Leonard wins the kid in a hand of poker.
A hand of poker he plays in the dirty back room of a dive bar in East Bumfuck, Iowa, two weeks after his humiliating divorce is finalized, and on the sixth day of a bourbon-fueled bender that’s somehow taken him from his high-rise loft in Atlanta to a fleabag motel in the middle of nowhere.
This much he remembers when he wakes up in said motel still fully dressed (minus his shoes) with bright blue eyes peering down at him.
The rest of the night is pretty much a blur.
“Got any food around here?” the kid asks.
“Doubt it,” Leonard says. The very mention of food turns his stomach and he squeezes his eyes shut against the nausea. They snap open again when he feels a hand rooting around in his back pocket. The kid already has a credit chip – Leonard’s credit chip – in his hand. “Hey!”
“What?” the kid asks. “You’re supposed to feed me.”
Leonard blinks. Right, he guesses that’s true now. At least temporarily. “And what is it you’re supposed to do again?” he asks.
The kid leers and throws a leg over Leonard’s body, straddling Leonard’s hips. The soft denim of his ratty jeans clings to his groin in a way that’s practically obscene. He smirks down at Leonard. “You tell me.”
That he’s tempted by the offer, even for a moment, disgusts Leonard. He opens his eyes wide – though the added brightness hurts his skull – and shoves the kid away. “Get off,” he mutters.
The kid smirks again. “I’m easy,” he quips, “but not that easy.”
Leonard levels him with a glare and the kid finally removes himself from the bed. He’s still holding Leonard’s credit chip and it is way too early in Leonard’s hangover to think about this situation clearly.
“Look,” Leonard says, throwing an arm over his eyes, “if you’re going out, can you at least bring me back some decent coffee?”
He can hear the kid moving around, probably shoving his feet into a pair of shoes. “Aren’t you afraid I’m going to make off with all your money?”
“Believe me,” Leonard says, rolling onto his side when he feels his stomach start to churn again, “you wouldn’t get far.”
Once his stomach has calmed a bit, Leonard uses the kid’s absence to go over what he knows about the care and feeding of Non-mods.
De jure, there’s not all that much to know. They’re legally permitted to be born, but not covered under national health care. Most are registered like everybody else, but he’s heard about a few who live off the grid. Those living in mainstream society don’t have a lot of options. They’re only authorized to hold jobs classed as Unskilled Manual Labor, and there just aren’t that many of those these days, what with mechanization and computerization and all.
De facto, the birthrates of Non-mods hasn’t declined all that much in the last hundred years or so – despite the universal availability of free reproductive engineering – so a certain system has evolved. No one wants to use the S-word – it’s voluntary, after all, and it’s not like Non-mods have to be brought to term – so they call it ‘Patronship.’
A Patron feeds, clothes, and puts a roof over a Non-mod’s head.
The Non-mod is then responsible for making this worth the Patron’s while, however the two see fit.
Leonard thinks there’s usually some kind of initial payment involved, but his experience with the whole institution is limited. There’s not a lot of Patronship in the Old South, where the practice is haunted by an eerie air of familiarity. Plus, Leonard’s family has always been able to afford skilled labor when they needed help around the house. It’s been a matter of pride. Use of Non-mods stinks of new money and the middle class.
Leonard chuckles bitterly to himself. He’s guesses that’s him now.
The motel room door opens, interrupting Leonard’s thoughts with the blessed smell of coffee. He pushes himself into a sitting position against the headboard and takes the cup that the kid offers. The kid also sets a bag on the nightstand.
“Bagel,” he explains. Whatever he got for himself, he must have eaten while out.
“Credit chip?” Leonard asks.
The kid winks as he pulls that out of his pocket and sets it on the nightstand next to the bag.
“So,” the kid asks, sitting on the side of the bed in a way that totally invades Leonard’s personal space, “what’s your deal?”
Leonard scoots over to regain some distance, then takes a drink of his coffee. “My deal?” he asks hoping to stall the discussion.
The kid, however, doesn’t mince words. “You really don’t want to fuck me?” he clarifies, his expression labeling the claim dubious at best.
“I really don’t,” Leonard says without letting himself look the kid over. It’d make him a hypocrite, wouldn’t it? And anyway, his mama raised him better than to consort with Non-mods, issues of consent aside.
The kid studies Leonard for a moment, frowning. “You straight or something?”
Leonard snorts. “Of course not.” Too much heterosexual sex is exactly the kind of thing that results in a Non-mod – well, if you’re too careless to protect yourself and too sentimental for a therapeutic abortion. Safer to keep recreational liaisons homoerotic. “I’ve had my lovers.” Other sons of respected families, of course.
“Lovers?” the kid mocks. “Oh, you’re one of those.”
Leonard has no idea why he’s continuing to have this conversation, but he can’t help asking, “One of what, exactly?”
“One of those guys who thinks his appetites are…perfectly pure.” Before Leonard can retort, the kid moves on, sitting in the motel room chair and propping his feet up on the desk. “You got ripped off, you know.”
Leonard raises an eyebrow, both at the kid’s posture and his statement. “Excuse me?”
“Well, let’s see,” the kid starts ticking things off on his fingers, “I’ve got a bad attitude, I hate following instructions, I talk back a lot, and I tend to get in trouble. Oh, and at this point, with my record, I have basically no resale value. Plus, I eat a lot. So, since you don’t look like you have a lot of manual labor you need to get done and you’re too good to fuck me, you really should’ve made Lewis put up some credits or fold.”
Leonard studies the kid for a moment, weighing his words. “So,” he says finally, “is that little speech supposed to convince me I’m better off just cutting you loose?”
The kid studies Leonard for a moment, sizing him up. “Why not? Isn’t that what you secretly want to do anyway?”
It’s true. Leonard has pretty much no idea what to do with the kid and very little means of supporting himself, let alone a Non-mod.
On the other hand, it’s been a lonely couple of weeks, and this is the most interesting morning Leonard’s had in months, maybe longer.
“If I don’t feed and house you, who will?”
The kid laughs. “Right,” he says. “You wanna let me go and everything, but you’re gonna keep me around for my own good. How charitable of you.”
Leonard shrugs. “I’m a regular Mother Theresa.”
Long moments pass in strained silence as Leonard contemplates his next move.
“You like sports?” Leonard asks.
The kid doesn’t answer.
“Console,” Leonard orders, “play sports feed.”
Several live games are instantly projected onto the white wall. Leonard takes a glance at a few of the scores, then rolls off the bed and throws himself into the shower.
Fifteen minutes later, with his hair washed and his teeth brushed, Leonard feels almost human again. He steps out of the bathroom with a towel wrapped around his waist.
There’s a news feed playing.
The kid shifts his eyes from the feed and makes no secret of checking Leonard out. Leonard doesn’t know whether to feel flattered or worried. The kid’s constantly smirking face is obviously a mask and it’s impossible to tell what’s really going on behind those blue, blue eyes.
Leonard tells himself he’s got nothing to be embarrassed about. He’s in charge here. This is his room. Hell, this is his Non-mod.
He lets the towel drop to the floor as he rummages around in his duffle bag. “What’s your name, kid?”
“What do you want it to be?”
“Very funny,” Leonard says, refusing to dignify the comment with eye contact. “How old’re you, anyway?”
It’s not hard to predict the answer.
“How old do you want me to be?”
Leonard pulls on a pair of jeans. “Okay, if you really haven’t got a name, I can give you one of mine. How d’you like ‘Horatio’?”
Leonard turns around in time to catch the face the kid makes at that. “Your name’s Horatio?”
“It’s Leonard, actually. Leonard McCoy.”
The kid makes another face. “I’m not sure that’s much better.” He sighs. “Jim.”
“Jim,” Leonard repeats. “So, Jim, you always this difficult just on principle?”
Jim shrugs and doesn’t look sorry. “I warned you. Also, I’m hungry again.”
“Already?” A terrible thought occurs to Leonard. “Christ, please tell me you aren’t a teenager.”
“I’m not a teenager,” Jim repeats dutifully, making it impossible to know whether it’s truth or falsehood.
“Christ,” Leonard says again. “Alright, let’s get outta here and find some food.”
The diner down the street is no frills but comfortably clean. Not too crowded, but the locals aren’t avoiding it either. The waitress comes and takes their orders, and once the distraction of the menus is gone, Leonard’s got nothing to do but stare across the booth at Jim and ask himself what the hell he’s thinking.
Jim winks at him.
Leonard scowls back.
He hears the sound of the diner door opening and closing and takes advantage of the distraction, turning his head to watch a couple walk in. He takes in their dress and demeanor and wonders idly what they are to each other.
A thought occurs to Leonard, and suddenly his heart is beating faster. His eyes dart around the rest of the diner, taking inventory of the other customers, before snapping back to Jim.
The smirk has returned. “I know what you’re thinking,” Jim sing-songs.
“No, you don’t,” Leonard snaps.
“The answer is ‘yes,’” Jim continues, unperturbed. “All the ones who’ve bothered to look know what you are. And what I’m not. And they all think they know why we’re here right now, sitting in a cheap diner down the street from a cheaper motel.” He leans further across the table, mock-whispering. “They don’t know that you have standards.”
Leonard ignores that last shot to focus in on the first thing. “But how?” he asks. “It’s not like you’re…I mean, you…” He waves a vague hand in Jim’s direction.
“Aw,” Jim says fluttering his eyelashes, “you think I’m pretty.”
“Well, you’re not hideous,” Leonard allows. “So, I mean, how would they know you weren’t…you know?”
Jim pauses for a moment, as if he’s not going to explain, and Leonard is only half-conscious of the way he leans in, willing Jim on.
“Let me tell you a little something about nature,” Jim says at last. “See, people think it strives for perfection. And people think that’s what makes it beautiful. So they figure, why not help it out? If green grass is prettiest, let’s make sure all the grass is green. Let’s make sure it never dies in the winter. In fact, let’s make sure it only grows to the perfect length and stays that way forever. No such thing as too much of a good thing, right?”
Leonard pictures the house, the neighborhood where he grew up. Well planned, well organized, well manicured. The kind of place that demands well behaved children who will grow into well mannered adults. Anything else, after all, would stick out like a sore thumb.
“But that’s not nature at all,” Jim continues. “Nature lives. It thrives. It experiments. Nature gives you variations on every little detail in every workable combination – and some unworkable ones too – and then lets you be surprised by the results. Some are hideous, sure, but some are breathtaking.”
Leonard’s pretty sure these are the first sincere words Jim has spoken since they met and those blue eyes are lit up by the force of his conviction. Speaking of breathtaking…
“People think they can predict what they’ll like, and yeah, maybe sometimes they can. Other times, though, something unexpected just grabs you.” Jim looks down at himself and then back at Leonard. “I’ve already told you what most people want from me, but why? I mean, look at me. I’ve got acne scars on my jaw, my eyebrows are too thick, and my hair sticks up.”
Leonard can’t help but chuckle at the truth of the description.
“And, yeah, I’ve got a helluva fine ass, but it’s sitting on these spindly little legs which are pretty much ridiculous.” Jim shakes his head. “These things should not work well together – no sane geneticist would ever come up with me, especially with my wicked crazy allergies – but somehow the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”
Leonard’s still listening, he really is, but he can’t help thinking that Jim’s left out the eyes…until he’s treated to yet another eerie demonstration of Jim’s mind-reading skills.
“Of course, I do have eyes any geneticist would kill for, but that’s all nature, too. Blue like this doesn’t come out of a lab.”
Ain’t that the truth, Leonard thinks.
“So anyway,” Jim says, circling back around to his original point, “they all know. And even the ones who won’t admit it think you’re one lucky bastard.”
Leonard shakes his head. He knows he’s really not lucky at all, but he does wonder if that’s starting to change.
“I’m bored,” Jim announces, approximately two minutes after they return to the motel room.
Leonard rolls his eyes. “Turn on a feed.”
“Feeds are boring,” Jim says.
And, fuck, Leonard really hopes Jim isn’t a teenager.
“I may have to feed and clothe you,” Leonard says, “but I sure as hell ain’t taking on the responsibility of entertaining you.”
“Do you have a PADD?” Jim asks.
“I’m not giving you my PADD,” Leonard says. “I’m not an idiot.” Even with the best security protocols, no need to hand a stranger the one item that contains all your personal information.
“Fine,” Jim says, heaving a dramatic sigh. “I’ll settle for witty repartee. Go.”
“Jesus, kid, didn’t anyone ever teach you how to relax?”
Jim shoots Leonard a skeptical look. “I know we’ve just met and all, but that strikes me as a pot calling a kettle black.”
“I’m relaxed,” Leonard grumbles.
“Except for your obsession with what other people think of you.”
“I’m not–” Leonard starts, and then stops. “Leave it alone, kid.”
And Jim does.
For about two minutes.
“Well, if you’re not going to entertain me, at least let me do something to help you relax.”
Leonard rolls his eyes. “No means no,” he says.
Jim snorts. “Well, someone’s got a dirty mind. I meant a massage. No happy ending.”
The offer, like most of Jim’s, is unexpectedly tempting. But still. “I’m fine,” Leonard says.
“Seriously? You’re gonna sit there and turn down a massage? Something I’m actually quite good at, I might add.” Jim shakes his head. “You know, if you can’t find any use for me, you really are going to have to let me go.”
“Fine,” Leonard says, way too quickly. He lies down on his stomach on the bed. “Do your worst.”
“Works better if you lose the clothes,” Jim says dryly. “Got any lotion around here?”
“In the bathroom.”
When Jim goes in search of it, Leonard strips off his shirt.
Jim comes back out and waves his hand in a little circle. “Keep going.”
He doesn’t even pretend to look away as Leonard ditches his jeans. Leonard gets back down on the bed before Jim can demand the removal of his boxer-briefs.
Jim crawls onto the bed and situates himself straddling Leonard’s hips. “Lights – twenty percent.”
The room dims and Leonard hears the sound of lotion being squirted into and then rubbed between Jim’s hands. Then those hands are on him, smoothing the lotion gently over his back before starting to apply more pressure.
Damn. Leonard had no idea how much his body was craving touch until this moment, his skin soaking up the warmth of Jim’s palms along with the lotion.
Leonard bites back a groan.
“Why are you so eager to do things for me?” Leonard makes himself ask before he can say anything more revealing. “Shouldn’t you resent me?”
“This is the easiest position for holding you down while carving out your kidneys,” Jim informs him, like he’s talking about the weather.
Leonard’s muscles seize and his heart starts to race. He can’t believe how stupid he’s been.
Then he hears Jim laughing above him, and there’s nothing maniacal about it.
It’s a joke.
“Actually,” Leonard says, willing his body out of fight-or-flight mode, “you’d get a cleaner angle if I were lying on my side.”
“Noted,” Jim says as he gets back to the massage.
He really is good at this, gently wooing the muscles of Leonard’s back into a pliable state before digging into the knots in his shoulders with paired thumbs. Six or seven vicious knots later, Leonard feels more like a puddle than a man. He’s drifting in some sort of liminal state between sleep and wakefulness, feeling freer than he has in years (maybe ever).
To his great annoyance, his conscience is drifting there with him, wondering what the hell he thinks he’s doing making a manservant out of some poor kid he won in a backroom card game.
Is it so wrong to be tired of being alone? he asks his conscience.
He knows he must be dreaming when he hears the soft, “No,” from above.