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Non-Critical Malfunction

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The asset sits on a bench of brushed steel, one more piece of malfunctioning equipment in a long line of them.

To his left is a rotary actuator; to his right, a disassembled prototype rifle. The asset is marked with the same tag as each of them, a square of paper with clipped corners, attached with a length of black wire. "Deficiency report," the tag reads, and notes a priority level: mission capable, non-critical malfunction.

The asset waits as a mechanic in grey coveralls wanders into the room. The man's hair is dark and unkempt; his narrow face is shaded with two days' growth of beard. The tag on his pocket reads "Graves," and he spares the asset a lingering glance as he retrieves the rifle – priority: non-mission capable, safety and design deficiencies. The man checks his tag, then passes him over for equipment farther down the line.

The gun goes before him, and a small device composed of exposed gears, and the rotor blades of a helicopter. By the time the man circles back around to approach, screwdriver in one hand, the asset's legs have begun to cramp from waiting so long in one position. The clock on the wall shows that five hours have passed.

Graves examines the tag again, and he lifts the asset's left arm to peer closely at the metal plating. "What's the problem?" he asks.

"An abnormality in the pelvic region," the asset replies – and the mechanic quirks an eyebrow, lowers the arm back to rest against the asset's side.

"Come on," Graves says. "I'm gonna need more than that." He flicks his finger against the tag, accusatory. "Some asshole didn't finish your paperwork."

"Periodic sensitivity and swelling," the asset elaborates, and does not look at the man's face. "At the juncture between the legs."

There is silence.

It stretches so long that the asset lifts his eyes, wary, to gauge the man's expression. Graves' eyes are wide, mouth slightly ajar. "You're shitting me," he tells the asset. "Right?"

The asset does not reply. He is not permitted to spend time in frivolous pursuits. To take the time of a professional beyond necessary maintenance would garner the appropriate punishment. Surely the mechanic knows this already.

"You're not," the man says, at last, when the asset offers no reply. "Holy shit." And then he tips his head back and laughs. He laughs until he's gasping for breath, until the asset's face has grown unaccountably warm.

"Okay," says Graves, when he manages to slow at last. He wipes at his eyes with the side of one hand, where his laughter has caused small beads of moisture to form. "Okay. Let's see the problem area."

The mechanic's grin is wide and crooked, and the asset is very aware of his stare as he slides from the table to stand. The swelling has abated during the wait, but it returns now, sharp and sudden, as soon as his own fingers touch the buckles on his combat gear. By the time he has them undone, the flesh between his legs has thickened to a noticeable protrusion, bringing with it a low, persistent ache.

The asset slides his combat gear down over his hips to display the swollen flesh, but Graves says, "Keep going," so he unlaces his boots and steps out of them, removes his pants and folds them to set on the workbench. Between his legs, the abnormality twitches and then falls still.

"Is the condition recurring?" Graves asks, serious tone belied by the way his dark eyes glimmer. The man seems on the verge of laughter again, but the asset does not know why. One of the man's angular hands reaches out to examine the afflicted area.

The asset gasps. The protrusion is tender, and contact with the man's fingers makes him lurch into the touch, uncharacteristically clumsy.

"Keep still," Graves admonishes, and it takes the asset a moment longer than usual to comply – longer still to recall that he's been asked a question.

Such lapses are not tolerated. "The condition occurs periodically," he manages, and it takes effort to form the words.

The asset could supply more information.

He could tell the man that the swelling occurs most frequently in the morning, when he wakes from images of blonde hair and hands that do not hurt. He could explain that it has grown worse with every passing day since the mission delay first landed them in this facility – that finally, yesterday, when three of his strike team returned from a workout stripped to the waist, it persisted for nearly two hours. He could admit that this morning had been the worst of all – waking on his thin floor pallet soaked in sweat, heartbeat hard in his throat and a name he didn’t remember a shadow at the back of his thoughts.

The asset could say these things, but he does not. He is wiped clean, but his handlers allow him to keep some things. He knows what will happen if he speaks too much. He knows what will happen if he begins to display awareness.

And so the asset keeps his mouth closed as Graves touches him lightly, searching for the malfunction's cause. The asset cannot recall a touch like this one – not ever. The heat in his swollen flesh is compounded by something greater, some unidentifiable lack bound up in those nightly images of a man he does not know.

Graves makes a thorough examination. He uses the very tips of his fingers to search the place where the swollen flesh connects to the rest of the asset's body, and he traces every millimeter of the abnormality, not once but many times. The asset digs short, blunt nails into the palm of his right hand. He forces himself to remain in place.

"I'll need to take some measurements," Graves tells him – and, inspection concluded, at last removes his hand.

The asset cannot contain the gasp that leaves him. He keeps his hips in place by only the narrowest of margins.

Graves turns from him, still grinning. It is a lazy, insinuating grin, and it has grown larger by the time the man turns back with a slide caliper in one hand. He seizes the malfunctioning portion of the asset's anatomy and presses it against the flat metal of the instrument, holds it flush against the place where small numbers are engraved at regular intervals. The sudden pressure of the man's grasp and the unexpected chill of hard steel force the asset to bite down on his own lip.                    

He is as still as the prototype rifle, as still as the actuator on the workbench beside him. His eyes track Graves' motions as he twists a small knob on the instrument.

When the mechanic adjusts the caliper to take his measurement, the asset is rigid and unmoving. The metal slides the whole, bumping way down the length of him, with Graves' fingers framing the device on either side. His heart is loud and fast, and he can feel the beat of it between his legs.

When the man takes his hands away, the need to follow them hits him like an imperative – like an order from his own body. But the asset knows what is allowed and what is not. He bites his lip again, and he breathes hard through his nose, and he does not move.

"Noticeable lengthwise swelling," the man remarks. He sets the caliper aside and turns to retrieve another – grenade-shaped, joined together at one end, with the long arc on the other side coming together to form pincers. "Let's check the diameter."

This time, Graves does not merely lift the asset's afflicted flesh. He takes it in the palm of his hand and closes his fingers around it, pulls firmly. He repeats the motion several times, until the asset's panted breaths are loud in the high-ceilinged warehouse. He wills himself to obedience, but he does not recall it ever having been so hard.

By the time the man relinquishes his hold to fit the pincers over the tip of the abnormality, the asset is shaking. The caliper stings where it presses in, but the pain is not enough to cut through the heat centered in his groin.

"Diametral swelling, too," Graves remarks, and removes the device. "And would you look at this?" He touches a single finger to the tip of the asset's swollen flesh, and the asset inclines his head, as instructed, to observe it.

"Discoloration," says the man, "and some heavy duty leakage."

The asset sees that this is true. His flesh has grown stiff and thick, and the whole of it is a red so deep it nears purple. The tip is moist, and as he watches a drop of clear fluid squeezes its way free to spatter on the floor.

Graves is still smiling. The tip of his finger, where he touched the abnormality, is now wet.

The asset watches his face, and he knows a sudden, sick wave of resentment. There is nothing here to smile about. The asset has seen the tags on some of the other equipment in this warehouse – the equipment that has been worn down from long years of use. The stamp on those tags reads, "Unserviceable – condemned."

"Serious stuff," Graves says, and reaches out to wipe the moisture from his finger on the asset's shirt. The asset intends to keep his face still. He intends to present a blank surface. But he must not succeed, because Graves laughs at whatever he sees there.

"I'm gonna need help on this one," the mechanic tells him. There is something almost confiding in his tone, as though the asset is meant to understand a secret, but he cannot begin to guess what it is.

Graves leaves the asset standing at attention, half undressed, and walks from the room without another word. The metal floor is chill beneath the asset's feet. The warehouse is large, and poorly heated, and he feels the flesh begin to prickle on his legs.

He counts the minutes as they pass, and he does not let his eyes go to the row of crates along the south wall. That is where the unserviceable equipment has been stacked, in heaps of bolts and unwound springs and rusted metal. The asset does not know what the disposal process entails, and he tells himself firmly that it does not matter. He will never need to know.

When Graves returns with a second man in tow, the swelling has abated somewhat.

"You really weren't joking," says the new arrival, and the asset's eyes dart up automatically to take him in. He is tall and broad-shouldered, with a boyish face and blonde hair, and something about that combination makes the asset's chest constrict. The tag on the man's coveralls proclaims him "Richardson," but for half an instant, the asset expects a different name to be there, instead.

Richardson circles in closer, with measured steps. His face wears an expression the asset is unfamiliar with – an intent, searching sort of look. The asset feels the force behind it, feels pinned beneath eyes with wide, dark pupils, but at least the man's lips are not pulled back in a grin, the way Graves' are.

The new arrival comes to a stop before the asset. He conducts a visual examination, beginning with the asset's face and then trailing down. His line of sight lingers longest of all on the afflicted area.

"Undress," says Richardson. "We'll need to make a more thorough inspection."

The asset complies immediately. The top of the combat gear joins the bottom on the workbench, neatly folded. No sooner has he straightened, task complete, than Richardson's hands are reaching for him. They are large and warm, the pads of his fingers rough.

"Now hold still," Graves instructs, "If you move around too much, you'll skew the inspection results." There's laughter in his voice, laughter in his eyes, and the asset thinks of the broken things in the crates by the wall.

He is very still.

He is still as Richardson's fingers reach out to brush against his lips and jaw – as they inspect the lines of his throat and the lobes of his ears.

He is still when those searching hands find his shoulders, and when they trace a path downward, over the flat plane of his chest. The mechanic pauses here, for there are two small protrusions that have grown more prominent. They are stiff and sensitive, and Richardson runs them through a range of pressure tests, from touches that are barely there to a hard twist between thumb and forefinger. At this last, the asset feels the swollen flesh between his legs twitch again. The tension has returned, blade-sharp and wire-thin.

He is still when Richardson bypasses the abnormality completely, feeling instead along the length of each leg. The man inspects the curve of his ankles, the shape of his calves. The palms burn as they skim the surface of the asset's thighs; they are a searing point of distraction when at last the mechanic comes to the malfunctioning area.

There is no conscious decision. The asset's hips just move, a sudden snap under inconceivable pressure, and he cants into the touch.

Graves' chuckle is low and breathy. "Would you look at that," he says. "The perfect soldier can't follow orders."

The asset braces himself at those words. Pain will come, now. Pain is the most reliable corrective device; pain creates order, and pain is the price of failure.

But this time, pain does not come. Instead, Richardson's hands return to the place where they began the inspection, the right against the line of the asset's jaw, the left thumb on the asset's lips. "We'll start again," says Richardson, and there is nothing hard in his tone, nothing accusatory.

A strange sensation rises in the asset's chest, and it nearly strangles him. He does not nod. He offers no word of thanks. He only obeys, because obedience is the surest way to please a handler.

He endures the inspection, the whole of it, all over again. This time, when Richardson reaches the abnormality, the asset stands stock still, as motionless as the metal surface of the workbench.

The mechanic circles his warm, rough fingers around the asset's broken flesh. He tightens his hold, as though to gauge an appropriate level of pressure. Then he pulls, long slow pulls that are smooth and measured. The man's grip is firm, almost too hard, and his hand creeps along the malfunctioning flesh bare centimeters at a time. When he completes the full length, from base to tip, he begins again – and the asset makes a small noise at the back of his throat, unable to stop himself.

Richardson carries out this portion of the exam thirty-seven times.

He carries it out until the asset is shaking, until sweat damps his hair and drips from his chest. The muscles in the asset's abdomen and thighs pull tight, as though bracing for some impending impact. Everything is overwhelming, every brush of the man's fingers too much.

The asset's hips hitch forward, and Graves reaches out to hold them in place. The asset is sure, so sure, that he will be stamped "condemned," but he can't force himself to obey, and he finds himself thinking that if they would only relieve this awful pressure before they dispose of him, he would not mind so terribly.

It is as this final thought occurs, as the asset shudders and bows his head, on the verge of something indescribable, that Richardson removes his hand. There is nothing but the cool air of the warehouse on the swollen flesh, and Graves has to tighten his hold to keep the asset still. His hips jerk up sharply, twice this time. The protrusion stands upright, discolored and leaking – not only moist now, but wet, the fluid clear and glistening.

The mechanics seem satisfied with whatever conclusions they have drawn.

When the asset is able to still his hips, Graves releases him. "For shame, soldier," the man says, and his grin is wider now, wide enough to show teeth. "There wasn't anything on your tag about a leak. Just look at this mess."

The asset looks. The swollen flesh is actually dripping; he has left a small puddle of the clear fluid on the floor, and a long strand of it dips down as he watches, joining the rest.

He has failed, although he had not been aware of the leak. He has failed in providing all relevant information so that the mechanics can perform their task. The brief summary of the malfunction, written in the asset's careful handwriting and under his handler's supervision, reads only, "Functional deficiency. Cause unknown." It is not, evidently, explanation enough.

The asset keeps his head inclined, observing the abnormality as instructed. He does not apologize. He has not been asked to speak.

"Wipe him down," says Richardson, as he crosses to a different workbench to busy himself with the equipment there. "We'll need to be more thorough, with a leak that heavy."

Graves seizes a grease rag from where it lies draped on a nearby rack, rounds on the asset with manic good cheer. "You got it," he says.

The grease cloth has small bristles, like a towel, and when it wraps around the asset's swollen flesh, the sensation is intense. He draws in a sharp breath, reminds himself forcefully that the instruction not to move is still in effect as Graves encases the protrusion within its folds. There is pure friction when the man shifts his hand, nothing slick or smooth. Graves runs the cloth along the whole length of the afflicted area, quick and almost casual, again and again.

The mechanic withdraws the cloth when the wipe-down is finished, pressing it instead to the bulbous tip where the leak emanated. He holds the fabric there with only his palm, twists first one way and then the other. He repeats the procedure a number of times, long past when the afflicted flesh is dry, plainly desiring to be thorough in his duty. The asset shudders, and clenches his flesh hand into a fist, and waits for it to be over.

When Graves removes the cloth, the protrusion is no longer wet, but already the asset can see a new bead of moisture welling at the tip.

"All clean," Graves says, and at the announcement, Richardson returns with a mirror in one hand and a small jar in the other.

"Widen your stance," Richardson instructs, and the asset complies immediately, opening his legs and shifting into a lower posture, settling the weight on his thighs.

The mechanic's big hands open up the jar, revealing a white powder inside. He applies a liberal handful to the afflicted area and then to the asset's inner thighs, not rubbing but sprinkling. The asset can barely feel it; after the intensity of the inspection and the wipe-down, there is something maddening about this barely-there sensation.

At his feet, between his legs, Graves is opening a roll of plain butcher paper. "Step up," the man tells him, and the asset shifts again, so that he holds the curled edges in place with his feet.

When the powder covers the protrusion and the paper is beneath him, both mechanics step back. Richardson sets the mirror on the floor below him, adjusts it, and then steps away again. He spends a long time checking the abnormality and the view of it in the reflective surface.

Then, at last, he nods as though satisfied.

"Hold this position," he tells the asset. "If the swelling begins to go down, reinstate it through a tactile inspection. You are not to remove the powder, and you will stop the inspection when the swelling returns." The man's eyes are blue, and piercing, and so, so focused. They are fixed on the asset's face, and the attention is disconcerting. "Understood?"

"Understood," the asset confirms. His voice is rough and unsteady.

The mechanics look him over one last time, and then they leave him alone with his instructions.

The asset waits in the warehouse, with the sound of his own breathing and the soft tick of the clock on the wall. His head is still inclined so that he can see the abnormality, white with powder, and the butcher paper on the floor beyond it. Already, he notes the smooth coating becoming marred at the tip, where the leak has made the powder clump together with wet.

The minutes slip past, and the swelling remains. A trickle of moisture traces its way down the length of the protrusion to make a small, damp circle on the floor beneath. Once that drop has fallen, however, no more follow. The leakage seems to abate, and the asset finds himself thinking that perhaps the damage is manageable. The mechanics have not yet stamped him "condemned," have not yet given up on their inspections.

Perhaps he is not beyond repair.

After a time, the protrusion begins to dip lower. The flesh is no longer rigid, and the tension in him has abated to a less critical level. The asset can breathe normally; the sweat has dried; his hips are still with no effort at all. The abnormality does not feel stretched tight and over-sensitive, and the asset wishes, for an instant, that he could let it remain this way.

But his hands are reaching already to comply with orders, mind pulling back from the dangerous notion of wanting something for his own sake.

The asset recalls Richardson's inspection, the steady heat of searching fingers. He runs his own hands, one metal and one flesh, down the path that the mechanic's followed. When he reaches his chest, his fingers find the sensitive points and perform an identical pressure test, light at first and then more thorough. When he has finished, the objective is accomplished.

The swelling has returned.

Twice more while he waits, the protrusion begins to subside. Twice more, the asset performs the necessary tactile inspection.

The door to the warehouse opens while his fingers skirt the pink nubs on his chest. The mechanics saunter through, their coveralls rumpled and hair disheveled. They have doubtless been performing complicated maintenance.

At the sight of them, the abnormality surges upward, suddenly and desperately stiff. Task accomplished, swelling reinstated, the asset obediently relinquishes his grip and returns to his initial position.

"Jesus Christ," says Graves, as he comes to a stop in front of the asset. There's something lazy about his grin now, something self-satisfied. "He keeps that up, I'm gonna have to go again."

"We're back on duty," Richardson reminds him, kneeling before the asset to check the powder. Graves does not look chastised – looks more smug even than before – but the asset cannot spare him much attention, because Richardson is tracing the path that the leak followed with one finger. He looks into the mirror on the floor intently, and he tells the asset, "Report."

Hesitation is not allowed. The asset complies immediately. "After the initial output of fluid, the leak subsided," the asset says. "I reinstated the swelling three times, as instructed."

To his right, Graves laughs softly. The asset ignores him, because Richardson's eyes are very blue, and his face is very earnest, and his fingers are leaving tracks through the powder. The mechanic retrieves the grease rag from its place on the workbench, and he wipes the powder from the asset's thighs in firm strokes.

When the man finishes, he covers the protrusion with the cloth, so that each end dangles. Then he takes up the corners and begins to slide the rough material back and forth over the swollen flesh, polishing it free of the substance. Within moments, the asset's breathing has become erratic, heart like machinegun fire in his chest.

"Thought you said it stopped leaking?" Graves asks, and the asset is horrified to see that the clear fluid is squeezing from the tip again. The impulse to speak, to defend the accuracy of his report, is strong – but he has not been asked to respond, and so he only waits while the cloth does its work.

"Spread some rags on the workbench," Richardson instructs the other mechanic absently, when at last the powder has been removed. He reaches a casual hand to take hold of the afflicted flesh, employs searching fingers to ensure that it is thoroughly clean. The asset bites down on his lip and endures.

By the time Richardson turns him to face the workbench, he sees that Graves has accomplished the task. Perhaps three feet of the metal surface have been covered by the rough cloth of the grease rags, haphazardly overlapping, bunched at the corners.

Richardson indicates the prepared area. "Lie down," he says. "On your stomach."

The asset complies with instructions.

The workbench is not wide enough for the whole of him, and so his legs dangle over the edge from the knees down. He places his arms at his side, and he discovers that the weight of his body presses the abnormality firmly into the rough fabric of the cloth beneath him. The pressure falls directly on the swell of his tender flesh, and the asset shifts slightly, unconsciously, attempting to relieve it.

Graves swats him on the thigh. "Hold still," the man instructs. "And hands up above your head."

When the asset assumes the new position, he discovers that it forces his back to curve, presses his hips in. If the pressure was bad before, this new angle compounds it, ratchets it incrementally higher.

He does not shift, although he is intimately aware of the hardened flesh that lies trapped between his abdomen and the workbench. He thinks of the way the cloth felt, rubbing across the malfunctioning area while the mechanics dried him and removed the powder, and he imagines that it would feel the same way, were he to rock his hips from side to side. He recalls the friction, raw and rough and good.

The idea takes root in his mind and sends heat spearing through him. He cannot stop imagining it – cannot shake himself of the conviction that it would be easy.

But to obey is the first objective. It is the primary objective. The fact that he finds his mind coming, again and again, to the impulse to disregard orders leaves the asset shaken and disconcerted. If he cannot perform even his most necessary function, the damage must run deep.

The asset lies very still upon the workbench, and he thinks of the "condemned" stamp, and he obeys.

An instant later, he feels hands on his thighs, applying pressure until he spreads his legs wider. They are large and calloused, searching but not forceful: Richardson's hands. The asset can feel the man's warmth as the mechanic steps between his legs. His knees brush the sides of the mechanic's coveralls.

"Christ," says Graves. "Look at him."

There is a snap of plastic, the sound of liquid being poured. The asset does not look to see what causes them. He is meant to be still.

"We'll need to perform one final inspection," Richardson says. "And it's important that the readings are accurate."

An instant later, the asset feels something brush at the cleft of his ass. A single digit, the surface slick, the texture unusual. He thinks that it might be a gloved finger, for he can feel the heat from it against his skin.

"We'll take measurements, but we'll also need verbal feedback throughout. Do you understand?" The man's finger finds the opening and begins to press inward.

"I understand," the asset says.

The pressure is incredible. The slow, slick intrusion is picking his mind apart. Something wet is dripping down his thighs – the liquid that he heard earlier, perhaps.

The asset pants into the cloth, and the finger works its way deeper. Trapped against the workbench, the abnormality is so swollen the asset fears that it has reached critical status. The tension is excruciating.

Richardson's finger begins to withdraw, and the asset jerks, an unconscious reaction. Graves' hands are there instantly, on the small of his back, holding him in place. "Good thing we got this last inspection in," says the man, and the smirk is there in his voice, flippant and unconcerned. "Looks like the soldier here needed it."

The finger is back an instant later, and more of the liquid patters on the asset's thighs. It pushes in with less resistance now, a slow stretch, before withdrawing again. In and out it slides, steady and inexorable as any machinery. The pace is painfully slow, as all of Richardson's inspections have been.

"Status report," the mechanic commands, as the finger begins to push in on a new upstroke. One of Graves' hands is still holding him in place, but the other has begun to roam his back with no apparent purpose. The asset does not understand what he means to do, what this idle touching serves. Perhaps this, too, is part of the inspection.

"Malfunction ongoing," the asset manages, voice hoarse.

The finger withdraws, and there is a wet sound near his thighs. When it returns, it is joined by a second digit. The combined thickness of them causes the asset's toes to curl, just for an instant, before he registers the reaction and suppresses it.

Graves laughs, quiet and amused. "Gonna have to do better than that, soldier. We've got reports to write."

The asset does not reply at first. He has been asked a question, but he does not know the answer he is meant to give.

Perhaps Richardson understands. The man's voice does not chastise when he prompts, "Temperature?"

The fingers are to the first knuckle, and the asset's breath is coming in unsteady gasps. "Elevated," he replies, immediately.

It's Graves that asks next, wandering hand drawing a line down the curve of his spine. "Pressure?"

Richardson's fingers creep in slowly, so slowly, and the word please catches at the back of the asset's throat. He has been given orders. It is not his place to question them. "High," he confirms, and swallows. "The swelling is…"

But the asset's sentence falls apart midway. He does not have the words. Unbearable, he might say, but of course he will be expected to bear it.

"Oh, come on," says Graves. "You can't handle a status report?"

The fingers are all the way in. He can feel Richardson's knuckles pressed there, up against the opening. With infinite care, intolerable slowness, they begin to slide out again.

"The swelling is. It is." The asset closes his eyes, tries to force himself back into functioning order. They have seen the extent of the damage; they know that his performance is unacceptable. He can salvage it, perhaps, but only if he performs flawlessly from this point forward. "It has increased."

The fingers disappear completely, but an instant later they've returned with more slick liquid. This time, the tempo of the inspection has increased; the in and out rhythm no longer makes the asset's skin crawl with the agony of waiting.

Graves' palm wanders down to the asset's thigh. His blunt fingernails scrape along the flesh there. "Increased, huh? And how's that feel?"

It is a dangerous question. He is not meant to feel at all, certainly is not expected to express those feelings aloud. But he is providing data for a report, and Graves has asked him directly, and –

"Tight," the asset says. "And. And susceptible to stimuli."

"Uh huh." Graves is not laughing, but he sounds as though he wants to. The man's voice is light and flippant, and he slides his hand up to rest on the asset's ass, leaves the other on the lower back. "So if I do this, it's pretty sensitive?"

Graves presses down with both hands, and beneath the asset, trapped between his own body and the grease cloth, the protrusion drags along the surface of the rough fabric. It feels just as the asset had imagined it – pure friction, sweet motion – and the asset makes a sound, a low, strange, reedy sound that quavers at the end.

Graves rocks him forward three times before he lets go, and the asset shakes, fighting not to continue. Richardson's fingers are still inside him, a steady in and out, and it feels as though someone is unraveling the wiring in his brain.

"Oh, yeah," says Graves, voice lowered as though not for the asset's ears. "I'm gonna need a round two for sure."

"When we're finished," Richardson replies.

The fingers pause in their steady motion, and the asset makes a noise again. He cannot move, but they have not told him to be quiet, and he feels as though he will combust if he does nothing at all. It is a shaky sound, a weak sound, and he is ashamed of it.

"This portion of the inspection is very important," Richardson tells him. The fingers are perhaps halfway in, perfectly still. The asset is being good, is being obedient; he is as motionless as the intruding digits, but Graves is reaching for him anyway, setting a firm grip to hold him in place. "We're going to need very precise feedback. Do you understand?"

"Yes," says the asset, and he has time, fleetingly, to wonder why Graves is holding him down.

Then the fingers crook upward, searching, and find a spot inside him that sets the world on fire. He yelps, twists, attempts to push back. His body is acting independently, is pressing and trying to move, even as his mind stands by in wretched horror at his own disobedience.

Graves keeps him still. The asset could drop the man to the floor in less than four seconds, but he is an authority figure, and the grip is corrective, and the asset's conditioning runs too deep for him to fight against the hold. He allows himself to be stilled, and he lies, shaking and panting, as Richardson withdraws the fingers slightly.

"Status report," the man prompts.

The asset cannot cobble the words together. There is nothing to describe what he has felt – what he is feeling. It takes him a moment to pick something that might be fitting, some scattered remnant of cognitive thought. "Breathing erratic," he manages. "Heartrate abnormal." The asset swallows, and finds that his mouth is very dry. "The swelling is." He swallows again. "Is affected by the inspection results."

"Ah." Richardson's fingers crook again, and the asset nearly jackknives up off the workbench. "So when I do this, the malfunctioning area also reacts?"

Graves' hands are holding him, and this time the fingers do not stop. They remain on that single spot, not still but stroking gently, and the asset makes a sound low in his throat, a strange, wet sound. There is a squeal of metal as the fingers of his left hand dig into the steel surface of the workbench.

"Yes," says the asset.

His hips are supposed to be still, but he is shifting them now, and the protrusion rubs against the rough cloth beneath him, rubs and catches in just the right spots, and he is disobeying but he cannot stop.

The asset tastes blood and realizes he has bitten through his lip. He is drawn up tight, like a gun with a four pound trigger weight under three pounds of pressure. He can't seem to get enough air, can't seem to still the shaking that rattles through his body.

Please, he wants to say, but he can't force the word out. More, he wants to say, but even this level of stimulation is stark and overwhelming.

The tension has almost reached a critical point. The whole of the asset's concentration is focused on the pull of the fabric beneath him and the steady press of Richardson's fingers. He rests his forehead against the workbench, where the cloth has been rumpled and shifted aside, and the metal is blissfully cool against his fevered skin.

The asset wants, with an intensity that is not allowed. The asset wants, and the pressure twists tighter, each passing second less tolerable than the one before. His muscles draw taut, and his eyes squeeze closed, and he is certain that something, some crisis point, cannot be far away, because his body can't sustain this.

That is when Richardson withdraws his fingers.

"Okay," says the man. "I think we've got everything we need for the preliminary."

And Graves says, "Stop," and shoves the asset sideways, so that the protrusion isn’t rubbing against the cloth any longer.

The asset lies still and gasps for breath. He can see, from the edge of his vision, that the discoloration has grown more pronounced. The afflicted area stands bolts upright, twitching and dripping, and the asset's chest heaves as he struggles to breathe.

Both mechanics turn from him then.

Richardson retrieves a clipboard that hangs from the wall, and then takes the tag still attached to the asset's left arm. He clicks the end of a pen and begins to write notes, and the asset gulps air, mind nothing more than white noise.

"The good news," Graves tells him, "is we can fix your problem." The grin that splits the man's lips is narrow and a little lopsided. "The bad news is, we don't have the right equipment in stock. You're gonna have to come back tomorrow."

The asset stares blankly, unable for a moment to process the words.

Finally, they penetrate: he is not damaged beyond repair. He will not be condemned.

"So, give us a minute," Graves continues with exaggerated cheer. "We'll get you cleaned up and you can go on your way."

It is more than a minute. The clock on the wall tells the asset that it is five. By then, the pressure has subsided somewhat, although when Graves wipes the protrusion and the cleft of his ass with the grease cloth, it quickly returns.

When the man has finished, he presses the asset's folded clothes into his arms. "Get dressed," he says.

The asset complies. He pulls his combat gear back into place, and he re-buckles the straps, and when he stands, the malfunctioning area makes a mound beneath the fabric. He can feel the cloth catch and tug every time he moves.

Richardson looks him over, another extended visual inspection. "The shop opens at 6 am," he tells the asset. "If your mission's delayed again, be in early."

Graves has taken the asset by the shoulders and is steering him toward the door. Each step is a distraction, and the asset has a moment of fleeting unease as he considers that he might need to engage in a mission in this state. He is acutely aware of the fact that his trousers are too tight.

But he can be repaired, and that is the important thing. The mechanics know their work, and they will ensure that he is fully functional again.  

"You'll want to avoid stimulating the problem area," Graves instructs, as they reach the door. "Sleep on your back tonight, too." He turns the handle and pushes the door wide into the hall. The lights here are out; the mechanics have stayed late to attend to his malfunction.

The asset knows that some members of Hydra leave at night. He knows that the scientists are often gone from the facility from evening until morning, although he cannot fathom the purpose. He suspects that these men are the same, and he feels a surge of gratitude for them, for the fact that they have remained to provide him maintenance.

Thank you, he wants to say. But they have not granted him permission to respond, and so he keeps his mouth pressed firmly closed. 

Instead the asset nods, and he steps into the darkened hallway.

Richardson reaches to pull the door closed behind him, and the light from the workshop narrows to a slit and then disappears.