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    “Can I buy you a drink?”

    Normally, it wouldn’t have taken Roman so long to ask such a simple question. It required an easy yes or no and if Roman took a decline with a soft smile and wish for a good day, he could generally come out of the encounter relatively unscathed.

    But normally, Roman wouldn’t be in Wonderland. He wouldn’t be surrounded by strangers in a strange land where he wasn’t sure whether men were allowed to pick up other men in a bar…or tavern, as they call it here. Normally, he wouldn’t be offering a drink with his own meal allowance that he had earned washing dishes and cleaning tables the last few weeks. His money from the normal world was worth nothing here and he’d yet to figure out who the major players were to work out a more reliable income.

    That would take care of itself with time. It wasn’t the first time that Roman had to fall from something to nothing. But for the last few weeks, he’d watched this man come in for a drink. Roman had blown it off at first, because it was a tavern. A lot of men came in for a drink. But most drank so much that they quickly became boisterous and for Roman, that was old news. If anything, it made the quiet ice clinks of the man’s glass as he drank more notable. More worthy.

    He wasn’t hard to look at either. He was obviously some kind of soldier because a man didn’t grow that sort of compact muscle without hard physical labor. If he were a farmer, his arms would be where the bulk of his muscle sat. But no, this man was solid all over. Dark hair and beard…hm. That was a strange one too. Roman generally preferred a little scruff but he wasn’t fond of beards, but on this man, it seemed at home. If anything, it made him seem warmer.

    To be honest, Roman’s first impression was that the man must be married. So he’d taken a glance…appreciated the view…and moved on with clearing tables. But then the man kept coming back. Once a week on the same day. So Roman noticed more. He didn’t wear a ring. People came to talk to him, often…but rarely to flirt. It honestly looked as if he were friends with half the town, if not at least the ones inside the tavern. Roman had yet to see him around town anywhere else.

    So then Roman ignored it because he figured that the man gave no indication that he might be receptive to male attention. So he dismissed the man again. But then…he noticed that women flirted. Often. And when the man rebuked them all, some women would look crushed but most of them simply laughed as if it were expected and walked away. So…maybe Roman had a chance?

    …It still took two weeks to get the nerve to make sure that he didn’t have to work on the man’s usual evening and to buy a new set of clothes, wash and shave…all things that Roman had taken for granted in the normal world was actually a rather big to-do here when you owned nothing but work to barter.

    It took two weeks to walk up to the bar beside the man and say those six words.

    And silence. A long enough silence that Roman had to glance to the side to see the man’s face, a thing which he hadn’t planned on doing because he was already doing something hard and unknown and god he hoped that the white territory didn’t have any archaic rules for stoning gay men.

    Oh Jesus. Roman had expected that maybe the silence meant he was being ignored, but no. The man was staring at him with piercing brown eyes that, if Roman was any kind of people reader, were not impressed. This caused Roman to do what his best friend, Roland, had liked to call massive overcompensation.

    “Or a meal. I don’t really know what the standard is around here for showing interest, but from where I’m from, it’s customary to offer food or drink in exchange for…your time.” Roman trailed off because his description was not doing him any favors. He really meant that it was a part of dating, showing interested in someone…but when you actually take a moment to describe it, like he did, it was really similar to prostitution. Too similar.

    Honestly, Roman expected to be hit but he just couldn’t tell. The man still hadn’t said anything nor had his expression changed at all. It was both scary and maddening at the same time. When a response came, it wasn’t at all what he expected. The man finally shifted his eyes away and raised the glass in his hand to take another drink before speaking in a graveled voice that was both intimidating and arousing, “It’s custom to earn someone’s respect before asking for their time.”

    The remark was a cut and Roman felt it, but he was wildly resilient and at least a third realist. He hadn’t earned the guy’s respect because they didn’t know each other. So while the remark was a cut, without a doubt, it also wasn’t…a no. Not exactly. It’s that tiny strain of logic that makes Roman ask, “So…how does this earning of respect go? What might I need to do?”

    At that the man moved. All of him. And it put Roman on edge and took everything he had not to flinch or move away. As it was, the man shifted off of his seat and looked Roman up and down in a way that was not at all sexual. If anything, Roman felt his balls shrink in terror. He was being judged. Which wasn’t exactly abnormal since people make judgements all the time, but this was the kind of judgement where your entire body, status, intelligence and the whole package that was you was judged. Bluntly. Harshly.

    “Tomorrow. White Castle training yards at dawn.” The man’s voice was so sharp that Roman could feel each word like a dagger in tender flesh. By the time Roman turned to look at him, he was walking away and while Roman tried to think of a parting remark…he had nothing. Just…plans for tomorrow morning, apparently.

    Roman stood there trying to process exactly what he’d gotten himself into when he felt the soft wisp of air against his ear before he even heard the melodic voice attached to it. “You, Sir, have a date. A very important date…to get your bum handed to you.” Soft twinkling laughter that echoed around the tavern made it impossible not to know who it was.

    Roman turned his best puppy eyes at Irina, the White Rabbit and his tentative boss. “I don’t suppose you want to tell me who he was and give me an idea what I should expect.” He’d only known her for a few months and yet there was no question that Irina was fickle. Not unkind or else she wouldn’t have given him a job, but for the first week the woman had appeared here and there around the tavern and spoken in riddles that meant he had no idea if there was any pay involved when he’d first started washing dishes and wiping tables.

    At the end of his first day, a bowl of stew had been shoved in his hands by one of the other workers and so he’d come back the next day. At the end of the week, he’d been handed his pay…even if Roman had no idea how much it was. He was still trying to understand the currency here. Now as he understood it, her overall talking to him at all was a sign to everyone around her that he was approved. But he did not misunderstand that approval necessarily meant favor. So she could answer his question…or disappear for a week. It was a 50/50 chance.

    “Grand Marshall Phillipe Desperoux, Trainer of the Whites and Haversham’s Favorite.” It seemed that Irina had deemed to be helpful. Still, her gaze drifted off as if she were already on her way elsewhere and her body had yet to catch up.

    “Wait,” Roman panicked because he knew that look and he still had questions. “What do you mean ‘Trainer of the Whites’?” But of course she was already gone. Nothing left but the twinkle of glittering dust displaced from where she stood.
    “All of them?” He muttered the question even knowing that no one was there to answer. She was right. He was going to get his ass handed to him.


    Roman hit the ground again and tasted dust. Literally tasted. The pin right before this slam had put his face right in the dirt and this bastard didn’t give him any time to wipe his face. If he had time and a good listening shoulder, he’d whine that his muscles hurt- all of them. His back ached because this was the fourth time he’d been slammed down like a sack of meat. His left shoulder felt like it had been pulled out of its socket and his face…sweet jesus, he’d been punched more already today than he had a week back home.

    He’d think that the man was torturing him as punishment for his come on if it weren’t for the absolutely serious and fucking benevolent look on his face. He wasn’t even winded! Roman stayed down with his hands held up. “For fuck’s sake, man. Let me catch my breath.”

    The first few throws he had held his language and tried to make a good impression. That was all to fuck’s now. At this rate, Roman would never get to buy the man a drink much less get laid. This respect-earning would kill him. Roman felt so out of shape and useless and he wasn’t sure what to do with that. Back home he’d worked out at the gym. He’d been good with his fists. Where had all that streetwise snark gone when he needed it?

    “Get up. The longer you lay there, the harder it is to get up and do it again. Your muscles will seize and you’ll be in bed a week unless you push through.” The man’s voice…Roman sighed because even physically exhausted, his cock wanted to respond. Honestly, it was that right there that made Roman let out a groan and roll onto his hands and knees to get up again. If his cock was still in it, then he couldn’t be as bad off as he thought.

    “Are you going to teach me something or just kick my ass?” Roman spat out some blood that had formed in his mouth. He fucking hated the coppery tang. Come to think of it, he fucking hated fighting too.

    The Grand Marshall’s low chuckle was his first clue, but the following, “Not today. Today you need to lose some of that attitude. Now come at me again.” That was the part that Roman hated the most. He almost wished that the guy would come at him so he could react, but no. The man insisted that Roman attack and fuck if Roman didn’t need a few more drinks to get into that.

    In general, Roman had an aversion to violence. Even getting his ass handed to him repeatedly wasn’t enough to make him want to ‘hurt’ the man he wanted to bang so bad. Come to think of it, he’d never beat Roland in a fight either. His friend had finally stopped asking to spar with him because he’d said, “You’re a bleeding heart, Ro. You keep on like this and you’re going to get hurt someday.”

    Roman knew he’d fucked up when he felt the impact on his jaw and his vision went black.

    He came to in his bed back at the White Rabbit Pub. He felt fingers threading through his hair and a warm weight against his side. At first, he released a sigh of relief because his hard work had paid off. Then he heard the twinkling laugh of his boss and realized that the weight on his side was in no way the weight of a grown man.

    He opened his mouth to speak and winced because his lip must have gotten split at some point. His whole jaw ached and already he was wondering if it was worth it to talk at all. “We’re…not this…close.” Was the best he got out between both trying to grit his teeth through the full body pain and also -not- grit his teeth since his jaw hurt so much.

    “Of course we are, darling. I…actually stopped by to let you know that Phillipe wants you back at the training yards tomorrow. He said it’s his turn to attack tomorrow. Don’t be late!” Roman felt what might have been a kiss on his cheek…honestly, he wasn’t sure, the whole area felt inflamed. A clinking noise could be heard to his right where his nightstand was. “Drink that before you go.”

    Roman was gearing up to ask what it was when he heard the telltale twinkle and wisp of air that meant she was already gone. So instead, he took a rattling breath and closed his eyes.

    Waking up was the last thing Roman wanted to do, but since the light sparkling through the window kept playing havoc on his eyelids he managed to turn his head and fall out of sleep anyway. Then he panicked because that glittering light meant that it was well past dawn and he was late. So fucking late. There was no way the man had waited.

    Roman laid there a moment, feeling the crushing weight of disappointment and also equal parts chastisement for putting so much emotion into something that should have been a simple yes or no encounter but the stranger’s approval weighed hard on his shoulders. He glanced at the window again. There’s no way he would have waited. It had to be almost noon.

    Roman moved…or tried. The lurch caused pain to scream from almost every muscle in his body. He groaned and brought a hand up to rub his head and fuck if that didn’t hurt too. Finally, he felt along the counter til he felt the bottle that Irina left him. He glanced at the green liquid between swollen lids and sighed. If it killed him, that would at least end his dry spell and put him out of his misery. It took some effort because he suspected the pain in his wrist was from a sprain, but he got the stopper off and drank the suspiciously cool liquid.

    More like liquid fire. Roman screamed as the burning ran down his throat and settled in his stomach and the fire just caught on from there. Even parts of his body that didn’t hurt, were inflamed and his body curled defensively into a fetal position as he sobbed and let the burning consume him. He cried because it hurt. He cried because he was scared and then he cried because he didn’t have anyone to call for help.

    Slowly, his muscles relaxed and his crying quelled. It was then that he realized that besides his reddened tear-stained face, he wasn’t in pain anymore. That bitch had cured him with poison. Or poisoned him with a cure. Semantics. Roman glanced out the window again and decided to move. Laying and feeling sorry for himself wouldn’t accomplish anything.

    Rolling out of bed this time was easy. Almost too easy. Roman stretched and flexed his muscles to their fullest and huffed with almost annoyance at how good it felt. Annoyance, but also a heap of gratefulness. As he headed for the shower, he quickened his step. Maybe he could apologize…

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