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Clockwork Heart

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I do not have an identity, nor do I possess my own form. Instead, I’ve built a human-shaped shell out of pieces picked up from others; and sometimes I worry that when I meet them--real people--they’ll realize that there’s nothing there. 


            Theodore Nazari adjusted his tie, then neatly checked the cuffs of his shirt, ensuring they were exactly one centimeter past the sleeves of his jacket. He straightened up and smoothed the lapels of his coat, lifting his prosthetic hand to nudge his glasses slightly higher on his nose. He studied himself in the mirror for a moment, then gave a practiced, cool smile. It was even, pleasant, and generally polite. It had taken him years to hone it, to ensure it did not look forced, fake, or even a bit disinterested. But it was simply a thin coating of paint, carefully and delicately applied to a shell, a husk. There was nothing behind it, no feeling, no emotion, no desire. Theodore blinked at himself for a second, then turned from the mirror and exited his bathroom, hand coming up to click the light off as he went. He walked past his bed; with sheets and covers so smooth they could pass a military inspection. In a few more minutes he was out of the house, fingers clasped loosely around his briefcase as he stepped into his garage and got in his car. He glanced at the time as the engine purred to life. 7:15. Spotless, flawless, immaculate. Like a machine in constant motion was his life. Never faltering, never stopping, never worrying. There was nothing, absolutely nothing that could bring him to a halt, nothing that could give him pause. 

            He pulled into the parking lot of his workplace exactly fifteen minutes later. 7:30. Spotless, flawless, immaculate. The gears of his brain turned without issue, well oiled and smooth. He was composer, conductor, and orchestra of his life, a single man symphony of endless paperwork, boring meetings, and hollow words. To call it a symphony was perhaps an overstatement, it was more of a lone chord, striking out with no intention to reverberate or be heard. A manuscript cobbled together by some coffee high author, long abandoned when they realized their creation was nothing more than odds and ends. He was entirely synthetic, only given form by the people around him; the laugh of his secretary, the frown of his coworker, the verbal cadence of his long forgotten therapist. Meticulously catalogued and absorbed by his mind, stored in neat, alphabetical compartments to be pulled up at a later date and used. 

            Theodore stepped from his car and crossed the lot to the next door cafe. He entered the building--7:35--and took note of the people in line before him. He recognized one of them, another cafe regular, a human like him. Martin was his name, double espresso was his order. Theodore had never spoken to him, never considered him worth knowing, and yet he knew. Spotless, flawless, immaculate. The drawer that stored Martin’s information peeked open, but it was unneeded, and so Theodore shifted his eyes, glancing at his watch. The line moved, and he stepped forward. Two more people now. 7:37. Ideally, he would have been out of the cafe by 7:45, and he had every intention to be, even if it meant skimping on his morning coffee. Routine and order were important, imperative even. Without them, people were little more than beasts, and he would never permit himself to fall to such levels. 7:38. Another person down, another step forward. When he was younger he had wondered what was wrong with him, if there were others like him. Unlovable, unloving, unfeeling, unreal. He’d questioned it once and after years of therapy had simply resolved to keep his mouth shut. It frightened people. He frightened people. And so they never saw him, never knew that the person they were speaking to was not there, a Frankenstein’s monster of all the people before them. He would be them tomorrow as well. 7:40. The line moved once more, he was at the front now. He looked up, prepared to order. 

            The symphony of his life, the single, hollow note that had sustained since his birth, crashed. It didn’t stutter or falter, instead it burst like the falling wreckage of a long exploded aircraft, a travesty in the night that had been seen by few and mourned by none. 

“Good morning, Sir,” the young elf before him chirped, voice light and friendly. “What can I get for you?” 

Theodore swallowed thickly, the cogs of his brain stuttering and grinding. What did he want? 

The elf’s brow furrowed slightly and his smile faltered just a tad, a barely perceptible reaction that most would not notice. But Theodore did. 

“My apologies,” Theodore said, voice smooth and even. It had been so long since he’d heard his own voice, he wasn’t even sure what it sounded like anymore. This was the voice of his old boss, a charismatic and charming fellow, he’d never figured out that Theodore was simply mimicking him. “Early mornings, you know?” 

The elf relaxed and laughed, nodding. “I sure do. Were it not for the fact that I work in a coffee shop, I certainly couldn’t stay awake.” 

            The elf’s laugh was the most beautiful sound Theodore had ever heard. His eyes flicked down to the nametag he wore, declaring him ‘Passeri’. Within milliseconds the expression of his joy was catalogued. However, it was not simply slipped in with all the other ‘P’ names. No, he brought it to the forefront, placed it gently and carefully on a pedestal in the very center of the hollow, echoing chamber of his consciousness. 

“I’d like a large drip coffee. Name for the order is Theodore,” he said after a moment, realizing he had once more lapsed into silence. He chanced a glance at his watch. 7:43. Three minutes. How had he possibly been standing there for three minutes? The gears of his mind ground and caught once more, screeching like the stuck transmission of an old, dry car. He needed to leave, he needed to get away from Passeri. 

“Coming right up, Sir!” Passeri smiled, briefly closing his eyes as he did. 

Theodore tore his gaze from him and moved, steps even and mechanical. He paid and then settled himself against the wall, not wanting to look at his watch but finding himself unable to prevent the action. 7:44. He had but seconds to spare. His jaw clenched tightly, a slight swell of anger rising within him. It was a strange emotion, hot and sticky, one he hadn’t felt in years, and years, and years. He didn’t like it. 

            “Large drip coffee for Theodore!” Passeri called, and Theodore snapped to attention, body stiffening like he’d been nudged by an electric prod. His name. The elf had said his name. He moved forward and took the coffee, dropping a tip in the jar and giving Passeri a nod. 

“Have a nice day, Sir! Come back soon!” 

Theodore pushed out the door and darted his eyes to his watch. 7:45. 30 seconds past, but still on schedule. A slow, shaky exhale left him and he began to walk back to his work building, thoughts lingering on what had just happened. What had just happened? Anyone else would have stopped, perhaps furrowed their brow or looked confused. But he did not. He kept moving, a steady, calculated gait that never wavered or faltered. His face was blank and calm, not a single twitch or crease. But there was a shift, a change to the droning, hollow chord of his life; an addition. He placed it instantly, of course, as there was no mistaking it. The laugh of the elf. He’d captured it, trapped it within the empty, sterile rooms of his mind and now it echoed throughout, filling everything with a soft, twinkling light. He knew he could not replicate the sound, not in a million years, so genuine and true it was. But he did not want to. He did not want to cheaply imitate it, nor share it with others. No. It was his. It belonged singularly to him. He would ensure that. By any, and all means necessary. 


            Theodore had easily settled into the flow of the day, hands and mind moving through the steady, monotonous stream of his life. While he kept himself occupied, remaining productive and constant, the larger part of his mind wandered back to the elf. To Passeri. Passeri: the clade of perching birds known as ‘songbirds’. Often described as having a cheerful and uplifting call. It was funny how things worked out, surely his parents could not have known the weight of their child’s name, how he would live up to it. Theodore shifted slightly in his seat, scooting closer to his desk and lifting his head to glance out the window. It was a grey, dreary day, the sun covered by clouds despite the fast approaching middle hour. He’d never much paid attention to the weather. It was a constant, no matter how it shifted, and it didn’t bother or excite him one way or the other. He blinked, then looked back down to his work, fingers moving swiftly over his keyboard while his eyes flitted over the screen. There came a knock, and he paused in his typing, gaze shifting to the doorway where a coworker leaned. 

            “Theodore,” the man said with a slight smile. “We’re going out for lunch, would you care to join us?” The man’s name was Kai. He had always been friendly to Theodore and enjoyed his sense of humor, entirely oblivious to the fact it was simply a hollow reflection of his own. He would typically invite Theodore out once a week, sometimes more, making his interest more than apparent. Theodore had taken note of Kai’s behaviors, the way his eyes would linger on Theodore’s lips when he spoke, how he would unconsciously shift to mirror Theodore’s own posture and movements, the way he seemed to preen and fidget whenever they were in each other’s presence…. Theodore had filed these behaviors away, of course, as he did everything, but made absolutely no attempt to reciprocate. And yet Kai still persisted. It was true that Theodore had recently taken to joining him for lunch when invited, but he remained polite and cool through their interactions, rarely divulging information about himself or his home life. And really, there was nothing to tell, no special moments or funny stories. His days moved like clockwork, never shifting, never faltering, a routine that lasted, unshakable, unhindered by any inconvenience or circumstance. 

            “No, thank you,” Theodore replied. “I have a fair bit of work today.” This was a different voice than the one he’d used in the coffee shop, not his old boss, but one he’d grafted into himself from a particularly ineffectual therapist. It was pleasant and even, but there was no familiarity or warmth in it. To the original owner of the voice, and to those who heard it, it simply sounded like a friendly, but reserved tone. But Theodore had known the truth when he’d first encountered it, and he knew it now when he used it. It was cold and disingenuous, lacking in any of the kindness the owner had attempted to put into it, coated in a layer of sugar that comforted the anxious and despairing like lollipops given to crying children. 

Kai’s smile faltered and he lightly tapped his fingers on the doorframe. “Oh...you sure? Breaks are good for you, you know! Don’t want to overwork yourself.” 

            “It’s quite alright.” Theodore gave him a smile, perfectly even and balanced, the same one he’d practiced in the mirror that morning and every morning prior. “I’ll take a short break soon enough, but I haven’t the time for a full lunch.” His voice had shifted, no longer the lacking therapist, it was now the slightly remorseful tone of his mother. This was a voice it had taken him some time to perfect. Not for lack of hearing it, but for the crackled, tinny quality it had, always coming through the damaged phone his father never saw fit to replace. ‘Next time, Theodore’, she would always say, with a hint of sadness, ‘I promise I’ll see you next time.’ If he stopped to think about it, perhaps he would wonder why he felt no sorrow in those memories, why he was not upset then or now. But he didn’t stop, and so he didn’t think, and so he did not feel or care. 

Kai nodded, shuffling his feet for a moment and then smoothing his hair. “Next time, maybe?” 

Theodore gave a slight, even incline of his head, which caused Kai to smile broadly, a breath of relief escaping him. 

“Great! Hope work goes well!” With this, Kai lifted a hand to wave, lingered for a moment, then left. 

            Once he was alone again, Theodore’s eyes flicked to bottom right of his computer screen. 12:00 PM. He looked back to the document he’d been typing, saved it, and then put his computer into sleep mode. Theodore stood from his desk and used a hand to tuck his chair beneath it, stepping from his office and flipping the light off as he went. He paused, turned, and locked the door behind him, then tucked his keys into his pocket and headed for the elevator. His workload was rather light that day, despite what he’d told Kai, and he was going to the cafe for lunch. This was nothing out of the usual, as he typically would go there for another coffee and a sandwich. The elevator arrived and he stepped in, nodding politely at the faerie inside. She was a tenth floor worker, three above Theodore, and her name was Senna. She was the manager for an outreach program that the engineering firm had with a nearby public school, helping to educate and scout promising students. They had never spoken and it was unlikely she even knew Theodore’s name, but she smiled broadly before looking down at her phone once more. Theodore lightly pressed the button for the ground floor, then neatly folded his hands behind his back. 

            Theodore knew that when most people stood still, they were not truly still. There was typically some aspect of fidgeting, some slight shift or motion that kept their bodies fluid and occupied. But he was not most people, and try as he might, he had not perfected this particular form of camouflage yet. His posture was tall and poised, eyes focused blankly on the metal doors before him. Were it not for the slight rise and fall of his chest, it would have been entirely possible to mistake him for a statue. Perhaps some sculpture come to life, on the run from its creators and attempting to hide within humanity; a twisted gargoyle that had pushed erect and slipped a mask over its grimace. The woman glanced at Theodore, and he could see her slight shift of concern. His stillness had made her nervous. He relaxed his shoulders and began to tap his fingers against his lower back, a steady, measured action, with each thump coming in even, 1.5 second intervals. The woman calmed, let out a small sigh of relief, and resumed looking at her phone. The doors dinged open on the third floor, and the woman gave Theodore a smile before stepping out. He returned it, of course, honed and perfect, and for a moment she seemed flustered, a slight pink coming to her cheeks. But then the doors slid shut once more, and their interaction was immediately stored inside her folder, brushed away by the gentle, musical laugh of the elf. 

            As he stepped out on the ground floor, Theodore tilted his head to check his watch. 12:03. On schedule as always. He was a well oiled set of gears that would simply mince any sort of cog. He walked from the office building and into the cafe, settling himself in line. 12:05. Perfectly on time. He leaned slightly to the right, eyes briefly flicking over the people in front of him. Three of them, the same number as that morning, the same amount of time to wait through. He continued to return to this cafe for its efficiency. They had never put him behind schedule in all the time he’d been a patron, and if he were capable of feeling gratitude or fondness for that, it is likely he would have. His reactions that morning had simply been an anomaly, an unexpected change to his routine that had left him scattered, had brushed just a smidgen of dust onto the otherwise perfect machinery of his life. But it was gone, and he was immaculate once more. He moved forward as the line shifted, lifting his gaze to study the menu above him. The cafe’s specials and sandwiches changed daily, and it would not do to be one of those fools that stood and stared and held up the line. No, just as he chose this place for its efficiency, he dealt it the same respect it did him. A brief, downward flick of his eyes. 12:08. Another step, another customer gone. The person before him stood still, a low, droning noise coming from their lips. Theodore blinked. Once, twice, again. 

            “Uhhh…” the man sustained the sound, tilting his head back to study the menu. 

12:09. He felt a brief swell of annoyance, similar to the anger he’d felt earlier that day, but this was more dry and acrid, a bitter soot that clumped in the back of his mouth and caked his throat.

“Uhhh...I’ll just get a cranberry muffin and a kale smoothie,” the man finally said. 

“Coming right up, Sir!” The barista chirped, and Theodore once more experienced the oddity of his brain’s transmission stalling. It was the elf from that morning, the new worker. There was absolutely no mistaking his voice, and though this was only his second encounter with him, Theodore knew he could pick the sound from a buzzing crowd if need be. The man moved, and finally Theodore was at the front. 

“Oh! Good afternoon, Sir!” The elf, Passeri, smiled. “Welcome back!” 

            Theodore paused for a moment. The machinery of his brain screeched across an overlooked speck of dust, momentarily halted by the unexpected and tenacious grain of change. 

“Thank you,” Theodore finally said. “How has your day been?”

“Busy!” Passeri laughed. “First days, you know?” 

He nodded. He had absolutely no idea to what the elf was referring, had never found any sort of difficulty in firsts as opposed to hundredths, but it was an expected social grace to agree, and one he was not at all bothered to give. “I hope your day improves,” he remarked with a smile. This was not the polite, smooth expression he practiced every day, his most worn and fitted mask, but one he’d stolen from an old acquaintance, a halfling who spent most of his time flattering. The elf’s cheeks flushed slightly, clearly noticing the gentle charm in Theodore’s facial shift. 

“Th-thank you, Sir!” He stammered out, another laugh escaping him, though this one was softer, the nervous flutter of a bird’s wings. “Oh, uhm, what can I get for you?” 

“A large drip coffee and the spinach and artichoke sandwich, please.” 

Passeri nodded. “Coming right up! Name for the order is...Theodore?” 

            Theodore returned the nod and moved to pay, acquaintance's smile still on his face. He ignored the sparks that sizzled within him, leaving small scorch marks of obsession along the otherwise smooth, white walls of his mind. The elf had remembered him, remembered his name. 12:13. Still on schedule despite his brief chat. A moment later, his name was called, unfortunately not by Passeri, but by another worker. His face had since slipped back to its usual blank, emotionless slate, and as he stepped up to the counter to get his food, he quickly donned the carefully painted mask of his most courteous smile. Theodore glanced at Passeri as he moved to leave, noting that the elf was currently making a coffee. However, a second later, he lifted his head and their eyes met. Passeri blinked for a moment, then smiled and raised his hand in a slight wave. 

“Have a good day, Sir!” He called. “Come back soon!” 

            Theodore gave him a brief, friendly nod, then stepped from the cafe. 12:15. He began the walk back to his office and it was at this point, midstep, that he had his first realization of two. Namely, that he had not the slightest clue which voice he’d used when speaking to Passeri just moments prior. He could place the smiles, the posture of his body, and the motion of his hands. He could bring up each folder they belonged to, pinpoint exactly where they were stored, and who he had stolen them from. But the voice he could not. It had seemed to come from somewhere else, some long abandoned, cobweb ridden corner closet of his being that had not seen light in many, many years. It was not catalogued or numbered and did not belong to anyone he’d ever met, but it was familiar, if difficult to place. It was not the reverberation of some past figure, nor the imprint a real human had left on his sterile, mechanical mind. No, it was something else entirely. It was the shift of gears and the twist of machinery that had given way to the dark, grating sound of a chisel cracking too deep within the earth and releasing a frenzied, desperate torrent of magma. It was his own voice, the single note symphony of his life. Thrown out of harmony with his own apathy, it had burst forth in an attempt to blend with the brilliant, blinding orchestra of the elf; rising and falling, until the pieces had become intertwined and united. 

            The second realization Theodore had as he stepped into his office building and headed for the elevator. This one, while equally as strange as the use of his own voice, proved to be far less confounding. Perhaps he had suspected it, if not consciously. He pressed the elevator button and lifted his eyes to the dial above the doors, keeping track of the lift’s location as it slowly descended to meet him. This realization came with a flush of warmth, building in his core and settling over his entire being. Not in the way his masks did, small and well painted, easily covering the blank, expressionless face that belied no life or familiarity. No, this was different. This was hot and messy; unpracticed, unrefined; a hoarse, shuddering staccato that beat a non-rhythm against the walls of his mind and threatened to shatter the sturdy glass that had long comprised his being. It was a fire that blazed through him, melting the sterile white paint and curling the precise, straight beams of detachment he’d spent years tempering. Ruinous and unforgiving, it burned him; and were he a weaker man, one with less refinement or grace, likely he would have gasped or trembled. Instead, he stood stock still as the meticulously constructed asylum of his person was damaged, the climbing heat leaving only one thing untouched in its otherwise impartial wave of destruction. The pedestal of the elf. It sat, pure and whole, not a single speck of soot upon its flawless, white surface. As the doors of the elevator opened with a soft ‘bing!’ Theodore stepped in and turned, hands neatly and loosely holding his lunch. The inferno within him would go unnoticed by all, his poise all too perfected to belie the catastrophe that had boiled his insides and left him consumed. But he knew. He knew and he accepted it all too graciously. He was in love. And there was not a single thing that could even hope to stand in the wake of his flames. 

Chapter Text

 

            Passeri sighed tiredly as he shoved his key into the lock of his door, twisting it several times before it finally budged and slid open with a loud clack. He stepped inside his apartment, shutting the door behind him and twisting the deadbolt. He then lifted his hand to move the chain into place, but paused as his fingers brushed over the damaged object. He’d once again forgotten to call maintenance to come replace it. Passeri let out another sigh and simply turned from the door, heading into his bedroom and quickly stripping out of his work uniform. Though his first day had gone smoothly, he was worn out, and wanted nothing more than to slip into some comfortable clothes and simply relax. Once he was changed, Passeri went to his kitchen and opened the refrigerator, brow furrowing as he studied the food within. He’d also forgotten to go shopping. He shook his head and straightened up, swiping an apple from the counter as he walked into the living room and dropped himself on the couch. He tugged his computer into his lap and opened the lid, logging in and going to his Facebook page. 

            It had been a few weeks since he’d last updated any of his social media, and so he took this opportunity to post about his new job. He then scrolled through his feed, shifting the mouse to dismiss each pop up notification whenever a friend reacted to his status. After several minutes, his computer dinged, and he glanced to the bottom right corner of the screen, taking note of a flashing chat bar with his friend, Ari. Passeri rubbed at his face for a moment, contemplating whether he truly had the energy to talk, then sighed and clicked on the bar. While he knew he was exhausted, he hadn’t spoken to Ari in nearly a week, and he was beginning to feel like a bad friend. 

 

 

Ari: Passeri!! How’s the new job??
Passeri: It’s good! Right next to an office building, so we stay pretty busy tbh. 

Ari: Oh nice! Are you just paid hourly, or you get tips too?

Passeri: We get tips! We have a tip jar and we just sort of...divvy it up at the end of the day. 

Ari: That’s great! I miss you! You should come visit soon, or I could? 

Passeri: Sure, that sounds great! I miss you too. It’s so weird having moved away...I’m really not used to it yet, you know? 

           

            Passeri took a bite of his apple and lifted a hand to rub at his eye. He stifled a yawn, then slid his computer onto the couch and stood up. His apartment had only four windows, each of which he’d covered with heavy blackout curtains to keep out any sort of prying gaze. He knew it was rather unnecessary, after all, it was rather unlikely anyone would be coming up to the third floor to peep, but he had been unable to relax within his new home until he’d done so. He walked to each window, nervously pulling back the curtains to check the locks and ensure they were properly situated. His throat was tight and dry the entire time, and he let out a shaky breath of relief once he’d finished. He walked back to his laptop now, sitting and checking his messages. 

 

 

Ari: Ah, yeah, that makes sense… How’s the new place? 

Passeri: It’s...alright? The windows are kinda big, so I had to get double curtains to cover them all, but managed to do so. Climbing the three flights of stairs is a bit annoying though. 

Ari: That’s good about the curtains at least! Keep all the dark out. 

Passeri: Haha, yeah. The dark is out, and so are any peeping toms. 

Ari: Peeping toms on the third floor?

Passeri: One of my windows has a fire escape attached to it. Someone really committed could get up here, you know? 

Ari: Oh Passeri...you’re just spooking yourself thinking like that. 

Passeri: Yeah, you’re right… Still, kinda hard not worry about, I guess. Just spooks me sometimes. Anyway, I should probably be headed to bed here soon. It was good to catch up!! Night! 

Ari: Yeah, likewise! Sleep well! 

 

            Passeri closed his laptop and finished off his apple, heading to the kitchen and tossing the core into the trash can. His stomach growled quietly, and he briefly considered ordering takeout, but eventually decided not to. Though he was hungry, he didn’t currently have the expendable income to waste on potentially expensive food. Passeri sighed softly and rubbed at the back of his neck, then pulled out his phone and turned on his flashlight, flipping off the light in the kitchen and going to his bedroom. He slipped into bed and plugged his phone in to charge, turning off the flash, and stretching a hand out to plug his nightlight in, the room lighting up with a soft, purple glow. He sometimes felt embarrassed to be twenty-one years old and still so afraid of the dark. But try as he might, it was a fear he simply could not get over, and so he coped with it to the best of his ability, making use of his flashlight, and keeping the areas around him well illuminated. The new and unfamiliar setting of his apartment also did not lend itself well to a peaceful and relaxing sleep, and he would often find himself waking every few hours, disoriented and confused. He was not used to his home yet, and without the glow of his nightlight, he was sure that he would surpass puzzlement during those moments of wakefulness, and slip straight into a vice grip of panic. He snuggled into his pillows, tugging his blanket up and over his shoulders as he closed his eyes and let out a heavy exhale. The day had been long and he was eager to finally rest, wrapped in the soft, warm cocoon of his bed, desperately hoping that the next time he woke, it would already be morning. 

 

~~***~~

 

            Theodore pushed the door to the cafe open, his steps even and measured as he crossed the floor. He came to a stop at the back of the line, eyes moving over the people standing before him. Martin was there. His file jumped out at Theodore, pages flipping, waiting to be glanced at. But that was not why he had come to the cafe. He ignored Martin, shifted his gaze further, but did not find what he was looking for. He blinked, glanced at his watch. 7:38. His elf should have been there. Theodore blinked once more, could feel the flames of obsession licking at the corners of his mind as his eyes darted around the room. No Passeri. His elf was not there. The line shifted as Martin moved, and Theodore stepped forward. 

“Good morning, Sir,” the woman behind the counter said. “What can I get for--?”

“Where is Passeri?” Theodore asked. The interruption, though rude, was carried across the counter in such a polite, concerned tone that the woman did not even balk. Instead, she gave a small shrug and tapped her acrylic nails against the counter, the rhythm unrefined and sloppy. 

“He called out,” she replied, shrugging again. “Sick or something.” 

“I see. A large drip coffee, then. Name for the order is Theodore.” His tone had shifted, no longer concerned, but still polite. It was not his voice. He had tried, gazing into the mirror with head cocked to the side, to pull his own voice from his larynx. When that had not worked, he’d attempted to coax it out, but he had never been very gentle, and it continued to avoid him. 

            Theodore stepped aside after paying. The shift in his routine was bothersome. Every morning for the last two weeks he would come into the coffee shop and order from his elf. And every afternoon, he would return and order from him once more. Careful, meticulous clockwork. These were the only times his voice, so evasive it was, would come forth, bubbling from his lips and dripping to the floor, a bloody stain on his otherwise flawless composure. He was crafted perfection in every other instance of his life, and even in the other aspects of these interactions. But his voice, the discordant grind of gears and machinery, a sound that belied his true nature and exposed him as inhuman, he had no control of it then. At first, Theodore had wondered why this did not upset him, did not bring forth any of the hot, sticky anger he’d felt when his routine had first been interrupted by his elf. But the answer was simple. He was in love. He was in love, and love was forgiving. His elf did not mean to stir the feelings within Theodore that he did, just as his elf certainly did not mean to forego seeing Theodore that day. He was not upset with him. Theodore stepped forward as his name was called, taking his coffee and exiting the building. 7:45. On time as always, despite the interference to his day. 

            For a time he had been satisfied, seeing his elf in the mornings and afternoons, their brief chats playing through his head all day while he busied himself with paperwork and meetings. He had memorized Passeri’s work schedule down to the second, lined it up with his own, twining their routines together and marveling at how perfectly they fit. However, his satisfaction was short lived. For the first time in Theodore’s life, he wanted. He craved, he yearned, and he ached. The sterile rooms of his mind had been scorched by the fire of obsession, and though he had grown far more accustomed to the burning, had reshaped the melted beams and reapplied the white paint, the scars of his desire were still there. The pedestal of his elf had expanded, holding more and more as they interacted, pushing the meaningless further into the dark, receded corners of Theodore’s psyche. The unnecessary was not forgotten, no, that was impossible for a machine such as himself. But the code, useless and clunky, was simply not needed, and so it collected dust, files tossed to the floor and covered in cobwebs, their pages curling and wrinkling with mildew. It seemed to Theodore, that as the inferno of his passions blazed stronger, the untouched parts of him grew colder, wetter, and darker. Locked rooms with long abandoned keys, areas he had not entered in years, permitting them to rot and decay, unseen and unknown. Theodore felt the flames of his love rise and flare, more of his carefully constructed rooms swallowed in their fervor. The cafe was not enough. Not anymore. 


            Theodore shifted his hands on the steering wheel and tilted his head to the side. He had followed Passeri to the pharmacy, and was now sitting in his car as he watched him shuffle inside. A large part of him had simply wanted to call out of work the moment he’d noticed his elf’s absence from the cafe, but he had resisted. It would have been an oddity, unusual and curious. He had never called out of work before, never been sick, never taken a personal day, never even come in slightly behind time. There would have been questions, poking and prodding, eager to pull back his skin and see what had clogged the machine. No, he had not skipped work. He had gone, sat through meetings and discussions and briefings, took notes and filed paperwork until his eyes threatened to bleed. And then, he’d been out the door at 5:30 sharp, heel hitting the smooth pavement as the second clicked to zero on his perfectly set watch. That was when the shift in his routine had begun. He did not travel homeward, as he always did on Wednesday evenings, but instead to the apartment of his elf; an address he’d easily found and carefully catalogued, tagging it for swift access, even though the very notion he could forget or lose it was laughable. He let out a small sigh, then reached over to unbuckle his seatbelt and open the car door, his movements measured and mechanical. 

            The inside of the pharmacy was quiet, soft muzak spilled from the speakers and wormed its way into his ears, determined to spin around and around his brain stem until he was forced to put his head through a window. Theodore flicked his eyes upward, noting that the sections for cold and allergy were directly beside each other. An excuse for his presence, fate or coincidence rather than meticulous plan. He stepped into the aisle and took note of Passeri, huddled in on himself and sniffling quietly, buried in at least three layers of sweaters. Theodore gazed at his elf for a moment, then turned his body to face the allergy medicine, eyes held in a downward slant, his mind too preoccupied with Passeri’s proximity to allow him even a moment of reprieve. He had never seen Passeri outside of his work clothes, and he was briefly struck by how small his elf was, especially in comparison to his own size. The realization set a heat coursing through him, a desire to protect, if only for the reward of breaking. His elf was so little, so fragile and weak, eyes watery and nose red, his body shivering as though he were beset by some terrible frost. The fire within him climbed, licking streaks across his back and neck, creating a yearning so powerful that for a moment he was sure he would melt. 

            Theodore was pulled from his hungering thoughts by the sudden knowledge that he had been standing still for too long. He lifted a hand to the shelf before him, eyes briefly pulling from Passeri as the fingers of his prosthetic connected with a smooth, cheerful blue box. He blinked at it for a moment, roving his eyes over the text as though he were unfamiliar with the words. He’d read this box perhaps a hundred times or more in his life. He could recite every warning, every ingredient, every side effect, every doctor’s suggestion without missing a beat, perhaps even in his sleep. He knew the exact dosage he needed, just how much would be helpful, and how much would push too far, make him sick and groggy and useless. He had learned that at a young age, when his body, malnourished and scrawny, had been too small to handle any sort of dosing for a child of his own age, let alone adults. He blinked once more, pretended to consider. He pulled the face of his secretary on, a mask of pondering, brows furrowed and lips pursed. He lifted the box closer, angled it in the light, squinted his eyes and-- 

            “Th-that’s a good brand,” a soft voice interrupted from his right, broken up by quiet sniffles and thick with phlegm. “My sister uses it...and she’s allergic to basically everything…” 

Theodore tilted his head to look, keeping a slow, even pace, ignoring his body’s desire to snap sideways, attention raptly focused on his elf. They had never spoken outside of Passeri’s work, never spoken outside of brief, light conversations about the day.

“Oh! Hey!” Passeri smiled as Theodore’s gaze fell on his face. His skin was sallow, lips sleep swollen and eyes ringed by dark circles. He had never looked more beautiful. “Fancy meeting you here,” his elf continued. 

Theodore gave a slight nod, returning Passeri’s smile with the practiced, flattering one he would so often adopt in his presence. “Sick?” He asked, resisting the urge to flinch as his own voice crawled forth, battering all common sense and order from his brain as it longed for freedom, dropping its heaving, desiccated body at Passeri’s feet, jaw agape and eyes leaking. But Passeri did not tear his eyes from Theodore’s face, did not seem to notice the excoriated, bloody creature before him, with skin so tender that the very air made it wail. 

“That obvious, huh?” Passeri’s smile shifted, became less polite, more tired. “I guess I do kinda look like shit…” he laughed quietly and rubbed at the back of his neck. “I don’t think I’m contagious though, so no worries about proximity. Just figured it’d be better to call out, you know?” 

“You look fine,” Theodore replied, attempting to draw his voice back, to cover the unsightly thing with a cloth or a mask. But it refused. It batted him away and pressed closer to Passeri, leaving bloody handprints as it began to tug itself upward, desperate to climb inside and live somewhere else. Theodore wanted to crush it. Unsightly, malignant beast it was, he wanted to bring his heel down upon it and grind it into a worthless paste. The audacity of his voice, to force itself out; a disobedient animal tracking blood and viscera with each dragging step of its limp and pathetic body. It ruined his composure, spoke with the twist and grind of gears, a peek into the machinery that ran his cold, inhuman body. 

Passeri let out a small laugh, stuffing one hand into the pocket of his hoodie. “Thanks. I don’t know what looks okay about this,” he gestured to his face with his other hand. “But I appreciate it.” He nodded to the allergy medicine Theodore still grasped. “That for you?” 

            Theodore shifted his eyes to the box, giving only a small nod in response, not wanting to open his mouth lest the despicable cadaver of his voice stir to life once more. 

“What’re you allergic to?” Passeri asked, tilting his head slightly. However, the moment he said this, he lifted his hand and gave a small wave, cheeks darkening with embarrassment as he pursed his lips. “S-sorry, that’s a bit personal. We’ve never really talked outside the cafe before, I don’t want to seem like I’m prying, I guess? You’re just...nice and I see you a lot and I don’t really have any friends around here, so--” His cheeks flushed further and he bit his lip, the action causing Theodore’s eyes to snap to his mouth. He longed to replace Passeri’s teeth with his own, to throw his elf on the ground and bite every inch of him, not stopping until he was an unrecognizable mass of writhing blood and gore, veins thick and stringy between his teeth. He could feel his mask waver, the inferno of his desire warping and melting the hard plastic. But no, not here, not now, not yet. He straightened himself, fixed his mask, quenched the flames, and responded. 

            “It’s alright.” The creature began its ascent once more, mewling and trembling as it moved, shaking hand over shaking hand. He ignored it. “You didn’t make me uncomfortable. I’m allergic to pollen. With the seasons changing soon, I thought I’d get a headstart on stocking up.” 

Passeri nodded sharply, cheeks still burning a soft red. “O-oh, that sucks! I’m not allergic to anything, but that also means my immune system is awful…” He kicked at the floor for a moment, then shrugged. “So if anyone even thinks about getting sick, I get a fever.” 

Theodore blinked, attempting to come up with a response. He had never participated in small talk, had simply recused himself and avoided it at all costs. He didn’t know how, was unsure of the proper mirroring technique. 

“It’s okay, though!” Passeri continued. “Win some, lose some, right?” He laughed softly. The creature made a noise, and it took Theodore a moment to realize he was laughing as well, an unfamiliar and almost painful sound. It was pressed right next to Passeri’s ear now, blood gurgling from its lips as it wheezed out another laugh. Passeri smiled at Theodore. “I should probably be heading home. I’m feeling...a bit faint from all this activity. But, hey, you know where I work. Don’t be a stranger.” His smile broadened and he lifted a hand to wave as he stepped around Theodore. “Maybe next time you come in, we can get a coffee together instead of you just ordering one from me?” 

            Theodore gave a quick nod, his refusal to speak causing the simpering creature to fall from Passeri’s body and splat wetly against the marble floor. Theodore stepped forward, pressed his foot over it, the pressure muffling its panicked sobs. He wanted to feel it burst, wanted to crush its soft, flabby body so that it could never again betray or disobey. 

“Sounds good!” His elf chirped, fixing him with another smile. “I look forward to it.” With this, Passeri turned and left, heading for the front counter. Theodore stood where he was for a moment, looking back down to the box in his hands. He could feel his voice writhing beneath the toe of his shoe, weak, pitiful mewls escaping it. Traitorous bastard that it was, it would never obey him, bursting forth to embarrass him, again and again like an excited child. He gave a slight tug of his suit jacket, adjusted his sleeves, then walked to the front, barely sparing a glance to the floor behind him. He had felt the beast slip back in, its slimy, hairless body sliding down his throat, where it tucked itself once more, crying and whimpering, a battered and foolish animal that refused to learn its place. Theodore approached the counter, set the box down, donned his most practiced mask, but did not dare speak. A smooth, flawless transaction despite the itchy feeling of his voice crawling and squirming within him. 

            He did not permit himself to think until he was back in his car, hands clasped on the steering wheel as he gazed out the windshield. Passeri was not there, he had gone home. Theodore briefly considered following him, wanting to see more, to press close and dissect him. But there was little point. He had noted the curtains on Passeri’s windows and knew it was unlikely they would be pulled back at this point in the day; the sunlight was waning, and it seemed improbable that his elf would be fond of the darkness, so soft and fragile he was. He rubbed the skin of his palm against the leather of the wheel. Passeri wanted to get coffee together, had spoken familiarly toward him, had even been embarrassed, worried about frightening Theodore off or discomforting him. Theodore blinked for a moment, somewhat amused by his elf’s nervousness. The very notion that he could be driven away was almost laughable, and it caused him to shake his head as he put his car in motion and began the drive home. His elf had been so worried, so scared of being alone, of not having him anymore. Thankfully, the solution was easy and readily apparent: he would simply become even more of a constant in his elf’s life, prove to him that there was nothing he could do to get rid of him. He turned onto the main road of the city, giving another small head shake. His elf was so silly, so nervous and fluttery; it would be easy to prove his devotion, and to remind Passeri where he belonged. 

Chapter Text

            “This is the third time I’ve called this week!” Passeri said angrily into the phone, tears burning in his eyes as he paced within his living room. “If you can’t find the check, I don’t know what to tell you! I paid for it, it’s been taken out of my account! I don’t have the money to write a whole second check!”  

He heard his landlord sigh on the other end. “Taken out of your account and put where? It’s not in our system. If you mishandled the check and someone stole it--”

“I didn’t mishandle shit! I put in the drop box!” 

“And it was not there. Perhaps it fell out?”

“How would it fall out?” 

Another sigh. “Or perhaps you never paid it at all.”

“Wha--”

“Have it paid by the end of next week, or we will begin the eviction process. Have a good day, Mr. Maelon.” 

Passeri froze in his steps, fingers trembling around his phone. He stood still for so long, that his phone shrieked at him, furious he was still on the line long past the dial tone. He flinched and pulled back, stuffing it into his pocket and collapsing on the couch, shoulders heaving with sobs. 

            However, he had only moments to cry before the alarm on his phone went off, warning him that he really should have been out the door and headed to work five minutes prior. He quickly wiped at his eyes and shoved to his feet, leaving his apartment and running down the stairs in his hurry to be on time. Thankfully, traffic was light and he managed to arrive at the cafe with moments to spare. He went in, slipped his apron over his head, slapped his customer service smile on, and prepared to take his first order of the day. After a few customers had trickled through, Passeri was treated to the pleasant and familiar presence of his favorite customer. Theodore was always kind to Passeri; he’d never blamed him if one of the other barista’s messed up his order or took too long, and Passeri now returned that kindness by ensuring he was always the one to assist him. He felt his practiced smile slip, Theodore’s arrival proving comforting enough that a few tears leaked from his eyes. 

            “Are you alright?” Theodore asked, giving Passeri a slight, concerned head tilt. 

“I’m...um.” Passeri bit his lip, choked up. “I’ll be okay, sorry.” He began to plug in the order automatically, fingers trembling. “L-large drip--”

“Passeri,” Theodore interrupted, his voice gentle, but firm. Passeri had become fond of the sound, though the first time he’d heard it had been somewhat jarring. It seemed out of place for the way Theodore carried himself and interacted, his behavior so refined but his voice so raw. “What’s wrong?” 

This question had drawn the attention of another barista within the shop, and she paused in her work to come over, setting a hand on Passeri’s shoulder. “Do you need to step away for a moment?” 

Passeri’s lips quivered, but he nodded, giving Theodore a pleading look as he moved around the counter. He felt pathetic. Though Theodore was his favorite customer and seemed to hold some fondness for him, Passeri was sure the older man did not regard him in such a friendly manner. He was certain that his miserable, pitiful display would scare him off and he would lose the only friend he’d managed to make since moving away from home. 

            However, Theodore moved with him, his hand gently pressing to Passeri’s lower back as he escorted him to the patio outside. The moment they were seated, Passeri burst into tears, burying his face in his hands. 

“I’m s-sorry,” he managed to blubber out, “this is so pathetic, and you have work soon and--”

“What’s wrong?” Theodore repeated. 

Passeri let out a soft, heaving sob, then lifted his head, fixing watery eyes on Theodore. “M-my landlord lost my check. He l-lost it and some ass took it and deposited it a-and now I’m being threatened with eviction and I d-don’t--” he choked up, fingers curling against his skin. “I don’t know what to do b-because I can’t pay it again b-but I can’t be evicted, where would I g-go? I just moved here, I don’t know anyone, I--” he dissolved into sobs once more, hands trembling against his skin. He felt furious with himself, sure that he was not only coming off as pitiful, but useless as well. 

“I could cover it for you,” Theodore replied. 

This response shocked Passeri so much that for a moment, he stopped crying, a soft, weak whimper escaping him. He then shook his head sharply. “N-no, I couldn’t ask you to do that, it’s a lot of money and you barely know me and--”

“I don’t mind.” 

            Passeri gave another quick shake of his head. “N-no…it’s really okay…”

“It clearly is not. If you’re unable to pay it and you get evicted, like you said, where would you go?” 

“I…” he sniffled and looked up, biting his lip. “Back to my parents, I guess…. God…” Fresh tears filled his eyes and he clenched his throat around a despairing moan. “They’ll be so mad at me…” 

“For your landlord’s error?”

“They would think it’s my fault...that I wasn’t responsible enough...they were...worried about me coming to live on my own anyway.” Passeri shifted slightly and wrapped his arms around himself, a shaky sob escaping him. “All my friends were too…” his voice dropped to a soft whisper. “They all think I’m pretty incompetent, and I guess this just proves it, right?” 

Theodore tilted his head. “Well, you’re young. Mistakes are going to be made and you will suffer the consequences for them, especially without someone to ensure your wellbeing. But...that doesn’t sound like what’s going on in this case.” 

            “I guess…” Passeri let out a soft sigh and steeled himself. “I should go back in…” 

“Would you not prefer to take a personal day? I’m sure the management would be understanding.” 

Passeri shook his head. “No...if I need to potentially pay my rent again, I can’t afford that. Maybe I can sell some stuff…” he trailed off with another sigh, then pushed himself to his feet. “I’m really sorry, Theodore.” 

“For what?” 

“H-holding you up this morning...you didn’t get your coffee and--” 

Theodore glanced down at his watch, face remaining impassive as he noted the time. “Ah, I do suppose I am a bit behind schedule.” 

“I’m sorry…” Passeri repeated softly, tears leaking from his eyes. “God, this is so pathetic, I’m sorry.” 

Theodore looked up at him, arching a brow. “Hm?” 

            Passeri huffed and rubbed at his eyes. “I just...I don’t want to freak you out. I know you don’t really know me all that well, and I don’t know you that much, but I...I enjoy talking to you and the time we spend together when we’re both on break.” He sniffled. “Y-you’re a good guy, and I just...really worry about being too needy and weird and making you think I’m trying to use you or just...scaring you off, I guess.” 

Theodore blinked for a moment, then gave Passeri a smile. It was a charming, gentle one that made Passeri’s face feel warm and his heart flutter. “You’re not going to frighten me, Passeri, I assure you. I am not so easily gotten rid of.” 

“I…” Passeri nodded sharply, dislodging a few more tears. “Th-thank you…” 

“Of course. Do keep in mind my offer, though. If things become tight monetarily, I am more than happy to assist you.” 

“I...I’d feel bad about that…” He bit his lip. “If that does...end up happening...I can pay you back, right?” 

“While there is certainly no need for that, I would like you to do whatever would make you most comfortable.” 

“Th-that would, yeah…” he gave another nod, feeling somewhat more at ease. “Thank you… I really… I’m really glad we met.” 

“As am I.” 

~~~~

            Theodore knocked sharply on the door before him, his other hand tucked neatly behind his back. He was angry. He could feel it within him, humid and dripping, a sheen of oil clinging to the burnt black walls of his mind. He was beyond angry, even, he was furious. He knocked once more, and a moment later the door was jerked open. A squat, bald little man squinted up at him, lip curled slightly. 

“Who’re you?” The man asked. 

“That’s not important,” Theodore replied coolly. “I’m going to give you two options, one far easier than the other, and you’re going to pick one. Understood?” The voice that slipped out of him was familiar and made his blood chill. It was the voice of his father. Cold, stern, with an underlying threat of danger. He had not intended to use this one, had not meant to slip the key into the heavily padlocked room of his childhood and allow it to eke out. 

The man’s eyes further narrowed, but he took a slight step back. “I...what is this? Are you threatening me?”

“No.” 

            The man blinked for a moment, then moved to shut the door, a startled squeak escaping him as Theodore brought his hand up to stop it. He pushed, shoving the other man back, then stepped inside, neatly shutting the door behind him and pointedly twisting the lock. 

“G-get out!” The man stammered, stumbling backwards. He was terrified, face pale and oozing sweat. Theodore could feel the fire inside him growing, flames of passion, of fury, coursing through his body. He wanted to burn everything around, wanted to reduce this man to a blackened char. How dare he. How dare he make Theodore’s elf cry? Who did he think he was, this disgusting little swine, sitting in his bed of filth and muck, to threaten that which Theodore held so dear? 

“Two options,” Theodore replied softly. “One is easy. The other hard.” 

“Easy way, easy way!” 

He nodded, stepping forward and tilting his head to the side. He cast a discerning gaze over the room, eyes briefly studying the disarray around him. A flare of disgust rose within him, but he quashed it down. For now. “Passeri Maelon’s rent. I will pay for it, and you will tell him you found the check and cleared it. You misplaced it, it was your mistake. You will apologize. You will not bother or heckle him about any late fees or charges that have occurred because of your malfeasance. Are we clear?” 

            “P-Passeri Maelon? That elf? D-did he send you? Is he threatening me--?”

“I already stated you were not being threatened.” 

“I won’t be cowed by some--”

Theodore stepped forward. The movement of his body was painfully familiar as well. There was nothing poised or elegant about it, he moved not like a machine but as a predator, one that knows its prey is too weak to fight back. He could see the blood quivering within the greasy swine before him, a squealing piglet before the butcher. “Are we clear?” he asked quietly. 

The man stood still for a moment, quivering. He lifted a hand, wiped some sweat from his brow, then nodded quickly. “W-we’re clear.” 

“Splendid.” His demeanor shifted. He slammed the door on his father’s ghost, locking the grimacing specter behind doors and chains. No longer needed, no longer wanted. He was the pleasant, polite businessman once more, the voice of his old boss, the even face of his colleague. “I’m thrilled we could come to an agreement.” The man seemed taken aback by his shift in tone. “How much?” 

“W-what?”

“The rent. How much?”

“Five...five twenty…” 

“For this place?” He quirked a brow. “You really hold yourself in high esteem.” 

            The man’s face twisted for a moment, cheeks darkening in an angry flush. Theodore quirked a brow, the action measured and careful, showing only the vaguest hint of danger. It was enough, however, and the man balked once more, rubbing at his forehead and looking away. Theodore withdrew his wallet from inside his jacket, unfolding it with a small flick of his wrist. It was simple; black leather with no distinguishing marks. He had stopped by an ATM on his way over, not wanting to leave any sort of paper trail that could lead back to him. He pulled the money out, set it on the table, then boredly watched the man as he scooped it up and began to count it. 

“All there?” Theodore asked, cocking his head to the side. His voice was light and mocking, hints of his father creeping in, tendrils of smoke that curled from under the locked door. 

The man nodded and shoved the bills into his pocket. “Y-yeah.” 

“Excellent. Do you remember my instructions for how you will handle this?” 

Another nod. “Y-yes.” 

            Theodore shifted his position, crossing his arms over his chest and angling his chin slightly upwards, the stance imposing and domineering. He felt a brief flash of disgust, hatred, despised that the mask he donned for such a situation was simply the mocking visage of his father. “Do it now.” 

“Call him?” 

“What else?”

The man’s cheeks flushed once more, though this time it seemed to be born of embarrassment rather than anger. He shoved a hand in his pocket and withdrew his phone, the object greasy and shabby, much like its owner. He quickly dialed a number, then pressed it to his ear. A moment later, Theodore could hear Passeri’s voice coming through the phone, high and nervous. He felt his own voice shift within him, the pitiful creature mewling and climbing, longing to push itself from his mouth and slither away. He clenched his jaw, tightened his throat around it and crushed it back down. 

“M-Mr. Maelon,” the landlord said, “I found your check here...it’s all correct. I must have misplaced it after depositing it...I’m so sorry ah...for…” he glanced at Theodore, who narrowed his eyes. “F-for my foolishness...it’s...really my fault…” 

            Passeri could once more be heard on the other end, the relief and gratitude clear in his tone. Theodore felt a swell of affection, the fires of his passion climbing and coiling within him, longing to reach out and engulf his elf. A moment later, the landlord hung up, giving a polite goodbye as he did so. 

“Happy?” The man asked, crossing his arms and furrowing his brow. “I apologized.” 

“You certainly did,” Theodore replied softly, no longer concerned about his voice leaking out. The moment the phone conversation had ended, it had receded; slipping its slimy body behind his heart, where it curled up and began to weep once more. “I will be taking my leave then. Thank you for your cooperation.” 

“My cooperation…? You threatened me! I have half a mind to call the cops and--”

Theodore stepped closer. “I did not threaten you. Had I, you would not be feeling so bold. You have your money, Passeri is satisfied with your apology, and thusly I am as well. Let’s not make this situation less than amicable.” 

            “He your boyfriend?” He shifted, moving back from Theodore and looking at the ground. 

“He is important to me, and that is all the information you will be afforded.” He turned to leave, pausing as he unlocked the door. “And if you ever make him cry again...I will not be so understanding.” With this, Theodore slipped out, his motions mechanical and smooth once again. He shut the door, perhaps a bit more swiftly than intended, curious to see if he could trap his father’s phantom with someone else. But as he descended the stairs, he felt it settle within him once more, retreating to its home of broken glass and locked doors, salty tears and frightened whimpers. It had been foolish to think he could lose it. He stepped into the cold, clear night, sparing a brief glance at his watch. 11:37. Not on time, not on schedule. He should have been in bed over two hours ago. A tremor attempted to wrack him, but he stifled it. He could hear the pounding, slamming, beating of his father’s shadow, hitting the door, screaming to be let out, to punish. He was off schedule. Off schedule, off routine, off order. Without order, humanity was lost. Humanity was nothing, little more than beasts. 

            Theodore gritted his teeth and slipped into his car, leaned forward, pressed his forehead to the steering wheel. His heart was hammering in his chest, his voice wailing, an infant’s cry. It was terrified. It could hear the continued shrieking, yelling, tormenting of his father, of its father, of their father. His fingers curled against the cool leather of his chair, he attempted to ground himself, to remind his body and mind of where and who he was. He was in his car. He was not in a closet. He was thirty-seven years old. He was not a child. He lived in the city of Rochester. He was not in Ecorse. He took a deep breath and sat up, body settling. His left hand quivered on the wheel for a moment, but he steadied it with his right. The mechanical would always still the flesh, would always win. Another deep breath, a quick glance at the time. 11:45. Panic swelled in him once more, and he desperately sought for something to fight it, something to hold onto, a buoy in the storm of his memories. His elf. His elf, where was his elf? He dug his fingers into the crumbling foundation of his mind, clawed and pushed until he had ripped himself from the debris that had toppled around him. He could hear the echoing timbre of his father, it mingled with the wails of his voice. He ignored both. They didn’t matter, neither mattered, the only thing, the only thing that mattered, that could save him--

            A sharp exhale. There he was. Passeri. His elf. He pressed to the pedestal, nail beds bleeding and palms streaked with filth. The purity of love washed away his sin, cleansed the dirt and rot of the dark corners he’d lurked in for far too long. Gentle, warm hands caressed him, brushed free the cobwebs that clung to his suit, wiped away the fears that had wormed their way to the surface, writhing bodies pressed taut to the skin of his disguise. The gratitude of Passeri’s voice enveloped him, the beautiful, lilting symphony of his laugh, his smile, his presence. Theodore calmed, a slow, shaky breath leaving him. He could no longer hear his father, no longer feel the gritty muck of memory clinging to his skin, no longer hear the piercing wail of his own voice. There was just Passeri. Fire rose within him and he climbed higher onto the pedestal, longed to press closer, to feel more, to hold and break and mar. The blackened char of his mind shifted, soot and ash blown by wind, carried on the breeze of his songbird’s call. His elf. His Passeri. His everything. His routine was not broken, it was simply bent. A slight change that he had afforded for his love. He put the car in motion and began to drive home, body still and poised once more. He would not balk or shatter, not when Passeri needed him. He would be anything, do anything, ruin anything, build anything--everything--he would, for his love. 


            Despite the shift to his routine the night before, Theodore easily put himself back on schedule the following morning. He stepped into the coffee shop at exactly 7:35, as he always did, and took his place in line. There was only one person in front of him, and they moved shortly thereafter, freeing his sight and allowing him to focus it on the only thing that truly mattered. His elf. Passeri looked much happier than he had the day prior; his eyes were no longer red or tear swollen, and he seemed to be in a far better mood. He smiled at Theodore’s approach. 

“The usual?” His elf asked, quirking a brow and widening his smile. 

Theodore nodded. He wanted to speak, wanted to tell Passeri of his actions, to hear that same gratitude he’d heard on the phone. But he held back, jaw clenched tightly against the squirm of his voice.

“Coming right up!” Passeri punched the order in, then leaned against the counter. “My landlord called me, apparently he’d misplaced my check after depositing it.” He scoffed and rolled his eyes. “Can you believe that? He was threatening to evict me, but he had my money the whole time.” He sighed, giving a slight shake of his head. This action dislodged a few strands of hair from the loose bun they were normally held in. 

            Theodore’s eyes traced the free curls for a moment. He longed to tangle his fingers in those dark tresses, to pull Passeri’s head back, expose his throat, and press heated, hungry kisses to his skin. He wanted to mar his flesh, to bruise and wound him, each injury a testament to his love and a claim of his territory. 

“It’s kinda funny though,” Passeri continued, pulling Theodore from his thoughts. “I was so panicked yesterday, and now...everything’s okay.” He shrugged, then let out a small laugh. “Almost feels like I’ve got someone watching over me, you know?” 

“It’s possible,” Theodore replied, stifling a flinch as his voice finally punched its way free, an ugly rasp of gears that filled the air and demanded to be heard. 

Passeri laughed again. Theodore’s mind enclosed the sound, trapped it in the beautiful, gilded cage he’d crafted for his songbird. How he longed to keep Passeri in there as well. 

“I’m glad it got sorted out,” he continued, giving Passeri a practiced, charming smile as he paid for his coffee. 

“Me too!” Passeri nodded. “I really appreciate you talking to me yesterday. I know it was...kind of a lot, so it really means the world to me.” Passeri’s smile softened, into one Theodore had not seen before. It was gentle and warm. Familiar. 

            The raw, bloody hands of his consciousness stirred, reached out, grasped the smile and pulled it within their heaving, wailing bodies. His voice was pressed so close to Passeri now, stroking shaking, desiccated fingers over the soft, smooth skin of his face. It wanted to pry his lips open and slip inside, to live within a body not made of grinding gears and razor wire. Its skin was weak and easily opened, and the churn of Theodore’s inner workings constantly broke it, crushed it, hurt it. Theodore would not permit it the kindness of escape. He returned Passeri’s smile, but clenched his throat around his voice, drawing it back across the counter, its legs kicking as it wailed and fought. He could control it. He would control it. 

“Of course, Passeri,” he replied, and his voice slipped. Its body was too soft, too slick with blood. He was left clinging to bits of flesh as it threw itself against Passeri once more, begging to be seen, crying to be loved. “I was more than happy to help. Please let me know if I can ever do anything else for you.” 

Passeri nodded. “The same goes for you, okay? If you ever need something, please don’t hesitate to ask, Theo.” 

            The nickname slipped off Passeri’s tongue as the last drop of rain does from a heavy tree. It splatted loudly against the ground, but the rain had long gone, and there was nothing to cushion its fall. Theodore blinked. Once, twice. The cogs of his brain spun, desperately trying to push past the sticky, wet need that clung to them. The fire inside him roared, burning past doors and gateways of safety, reducing files and catalogues to ash as it longed to burst forth and claim what was his. He could not allow it to. Not here. Not like this. 

He gave Passeri a sharp nod, another charming smile. “I will, Passeri, thank you.” 

A moment later his name was called for his coffee, and he quickly stepped aside, chancing a glance behind and noting that there were no other customers. A brief politeness afforded him by fate. He had been spared the embarrassment of standing there, holding up the line while he stammered and faltered, unable to even speak to his elf. He took the cup with a nod and a smile, then swiftly exited the cafe, noting the time as he went. 7:45. A brief exhale left him, and he calmed. His passions wavered, settled, receded. Quelled by the order and routine he ascribed to, they permitted themselves to be pushed back. But they would no longer hide behind locked doors, they had proven that much. Instead, they gathered around the pedestal of his elf, gentle flames licking at the smooth, white surface. They yearned to climb, to touch, to burn. He had to have more. He simply had to. 

Chapter Text

            Theodore shifted in his seat, sinking slightly downward. However, despite this motion, his gaze never wavered, and his eyes remained firmly locked on the moving form of his elf. He was walking into the theater, accompanied by another elf, Ari was her name. Theodore had never met her, and he didn’t care to. Were it not for the meticulous, mechanical way he had gone over Passeri’s social media, using a fine tooth comb to learn everything he could about the object of his adoration, he wouldn’t even know her name. She was a friend Passeri had made in high school, and she was visiting for the weekend, staying in his apartment. They were going to see a movie, a horror film that Passeri was excited for and had mentioned to Theodore earlier that day. Theodore tilted his wrist to look at his watch. 8:30. It was around the time he should have been arriving at his cabin--no. His uncle’s cabin. Taking ownership of the building still felt strange to him, and he was sure it always would. But that was not the issue at hand. He shook his head to dispel these thoughts, waited a few more minutes, then pushed himself from his car. He walked to the front kiosk, purchased his ticket for the movie, and slipped inside. 

            He did not particularly want Passeri to see him. If Passeri had not asked him to go, it must have been he was simply too nervous, perhaps anxious about moving too fast. His elf was so shy, so worried. Theodore stepped into the bathroom, locked himself in a stall, and waited. He checked the time. 8:45. Previews would have just started, the lights in the theater likely dimmed. He left the stall and paused to wash his hands. There was no real need to, after all, he had not used the toilet. But he found public restrooms disgusting, and the notion of leaving with unwashed hands repulsed him. He walked into the theater now, eyes immediately lighting upon Passeri, who blessedly had not noticed him. He moved swiftly, situating himself in the row directly behind his elf. The room was not particularly crowded, but it was also not otherwise empty. He settled into his seat, eyes focused on the back of Passeri’s neck, on the exposed skin he so longed to sink his teeth into, a soft golden he yearned to transform into a bloody black. 

            Theodore had never been on a date. He’d been asked on them several times, but he’d always declined, politely, kindly, but always a negative. He wasn’t fond of movie theaters either, they were usually too crowded, and the floor was always somewhat sticky. The gears of his mind worked differently within them, discomforted by the shift in lighting, in sound, in presence of others. To have his first date within one felt rather ironic. But it was what Passeri had wanted and, of course, he would gladly do anything for his love. In front of him, Passeri shifted in his seat. He leaned over to his friend, whispered something in her ear, and the two dissolved into a quiet fit of giggles. A streak of frustration pulsed through Theodore, a spilling of ink on the otherwise perfect, flawless white of the evening. He was jealous. The presence of this woman was not something he had been expecting when he’d planned to follow Passeri that evening. It was not something he’d expected when he’d abstained from his usual weekend plans. Her presence was a difficulty. Unexpected and unwanted, he longed to eradicate her. The familiarity with which Passeri pressed close made him want to scream, it made his blood boil and his skin feel as though it were going to melt. 

            Passeri was his. This was their date. Their first date. He could understand Passeri’s nervousness, his worry. He had not wanted to move too fast and frighten Theodore, did not want to seem too eager. But he’d had to know, when he told him about the movie, that Theodore would come. Why wouldn’t he? Theodore gritted his teeth and glanced away for a moment. He could forgive all of Passeri’s missteps with the evening, forgive his anxiety. And in fact, he did not mind them. Love was understanding, love was forgiving. But this woman. Her intrusion infuriated him, caused the flames in his body to rise, to scorch his bones of flesh and blood, leaving them bright and mottled. How did she not understand she was a third wheel? An unwelcome party? Theodore stifled a sigh of frustration and returned his eyes to Passeri. The movie had started, but he paid little attention to it. Instead, he spent the whole two hours gazing at his elf. He watched every twitch, every grimace, every startled laugh, every smile, every jump, and he stored them all in his memory banks. He placed them, stacked them, lovingly set them, one by one, brick by brick, onto the pedestal in the center of his mind. He ignored the stain they had to them, tainted by the presence of the woman. He would scrub them clean soon enough, wipe away the greasy fingerprints of her existence, until all that remained was their perfect, wonderful, amazing first date. 

~~***~~

            Passeri shifted nervously in his bed. He was sure he had locked the windows, the front door, and was currently contemplating locking his bedroom as well. He fidgeted, bit his lip, then pushed himself to his feet. He was anxious, on edge and uncomfortable because of the last week. He wasn’t entirely sure why, but he could not seem to shake the feeling that someone was watching him. It seemed to happen everywhere but home. Whether that be at work, in the store, getting dinner, walking to his car. He had first noticed it when he’d gone out to the movies with Ari, a sinking feeling, like there was something lurking just close enough that he could sense it. There had been nothing, of course, and they were watching a horror movie, so he’d pushed the thoughts from his mind. At work, these feelings could also be explained. He’d noticed that one of his coworkers, Thomas, seemed to have a crush on him, and so he would occasionally glance up and notice his eyes. Other times, he would turn from the blender to find Theodore watching him, and he would feel calmed, soothed. Theodore’s presence was familiar and welcome in his day to day, and though he was embarrassed to admit it, there was a sense of safety the older man brought with him.  

            Outside of these occurrences, Passeri could not explain the worry he felt. He wanted to wave it away, to say it was nothing, and that he was being foolish. Passeri sighed and moved to double check his windows. As he drew the curtain of the first one back, his phone buzzed in his hand. He glanced down, brow furrowed. An unknown caller. He frowned, and hit the power button on his phone, sending them to voicemail. A moment later, his phone lit up once more, buzzing again. He felt a chill creep up his spine. He bit his lip, then answered the phone, pressing it to his ear with a soft, nervous gasp. 

“H-hello?” 

Silence on the other end. 

“Hello?” He repeated, voice quivering softly. 

Still no reply. 

“Th-this isn’t funny,” he whimpered. He knew he was likely being paranoid, that it was probably a misfiring bot, unable to complete its programmed commands for some reason or another. 

            He heard the click of someone hanging up, and he gulped. He quickly locked his phone, then went back to checking the window, ensuring it was tightly locked. As he did, he glanced down toward a playground that was situated near his building, freezing in his actions as his eyes landed on a figure sitting on a bench. Their head was angled back, as if they were looking up at his apartment. Passeri felt tears spring to his eyes and he quickly jerked away from the glass, dropping the curtain in place and rushing into his bedroom. His heart was slamming into his ribcage so hard that he was sure it would break. A soft sob escaped him and he locked his door, crawling into bed and pulling the covers over himself. He was terrified. Too many coincidences in one night, it was simply too many. The worry, the phone call, the figure. Hot tears coursed down his cheeks as he continued to cry softly, pleading whispers escaping his lips. 

            He tried to calm himself, to think rationally about what happened and to logically parse out his situation. However, he found this far easier said than done, and within a few moments he’d pulled his phone out to send an email to his therapist, asking to reschedule for as soon as possible, an emergency meeting if she could. He then buried himself in his blankets once more, winding them tighter and tighter around his body until he felt some sense of security from their pressure. He let out a deep, shaky breath. “It’s okay,” he whispered. “It’s okay. You’re okay.” 

While Passeri knew it was unlikely he would be able to fall asleep, he still tried, desperate to no longer be conscious. He didn’t want to feel the fear and terror that pulsed within him, the lack of safety and security. He bit his lip to stifle another sob, tilting his face to hide it in the pillow. He was so scared. He’d never felt more vulnerable than he did in that moment, and he had not the slightest clue how to reconcile or solve this. Eventually, he managed to slip into a light, restless sleep, his dreams coming in panicked fragments that left him twisting and whimpering within his sheets for the remainder of the night. 

~~***~~

            Theodore’s gaze moved slowly over Passeri as he walked past, head down and hands shoved into his pockets. He had situated himself outside of a small sandwich shop near to Passeri’s therapist, and had been waiting for the appearance of his elf. The building was not far from the cafe, or his workplace, and so he had walked, just as Passeri did. Passeri looked rather worse for the wear, cheeks stained with tears and eyes puffy. Theodore felt a swell of concern for his elf, the need to make things right and quell whatever had upset him. He stood from his seat and moved after Passeri, pace even and measured, careful to remain several steps behind him. For a brief second, his eyes darted downward. 12:35. Things were still progressing smoothly, and it was likely he would arrive back at the office with plenty of time to spare. He gave himself a small, mental pat on the back for his ability to remain on schedule with all the shifts to his routine, and took a slight step closer to Passeri. He noticed now that his elf seemed agitated, his movement increasing as he began to duck and weave between people. Though this confused him, Theodore did not allow it to stop or hinder his pace, and he continued on. 

            Several minutes later, Passeri turned down an alleyway. The area was not usually very trafficked that time of day, but there was always the potential for some illicit or shady deal to take place within. Theodore quickened his steps now, a slight panic rising in him. He could not permit his elf to travel in such a dangerous area. Despite this, he paused just before he would have rounded the corner. He pressed himself to the wall, and peered around, noting that Passeri was currently nowhere to be seen. His brow furrowed and he stepped within, gaze curious and prodding. Where had his elf disappeared to? He tilted his head to the side and noted that the alleyway looped back around to the street. He moved in that direction, preparing to follow, but stopped once more as he heard the sudden slap of feet against pavement. The sound came from behind him, and he quickly realized his situation. Passeri had become suspicious, and indeed, he had perhaps not been as careful as he should have been. Between following his elf in his spare time, to calling him at night, eager to hear his sweet, musical voice before bed, Theodore had been toeing the line of danger. His eyes swept along the walls, then landed on a dumpster. He stared at it for a moment, grimaced, then lifted the lid and climbed in. 

            The trash around him was foul and rotting, flies buzzing within the confines of his metal hiding spot. He adjusted the position of the lid and bent his knees to avoid arousing suspicion, and a moment later, Passeri’s form appeared in his vision. His chest was heaving, his cheeks flushed with exertion. 

“W-where are you!?” Passeri cried, and Theodore could hear the pain and panic in his voice. “I know you’re following me! Whoever you are...j-just leave me alone, okay!?” He bit his lip and gazed around the alleyway for a moment. 

Theodore remained still, head slightly tilted to the side as he watched his elf. The scent and touch of the filth surrounding him made his skin crawl, made him want to shudder, but he did not move. A machine does not feel, it does not worry, it does not shiver in revulsion. The only thing he focused on was his elf. 

Passeri cast a panicked glance around the alley once more, then began to look somewhat sheepish and embarrassed. A moment later, tears began to fall from his eyes, and Theodore had to resist the urge to climb free of the dumpster, to take his elf into his arms and soothe him. 

            Passeri was quiet for a moment, then he let out a shuddering sigh. “Maybe she was right,” he whispered. “Maybe I am just being paranoid…” With this, he gave a slight shake of his head and left the alleyway, dragging his feet and rubbing at his face as he went. 

Theodore waited a few minutes longer, left hand trembling against the fabric of his suit jacket. He longed to steady himself, to feel something firm that was not attached to him, but the very notion of touching the rot slick walls made his stomach turn. Finally, he moved to leave, but found himself unfortunately paused in this action by a young man stepping out from a nearby building. The man sighed and dropped himself on the ground beside the dumpster, pulling out a cigarette and lighting it. Theodore resisted the urge to scream, to slither out of the trash; a foul, verminous banshee, and assail the man for halting his exit. With the small sliver of light afforded to him, he checked his watch. 12:55. He was not on time, he was not on schedule. His jaw clenched. Bile rose within him and was met by a wave of vitriol. The two mingled and he pressed forward. He would slip out of the dumpster, a poisonous ooze, similar to the filth and muck that coated his clothes. 

            The man took a deep drag of his cigarette, pulled out his phone, and began to play music. It was loud, obnoxious, grating. It slammed into Theodore’s skull, the beating of a thousand mallets determined to use his brain as their drum. His hand quivered, and he pressed forward once more. He had to leave, he had to escape. He was running out of time. Another glance. 12:57. He had to go. He couldn’t stay in this dumpster, he couldn’t be late to work. Order, he needed order. The noise around him was chaos, the beat of drums, the scream of guitars, the buzz of flies. Rot and filth, decay and ruin, it surrounded him, pushed him, infuriated him. He could feel the grasping hands of the dead clinging to his legs. They begged him to join them, to abandon the falsehood of his life and become one of them. 12:58. The man got up, flicked the butt of his cigarette onto the ground, and went back inside.

            Theodore burst from the dumpster, a scream building in his chest that was crushed only by the tightness of his throat. The tugging fingers of death released him, bitterly, forlornly. He heard them whisper their goodbyes as he threw himself to the damp pavement, chest heaving and nostrils flared. He scrambled back, away from the dumpster, away from the creatures within. They moaned and writhed, pushed aside by something else, something even more sinister, something horribly familiar. The specter twisted, it grinned and danced, beckoning him. Why had he been in the dumpster, why was he off schedule, why was he late for work, why, why, why? The phantom smiled its awful smile and shook its head. He knew why. Passeri. Passeri was to blame. The ghost cheered, it bobbed its head and shimmied its hips. Anger, it wanted his anger. Theodore stared at it, a chorus of wailing rising in his ears as his voice sobbed, its wet grasp pulling at his arm, desperate to force him away. For the first time, he listened to it. Theodore shoved himself to his feet and spun from the alleyway. He ran, ignoring the odd glances and curious gazes that followed him. He moved, and moved, and moved, until he finally made it to his car, and then he flung himself within it. He slammed the door, locked it, and buried his face in his hands, shoulders heaving. 

            He wanted to cry. He longed to cry. But his eyes, uncooperative as always, refused to grant any sort of moisture, any catharsis from the pain and terror he had felt. The anger that had welled within him in that alleyway; the poisonous muck of his father’s influence, a scar on his brain that would simply not go away. Love was forgiving. Love was understanding. Passeri had not meant to throw him off. His elf would never hurt him, would never make his life more difficult. He took a deep, steadying breath, then pushed his hand within his jacket and removed his phone. He stared at it for a second, considering, then dialed a number and pressed it to his ear. A moment later, the voice of his boss answered. 

“My apologies, Mr. Decland,” Theodore said, voice even and polite, a careful mirror that did not offer even the slightest glimpse into the hollow man it came from. “But I’m afraid I’ve fallen ill and will have to take the rest of the day off.” 

He barely heard his boss’s response, outside of permission given, an affirmative received. He hung up, pressed shaking hands to the steering wheel, and began the drive home. His elf. He needed his elf. 

 

Chapter Text

            Passeri let out a small hum as he pulled his hair up into a loose ponytail, allowing the thick curls to cascade down his neck and flare over his shoulders. He stared at himself in the mirror for a moment, then stuck his tongue out and turned on his heel to leave the bathroom. The anxiety he’d felt the past couple weeks had begun spilling into his daily life, and though he was not especially eager to leave his home, Ari had recommended it as a good idea. After dressing, he walked into the living room and picked up his laptop, briefly checking his email while waiting for his phone to buzz. Eventually, it did, and he pulled it out. 

Ari: Hey! I’m here! 

Passeri: Be right out! 

He set his computer down on the couch, then did a last minute check of his pockets to ensure he had his wallet, keys, and phone. Satisfied, he left his apartment, locking the door on the way out. 

            Passeri lifted his hand in a slight wave as he approached Ari’s vehicle, opening the passenger door and slipping in. 

“Hey, Passeri,” she smiled. “How’re you holding up?”

“Best I can…” he sighed, rubbing his palm against the soft fabric of his sweater. “I’m just...anxious. Freaked out.” 

“That’s definitely understandable…” 

“It feels like I’m being followed, and I don’t know what to do.”

“Okay, well, maybe we could try to figure it out?” Ari put the car in motion, then bit her lip. “Can you think of anyone who would do that?”

“I don’t...really know anyone here?”

“What about that guy you mentioned, the one you work with? The satyr?”

“Thomas?” 

“Yeah!” 

“I don’t know much about him,” Passeri replied with a sigh. “But he doesn’t really...seem like the type.” 

            “Alright, well...hmm...what about uhh...the other guy...the one who comes to your coffee shop a lot?”

Passeri shook his head sharply. “N-no way. Theodore wouldn’t do something like that. He’s way too nice, and just...normal.” 

“Have you talked to him about it at all? He seems to be the person you’re closest to here--”

“I already felt so bad when I broke down about the landlord thing…” Passeri huffed quietly, tears brimming in his eyes. “Like I said, he’s so normal. I’d feel like such a burden for dragging him into any sort of mess...especially if I’m just being paranoid.”

“Well, it wouldn’t really be a mess then, would it?”

“I guess not…. Just a nuisance.” 

“You know, it’s okay to need help.” Ari gave him a sympathetic smile. 

“I do know that...I just…” He curled his fingers into the hem of his sweater and squirmed for a moment. 

“Just…?”

“I…”

            “You like him, don’t you?” 

Passeri’s cheeks flushed and he bit his lip. 

“It’s okay to have a crush on someone too.” 

“I-I know that!” Passeri snapped, cheeks darkening further as he gazed out the window. “It’s just…what if I ask him for help with this matter, and then...later down the road work up the nerve to ask him out and...and he just thinks I like him because of what he can do for me? That I don’t like him for him but because of...material stuff or something?” 

“Well, why do you like him?” Ari tilted her head. 

“H-he’s really sweet. He’s always been so nice to me....” Passeri sniffled. “Sometimes the other baristas will get his order wrong or s-something, and he never yells or get mad, and he certainly never blames me, even though I’m the one who takes his order…” 

“Mmhm?”

“And I know that...jeez, that sounds like the bar is way too low, but there’s more! He’s so understanding and helpful, like when I was upset about the stuff with my landlord? He offered to pay my rent for me, a-and we barely even knew each other then…” 

            Ari nodded, glancing over at Passeri, who was still staring out of the window. “That was pretty nice of him, yeah.”

“Y-yeah!” Passeri gave a sharp incline of his head. “And then...when I was sick, I ran into him at the pharmacy, and we just kinda...chatted for a bit. And he told me I looked nice, even though I looked awful…. He’s just really a gentleman…” 

“What does he do, again?”

“Um...something with engineering. I’ve never actually asked. He works in the building next to the cafe though, which I know is an engineering and technology building.” 

“That’s a pretty competitive field! So he must be smart too, yeah?”

“So smart…” Passeri mumbled, burying his face in his hands. “Just from the way he talks, you can tell. He’s so eloquent and well spoken...but he’s not...arrogant, you know? He doesn’t think he’s better than anyone, that’s just how he talks.” 

“He sounds like a really nice guy.” 

“He is…and that’s why I can’t tell him about this kind of thing…” 

            “You lost me again.” 

“He’s so nice, and so normal and just...what if I scare him off?” 

“Scare him off by telling him you’re worried you have a stalker?”

“Y-yeah...I mean...that doesn’t really scream ‘dateable’, you know?”

“I...guess not, yeah.” 

Passeri sighed and rubbed at his eyes, tears welling within them once more. “I really like him…” 

“I feel like you could probably tell him. Things will be okay. And if he’s weirded out by it, or gets scared off, then...he probably wasn’t the best person for you.” 

“Nnn…”

“You know I’m right.” 

“I do...I do…” Passeri sighed, then suddenly lifted his hand and pointed. “Mall is right there.”

“Got it, turning in! Some shopping will take your mind off of this, promise. You can get something really cute.” 


            Passeri unlocked his door and stepped in, waiting for Ari to enter before he closed it behind. He had a few shopping bags on his wrist, but they were nothing compared to the multitude the other elf carried. 

“You sure you don’t want any help?” Passeri asked, quirking a brow. 

“Nah, it’s no biggie. I’ll just set ‘em on the table.” Ari headed over to the aforementioned furniture, then paused. “Hey, can you move your laptop?” 

“Hm? Oh yeah, sure.” Passeri came over and picked up his computer, then set it on the coffee table. “All clear!”

“Thanks,” Ari smiled, putting the bags down and rubbing at her wrists. “It’s a shame you didn’t get that cute lingerie we saw at the store. It looked gorgeous on you.”

“W-well, I don’t really have anyone to wear it for!” Passeri mumbled, rubbing at his neck with a sheepish smile. 

            “I dunno…” Ari teased, giving a slight wiggle of her brows. “Could wear it for Mr. Cafe Engineering Guy…”

“He has a name!” Passeri snapped, cheeks flushing deeply as his smile widened, much to his chagrin. “And I don’t even know if he likes me too!” 

“He comes in every day to order from you? He definitely has the hots for you as well. No doubt about it.” 

“The ho--! I don’t have the hots for him!” Passeri dropped himself on the couch and buried his face in his hands. “You’re being so mean! If I’d known you would tease me about it, I wouldn’t have told you…” 

“So...you don’t think he’s hot?” 

Passeri lifted his head to glare at her. 

“Knew it.” 

“Shut up…” Passeri grumbled. 

Ari let out a small snort of amusement, then waved her hand. “Come on, let’s put the movie on and get dinner started, I’m starving!” 

~~~~

            As Theodore stepped through the doorway of his house, he felt his phone buzz in his pocket. He blinked for a moment, then pulled the object out, and studied the screen with a curious gaze. He had a text from an unknown number, though he recognized the area code as his own. 

Unsaved: Um, hi. I hope this is the right number and I’m not just making a fool out of myself. Is this Theodore Nazari? Uh, this is Kai Almasi, from work? I, um, still had your number saved from when we had that big project we worked on together? If you’ve changed it then...well, I guess this won’t reach you, but if it is you...uh...hey? 

Theodore stared at the message, head cocked to the side. After a few seconds, he closed the door behind him and walked into his living room. He settled himself on the couch, sparing a glance at his watch as he opened the message from Kai. 5:50. He was on schedule, but had only a few minutes before he would need to begin preparing his dinner. He studied the text once more, then finally typed a response. 

Theodore: This is Theodore Nazari, yes. 

            Within seconds, his phone buzzed. 

Unsaved: Oh, awesome! Hah, I was really worried you’d maybe changed your number or something and I’d just be texting some random person. How are you? Any plans for the weekend?

Theodore: I am doing well. 

He paused at the question of plans. His elf’s friend, Ari, was visiting once more and seemed to have the intention of remaining for the entirety of the weekend. He felt a brief flare of annoyance, bitter and chalky within his mouth. Perhaps if they had met on better terms he would have been able to reconcile her continued presence. But she had forced herself upon his and Passeri’s first date, made herself a nuisance and a third wheel. Further, she caused Passeri’s schedule to become unpredictable, as she seemed prone to sudden, impulsive whims. 

Theodore: I do not currently know what my weekend plans are. 

Unsaved: Good! Uh. Well, not that you don’t know. Just...um… 

            The message trailed off, and Theodore tilted his head. It was clear that Kai wanted to ask him something, likely an invitation to some annoying, busy event. Though he had long stomached the man’s crush, it was beginning to grate on his nerves, leaving him with a lack of patience or grace. It confounded Theodore that Kai could be so oblivious, so incognizant of the fact that his feelings were entirely unreciprocated and largely unwanted. As his phone screen lit up once more, he took note of how long he’d been sitting. 5:56. Six whole minutes had passed since he’d arrived home. He would need to wrap up the conversation soon or risk falling behind on his evening routine. 

Unsaved: Well...I’ll just come out with it then, I guess. Would you like to go on a date with me this weekend? 

Theodore felt his annoyance swell, briefly pushing toward rage and frustration before it was ebbed by the gentle, caressing murmur of his elf’s laugh. He considered ignoring the proposition; he could simply put his phone down and walk away, pretend he’d never received the text if questioned. However, a slight, sticky heat rose within him, a pulse of aggravation at the very notion he would even consider cheating on his elf. 

            He let out a small huff, then quickly typed a response. 

Theodore: No, thank you. I am in a relationship.  

Once again, the reply was swift and immediate, as though Kai was pressed to his screen, staring and sweating as he waited for a response. 

Unsaved: Oh…. I didn’t know that. Sorry. Hope you have a good weekend, then. 

Theodore gave the text only a brief glance before he swiped to delete the messages. The conversation had been a bothersome waste of time, leaving him without opportunity to change from his work clothes before dinner. As he stood from the couch, he pressed the home button on his phone, stilling as his wallpaper popped up. The image in question was of his elf, one he’d taken within the cafe when Passeri had paused during work. His hair was in a slight disarray and his lips were pursed in a soft pout, hands on his lower back as he stretched. Theodore slowly roved his eyes over the picture, allowing the glowing embers of his love to burn brighter, gentle sparks that crept over his skin and left him on the verge of crumbling. 

            He brought the phone to his lips and pressed a soft kiss to the screen, a heat brushing over his cheeks as he made contact. It had taken him so long to select the perfect photo for his background; he simply had so many wonderful pictures of his songbird. Most he’d taken himself. But some, primarily older ones, he’d pulled from Passeri’s social media, using a cold and surgical precision to crop anyone else from the images. Though he did not blame his elf for posing with others in pictures, especially ones so dated, he had no desire to see them. The only one he wanted to see was Passeri. Theodore had no interest, not the slightest inclination, to witness the people who believed themselves worthy to look upon, or even be near, his elf. He placed another gentle kiss to the screen, lips grazing over the tired, irritable face of his beloved. He longed to trail real kisses over Passeri’s cheeks, to feel the soft, smooth warmth of his skin as he submitted, eager and pliant, to Theodore’s every demand and plea. He would ensure that Passeri never felt frustration or stress, never worried, never feared, never had to work or struggle or suffer. He would take excellent care of his elf. Always. 

~~***~~

            “I really appreciate you coming down two weekends in a row…” Passeri said, giving Ari a tired smile. “It means a lot to me. Are you sure you don’t want me to reimburse the gas?”

“Don’t worry about it,” Ari replied with a flippant wave of her hand. “I’m just happy to help. It’s unlikely I’ll be able to make it down next weekend, though. I have a date.” She gave a slight wiggle of her eyebrows. 

“Oh! That’s exciting!” 

“Mmhm. Hopefully it goes well.” 

“I’m sure it will,” Passeri assured her. “You’re wonderful, everyone loves you.” 

Ari let out a small snort of amusement. “Says you.” 

“Says me?” 

She grinned. “How many secret admirers did you have in high school?” 

“Ah...I feel like most of those were a joke, honestly…” 

“Seriously?” Ari shook her head with a laugh. “Are you really unaware of how cute you are?” 

“I mean...I don’t think I’m not cute. Just…” he shrugged. “My track record is pretty bad, you know?” 

            Ari’s smile faltered, and she gave a small nod. “Yeah…” 

“I don’t think I’ve had...a single good relationship.” 

“Some of them started out okay.” 

“They did,” Passeri agreed. “But…” 

“Yeah…” 

“Something would always happen. They’d cheat, or become distant, or…” he trailed off for a moment, “abusive.” He bit his lip with a sigh. “And I, stupid doormat I am, just let it happen again and again.” 

“Passeri--”

“It’s true, Ari. I let them walk all over me and use me however they wanted. I gave second chance after second chance after second chance.” Passeri’s eyes welled with tears and he quickly scrubbed the back of his hand over them. “At what point does it stop being another chance and simply become a cycle of self-harm?” 

“Hey…” Ari gently touched Passeri’s shoulder. “That’s in the past. You’ve moved on, and you’ve become a stronger person. Something like that won’t ever happen again.” 

“You don’t know that…” 

“I do. I’m your best friend, and what I say goes.” 

            Passeri gave a small, watery huff of amusement. “Yeah...guess so.” 

“See? You know I’m right. Besides, a lot of the reason they were able to manipulate and hurt you like that was because you had unresolved dependency and attachment issues, yeah? And you’ve worked on those a lot. I’m really proud of all the growth you’ve made. Seriously.” 

Passeri smiled slightly. “I have done a lot of work on that…” 

“Exactly. And the next time you date someone, it’ll be a really good relationship.” 

“And what if it isn’t?”

Ari shrugged. “Then you dump him and move on. I know that you won’t allow someone to mistreat you like that again.” 

“I appreciate your confidence in me…” 

“I’m confident because I know.” Ari got to her feet, pausing to give Passeri a tight hug as he stood as well. “You’ve got this. Next relationship--it’ll be awesome.” With this, she gave him another squeeze, then picked up her backpack from beside the couch, slinging it on her shoulder and lifting a hand in goodbye as she left the apartment. 

            Passeri stared at the door for a moment, then gave himself a shake and went to lock it. He brushed his fingers over the still broken chain with a grimace.

“Oh well,” he mumbled, turning and heading into his bedroom. Once there, he undressed, tossing most of his clothes into the laundry hamper, but opting to set his hoodie on the bed. He then walked into the connected bathroom and turned the shower on, humming quietly to himself as he waited for it to warm. A few minutes later, he pulled back the curtain and slipped in, easing himself into the hot steam and letting out a soft sigh as his body began to relax. He closed his eyes and pressed his forehead to the cool tile, tilting his head to the side as the heat streaked down his back. He could feel himself calming, the rushing stream easing his troubled mind and releasing the tension he carried in his muscles. Passeri had always enjoyed the water, and he would often retreat to the safety of his shower when he felt stressed or exhausted. It soothed him; a soft caress, like the gentle touch of a lover after a long, tiring day. He stood like this for ten more minutes, eyes closed and shoulders slumped, until finally, he straightened and began to clean himself. After washing his hair, face, and body, he stilled once more and allowed the rapidly cooling water to run over him. The heating tank in his building always seemed to be in short supply, and so he could never truly bathe for as long as would be ideal. 

            With a sigh, Passeri turned the faucet off and gave himself a slight shake, reaching a hand out to snag his towel as he stepped onto the bathmat. He dried his hair first, lengthy and sopping as it was, then moved to his face and body. Once he was sure he was fully dry, he hung his towel back up and left the bathroom, pausing at his dresser to get a pair of underwear. He tugged them on, then turned to look around the room for his sweatshirt, hands set on his hips and brow furrowed. He stood still for a moment, then walked to his bed and crouched beside it, looking beneath and sticking his arm under. When he came up empty handed, he straightened and set his palms against his knees with a huff. 

“Where are you?” he mumbled. A moment later, his eyes lit upon his desk, where his hoodie was gently draped over the back of his chair. “Oh!” He sprang to his feet and picked it up, pulling it over his head and nestling his hands within the pocket. Humming quietly, Passeri flicked off the light in his bedroom and climbed into bed, ensuring his alarm was set for the morning as he snuggled under his blankets and plugged his phone in to charge. He nestled his face into his pillow, enjoying the rub of the soft texture against his cheek, then closed his eyes and settled in for sleep. He was right on the verge of unconsciousness when the realization hit him, causing his lids to snap open and a swell of nausea to rise within him. 

            He had not left his hoodie on his desk chair. He had set it on the bed before his shower, specifically with the intention of simply grabbing it as he slid under the covers. A soft, panicked whimper escaped Passeri and he quickly shoved into a sitting position, jerking his phone from the charger and jumping to his feet. He rushed into the kitchen, turning on every light as he went. He stopped and grabbed the largest knife from his drawer, chest heaving and eyes stinging with tears. He checked his front door, letting out a thankful whine as he found it locked. However, this comfort was short lived as he remembered the fire escape that led to his living room window. Swallowing thickly, Passeri slowly approached, heart hammering in his chest as his tears began to drip down his face. He pulled the curtain back with a swift jerk, a sharp cry leaving him as he saw that this lock was in place as well. His knees gave out at this point and he collapsed to the floor, dropping the knife beside him and burying his face in his hands, broken sobs heaving from his chest and leaving his throat ragged. 

            He wasn’t sure whether to feel relief or dread. It was entirely likely he’d simply been scatterbrained and thoughtlessly set his hoodie down in an unintended location; after all, he’d done it many times before. This was the hope he clung to as he weakly pushed himself back to his feet, taking the knife and depositing it in the sink before heading back to his bedroom. Opting to leave the lights on, he slipped into bed and tightly clenched his eyes against another rush of tears, fingers curling into his blankets as he cried quietly. He knew he would not be able to sleep that night, so haunted he was by the other possibility, one he hardly dared let himself consider lest he make himself sick. Just a couple months prior he had felt so lonely in his apartment, had wished for company to ease his seclusion. But now, in this moment, he wanted nothing more than to be, and feel, utterly, completely alone. He yearned for the ache of solitude, so desperate he was to no longer have the shadow of a stranger hanging over him, watching his every move. He was terrified. Not only of being right, of learning that someone was following and stalking him. But also of the alternative: that his mind had simply betrayed him and that there would be no one to pull him from his sinking ship. 

 

Chapter Text

            Had it not been for the slight, sideways glance Theodore spared the cafe as he walked to his car, he would not have noticed his elf, who stood outside, arms wrapped around his quivering torso and lips pursed. He paused, briefly snapped his eyes downward--5:30--and then crossed the parking lot to his beloved. Passeri looked up at his approach, hand quickly darting up to wipe away what appeared to be tears. 

“O-oh, hey, Theo,” he greeted weakly, the nickname immediately worming into Theodore’s ears and winding around his brain; the soft, coiling caress of Passeri’s love. 

“Are you alright, Passeri?” Theodore asked. His voice, as always, pushed forth. Wet and sticky, it began its ascent of Passeri’s body, chapped lips dragging bloody kisses over his skin. 

“I’m...I’m okay, yeah,” he nodded sharply. “Just a bit stressed...it’s nothing too serious, hopefully.” 

“Would you like to talk about it at all?”

“I don’t think so…” His elf trailed off, looking briefly contemplative. Then he gave a small shake of his head. “No, but thank you.” 

“If you’re certain…” He could feel his concern building: worried that something was upsetting his songbird, and panicked that he was being kept in the dark. “I’d like to do anything to help, if I could.” 

            Passeri smiled slightly, but it was tired and haggard. “No, no, it’s alright, really. I’ve just been having some trouble sleeping, mostly. Nightmares and such…. I don’t think I slept a wink last night, honestly.” 

“Ah.” Theodore nodded now, a sense of relief settling over him. Nightmares were simple, sleep was simple. Issues he could easily and quickly solve. “I used to have sleep difficulties in my youth as well,” he stated, ignoring the way his voice wailed at the memory, trembling fingers scrabbling over Passeri’s cheeks. “I found that having a comfortable and favorite meal a few hours before bed helps. Following that, some lengthy exercise and a nice shower.” 

“Oh, uhm...yeah, I’ll try that.” His smile brightened somewhat and he rubbed at his arm. “Thank you...I really appreciate your advice. I hope you have a good evening!” With this, he lifted a hand to wave, and turned to walk into the parking lot. Theodore watched him go, eyes lingering on his form until he’d disappeared into his car. He then turned and moved to his own vehicle, his steps mechanical and precise as always. 

            As he slipped into the driver's seat, he flicked his gaze to his watch. 5:37. Two minutes behind. He braced himself for the wave of panic and terror; for the spinning, twisting nausea that would reduce him to a trembling mess. He waited for the screaming sob of his voice as it battered against his ribs, shrieking to be set free, to no longer live in a cage of barbed wire and crushing gears. But it never came. He blinked for a moment, but then gave himself a slight shake and started his vehicle. The slip in his schedule was minor, negligible really; especially when it had afforded him extra time with his elf. He pulled out of the parking lot and began the drive home, keeping a careful, steady pace to ensure he would be able to slide back into his routine with relative ease. As he pulled into his garage, he once more sought the stability of his watch. 5:50. He felt his body settle. So long as he kept to his schedule, so long as he did not permit himself to falter, he could keep himself real. It was a fine line to walk: to stop the fires of his love from rising and scorching his body. The flames longed to burn him, to destroy everything in their path and leave him a bleach boned skeleton, wandering in the charred ruins of a world long gone. But he would walk that line, he would not permit himself to tip. He would not fall into chaos or disarray. He had order, he had routine, and so long as he had that, he had humanity. 


            Theodore brushed his hands over the steering wheel as he looked up at the window of Passeri’s apartment. The heavy curtains, closed as always, obstructed any view he would otherwise receive of his elf; something that welled a pit of frustration within him. He longed to see his beloved, to gaze upon his songbird in his natural habitat. It seemed so unfair that he was never permitted to, never granted a single peek of how his darling fluttered inside his nest. His eyes were suddenly drawn downward as the front door to the building burst open, his elf scrambling out at a quick, frantic pace. Theodore squinted slightly, head tilting as he noted the way Passeri clenched his left hand, fingers pressing what appeared to be a stained red towel to his palm. His elf clambered into his car and pulled out, leaving Theodore in the parking lot with a burning curiosity, and even stronger, a hungering desire. Without a second thought, he stepped from his car, and walked closer to the building until he finally slipped into the alleyway. His eyes lit upon the fire escape and he grasped a nearby trash can, situating it beneath and carefully climbing on top. He tugged the ladder down, then hopped off the metal can, lightly brushing his hands together to dust them off as he used his foot to push his previous stand aside. With a practiced ease, he climbed to the stairs, then set himself upon them, only pausing in his machine-like gait when he arrived at Passeri’s window. 

            Theodore crouched down, and spared a brief glance around the area. No one there, of course. The alleyway was largely non trafficked, but it was still quite the foolish and potentially dangerous stunt with the light of the sun still lingering. He pulled a small knife from the inner pocket of his jacket, carefully jimmied it into the window, then tugged upward to pop it open. Unusually, however, the lock stuck, and his brow furrowed. He wiggled the knife a few times, a relieved sigh escaping him as the mechanism suddenly clicked and slid aside. Theodore carefully lifted the window and slipped into Passeri’s apartment. The moment he was inside, a deep, soothing calm settled over him, a sense of belonging and warmth. The fires within him flickered and quivered, eager to once more find themselves within the hearth they so longed to live in. He brushed a hand over Passeri’s couch as he walked past it, fingers dancing lightly over the soft blanket that always hung on the back. He paused, bent, and pressed his face to it, nose twitching as the soft fabric tickled his beard. The scent of his elf immediately enveloped him; warm and sweet, it wrapped around his body and made his head swim. Some small part of him felt embarrassed; a man of his age, swooning like a schoolgirl at the very aroma of his beloved. On a whole though, he was happy: comforted by the surroundings of his elf, to exist within the natural habitat of his songbird. 

            He cast his gaze around the room, noting Passeri’s laptop in its usual place on the couch. So silly his elf was to leave an expensive electronic somewhere it could get crushed. Theodore picked it up, set it on the coffee table, then moved further into the apartment. He stopped once more when he arrived in the kitchen, and his eyes lit upon the cause of Passeri’s earlier distress. On the counter sat a large knife. Streaked with bright red blood, it rested beside a cutting board, upon which were a few slices of mango. He approached the objects with a cautious step, could feel the fires of his desire, his need, rising and pulsing, flames pushing out to scorch the world around him and leave him in a ruin of emptiness. There was nothing but the knife. The knife, painted crimson with the blood of his elf. Theodore’s hip bumped the counter, and his brow furrowed, cracks forming in his mask. He did not know when he’d arrived, when he’d crossed the entire kitchen to stand where he now stood. His lips quivered and he outstretched a hand. He wanted to stop himself, to pause, pull back, recollect, perhaps even check the time. Instead he grasped the handle of the knife and lifted it, angled it in the light to study how the drops of his elf’s life force ran down the blade. So much blood. He once more tried to force his attention to his watch; he had to keep schedule, to keep order. But his gaze did not shift, it did not waver. He brought the knife closer. 

            He could feel the cracks in his mask deepening, furrows swelling across its smooth, flawless exterior. Desire, raw and bloody, pushed at the tempered glass of his being. Routine, schedule, order. Routine, schedule, order. Routine. Schedule. Order. Without routine, without schedule, without order, humanity was lost; it had nothing to separate it from the animals. More cracks formed; canyons broken apart by the coursing rivers of poisonous ichor that seared his veins and called itself blood. The yawning, gaping maw of a long dormant beast pushed forth, a creature that had lurked beneath the surface his entire life, held at bay by the unbroken, textureless ice that sat upon him. A being born of pure darkness and obsession; putrid and rotting it lumbered forth, claws scrabbling at the back of his mask, desperate to break free of its prison. The knife quivered in his hand, so close to his lips. He could smell his elf’s blood upon it, longed to drive the blade into the base of his skull so that he would never forget the sultry, coppery aroma coiled around his brain stem. The scent which had awoken the roaring monster within him, a possessive passion that drove him forward, made him crave, made him need. More. He had to have more. Within him, the beast lurched forward once again, and this time, the ice shattered.

            The knife connected with his mouth a moment later, drool already dripping from his lips as he laved his tongue over the stained, wet blade. He moaned. Loud and heated, it carried the trembling, quivering timbre of danger. Theodore dropped his left hand, quickly tearing his belt and pants open, fingers shoved into his underwear within seconds. Saliva leaked down his chin as he began to pump his cock, the writhing, climbing flames of arousal licked up his spine and brought tears to his eyes. He had never tasted something so delicious. Thick and sweet, the blood coated his tongue, mingling with his drool as he slavered over the blade and continued to stroke himself. He expected to feel revulsion, hatred or disgust. He had kept himself in check for so long, had not permitted himself even the thought of pleasure, not the slightest stroke or touch at the image of his elf. He pressed close once more, and a low, hungering moan burst from his mouth. 

            He was no human. A chameleon in his own right, he had kept this hidden for quite some time, the structure of his routine acting as a ward against the hibernating monster within him. But now it was awake, drawn from the ice by the inferno of his obsession, by the desire he carried for his elf, it would not fall back into complacency so easily. He had been young the first time, his beastliness lulled into a deep, unflinching slumber, tethered by safety cords of abuse beneath the glass of order and schedule. A low, shuddering groan escaped his lips as the beast within him shifted once more. His orgasm nearly peaked: an inferno of passion that scorched his body and threatened to drive him wild.  The abyss yawned, creatures made of filth beckoned to him, their eyes dead and flesh rotting. He licked a string of blood tinged drool from his chin. Not yet, not now. He turned from them, set the knife down, and fixed his pants, sparing a glance at his watch as he moved toward the window. 7:45. He slipped onto the fire escape and tugged the frame back into position. A brief, sorrowful lament cooed from the beast within him, echoed in murmurs by the creatures that lurked in its gaping, fetid maw, teeth soaked with the blood of his elf. 

            He began to descend the stairs, eyes flicking to the right to catch sight of his reflection in a passing window. There was no mask upon him, the twisted, heaving gears of his being were exposed and quivering, shuddering as they were touched by the air of humanity. He was not one of them. He blinked at himself for a moment, then smiled. There was nothing practiced about it, no meticulous paint job or careful craftsmanship, and indeed, there could not be. For it was no mask, but the rotting, hungry gape of a malnourished and neglected fiend that had finally received its first taste of sustenance. The sweet and intoxicating blood of innocence, of obsession, serving only to stoke the flames of his desire and create an immediate and pressing need for more. He was a monster; a beast without conscience, empathy, or control. A spreading plague that knowingly infected everything in reach and brought it crumbling down to nothing, to ruin. 

            His feet touched the ground. 7:48. He was burning, rotting, the flesh of his body singed and bloodied by need, his desire killing him more and more with each second that ticked by. There was no hope of salvation. No benevolent entity that would stop the decay of his mind and soul, bring him back from the brink of madness he teetered over, eyes wild and teeth bared. With every step he took, he could feel more of his flesh slough off, the metal framework of his body laid bare and bloody to the world. He was not one of them, he was not human. And he was finally awake.

~~~~

            Passeri shoved the door to his apartment open with his shoulder, bloody towel still clenched over his hand. He kicked it shut behind him and walked to the sink, awkwardly tossing the plastic bag full of medical supplies onto the counter. He pulled the towel away with a hiss, then turned on the faucet and pushed his hand beneath the water. A small whimper escaped him at the contact, and he sought to turn his attention from the lacerated flesh of his palm. However, this caused his gaze to fall on the cutting board he’d been using earlier, and more importantly, the knife sitting beside it. His hands began to quiver, and he immediately slapped the sink off. Passeri scrambled across the room to look at the knife, hardly daring to touch it as tears sprang to his eyes and burst forth, cascading down his cheeks as a ragged sob escaped him. The blood was gone. The knife was spotless. Spotless, save for a slick, clear liquid that coated the blade in place of the prior crimson stain. Another sob left him, and now he did lift the knife, fingers quivering around the handle as he turned it. There was slightly more blood on the other side, and the pattern of something having been dragged across it, mingled with the clear liquid and filled with the unmistakable form of spit bubbles. Drool. 

            The knife tumbled from Passeri’s hand and he collapsed to the floor, barely managing to grab his trash can and jerk it over before he became ill. He could feel his eyes and throat burning. The thick smell of vomit mingled with the garbage and he threw up once more, weak, mewling cries escaping him as he attempted to calm himself. Finally, his stomach was empty, and he drew back from the plastic container. Passeri pushed himself to his feet and stumbled to his bathroom, hardly noticing the blood he dripped along the floor, the wound on his hand having split open again. He made a beeline for the bathroom, vision blurred with tears and ears filled with the sounds of his hiccupping sobs. He shoved himself into the shower and twisted the knob, neither feeling nor caring that the water was ice cold. He curled in on himself and continued to weep, terror and disgust trembling and welling within him. The confirmation of his worst fears did nothing to bring him relief, and in that moment he bitterly wished that instead his mind had betrayed him and that he’d simply gone insane. But the knife was proof, it was evidence. Someone had been in his home, someone was stalking him. And he was not safe. 

Chapter Text

            Theodore wrapped his fingers around the handle of the cafe’s door and gave a slight tug. He knew the exact amount of force to apply to ensure that it opened smoothly and without catching, this movement carefully calculated and adjusted depending on time of year or day. He stepped into the softly lit building and cast a brief glance around, eyes landing on the quivering form of his elf a moment later. Passeri’s eyes were tear swollen and his hands trembled against the counter while he worried his lip. One of the other workers, a faerie, was quietly talking to him, her tone soothing and concerned. She looked up at Theodore’s approach and seemed about to speak, but cut off as Passeri suddenly burst into tears and hastily stepped around the counter. A second later, his elf was pressed against him, face buried in his chest as he sobbed. Theodore responded without thinking, arms immediately winding around him and tugging him close. The faerie studied them for a moment, then pressed her lips together and took a step away. Theodore gently guided Passeri to the outside patio, allowing his elf to continue clinging to him as he nudged him back onto a table. 

            “I-I-I’m sorry!” Passeri blubbered out, hands trembling against the lapels of Theodore’s jacket. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, this is so--I’m sorry.” A choked sob escaped him and he leaned away, wiping his sleeve over his eyes and then immediately grasping Theodore once more. 

“What’s wrong, Passeri?” Theodore asked. His voice was hoarse, ground bloody by the panicked twist of gears within him. His elf was crying. His elf was inconsolable. Something was wrong, something was wrong with his beloved. He could not even feel delight in Passeri’s touch, in the soft press of his body, so great was his worry. A heat rose within him, the steaming pistons of his brain churning and pumping as he tried to pinpoint the problem. He could feel his blood boiling, a festering rage building inside and threatening to claw its way out, a slavering attack animal that simply needed to be pointed in the right direction. 

“I...I think someone is stalking me…” Passeri whispered. “I...I’ve felt like...someone has been following me...for a while now…?” 

Theodore tilted his head, brow furrowed. If someone had been following his elf surely he would have noticed. He kept an exceptionally close eye on his beloved and always took the necessary steps to ensure his safety. “Why do you think that?” He asked after a moment. 

            “I just...I feel like someone is watching me…” Passeri sniffled out, pressing closer to Theodore and letting out a quiet whimper. “And I...I thought maybe I was just going crazy for a bit… But stuff has been moved around in m-my apartment...put in different places than I left it...and…” Passeri choked on a wail, coughing weakly for a few moments. “And yesterday...I c-cut my hand while making a snack a-and I went to get s-some medical supplies…”

Theodore’s gaze shifted downward, eyes moving over the white bandages on Passeri’s left hand. 

“And when I got back...m-my computer had been moved…? And also...also the knife...the knife I cut my hand on...s-someone had…” Passeri shook his head swiftly, dissolving into tears once more, clearly too upset to continue speaking. 

Theodore pondered for a moment, a sense of puzzlement setting over him. For a brief moment, he wondered if perhaps he had been the one frightening his elf. Certainly, he had not meant to, after all, he was only following Passeri to ensure his safety and to spend time with him. He set a hand on Passeri’s back, mouth drying and words all but forgotten as Passeri pressed forward to bury his face against him once more. Theodore blinked rapidly, struggling to remove the thick, clinging coils of desire that clogged his brain, and caused the machinery of his mind to stutter and stall. 

            “I just don’t know what to do…” Passeri whispered. “I’m so scared, Theo… I’m so afraid someone is going to hurt me…. I...I think I might move back with my parents...I just can’t keep staying here alone, you know…?” 

This was the push Theodore needed, the hit that jarred the stuck cogs into spinning once more. Passeri was going to leave

“I think it might be the b-best thing for me to do... I’m just so frightened...” his elf continued, still clinging to him, as if he were the last bastion of sanctity in a decaying, death infested world. He wanted to be that. Desperately, frantically, more than anything, he needed to be that. 

“You can stay with me,” Theodore interjected. “Or I could stay with you.” 

“W...what?” 

“If someone is stalking you, it’s unlikely they’d simply quit because you moved. Especially if they’ve been in your home,” Theodore said. He clenched his left hand into a fist, nails digging into his palm as he struggled to ground himself. So much had he lost in his life--people, places, things--he would not permit his elf to go too. “A deterrent would be better.” 

            Passeri leaned back to look up at him, eyes watery and puffy. “A-are you sure? I...I really wouldn’t want to impose on you like that…” He glanced away. “And I have a really hard time sleeping in new places...and I’m so tired...I feel like if I don’t get some rest soon I’ll drop...I just--”

“Then I’ll come stay with you. At least for tonight. If it helps you feel safer...we can discuss further logistics.” His voice had squirmed too far from him now. Already he had such wavering control over it; but now, so close to his elf--the danger of loss staring him in the face--it was all he could do to watch as the deformed creature pressed itself to Passeri. Unsightly and revolting as always, it stroked its bloody, shaking hands over Passeri’s cheeks. It rasped out assuring coos, panicked wheezes leaving its underdeveloped and damaged lungs as it attempted to calm his songbird, to still the frightened flutter of feathers. Theodore found, in that moment, he could not bring himself to hate it, could not feel revulsion for the weak and agonized amalgam that had slithered from behind his ribs. He pulled Passeri into a firm hug. “It’s going to be alright,” he said quietly, lifting a hand to mimic the paltry actions of his voice, brushing Passeri’s tears away and sighing soothing murmurs against his hair. “I’m going to keep you safe. I promise.” 

            Passeri was quiet for a moment, then collapsed into small, whimpering tears once more. He pushed himself against Theodore, an insistent pressure that made Theodore feel as though his elf was trying to crack him open and climb inside. He tugged Passeri closer. He would permit it, of course. Any act Passeri wished upon him he would more than willingly allow. 

“It’s alright,” Theodore whispered. “I won’t let anything happen to you.” 

“I d-don’t...I don’t know what I’d do...if I’d never met you…” 

Theodore rubbed his prosthetic hand over Passeri’s back, the artificial limb steady and unwavering in its touch. “You don’t have to worry about that. I’m here.” 

“Y-yeah…” Passeri nodded shakily. “I just...a-are you sure this is okay? It’s a lot...a lot to ask and...I don’t want to be a burden...I don’t want you t-to resent me or--”

“That isn’t going to happen,” he interrupted softly. “I’m here, Passeri. And I’m not going anywhere. I promise you this, there is nothing you could do to get rid of me.” 

            Passeri was silent for a few seconds, then he nodded once more. “Th-thank you, Theo…” 

“Of course, Passeri.” Theodore settled against his elf and watched the reassuring attempts of his voice, its movements jerky and nervous. He mirrored them with his own hands. His touch calm and confident, it belied the frantic beat of his heart, hid the rushing, boiling passion beneath his skin. He was throwing himself into disarray, he knew that. Reckless and foolish, to so far remove himself from his routine that he would sleep somewhere else, rely on the presence of another. Without order there was chaos, and with chaos there were no tethers to bind him. He pulled Passeri closer, sighing softly as his elf curled into him: small, weak frame trembling against his chest. He had accepted the truth, the reality of himself and his situation. There was no order, no sense or logic to the grinding wheels and jutting spires that twisted and churned within him. The heat of passion and desire had melted the cold, unfeeling ice; had thawed the slumbering beast of his heart and permitted it freedom. Lifted from the sterile asylum of his existence, he had panicked at first; the touch of humanity upon the freshly exposed wires of his being had frightened and angered him. But now, the mechanisms within slowed, the click and whir of gears that had long sustained him softened, and were replaced by the gentle pulse of a soul. A machine he once was, he had been granted life, given a purpose for existing. His elf needed him. And nothing would stand in his way. 


            Theodore lifted his prosthetic hand to knock lightly on the door before him, his other quivering around the handle of his overnight bag. He could feel his heart thumping behind his ribs, the rising wail of his voice threatening to peak and bubble forth from his lips, a viscous, putrid stain on his otherwise immaculate presentation. The lock clicked, and a moment later the door was pulled open. Passeri stood in the entryway, hand on the knob and soft smile on his face. His eyes were filled with tears and he quickly moved back to permit Theodore passage. He stepped inside. It was far easier to walk through the door than sneak through the window, and he was thankful for the access he’d been granted. 

“Th-thanks for coming…” Passeri said quietly, shutting the door behind him and quickly twisting the bolt. “I really appreciate it…” His voice cracked and he let out a small sob. 

Theodore’s own voice lurched, clawed, scraped to be free. “Of course, Passeri,” he replied, the gentleness of his tone belying the shredded mess of his throat. “It’s not a problem.” 

Passeri gave a quick nod. “If you’re really, really sure…”

“I am.” 

Another nod, then Passeri loosely wrapped his arms around himself, and Theodore took the opportunity to study him, noting just how small he truly was. His frame was slender and almost delicate compared to Theodore’s own. Further, his elf stood at well over a foot beneath his own height, and he felt certain he could lift him with one hand if need be. Passeri shivered, and this motion drew Theodore from his pondering. 

            “Are you cold?” 

“Hm? Oh, um...sort of…” Passeri rubbed his hands against his shoulders, then shrugged. “It gets a bit chilly in here, but luckily I have a lot of blankets. If you end up needing any extra, just let me know, okay?” 

“Certainly.” 

His elf continued to stand where he was for a moment, then pursed his lips and glanced toward the floor. “Do you want to sleep on the couch?” 

“If that’s where you would like me. I’m here for your comfort, after all,” Theodore replied simply, clenching a tight hand around the excited rasp of his voice, the creature all too eager to pipe up and exclaim that he would gladly sleep anywhere. 

“Um…” Passeri remained silent for a few seconds. “W-would you maybe sleep...in the bedroom with me?” 

Theodore blinked. At one point the gears of his mind would have been able to grind through this cog with ease, mincing it and permitting him to produce an appropriate and timely response. But now he found that they could barely turn. The awakening of his being, of his soul, had left them fleshy and weak, covered in blood and muscle, and yearning to breathe. “I…” 

            Passeri’s cheeks flushed deeply and he seemed to stare harder at the floor. “Y-you don’t have to if you don’t want to, I just--”

The mechanisms within him finally churned into motion. “No, it’s alright,” he interrupted. “If you would like me to sleep in there, I can. I suppose I could make a cot on the floor or--”

“N-no, you can sleep in the bed...um...if that’s okay with you, that is…” 

Theodore wasn’t sure whether he wanted to rejoice or sob. He had been invited to sleep with Passeri. Their first night together, and he’d been welcomed into his elf’s bed. He knew he had to remain calm, could not let his excitement betray his calm exterior despite the fact that he wanted nothing more than to throw himself into bed and pull Passeri into his arms. 

“You...um…” Passeri sounded shy and frightened, as though Theodore’s lack of a response had been a negative reaction. “You really don’t have to...I’m sorry...I don’t mean to be weird or anything...I-I just...would really feel better if--”

“I’ll stay in there with you. I’ll sleep in the bed,” Theodore replied quickly. He felt a brief flash of annoyance for the slowness of his replies, irritated that he had to wrestle his voice into submission before he could even open his mouth, lest he unleash the torrent of passionate flames that longed to engulf his elf. 

“Y-you sure?” 

            Theodore nodded, then set his bag down, stepped forward, and gave Passeri a smile. It was not practiced, nor was it a mirror. It was genuine, if timid and unrefined, a rough grit across the smooth, marble surface of his being. His elf stared at him for a moment, then he returned the expression with a slight, gentle quirk of his lips. 

“Thank you, Theo…” Passeri said softly. “I really appreciate you being here for me…” He suddenly pressed close and wound his arms around Theodore’s waist, burying his face in his chest with a small sigh. “Your presence is very soothing...I feel really safe with you around…” he admitted quietly. 

Theodore blinked rapidly once more, then he swiftly returned the embrace, engulfing Passeri and tugging him flush to his body. “I’m...glad to do that,” he whispered, stifling a grimace as his voice pressed trembling, clinging fingers to Passeri’s cheeks. A small well of anger rose within him, but it was not for the creature’s display of need, as it usually was. Instead, this feeling was born of envy. How unfair it was that this pitiful beast was permitted such tenderness, allowed to touch and caress the soft skin of his elf with an almost reckless abandon. He longed to do the same, to refine the shaky and crude motions and perform them with his own hands; to leave trails of beautiful, dancing flame rather than streaks of ugly, oil-tinged blood. 

            They stood in this manner for some moments longer; Passeri’s face pushed into his chest and arms wrapped around his waist. Theodore couldn’t pinpoint the exact number of minutes that had passed once his elf pulled back, couldn’t even fathom the notion of checking his watch to find out. He had no concept of change or time in his current state; he was able only to focus on the soft press of Passeri’s body and the shy curve of his lips. He yearned to press forward once more, to hold Passeri flush and feel the gentle flutter of his lips. For a brief moment he considered it. He’d never been kissed, never wanted to be. But now… Theodore dropped his hands and took a slight step back, glancing away from Passeri’s sheepish expression. 

“Sh-should we get ready for bed?” Passeri asked. “You don’t have to if you don’t want to, but I’m probably going to be trying to sleep soon…” 

Theodore shifted his gaze to his watch. 9:48. He should have been in bed 18 minutes ago. “I’ll likely come to bed as well.” 

Passeri nodded and gave him a tired smile. “Bedroom’s this way,” he yawned, heading toward the back of the apartment. Theodore followed after, casting a brief look toward the living room and stifling a sigh as he noticed Passeri’s computer resting on the couch. 

            This thought was quickly washed away, however, as he entered Passeri’s bedroom and his eyes landed on the bed. It almost seemed smaller than he’d remembered, and he felt a flustered swell of nervousness rise within him. 

“The bed isn’t too big,” Passeri commented as he noticed Theodore’s gaze. “But we should both fit? I...again, I’m really sorry if that’s weird...I don’t want to make you uncomfortable, so if you’d rather sleep on the couch…”

“It’s perfectly fine, Passeri,” he replied softly. “I don’t mind.” 

“Thank you…” Passeri murmured, giving him a slight smile. “Oh! Um...I need to check the windows, give me just a moment…” 

“The windows?”

“I like to make sure they’re locked,” Passeri said. “Though…” He trailed off and his eyes brimmed with tears. “I suppose that doesn’t matter too much…”

Theodore tilted his head. 

“The last time...the window was unlocked. I always double check. There’s no way I did that…” 

“I see.” Theodore stifled an internal desire to scream. The window. He’d forgotten to lock the damn window when he’d left, so lost in his euphoria and newfound life had he been. But now was not the time to dwell, and so he quickly waved the storm clouds of annoyance from his mind. “Would you like me to come with you?”

“N-no, it’s okay. You settle in. It’ll only take me a moment.” 

            Theodore watched Passeri walk from the room, then let out a small sigh and brought his hands up to his tie. He brushed his fingers over the knot, then quickly tugged it loose and pulled it from his neck. His jacket and shirt followed seconds after, and soon he had stripped himself to just his underwear. Theodore paused for a moment and stifled a shudder of excitement, doing his best to ignore the creep of heat along his spine. He knelt, opened his bag, nudged aside the neatly folded pile of clothing for tomorrow, and pulled forth a pair of snug, grey sweatpants and a plain black tee shirt. He dressed once more, then carefully placed his discarded clothing into the bag as well before zipping it shut. A moment later, Passeri came back into the room, arms wrapped around himself and brow furrowed. 

“Is everything alright?” Theodore asked as he straightened from his crouched position. 

Passeri nodded. “They’re all locked, yeah. Hopefully they stay that way…” 

“Ideally my presence will work as a deterrent,” Theodore replied with a slight smile. 

            Another nod. “Y-yeah, hopefully.” Passeri worried his lip for a moment, then flicked his eyes over Theodore’s body, a slight pink tinging his cheeks. “I, uh, I’ve never seen you outside of a suit before.” 

“No, I suppose not.” 

“Y-you...you look good…” Passeri’s blush deepened and he cast his gaze away. “N-not saying you don’t look good in a suit, of course! Because you do, just, um--I’m gonna shut up now.” 

Theodore blinked for a moment, somewhat confused, but mostly endeared by his elf’s shyness. It was so common for Passeri to begin complimenting him, only to then clam up and become embarrassed. 

“Should we go to bed?” Passeri mumbled. 

“Certainly.” 

With a nod, Passeri slipped under the covers, curling in on himself and pressing his face into the pillow beneath him. Theodore stood still for a moment, then followed suit, carefully sliding onto the bed and gently pulling the blankets over his body. It took all of his willpower to clench his throat around the unwitting moan that threatened to escape him, his voice quivering and shuddering with delight. The soft, warm scent of his elf surrounded him, enveloped him, it was everything he’d ever dreamt, and he longed for more. 

            “Theo?” Passeri’s voice broke through his fevered thoughts, and he snapped his attention to him. 

“Yes?” 

“Um...you really don’t have to, and I understand if this is...crossing the line...but...would you maybe be okay to...to hold me?” 

Theodore barely managed to trap his voice this time, excitement welling within his chest and pushing the mewling creature higher toward freedom. 

“It just...it gets really cold at night, and it would make me feel safe? But you already make me feel safe, so you really don’t have to do that if you don’t want to and--”

Theodore shifted forward and wrapped an arm around Passeri, tugging him firmly to his chest and stifling a sigh of contentment as Passeri eagerly pressed back against him. The small body of his elf fit so perfectly in his grasp. He had been worried, though he had not long permitted these thoughts, that when he finally slept with Passeri, when he held him for longer than a moment, he would find that they did not mesh well. Theodore had feared the worst, that Passeri would find the grind of his internal gears and press of his metallic wiring too uncomfortable, too aggravating, and would push him away. 

            Passeri settled against him with a small murmur of thanks, then rested one of his hands against Theodore’s arm and began to slowly stroke him. “I really appreciate it…” 

“Of course, Passeri.” 

“You’re...really warm...and strong…” Passeri continued, voice soft and sleepy. “You make me feel so safe and protected…” 

“I’m glad to be able to do that.” 

A small, tired laugh escaped Passeri. “Mm...me too. It really means a lot. I’m...I’m really happy we met, Theo.” 

“I am as well.” 

“You, um...you really mean a lot to me…” Passeri’s tone shifted, and he sounded somewhat nervous now. “I like you...a lot, you know?” 

Though Theodore felt puzzled by this admittance, he nodded. “I do. I like you as well.” 

“Oh...um...good.” Passeri sounded a touch disappointed. “G-goodnight! I hope you sleep well!” 

“Goodnight, Passeri,” Theodore replied gently, doing his best to ignore the frustrated and uncertain feelings rising within him, the desire to shake Passeri to full consciousness and ask him what was wrong. “I hope the same for you.” 

“I’m sure I will...you’re here, after all.” 

            Theodore blinked rapidly, then pressed his face against Passeri’s hair, briefly tensing his body to still the quiver that threatened to run through him. He had never felt happiness of this kind before, never felt so warm and safe and secure. That isn’t to say he’d never experienced those things, as he’d often felt safe with his uncle, Adrian, when they were at the cabin or out on the lake. And he’d felt happiness on his eighteenth birthday, when he’d packed his meager belongings and burst from the door to his father’s hovel, threw himself in his car and never looked back. He tightened his grip on Passeri, pulling a small, sleepy sound from his elf’s lips as he settled closer. But none of those could compare to this, nothing could compare to the sheer heat and joy he felt in this moment. The flames of his love were not roiling as they usually did, nor threatening to burn everything in their path. They were soft and kind, quietly pulsing embers that wanted nothing more than to ensure his elf had a good night’s rest. Now was not the time for unbridled passion, not the proper moment to touch and scorch and claim and mark. Theodore relaxed his body and closed his eyes, a slight exhale leaving him. Passeri was everything; every single instance of happiness or despair in his life had led to this moment. This perfect, flawless moment.