Valentines Night

Conrad, like many singles living in America, has mixed feelings about February the 14th. There's the usual uncertain skepticism about hallmark and the culture industry, a general disdain for the mass produced vapid art associated with it (not uncommon to his league of graduates), and a vague longing like the ghost of so much sugar on the teeth. There is less pressure now that he's older to have someone, to be somewhere, but the directionless longing remains. Conrad has friends, dead and alive both, and he is not lonely. He has been lonely before, desperately so, and if he could close off those years with a neat turn of the key he would do it in a heart beat. This is irritation, desire even, but not loneliness.

And it's been months. What ever this is, it's not going away. He'd have strangled it in its cradle if he could have, but its terrible strength is beyond him.

Conrad sits over his drafting table in absolute silence for an hour, thinking about white bandages and the determined stumble of feet moving forward, refusing to rest. He's not going to say that his relentless gravitational draw comes from some charitable sense of purpose-he wants this for himself, and if he doesn't at least try to get it then nobody else goddamn will-but this is the thing, at the end of the day, that makes him brave enough to put on his coat.

On Valentines night, Conrad braves a week's worth of refrozen slush to get to the clinic on Youknowthe Street.

Doc Worth is surprised to see him. In fact, he slams a drawer closed on his own thumb in his shock and has to slap the table, spewing profanities for a full minute afterwards while he tries to shake blood and feeling back into the digit. Conrad can't decide whether he feels meanly vindicated or just guilty. Both, really.

"So," Worth says at last, a little hoarsely. He's still furiously shaking his hand around. "Come ta get bloodied up for a hot date, then."

Conrad fiddles with the buttons on his jacket, not sure if he wants to take the thing off and hang it up or keep it on in case he needs a fast escape. They pop in and out of the button holes, straining their strings.

"It's th' dick thing, roit?"

Conrad's head snaps up. "Beg pardon," he says, trying not to focus too much on particular words coming out of particular mouths. That will do him no good.

Worth makes a gesture with the uninjured hand, a "you know" kind of gesture. "Pump it up," he says, with a grin that's all teeth and ill intentions. "Get 'er revved."

The skin of Conrad's face literally goes up a couple degrees in temperature. "Are you trying to imply that I'm here to get an erection aid?"

Worth shrugs. "Yer dead, ya don't got blood of yer own."

"Obviously I do," Conrad grits out, "or I couldn't have walked here, could I?"

"So that's a no on th' hot date front," Worth decides.

Turning around and walking right out of the building seems like such a good idea right now. What did he come here for, anyways? This was a stupid plan. That wasn't even a plan, this was a string of barely coherent thoughts wrapped up in the package of wishful thinking. He should go. He should cut his losses and get out before he can—

"Come out with me," Conrad's mouth says, clearly not on the same page as his brain. He feels his pupils dilating in pure self-directed horror.

"With you," Worth repeats. His eyebrow is raised. Conrad has never felt so personally victimized by an eyebrow before.

"No," Conrad snaps, flipping up the collar on his woolen coat, "the other me standing right behind me in this office."

Worth squints at him. Conrad has that awful, thrilling sensation of being examined in minute detail—an excitement to be looked at, a fear of what will be seen.

"There some kinda medical emergency?" Worth asks, at last. "I need my kit?"

"No," Conrad starts, "it's not—it's not a work thing."

Worth looks at him as if the existence of "non work things" is a new and suspect revelation. His dubious expression energizes Conrad.

"Look," he says, "you're always on your way to one job or another or else you're holed up in this rats nest cutting people open and getting high and probably cutting people open while getting high, but I never seem to see you just getting out of the office and doing something for yourself."

"I like my office," Worth says, a little uncertainly.

Conrad stares really pointedly at the roach carcass about five feet away from him. It's been here since last week.

"I do plenty'a shit fer myself," Worth adds, changing tactics. "Right here. In this office."

That is so sad Conrad just wants to roll his eyes into infinity, but he exercises some political restraint. He's been thinking about this for ages, since Svitz—no, before that, since the bridge? Since the coffee shop? Maybe he's been thinking about Worth so often and for so long that he can't parse the inception of one idea from all the others anymore. He finds himself pausing for inestimable lengths of time over projects with deadlines, thinking about regular people's jackets with fur collars hastily sewn into the necklines. He thinks about what Worth would look like in the daylight, with the sun on his lined face.

"Just come out for a couple of hours," Conrad pushes, "have a drink with me. You can pick the bar."

Worth snorts. "I don't got the money to toss 'round on fancy cocktails, Sandra Dee."

"That's why I'm buying," Conrad says. His patience is dwindling. "I'm asking you out, I'm paying the tab."

"Yer askin' me out?"

"Yes I'm fucking asking you out!"

A small insect scuttles hastily across the floor. Worth says nothing. He's got this dumb look on his face, as if he's had his entire hardware drive rebooted.

"Or," Conrad says, "not, whatever. Forget it."

"Yer askin' me out," Worth says again.

"No," Conrad snaps. "Definitely not. Why would I do that."

"Why would ya do that," Worth agrees, eyes narrowing.

Because I want you to think I'm important, Conrad pointedly does not shout. Because I want you to not think about Hanna for one hour, he does not yell while slamming his hands repeatedly on the desk. Because I want you to see me drunk and ask me questions I can't answer when I'm sober, he does not scream, kicking the potted plant over and then stamping on the broken pottery until it turns to so much ceramic dust.

"Well I don't know," Conrad says, icily, "it's certainly looking like a less attractive prospect with every passing second."

Worth gets up from his desk. He circles it like a scavenger wary of lingering apex predators, approaching Conrad at an angle as if he can avoid being noticed if he doesn't come at it head on. His fingers lift up, catch either side of Conrad's face as he reaches the undead man. They are thin and dangerously cold, and Conrad's whole body thrums like it's teetering on the precipice of some kind of shuddering—

"You wanna fuck me," Worth says, a diagnosis he seems to be evaluating even as he announces it.

Conrad's mouth goes totally dry. He hasn't even thought that far ahead? Not really? His brain feels like it's squeaking. He absolutely cannot confirm or deny, he must not do either at any cost.

"Er," Conrad says (his voice definitely does not break). "Why don't I just buy you a drink?"

Worth slides his fingers over cheekbones—possibly completely innocent, possibly a cruel calculation—and says, after a moment of consideration, "Awright. Can't very well turn down a free drink, can I?"

"No-ope," Conrad cracks. "Nope. Can't do that."