizen and you were a tier one? Well, the gap between tier three and tier five makes us both look poor as dirt. Like, I don’t know if you can actually comprehend how much cred Emmanuel has at his disposal. I can barely comprehend it. Look…”
He grabbed a nearby bowl of nuts and set one on the bar top between them. “Let’s say that’s your networth.”
He grabbed three more nuts and set them in a little pile beside the first. “And that was mine before the wedding.”
“Now this…” He dumped the whole bowl of nuts out on the counter. The bartender glared at them from a couple yards away. “This is Emmanuel’s networth, only I’ve run out of nuts. The restaurant probably doesn’t even have enough nuts. I don’t know. It’s late. I don’t want to do real math.”
Vincent ate the lone peanut and Michael batted at his hand. “Stop eating your networth.”
“It’s more accurate now,” said Vincent.
“Fine, then have some more.” Michael grabbed a small handful from the pile in front of him and set it in front of Vincent. “See? Emanuel and I still have more than we could eat.”
Vincent sighed and gave the umbrella in his drink a few more swirls. Some of the mint leaves floundered in the little vortex it created. “But, like…won’t he be really mad that you’re spending it on me?”
Michael laughed bitterly. “I ran off with the waiter. I’ve been gone for days. One of our friends saw us together at a fancy art galla. He’s already going to be mad.”
Vincent shrugged and sipped his drink. “It’s just…I know whatever we have here…” He grimaced. “I know it isn’t…sustainable. You’re married, and well…you’re married. But I actually legitimately like you, Michael, and I don’t want you to think I’m just tagging along on this escapist midlife crisis for the free stuff.”
Michael softened and touched Vincent’s knee with his. “I don’t think that.”
Vincent half-smiled. “Good.”
“And for the record,” Michael went on, “I actually legitimately like you too.”
Vincent smiled before he remembered how pointless this all was. “Too bad we didn’t figure it all out sooner. And too bad the Perfectorate doesn’t give a shit if you’re happy.”
“Indeed.” Michael swirled his drink and watched the ice cubes spin for a second. “There’s no box to tick on the divorce application form for ‘My husband’s a self-important jerk,’ or ‘I think I might be falling for someone else.’ Believe me, I’ve looked.”
Vincent nodded, trying not to acknowledge that Michael had just implied he was falling for him.
“In fact, I have found no grounds to divorce Emmanuel on my own terms. Short of physical violence, spousal disagreements are hardly considered worth the economic and social upheaval of breaking up a marriage.”
“Shitty.” Vincent sipped his drink. It tasted like purple. He wasn’t sure if that was a good thing. He’d had better mixed drinks for half the price at nearly every dive bar he’d ever been to.
“But you’re right…after all this, I’m sure Emmanuel will be very cross with me. And do you know what’s at the very top of the form for credible reasons for divorce?”
“Frivolous spending of household funds.”
They both sipped their drinks in silence for a moment.
“So, you want to buy a few more of these shitty cocktails and, like, a pony or something?” said Vincent.
“We can even throw in some cheese fries,” said Michael.
Vincent grabbed him by the collar and kissed him, and as he did it, he wasn’t thinking about ponies or drinks or cheese fries. He was thinking about him and Michael lying on the bunk in his crawler while morning light filled the cab, and there was no unspoken dread of when it was all going to fall apart. In his fantasy, Toaster scampered around the kitchen, trying and failing to open the bread tin while Shelby drew up the contracts for the day. He wasn’t imagining some theoretical life of luxury, just his dreary day-to-day, only Michael was there, and everything was better. That flutter in his chest was undeniable now. It wasn’t love. It was too soon to call it that. But damn did he want it to be.
When they returned to the private hangar where they’d parked Shelby for the night, sans pony but clutching a caricature they’d commissioned from a street artist on the way home, Toaster clattered up to greet them. His bell chimed happily, four short dings followed by two more. Vincent reached down to pat him, ignoring the trail of crumbs he’d left across the floor.
“WELCOME HOME,” said Shelby. She paused for a moment as Vincent hung the caricature on the wall. He’d insisted the artist draw them against a background of stars. He had been terrible at drawing stars, but he had managed to make him and Michael look like a real couple who weren’t kidding themselves, and Vincent loved it, even if his nose was too big.
“IT IS STRANGE, GREETING ONE OF VINCE’S FRIENDS,” said Shelby. “I USUALLY HAVE TO PRETEND I DO NOT EXIST.”
“Nice not having to pretend, huh?” said Vincent, his eyes locking with Michael’s.
“It really is, isn’t it?” said Michael. He reached out and tucked a lock of Vincent’s purple hair behind his ear as Toaster scampered back over to the counter. Vincent stroked Michael’s cheek with his thumb.
Shelby made a few clicks and whirs. “OF COURSE, I COULD PRETEND I DO NOT EXIST FOR A LITTLE WHILE IF THAT WOULD MAKE THE TWO OF YOU MORE COMFORTABLE.”
“Yeah, maybe that’d be for the best, babe.”
The green light faded from the cabin as Michael wrapped Vincent more tightly in his arms.
Vincent thought he might be dreaming when he woke in the early hours of the morning to voices, but as they came more into focus he realized he wasn’t. He pretended he was still asleep anyway.
“…KNOW WE GOT OFF ON A BAD FOOT, BUT I DO ACCEPT YOUR APOLOGY AND I DO LIKE YOU, MIKE. CAN I CALL YOU MIKE?”
Michael’s voice, coming from the bathroom door. “Um, sure?”
“BUT THE PROBLEM IS, HE DOES TOO. YOU ARE THE FIRST SUITOR OF HIS I HAVE OFFICIALLY MET, BUT HE HAS BROUGHT MANY OTHERS BACK TO THIS PLACE. HE HAS NOT LOOKED AT ANY OF THEM THE WAY HE LOOKS AT YOU.”
“I like him too. I don’t see why that’s a problem.”
“IT IS A PROBLEM, BECAUSE, FROM WHAT I HAVE OVERHEARD, YOU ARE NOT GOING TO STICK AROUND. AND LIKE HIM OR NOT, IF YOUR PRIMARY PURPOSE HERE IS TO USE HIM TO GET BACK AT YOUR HUSBAND… WELL, MIKE, HE DOES NOT DESERVE THAT DOES HE?”
“That’s not what I want,” said Michael. Footsteps approached the bed.
“THEN ASSESS YOUR ACTIONS AND MAKE SURE THAT IS NOT THE RESULT YOU ARE LIKELY TO ACHIEVE.”
The bed shifted and Michael slid back into the covers next to Vincent and wrapped an arm across his chest. Vincent scooted closer, still pretending not to have heard. Slowly, Michael’s fingers running through his hair soothed the lump that had grown in his throat, and they both drifted back to sleep.
Vincent woke to find Michael propped up on the pillows next to him, staring at a point on the opposite wall of the loft.
“Morning.” Vincent shifted to lay against Michael’s chest.
Michael’s hands idly massaged a knot in his shoulder. “That it is.”
It was still dark in the cab. The private garage Michael had paid for had a very light-proof door, and even if it hadn’t, the blinds were down over Shelby’s windscreen.
“What’s on your mind?” said Vincent.
Michael took a long breath in and out. “I have to go home.”
Vincent flopped back onto his own pillows. “Is this because of what my ship told you last night?” He raised his voice. “Because sometimes she needs to mind her own damn business!”
“I was afraid we’d wake you up.” He rolled over so he could look Vincent in the eyes. “The truth is, I haven’t talked to Emmanuel since our fight at the fundraiser. I want a divorce, and I do hope this past week will give him some motivation to agree with me on that matter, but I don’t know where he stands. I don’t want to…keep leading you on without finding out what my real options are.”
“You’re not leading me on,” said Vincent, fighting back tears. “I know exactly what we’re doing here.”
“I need to hear him say it,” said Michael. “I need to hear him say he wants to leave me. And if he won’t, well, it’s just going to hurt more for both of us the longer we kid ourselves.”
Vincent felt the metal under his bunk shift to give him a gentle hug. He swallowed back a sob of disappointment.
“Just one more day,” he said.
“We don’t have to go to fancy parties or exclusive clubs. But if Emanuel really has as much cred as you say he does, we gotta make a bigger dent before we send you home, right? Let’s just buy some good cheese and some wine that makes me say ‘voids, why would anyone ever spend this much on wine,’ and find some pretty island with no one else around. We can have a picnic and teach Toaster how to play fetch.”
“Come on,” said Vincent. He stroked the hair at Michael’s temples. “Just one more perfect day.”
“Okay.” Michael’s voice was breathy, and he leaned forward for a kiss. They climbed down from the loft and started pulling on their street clothes.
“You know,” said Michael as he buttoned his jacket, “if Emmanuel does file for divorce, I’ll have a very limited window to submit my preference for a replacement spouse before the government assigns me a new one, and while I don’t want to make assumptions about the level of commitment we have to one another after only a week, I was wondering if, if it wouldn’t be too presumptuous…”
“Shut up and put my name on the stupid form,” said Vincent.
Michael smiled, a little color rising to his cheeks. “Promise you won’t change your mind this time?”
“Promise not to sell my best friend for parts?”
“Then we’re good.”
“Good.” They beamed at each other briefly but kept getting ready for the day, occasionally brushing together as they moved through the tiny living space.
“Michael?” Vincent said at last. He fastened his last button, looking at the ground. “What happens if Emmanuel won’t file for divorce? Do I just never see you again?”
“No,” Michael said quickly, though Vincent could tell from how drawn his face was that he didn’t have a follow up.
“So how about we make plans to meet somewhere then? A rendezvous point for after the heat dies down?”
“I like it,” said Michael. “Four weeks from today, let’s say. But where?”
“The bar where we met,” said Vincent. “At nine.”
“I’ll see you there. No matter what happens.” Michael held out his hand hand and Vincent shook it.
That’s when they heard the garage door clang upwards and morning light peaked its way around the edges of the blinds.
“The voids?” said Vincent. They had the hangar for another hour, and they were supposed to be the only ones with the key. Vincent grabbed Toaster and whispered “Sleep,” then shoved him in a cabinet and barred the handles with a wooden spoon just in case.
A loud knock echoed through the cab and a bullhorn shattered the stillness of the morning. “Perfectorate Inquisition! Open your vehicle door slowly and exit with your hands up.”
Vincent and Michael shared a panicked look.
“If you do not comply immediately, we are authorized to use force. If any hostages are harmed, their projected future worth will be added to all existing fines.”
“Hostages?” Vincent’s voice cracked.
“If they knew about the toaster, they would have already broken down the door,” whispered Michael. “It’s probably best if we do what they say.”
Vincent took a deep breath and slowly opened the door, raising his hands above his head. “I think there’s been some sort of misunderstanding, officers, see…”
An armed man tackled him and wrestled him to the ground face first. Vincent winced as his cheek scraped against the rough brick floor.
“Vinyarlo Coastrunner, you are under arrest for grand larceny and the abduction of Michael Shipforger.” He could feel a knee pressing into his back as someone restrained his arms behind him. “You have the right to a private interrogation in inquisition facilities. You have the right to a felony audit before lethal punishments are leveraged. You have the right to a speedy verdict.”
“There’s been a mistake,” said Michael from behind him. “He didn’t…” His speech was cut off as a rescue team swarmed him, threw a blanket over his shoulders and shepharded him toward a waiting med-crawler.
“You’re in shock, darling. Don’t try to speak.” Emmanuel walked into view and planted a kiss on Michael’s forehead. “I’m so glad you’re alright.”
“Wait! Listen to him!” Vincent shouted from the ground. “I’m innocent!”
“Oh, are you?” A steel-toed boot planted itself in front of his face, and John Arbiter leaned down to personally click the handcuffs around his wrists, cold, hard and a half a size too small.