On Tap (Ahzrukhal and F!OC :: SFW)
Rena hadn’t even noticed that the crowd in the bar was dying down until Ahzrukhal sidled over in front of her, swapping out her empty glass for a fresh one.
“Hmm? Oh, thanks.” She grabbed the glass and swirled it but didn’t drink it just yet. Years of using alcohol use had built up her tolerance, but not her immunity. She knew she needed to take this last one slowly if she wanted to keep her mind clear enough to make it back to her bed at Carol’s Place without making a scene on the way.
“You seem to have a lot on your mind,” the barkeep said softly, setting a rough and gnarled hand on hers for a moment. Rena stared at it with a small frown. “How about you tell Uncle Ahzrukhal all about it?”
She knew what he was doing. She’d done the same thing a million times herself: a small touch, soft words in a gentle voice, a familial connection such as calling himself “uncle”. He was trying to tear down her guard brick by brick.
Rena turned her eyes up towards him and he smiled, pulling his hand away as he leaned onto the bar, arms crossed before him.
“Aren’t you tired of playing this game?” She raised the glass to her lips and sipped. It didn’t burn anymore. It hadn’t burned since her second one that night.
“What game?” His voice was light and joking, but she could hear the tinge of fear in his voice. He knew he’d been caught and now he was worried about what would happen next.
“The one where you pretend to care,” Rena said as smoothly as the whisky felt. “The one where you act like you care what I have to say so long as I keep the tab open.”
Relief flashed momentarily behind his glassy eyes before it was replaced with a bemused look. Damn, he was good.
“Is that what you think?” Again, he reached out and set a hand over hers. She flipped it over, letting her bare fingers brush against his wrist as he stilled in her leather clad palm.
“Since you asked, and since the tab is still open, I guess I should tell you…. I’m just lonely. Not stupid.” She bit her bottom lip, letting her index finger stroke a divet in his radiation scarred flesh absently. “I know why you’re nice, Ahzrukhal. And I know what you’re doing. I do it too, you know.”
“Do what, sweetheart?” He leaned in closer, his breath coming out in small wheezes from the effort. He didn’t bother to move the hand atop hers, but used the other to prop his head up, his chin on his fist.
“Read people. Get to know them then give them what they want. I know what you want, I know how you want it. But I’m so tired of doing it.” She swirled the whisky in the glass, watching the brown liquid chase itself up the sides towards the lip but not spilling over. Her bottom lip trembled slightly as she looked up at him again. “I’m so tired of playing this damned game.”
Ahzrukhal moved his hand first. He let his fingers drag over hers as he straightened, wheezing a little harder now as his dead eyes glanced around the bar. Only a few people were left, sitting at the tables and finishing off their drinks. He knew that they would be leaving soon. If only he could keep Rena there a little longer….
“Go ahead and close out my tab, please.” Her voice was still steady and strong but her hand was unsteady as she began to pull items from her bag in search of her caps pouch.
Ahzrukhal nodded and tallied up the total of the four drinks he had poured for her, momentarily considering a discount for her being “a good sport” but decided against it. She would just accuse him of toying with her, wouldn’t she?
“Oh my fucking…. Dammit, where the hell is it?” She gave the bag a rough shake and heard the jingle. She knew it was in there, but she was so far gone that she couldn’t see it. With a heavy sigh she shoved the bag onto the bar, bumping the glass in the process and nearly knocking it over. Had it not been for Ahzrukhal’s quick hands the entire thing would have tipped. “See if you can find it, please.”
Rena watched him like a hawk as he dug through her bag, giving it a little shake of his own now and then to move things around without actually touching them. In the end he found the pouch, tucked into the corner of the bag. Before his scarred fingers could pull it open she snatched it from and carefully counted out the caps, sliding them over towards him.
“There. Now close the tab, right?” She pulled the bag back onto her lap, swept what she had taken out back into the bag and grabbed the glass before he could, tossing it back quickly as the customers at the tables began to stand, shouting their goodnights and goodbyes to each other as they made their way to the door, carefully avoiding the glaring eye of Charon in the corner.
Rena groaned and lowered her head to the bar again as Ahzrukhal began to wipe it down around her, taking care not to disturb the merc. “God, I need a smoke.”
“Here,” Ahzrukhal offered as he pulled his own pack from his pocket. “On the house.”
Lifting her head slowly, Rena took the offered cigarette and placed it between her lips, looking at him expectantly. With a chuckle he pulled out a lighter but didn’t flick it yet.
“A light will cost you,” he teased.
“Then I’ll kiss you when I’m done.”
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Mal has distracting thoughts about Alina at Keramzin.
The first time it happens, he bolts upright, instantly awake in a cold sweat. A glance at the sun leisurely rising over the fields of the orphanage tells him it is barely six. Another glance around the shared room, a quick count of the delicate (and not so delicate) deep breaths of the other orphans, and Mal breathes a sigh of relief. Then the crushing wave of his guilt brings him back to reality, and he furiously rubs his hands over his eyes, trying to will himself to erase the images of his dream from his mind, erase the hidden part of his subconscious that revels and delights in what his tired brain had conjured up. He sinks back into bed, eyes wide open, aware of every fraction of cloth clinging to his form. He closes his eyes. Sleep does not come.
In rare form, Ana Kuya had on that day absolved many of the orphans of their household chores, shooing them out of the house, scattering them into the open fields like mice under a burning summer sun. Whether or not it was so Ana Kuya could find a moment of quiet and cool, he imagined her dragging her chair and embroidery to the draftiest part of the orphanage, Mal would not stick around to find out. He grabbed Alina’s hand, she yelped and swatted, and he ignored her, a man on a mission. Once she realized they were trekking towards Trivka’s pond, she dropped his hand, and began to outline the crimes he had committed against her in that moment
“Kidnapping orphan girls, cruel and unusual punishment in the form of spending longer than ten minutes in the heat-”
“I will leave you right here and you can melt in your own sweat.”
“Add abandonment to your list of crimes, truly Mal, you’re an orphan too, I really expected more from you-”
He finds he cannot contain his smile, and his grin widens even more when he spots the pond in the distance. Alina’s squeal of delight tells him she’s spotted it too, and they race towards it, the only relief one should hope to receive on a hot summer day. Mal makes quick work of abandoning his shirt and shoes, and wades into the water. The top is simmering in the heat, but as he stretches out his legs towards the bottom of the pond, a welcome chill snakes around his body, and he dunks his head into the water, reveling in the brief escape from the beating sun.
As he returns to the surface, he recognizes his mistake instantly. Alina’s back is turned to him, and he watches shamefully as she shrugs off her dress and folds it in a neat pile. He has seen her in her undergarments a thousand times before, they have come to the pond a thousand times before. But now his brain eagerly plays back the images of his recent dreams as she undresses, the endless stretch of Alina’s skin that he had religiously traced over and over with his mouth, his tongue, her soft curves under his body, the heat of her breath below him, the weight of her body on top of him.
He feels his blush turn positively scarlet. As Alina turns towards the pond, he dunks his head back underwater.
Mal prays to every saint he remembers. He prays again just in case. Alina is his best friend. Alina does not feel the same. Alina is his home. Alina-
Is pushing him into a small closet, her hand firmly pressed over his mouth, her body firmly pressed against his. He nearly groans at his body’s instincts, but manages to stop himself at the last second. He conjures up every vile image of Alina he can think of in hopes of banishing the rush of blood away from his head. The look on her face before she had proceeded to puke all over his shoes after a bad batch of parsnip soup. The filth that followed her for a week after she cleaned the chimney. The feverish tint of her skin and the cold sweats that followed one particularly bad winter.
Mal clears his throat, and Alina shoots him a deadly look of warning. He remembers the way, after he made a scene of removing his shoes, he held her hair and stroked a soothing rhythm down her back. He remembers helping her scrub the skin under her fingernails in an attempt to be rid of the chimney dust. He remembers pressing his hand over her forehead, feeding her soup little by little, regaling his latest hunting adventure as she drifted off into sleep. And while his male bodily functions have calmed down, his heart blooms and fills with an unspeakable feeling.
Now she eyes him curiously. He remembers that she had unceremoniously shoved him into the closet and expected cooperation.
“What are you doing?” he whispers, her hand still over his mouth. He has to restrain himself from licking her palm.
She makes a dramatic show of listening to the movement in the hallway. When she deems that no one is coming, she turns out her pockets and opens her palm.
“I brought you a gift”. Her smile is shy and bright. The unspeakable feeling in his chest begs to speak.
“Candied almonds. I’m very impressed.”
“I even stole them and everything.”
“I can tell. Although your escape plan could use a little work.”
She sticks her tongue out at him. He grins and pops an almond in his mouth. She does the same, and he almost doesn’t notice the way her tongue flicks out to lick the sugar from her lips.
After they’ve finished off the almonds, Alina sticks the tip of her index finger in her mouth. He can’t bear to think about her tongue.
This he definitely notices.
The dreams come frequently now. Mal is ashamed of the total lack of shame he feels. He chalks it up to his hormones. His growing body. The constant closeness of Alina. He chalks it up to the fact that Alina doesn’t know what filthy thoughts race through his mind when she leans across his body during dinner to grab another bread roll, when she hugs him from behind in her softly affectionate way, when she sneaks into his room at night so they can go stargazing.
On one particular evening, Mal finds her lying in the open fields, staring up at the sky as the moon begins to shine and the stars begin to emerge. Her hair frames her face, and the cream color of her blouse makes her look as if she is glowing. She turns to him and pats the spot next to her.
“Best seat in the house.”
“Of this I have no doubt.” He settles in beside her. When he turns to look at her, she is already staring back. He takes in the features of her face, and his chest feels warm. He had been gone for two weeks on a longer hunting trip, and while educational and exciting, he feels at peace now, with Alina beside him.
“I missed you.” She says it quietly, and her eyes flick all around his face, never resting in one spot, almost avoiding his eye contact.
He reaches out between them for her hand. Her skin is warm and her hand is bandaged. When he had returned from the trip earlier that afternoon, he ran to meet her in the open field. She met him halfway, and when he picked her and spun her around, his head felt dizzy, even after he put her down. As he left to get lunch, he could not help but commit to his memory every detail of that moment, of the sweet scent of her skin, of her hair between his fingers, of the irrefutable feeling of home he had felt in that moment.
She had told him that Ana Kuya had threatened the switch as a result of her carelessness when she cut her palm, but Mal could feel her giddiness, her relief that he had finally returned. He takes her hand now, lacing their fingers, sure not to disrupt the bandages. He can see the rise and fall of her chest as she glances down at their intertwined hands and back up at him.
She meets his eyes and gives a small smile. The look in her eyes is unreadable. Mal wants to stay there all night and decipher it. He finds that he wants to peel through every layer of Alina. If a book contained every thought she had ever had, every insult and curse she had uttered to him, he would hungrily devour it, read it again and again, and commit it to memory. He felt that nothing would give him greater pleasure.
She squeezes his hand and turns her gaze to the stars. His eyes follow, and he relays stories from the hunting trip, and they spend the evening pointing out the shapes of the constellations. The air hums with possibility around them, the grass a soft blanket under their backs.
Their hands remain clasped, and when Mal hears her deep breaths indicating that she has drifted off, he carefully scoops her up and carries her back to the orphanage. Her head bobs gently against his chest.
“This was just a long ploy to get you to carry me home.” He can hear the smile in her voice.
“I will always carry you home Alina.” The words feel heavier when he says them out loud, but he’s not sure if she notices.
She burrows deeper into his chest, and lets loose a deep and tremendous snore, followed by her snickers. He rolls his eyes and laughs, but in this moment he feels pure and complete. With her body in his arms, her slender legs draped over his elbow, he almost expects the dirty thoughts to come. They don’t, but the thoughts that fill his head and pierce the deepest parts of his heart feel forbidden nonetheless.
The dreams don’t come as often now. Instead, they’ve been replaced with the horrors of his experiences. Shadows creeping along the wall, a dark figure looming over him and the point of a dagger deep in his chest, his blood splattered across the room. Alina hanging limp in his arms, her pale face draining with color as he feels the life slipping away from her. Pain and loss and bloodshed. He finds that he cannot run from his grief in the sanctuary of his sleep.
Sometimes, he wakes up shaking, covered in the worst kind of cold sweats. He wishes he was 15 again, awakened by the unbidden but lustful thoughts of his best friend. Anything would be better than what he dreams of now.
But when he opens his eyes, he can hardly believe his reality. Alina tucked safely in his arms, her back against his chest, her white hair tangled in his face. Their legs are intertwined, and he feels her run her thumb across his knuckles, across the arm that holds her tighter. He must have woken her up. She brings his hand up to her mouth and kisses his knuckles softly.
“I’m here. I’m safe. We’re both safe.” Another brush of her lips. “And alive.” She whispers these words against his hand, one of the only prayers they truly believe in. Her breath is hot as it ghosts over his knuckles, and he feels her lightly kiss the pads of his fingers.
He pulls her in closer. This happens often enough, and they’ve traded the words of this prayer back and forth like currency. Sometimes she wakes up and feels nothing but her grief. Sometimes he wakes up and feels nothing but his fear, mutating into the anger he felt during the war.
But Alina is always there to lightly kiss his palm. She turns around in his arms and cups his face, traces the peaks and valleys of his features with her fingers. The early sun is warm and streams in through the window, and in that moment he can swear that she is the saint everyone believed her to be. Her hair glows around her, and while she can no longer call the light to surround her, she is the only one who can summon the warmest feelings in his heart, the neverending well of his memories of her, the easy and unquestionable heat of his love for her.
He hears the children running in the hallway, eager to start their lessons. He hears Oncat scratching at their door, waiting to be petted. He hears Alina’s soft sigh.
“I love you.” It’s another one of their prayers. It will grow old with them, but it will never truly die.
When he kisses her, his bad dreams fade away, and his thoughts cease to exist, except for his thoughts of Alina, the shape and the feel of Alina. Always Alina. And the feeling of coming home.
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