This comes from the 64 Damn Prompts on LiveJournal (by rashaka). I will, most likely, be working through all 64, because I can't bear to leave such a lovely thing unfinished. I will also include the song that helped me write it/find inspiration/that I thought fit the mood.
P.S.~ Oh noes! It's drabbles gone mad!
Prompt 21: Rise
Music: Take a Chance On Us, by Scouting for Girls
His friends always asked him why he stayed.
Leo supposed that it would be easy enough to pack what few things he had, to walk out of their tiny, rundown apartment and never look back, but for some reason, he couldn't bring himself to do it. It might have been loyalty on his part, or sheer stubbornness, or the exceptional—and stupid—hope that something someday might change. It might even have been some sort of long-lasting and deeply buried guilt over his mother's death, making him believe that he deserved this, that it was some sort of cosmic punishment for tearing apart his family.
That was Valerie's analysis, anyways. Damned psych majors.
For his part, Leo didn't know, and didn't particularly care. What did it matter why he stayed with the stupid bastard, as long as he did? He loved Clifford, in spite of his fiery temper and habit of sleeping around whenever someone else caught his eye. It didn't matter that Cliff had been fired from his job at the deli—his last option, and the end of the second income they desperately needed—for being too rude to the customers. Nor did it matter that Clifford liked to drink, and that he tended to stay out all night when he did, and would come home smelling like perfume or cheap soap or someone else's aftershave. There would be scratch marks on his back, or lipstick on his collar, or kiss marks on his chest, and Leo would have to take his clothes and fold them neatly, or wash off the smells of sweat and sex and other lovers, and act as though he did not care and did not see.
Leo loved him anyway.
It was hard—nearly impossible, at times. Leo was a med student, and already drowning in debt as it was. He worked three jobs on the side, just to have enough money to pay for books and food, and had for all his years of school. But the strain was worse now, and growing harder to bear every time he came home to find that Clifford had blown the last of the rent money on a few more bottles of liquor, or had put his fist through the wall, or—hardest of all—taken someone else out for a nice dinner and a night on the town when Leo hadn't had those things in months, and was left alone in an empty apartment to scrounge dinner from whatever half-moldy vegetables and too-old rice he could find.
But it wasn't always terrible. Clifford would have moments of spontaneous sweetness that rivaled the ones he had shown when they first started dating. Just two weeks past, he had surprised Leo outside of his second job and whisked him away to the park, where they spread out a thick blanket on the snow and drank badly made coffee and ate Clifford's rather pitiful attempts at making Rubens. It had been a good day, and a better night, and Leo had remembered just how much he loved Clifford, and why he stayed when everyone else urged him to move on and forget the blue-haired bastard.
And then there were times when it was worse than ever.
Smothering a sigh, Leo untangled one arm from his nest of blankets and groped in the direction of the bedside table until his hand encountered the ringing cell phone he had left there after he staggered into the empty bed, exhausted from too many early-morning classes, long afternoons during his rotation, and late-night shifts at the restaurant where he waited tables. He flipped the phone open and raised it to his ear, managing a soft and semi-coherent "Yeah?" once it was secure.
Rae Houston sounded entirely too awake for this hour of the night—or morning, Leo supposed, bleary eyes finally settling on the clock. The painfully bright numbers informed him that it was nowhere near morning yet, and well past midnight. He sighed and curled deeper into the comforter, trying to ignore the chill where another warm body should have been. "Rae. Is something wrong?"
Part of him—a small, selfish part that he tried to ignore—hoped that there was, and that she wasn't calling him for the reason he knew she was, and that Clifford had not done what Leo knew he had.
"I'm sorry, Leo." She really did sound sorry, her voice gentling and losing the husky, seductive purr that she usually affected, and which had made her upscale club in Manhattan such a success. "I know you've got class in the morning, but he's even starting to hit on me, and I know he doesn't have money for a taxi." Over the line, there came the rumble of a man's deep voice, and Rae turned away from the phone, her hiss of, "Get your cheating hands off of my waitress, you blue-balled bastard," coming through clearly even though she had obviously tried to muffle it.
With another sigh, Leo sat up and slid out of bed, pulling on the pair of nice slacks he had been wearing during his shift at the hospital and the first tank top and button-up shirt he found. Rae was pretty lax about her club's dress code, but he liked to make an effort to be presentable whenever he went, as if to make up from Clifford's behavior. He adjusted the phone again, and bit back a yawn. "I'll be there soon. Do I need to pay off his tab, too?"
Rae hesitated for a moment, then let out a short breath and said, "No. It's on the house tonight, Ichi. Not for his sake, of course, but you've been working too hard." She cut off his involuntary protests before he could even voice them. "If you really can't accept that, just think of it as payment for your help with Christian. You really helped him after that incident with Kristopher being killed. I never thought that he was going to get back to normal."
Leo tried to smile, and though it was faint, the thought of Rae's icy, permanently aggravated son made it genuine. "Christian's strong. I'm sure he would have been fine eventually. He survived the orphanage, after all." He managed to find his car keys in the mess the kitchen table had become. "I'm leaving now. Talk to you in a bit, Rae."
"You're a good boy, Leo." Her voice was fond. "Don't let the loser drag you down forever, okay?" Before he could answer—to correct her or to agree, he wasn't sure—she hung up.
Leo shook his head, snagged his jacket from the back of the chair, and stuffed the phone into his pocket, heading out the door and into the cold December night.
When he opened the door bearing the emblem of the bar and the words "Arcana," warm air washed over him, carrying with it a darkly sweet scent and the hum of many muted conversations. Tables and secluded booths were scattered across the open space, almost all occupied, and he nodded to several people he knew as he passed. Vince and Carl Dresden, who owned a bookstore. Nicholas Sinclair, who probably owned half of the city, but wasn't too bad for all of that. Isadora and Abigail, nurses from the hospital. Ronny, the hulking bouncer who could cry at the drop of a hat. Friends he hadn't had the time to see in months, even though most of them only lived a few minutes away.
Then he caught sight of a head of dyed-blue hair in the back, and felt something inside of him sink. This was the reason he hadn't seen his friends. Clifford blurred the line between social drinker and alcoholic, and used their only money to do it.
Like tonight, when Leo had found that every remaining penny from his last paycheck had disappeared.
He wasn't a weak person, and he was rarely emotional. But just for once, Leo had wished he could cry. He loved Clifford, with a fierceness with which he had never loved anyone outside of his family—but at times, he found that he was hard-pressed to like him very much at all.
Biting back a grimace, and trying to arrange his face into more friendly lines, he made his way over to where Rae stood behind the bar, busily mixing a purple drink. As he approached, she looked up and caught sight of him, and her face broke into a wide grin. "Leo! There you are! How are you? Have you been eating enough? Getting enough sleep?" Without waiting for him to answer, she reached out across the bar and pulled him into a hug that he would have sworn collapsed his lungs, in addition to smothering him with her impressively ample assets.
Then—because Rae, though often lazy, was a whirlwind when started—she released him and looked him over. "Can you stay for a bit? Drinks are on the house tonight. Want me to whip something up for you?" Her concerned grey eyes flickered over his body, judging and weighing, but Leo didn't mind.
"Sorry, Rae," he apologized, "but I have class in the morning, and I need to get home. I'll just take Cliff and get out of your hair."
Rae nodded and came around the edge of the bar, wiping her hands off on the apron around her waist. "I'll help you take him out. Mikhail, will that drink hold you for a bit?"
The silver-haired man sitting next to Leo waved a hand dismissively. "I'll be fine, Rae. Go on, I'll be here when you get back." His sharp grin flickered at her, the trace of Russian clear in the words. Rae winked back, and then led the way towards the back of the room. Leo turned to follow her, and just for a moment, he met the other man's narrow eyes. The silver-haired man—who he guessed to be on the nearer side of forty, despite his hair color—raised his glass in salute, his smile slipping towards something more genuine, and he nodded once.
Leo nodded in return, and then headed towards the blue-haired man and the group of barely-dressed girls taking up a booth in the back.
Neither he nor Mikhail looked at each other again that night, but the awareness of each other's presence only faded once the door clicked shut behind the sandy-haired blonde and his dead-drunk partner.
That was their first meeting, but not their last. Clifford would turn up at Arcana at least once a week, and Leo would faithfully drag himself out of bed in the wee hours of the morning, stagger into the club, and pry him out of whatever mass of admiring females and males he had attracted. Rae always made sure that, while he was in her club, he didn't go home with anyone else, for which Leo was grateful.
Mikhail, for his part, never tried to learn the blue-haired man's schedule, and never altered his own, but he found that after the first few chance encounters, he didn't mind Rae taking the time to help Leo, as he minded with other people. Leo obviously needed the help. They never shared any words, just a nod in greeting when their gazes met for the first time, but that was all right. Mikhail thought it felt strangely easy, as most things did not.
He knew little about Leo, and Leo probably knew little or nothing about him. Nevertheless, those moments of silent accord when their eyes first met were oddly intimate, for all that Mikhail only came to Arcana to chase the men away from his best friend, and Leo only came to retrieve his drunken, unfaithful lover from the clutches of other men and women.
Mikhail couldn't imagine how hard that sort of thing was to see, night after night, and he was certain that the blue-haired man's actions weren't solely limited to Rae's club. How did it feel to have your lover not only be a two-timing bastard, but to flaunt it in your face? The man couldn't possibly think that Leo would keep doing his forever, could he? He couldn't possibly think that there was no one else who would take such a loyal, faithful lover in a heartbeat, and hide him away for safekeeping, right?
It was his loyalty that caused the first rise of emotion in Mikhail.
While Mikhail had never exactly thought of himself as shallow, he knew he had never been particularly deep, either. He enjoyed striking companions, and liked to arrive somewhere with a beautiful lover on his arm. Whenever he caught the jealous, longing gazes, the flickers of lust and want in strangers' faces, it satisfied some part of the ragged street Russian punk that still lived inside of him, taunting the world and angry at everything. Even his position, as the right hand of one of the most powerful men in the business world, could do nothing to suppress the crowing taunts and mocking jeers that his other half—carefully concealed, of course—loosed on the stiff, uptight businessmen who populated his daytime life.
So there was a reason for his frivolity, but Mikhail still knew that it made him superficial to value beauty so much. He rarely looked deeper during his short flings—one of the things, he suspected, that kept them so short—and tended to judge mainly by appearance and little else. It worked for him, so he had never thought to change his standards.
But Leo Mitchells was not shallow.
Mikhail knew it from the start. Their meeting had not been some predestined encounter that was either ridiculously tragic or cloyingly picturesque. Nor was it a horribly clichéd instance of love at first sight. It was at a bar, and they were both—at that time, at least—involved with others.
But there was a spark, the faintest, most tentative idea of maybe-someday-more between them, if they ever thought to act on it.
And, after nearly a year of late nights and Rae's gleefully careful observation of their brief encounters, things finally started to change.
Clifford had gotten to be a near regular in Arcana ever since early March, appearing at least once a week—but nearing the end of December he abruptly vanished. Two weeks passed before a tired Leo dragged himself through the front door and over to the bar, where Rae greeted him with concern. He was even thinner than before, weight he couldn't afford to loose, and his frame—already on the slender side of muscular—had become even more brittle in appearance.
Without waiting for Rae to offer up some form of pleasantry, as she normally did, he dropped into the seat next to Mikhail with a sigh and asked quietly, "Has Cliff been here?"
Rae set down the glass she had been polishing, eyes going wide as she took in all the implications of that statement. Her gaze flickered back, towards the table that Clifford normally occupied—empty tonight, as it had been for the past fourteen days.
"Gone?" she asked after a moment. "He left?"
Leo nodded, leaning forward against the bar as though he couldn't support his own weight anymore. "Yeah," he affirmed quietly. "Almost a month now. At first, I wasn't worried, but now…" He trailed off with a grimace. "Tomorrow I'll start calling the hospitals, see if he's checked himself in. This was my last stop, really. He…he probably ran off with someone who can support him better. It's not like it's a complete surprise, but for it to happen now…"
With sympathy clear on her face, Rae put a hand over Leo's and leaned forward to plant a gentle kiss on his forehead. "I'd have called you, Leo, believe me. But you look exhausted. Do you have classes tomorrow?" She glanced up and met Mikhail's eyes. Understanding what she wanted, he nodded and pulled out his wallet to pay for his drink.
Not noticing, Leo just shook his head. "No. It's the break, and I'm off of rotations for the next few days."
"It's settled, then!" The strawberry blond bounced around the end of the counter and slung an arm around the shoulders of her best friend. "Mikhail will take you home with him! He lives nearby, and you're in no condition to drive."
Even as Leo opened his mouth to protest, Mikhail shot him a quick smile and held out a hand, silently willing him to agree. "Mr. Mitchells, it's fine. I've got a free room, and it won't put me out in any way. Besides, I somehow suspect that Rae won't let us out of here until you agree."
The blonde hesitated, then nodded slowly and sighed, running a hand through his messy hair. He flicked Mikhail a grateful smile. "All right, if you're sure. Thanks."
With that simple smile, Mikhail felt something shoot through him—something very like lust, but softer, with an undercurrent of utter, melting tenderness that took his breath away.
No, he thought is disbelief, even as Leo's firm, elegant hand—a surgeon's hand, steady and sure—tentatively clasped his own. No, it can't be.
We haven't even spoken twenty words to each other.
It can't be love.
But, looking into Leo's clear, warm eyes, Mikhail couldn't bring himself to deny the rising heat any longer. Regardless of time, distance, connection, or anything else, he had fallen irrevocably in love with Leo Mitchells.
But when Leo smiled at him—smiled like the sun had suddenly come out from behind the clouds and illuminated his cold, grey world, smiled with an entire universe of emotion and feeling behind his kind brown eyes—Mikhail knew that Leo felt that same.
After three years, Mikhail could look back on their meeting and laugh at the absurdity, the pure impossibility of it all. Leo just shook his head at the other man and let him. But, when Mikhail held him closely, kissed his forehead and his eyelids and his lips, treated him like he was precious and strong and fragile and treasured all at once, then Leo would lean back against his lover and murmur, "At least we have a happy ending, right?"
And Mikhail, happier than he could ever remember, his inner ragged street punk finally satisfied and no longer angry, couldn't help but agree, "Yes, my Leo. We got our happy ending."