The Collector, pt. 1

In the modern world, cities have expanded and grown, replacing forested or otherwise natural spaces. Fair Folk once thrived, only to be overtaken by parking garages and strip malls. Their quieted presence made mortals forget their existence–as well as how to avoid the wilier ones. Most mortals, in fact, dismiss tales of the Fair Folk as “fairy tales” or simple folklore. Finn is one such person, and doesn’t even realize just how big of a mess he’s found himself trapped in.

This is a modern alternative universe about Finn, Agrat, Rokag, and Tabris. It’s a longer one, so I’m gonna post it in three parts.

Word Count: ~4300 (of ~13,500)
Rating: PG
Warnings: None

Finn sat up in the middle of the night for no apparent reason. He blinked and looked at the clock with its glowing, blue LED numbers. 3:17 AM. He felt no nagging headache or pain, and remembered dreaming about nothing frightening or uncomfortable. He felt rested. Clear in his thoughts. He swung his legs over the edge of his mattress and urged his feet into his slippers.

The shifting and crinkle of the sheets woke Agrat. He turned over and looked at Finn’s back.

“What’s up?” he said. Finn looked back at him.

“Just getting some fresh air,” he said. “Sorry for waking you.”

“Alright,” Agrat said. “Jus’ don’t forget t’ lock th’ door when you come back in.” He turned back over and tugged his pillow back under his big, shaggy head.

“Of course.”  Finn slipped into a t-shirt and sweatpants to protect his skin from the cold night air. Without another word, he left their bedroom and closed the door behind him. Agrat closed his eyes and dozed off once again. Some time later, the doorknob turned and Finn shuffled in once again. He undressed and slid back under the blanket next to Agrat. The movement woke his half-orc husband again, who opened his eyes. The smell of tobacco hit Agrat’s nose and he fluttered his eyelids and looked over his shoulder at Finn.

“Hey,” he said softly, but Finn didn’t answer. He was already asleep again. Agrat smelled him again. The scent was definitely coming from Finn, who never smoked. With concern growing in his mind, Agrat decided to wait until morning to ask him about it.

 

 

It was Saturday, and neither Agrat nor Finn had work. Rokag also didn’t have school. As always, Finn awoke first, found a tiger eye stone in his bed, and stumbled to the kitchen to get the coffee machine going. While he waited on it, he went to the bathroom and rubbed aloe lotion on the phallo scar on his left arm. His scar tissue dried with the weather before the rest of his body, so he took care to keep it moisturized before winter rolled around. He brushed his teeth and washed his face up and Agrat soon joined him at the sink, where Finn set the tiger eye. As always, Agrat slept without a shirt. He also took the aloe lotion and rubbed it across his top surgery scars, which were dry and beginning to crack.

“You’re up early,” Finn said while he pressed a hot, wet rag against his forehead. Agrat hugged him from behind and kissed his cheek.

“Good mornin’,” he said. Finn kissed him back and wrinkled his nose with a chuckle.

“Your breath’s awful. I also made that extra-dark roast today—you want cream or sugar?” he said. Agrat took his toothbrush from the cup by the sink and thought about it.

“Just a wee bit of cream,” he said. He gestured with his fingers. “Like this much, in one of th’ mugs with little green flowers on ‘em.” Finn nodded. The flowers were actually red, but he knew exactly what set Agrat was talking about.

“That’ll be ready for you in the living room,” he said.

“Thank you, love,” Agrat said and smiled. “Hey, what’s this pretty thing?” He picked up the tiger eye—it was small, smooth, rounded on all ends, and shaped like a column or a pillar. Finn shrugged.

“Dunno,” he said. “I found it in the bed when I woke up. Maybe it fell from one of our pockets?” Agrat turned it in his fingers and set it down again.

“It’s a lovely little thing,” he said. “I think we’d remember findin’ it, but ah well. It’s here now.” He squeezed toothpaste onto his brush and went back to getting ready. Finn walked past Rokag’s bedroom and peered in. As expected, she snored away with her feet sticking out from under the blanket. It’d be a few hours before she got up, most likely.

Once he finished preparing the coffee and settled down in the living room, Agrat joined him. He yawned and scratched his chest from under his shirt.

“Sleep well?” Finn said. Agrat nodded and kicked his feet up.

“Pretty well, yeah,” he said. “You?”

“It was just about the most restful sleep I’ve had in a while,” Finn said.

“Huh.” Agrat stared at the floor. “Say, how’s work going fer you these days?”

“It’s a little stressful,” Finn said. “I’ve had to make a lot of calls regarding that new law Senator Kiltie is trying to push through. Gods, what a joke.” He closed his eyes and rubbed his brow. “Why do you ask? Do I seem stressed?” Agrat hesitated and nodded.

“Well, last night when you came back in, you smelled a bit like tobacco—like from a pipe,” he said. “Have you, uh, taken up smokin’?” Finn opened his eyes again and looked at him.

“Wait, what?” he said. “Of course not.”

“It’s OK, you know,” Agrat said quickly. “I mean, it’s not good fer yer health, what I mean is it’s OK t’ be stressed. But I want you t’ talk t’ me before you get stressed enough t’ turn to smokin’.”

“But I’m really not,” Finn said. He crossed his arms. “And for that matter, I didn’t go outside last night at all.” Agrat blinked.

“Really?” he said. “I swear, I woke up and you were headed out.”

“Was it a dream?”

“If it was, it felt awfully real.” Agrat scratched his beard. “Maybe it was a dream. Weird one, but that honestly makes more sense.” Finn chuckled.

“I wonder what it means,” he said. “You know, smoking was used as a euphemism for sex back in old films.” Agrat sipped from his coffee and peered past the rim of his cup with a single raised eyebrow and lidded eyes. He smirked behind his cup and winked.

“Well, maybe old Freud would say th’ same thing t’ me,” he said. “Say, isn’t Rokag gonna be at her friend’s place t’night?” Finn rested his chin in his hand and his elbow on the arm of his chair. He crossed his legs and gazed at Agrat.

“You know, maybe that’ll put your mind at ease,” he said. “You’ve never complained about how real a dream felt before, so obviously something’s amiss. But we know how to fix it.” Agrat leaned back and kicked up the chair’s footrest to cross his ankles on it.

“Since we’re goin’ to th’ trouble of plannin’ it, you want anythin’ special?” he said. “Candles, incense? Rose petals? Silk sheets?” Finn mocked a thoughtful face and rubbed his chin. He smirked and showed off his small tusks.

“How about you just promise me you’ll pull my hair?” he said in a low, quiet voice.

“Oh-ho.” Agrat grinned.

“For gods’ sakes.” Rokag’s muffled, grumpy voice came from her room down the hallway. “The house isn’t big enough for your gross conversation.” Her two dads laughed and blushed and Agrat looked over the back of his seat.

“Someday you’ll understand,” he called to her.

“I already understand that I don’t want my hair pulled,” she said and Finn snickered.

“Get up and join us for breakfast,” he said. “We’ll keep the conversation clean so you can eat.”

“I’d appreciate it if you kept it clean so I can sleep,” she said.

“You’re not gonna eat with us?” Agrat said. “Rokag, I’m hurt.”

“I’m a growin’ young woman, and I need my rest,” Rokag said.

“I’m gonna make French toast, though,” Agrat said. Rokag said nothing, but he and Finn soon heard her door creak open. She shuffled into the living room and plopped on the couch, hunched over while she adjusted to the temperature. The heat hadn’t kicked on yet, and Agrat and Finn kept it running only after about 8:30 in the morning. “Rokag, you’ll stunt yer growth,” Agrat said and grinned at her.

“Not eating high-calorie, carb-based foods could also stunt my growth,” she said and yawned. Of course, she was already nearly fully-grown in height if not muscle mass. Orcish teens sprouted like weeds about mid-way through puberty, and stayed lanky for a few years before bulking up. For a full-orc like Rokag, having two separate growth spurts meant wearing ill-fitting clothing for a long time. Rokag scratched her frazzled hair and wiped the corner of her mouth with the sleeve of her loose-fitting shirt.

“Fair enough,” Finn said. “Want some coffee t’ get rid of the bags under your eyes?”

“Please. No cream or sugar.” Agrat whistled.

“Drinkin’ it black, jus’ like her dad,” he said while Finn got up to grab it.

“It’s good that way,” she said.

“Well, don’t take after him too much,” Agrat said. “He’s a ruthless man—a cutthroat, and a damn merciless one at that.”

“Only when it comes to cutting down the über-capitalist, oppressive power structures in our government,” Finn said from the kitchen. He poured coffee into a smaller mug for Rokag, knowing she’d probably nap again in a few hours, anyway. If she slept away the morning, that was fine; it meant her body needed it. “Then, I’m downright bloodthirsty.”

“See?” Agrat said and gestured with his thumb. “A straight-up terrorist, right there.”

A short while later, after they finished their coffee, Finn and Agrat made breakfast together. With the whole family up, they put extra effort into it and used their densest bread for the French toast. While Agrat mixed the batter and fried it up, letting the sweet and hearty aroma waft through the air, Finn peeled and cut fruit—oranges, strawberries, apples. Between the taste of their meal and their conversations, Agrat completely forgot about the bizarre dream he had the night before.

 

 

A few days passed with nothing noteworthy happening. A few more semiprecious stones and a couple of gems ended up on the bathroom counter. They accumulated in a small, wooden tray—Agrat jokingly blamed fairies for leaving the stones in the bed for them to find later. Finn just laughed at the very idea of small pixies giving them passive-aggressive suggestions for their interior décor.

On Friday, Finn and Agrat went to bed at their usual time, while Rokag stayed up an hour later before finally turning in. Their alarm clock blinked and shifted its pattern with each passing minute. Then, at 3:13, Finn’s eyes opened. He sat up and stretched his neck. His joints cracked and he sighed with a satisfied smile. Like the night before, he felt no fatigue or irritation at waking in the middle of the night. He stood and nudged his feet into his slippers.

Finn browsed the shirts in his closet, using his phone’s screen to light it. He changed his clothing, stepped outside, and came back later. As he got back into bed, he woke Agrat, who smelled tobacco on Finn’s hair. While Finn closed his eyes and tried to fall back asleep, Agrat processed it again. He sat up.

“Did you go out?” Agrat said.

“Hm?” Finn turned and looked up at him.

“Did you go out again tonight?” Agrat said. Finn nodded.

“Yeah,” he said. “Just stepped out for some fresh air.” Agrat frowned at him.

“Yer worryin’ me, Finn,” he said. “You smell like you’ve been smokin’—and see, here, it’s not a dream.” He tugged a strand of coarse hair from his beard and winced. “What’s th’ deal? What’re you hiding?” Finn blinked and glanced back and forth.

“I promise, I’m not smoking,” he said.

“Finn, it isn’t a big deal if yer copin’ with stress at work or somethin’—but you’ve gotta talk t’ me,” Agrat said. “Don’t just keep me in the dark about all this.” Finn shrugged and turned over with his back to Agrat.

“One of the neighbors was probably smoking and I was standing downwind to it,” Finn said. “Don’t worry about it. Really.” Agrat wasn’t satisfied with his explanation, but lied back down, anyway.

“Well, whatever,” he grumbled. “If you go out again and whoever it is’s smokin’, try not t’ catch yerself in it. I’ve been smoke-free fer years now and don’t like havin’ t’ deal with worse urges, y’know?”

“Sorry,” Finn said. “Anything I can do to help you now?” Agrat shook his head.

“Don’t worry about it. Really.” Finn recognized his sharp tone, but ignored it. He closed his eyes, and soon they fell asleep again.

But Finn left again the next week, and the next, and the next. He woke in the middle of the night, got ready, and left by 3:30, then returned later without a word. Sometimes he came back a few minutes later, but his trips took longer and longer. He disappeared for about thirty or forty minutes, and always came back with tobacco on his clothes. Agrat noticed, of course—the third time Finn did it, he knew something strange was up. Again, he interrogated Finn—gently, of course—but learned nothing. Finn acted as if nothing whatsoever was wrong or unusual. The more Agrat pressed, the more guarded he became.

After the fourth time, Agrat noticed that Finn searched through his closet before leaving. While Finn was gone, Agrat looked through it to try and figure out what he wore. It seemed like he pulled something from the second of his closet dedicated to nicer clothing—dress shirts for work, suits and ties, and so on—but he couldn’t be certain. Only when Finn returned did Agrat see that he wore one of his finest button-ups and a lovely tie, along with expensive slacks. He stepped out of his slippers, undressed, and got back into bed with his arm tucked around Agrat’s belly.

Finn’s touch offered no comfort that night. Of course, Agrat worried that Finn was having an affair. What sort of affair, he didn’t know. Just what was Finn doing with some other man in the dead of night? He wondered if Finn took photos of himself during the night and sent them out to some secret lover, or posted them in the personals section on their town’s bulletin board website. And the tobacco? Gods only knew. The stones and gems left him concerned, too—Finn never seemed to want to talk about it, and Agrat wondered if they’d been gifts from another lover. Pain wracked Agrat’s head whenever he thought about it—especially if Finn flaunted it by leaving the stones he’d been given for all to see. Agrat tried to avoid the idea. Besides—confronting Finn would only make sense if he had proof.

Each day that went by, Finn seemed paler in the face and tired. He drank lots of coffee to get through the day, and napped for a couple hours after he got home from work. Agrat suspected that Finn left every night now, and he’d only witnessed it a few times. He was a heavy sleeper, for better or for worse.

The fifth time Finn went out, he walked in after an hour and a half. It was Wednesday—both had work early in the morning. Agrat sat up in the bed, waiting for him. He could see perfectly fine in this darkness, but Finn couldn’t. As soon as Agrat clicked on Finn’s reading lamp, Finn started and shielded his eyes.

“Rek’gor’s tears—you scared me!” he said and laughed. “What’re you doing up?” Agrat frowned and scrutinized his outfit. He wore one of his finest, fanciest suit jackets, with dark-red fabric on its outside and black silk with embroidered roses on its inside. His pinstriped, charcoal button-up was fastened all the way to the top, and his tie—shimmery black with a hint of maroon iridescence—was perfectly arranged. A silver tie clip adorned it, and he even wore sterling cufflinks with tiny leaves carved into them. His slacks were black, and he wore his everyday pair of slippers.

“Just how in th’ world can you ask me that?!” Agrat said, gritting his teeth. “Look at you! It’s nearly five in th’ mornin’ on a Wednesday evenin’! And yer dressed up like this? What is this all about, Finn? Why’ve you been goin’ out so late like this?” Finn looked down at his outfit and laughed again.

“Look, Agrat, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to look a little fancy once in a while,” he said. “We only live once—might as well look good no matter what we’re doing, right?” Agrat rubbed his forehead and squeezed his eyes shut.

“Oh, Rek’gor, help me,” he muttered. “Finn, it’s five in the morning. I know yer up t’ something—who’re you seeing?” Finn looked up at him again and blinked.

“What?” he said.

“You don’t—you don’t even dress like this when I take you out t’ some real nice place! You’ve never dressed up like this fer me!” Agrat said. Tears built in his eyes and his voice shook. “So who’re you seein’? Who’re you havin’ an affair with?” He collapsed and couldn’t hold it in anymore. Agrat sobbed and his whole body trembled. As soon as Finn saw, his face fell and went hollow. He hurried over to Agrat and reached up to wipe his tears.

“Oh, Agrat,” he said. “No, no—I’m not having an affair. I promise. Please, please believe me. I love you, and would never, ever, ever even—even consider doing that.” Agrat looked up at him and sniffed to clear his dripping nose.

“Then what’s all this about?” His voice was empty, toneless. Confused and hurt. Finn bit his lip and glanced away. Agrat took him by the shoulders. “Finn, you’ve gotta tell me. I can’t—I can’t be left in the dark.” Finn took in a deep breath and sighed. He closed his eyes and nodded to himself. He looked up at Agrat.

“OK,” he said. “I’ll show you where I’ve been going. But you mustn’t tell anyone—not Tabris, not Gulbrandt, not anyone from work—not even Rokag.”

“But—!” Agrat stopped himself. He hung his head and sighed, pushing away the rest of his tears. “Well, fine. I’ll keep it quiet, but if yer gettin’ into somethin’ dangerous, I’m not gonna just keep it secret.” Finn smiled and kissed his lips. The taste of tobacco laced them.

“Thank you,” he said. “And I assure you, I promise—there’s no danger at all. Come with me—but first put your slippers on. And a shirt. It’s chilly outside.”

Once Agrat was ready, Finn took him by the hand, and led him outside into their quiet, dimly-lit backyard.

 

 

Rokag recognized something peculiar about the way her fathers behaved lately. She was a deep sleeper—as soon as her head touched the pillow, she went out like shutting down a car’s engine—but some nights, someone stumbled or creaked a door a little too loud. When she cared to look, she saw them tiptoe down the hallway, hand-in-hand, and outside into the middle of the night. Sometimes they giggled or whispered. She never knew when they returned—they were adults, they knew what they were doing, and she suspected it was something raunchy, anyway—but she got the feeling that they stayed out for hours. Every day, the number of stones in the wooden tray in the bathroom grew, too. Rokag had no idea when or where they bought them, and wondered why they accumulated so gradually. They made for a nice decoration, but even the little box put her on-edge.

During the morning, Agrat sat at the table with his head resting in both hands, just barely snoozing. Finn stood at the stove and nudged eggs around in the frying pan. They looked pale and tired, like they hardly slept. With exhaustion came short tempers, and Agrat’s especially suffered.

“Here,” Finn said and clunked a plate of breakfast down in front of Agrat and Rokag. It looked messy; the eggs were in pieces and the toast was just two slices of unbuttered bread, stacked uncomfortably neatly on top of each other. A dollop of jam sat on the toast’s corner and leaked onto the egg’s white. Typically, he effortlessly put together a handsome, appetizing plate, no matter what the meal. Foods that weren’t supposed to mix didn’t touch, and those that were best eaten together were presented next to each other in a manner that suggested that. But lately, things rolled off of plates or spattered into everything else, or just looked lazy.

“Thanks,” Rokag said, masking her disappointment. It wasn’t a big deal, not really. But she expected different from Finn. He nodded at her and sat across from Agrat at the table.

“Pepper?” Agrat said, glancing around the kitchen with baggy eyes.

“We’re out,” Finn said.

“Still?” Agrat made a fist on the table and glared. “We’ve been out fer how many days, now?”

“I haven’t had time t’ go to the grocery store,” Finn said, ignoring him. Agrat rolled his eyes and threw up his hands.

“Haven’t had time—for gods’ sakes, you drive past three grocery stores every goddamn day! You can’t pop in t’ pick up some goddamn pepper?” he said, voice raised. Finn glowered at him.

“You know, it wouldn’t kill you to stop for it, if you want it so bad,” he said. Agrat bared his teeth.

“I drive straight outta town on an old county road—there ain’t no grocery stores, and it’s outta th’ way t’ get to one,” he said through his tusks. Rokag glanced between them. Finn just stared at him carelessly. He sighed and looked back down at his plate.

“Well, next time I’m out, I’ll get some,” he said and cut a piece of toast with his knife. He stabbed it with his fork and swirled it around in his egg yolk. “Oh, and I have a question.”

“Yeah?” Agrat said, still gruff.

“You wanna explain to me why we’re about five-hundred dollars short in our emergency savings account?” Finn said and glanced up at him. Agrat blinked and looked right back, his jaw slack. Rokag tightened her lips. She knew both of them were thrifty, and obviously she had no access to that account. Knowing that so much was just gone without reason made her fear for the rest of the money in that account.

“Why should I know?” Agrat said and sat back in his seat.

“I sure didn’t withdraw it or transfer it, and I certainly didn’t spend it,” Finn said. “You came home late the other day. You sure you didn’t stop at the bank instead for some reason?” Agrat tensed.

“I’ve got no clue what you mean!” Agrat said. “Why in th’ world would I take cash from that account out? It was my idea t’ have it in th’ first place! And ‘sides—I was late because someone came in right before my shift ended with an emergency! Y’ can’t plan fer that.”

“Well, that’s a reasonable excuse, I guess,” Finn said and sighed. His tone carried a growl in it. Agrat threw up his hands. Rokag tried to ignore them again.

“Great, now yer doin’ that stupid thing where you act all cool-headed, when yer this close t’ explodin’,” he said and pinched two fingers together. “It makes y’ look like some sorta drama queen!” Finn’s fingers twitched and he looked back up at him.

“Oh?” he said. “Then why don’t you tell me exactly why so much money’s missing from our account?”

“I told you already!” Agrat said, sticking his jaw forward again. He rapped the table with two fingers and tapped out each word. “There ain’t no reason fer me t’ take that cash outta that account, so stop accusin’ me.” Finn rolled his eyes and cut his toast with his fork. He mushed it around in the egg.

“Isn’t any,” Finn said.

“What?” Agrat said and blinked.

“It’s ‘isn’t any.’ You sound like a complete idiot when you use a double negative,” Finn said, face flat except for a very, very slightly raised eyebrow. Now Rokag couldn’t take her gaze off of him, her mouth hanging open while she ate. Agrat’s eyes widened and his voice got louder.

“You cocky little—don’t you demean me—!” He leaned forward and pointed at him, hand trembling. As he rose in his seat, Finn just watched him. Rokag scooted back in her chair. Agrat never hit Finn, not even once, but she knew all about his upbringing. He told her about it when one of her friends moved away to live with his other family members, since his parents got arrested for abuse. And Rokag knew that Agrat left whenever he got so angry he twitched. He shut himself up, exiled himself from the room, until he was calm. Finn explained that he was interrupting the cycle—something Rokag learned more about when she was in middle school.

“What’re you gonna do?” Finn said, interrupting Rokag’s thoughts. “Yell at me more? Break something? Hit me?” He took a sip from his coffee. For a moment, Agrat froze. He looked up again at Finn, opened his mouth to speak, then looked at Rokag. He squeezed his eyes shut and gritted his teeth, saying nothing. Without warning, he slammed the table with his fist. Rokag jumped. The plates leapt up, the silverware shuddered against glass, and a stack of mail on the unused side toppled over. The salt shaker fell and rolled off the edge. It shattered on the kitchen floor. Agrat stalked out, slammed the front door, and they heard his car start and drive away.

“…Gods,” Rokag whispered. Finn said nothing and only took another sip. Rokag sighed and got up to fetch the little dustpan. “Now we’ll need salt, too,” she said and stooped to sweep it up.

“Leave it,” Finn said. “That’s his fault, not yours. He’ll clean it up.”

“But what about Jacques?” Rokag said. “His paws’ll get hurt on the glass.”

“We’ll shut the kitchen door and put his food and water in the living room while we’re out,” Finn said. “It’s no big deal.” Rokag stared at the mess.

“What if he doesn’t clean it?” she said.

“He will,” Finn said. He looked at his watch. “You’d better eat quick and get headed out for school. You’ve got twenty minutes to get there.” Rokag sighed through her nose and set aside the dustpan.

“OK.” She sat down again, ate up, and hefted her backpack. “Thanks again for breakfast. See you later.” With that, she left with a pit in her stomach and a lump in her throat.

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