Coriander and Honey

Discussion in 'ONE ON ONES IN CHARACTER' started by The Mood is Write, Oct 16, 2016.

  1. Graham had been in this new town for a whole of two weeks now. He felt familiar with the sleepy borough by this time, enough that he knew where to busk to make enough to cover his meals, and where to advertise offers of grass-cutting, weed-pulling, and other workman-like tasks. The Hunter had even taken a job shoveling shit from some squatter house near the edge of town, although the work was drying up as he completed more and more tasks.

    A few people were repeat customers, though. There was a sweet old lady who had him come over daily. She had a lovely face, marred only by a big, fleshy lump just between her ear and her jawline, and from it grew a single, long hair. It took all Graham's effort not to stare, but she made it worth his effort to rise before dawn so he could make it to her house in time; she made incredible breakfasts, and then gave him snacks and a packed lunch for the rest of his day, and she paid him up-front. For all that, Graham worked the hardest for her, even sometimes completing tasks she'd not given him.

    Graham assumed she had kids who stopped visiting at some point. Honestly, she was the reason he'd not ditched town on day five after spotting a faerie in the bar he liked.

    He'd been so terrified he drank all he'd ordered at once, and woke up to a broom smacking his face while a greasy, paper-lined basket rested on his head. The morning after, that lovely and sweet Grandma Josie insisted he shower at her house. She'd even scolded him!

    Absently, he pondered Grandma Josie while his feet carried him toward the bar. He couldn't stay until she keeled over, though. What if she added him to her will? What if he had to live in or sell her sweet old woman house? What if he was the only one who went to her funeral? His throat tightened, but he thrust his jaw forward. No, he had to leave before then, but he couldn't just leave her lonely. He kicked a pebble on the sidewalk, and then winced at the loud clank that came from it hitting a gutter on the opposite side of the road. Oops.

    Ah well. He rested his hands against the back of his head, fingers twined among the messy length just before it hit the shoelace that tied it into a pony tail. Still, that felt pretty good, and drew him away from depressing things, and just in time: the bar's entrance was only a few meters away!

    The bar was a run-down place, ill-suited to the friendly little town it claimed residence in. He arrived shortly after dinner and paused in the doorway to watch with interest as a woman 'opened up' to a man who whispered that he would make her a star. He reeked of lies, and she reeked of a man who wasn't present, and her ring only confirmed she was married. The Hunter shook his head with a quiet chuckle and took a seat at the bar, careful in his seating so he wasn't at an angle to stare straight at them, and far enough that he didn't look like he was being nosy.

    Not that it mattered. Everyone could see them, and his nose could smell them, and his ears could hear every little sound.

    His eyes narrowed with contentment. This sort of place felt like the good parts of home: rowdy people, decent enough drinks, a few good times, and people mostly kept to themselves. There might even be a chance at a fight! Chances were it wouldn't quite be fair if he became involved, but feeling his knuckles hit flesh always felt just too good! Did leave him a few murder charges he had to run out on. Good thing he didn't have a real identity in this... country? Was this a country? Probably.

    "Hey, I asked if you wanted something. You gonna order or just stare at the bottles til I kick you out? Where's your fucking shirt?" The voice that cut through Graham's thoughts brought a grin to the large blond's face.

    Graham held up two tens. "Overflowing pitcher of PBR and a glass. Anything left is your tip. Pitchers are what, twelve?"

    The man behind the bar grunted and took the money, then wandered off to find a pitcher. Graham watched him lazily, ten pulled out a five. "Oh, and some cheese sticks or wings or something like that. I'm freakin starved!"

    The man behind the bar glanced back, then grunted. It took about a minute before Graham's twenty-five dollars were gone, replaced by a pitcher and a tall glass of shitty hipster beer and a heaping, paper-lined basket of greasy sticks that claimed to have cheese inside. The fried lengths had only just entered the basket, and already, the blond could see how fat and grease dripped and formed a pool in the bottom. With one cup of ranch and one of marinara, he felt contented.

    Graham beamed broadly. "Thanks, bro." He kicked his feet on either side of the stool, leg movements slow as he took his first long drink of beer. He downed half the glass before he lowered it to the bar and gasped. "Whew!" He licked the foam from his upper lip, and his tongue grazed against a scar he didn't remember getting. Uncaring, the man reached for one of his sticks and bit down.

    "Ah! Ah ah ha! Sss!" Despite his utterances and hiss of pain, he didn't let go, but instead drew the drooping line of cheese with an agile tongue and careful teeth. Nobody seemed to notice him as he stuffed the rest of the molten cheese and its fried casing into his mouth and glance around. His tongue only remained numb and tingly for a few moments before he licked his lips again, his mouth and two fingers already shiny with grease even from just the one stick.

    Those who sat near him—all of two people who were within two meter radius—were similarly focused on what was in front of them.

    Graham took a deep breath through his nose, then let it out in a heavy suspiration of contentment, thick shoulders dropping as he poured some beer from his pitcher into his glass, then downed the entire topped-off thing without pause. The piss-colored liquid soaked into his mouth: cheeks, palates, gums, tongue. Even before it his his throat, he could feel the spreading warmth, and as he swallowed, he felt more soak into his system.

    This was the only thing that worked. He sighed happily, though couldn't help but feel a little regretful that the alcohol that hit so quickly also faded quickly. His first gulps would be done with their magic on his mind and body in only a half hour: forty minutes at the absolute most, and then he'd have to pee.

    The best way to get and keep drunk was to keep taking drinks every few minutes, and be ready to run, but despite the early hour for drinking, he decided he'd just suck it up and do his best to enjoy his night. It was, after all, another day he woke up alive, still undiscovered by the mysterious hooded Council, and another day of freedom. Once more, he felt grateful for this world.

    In his thanks to the world existing and not being horrible beyond his wildest dreams, he grabbed a still-hot cheese stick and devoured it like the previous. His hissing and exclamations accompanied, and he drank again.
  2. There was a knock on the door, a curt rapping that caused the thin wood to tremble like a twig caught by a staccato breeze. Looking up from the paper spread over a crate, Corinne wondered why there was even the pretense of a door when the structure was so flimsy it almost made a mockery of the concept of keeping anyone out. The implication, of course, floated in like a breeze through the cracks: You couldn't keep us out if you wanted to. She scowled but brought herself up from the floor in a smooth display of feline grace and swung the door open.

    The motion oozed defiance, narrowly missing the man who sidestepped nimbly away as though he had expected just such a response. They were both well aware that she would not have a shred of remorse should she succeed and manage to hit him with it one day. It was part of the dance that they went through each time he brought her a job, both of them wishing that they never had to meet with the other again. Their relationship was mutually beneficial but it didn't mean that either of them had to like anything about it. For her part, Corie had an annoyed expression on her face and was wondering what kind of reaction the lapdog turned messenger would have if she actually threatened him. She wanted to wipe that look of indifferent nonchalance off of his smug features every time she saw his face. She didn't hate him, not really. She didn't even know his name. She just hated everything about what he was going to say next.

    "Miss Latrell, I have work for you."

    "I didn't really think you'd come over to invite me for dinner. Just tell me what you want already."

    Every single time he started with that. Like he wanted to make something professional about it, as though it were some kind of high-class transaction. She wondered if it would make things any better if he treated it like the course dirty work it really was, if the man acted like he knew his hands were filthy from this too instead of trying to pretend like he wasn't involved. In the reflection from the sunglasses that covered most of the man's face, Corie could see her expression. Her lips that looked like a hard, thin line when she was unhappy. She took a deep breath. She felt more irritated than usual today and needed to get her feelings back under control.

    The man seemed to have been waiting for that, for her to center herself and listen to what would come next. At any rate, he waited until after she had taken her deep breath to continue with the next part of their ritual.

    "There isn't much information on him. Luring him out and taking care of him should be easy. No need to be delicate, he isn't important and there doesn't seem to be anyone who will ask questions. He frequents the bar on the outskirts of the old quarter, the Devil's Advocate."

    With a small flourish, the man produced a folded piece of paper from his breast pocket and opened it before handing it to Corie. A sketch of the target frequently accompanied these assignments but as her eyes panned across the paper, she had to admit that most of them didn't look like this. Disheveled men who were clearly at the tail end of luck and willing to cause trouble made up a portion of her requests and the rest were primarily self-important looking men in suits who meddled in the wrong affairs. But this one... she looked over the devil-may-care expression and almost cracked a smile when she realized that the man in the sketch was shirtless. Artistic license on the part of a daydreaming lackey or a fashion statement to accessorize the flippant expression? She supposed she would have a chance to learn the answer soon enough. Time for her to make the next step.

    "What's the rate?"

    It wasn't as though she had a choice in accepting the job. If she were to refuse, she had better have a damned good reason or... she knew what they would do next. She didn't want to think about that. This little call and response was just habit, some way of reminding him that he was part of this deal. Part of the killer for hire transaction going on.

    "If you succeed? Double the usual."

    The man's expression didn't change and he dropped the line as though it weren't worth a second of his time to even say the words but Corie's eyebrow quirked upward. Double the usual? Her eyes shot back to the sketch in hand. Either the mystery target had pissed off the wrong person in a big way or someone thought he might put up a fight going down. She wanted to ask but knew better than to think she would get anything resembling a helpful answer.

    "I'll take care of it."

    Those were the last words and her visitor left like a ghost afterward, leaving Corie to her work. After a pass around the room to stash the papers under the crate, she was out the door and headed to the old quarter. The term quarter was generous, really, as it was just the sleepy section of town furthest south. It was old, though, that part was true. Placid, mostly full of people who had settled into their lot in life and toiled out an honest living. She didn't come here often, these people lived normal lives and rarely did anything noteworthy to the organization or Corie herself.

    It took a few extra twists and turns to get oriented but before long, Corie found herself outside the Devil's Advocate. She might kill him today if she got the chance, her thought idly to herself, as though thinking about what to wear the next day. If it didn't present itself, though, that was fine. She had come here on a reconnaissance mission for more information anyway.

    As she stepped into the worn-down building, the familiar smells of alcohol and sweat hit her. This was the kind of place they visited, the people who did things that made other people want them dead, that never seemed to chance. Whether it was a seedy dive or a glitzy lounge, the idea stayed the same. She scanned the faces and noted that she was in luck.

    Making her way to the bar, she leaned in toward the bartender and, coincidentally, close to Graham. Her mouth widened into a smile that didn't quite reach her eyes as she took out a few small bills.

    "A Guinness, if you would."
  3. Dollars for a glass, and she had her Guinness. The barman moved along, serving the other customers as the seedy bar grew steadily more crowded. To one side, Graham had drained a little over half his pitcher and held his own glass to his face, though through his mess of hair, his golden-brown eyes—similar in color to a perfectly roasted marshmallow, he liked to say—seemed pasted to Corie. Thick eyebrows stood high on his face as he took her in, cup to lips, but not drinking.

    He wore no shirt, but he did wear a long leather jacket. Faded jeans hugged his muscular thighs, but seemed relaxed about his calves.

    Finally, he took a drink, then dropped his glass slowly to the bar-top, eyes not leaving the new girl. She wasn't a drunk like the rest, and she didn't smell of depression or fear or anger, but his instincts said 'run'.

    Her scent was eerie, but most prominently, she reeked of blood, and it wasn't hers. The scent of death followed, permeated deep into her skin, a constant perfume to the nose of someone who could smell it. He knew those scents well, because they accompanied him and any other Hunter from the completion of their first mission, their first kill. His fingers trembled slightly as he lifted a cheese stick to his face and forced a bite to calm himself. Even as the burning cheese and oil filled his mouth with as much flavor as pain, his eyes refused to leave the young woman not far from him.

    Suddenly, he scooted his pitcher and basket closer to the girl, then lifted his ass, only to plop it into the seat beside Corie. Staring at her so long, he had to either make a move or look like a rude cock, or look like he knew she was up to something.

    Girls like her didn't come to seedy bars for no reason, especially when they hadn't been there before.

    "Hey, you're a pretty new face," he greeted with a wink. "Want a cheese stick? Watch out, they're as hot as you are." He slid the basket toward her with a broad grin. There were three left, all laying in a puddle of grease that had half-soaked into the paper.

    He licked his lips, and only then noticed the beer that had been stuck there. "Heh, sorry, I'm..." He indicated the half-emptied pitcher with a laugh. "I'm that." The brief clarity brought by danger had passed in the face of the newest gulp he'd taken as it burned into his blood through every bit of skin it touched. Even his upper lip tingled!
  4. The drawing of the man in question, now sitting beside her, had not disappointed. He was, in fact, shirtless. The artist could be forgiven for choosing to leave out the jacket in favor of depicting the broad shoulders clearly visible beneath. Corie was unsure if she was glad that he took the initiative to speak with her. On one hand, it meant that she could turn her attention fully toward him rather than stealing glimpses from beneath lowered lashes and trying not to look like she was staring. On the other, it was so often harder if they got a chance to drunkenly spill their secrets to her first.

    At his words, she turned her full body to face him, leaning casually against the bar with her elbow propped up on it next to the proffered basket. There was a flicker of something hard just beneath the man's surface when that he quickly covered over with easy charm. She noted it but filed it away quietly to take out and examine later. The smile never left her face, deepening instead like slowly spreading warm honey.

    "Well hello there. You're pretty easy on the eyes yourself. Do you greet all the newcomers in town this way or is it my lucky day?" She left her gaze drift over his features, lingering on the various scars and the way his muscles beneath the jacket rippled smoothly when he lifted his arm. She hadn't quite decided yet why the price on his head was so high but she wouldn't discount either option yet.

    Corie felt a small rumble in the pit of her stomach at the thought of the cheese sticks, the greasy smell of fried food making its way into her nostrils and teasing her appetite. She had already gathered that, despite what he might have indicated to excuse his imperfect table manners, the man was nowhere near given over to the alcohol yet. At this rate, she might as well take her time and see if she could learn more. Plus, she was pretty damn hungry and it wasn't very many people who offered food to a stranger, even one with her figure.

    "I could go for splitting one of these with you, if you're serious about that offer." Even with the extreme improbability of something having been done to tamper with them, it was still worth being a little cautious about the food that she accepted. Letting him eat half of the cheese stick seemed enough of a precaution for now.

    "But if offering strangers food is only a polite custom where you come from and you don't actually want to give me some, just tell me." This last part was offered up with an intentionally impish expression, mischief sparkling in her eyes where the smile from before hadn't managed to light up. She was teasing, but if he happened to give her some hints about where he was from... that might help her put some pieces of the puzzle in place.
  5. Oh, good, she was playing along with the flirtation! He could smell her 'appreciation' as she eyed his body, and his grin grew swelled with pride. "Thanks, lovely. Ain't the greeter for everyone, but certainly someone so pretty who seems like she might be lost. This is a pretty seeeedy joint, young lady," he scolded, though his tone remained warm and flirtatious, and he had just enough of a slur that he didn't notice, though it grew with his every word.

    The rumble in her gut alerted him to her hunger, but she mentioned splitting one with him, and he grabbed one of the sticks and carefully pulled it into two. One was slightly smaller than the other and had less cheese than the other, whose cheese hung out in a long drooping point. "Lil uneven, but..." He offered her the longer half and stuffed the smaller into his own mouth. "You can help yerself, too." Part of him wanted to tell her they weren't poisoned, but some tiny voice kept him quiet about that: a miracle of his usually-defunct filter.

    And then she mentioned where he came from, and he went still. His stillness lasted only a moment before he shook his head and grinned at her. "Naw, nothin like that. Sh'just how people... How from back home people made friends." He patted his stomach firmly. "Food's im... important to everyone, ya know?" The slur was already more pronounced.

    The big blond refilled his cup and took another drink. "Mebbie I shoul... stick... stop buyin full... thingies." He indicated the pitcher, then laughed as though he'd never known what an 'inside voice' was. It was full, throaty, and brought several stares their way.
  6. As Corie watched the man split the cheese stick and begin eating half of it even as she began to reach out for her half, she narrowed her eyes just a fraction for the briefest moment. Those who survived in a profession where you have to test your own will to live against that of others never seemed to be able to shake some of the tendencies that you picked up along the way and a lingering sense of paranoia was certainly high on that list. Had *he* noticed her veiled apprehension? Had his mind followed the same path? Or was she being extra paranoid now, reading things into his actions that weren't there?

    Before her expression could be clouded with her seemingly endless cyclical debates about whether she was being overly paranoid or if her gut was pointing her in the right direction, she popped the cheese stick half into her mouth. It was still fairly hot and she chewed it gingerly, noticing that he stiffened when he tried to answer her casually probing question. The answer that he gave carefully avoided the obstacle.

    The enthusiastic drinking of her new conversation partner seemed to make Corie herself feel thirstier and she reached for her own drink to take a generous gulp. In spite of herself, the corner of her mouth twitched into another small smile. This one was sincere, however fleeting and tiny, and brought on by the hearty chuckling. Something about it made her feel almost friendly with him, which was a dangerous feeling. And the words. The dangerously sweet edge when he said "made friends" and made her feel almost included.

    Between the unexpected twinge of gratitude for his offer of helping herself to his food to the surge of friendliness she felt when she heard him laugh... this reconnaissance mission was going horribly awry. Corie realized quickly that this was only going to make things harder, not easier. If she was going to kill him, she couldn't very well find herself remembering a stupid cheese stick. She was angry with herself for letting this wind out of her control and for not having even gotten any useful intel.

    The tiny hint of a smile turned sharply into the beginnings of a frown. She glanced at the clock on the wall and stood, draining the rest of her glass in two more drinks. If she had accomplished anything, at least, it was that he wouldn't turn heel and run if she started walking toward him. Probably. She almost wished that he would right now. Just vanish from the town in a puff of smoke without a trace.

    "Thank you for the warm welcome. You're one of the nicest strangers I've met." She wasn't smiling anymore but that part was doubtlessly true. One didn't meet a lot of hospitable strangers in her line of work. Even when she was undercover, it wasn't usually among anyone with a soul. She was intentionally trying to pull back, hoping against hope that he wouldn't give a name or ask her for hers. Like someone raising animals for the slaughter, she tried to avoid at least giving them names unless she absolutely had to do it.
  7. "Jus... jus halfsies inth' future... yeah," His voice lowered as he slurred, squinting at his pitcher several moments before he looked toward Corie. Oh man, could he smell the emotions running through her right now. His eyebrows slowly lifted higher as he stared at her openly as her expression shifted from a smile to a frown. The sense of danger returned, and his drink-slowed reactions and mental capacity tried to nudge him to a realization that he ignored almost stubbornly.

    "Burn yer... mouth?" He watched her drain her glass as she stood. "Yer gonna give yerself... yer gonna git hungup...? Hungover. B'care... careful."

    Her abrupt and unsmiling manner led suddenly to her saying what could only be a 'goodbye', and she seemed ready to leave. His brows suddenly furrowed. "Hey, uh... If yer leavin, an y'ever wanna find me, jus' ask around fer Graham. I hang... hang out in front of the..." The drunken man waved a hand, trying to summon the name of the place. "Th' home depoo, when I'm not... not workin."

    Part of him wanted to know her name, and the cowardly side, the one that had brought him here to begin with, wished she would stay away. He wanted to see what had her scent so warped, what ate at her, and just how interesting she could be. "Fore ya go, wossyer... wossyer name, pretty lady?"

    All unaware of her difficulty with having a name for his face, he slapped before her the very thing she didn't want from him.
  8. After she had thanked him, it had been Corie's every intention to leave the bar as quickly as possible and figure out how to connect the dots in this web. The smell of the bar was suddenly pressing in on her senses, the drunken slurs of the men surrounding her rang in her ears while the stink of sweat and stale beer filled her nostrils. It was as though time had chosen that moment to stop and draw itself out for an eternity.

    She hadn't even considered how rude she was being as she had hurried to finish her beer after the cheese stick and disappear into the growing shadows that signaled the onset of dusk. She had been so desperate to leave, to regroup and gather her thoughts before it became too hard to accept what she had been tasked with doing. She would ordinarily have cursed the man, a string of curses in her thoughts against this fool who had played along with her game too well. What business did that man have being so friendly, anyway? Her face crinkled and her lips drew into a thin line as they so often did when she was thinking, giving her an owlish appearance.

    She should have known. She had been stepping backwards while he talked, the feeling of dread growing with every word he spoke. She should have turned away, social graces be damned, before he could say those words. But it as too late. Her heart felt like it was sinking as heavily as a rock into a lake. If she could pretend that she hadn't heard him, she would, but her ears echoed with it.

    Graham. His name is Graham. Graham told you where to find him. You should be glad. This is what you were looking for when you came, wasn't it? It's easier to kill them when you know where to find them.

    Her thoughts were loud, drowning out all the other noise around her now. She swallowed hard, aware that she had stopped and was standing stock still now just a few feet back from Graham.

    Stop that, don't use his name.

    And now he was asking for her name. What should she tell him? Another swallow as she tried to clear her thoughts, refocus on him. It had only been only a handful of seconds since he asked but she felt like every one of them had dragged on for hours. What could the truth hurt? It wasn't as though he would have long left in his life and she was already burdened with knowing his name. What really could it hurt for him to know hers?

    "You can call me Corie."

    She pressed that mysterious smile back in place, mentally dragging herself up by the spine. She raised her hand level to her cheek and gave him a little wave.

    "Maybe I'll look you up sometime, Graham. Don't wait around for me, though."

    Before he could say anything more that would put her in water deeper than she was already, she turned around and cleared the room in a few short strides. The brisk air from the nights that had begun to grow colder was a welcome relief from the hot air inside the bar from the bodies pressing close to her. She could feel her cheeks had reddened, from the alcohol and the unexpected attentions of the man. The man that she was going to go home and plan how to kill, she reminded herself.

    Normally, she was a professional. Normally, they didn't get under her skin. Suspicious men who, at the very least didn't want people to know their names lest their wives be informed, were the norm for things like this. They didn't offer her anything, they all wanted to take anything that she was willing to give. That had to be it.

    Sucking in another deep breath of cool air and feeling calmed by this conclusion, Corie glanced around the street in front of her. Satisfied that there was no one in her line of sight, she began the altogether tedious trip back home. It was worth it, of course, to not be followed back but she didn't have to like doing it. The winding alleyways she followed and stopped at the end of to look over her shoulder, the many buildings she entered to wait and watch the streets before exiting again, and many other such measures meant that night had already fallen by the time she reached home again.

    Fumbling in the dark, Corie lit a candle and examined the small room for any sign of disturbance. Nothing. She finally let out a sigh of relief and took off her shoes. She would not sleep well tonight despite the drowsiness pulling at her eyelids, this she knew. She swore at Graham again and flopped onto her bed.
  9. Sudden and strong, Corie's emotional scents nearly overpowered the Hunter. He couldn't stop the cat-like constriction and dilation of his eyes in turn as he focused in on her face, then the rest of her, though his gaze remained firmly on her face. His own smile began to fall. Regret, fear, anxiety. All so sudden and overpowering, it had to be in reaction to his statement. The warmth of alcohol left as his body prepared to decide: fight or flight. Hers was the scent of horrible truths discovered and immediately regretted.

    Still, he remained in his stool, and one hand gripped the edge of the bar to keep from falling. He wobbled subtly side to side as his eyes remained upon her, focused in on even the tiniest movement. Her scents shoved the others from his mind and pulled something forward, an alien side that wanted to pull more of them forth from her. His heart pounded in his chest, hard and unrelenting.

    Even her expression gave way to crinkling, to pursed lips. She was uncomfortable, stepping backwards, almost seeming to fight against a tide of bodies as she gained more distance, and the room seemed to stretch between them. His eyes flicked down to watch her swallow, then back to her face. She stood still, not so far from him. He could have reached out and pulled her back, could have pulled her into his lap, told her more about himself, tried to see if he could push those buttons again.

    She swallowed again, discomfort growing. He listened intently, unblinking.

    "Corie, huh? Pretty name." He leaned back against the bar, an easy grin on his face as he shot her the clumsiest wink: a wink with so much effort he closed both his eyes in the attempt to shut only one. "Stay safe!," he called over the din of the bar, 'indoor voice' forgotten in his bellow that drew attention to him from all sides. She turned and nearly ran from him, and behind her, he began to giggle.

    He couldn't have explained why. He had no reason to laugh at her discomfort, but still, he did, and then he took another drink of his alcohol as people who'd watched the girl flee turned to look at Graham as though he'd done something wrong. Scents of drunken anger began to grow in the air around Graham like a fog, and he began to giggle anew.

    As Corie went home, Graham felt someone far more sober than he yank him around on the swiveling head of the stool.

    A fat man with too few teeth and too many horrific stinks in his mouth snarled at Graham. "Bastard! Ain't got enough girls in here already before you start sendin' em off creeped out! You best not do that shit again!" The fat man shook Graham, and the Hunter only laughed.

    "Oh man, you wanna fight? Fuck yes, lemmie finish my drink and my food!" he grabbed the man by the collar and held him still while he drank right from the pitcher, chugging down most of its contents before he stuffed all of his remaining cheese sticks into his mouth. A dribble of grease slid down his chin and dripped onto his torso as he lifted his head to swallow the too-large bite.

    Finally, he drained the last of his beer, then visibly swayed. "Man, I... kiss you. Love... love a fight...!" Graham cooed, only for the first blow from the fat man to smash his nose. Blood began to fall, and his eyes reddened. His nose was smashed at a weird angle, but he only grinned. Blood flowed along his lips and between his teeth. "I like you!"

    With a laugh, he tackled the other man and rolled out the door, clipping it on his way out, uncaring about the hellish bruise he'd have later.

    The next morning, the local news station mentioned a bar brawl that spilled out into the streets, leaving several people hospitalized.

    Graham, forgotten by most of the brawlers thanks to a few blows to the head, tended to Grandma Josie's pussycats, while humming the theme of a very old cartoon. "Josie and the Pussycats... Long tails, ears for hats..." He sang off key, off tempo, and without any true effort to get it right. He cut off, then spoke normally. "But you flea bags don't have to have hats have your ears." He smiled and scratched one kitty under the chin as he switched to baby-talking. "Yeah, you're a kitty cat. You're so stupid and you don't even know it," he crooned, then chuckled and finished filling the bowls: three bowls for three cats. "And you don't even know that this stuff is nasty." He pulled a tin from his pocket. "Here, I got you guys tuna today. Same as every day but you're supposed to eat meat, not... pebble-bread." He spoke in a normal tone now as he used his finger to scoop out big chunks of the water-soaked fish flesh, before he looked in at the tuna juice.

    With a shrug, he lifted it to his own lips and drink it, then placed the tin on the ground. "That's how taxes work. Waste not, want not!" He licked his finger clean, then wrinkled his nose at the dirt he sucked free from under a fingernail.


    He watched the trio of cats gorge themselves, then pulled a water bottle from one of his pockets and took a long drink. Their fur clung to the ends of his sleeves, but he didn't care. His coat hadn't seen a cleaning since the last rainstorm, anyway: what did a little more filth matter, really?

    He finished his drink, then picked up the licked-clean can from the fish and stuffed it into a pocket. Granny didn't like him 'wasting his money' no the 'strays', despite how she bought top-dollar kibbles for them. Tuna was cheap as fuck, by comparison, but the old lady probably just didn't know what cats needed.

    Hell, if she would stop buying the stuff, he'd go ahead and help her stock up on chunks of meat for her to freeze and then let thaw to toss to the cats. Poor lil things.

    Either way, he had a few other things Josie asked him to do. He started to head to the house, but Josie met him at the door, arms crossed and wooden spoon in hand. She pointed to him through the screen door.

    "Ey." He grinned. "Just finished feeding the cats. Next was dusting along the ceiling, right?"

    "No, next is take off that coat and empty the pockets so I can wash it. It stinks!"

    Graham winced. "Could I just leave it outside? I'll wash it tonight. Takes special product. You know, gotta take good care of gifts, right? Leather dries out if you toss it in a washer." He spoke quickly and easily, and Josie lowered the spoon with a huff.

    "Fine. It better be clean tomorrow or I'm going to use the google to find out how to wash it myself!"

    Once more, the man winced. "No mercy! I'll do it, Grandma." He shook his head and slipped his coat off, then walked into the house. "Vacuum in the same place?"

    "Always is, unless you lose it, young man! Hurry about it, because the waffles are almost done."


    "I love you, Granny! I knew I smelled somethin amazing. Your waffles are seriously the best!" He breathed deep through his nose, then grinned at the little old lady with her cross face that rapidly became less cross and even reddened. "If it weren't for you, I'd lose all my muscles starvin'."

    She swatted him, and he grinned at the sting as he trotted off to find her vacuum. He loved this old lady way too much!

    During breakfast, he told her about a few jobs he did the day before, and an interesting girl in a bar, Josie scolded him for getting attached to hookers, then scolded him for his choice in bar, and then scolded him for drinking at all. The whole time, he just smiled and watched her, warmth in his chest for the strange sensation of family.

    "And stop looking at me all dreamy!" Whack! "Why are you doing that? It's embarrassing! I'm too old for you!"

    Brown eyes blinked, and the blond laughed. "I was just thinkin' I'm lucky to have someone around who cares 'nuff ta scold me, Granny."

    She blushed again and scowled, then pushed a large lunch box toward him. "Here. I noticed the inside of the old one kept having fingerprint smudges and lick marks inside. If you're so hungry you're licking the box for crumbs, you're not eating enough."

    "Ain't it gonna be expensive?" Graham gaped at the large lunch box, already imagining treasures untold within.

    "Bah. Consider it a bribe." She didn't have to say why.

    "Thanks." The muscular man leaned across the table and planted a kiss on her wrinkled, brown cheek.

    "Stop that! You're going to spill the syrup!"


    Breakfast and bickering over, Graham carried his shiny new lunchbox from the house and looked back to wave. She watched from the doorway, but didn't wave, putting on a stern face. She wouldn't wave unless none of her neighbors were around: she had a reputation. Still, watching him go was enough. He felt... strangely safe under her gaze, despite how a tiny flick from him could have shattered her skull.

    He turned to face forward as he grimaced at his own thought. Why did he even think that? That was... No! No no no! He wanted to shudder, but couldn't until he turned a corner, out of sight of the woman. He shuddered hard. "Ugh. Damn... intrusive thoughts," he huffed, then adjusted his jacket and began to tromp towards Home Depot, to stand among the various other vagabonds and drifters looking for work. Knowing English and Spanish paid off well enough, since if he didn't know a skill, one of the Mexicans did, and he could translate and get something out of it, usually. Sometimes people didn't want him involved after he passed on the job description, some invited him along properly as an untrained worker, and some invited him even though he wasn't needed at all.

    Today though, none of the other usuals were around except one mexican, a couple black guys, and... Weird, who were the two guys in suits? Graham jogged towards the small gathering. "Heeey man, what's up?" He grinned in greeting.

    Oh boy. Tony looks... upset.

    Tony began to babble quickly at him in Spanish, almost too quick. Graham slowed him and listened carefully.

    "Ey, these fuckin whites, they're telling me I gotta go back to Mexico or I'm gonna be arrested like the others! I can't go back, man! There's a cartel after my head!" His rapid, nasal voice typically annoyed Graham, but... This wasn't a good situation regardless. He did like Tony and the others, after all.

    Graham turned toward the two in suits. "Hey, my friend says you're fuckin with him. What's the deal?" He rolled up the sleeves of his jacket to show off his forearms, their scars, and especially their muscles.

    One flashed a badge, the other rested a hand on his gun. The first spoke. "We got an anonymous tip about illegal immigrants coming here for work. We already found several who had no papers."

    Graham blinked, then shook his head. "Man, they ain't got papers because they're freakin homeless, you asswagons. Same as me. Serious, search me. I'm white as fuck, but I ain't got nothin, same boat as them." He spread his arms wide, and the two agents looked to each other. One patted him down, and another opened the lunch box.

    "You're homeless, but someone's packing you lunch?" The one below asked.

    "Yeah, nice old lady. Saw me busking a while back, saw me again here, decided to put me to work for food. Name's Josie, dunno the last time, but I could show you were she lives." He kept his aggressive tone, despite how his words and actions were cooperative.

    The two agents looked to each other, and the first spoke again. "So, you vouch for everyone here, or just this one?"

    "All of 'em. I don't work with illegals, gets too many of your type involved, and I'm a private guy. They're all born here. I met their kin." He crossed his arms over his chest and parted his legs in an aggressive, confident posture. "Let my other friends go."

    The man with the gun shook his head. "No can do, but we can invite you to the hearing as a witness. Not much good if their only proof of being citizens is some guy who doesn't even have papers, himself."

    Fuck, he thought, That would have worked fifteen years ago.

    He couldn't go to court. He literally had never had papers at all. He wasn't even born in this universe!

    This was... more than he could handle.

    A deep voice cut off Graham's thoughts. "Hey nigga, shut up. This for local boys." The short, skinny black kid, probably ten if Graham had to guess, had a mouth on him, but Graham looked toward the kid's dad.

    "Who even tipped you off, whitey?," the tall and chunky black man with the huge fro asked. His fat gut hid shocking strength and speed, and he glared down at the agents through his sunglasses with hands in his front jacket pockets, thumbs out and unmoving. "I bet it was the manager. He's a mothafuckin racist."

    Graham started to speak up, but the large man spoke again. "Boy's right, fuckin Gram. Can't fight our fights. Ain't gon' be work today long as they here, so just go. I send the boy go getchu if things settle early 'nuff to still get jobs," The large man, named Carlos (of all things), looked to Graham, then flashed him a cocky-looking grin that smelled strongly of fear.

    Still, Graham nodded. "I better hear from you guys soon. Lemmie know if a pretty girl called Corie stops by too, ok? She might have me on a job." He shot a thumbs up, as though none of this was a worry anymore. "By noon?"

    "Bye, nigga!," Shawn called.

    "Watcho mouth, boy!"


    As promised, Graham cleaned his jacket, though it was before noon when he started, and he heard school kids by the time he finished. No all-clear yet, but then, this was how they looked out for him. All of the Mexicans were legit: they just left their papers with their families on purpose. Sending him away, the lone 'white boy', was sending away the only person who could be found missing what he needed to find legal work here.

    With a heavy sigh, he reached for his lunch box as his jacket hung across some sticks. He paused as he finally noticed something that had niggled at him the whole time. There was another scent here. Faint, but familiar, it taunted his memory.

    The owner wasn't present, but they'd passed nearby at some point, or at least the wind pulled their scent to him. He sniffed the air, then picked up his coat and lunch box and began to follow the scent.
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