The lights and the radio and the general buzz of the bar are low. So is the temperature, and even as your body aches against it you’re grateful, pressing your forehead to the counter before you while you nurse your headache and the cheap bottle of beer in your hand.
“You look like shit,” a voice says, and you turn your head to see that the stool to the left of yours is freshly occupied.
The man sitting there is about your age or maybe a little bit younger: unfamiliar, blurring in and out of focus vaguely as you blink, all impossibly long red hair and pale brown—maybe even gold—eyes fixed on you with intensity that’s not at all sufficient to keep you from noticing the great shadows like bruises underneath them.
You’d retort, but there’s concern in his tone that’s easy to read, and you’ve built your thankless career on reading people accurately. So you just sigh and close your eyes and let the noise thrum against your temples for a while.
When you open them again, he’s got his elbow on the bar, his face perched in his hand, and he’s still staring at you. The concern is more obvious this time, drawing a little crease between his eyebrows.
“Everything I built my life around, everything that’s kept me going this long, was a lie,” you say, and your voice is light and off the cuff but your eyes are stinging and blurring and your throat is tight and painful.
He reaches out, rests his hand on your arm just below your shoulder, and his palm is warm and soothing and heavy through your clothes. His amber-colored eyes are searching your face even as he speaks: “I’ll buy you a drink if you’ll tell me about it.”
You consider your options, and before you’re altogether done doing it you’ve started laughing, bitter, resigned. “That,” you tell him, “is a story it’s going to take me more than one drink to get through.”
He doesn’t move his hand, and you are piteously, ingratiatingly thankful for that—the spot of heat in the chill, the sole spot of interconnection when life and the truth have just snipped out all your bonds from around you and left you falling hard through empty space without anchor or bearing. “Then you can pay for the next one, and I’ll get the one after that, and if we’re not out of alcohol or change by the time you’re done, it’ll be my turn to tell you a story.”
There’s a distant sound of ice chips clicking against each other behind the bar, someone’s drink on the rocks being poured. You’re brittle enough to cave when pressed; you’re not hard enough to push away real kindness. If you’re honest with yourself, you’ve been starving for this kind of attention—the love of one little boy in all the cruel and ugly world, a single pair of hands to support you all this time, has been like a matchstick core to a house of cards. You’ll collapse in on yourself without something to take up the empty space inside.
You’ve built your life on reading people, and this red-haired stranger’s pathos is as genuine as it is rare. You get your forearms onto the counter and push yourself up. The smooth stone isn’t as cold against your skin as it was when you laid yourself down, anyway.
He waves the bartender over, orders himself a red currant rum, and when you start to ask for a second beer he raises his voice slightly to tell her that you would like a dark rum with ginger beer and lime garnish, thanks. (You raise your eyebrow at him and give him a dubious, protesting stare; he wrinkles his nose and tells you in a stage whisper that the only thing separating cheap beer from horse piss is that you can only get drunk on one of those things. You cannot argue against that, not least because you have never personally sampled horse piss and aren’t drunk enough to throw barbs over whether he has.)
Your drinks are served. He knocks back about a third of his in one swallow, waits for you to sample your own (it certainly does taste better than the cheap beer), and introduces himself as Gulcasa.
“Ragnus,” you say, and offer your hand belatedly. He looks at it and clasps it in his own, which is still warm enough to demand all your attention’s focus toward where your palms connect.
Either he lets go or you do, and he rests his elbows on the table and shelves his chin between the heels of his hands, patient and expectant as a child sitting on the floor before an elder.
It takes a while to get yourself started, but with the alcohol to burn your throat and stomach and cushion your mind from the pain and the resentment, you let the words out in twos and threes, in sentences, in monologue.
You talk about the lapse, the gap in your memories—about the hostility of Espada and the flame lit in your heart at seven years old by the loss of the only one who gave enough of a damn to shelter you from anyone, to tell you that you had worth as a human being. You talk about years of fighting for respect and years more of killing and organizing theft and terrorism in the name of survival, in the name of revenge, to protect the people who hated you, all the while hoping and praying to the silent night sky that something would change, that something would make it easier just once. All the fruitless entreaties that piled up to be covered with dust and never picked up again.
The more you drink, the easier it gets to say the words you never thought you could bear to let flutter up past the cage of your ribs. The sharp edge of your own powerlessness. A year in a dank jail cell, burning infection in a wound that took months to heal. The illusions stripped from your eyes at last—the truth that all along, you were nothing but a tool to the one whose ideals and kind words had kept you alive.
He watches you until your words run dry, watches you and watches you with eyes that pass no judgments and nary a single interruption as your vision blurs and clarifies, blurs and clarifies in an unending cycle.
At last you are left empty and oddly calm, staring at the marble counter with a tall, almost full glass of dark and stormy in your hand. Your body is cold and your face is hot and your eyes hurt, and something heavy has been lifted from your back for the first time in your memory.
There is silence between the two of you for a few moments, enough to let the background noise seep in. Patrons talking. Faint music humming through the leather of your seat. Ice clinking, the tap of glasses, liquid pouring.
Gulcasa begins to speak.
Your gaze shifts to him as he turns toward the counter. His body is hunched slightly and there is the hint of a frown in the way that his brow is creased; his face is flushed considerably and even if he’s not entirely inebriated he is certainly respectably drunk by now.
He tells you of the coldness and cruelty of human hands.
The unfairness he speaks of is dissimilar yet parallel to that which you have experienced, and his words fall into your ears like water dripping off the tapered point of a leaf. The negligence of adults—the deep prejudices of the people—the pain and the horror and the bone-deep frustration of it all, as if reflecting your own struggles back at you through a distorted mirror. Hope and despair revolving in a delicate dance. Victories only to be followed by crushing tragedies. After bowing and nearly breaking for the whole of his short life, he had grasped at the chance to make a difference and in the time it took him to make the leap, everything had crumbled out from under where he’d aimed to land.
And, at last, the truth about how deep that first faint prejudice had extended—enough to keep from him what he really was, enough to condemn him to all that suffering in the first place, and even to contribute to the deaths he had been too powerless to stop.
When he ceases speaking, he is bent over so that his forehead nearly touches the counter. It is quiet in the bar—nearly all the patrons have already left by this hour—and you’re not even sure anymore how many drinks you’ve had. The world is fuzzy about the edges.
You’re told not long after this that the bar will be closing soon; that you’ll have to leave.
Everything has already been paid for, split between the pair of you, so all there is left to do is to return to your room in the hotel upstairs. Your legs threaten to spill you onto the ground as you stand, but your pride is able to keep you on your feet.
Gulcasa has a more difficult time. He pushes himself upright, then lists to the side slowly; his eyes are clouded and his entire body apparently weighted down with exhaustion and liquor. It is second nature to reach out to wrap his arm around your shoulders and support him. It could be nothing else after baring yourself to him the way that you have and hearing his burdens in return.
Navigating the tables is surely an awkward spectacle in the eyes of onlookers—if your limbs are clumsy with drink, his drag—and the stairs are more so. Still, you pull yourself through it, and him with you, and don’t mind their hypothetical stares and judgments.
You come to stand at the door to your room, and it is then that Gulcasa leans into you. Both his arms wrap around you, his body presses against yours heavily, and he lifts his head just enough for his mouth to find yours easily, naturally. There is tangible heat rising off of his skin; his lips are soft and the movements of his tongue gentle, and he tastes of red currant rum.
He makes a quiet sound against you, just holds you and doesn’t stop kissing you, and your head is pounding and your hips want to roll against his. You frame the side of his face with your left hand and cup the small of his back in your right.
Later on, your memories will be fuzzy at the edges and obscured with the dizziness. You will not remember how it is that you manage to get the door open (effort), or who closes it behind you (yourself, almost as an afterthought). All that remains is the steady dance, the sway of Gulcasa’s long bright hair in the faint light from the window, the frustrated pull at each other’s clothes until you are both naked, the rustle as your own hair falls free of its tie to rest heavy and warm all down your back, the collapse against the mattress. First his body over yours, then yours over his.
You’re not sober enough to think or to prepare each other—Gulcasa is a glass away from blind drunk—so you simply wrestle and roll and touch each other. His hands move down and then up the contours of your sides, and he murmurs something about how weightless you are against the side of your throat. He leaves kisses like tender bites all across your face and shoulders and chest, and every bit of him steams in the night. His long hair gets caught between your elbows, but neither of your movements are harsh enough to pull it sharply.
You explore his skin with dizzy fingertips, and not a handspan passes without some old scar creating an unevenness underneath your hands. Behind each long-healed wound there is a story, and you can guess at many of them; you trace the length of all that you can find. The rough patch of scar tissue in the middle of your body is pressed constantly to Gulcasa’s steady warmth.
It is a sensation like swimming, like flying; you are the same, and you are linked in a great tangled mess of naked limbs and muzzy kisses and long hair scattered all across the bed. You are not alone; there is someone who still understands. There is someone who has had it close enough, similar enough, to be able to know. Even if you’ve been cut away from everyone, even if you’re falling, there’s still one thread attaching you to something—there’s still kindness in the world, there’s still someone who will show you the bleeding trust to joust body to body with you. You are both wet with sweat and tears and baser fluids, and your hands and his hands are careful of the marks that those not so kind have left on each other. The furthest he slides down your body is to kiss the great lance scar across your middle all tender and open-mouthed, and you roll him over to seek out and love his faintest scars, the ones that are all a decade older or more.
You are joined by the hands, linked irrevocably into a circuit with no beginning and no end, just bare bodies moving against each other in a slow and comfortable rhythm. You strain against him as if to melt your skin together forever—you want him inside you, you want to be inside him, but the both of you are drunk and clumsy and there is no oil to use for lubricant and so that closest of touches is not for you, not for tonight. There is only this; this starlit symmetrical dance.
And yet it ends abruptly. Gulcasa stutters your name to the ceiling, loud and pitched; you muffle your own voice in the mattress. His body slackens with exhaustion, and your consciousness cuts out.
(He is there when you wake, tangled with you yet and squinting at the sunlight as if deeply suspicious of it. When your eyes meet over the dull clang of the liquor, you both smile because it’s all you can do; he touches your back once tenderly and you kiss him on the mouth, deep and warm and full.)