Story: Radial: Unravel
Challenge: Buttercream #14 - Robins; Vanilla #8 - My Mentor
Word Count: 2,626
Summary: Milos faces his employer over the previous night's events; it goes even less well than he expected.
The dawn chorus was chirping tunelessly as Milos inhaled deeply, pressed his palm to the door and tried to make it open without alerting everyone in the building to the fact. It was no mean feat: the doors squeaked their protests loudly enough when the place was bustling and seemed designed to make stealth impossible. Even the floorboards were getting in on the act, each step releasing a miserable creak, although none sounded as loud as his heart did in his ears. Still, no one had called out. Hanging his jacket on the overflowing coat stand and making a mental note of its rough location in case it seamlessly blended in—or wandered off altogether—Milos let out the breath he didn’t realise he was still holding. Looked like he’d got away with it—
The slap around the back of his head almost knocked him into the wall. “Another complaint!”
Shit. He turned tentatively, fingertips skimming the rough plasterwork behind him, and tried to ignore the pain spreading across his skull. “What’s wrong?”
“You know full well what’s wrong,” the voice growled from somewhere near the ceiling. Milos was around six foot, depending on whether or not he cheated during the measuring process; Robin dwarfed him. “Are you going to stop assaulting the customers or do I have to teach you some manners again?” Many men made folded arms look defensive. Here they looked like a veiled threat, like the white-knuckled grip on his biceps was the only thing stopping him from knocking the dokkalfa into next week.
“I don’t know what you mean,” Milos tried, cursing the second’s hesitation that signalled the rate his mind had been racing at without producing a single useful thought. Robin’s face made it obvious the smile looked as strained as it felt. “I haven’t—”
The air rushed from his body. Milos gasped and clawed at the arm pressed against his neck. How a man that size could shift so fast he’d got no idea. Up close he was even more terrifying, mongrel features twisted into a mask of furious disappointment. “You think I can’t tell when you’re lying?”
Milos shook his head as best he could, arching his back in a desperate attempt to get some air into his lungs. No point in trying to speak.
“Then you think I’m a fool? That’s it?”
The words were hissed inches from his face, an unwelcome blast of morning breath. Robin had been awake at least as long as Milos, probably far longer. He cringed away.
It must have been a better answer than anything he could think to say: the arm loosened its pressure. He slumped back against the wall, gripping the limb primarily to keep himself upright as his legs turned to water. Each breath burned. But if he’d hoped that the expression would relax when his employer—as loose a term as that was—saw his weakness he was disappointed. It stopped short of contempt, but only just. “You’re never going to learn, are you?”
There wasn’t a diplomatic answer to that, so Milos didn’t even try, instead allowing his gaze to slide away to land, unfocused, on the door to the living area. It sounded like the others were waking, probably wandering bleary-eyed and barefoot into the room to sit down before breakfast. Wouldn’t be long before someone needed something from a coat pocket and came crashing in on this little scene, and that was the last thing he wanted. If only his legs would agree to carry his weight...
Perhaps sensing that nothing was forthcoming from the younger man, Robin jerked his arm free from Milos’s grip and stepped back before the dokkalfa could catch hold of it again, frowning down at him. “Bed. Now. We’ll talk about this when—” he paused, following Milos’s blank stare and apparently reading his thoughts, “when it’s more convenient.”
Milos was more than happy to comply, sliding past the coat stand so closely the assorted fabrics tried to wrap themselves around his arm, and escaped up the hallway to his small room. Anything that distracted Robin from exacting punishment—and he’d got no doubt it’d be along the same lines as the one his unfortunate customer had received—had to be good. He just had to hope that he didn’t use the time in between to come up with something more inventive instead.
It wasn’t a large room and to call it Spartan would be an understatement, but the surge of relief he felt as he sat at the edge of his bed was overwhelming. Light peered around the edges of the frayed curtains, casting dull sepia tones over the scant wooden furniture as he peeled boots and socks still too damp for comfort off and dropped them in the pile of old clothes on the floor. The story was the same for everything he wore: so wet they had become a second skin to him. With it all haphazard and saturating the carpet he felt oddly naked, like someone had peeled him completely and left muscle exposed to the air. Gooseflesh raised on his arms, making the tiny blond hairs stand to attention. One day he really ought to talk to Robin about the heating.
Quite possibly that day wasn’t today.
Milos flung himself into bed, wrapping the quilt as closely around himself as he could manage. It was cold, but he was colder and the bed would at least warm up quickly.
By the time the sun made its full assault on the flimsy fabric covering the window, the dokkalfa was snoring gently.
He woke to a prickling sensation on the back of his neck which spread across his shoulders like wildfire. It usually came after a bad dream, when he lay with his head under the quilt, convinced that if he looked around the room someone would be there with him, watching his every move with hungry eyes and the kind of smile he fought to forget.
Completely irrational, of course; he was just too warm, or the gnawing sensation in his stomach had finally broken through his sleep, or—
Or it might have had something to do with the huge, dusky-skinned man leaning beside the door, muscled arms folded over a chest built along similar dimensions. “You’re finally awake then.”
Milos flinched and tried to tunnel back into the quilt: a plan that was rudely interrupted by the unexpected blast of light and cold against his naked torso as the sheets were ripped away. “What the hell?!”
“So you’re awake now, are you?”
He made a wild grab for the fabric and missed by miles. “Give ’em back!”
Robin stepped back from the bed, stripping the sheets entirely from the frame. Milos glared up at the big man. With the quilt draped over one arm and dragging on the floor, in other circumstances he’d look comical; Milos wasn’t finding it funny. Neither, it seemed, was Robin. “Why did you hit him?”
“It’s too early for this!”
“It’s midday. Why did you hit him?”
The alfa looked away first, sullen gaze falling on his own bare knees rather than meet his mentor’s stare. “He grabbed me.”
Robin snorted. There was that look of contempt again, only there long enough to jab a shard of ice into Milos’s heart. “You’re too old for this sort of thing now.”
“—You know I can’t trust you if you keep pulling this shit.” He overrode the younger man easily, like he’d never even tried to speak. “Or would you prefer to leave?”
Milos felt the blood drain from his face. “No! Please, listen to me!”
“Why should I?”
He pushed himself to his knees, jabbing one finger at the big man. Anger—bravado, really—did little to disguise his desperation. “You can’t just kick me out! You know I can’t—”
The quilt hit him in the face and almost knocked him backwards, stifling the rest of the sentence before it escaped his mouth. “Put some clothes on before you start shouting at me.” When he managed to pull the thick material from his head, Robin’s back was vanishing through the door. “Come find me when you’re dressed.”
The living room was empty when Milos walked in. Bodies usually occupied the scattered sofas and the TV was regularly set somewhere between ‘loud’ and ‘full blast’; the eerie silence of the uninhabited room was unnerving, like the end of the world had come while Milos was sleeping. It made him feel queasy.
Not helped by the scent of frying food drifting through the open kitchen door. “Sit down. With you in a minute.”
He complied with great care. The chairs were less forgiving than they looked and anyone that hurled themselves into one would receive a shock. Even tentative seating could lead to a less than pleasant experience: the springs seemed destined to stab, whether on first sitting or later, when he thought he was comfortable. Whenever Robin said ‘a minute’ he usually meant ten and he was never sure if it was intentional or not. He didn’t even dare switch on the TV: it’d be just his luck that for once his employer got his timings right.
The shout made him jump. “No, thanks.” He couldn’t stomach even the thought of food, let alone its reality.
“Whatever.” Robin’s voice, like his exotic appearance, was deceptive: he had a thick accent Milos couldn't place and didn’t dare hazard a guess at; it bore no resemblance to any regional accent he’d ever heard. Although to intimate that his boss was lying about his prosaic origins would be a good way to find himself unemployed. With a couple of broken fingers. “You want to starve, that’s your business.”
His stomach growled. He ignored it. Aside from the sizzling and an occasional clang of pans it was the only thing making a noise and he’d be damned if he was going to reward it with attention. It growled again; he folded his arms and leaned forwards, pressing them against it in a bid to shut it up—a tactic that seemed to work as it subsided with a sulky gurgle.
The light from the kitchen was briefly blocked out and the smell of fried food mushroomed as Robin strolled through the door, the top of his head only just clearing the frame. It was all Milos could do not to retch. “Sure you don’t want any?” The plate was proffered in his direction; even as he waved it hastily away he was sure he detected the flash of a malicious smile on his boss’s face. It wasn’t a surprise. Robin knew how he felt about the stuff. This was just another taunt, his well-deserved punishment.
Robin shushed him with one fork-wielding hand. “One minute.”
Milos closed his mouth again and watched his employer dig into the bacon and eggs. Robin ate neatly enough but it wasn’t long before he had to look away, stomach threatening to pitch itself into his throat. It succeeded where he’d previously failed though: any threatening gurgles were now well and truly quashed.
“I know you’ve got your reasons for your... attitude,” Robin finally managed through a mouthful of beans. “But I can’t keep bailing you out.”
“I know,” Milos muttered, keeping his eyes fixed on the hall door. It was bad enough he could hear him eating. “I can’t—”
“—help it, I know.” He incised a deliberate slice into his egg white and Milos had to look away again; the carpet suddenly became incredibly fascinating. “But it’s a liability, you know? It makes it difficult for us—for me. No one wants anything couriered by a firm where the courier’s likely to attack the client.”
Robin paused, his knife halfway through the lone sausage. “Do you though? I wonder.”
“I do,” Milos growled, before faltering at the sight of his employer’s raised eyebrow. “I know it’s bad. I don’t want to— I try not to.” He took a deep breath. “Mostly I’m fine.”
“It’s maybe one in ten. Maybe even one in twenty.” Robin sliced the sausage into neat segments, lining them up on the plate to illustrate his point. Something that might have been successful if Milos was even looking at it. “But that one is still one, and word gets around.” He bit into the first segment. “I can’t keep giving you chances.”
This time the alfa didn’t even speak, just nodded slowly without tearing his gaze from the threadbare pattern on the floor. Being told off was bad enough, being smacked around for his stupidity was only to be expected. The disappointment in his mentor’s voice, the knowledge he’d let him down again, was the only thing that felt truly unbearable.
“There is, however,” Robin paused only long enough to digest another chunk of meat, “a job I think you could do. It’s simple, straightforward. Impossible to fuck up.”
“Really?” He couldn’t keep the dubious tone from his voice, finally raising his gaze again.
The big man nodded. “Yeah. Straight in-and-out delivery.”
“Then what’s the problem?”
This time, both eyebrows made a dash for his hair line. “The problem?” He asked slowly, never taking his eyes from the alfa as he dissected the hash brown. “What makes you think there’s a problem?”
“You’re asking me. Not someone else.”
“And why shouldn’t I?”
Milos’s gaze flicked from the carpet to his hands on his knees and back again, anything rather than settle on Robin’s face. “Because I screwed up and you shouldn’t trust me with something like that again. But you are, so it’s not straightforward, or you don’t want the others to know.”
Without looking at his employer, he couldn’t see the wry smile spread across his face. “You always were quick on the uptake.” The last of the sausage was chewed thoughtfully as he stared at the younger man, who still wouldn’t return the look. “It’s not that there’s a problem, exactly. It’s more that it’s a sensitive cargo.”
It was Milos’s turn to raise his eyebrows, along with his eyes. “There’s got to be someone more suitable, I mean—”
“You don’t think you’re trustworthy enough?” Milos expected him to sound annoyed but instead it was amusement apparent in his voice. “Why?”
“I—” He stared open-mouthed at Robin. “I thought that was obvious.”
“Because you hit someone in the face hard enough to crack their nose this morning?”
Milos felt the colour rise in his cheeks and stared furiously down at the floor again. “Yes.” No point in bluffing it out.
“And do you feel good about it?”
“No.” No lie there: in the heady flush of fury and adrenaline he’d given the guy what he deserved, but was he proud of it? The painful constriction of his throat answered his thoughts more concisely than any attempt to reason it out could. “But you said you couldn’t trust me—”
“—And I’m giving you the chance to earn that trust back. Don’t you want it?”
“Then what are you arguing with me for?”
Honestly, he’d got no idea. “What do you want me to do?”