Free Story — The Gift
[This story -- a stand-alone science fiction romance -- was originally written for the M/M Romance Group's Holiday Stories event, on Goodreads, where it was posted on 25 December 2010. This is a great group, and I highly recommend it if you're on Goodreads.]
Austin stepped off the slidewalk, palmed open the door to his unit and stepped inside, out of the community space and into his own private space where he didn’t have to pretend to be perfectly happy and well-adjusted anymore. He’d just spent the prescribed two hours at yet another horribly embarassing Mixer Social, trying to avoid one man in a small group of twenty-three. The Fountain Four Neighborhood Social Center was spacious, but the Fiveday Mixer Social was for unattached men in the neighborhood who tended toward other men, and there just weren’t that many of them.
He’d hardly had time to sigh out his relief at having that over with, and start dreading the next week’s Social, when his door buzzed. A box appeared through the delivery panel and slid to a stop on the smooth tile floor.
A really big box. Fairly huge, actually, like the size of a piece of furniture, taking up most of the width in his tiny entry hall. Austin was sure he hadn’t ordered anything anywhere near that size recently — not in a year or more, at least.
He checked the delivery stamp, sure it must be a mistake, but that was his name and his unit code. It wasn’t a mistake, or if it was it’d been made somewhere deeper in the system than a delivery glitch.
Austin scooted around to the other side of the box — the crate, because it was really big — and layed his palm on the access patch. He heard a rrrrrip-click and the lid separated from the sides, then swung upward.
The inside cavity was filled with fluff-foam packing bits. Austin pushed his hands in and dug down, hunting blindly for whatever might be buried deeper in. More bits, more bits…
…he jerked back with a yelp and smacked into the wall, his eyes wide with shock.
He’d touched something that felt like an arm — a dead arm, a chunk of a cadaver. Smooth skin with some give to it, what felt like perfectly relaxed muscle underneath, a scattering of soft hairs, and it’d been cool, the same late-evening temperature he’d just walked through on his way home.
That couldn’t be right. If someone was dead, whether of sickness or accident or murder, Austin couldn’t imagine why anyone would send him the corpse in a crate.
He stared into the box at the packing bits for a minute, then very slowly reached out with one hand and started brushing them away, a few at a time, so he wouldn’t touch anything he didn’t want to touch, at least not accidentally.
Strands of wispy blond hair appeared, then a smooth forehead, and Austin swallowed hard.
All right, he thought, straighten up. It can’t possibly be a dead body. Even assuming anyone would send you a cadaver, they don’t look like that. Dead bodies look all blotchy and shiny. This one looks more like it’s asleep. He. It’s male — it looks like he’s asleep.
Which was another impossible idea. Why would some strange man have himself packed into a box and sent to Austin, asleep or not?
“This is stupid,” he muttered to himself. “Just do it.”
Austin leaned over and jammed his hands down into the box, grabbed the guy under the arms and heaved.
A limp — and naked, don’t forget the naked part — body came surging up into Austin’s arms, and if the crate hadn’t been pretty sturdy, the whole thing, box and guy and Austin himself, would’ve overturned and crashed to the floor. As it was, Austin ended up with both arms wrapped around the man’s naked chest.
It was still cool. There was no movement, neither the slow rhythm of breathing or the faster tempo of a heartbeat.
It almost seemed….
Austin propped the guy’s shoulders against his own chest to free up one hand, and sent it searching down first one arm, then the other. There, the left hand had a smooth, twisted cord around it, with an info tag dangling. He squeezed the tag, and a mellow, androgynous voice said, “Congratulations on your acquisition of a first quality BioServ Synthetic Companion, model 218C-S. Please view the introduction before attempting activation.”
Synthetic Companion. Austin nearly fainted in relief; it was a sex doll. A really good sex doll — it’d probably cost more than Austin earned in several years — but it wasn’t an actual dead body and that was the important thing.
Of course it wasn’t a dead body. Austin heaved out a sigh and gave a quick, reflexive glance around, as though there might be someone lurking in his unit waiting to laugh at how ridiculous he’d been.
Well, yes, once he knew the answer, his irrational imaginings did seem pretty stupid.
The doll was as heavy as a grown man would’ve been, and Austin’s arms were getting tired. One more good heave and he had the thing out of the box and layed down on the floor…
…and for the second time that night, he yelped and jerked backward into the wall.
The doll, it’s face — it looked exactly like Shay. The same bright green eyes, with clear, light brown skin and honey-blond hair. Broad shoulders, nimble-looking hands, and it looked to be about the right height, although it was hard to tell with the doll lying down.
Five minutes of trying to work out exactly who would send Austin a Synthetic Companion with the face of the man he’d been making a fool of himself over for months got him nothing but a headache. He took the info tag, left the doll on the floor, and went over to the media unit.
The tag was just the usual bundle of files about operation and maintenance. He scanned until he found the vid about the on switch, then stashed the rest to watch later if he needed to. There was also a clicker for a continuously updated offering of upgrades and accessories. Just looking at some of them made Austin wince and imagine he could hear his credit balance howling in pain; he’d stick with the standard model.
That thought made him lean back against the lounge cushions and consider.
Should I keep it? he wondered. What if it’s a joke? Someone trying to embarass me? Not that I need much help, the way my brain turns inside-out whenever I’m at Social and Shay’s in the room….
It was ridiculously expensive for a joke, though. He didn’t know how much any of his friends or neighbors earned, of course; questions about employment or finances in a social context was horribly rude, and while Austin wasn’t a stickler, he wasn’t raised in a sewer, either. Fountain Four was a comfortable but not a wealthy neighborhood, and he couldn’t imagine anyone he knew being able to afford a Synthetic Companion for themself, or even as a serious gift, much less as a joke.
There was no name on the shipping stamp, but Austin tried querying the shipper anyway. As he’d expected, it came back as an anonymous send. The CS responder asked if he wanted to reject the shipment, or register a protest; Austin declined and closed the query.
Only one thing left. Austin still felt kind of shy about activating the thing, even knowing that was ridiculous. It wasn’t a person — it was a sophisticated thing, an appliance. It didn’t make any sense to feel shy or embarassed around it, any more than he’d feel ashamed to go naked in front of his cooker.
Fine. Just do it, then.
He knelt down next to the not-really-a-naked-man in his entry and lifted the head, gently, with one hand. With the other, he felt through the hair at the back of the skull until he came to a small, regular bump. He pressed it, and the thing’s eyes blinked open.
Even having expected it, Austin still startled enough that he almost dropped its head onto the floor. It sat up and looked around; Austin scooted back a little and watched the thing working.
It looked human.
Well, of course it did; it was the most expensive human simulation current technology could product. Not an android — they weren’t quite up to creating a purely synthetic human being yet, but as close as anyone could get coming from a robotics-and-AI direction.
The doll took a quick glance around, then sat up and turned to face Austin with a friendly smile. “Hello. You’re Austin Green?”
Austin just stared for a second, not used to having things that looked like people talking to him, before he finally said, “Yes, that’s me.”
“Great! I belong to you now, and I’m sure we’ll have a lot of good times together. My name is Shay.”
Austin felt his throat clench, and he had to cough a couple of times. Although once he thought about it, he wasn’t sure why he was surprised; it did look exactly like the Shay he knew, after all. That couldn’t be a coincidence, so why wouldn’t they — whoever “they” were — give it Shay’s name?
“Ahh, good. That’s… that’s fine.”
The doll studied his face, then said, “You can change my name if you want to. Just say ‘Shay, I rename you’ and the new name. You can change it as many times as you want, until you find something you like.”
“Umm, no, that’s all right, it’s fine.” Austin shook his head and stood up, trying to figure out what to do next. The doll — Shay, he needed to start thinking of it as Shay if he wasn’t going to change the name, which wouldn’t work because it’d still have Shay’s face and calling something with Shay’s face something else would be weirder than Austin wanted to deal with. The situation was already weird and adding to it felt like a really bad idea.
Shay-the-doll stood up, and seeing it full-length, standing there in front of him, made Austin very much aware that it was naked. Completely naked.
Next thing to do was get some clothes for the– for Shay. Austin slipped past the naked body standing in his entry and headed back toward his bedroom. “Come on,” he said. “I’ll find you something to wear. My clothes should fit you well enough, I think, at least for now.”
He heard Shay following him. It walked as quietly as any barefoot human. He’d half expected it to clunk along. Machines were supposed to clunk. Or whir or rumble, something like that.
Shay padded along quietly, his bare soles making a light, nearly inaudible scuffing sound against the smooth floor, so quiet that when he walked up behind Austin, who was digging in a wall bin for a pair of shorts, Austin had no idea he was that close until a pair of warm arms wrapped around him from behind, and a solid chest pressed up against his back.
“I appreciate the thought,” said Shay, “but are you sure you want me to get dressed right now? I’ll just have to take it all off soon anyway.”
Austin closed his eyes and leaned back into the embrace. It felt wonderful — strong and solid, the skin smooth but not plastic-smooth, just yielding enough with a firmness to suggest healthy muscle underneath. It even smelled right, warm and a little musky.
He let go of the garments he’d been sorting through and wrapped his arms over the arms crossed at his waist. He gave them a firm squeeze, then let go and rotated in Shay’s arms–
–and found himself staring into bright green eyes that were unmistakeably Shay’s, in Shay’s face, with his mouth and chin and that one quirky eyebrow, and a sudden rush of shy/awkward/shame flooded Austin. He looked away and pulled himself out of Shay’s arms, taking five quick steps across the room.
“No. I mean, yes — find yourself something, shorts and a top, whatever you want, just get dressed. Please. Something you wouldn’t mind sleeping in is fine, but…. Please.”
He stood there against the wall, his forehead pressing against the cool surface, wishing he weren’t such an idiot. It was just a doll, a thing, a fancy robot. It was ridiculous to be embarassed by it, or in front of it, but Austin couldn’t help it. He knew it wasn’t really Shay, but his gut didn’t believe it, and didn’t care what his brain said.
And now the thing was going to be living with him. Not living, but… whatever you wanted to call it. It was his and would be in his unit with him, for however long he had it.
The thought was horrifying in a way. Bad enough he had to struggle with his awkwardness at Fiveday Social every week; that was only for two hours. This thing that was an exact copy of Shay, that twisted his guts and his tongue in exactly the same way, was going to be in his home, all the time.
Austin stifled a groan and rubbed his forehead with his palm. What now? Sending it back would be more complicated now, and he’d have to justify the rejection after having specifically accepted the delivery and passed by the opportunity to protest. He could sell it, but for something as expensive as a Synthetic Companion, that’d take time. And since he didn’t know who’d sent it to him or why, he had no idea how that person would react to his immediately getting rid of it. What if it was a friend? Someone who’d be hurt or angry if he sold their gift?
Well, it’d have to be a friend, wouldn’t it? Someone who barely knew your name didn’t spend that much on a gift. Maybe someone who knew he was stuck on Shay and thought he’d enjoy having a doll that looked like him? Austin was sure whoever’d sent the thing had meant well, and thought they were helping him out, doing him a favor. He didn’t feel very grateful, though, right at that point.
The voice was closer than it should’ve been; the doll had come closer while Austin’s brain was spinning, trying to figure out what to do.
“Nothing. I mean, nothing you can help with.” Austin glanced up at the concerned face — Shay’s concerned face, even if it wasn’t the real Shay wearing it — then looked away again and added, more quietly, “Your appearance is disturbing.”
The was a silent moment. “You don’t care for my appearance?”
Shay sounded almost hurt. Austin knew AIs could replicate emotions perfectly, but he wasn’t sure whether they actually felt things. Some people said yes and others no, and he didn’t know what to believe. The one in front of him sounded a little deflated, though.
“I don’t… dislike your appearance,” he said, still not looking at it. “You’re very attractive.”
“I’m a popular model. I realize you didn’t choose me, but many people do.”
That got Austin to look up. “There are more of you? I mean, not just your… your baseline system or something like that, but other dolls look like you? Your face and all?”
“Yes, there are many other Companions like me. Did you think I was a custom order? I understand how that could be disappointing.”
“No! I mean….” Austin trailed off. He hadn’t really thought about it, but it hadn’t occurred to him that there might be a whole line of dolls that looked like Shay. He’d never seen any, but then, how many people took their Synthetic Companions out with them?
Although once he thought about it, another glance at not-Shay confirmed that any number of people might well take their Companions out and Austin would never have noticed.
“Austin?” The doll took a step closer, but only one. “I’m sorry about my appearance. I’d change it for you if I could.” He sounded honestly distressed at being unable to help. “If you want, you can just have me sit or lie down somewhere out of the way, and turn me off. The kill switch is the same as the power switch — push it four times within five seconds and I’ll just be another thing in a corner you can ignore.”
A corpse, thought Austin. That’d been what he’d originally thought, and if he powered Shay down — used the kill switch — he’d look like one again.
He shuddered and shook his head. “No, it’s fine. You can stay… active.”
Shay touched Austin’s shoulder for just a second and said, “Thank you. I really don’t like being turned off.”
“No, I don’t guess you would.” It was probably like sleeping without dreams, but not knowing whether you’d wake up. Or maybe not? “Do you dream? When you’re turned off?”
“No, I don’t.”
Austin nodded, then moved away, toward the laundry bin. He was tired, and the whole day had been stressful. Staying up talking to his new Companion didn’t sound like a relaxing idea. It’d probably take him a while to get to sleep anyway, so he stripped off — trying without success to prevent himself from blushing — and stuffed his worn clothes into the bin for cleaning.
He sat down on the side of the bed and looked over at Shay, trying to think what to have him do all night, only to find that Shay had discarded the shorts he’d had on for only a few minutes and was sitting on the bed as well, on the opposite side.
Well, right, he was a fancy sex doll. Of course he’d assume his place was in bed with his owner. Austin sighed and said, “I don’t want to… I mean, I just… I’m tired. I’m sorry, but I just want to sleep right now.”
Shay nodded, slipped under the cover, and closed his eyes.
He wasn’t taking up much of the bed, nor trying to be enticing or anything. Austin wasn’t up to an argument, or even the ridiculously embarassing command and explanation it would probably be, since the Companion wouldn’t argue with him. He just got into bed, careful to stay on his own side, and touched the light control. The room went dark; time to try to sleep.
Austin drifted out of a wonderful dream, moaning and sweating and tense in all the right ways. While sleeping, he’d imagined that his shyness had vanished, his shameful awkwardness had never existed, and he’d approached Shay at Social with confidence, making him laugh, showing him how much fun they could have together. They’d talked and danced and then gone home to Austin’s unit where they’d fallen into bed in a tangle of arms and legs, touching and kissing and sharing pleasure and joy.
The pleasure surged and overflowed and Austin woke up with a loud, ecstatic cry, all helpless vowels, his hips thrusting up and his cock spilling into warm, tight suction. He recognized the angles of his bedroom while the walls were spinning down and the lights flashing in front of his eyes were fading back into the dark. His cock relaxed and a moment later his brain once more had enough blood to fully function.
Of course he remembered the sex doll that looked like Shay. He’d remembered it while climaxing, but at that time it hadn’t seemed important. Or maybe that was just one of the things his brain hadn’t had enough blood to deal with.
As soon as his heartbeat slowed to normal and he could breathe without gasping, though, he was well aware of what’d just happened. At first he wanted to be angry, but being angry with a sex doll was like getting angry with a dildo or a knife or a chair. It was just a way of displacing your anger at yourself, and it made you look like an idiot.
Austin shoved the cover aside and looked down at the messy, honey-gold hair still spread across his belly. The doll, the Companion — Shay — looked up at him with a smile that was both sweet and mischievous.
“Did you like that?” Shay crawled up Austin’s body and settled down half on top of him, his head on Austin’s outstretched arm and one hand on Austin’s chest.
Austin managed a wry smile and said, “If you have to ask then your AI isn’t as advanced as I thought it was.”
Shay laughed, a warm, rich sound that faded into a muffled snicker. “I thought you probably did, but it seemed polite to ask.”
“I’m glad to hear you’re polite.” Austin turned and pressed a kiss into Shay’s hair without thinking about it, and at the same time noticed what was pressing against his thigh. He reached down and stroked the hard cock and said, “I should probably be polite in return.”
Shay’s smile got wider and he rolled a quarter-turn onto his back. “I’d like that. Being polite to one another is probably the best way to get along.”
“Likely so.” Austin stroked harder, adding a rub across the head at random intervals, and shifted over so he could kiss Shay while pleasuring him. With the first orgasm past, it seemed ridiculous to keep worrying about should he or shouldn’t he. It was a sex toy. He had other sex toys and he didn’t feel any embarassment over using any of them whenever he felt the urge. He felt a strong urge to use the handsome, sexy toy in his bed; he’d worry about who’d sent it and why later.
Over the next week, Austin was a little surprised at how easily he became accustomed to having Shay around. It was exactly like living with another human. He’d never shared a unit with anyone who wasn’t family, but the blending of routines and sharing of tasks felt the same. Although he knew it wasn’t necessary, he found himself on his best behavior, being a little neater than usual, more likely to stay in line with habits and routines. It was exactly like the impression he’d gotten from friends and co-workers who’d shared units with friends of their own or with lovers, and Austin expected he’d relax eventually. But no matter how often he told himself that Shay wouldn’t care if Austin left his worn clothes on the floor over night, he still felt embarassed at the thought of someone else — even an artificial someone — seeing him be sloppy.
The following Fiveday, Austin went to Social feeling a bit odd, but over all more relaxed than he had in a long time. He was able to smile at Shay — the real one — and even speak to him for a few moments without feeling the overwhelming shyness that usually turned him into an idiot in the man’s presence. His brain knew that this wasn’t the same Shay he’d lived with for the previous week, but to his gut it felt the same, and frequent exposure had burned out most of the embarassed brain-static that’d been so crippling before.
Whatever the purpose had been, whoever’d given him Shay-the-Companion had done him a great favor.
When he got home later that evening, Shay was waiting. As soon as the door closed behind Austin, Shay was pressed up against him, kissing him hard.
“I missed you,” Shay said, in low, breathy words that brushed past Austin’s ear. “You’re gone so long for work, and Social days are even longer.”
“I miss you too,” Austin said, kissing him back and running his hands up under Shay’s shirt, and down to knead the firm curve of his butt.
It was true, he did miss his Shay while he was away from home. He wished sometimes that Shay wasn’t Shay, that the Companion’s appearance was something invented, something unique. Work would still be work, but if Shay didn’t look like the real Shay, and wasn’t likely to be recognized walking around the neighborhood, then they could go out together — to Social, to displays and performances, out for meals.
Austin understood why someone might want a custom Companion, despite the huge surcharge added to the already outrageous cost of even a basic model. He’d actually thought about moving to another neighborhood, or to another city even; if he didn’t live near Shay, there’d be less of a chance of someone recognizing that he was socializing with a Synthetic Companion.
He broke off the kiss and rested his forehead against Shay’s. “I wish I knew who sent you, and why.”
Shay tensed just for a moment, betraying his discomfort at the question. “I’m sorry, Austin. I’d tell you if I could.”
“I know, sorry. You haven’t done anything wrong. No one’s done anything wrong, at least that I can tell.” He hugged Shay tighter and added, “I keep thinking that someone will come and take you back, say it was just a loan, or that there was… I don’t know, something behind it. It might still be a joke or a prank. I can’t think who might be playing a joke, or trying to embarrass me. I don’t think I’ve offended anyone, or not enough to spend this kind of money on revenge. But I’ve asked a few people — subtly, you know? just bringing up the subject from the side — and no one knows anything, no one’s given me a gift. Or no one’s admitting it.”
He ran a hand through Shay’s silky hair, running his fingertips over the smooth surface of his skull; only the activation button, a regular bump under the scalp, reminded him that Shay had been created rather than born. “I was confused and upset at first, but I like having you. Having you here. I don’t want to lose you. And if it’s a prank or some kind of revenge, then after it’s over even the memory will be poisoned.”
Shay wrapped both arms around Austin and hugged him back. “Don’t,” he said, dotting kisses across Austin’s face. “Don’t worry, please. It’s not a prank. I shouldn’t say, but I can’t let you think it’s anything bad. It’s not. It’s someone who wants you to be happy. Please don’t worry about it?”
Austin put on a small smile and said, “I’ll try.” All Shay knew was what he’d been told, though. Or what he’d been told to say.
Shay gave him one more kiss, then took his hand and pulled him over to the table. “I made some of those garlic-peanut chips you like — I thought we could play Eon?”
“That’d be fun,” Austin said. He sat down at the table and set it for the game, bringing up the holographic terrain and characters they’d saved from their last session.
He couldn’t do anything about his worries that night. Actually, he couldn’t think of anything he could do about them at all, since talking to friends hadn’t brought him any answers, and the delivery service wouldn’t give him any information unless he made a formal protest. All he had were dead ends, and scraping his fingers raw clawing at the walls wouldn’t gain him anything. All he could do was keep going and let whatever was going to come, come.
Playing for a while before taking Shay to bed would help keep his mind out of the spin cycle.
Next Freeday, Austin wanted to just stay at home with Shay, but he’d promised a couple of friends from the Fiveday gatherings that he’d go with them to a freedance performance. Austin had never been able to get used to zero gravity himself — whenever he tried to move in it, his stomach started churning and wouldn’t stop — but he loved watching the dancers zoom and swirl through the spherical arena so long as he himself was safely stuck to a comfortable lounge inside the outer shell.
At the time he’d accepted the invitation, he’d been nervous that Shay — the real one — might end up with their group. That’d been a couple of weeks ago, though, and when he’d left to meet the others at the arena, he realized he wasn’t nervous at all. It didn’t matter whether Shay was there or not; if so, he’d say hello and they could watch the performance together, and if not then that was fine too.
And it turned out Shay wasn’t there anyway. Austin actually missed him a bit, because the real Shay was a nice guy, aside from being gorgeous.
When Austin got back to his unit, he was humming a bit of the performance music and remembering the flashing holos and swirling bubbles and the dancers twisting through it all, so it took him a few moments to notice that Shay was quieter than usual.
Maybe he was depressed because he could never go out? Could Synthetic Companions even get depressed?
Austin pulled Shay into a hug and a deep kiss, then said, “I wish you could’ve gone! It was wonderful. There’ll be a vid up soon — we’ll watch it together.”
“Thanks, I’d enjoy that.” Shay hugged him back, tentatively at first, then his grip tightened and he returned the kiss. “Are you hungry?”
“No, we ate at the arena. I need you. I feel like the music is still flowing in my veins and I need to move.” Austin laughed and took Shay by the wrist, coaxing him to bed. It’d never taken any coaxing before, but Shay was probably just getting tired of the same thing over and over — the same walls and the same company and the same activities.
Austin would have to come up with something they could do, somewhere they could go together — maybe that trip to another city he’d thought about before, a visit rather than a move. Fujiwara Under was famous for its musical presentations; it was a favorite place for on-planet travellers, and drew visitors from offworld to Shatterlee as well. Beveral Dome was near the sulfur forests, and they had day tours out to see the beautiful, poisonous landscape. That’d be fun and different, and from inside an egress suit, no one would recognize Shay even if anyone there knew him, or had another Companion in the same model.
That was for later, though — maybe next month. Right then, Austin was bubbling with energy and was determined to share it with Shay.
He stripped down and stuffed his clothes into the bin, then helped Shay get naked. Austin kissed and licked each patch of skin as it was uncovered, teasing flank and navel and tightening balls with his lips and tongue. When Austin’s tongue swirled behind Shay’s balls and headed for his clenched opening, Shay gave a surprised yelp and grabbed for Austin’s hair with both hands.
Austin laughed and sat back. “What’s the matter? Too much?” He gave the top of Shay’s thickening cock a playful swipe.
“No, no! It’s fine, it’s wonderful, keep going!” Shay managed a smile, but he looked a little dazed.
Dazed was good. Dazed was just fine. Austin had been feeling great — happy and relaxed and just generally positive about life and the world — over the previous week or so. It’d started shortly after Shay had arrived. It’d been confusing and disturbing at first, but once he’d gotten used to having him around, Austin realized that he’d missed the companionship. He hadn’t had a regular lover in years, and had never shared a unit with one.
Austin could feel the changes in himself, and they were all good. He’d never been quite as energetic in bed before — he’d usually let Shay take the lead. If that surprised Shay, well, that was probably normal. Austin ducked back down and sucked one of Shay’s balls into his mouth, determined to surprise him even more.
Much later, when they were both exhausted and sweaty and just catching their breaths, Austin was stretched out with Shay’s head on his chest, enjoying the lassitude and the memory-images lingering in his mind.
Shay had been almost passive that night, willing to let Austin take the lead. Maybe that was part of their programming, to adapt to their partner and be the complement of whatever role he took?
There was probably something about it in the files he hadn’t seen yet. After so long, he probably wouldn’t; everything was going fine, and if he had any questions, he could ask Shay. Austin was sleepy and relaxed, and would rather just lie there cuddling. He ran one slow hand through Shay’s soft, slightly-sweaty hair, petting him just for the joy of touching, feeling the silky strands of hair over the smooth curve of his skull….
The realization nearly jolted Austin out of bed. He shoved Shay away and scrambled off the mattress and ended up with a thud against the wall; his eyes wide open in shock. A small chunk of his brain noted with a hysterical laugh that he was in exactly the same position he’d been in when he’d first found the “cadaver” in the box, but the rest of his brain didn’t think it was funny at all.
“What happened? What are you? Who–?” But even as he shouted out the questions, the answer was obvious. Shay. The real Shay. It had to be him.
“Shay. How did you get in here?”
The real Shay was still in Austin’s bed, half curled up as though ashamed — and he should be! thought Austin — with the cover pulled up to his chest. “I– the Companion let me in. While you were gone.”
“He let you–?” But that question spawned another one, a more important one. “Where is he? What did you do with him?” Austin took a step forward, clenched fists not quite threatening, not yet, but it occurred to him that he might not own Shay-the-Companion, legally. Real-Shay had sent the Companion to Austin without request; that made it a gift, didn’t it? But if Real-Shay had already taken the Companion-Shay, Austin’s Shay, away somewhere, then it could be difficult or impossible to get him back, to argue the legal microfonts while Austin’s Shay was hidden away somewhere, maybe sent to be recycled already–
Austin squashed the panic swirling through his mind. Focus on one thing at a time, he thought. Right now.
The Shay huddled on Austin’s bed was answering the question. Austin had missed the first few words, but he caught “storage,” and that was enough. He left the room at a half-run, only noticing when he felt a draft in the main room that he was still naked.
It didn’t matter. He went up to the storage room next to the bath, the only one large enough for something man-sized, and yanked open the door.
Shay — his Shay — was seated on the floor, surrounded by shelves and bins and loose items, in the dark and the dust. Austin grabbed him under the arms and yanked him to his feet, then smothered him in a hug.
“I thought you were gone,” he whispered.
“I thought you wouldn’t want me,” his Shay whispered back. One hand rested on Austin’s back, light and tentative, then the other came up next to it and clasped his shoulder. “Once you had the real one, I didn’t think you’d want me anymore.”
“I don’t have the real one.”
“You could,” said another voice from the doorway. The human Shay, also still naked, stood there watching the two of them, looking upset and embarrassed. “That was the whole point of it. I’m sorry if it was a bad idea, but I’ve been wanting to get to know you for a long time and I could never manage it. You seemed to get rather… awkward, whenever I tried to talk to you.” Shay looked away and raked a hand through his hair — that same fine, honey-blond hair Austin had come to love the feel of.
“You seemed so uncomfortable, it made me uncomfortable, and I’m not usually shy. I was when I was near you, though, because I wanted to know you and it was important and I was afraid I’d do something wrong and ruin the whole thing. I thought if you could get used to being near me, get used to talking to me and having me around and lose all the awkwardness….”
He trailed off and grimaced. “I suppose it was a stupid idea. It was all I could think of, though. When I got my token for a free Companion — if they choose you to model, you get one as part of your compensation — the idea just came to me and it seemed perfect. The idea hit me and I did it. I suppose I should’ve stopped to think about it.”
“That might’ve been a good idea.” Austin was trying to figure out what he thought about Shay’s confused confession. The thought that the man he’d been pining over for all that time had liked him back, enough to come up with any kind of plan to get close to him, was flattering. The way he’d done it, though — Austin’s reflexive reaction had been anger, was still anger. Deception on a grand scale didn’t lay down a very solid foundation for a friendship, much less a closer relationship.
The fact that real-Shay had made such a huge mistake, though, made him seem more like a normal human who did stupid things occasionally, and less like an unapproachable ideal. After all that, Austin had no problem talking to him, yelling at him, being upset with him. If they had a chance of working things out, maybe it was because of Shay’s ridiculous plan?
Austin looked at his Shay, trying to find an opinion, a preference, in his bright green eyes. His Companion’s expression was neutral at first, but the longer Austin looked, the more he thought he could see signs of sadness and resignation. Austin kissed him, with no hurry, clasped an arm around his shoulders, then looked at the human Shay and said, “I’m still angry. I think if we try to talk it out right now, I’ll end up throwing you out and that’ll be the end of it. I’d like to have some time to cool down and think about it, about everything.”
Shay nodded, but before he could reply, Austin went on with, “Come and have dinner here next Freeday. We can meet like normal people and get to know one another. All three of us.” He squeezed his Shay’s shoulder again. “If it does work out, it’ll be the three of us. I’m keeping my Shay, no matter what else happens.”
Human Shay blinked at him, then looked at the Companion in Austin’s embrace, then back at Austin. “Umm. All right. I mean, that won’t bother me, if that’s what you want.”
Austin nodded. “Good. So long as you understand.”
Shay nodded back. They looked at one another in silence for a few moments, then Shay looked away and said, “I suppose I should get home, then.”
Austin nodded again. All the nodding made him feel like a puka-bird in a flock, but he didn’t know what else to say. There wasn’t anything, really, not just then.
He and his Shay — and he’d probably have to rename him after all; Austin would need to think about that soon — went out to the couch. Shay sat, but Austin stayed standing, hovering, waiting for the human Shay to come out. When he emerged from the bedroom, dressed in clothes creased from being pulled off in a hurry and then stepped on, all Austin could think about was that he’d been tricked into making love with a man he’d never really spoken to.
That wasn’t something he could forgive immediately. Maybe later. He thought probably later, if Shay turned out to be a nice guy despite one horribly stupid idea, but it’d take some time.
They touched hands at the door, but didn’t say anything, and then the human Shay was gone.
Austin settled down on the couch as close to Shay — his Shay — as he could get, and pulled him into a tight embrace.
“I don’t understand why you want me when you could have him.” Shay’s voice was quiet and sounded forcibly neutral, as though he were making a deliberate effort to strip all the emotion out of it.
“Right now I’d much rather have you. He set me up and deceived me, and I’m still upset.”
“But I did that too. I was part of it.”
“You didn’t have a choice, though. I’m assuming you didn’t — he ordered you to go along?”
Shay nodded, an up-down rub of his cheek against Austin’s still-naked shoulder.
Something occurred to Austin and he asked, “Who owns you? Are you his, or are you mine?” He was suddenly afraid he didn’t really own his Shay, that the human Shay could still come take him away, could sue to get him back if he was the legal owner.
“You own me. You have since he sent me. But he was my owner first. He told me what to do, and what I could and couldn’t tell you. You could have countermanded his orders, or done a baseline restart, but–”
“–but I didn’t know I should have.” Austin pressed a light kiss into Shay’s hair. “Not your fault. I don’t have anything to be angry with you about. Right now I like you better, and I probably will for a long time.”
“But he’s real,” Shay insisted, as though that made all the difference.
Austin tipped his face up and gave him a long and thorough kiss. “You’re real too. You’re real, and I love you, and I’m keeping you. That’s enough for now.”
And it was.