"Potpourri" is a work of fiction. The body of the provided text is a series of excerpts taken from "The Bitter King," which is a larger work of its own written by 'Wroh' with the OACC challenge in mind. The entire work is over 15,000 words, and has thus been abridged for the purpose of entering a more digestible piece of work into the challenge. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or are used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual events or actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
List and backgrounds of named original characters:
DRAGA: A friend and confidante of Peter; she drives his caravan between those of the other ministers during their escape from Yugoslavia, and though driving is her only responsibility, she generally happens to be in the same room or location as Peter, at least remotely. This is because she is one of two people with whom Peter chooses to surround himself. A former school teacher hired into the king's ministry as a lower-level assistant, Draga has not known Peter at all before she was assigned Peter's caravan in the haste of the escape. Peter was fought on this decision, but he chose the assignment himself against the advice of his ministers.
RADOVAN: A familiar long-time friend of Peter and the extended Royal family, his duration on the King's property extends for longer than Peter has lived. Radovan runs and tends to the King's gardens and fruit crops; primarily, however, he breeds, sells, and nurtures alpacas, cows, and sheep. Radovan escapes with the royal family and Yugoslav ministers.
ROBERT: An out-of-place American citizen caught up in London with his elderly mother. In his 20s/30s, he works as a journalist in Vermont, USA. He is of Jewish descent, and has gotten stuck in London on a journalistic endeavor for far longer than he had originally expected, though he understood that the visit went hand-in-hand with suicide. His mother is also in the journalistic community, having worked for papers before her son, whom she led into the profession per his own request. His mother is now retired but is fully involved his Robert's dealings and insists that she is able-bodied enough to keep up. Robert is a semi-large to well-known name in US journalism, and his own career has far surpassed his mother's.
June, 1941 — Jerusalem, then London.
There is the odor of seasalt in Peter's hair and on his hands. The ship jerks against the black waters, and there is nothing to be seen but the faintest clue of life on the shores of Jerusalem until the torchlight on the docks is eaten by hungry dark.
Jerusalem is an easy place to leave. Peter isn't fond of the thought when he thinks it, but it sinks into his bones as he considers the spin of heat that had been all around him, constricting his throat day-to-day, and compares it to the easy weight of the coat on his body now. His skin turns firm and cold beneath the sharp bites of ocean water, but his eyes are dark and his mouth is turned downward, and he sees where the light of the stars tumbles into the unending dark of night. There is no fire in the stars to him — only a cold, harsh inspecting light that imposes itself upon the sea like searchlights and never finds what it seeks. The stars last for days and when they're gone, the sun is a rosy, peach thing in the periwinkle sky, touching the ship with a faded warmth that kisses his flesh.
Draga sees him watching grey clouds clamber for space on the brilliant, peachy canvas, and she tells him that everyone in the world is overfond of sweet things. She tells him an odd make-believe story about how the eyes of onlookers have gobbled the sweetness all up and left nothing but the gray plate of clouds underneath by the time the noon is ripe, She's huffing to herself about the sullen humor of it as she removes her glasses under the spray of sea mist. She doesn't hold Peter's eyes for very long, but Peter sees that they are brown when he looks — brown and deeper than he's ever seen them, and they remind her of the mud beneath the storms and rains that hit the dark fields in the October months near the Yugoslavian cities. Peter sees the dark gazes of bakers, bank men, and gravediggers of small, simple Yugoslav towns, and he sees that she may not belong here, with him, on the sea, near London, at all.
There is a fray of chapped skin brushing her lips. Draga has once again cloaked it with the slickness of pigment the color of poppies. Peter sees no poppies here, out at sea, and there are none where the sky is dark and grey and menacing above him. There are no flowerbeds in his quarters near the bottom of the boat, and there is no air which does not smell so unfamiliarly of salt. But there is Yugoslavia in Draga's face. She moves her hands through her hair — it's short, a lank, curly-ish fall of brown just to her black-jacketed shoulders — when she thinks Peter isn't looking, and that's when he realizes that, by all means, he shouldn't be inspecting her like she's a window to the world he used to know or a map whose lines chase after his broken kingdom.
But that's what he sees when he looks at her. Home is what Peter hears on the rare occasions when she opens her mouth and speaks of moonlight in the center of a void of dark; of flowers encasing deep ditches and rabbit holes. The king can almost smell dust in an old library when she reminisces on borrowed books, and the leather gloves on her hands, he knows, were purchased from a worker down in the darker city just beneath the shadow of the castle mountain.
They do not speak very much, and what they do speak of are paradoxes and children's tales and similarly peculiar things. Over glass tables strewn with worn playing cards, they speak of starlight and the softness of feathers and of the luminous glitter of light on heavy, jolting waves, and sometimes wonder aloud whether the foliage in the king's garden still stands.
The nights on the deck are cold, but they bring blankets to be dampened by the seawater, and they lift coats and cloths up from the sopping wood, wrapping themselves up from the cold so the starlight may illuminate their book pages and the sounds of gurgling oceans can fill the uncomfortable quiet. Guards and ministers occupy other tables on the deck, choosing to retire to their beds early or to, in the cases of the younger men, simply tag along and read at separate tables, a mug of tea or coffee held in hand. Peter relays to Draga that he remains in the cold because it is a feeling reminiscent of home, and there's far more wisdom in the wink and nod she gives than should be possible to imbed in a simple gesture.
The docks are dark and devoid of any star or moonlight even when the clocks speak of a time that, by all means, should be whiteish and beautiful. Ministers and guards and walk on unsteady feet over the oiled black dock, eyes droopy with exhaustion, shoulders puffed with great jackets because the coolness of the rainy London is a dreary thing - the clouds seem to have extinguished the skies. There are caravans stationed just off the dock, on the streets for their transportation, and there are hands with coats and British voices on their mouths directing the party and opening heavy black car doors. Draga's picking rushedly over water-stained grounds, water sloshing up over her heels and into her shoes, and her hair moving with the wind around her cold-reddened face. She's hasting into the vehicle, Radovan somewhere far down the row, jostling himself into the door of another. There's a man on Peter's side — a man unfamiliar, dark-gloved with a face of blue eyes and lily-white skin — grasping Peter lightly by the shoulders and ushering him steadily toward a caravan's open maw when the noise of crackling fire splits the sky and draws tumult from farther in the darkened streets, past buildings and lamplights and shops with shuttered windows.
"Into the cars!" Someone's bellowing, and there is rain heavy on Peter's face, the fire in the skies shining this wondrous light over the slick hoods and helmets. Peter is shoved into the vehicle and engulfed by the simple cold stillness of it as the crack of closing doors and rattling windows shakes the world. An astonished driver sits right in front of him, gape-mouthed as he peers into the glittering sky. Peter sees in the heavens what looks like fire in water — like a burning ship keeping its light ever-briefly as blue waves and black, slick waters swallow it whole. There is a clamor of fire in the clouds.
Another scream of noise, this time landing somewhere faraway and covered by clouds, and there's a wicked splash of water bristling up like glass shards from the wheels of the first caravan until the row begins pushing on like dominoes, one and then another and another. Draga shakes under pale white skin, and Peter is wiping drenched hair from his eyes and face, skin-warmed rain splitting cross sections over his skin and muddying the view of dark buildings rising up on all of the caravan's sides. There are no clouds in the skies now — only smoke — and Draga pins her eyes to every inch of it, mouth brimming with whispered and fearful words she does not mean to be heard by any but herself. "Blitz, my lady," the driver breathes, then turns to Peter. "Your majesty." There is a rocky sound in his voice, and his syllables are elongated and broad in a way Peter and Draga aren't accustomed to. "German bombs cross the skies like lightning in London — most often in the night; very rarely when it rains like this," the man says. His fingers move with uncertain taps against the clenched steering wheel, his neck craned and his eyes searching the dark clouds as he follows on the tail of the leading caravan. Here, the buildings are broad and tall and hulking things, but the streets are fairly, empty and from the windows, there is no light.
"I've seen things like this," Peter says, and immediately regrets it, as there's fire landing somewhere shadowed in the west, uprooting the stability of the world; pulling a noise of sharp discomfort from Draga before he can finish. Something inside her snaps, and her hand is crossing the distance of the backseat and taking Peter's in hers, her eyes sealed upon the black heavens as if with glue. Peter doesn't refuse her. He feels the leather on her fingertips and remembers the old and broken kingdom left behind to the kindness of Germans and bombs.
The skies pass overhead, still and black, turning with the sharp turns of the caravans in the streets. There are four more heavy sounds inside the city, hammering the car occupants' words like rubble in their throats so the silence among them is heavy and black. The only light they've seen within the city so far is that searing red which crosses the lids of cars and roofs. There are no beaming lamps, no voices, no window lights until the caravans slow to a viewing pace and settle down on the edge of a slickened street at the mouth of a pair of doors which are held open. Beyond the threshold, amber lights gently fall upon dark wood and carpets and in the faded smear of precious paintings hidden among bookshelves. But that is only a peek, and the driver is moving from the seat to open the door for Peter, Draga having already exited from the opposite door and bending at the waist to get a better look. There are caravan occupants swimming into the new silence of the night, and there's a British man at the front of them, hiking through the doors with the bags of a fer ministers clutched in his hand and a frown beneath his rain-wet moustache. Somewhat like magnets among the small swarm of black coats reaching onto the stone sidewalk, Draga, Radovan, and Peter gravitate to one-another under the pressure of the rain without the comfort of umbrellas. Men of the ministry pushing up behind them until the warmth of lights and the safety of a roof cocoon them in an entirely new atmosphere.
From the center of a small huddle, Peter looks up into the golden walls and spots staircases racing into different halls from the center of a large lobby of bookshelves and huddled figures of all different colors. There are guards and guns and heavy faces mixed among the shades of many kingdoms and countries — colors dyed into the supple fabrics which are wrapped around the lank bodies of princesses and princes and other people of great regard. Above it all, a gold-wired chandelier noisily dangles white and sapphire crystals which have been disturbed by the bursting of brilliant bombs. There is a clamor of languid, panicked voices all around, and no single sentiment can be accurately deciphered. Peter stands wet, dripping blackish rainwater upon a fine-looking rug as the other arrivals do, and the British leading man is wrapped in medals and jackets and sashes which weigh him from the wet. The medaled man steps to a desk and addresses a bespectacled, auburn-haired fellow about Slavic royalty and scheduled lodgings, all the while Draga shakes coldness from her skin by rattling with shivers. Radovan moves to her side; wraps her in a jacket the size of an archaic war-room map and engulfs her, just for the moment, in a warmth that brings something like a smile to her paling lips.
Peter soon isn't thinking about any of it. There is a band of silver clinging to the neck of a young lady who rests clutching a pillow to her chest on the lowest steps of a black staircase in the shadows. Her blue eyes speak of royalty, as does the pointedness of her nose; the sheer nature of the fine nightgown on her body. There are others like her — many like this, whose appearances mark them as remarkable people of high status, and whose distinguished appearances make this such an odd occasion.
Peter thinks to remove his drenched jacket from his shoulders, and so he does, leaving the slick, water-glued white of a button-down shirt upon his shoulders to dry in the indoor musk. Taking Peter's jacket from him half-reflexively, Draga whispers among the three of them that this shouldn't take much longer; the British man has been speaking to the innkeeper for all of ten minutes, and a bomb hasn't been heard in the skies since half past midnight. Peter nods; sees her eyes glancing up into Radovan's. He hears the sharpness of Yugoslavia's accent on her lips and thinks once again of home. Almost another three minutes, and the group remains standing in the bumbling hall of people, a race of strange wet men and women from the Colder lands, grinding their teeth and scanning the large place with dark eyes as rooms are chosen and names are recorded. The voices in the lobby have begun to fall into somewhat of a whispering hush, though that may simply be exhaustion quieting the noises in Peter's ears and pushing chaos away. Nevertheless, from among the drier bodies that crowd around the second desk (close to where Peter stands, toward the end of the group of his people) there are voices pecking over matters which regard bombs and safety and transportation and rooms — all of which Peter comes to quickly understand must be frequent matters of concern following a barrage of bombs.
"Sorry — I don't feel like I should be here complaining," says a man with a different voice than Peter has heard — one with an American sound to it, informal despite the words being spoken, lined with gravely lowness. "My mother has been getting panic attacks resulting from being woken up by the noise of bombs being chucked just over where we sleep on the top floor."
"Who are you again, sir?" another man responds, British sounds tumbling from his mouth.
"Nobody important, really, considering the other people you've got here," the man says. His voice seems suddenly closer to Peter, though that's merely because he's turned his head to cast his gaze over the room. His eyes — big, clear things behind the focused lenses of giant spectacles — catch nearly every golden twig of light branching from the handheld lamps and electric lights in the lobby. "I'm Robert Graham," he says, tiredness drugging the deep sound of his voice and chasing words from his mouth in quick, impatience-bitten breaths. "R - o - b -"
"You don't have to spell your name, sir."
He briefly pauses. Clears his throat for a brief moment, letting a breath flatten the intensity in his voice. "Good." There sounds like there's a nod there — something of the kind, because that's either the sound of sleep-driven impatience in his voice or the turn of a lazy smile on his mouth making the word come out half-murmured. "The problem is, my mother's been getting panic attacks because of the noise of the bombs cracking right over the top floor. She isn't getting any sleep. They're scaring her so much, she's been waking up weeping in the middle of the night, and I don't want to disturb anyone else around here with it."
There's a pause. A sigh. Peter is quickly learning that his party are not the only ones who are sleep-deprived. "What can we do for you, sir?"
Peter strains to hear, now. He's already fully listening in — some kind of curiosity simply won't allow him to stop. Draga leans into his arm, catching her balance when she slips on the fine fur rug; whispers 'sorry' and averts her eyes and parts from Peter when she finds that he isn't listening and isn't focused enough to have really noticed her accident to begin with. Peter still hasn't gotten a look at the American man to whom he's listening — he's been training his eyes on the faraway, silvery titles which line a dark oak bookshelf near a mounted bear head. Just to the edge of that, the silver-banded, blue-eyed girl clutches her pillow as if it truly is a life source. Nudged tinily against the edge of the staircase, she's fallen deep asleep.
"Well," Robert is saying, pausing because he's biting his lip considerately — or at least that's what Peter imagines. "I guess I'm down here requesting different lodging. My mother is a very fainthearted woman, and I'm worried for her." His voice grows louder in increments — not with anger or with disdain, but simply from the intensity of his growing tiredness. "You see, she's been getting these wild panic attacks when the bombs start—"
"And so you're down here again?" The innkeeper's voice is laden with confusion; drawn from his lips with this unkind sentiment riding underneath it, and it makes Peter uncomfortable, that. "How many times have you come?"
If Peter isn't mistaken, the noise of disbelief that pressures from Robert's lips is stifled, tired — a reasonable response to such rudeness even if he is just as unimportant a man in the presence of these people as he claimed to be. But Peter could be wrong. The sound could have been a gulp or a stammer — not some return of attitude, though Peter would not have blamed him for it. "Well, three," the man responds, and the coolness of his voice is something that makes Peter feel as if he's misinterpreted him. "Once for every time this has happened. Her panic attacks are really scaring the bejeezus outta me, and I just -"
"In that case, we'd better start looking," concludes the British man. From the sound of his voice, Peter can't be certain if he means it. The Robert man accepts it all the same, tiredness lining his voice and a smile creasing the sound of his quiet thanks. "Robert, it might be awhile before we can transfer the two of you, even so. There are arrivals being moved in at all hours of the day. We've got ten more just behind you."
Peter swallows. Turns his face. Spots a strange bit of light in Draga's eyes as she brings her own gaze up from where it'd been lingering on the newly-wettened tawny rug beneath her feet. She's picked up a bit of a shiver beneath Radovan's jacket, Peter notices, and it's one more reason he'd like for them to be directed to their lodgings now. He feels the skin of his ears burn beneath the attention of Robert's eyes on his back.
"It's Rob. How long do you think it will take?" Rob asks, voice closer to Peter than the king's quite comfortable with, and Peter redirects his own eyes to the glittering silver band on the neck of the girl who sleeps draped over oaken stairsteps.
"I've not yet asked around to even find whether your request is a possibility, sir," the innkeeper responds. "I'm not sure. I can't tell you tonight."
"Oh, that's fine with me," Rob says. There's a remarkable airiness in his tone considering the exhaustion that's plagued his rocky voice thus far. The noise of a key jangling at his side, perhaps being wiggled in a hand; the sound of Rob bending to the ground to retrieve an item he's placed off to the side. Peter feels the man's eyes flitting over the congregation of Yugoslavians, and it's almost uncontrolled, the way Peter turns to look: dashes his eyes over the other man and catches a glance that lingers just long enough. Peter's face is heating when he fixes his eyes on Draga, who's falling asleep leaning on Radovan, who stares down the British man, who glares at the auburn-haired fellow at the desk opposite the one Robert stands at.
The image of Rob is one that sticks in Peter's mind. Even fixing his eyes on a faraway painting — it's one of a ship sinking at the edge of a sea, just near a tuft of green land — Peter can visualize the facial expression on the man's face as he answers the question of the innkeeper who stands before him with a clipboard poised beneath a metal pen. "Excuse me, sir," the innkeeper says, the words rushed on his tongue, and Peter hears Robert stop, a 'hm?' on his lips and, Peter imagines, a bit of extra wideness in his eyes of white-ish grey. "You need to tell me where you're from and what country you're representing."
Rob does bite his lip, now, and that's something Peter doesn't miss, even if he is stealing a look from the corner of his vision. He picks up very little of the American's expression from under the wild, black bush of curls that reach around the arms of his wide-rimmed spectacles. Like dark vines, uncontrolled around the face of a man of variety. "I come from Vermont. In the United States," Rob says, "but I don't spend very much time there. I've been working for an American company in Germany, but -" he says, and barks a quiet, breathy laugh through this low and tentative smile, gesturing with a hand to his face, the Jewish features on it, the black of his wild hair and the cleft of his stubbled chin, and Peter is looking, "- this wasn't gonna work out very much longer."
The innkeeper writes notes on his clipboard with a befuddled expression painted over his features, the lines of his brows furrowed and his lips puckered like he's been insulted. The man opens his mouth, but Rob's digging in the pocket of his trousers for a small bit of money, coins jangling all about until he's found it. Peter watches Rob slide silver pieces over the dark wood counter, and averts his eyes once he sees Rob begin to turn his back from the counter, delivering a quick and easy goodnight to the man behind it. The smile on Rob's mouth remains lazy, his eyes remain greyed with tiredness, and his hand digs through his hair briefly before pushing up his glasses and covering a yawn that stretches his shoulders and squeezes his eyes closed.
Since entering the hotel, twenty minutes have passed, the minutes ticking little faster than years, and the half-asleep condition of Draga does very little to soften Peter's perception of that, as do the unsteadiness of his tired feet and the itch of an ache in his spine and the unkind shake of his hands remaining from witnessing the color of fire suffocated deep in the sky. It's hard for Peter to believe he feels safe, even looking upon the pristine walls and twinkling crystals and drooping faces that mill all about like statues come to life. Above a smoking hearth, there is a clock the same size and color that the moon looks from any place on any street in the whole world. It is pale and soft in appearance, its silvery-blue numbers being plucked by gentle gold clock hands with each passing second.
At one o'clock, it sings. At one o'clock, a gentle song fills the room and kisses the frames of paintings and stirs the sleeping bodies which rest on the woolen sofas like pale, leaves on grey stones decorated with dirt. One o'clock, and there is a monarch with a familiar face swooping down to place his hands on the shoulder of the sleeping girl on the steps, slipping the pillow from her arms and lifting her chin so he can see her eyes and speak to her molasses mind. There is a minute of people moving in the lobby like this. Some break open their eyes, lift themselves from their places, and languidly begin up the stairs and off to their rooms. Others simply cast gazes over the collection of wet men and women standing in the opening, drenching the tawny fur rug, and drop their heads back down so they might finish their dreams. But this man at the staircase takes the blonde-haired girl gently into his arms as if she is little heavier than a cat, and he's pressing a kiss to her nose and, beneath her hair, the silver band on her neck is glittering brilliantly against the room's electric lights.
And, while Peter's well and off distracted by little things like this, there is a painting of a red castle protruding from the side of a black snowcapped mountain. There is no cave for lights behind it. There is no bridge before it, no trees at its feet, and no little sheep cottage hidden just beneath the shadows of jagged, thick branches anywhere near the foreground of the painting. There is no grass for flowers. The air seems the bitter kind of cold. It is an odd, red-white place; a shabby doppelganger of home which Peter wishes he hadn't accidentally spotted. And beneath the painting's wooden frame, there is a bowl of stemless flowers nudged between pine cones and plucked petals, perfumeless and dry and utterly barren of true life.
Radovan walks a groggy Draga through the crowd, away and toward the British man who leads the group, standing side-by side with another innkeeper as they work out the specifics of lodgings, moustaches wriggling with bitten words and rushedness. Radovan approaches them presumably to learn of plans, but it's with a sharp impatience that the British man waves an arm and dismisses the two of them the closer they come. Draga seems to have promptly given up at the sight of this. She slinks to the ground against the wall beside the desk, and Radovan's huge coat around her shoulders soaks the wall with rainwater where she sleeps. Guards and some ministers do similar things, breaking out across the room with slow paces and finding places to lean and sit as the clock moves slowly forward. Peter remains in place. He's moved his eyes back to the bowl of flowers. He wonders if they've got those upside-down blue ones growing in the fields, and then he remembers his brief view of the terrain and wonders if the place is all made of black skies and briars and trees with thorns covering them.
Peter falls deep into his own mind. He doesn't notice Rob at his side — Rob, who's scanned his face with clear eyes at least twice and yawned at least three times before deciding against heading upstairs in favor in joining Peter in looking at whatever he's looking at. And Rob has broken open the book in his hand at least once — he's been getting really into these fantasy works recently, as that's mostly what this place's library has to tide him over — and closed it because he's pretty sure that normal people don't stand and read like that. Rob's standing in his house shoes in front of this guy who looks a little younger than him, looks a little colder and wetter and more tired than him, and Rob keeps wondering to himself just exactly where this guy's from and why he's here. Rob first decides that he can't be with the foreign group. He wears different clothing; stands alone, arms crossed over himself, thinking, a white button-down crisp over his skin and sticking to him from the rain, and Rob is looking at him at this point, but who does it hurt if nobody notices? Rob decides the guy's probably British. He looks like that type of fellow — the one who sinks into his own head a little too often and has relaxed rules and an easygoing kind of vibe, but there's something about the darker, deeper tone of his skin that's screwing around with the vision Rob's got laid out. Rob decides, now that he looks at the tallness, the tan skin, dark eyes, and rain-flattened brown hair again, that he must be wrong. Rob decides, now that he looks down just once more and sees the sheer nature of that tucked-in shirt over the guy's body, that he's being a bit of a creep just looking at the guy somewhat unabashedly like this.
And then Rob shrugs to himself because hey, it's not like he's getting any ideas.
The second thing Rob comes to notice is that this guy has a few strange things about him. First off, he's staring down a bowl of flowers, which could denote anything from a deep longing for some flowery location to a long-stifled passion for interior design. But Rob's a little smarter than that. He sees the downward slope of the sides of the guy's lips; the way his body bends back at the waist and how he settles all his weight on his heels; how his eyes don't move once they've found something to ponder. He figures this is a guy who does this a lot — gets lost in himself and has a lot of trouble coming back. Rob figures by just looking at this guy that something terrible has happened. And there's something strange about this realization that makes him almost want to take a flower from the bowl — maybe the red one, because who doesn't like poppies? — and give it to him just to see what might happen.
And once he's seeing flowers there, he's seeing them everywhere, embedded in the colors of paintings and in the dots of photos which line the bookshelves. He's seeing them faded, grey and white in the hair of picture-frame ghosts and buried in the blonde, red, and brown of women who have dozed on seats and fallen asleep resting atop the lily-white pages of poetry books. If he sees them in one place, he's seeing them all around, lifting his eyes higher up the walls until the paintings have run out and the ceiling is bare and the only thing left of to see of flowers are those peeking from the shadows atop tables and in paintings in the halls. But the man before him seems overfond of these flowers. Or, at the very least, intrigued by these for some reason in particular. The thoughts of men are varied, strange things, and if there is a reason the collection of dried petals in that old wooden bowl are so damned fascinating when there are other flowers sprinkled all about within the bounds of picture frames and in the shadows and bleeding from women's hair, Rob is interested in knowing just why. And so he asks. Almost with foolish confidence (is it confidence if it's really closer to a lack of insecurity?) Rob asks the other man, "Is there anything special about those flowers?" The words are easy on his tongue because he doesn't know this guy at all and so the consequences of screwing this one up can't be too big. If there's any hint of a knot in his stomach, he's ignoring it, turning his lips into a smile and meeting the other man's eyes, hoping he doesn't look too tired — too old and worn-out.
There are carnations peeking over the edges of the bowl. The petals are dry as paper; weak as paper; parched and old and far from where they grew. They sit looking near-grey under the glow of electric lights, and there they wilt among dead petals. "No," Peter responds to nothing in particular. He isn't certain whom he answers — a voice or an organic, fleeting thought. Beside him, Rob adjusts himself on his feet, shoulders slumped, hair a mess around his eyes, and there's a cold rush of realization that compresses the air in Peter's throat and casts his eyes from the flowers and to the rug beneath his feet. Blood hastes to the shells of his ears, and so his mind jettisons all other thoughts and he almost visibly caves in on himself with the suddenness of the encounter. It's not what he thinks he does, but he's doing it — he's stepping reflexively sideways over the furred rug and tightening his arms over his chest, feeling rainwater soak into the fabric of his sleeves where his wrists tighten against him. He suddenly feels cold, and his eyes pry at the faraway fireplace where the flames burn low and the coals billow with weakening smoke, the heat impossibly condensed.
"'No?'" Rob is repeating. His voice is too sincere when it leaves him, like the word is truly so remarkable that it must give way to some kind of information. There's this terribly real-looking bit of intriguement buried in the furrow of his disheveled brows, and he presses his lips together, shoulders slumped, arms meeting to cross over his chest. Peter's catching glances from the side of his vision, simply trying not to let his face go scarlet, but he isn't sure Rob's the type of man to jump from conclusion to conclusion about people, and so he covertly moves wet hair out of his eyes and straightens his back and wills away the red. It's unlikely Rob spots him, as the American now peers at this bowl like it's a specimen of some kind, his eyes lingering on this gold-red corn poppy that seems to shudder where it sits.
The American seems at a bit of a loss, though he doesn't let it get to him, instead opting to send his eyes up to Peter through his glasses and rake a hand through the disheveled bush of hair that creates a mound atop his head. There's a bit of a stammering laugh chasing the breath of his voice, and his mouth breaks open in this smile with his words, intrigue darkening his eyes, a finger wagging in front of him because, as if the question just won't stop bugging him, he's asking, "Why are you looking at them?" There's a jesting tone embedded in the sound of the man's voice, and Peter's almost convinced that he should laugh, but he is sore with the pressure of having to conjure up a response. Rob, as if these final words are of such importance that he must chisel them into the conversation, fans a hand out in front of him and adds, "because — I don't know, there's just this way you've been looking at them that's, uh..." and he finishes there, like that's more than enough to explain the tornado of varied thoughts that could be whirring in wild life behind his bespectacled face, and Peter can see how one could find that somewhat endearingly frustrating.
Peter opens his mouth and tries to speak, but his eyes are on Rob's, and there's a world of unfocus to be found there, and so he's silent for just a moment before he slides his gaze back onto the heavy wooden bowl with a considerable amount of reluctance. There's a load of ruin in there, standing without stems, poking from a grave of dirt and dried petals just beneath a behemoth of a painting that only tells him of colors of blood and stained snow; beckons to mind a story of a place without light inside it. "The flowers are all dead," he says. The words feel heavy and strange and taste like tin in his mouth, his tongue wrapping around words in odd places. He has a feeling that if it weren't for the rasp of the American's voice or the tone of his accent, he wouldn't feel any way about it. Rob cocks his head halfway, brows cynically frowning, mouth twitched in a bemused smile, and he leans forward with these big, clear eyes peeking past great curls of pitch hair to peer at the flowers as if Peter's asking him to look at a dog carcass.
"Okay…" Rob murmurs. The word drags from his mouth with an ironic cadence of skepticism, and even if he is joking, something scrambles quickly inside Peter's chest. "They're in a bowl," Rob says, his words chasing a laugh. "Probably been there for years. They have to be dead."
Peter pulls his arms from his chest, and maybe if he didn't feel such a need to explain himself, he would break into a smile he couldn't hold back. Water marks his sleeves, pressing deeper into the fabric across his chest and wettening the shirt buttons to a pale white shine, and Rob distractedly gives a quick glance down at where the fabric sticks to Peter's chest. He appears geared to open his mouth and perhaps make a joke, but instead spares the other man the humiliation, opting to rather purse his lips and lift his brows and hide soft laughter in his mouth. Peter thinks, just fleetingly, about his lips. Then he draws his eyes back to the bowl. "I'd rather have living flowers," he says. Right now, as opposed to before he opened his mouth to speak, there do not seem to be as many words left to say. What he does manage to speak ends up sounding unsure, like a question or a tentative memento at the end of a poem, and he nearly cringes at the sound of it. Rob looks at him, still, in this way that asks for more words; in this way that considers what he's said and truly does linger on every component of the sentence, and Peter's not quite sure what to say until Rob quirks up a bushy brow and gives him this kind smile he doesn't think he deserves. "Back home, they're all over the place and nobody dries them. People uproot them and plant them again, maybe, but..." Peter trails on the tail end of a thought that his mind doesn't have the focus to quite complete.
There's a brief minute where Rob glances over him; loosens the lines in his skin and the smile on his face and drops his eyes down the canvas of the open room, skipping over colors and breezing over images, thoughts, paintings, everything going still behind his clear eyes. Peter's watching close enough that he can almost see tiredness scratch heavy thoughts out of his mind right as they come. Rob sets his eyes on the bowl of flowers; sees yellows and pinks and oranges and deep purples all shriveled and dried and bitten by the air in every place. A shallow breath brings into his mind the cold realization that, if he had given the other man the flower, it might have ruined any chance he had of getting to know him. Another breath conjures up other thoughts: thoughts of accents that sound sharp over tongues and certainly aren't British, but rather some other kind of European; thoughts of reddened faces and pink ears and shirts drawn tight and clear over skin of a curious color, all wet with rainwater. Peter continues to dwell on how he's so rudely trailed off in the middle of a sentence. Peter sees these things in Rob's demeanor — the slow fall of his smile and the redirection of his eyes and the tired, thoughtful closed-mouthed breaths — as some internal chastisement of his ineptitude, but it's funny how people can be so terribly wrong like that.
"Where are you from?" Rob asks the question as if he's rude for not having asked it earlier; asks the question while pulling his eyes from the bowl of flowers, and Peter can almost see in his face the way he tries to erase the memory of the shriveled collection of petals from his mind. It's briefly afterward that Rob lifts his eyes to Peter's and suddenly has something click among the grey fog that swims around his thoughts; something that has him cut off Peter's responsive breath with a "your name, too," buried in a soft and somewhat breathy laugh that's stifled by impressive amounts of tiredness.
There's a smile on Peter's face, now, stretching over his skin and making pinkish stains over his cheeks; stains that he attempts to huff away by grazing his eyes over the yellow fur beneath his feet and clearing his throat of tightness. There's a soft bit of laughter bending the sound of his breath, just for a moment. He lifts his eyes to the fireplace, chasing the smoke with his gaze as it wafts up, billowing, before a painting of a pale woman with sapphire eyes. "I'll start with the first one," he says. Rob squints his eyes in a brief laugh that fills his chest (he's short of breath, Peter notices), and the smile on Peter's face becomes a slow grin.
"I was born in Yugoslavia. Crazy winters. Cold summers. Blue rivers and grass that is almost black near the mountains. The flowers there are giant," he says, holding Rob's eyes, though the ineptitude and sharp affectedness of his voice becomes less hidden by the pressure in his chest, the blood rushing in his ears, the tightness swelling in his throat. These things begin to dissipate in the cold which frames him. He brings his arms back up to cross over his chest. Red remains on his face like a spillage of blood. "My name is Peter," he says.
Rob makes a soft smile at him, his eyes part-of-the-way obscured by the frontside of a mane of black curls, puffy, twisting, reaching behind the heavy frames of his glasses. Rob remarks internally upon the odd simplicity of the other man's name, and his brief regard just might show on his face — in the pull of his brows and the light chuckle on his lips. He's trying hard not to over-notice the bleeding red on Peter's face or the open button of his rain-wettened dress shirt, but he's not all that certain that there's a way of stopping it. So he doesn't try. He picks over the inches of Peter's face with his eyes, and maybe it's the tiredness, but there's no shame in him when he does it. "Rob."
Peter smiles, the redness in his skin dwindling and fading, and then there's this grin back on his mouth and he's looking at the flower bowl again, telling Rob with these glittering eyes and teeth, "I heard when you said it at the desk."
A bark of a laugh — maybe too loud for one o'clock, but Rob's caving over with a hand to his stomach, mouth wide and teeth white in a laugh that shows his tongue. "Did you?" Peter shakes in a silent chuckle, but the quiet sound rocks beneath his skin and quakes his frame and parts his lips around his teeth. Rob's teetering a laugh with a wrist pulled up to his mouth as if to muffle the noise in the skin of his arm. "I didn't know I was that loud," he says, and maybe it's the magic of comedy that grips a faraway old hag by the back of her head and pulls her face up to glare at him, a woolen sack of some kind clenched inside her spidery hand as if she's got a mind to chuck it. Rob grants her a quick look that's a bit more sober, though there's still a laugh on his breath and the ghost of a grin wide on his mouth even after she's dropped her head again. "Your last name?"
Peter tosses back his head and really laughs now, the color red making a brief, hard ascension into his cheeks, full against the sound of his laughter. Rob pulls his eyes low to the ground in some kind of mismatched attempt at honoring the other man's modesty — a reflexive thing that has no real birthing in actual manners. And Peter's dipping his face downward, hiding a laughing grin behind his thumb and fluttering his eyes over this white-toothed smile, and yes, Rob sees it. "What?" Rob's laughing, breathing the word through this chuckle that's turning his neck red because he doesn't think he's said anything funny. "What is it?"
"It's too complicated," Peter says. "I don't even know where you'd start or which title to tell you." And Rob's mostly chuckling at this because he thinks it's a joke; because the full-bellied laughter he should be letting out is covered by this thick mist of confusion and the laughter in Peter's mouth drains to a soft, tinkling thing as he drives in a soft breath.
It's the first time this whole conversation that Peter's actually maintained eye-contact, and Rob's taking advantage of that, looking straight up at him, almost overlapping the other man's words and grinning, "'Too complicated?'" But there's still that confused height that piques his voice because he's sending his eyes away from Peter's and looking around at the guards and ministers and ladies all tucked into their own corners of the room. There's a certain coldness that fills him when he takes a sobering breath, and the air of smoke is thick, but the heat of the fire is nowhere to be found. He isn't afraid to ask the question, really, but he can see how it may be conveyed with a hint of trepidation, passing over his tongue like a bad word or filth or garbage, and he looks at Peter with all the good-humored cynicism he can muster when he asks, "Why are you here?"
There's a bit of light in Peter's eyes, but he's sobered just a bit — Rob doesn't miss that — as his hand has come up to brush his bottom lip and there's this furrow in his brows and his back is arched, his weight on his heels. Rob glances, just once, at Peter's fingers, his smooth neck, his eyes, his mouth as it lets out this wry little tentative breath, and for a moment, his sleep-darkened brain is weighted so heavily with these thoughts that he almost misses the words Peter's saying. Then a second is passing and Rob's feeling like the air is getting palpable and heavy and cold all around, the smoke beginning to smell like a hazard, and hey, it looks like he was just as wrong about Peter as anyone can pretty much be, and he's got to admit that that isn't a very fun feeling at all. "A king."
He says the words heavily, in the way that one would drop a brick onto the ground. Peter's giving him this little nod and this shrug that kind of makes Rob want to mutilate the flowers in that bowl and then fix them and give them all to him in a nice bouquet. Then Peter may or may not be talking — Rob's not exactly hearing it either way — and Rob is smoothing his eyes over the colorful expanse of the room, spotting paint shades and decorative fruit husks and sofas and luggage and uniforms all around the place, and maybe he's a complete damn idiot, because he's only just now spotting what should be Peter's jacket folded staunchly in the arms of this drenched, dozing uniformed woman whose wetness is making a stain in the wall.
There was a newspaper, now that he thinks of it, in the bottom of this stack in this rain-dewed metal container at the end of the street this hotel stands on. He didn't pick up the paper — didn't really even read it — because there was yet another bold, black headline about yet another sad-looking country that the Nazis had claimed for themselves, and the skies were looking dark and he had another three-dozen yards to go before he was back at the hotel. The only thing he'd really end up using it for was as a guard from the black noon rain. "I really shouldn't be in this place." He really doesn't know that he says it, because he's looking at how the coals have become drowned in the cold, and he's thinking about his mother upstairs there, occupying a room that he got for them pretty much by accident — a room that he's almost entirely certain he hasn't even begun to deserve.
"Neither should I," says Peter. There's this weak smile on him. Rob stays looking at it — the dappling of white teeth between his lips, the utter faintness of it — and feels just a bit surprised at how simple it is for him to break the smile apart and tell almost how hard the other man is forcing it. That doesn't mean he's good at knowing what to do. He sees Peter like that, arms crossed, eyes brown and light and moving from the wooden flower bowl to over to where Rob stands as if Rob's supposed to talk or run or dance or just move — doesn't matter which way. "You're okay," Peter says, and his voice is more secure than anything in his expression, because there's something like subdued panic in his eyes and a noise in his throat, and Rob wasn't really looking for reassurance of any kind, but he'll take it.
And so he's just a little bit still for a brief moment, pulling his book out into his hands and looking at the silvery words for a half-second before deciding that in a moment of idleness, no-one would actually do that, and he's hoping he doesn't show what's in his mind on his face. And if it does show — wow, he hopes it doesn't — then Peter can pretty much tell. And he feels the same. It's plain in the rose flush of his cheeks and throw of his eyes toward the rug underfoot. Rob sees the other man's pale fingertips grip at the fabric of his sleeves until the white pulls taut and clear like silk against the backs of his arms. There isn't anything else to do at this point but clear his throat, which he does, conspicuously. He taps his fingers briefly on the cover of his book, the leather old and dry with dust, slick with polish and coarse with age. He's telling Peter 'thanks,' his mind halfway onto the topic of gushing white waters ripping through forests aching with power, white with snow, brilliant and gorged with heavy fruits and turquoise roses because magic in fiction is beyond the power of a god. And then he's lingering there in that mindset, drumming his fingers hard and noisily on the heavy cover. The ingredients for some lonely writer's magical incantations haunt the thoughts he forces them to haunt because he loses some pride in going cold and quiet.
Peter tells him not to mention it. Rob's turning his head to face him just a little too sharply, his glasses slipping down the bridge of his nose immediately with the motion, and he's got to push them back up as he smiles a lie, trying to remember just why Peter told him that. He does notice, above the residual thought of eternal nights and the flames of dragons and the twinkle of leaves on thin, silver trees, how Peter's back is no longer arched and there's composure in his face. He does notice how said composure appears false. He commits this stance, this expression, this sudden hardness of Peter's demeanor, to memory.