Of Dreams and Rust Chapter One
IN THE LAST year I have come to understand the traitorous nature of skin. We cannot live without this barrier between our beating hearts and the outside world, yet it is the most fragile of things, as well as the most deceptive. My own, despite its golden undertones, cannot keep me warm. The memory of Melik’s, the ruddy tan of earth under sun, leaves me aching in darkness. My father’s, thin and buckling under the weight of his years and all the things he’s lost, hides his silent strength.
And Bo’s, so broken and torn, is woven from sheer betrayal. Stretched over his bones like the work of a clumsy tailor, carelessly patched, heedlessly sewn. I have come to know it almost as well as I do my own, and I hate it for its failure, for the painful story it tells. I hate it because, despite its weakness, it is somehow powerful enough to keep him from the world.
“Stop,” he snaps, wrenching his forearm from my grasp. “You’re making it worse.”
I quickly rub my fingertips together, the rose hip oil slick between them. “It will keep the scar from growing stiff.” I gentle my tone. “I’m sorry if I was pressing too hard.”
Bo’s machine hand, a work of mad, relentless genius, covers the scar on his arm, shielding it from me. His human skin is the same color as mine, but his machine parts glint silver beneath the lantern dangling from the rough rock ceiling of this chamber. Despite the fact that I have seen him without his mask, Bo always wears it when I visit. I am reflected in his half-metal face, my cheekbones and chin sharp, my forehead wide and distorted, my eyes dark. They, at least, tell the truth. The weariness and sorrow within them is as deep as the canyon that leads through the Western Hills.
Bo tilts his head. “You were far away just now. Again.”
I lower my gaze to my fingers. I hurt him when I am not with him, but I seem to hurt him almost as much by being here, and I can’t figure out how to change that. “Shall I continue?”
Bo blinks his brown eye. His ebony hair hangs over his forehead, part steel, part flesh, yet all smooth. “I’m sure Guiren will be missing you. It is almost time for the clinic to open.”
“And I am sure you have many plans for today, all of which involve the use of this arm and these fingers, as well as both legs.” I glance over at his long work table, strewn with metal body parts, a bicep here, a pectoral there, circuits for blood vessels, gears and springs and bearings waiting for Bo to give them purpose, to bring them to life. Usually I love hearing about his creations and inventions. When he talks about a new idea, his whole face lights up. Sometimes I come down here just to watch him work, a few hours on a quiet afternoon spent staring at his hands moving in concert while his face cradles the tiniest of contented smiles. I have even made peace with his metal spiders, for the most part. However, when Bo began designing himself a complete steel shell, when he started to fashion a machine arm to fit over his human one, and then a set of legs, I began to realize he was the creation this time.
Now the sight of them chills me to the bone.
“I have a few minutes before I must go,” I say to him. “Let’s make the most of it.”
“All right.” He sags a bit in his chair, its legs squeaking against the patterned metal panel that covers the floor. His machine arm arcs with precise grace to hang at his side. Sometimes it seems to move on its own, walking his skeletal fingers through a dance set to electrical pulses, transmitted by wires and circuits that wind like veins within the contours of his steel muscles. My own fingertips move hesitantly over the scar on his arm, the healed wound inflicted by his own fearsome spider creations as he rescued me and Melik from a mob—a trap that Bo himself had set for the rust-haired Noor boy who had claimed my heart. Bo’s own heart would not allow him to see it through, though, and he paid for that mercy with blood. Four seasons have passed, but Bo’s flesh has an unfailing, unforgiving memory.
“Any interestingly gory cases yesterday?” he asks as casually as he might inquire about the weather.
I smirk. “I am probably the only girl in the country who does not find that to be a repulsive and offensive question.”
“You’re the only girl in the country I talk to, so I guess I’m lucky.” With his playful smile, he lifts some of the weight off my shoulders. It is magnetic, drawing the corners of my mouth up to match.
“Dr. Yixa is still put off by my eagerness to suture his patients’ wounds. He makes the funniest faces whenever he witnesses me washing blood from my hands.” I imitate it, lowering my eyebrows and grimacing, and Bo laughs. “But at this point he knows my stitches are neater and straighter than his own.”
“Then I give him credit for being observant.”
I wonder if Bo realizes how his simple faith in me melts away some of my own doubts.
“He should be grateful,” Bo continues. “Gochan One was dangerous, but Gochan Two is as heartlessly deadly as the war machines it creates. He needed the help.”
“Father and I were fortunate he did.” After the destruction of Gochan One, Father and I thought we might have to leave in search of work, but Dr. Yixa, the chief physician and surgeon for the neighboring factory, discovered us caring for victims of the catastrophe, and he offered my father a position. My father refused to accept unless I could come along as his assistant.
“I was fortunate he did, too,” Bo murmurs. “I thought I’d never see either of you again, and then Guiren found me.”
I think of the little steel-and-wire girl that I keep tucked under my pillow, her hair short like mine was right after a spider sliced off my braid with its fangs, her body enfolded within the arms of a faceless, unknowable boy. Given how injured Bo was at the time, it must have hurt him to create her, to sneak her into the pocket of my dress. “You had sent me a message.” He was giving me the chance to return to him—or to stay away. “I was happy that it helped us find you.”
Bo’s smile has not faded. “Not as happy as I was.”
I’m not so sure about that. This morning, like every morning now, I woke to the light of the stars and moon winking dimly through my tiny window and the faint sound of my father’s snoring coming from the next room. I pulled on my work dress and crept down the darkened stairways of Gochan Two, a sprawling beast that sleeps until the sun rises over the high factory fence. I slipped around the few traps, knowing well where they are and what they hold in store for trespassers.
Within the old mining tunnels and caves beneath this weapons factory, Bo is once again building himself a world.
Unlike his skin, his mind never fails him.
I followed his instructions, long since memorized, to find the hidden door that marks the entrance to his kingdom, merely the bones of what he plans to build someday. He escaped through these tunnels when he brought the Gochan One slaughterhouse down, burying a hundred men in a tomb of metal and brick and burned meat. And though he was wounded, he immediately began to weave his steel web around him. My father and I helped. Bo is ours, and we could not let him go. And now I look forward to every morning, because in this hour I am more myself than I can be for the rest of the day. Bo knows my secrets, and whether he likes them or not, he seems to forgive me for having them. Knowing he looks forward to our time as well makes me determined to carve it into my day, no matter how early I must rise. It is an unspoken promise. It binds us to each other, out of mutual need.
And yet, lately, I feel like I am losing him, circuit by circuit.
Bo flinches again as my thumb follows the path of his jagged scar. “Must you always press right where it hurts the most? I don’t see how it helps.”
“Father says that if we do this every day, you’ll be able to retain the mobility in your arm.” I duck my head to make sure he is looking at me. “He also said that if you wear those mechanical frames around your arm and legs for too long, if you let them do the work of your body for you, you will lose strength in these muscles.” I skim my palm over his forearm, a silent apology, but draw back quickly when he shivers.
Bo presses his lips together as he glares at his imperfect flesh. “Sometimes I wish I were made entirely of steel and wire,” he says. “I often wish that, in fact.”
“I don’t.” I continue to massage the rose hip oil into his arm, over the puckered, mottled pink and white of his scar and the light brown of his unmarked skin. “I like you this way.”
He sighs. “When you are here, I like myself this way too,” he says quietly. He draws himself up, setting his jaw. “But you are not here most of the time. Including when you are sitting right in front of me.”
The silence between us is alive with wishes, his and mine. We want pieces of each other that we will never have. Bo wishes I would stop missing Melik—and I wish Bo wanted to be human. If one of us could move, I believe the other could as well, but because neither of us can move, our hearts are frozen in place. And yet we give each other what we can.
“I am here now,” I say. “And we have time to work on your leg—if you’re willing? You said it was bothering you.”
He frowns. “Give me a minute.” His cheeks have darkened.
I fidget with my oil and cloth as he disappears behind a partition. His arm hums and fabric whispers as he pulls off his pants. We are about to do a delicate dance, one that sways between clinical and intimate. I never know, from moment to moment, if I want it or if I want to pull away, and I think Bo feels the same.
“I’m ready,” he mumbles.
I rise from my chair and move around the partition, my skirt swishing around my ankles. Bo lies on his sleep pallet, his blanket pulled over his hips and his right leg. His left, the one savaged by a metal spider a year ago, is bare and goose-bumped. Bo’s face is turned to the wall. He never looks at me when I do this.
“This scar looks a little better. Faded,” I say as I sink to my knees beside him.
“I don’t care what it looks like. I only care whether my leg is functional.”
If that were truly the case, I don’t think he would be trembling, but I don’t call attention to it. I am careful with him. I always have been. Not because I am afraid he will lash out; he has never hurt me, and I think he would die from the pain of it if he did. No, I am more concerned with hurting him. If I cajole, if I hold back, if I craft my words just so, it makes it easier for Bo to stay with me, to stay himself. “Of course. I only meant that it looked stronger.”
He laughs, just a hiss of breath from his nose. “I see right through you.”
I pour a bit of rose hip oil into my palm and rub my hands together. “How so?”
“Do you really think I am so naive, Wen? You don’t have to always say what I want to hear.”
He turns his head and looks at me. “Do you?” His human hand reaches across his body and touches mine. “How can I be your friend if you are always protecting me?”
I let him take my hand. I let him stroke my fingers. It feels both comforting and dangerous. “You always protect me. Why can’t I do the same?”
His grip tightens. “Because it’s not the same. I would protect you from anything that threatened you. Any man, any creature, any machine. And you, you protect me from . . . you, I suppose.” He lets me go and then clenches his fist so hard his knuckles go pale. His metal fingers click, startling me. “It’s the last thing I want to be protected from.”
“That’s not fair.” I lay my warm palms on his bare thigh, over the thick, ropy scar. Bo’s chest stills and his eyes close. “You know me better than anyone does.”
He shakes his head. “Only the parts you allow me to see.”
I press down a swell of frustration and begin to massage his leg, long downward strokes toward his knee and then upward to midthigh, as my father taught me. It will keep the muscles supple, the blood flowing, the skin from growing taut and angry. I am gentle at first, cautious. I watch my hands moving over his skin. I’ve memorized every flaw. It makes the perfect parts that much more exquisite, but as soon as that thought surfaces, I try to drown it. It would be utterly scandalous for me to be alone with a man, touching him like this with no one to supervise, but my father trusts us both. Bo is a patient right now, nothing more.
It is impossible to think of him as nothing more. But so is thinking of him any other way.
I remind myself to be like my father, to think like my father, and my movements harden. My hands become instruments, my thoughts technical . . . but with shamefully ragged edges. Bo clutches at his blanket with both hands. His face glitters with pinpoint beads of sweat. I’m hurting him, but Father said it would hurt if I did it right. What he didn’t say: how my stomach would knot, how my eyes would burn, how my precision would be worn away by the desire to smooth back Bo’s damp hair and kiss his forehead.
“You could take off your mask,” I tell him after a few minutes. It must be uncomfortable when he sweats like this.
“No,” he says in a choked voice. “I don’t want to.”
“I see only the parts you allow me to see,” I say, a warped echo, an accusation that I for once do not hold back.
“How can you possibly think it’s the same?” he whispers. “You hide beauty from me. The only thing I hide from you is ugliness.” A tear suddenly slips free from the corner of his tightly closed eye, and he swipes it away as his face twists with anger and humiliation. I bow my head because my own tears are about to betray me as well.
Bo sits up abruptly. “I’ve had enough.”
He says it so sharply that I freeze. For a moment there is only silence and stillness, but then he tips my chin up with his callused fingertips. I wonder if my eyes are red like his, if his chest is as tight as mine. His mouth opens, but his words are locked inside him. We stare at each other. I don’t understand why this happens, why we make each other fall apart, why it can’t be simple and easy. But as I look into Bo’s face, half handsome and half monster, the space between us fills with all the things we do not say. The things we’ll probably never say.
His hand falls away from me, landing in his lap like a dead weight. “I’ll be out in a moment.” His voice is rough, uneven.
I move quickly, eager to give him the privacy he needs so badly right now. While he gets dressed, I set a bun on a plate for him and start a pot of water heating on a small burner he keeps on his worktable. Once the coil flares red hot, I fill a large teapot with tea leaves and set out the strainer. “Someone saw you two nights ago,” I say, longing to steer our conversation toward calmer waters, to occupy Bo’s mind with the now, the real, the things he can control.
“Where?” he calls from behind the partition.
“Have you been to the construction site?”
His metal fingers click together, driven by the jolts from muscles in his shoulder, and he steps into the open, fully clothed once more. “I needed some tools.”
“One of the foremen was still there. He told his crew to be on the lookout for you. One of them was injured by a beam yesterday and told us the story while we were splinting his arm. Some think you were just a thief, but others believe the foreman saw the Ghost.”
Bo snorts. “ ‘Just a thief.’ ” He comes over to stand next to me as I prepare our tea.
“It’s safer for everyone if that’s what they believe,” I remind him.
“I’ll be more careful,” he mumbles. “I didn’t expect anyone to be there so late.”
“They have received orders to get the slaughterhouse running earlier.”
His eye bores into mine. “You know why, don’t you?”
“Feasting season, of course.” My heart skips.
“No, because they want to make sure they have rations for our soldiers on top of the demand for meat during the feasting season. Gochan One supplied much of the beef for the central part of Itanya, and with the need to feed an army moving west, it is indispensable.”
“We are not at war.” It is a silly thing to say and I know it. We have been on the cusp of war for months. The western province of Yilat is churning with rebellion and revolution, and the sentiment is slowly creeping east. Lost in thoughts of men with guns, I reach for the pot and whimper as my fingers skim over the burner.
Bo’s machine hand moves quickly, like reflex. It snatches the pot away from me. “Let me do this. I never get burned.” He flashes a grin that fades instantly. His impervious metal fingers pour the water over the little pile of tea leaves, then place the lid on the ceramic teapot. “You may be worrying over nothing, Wen.” He looks at me out of the corner of his eye. “He may already be dead.”
My throat aches, like he’s closed those metal fingers around the stalk of my neck. “Melik is alive,” I whisper. Right before he walked away from me to return to the west with his younger brother, Sinan, and all the men from his village, he promised me that I had not seen him for the last time. I believed him.
Bo rolls his eye. “You can’t know that. It’s been a year of fighting and bombing and turmoil in Yilat. The Noor are staking their claim on the west. And this time they have united with the lower-class Itanyai in that province.” He slaps two teacups down and pours the bitter brew. “They are better equipped and organized than they have ever been. They want their own autonomous region.” He fumbles with the strainer as he removes it from his cup, leaving a spray of sodden tea leaves across his meticulously neat worktable. “Don’t tell me you believe your red Noor would sit idly by while his brethren fought for such a ridiculous goal. He was always full of similarly romantic, unrealistic sentiments. It very well could have gotten him killed, just like it almost did when he was here.”
“What nearly got him killed when he was here was the irrational hatred of the Noor.” And the fact that Bo framed him, but I don’t mention that. I never mention that, or how often I’ve had to forgive Bo for it, because every time I think of it, it leaves me hot with anger.
It’s one of the things I hide from him. I doubt he would find it beautiful.
Bo turns his back on me and carries our cups to the table, where he sits down. “He was agitating for more rights for the workers. It made him an easy target.” He puts my cup in its usual place and waits for me to join him.
I use my cloth to wipe his work surface. “You didn’t know him, Bo.” He won’t even call Melik by his name.
“I watched him like I did everyone else.” He grimaces. “More, even.”
I stare at the floor. “I cannot think of him dead. No more than I could think of you that way.”
“Do not compare us.” Now even his voice is made of steel. “I am here. He is gone. Long. Gone.”
To continue this conversation would be like stepping into one of his traps. I tuck my hands into the pockets of my skirt. “I need to go help my father. I will see you tomorrow morning.”
Bo is silent as I walk past my steaming teacup and out of his chamber, as I stride through the tunnel toward the stairs. But just before I reach the door that opens to the world above, I hear a low curse followed by the sharp slam of metal onto metal.
I do not go back to see if he is all right.