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Oh great -- Alvarez had gone fucking bugs again. Ryan weighed walking his ass right out of the laundry room the moment he entered.

He did have a nice bludgeoning basket of laundry in his hands, though. Alvarez did not, what with being hunched over on his knees in the far corner by the last dryer.

Talking to the fucking wall.

"How in the hell? What the-- the fuck are you doing here, baby?"

Ryan felt like that should maybe be his line. (Minus the 'baby' part.) But you know, it was directed at the fucking corner, and not at Ryan, anyway.

Eh, should be fine as long as Ryan kept an eye out. He slung his basket up onto the washer farthest from where Alvarez was still crouched with his back to him. Maybe the loud thunk would let the guy know he had company and pull him back to reality.

One hand shot back behind Alvarez, vehemently pointing at Ryan without looking at him. "Shh-- quiet, O'Reily. He'll hop away or have a heart attack or something."

What.

The.

Fuck was Alvarez hallucinating was in that corner?

Hop?!

Ryan focused on that, and not the strange fact that he'd recognized Alvarez the second he'd entered the laundry room. Alvarez was so low, on his knees like that, that the washers had made it seem like no one was in there from the outside. (The empty basket abandoned on a washer was a clue that had had Ryan wondering, though.) Once spotted, it was just his back, and more than half the guys in here had a dark longsleeve like that, and those exact pants, and the haircut even only narrowed it down so far.

The chatting to the wall? Yeah, that had been confirmation, and not because of how loco the behavior was. It was the raspy voice, heard amid the noise  of the dryer.

The thing was, Ryan had just known it was Alvarez even before he'd heard him.

Ryan focused on the other insanity in front of him. (Not the one inside his own head, where he could apparently immediately recognize crouching Miguel Alvarez's back on sight.) "You tripping balls and seeing bunnies there, Alvarez?"

"Nope. Sober as shit, unfortunately."

Sure, he said that, but he was still on his knees facing a corner.

"Maybe today's a lucky day, though. Well, not for you, being stuck in here."

Yeah, that last part wasn't directed at Ryan either. (Could've been. They were all fucking stuck in here, and the only luck Ryan really had was what he made himself.)

"Might be time to have the Doc adjust your meds there, pal," Ryan advised without hiding the sneer in his voice, since Alvarez couldn't see it on his face and all. "Just have your fucking breakdown quietly and don't mess with my clothes and we're copacetic."

Which, yeah, they mostly were. Sure, Alvarez was fun to take an occasional verbal swipe at -- it made him amusingly grumpy, instead of his usual soul-crushing (Alvarez's unlucky soul, not Ryan's) weight-of-the-world brooding flavor of fucking grumpy. Even when he'd actively fucked with Ryan's business, it had generally been on someone else's behalf, not his own idea. And Alvarez was on his own now.

Doing swell, it seemed. What with the scooching closer to the corner and reaching out towards...something?... real low and slow.

"You're going to feel like a real dick in a minute, O'Reily." Alvarez still wasn't facing him, but Ryan could hear that slightly teasing rasp just fine. "Well, you're always a dick, but this-- you ain't gonna believe."

Ryan snorted and started working his clothes. Definitely keeping an eye on the only other person in the room, though.

"There ya go, little guy."

What the-- it hit him that he'd never heard Miguel Alvarez sound like that. Like quietly enthusiastic and fond, encouraging. (Bright. Warm. Amongst all the dark and cold in this shithole.)

Another thought Ryan tossed aside to focus on more important reality? He maybe wasn't used to hearing warmth in a voice at all anymore.

Miguel still had some moves, spinning up on just his sneaks while staying in a crouch to face Ryan, like it took no effort.

Had his hands cupped together loosely, like something was held between them.(Gently. Also something Ryan wasn't used to see-- fuck it, wasn't the important part of the picture.)

Ryan focused on issuing an irritated warning. "If that's a fucking roach--"

"Nope. Way better." Miguel subtly shook his head, eyes not breaking contact now that they were facing each other. Daring him. (Bright, like the grin tugging at Miguel's thinly scarred mouth.) "C'mere."

Yeah right.

But.

Ryan stepped away from his washer. Closer. Took a slow uneager walk over to Alvarez. Didn't bend or kneel when he got there, though, just stared down at him with an expression that made it real clear how nuts he was fucking acting.

Alvarez ignored it.

"Guess," Alvarez prompted, keeping what was in his hands hidden. "Like take a shot, but you'll never fucking get it. Even you, O'Reily, ain't this good."

What was he up to? What-- why did he still sound like that? Like he was holding something good in his hands, something that drew out that hidden warmth.

"I'm not playing a fucking guessing game--"

"Working in the ward again, you know," Alvarez cut him off calmly, like it was the time for idle bullshit. "Two pills, up or down, dealer's choice. If you guess right in, say, three guesses. Hell, make it three pills. Nice symmetry or something. Plus, no way you're guessing it."

Okay, so Alvarez knew him pretty well after all this time, maybe. Not that Ryan actually needed prescription shit at the moment, but it wouldn't hurt. Play a strange little game with the loco Latino for the chance? It depended on what there was to lose, but it was a tempting offer.

Ryan narrowed his eyes. "What do you want if I can't?"

"What'll you give me for it?" There was a pointed tease to the question.

Cute. Alvarez could carry a grudge like a motherfucker, but his face still carried traces of that easy lopsided half-grin.

It may have been years since the riot, but apparently Ryan wasn't the only one who remembered Alvarez coming to him, confusingly, for help with the fucking Hacks. (That time, Alvarez hadn't offered him anything, and O'Reily had turned his ass down flat. But that was a long time, and a lot of shit wearing both of them down, ago.)

Ryan started off the negotiations nice and clear, just in case Alvarez was suffering under the delusion that what he was offering was worth Ryan rescuing his ass from his mountain of troubles. "Three pills ain't worth taking out your enemies and solving your fucking nest of problems. If you think--"

Miguel shrugged while still keeping his hands carefully cupped and level. "Nah, I know that. Take more than I could ever give to fix that shit."

Grin was gone, but the man only sounded a little weary, no other hints. Besides like, fucking melancholy. Or maybe it was resignation.

Didn't matter.

"This is little." Miguel guided his gaze to his hands, before landing back on Ryan. "So think little. What can you give me? What would I like, ya think?"

Like it was part of the game, part of the spark of amusement briefly alighting in the resigned darkness of Alvarez's eyes.

One thing sprang to mind, easily. (Immediately, like the accompanying image of Alvarez enjoying--)

"Lollipops."

Alvarez let out a short huff of laughter, just as raspy as his voice. "I like 'em, sure. But you know how many of those you'd have to trade to equal three pills? You'd be giving me so many, everyone would think we're fucking dating or something."

Dammit. No dice on the crap deal, Alvarez wasn't that eager and dumb. This was annoying, because he didn't want to give it up, but Ryan had an idea-- "You like anywhere but fucking here, right? One of my travel magazines. Just one."

Ryan was curious, maybe. This meant nothing. It was a stupid distraction... but he wasn't leaving. It was something new, when everything else was a routine drag, packed with ever present danger, wearing even him down. This was different. This was stupid. Nothing. (A fresh break which felt-- just not like everything else.)

"Mm." Alvarez's grin just barely tugged up the corner of his mouth again, like it was hinting at a return. "Warmer. Better be a good one, not some boring ass tour of Boston brochure."

"It'll be international. I'll give you a choice."

"Okay. And three lollipops--"

"Symmetry again?"

"Mmm-hmm." Alvarez peeked briefly in his hands, like he was checking on whatever.

Seemed fine, whatever the fuck it was. Ryan had a few ideas.

Also--

One thing Alvarez might want, that actually wouldn't cost Ryan very much, but could be fairly valuable to Miguel if he wasn't an idiot.

"A secret or a rumor."

"What?"

"Your choice. You tell me something you want to spread, I'll make sure it does. I can make it stick better than your lone wolf ass. Or if there's a piece of information you want, that doesn't harm me or mine, I'll scrounge it up for you."

Both could be useful and dangerous if you knew what you were doing. Alvarez wasn't him, but maybe he wasn't stupid either. If Alvarez focused and played his cards right, he could use either one as a helpful tool to deal with his issues. Wouldn't solve them, but it would be something in his arsenal at least. And right now? Miguel's arsenal was only his body, his possibly-not-dumb but not always effective mind, and his skill with a blade.

Well, and whatever the fuck was in his hands. Which probably wasn't helpful. Didn't sweet talk a grenade and cup your hands like you needed to leave space for it to breath. Its only helpfulness? Was what it was getting from Ryan now.

Which may have been the whole point behind this game. Alvarez looked pretty chill, though, not like he was calculating or planning some grand scheme.

His eyebrow hitched up as he regarded Ryan with approval. "Okay, just for that -- 5 pills. Nice job."

"What happened to symmetry?"

Another careful half-shrug. "Just pulled that outta my ass. It's bullshit." Fucking figured. Alvarez had settled back on his heels comfortably, and he continued sounding almost relaxed. "Okay, guess number--"

Fuck-- "Wait-- the roach one doesn't count as a guess." Ryan interjected quickly, because of the huge fucking hole he'd left in their strange little negotiation.

"Knew you were clever, baby." The grin was fully back, curving almost like a smirk at Ryan's catch, but still subtly different. "Guess number one, then."

"Rat," Ryan stated his best guess evenly, staring Alvarez down. (Those eyes were still shifted from their usual depths of darkness, more of something else in them than usual.) He knew those fuckers were around, saw them in the kitchen. "Or mouse," Ryan added firmly, like it was a given that it only counted as one guess. He was ready to argue that fucking point, since he didn't want to waste a guess on getting all particular with rodents. "They're basically the fucking same."

"Nope to both." Alvarez's crooked grin didn't falter, sounding more amused than ever. "I'll be nice --on account of it being my lucky day and all-- and count that as one."

Fuck.

There was another common thing, and Ryan wouldn't have guessed it with most other guys in here, given the careful ease --fucking fondness-- Miguel was handling the thing with. But Miguel Alvarez was many things, and squeamish wasn't fucking one of them.

"Spider."

Crap-- the joy was practically visible, in Alvarez's eyes and the brief tuck of his tongue between his teeth before he answered. "Nuh-uh."

Shit.

Not much running around in here. Ryan could guess another bug, but-- bugs were a long list.

And Alvarez wasn't dumb at all, it turned out.

"Nothing. You've been playing me the whole fucking time to get something from me."

Grin got wide enough to show teeth. "Now that? Is smart, O'Reily. And you must think I'm smart too, to think of that shit. Good idea, but unfortunately for your smart ass-- nope."

"Fuck." Ryan let out an annoyed breath. Alvarez really was getting the better end of this deal. (Ryan had let him have it, offered up more, even.) It's not like-- the cost to Ryan wasn't steep. And Ryan maybe hadn't had this kind of distraction, the kind that felt like a deep breath after being underwater, in a long damn time. "Was it an ant or a lint ball or something?"

"Don't feel bad, baby. Told you you'd never guess it." Miguel's half grin remained as his head turned up towards Ryan. "Ta-da."

Opened his hands and--

They were still cupped a bit, to encourage containment.

Thing seemed perfectly happy there and not looking to escape, though.

Or maybe it was just frozen and scared shitless.

Fucking-- hop was right. Alvarez was clear-headed and on the fucking ball. Who knew?

It was a frog. Real little. A splash of dull dark green in Alvarez's palm.

Yeah, he never would've fucking guessed that.

"Now I owe you," Ryan admitted, watching Alvarez carefully.

"Yeah, yeah. And I'm definitely going to collect. Want to hold it?" Maybe it wasn't about the score after all, as Alvarez sort of rolled casually past demanding his winnings, like they were an afterthought at the moment. Sure, Alvarez seemed real fucking pleased about that, but it wasn't his focus. He was also, like, trying to share or-- something.

Ryan looked at Alvarez's insane fucking find again. "Are you sure it's alive? Why hasn't it hopped away?"

"Don't know. I mean-- yeah, man, it's clearly alive. Think it's scared or something."

Ryan crouched, considering reaching out to stroke a finger over its skin or something. Couldn't remember if he'd ever felt frog skin before. He'd known some guys with snakes on the outside, and that one asshole with an iguana he kept trying to make perch on his shoulder. (Try being the operative word, because that moron's own pet hadn't been very fond of him.)

"Think it pissed in my hand while we were fucking around." Looked less pleased about that, and Ryan laughed quietly in response.

"Yeah, I definitely don't want to hold it." Was still contemplating touching it. Unless-- "You think it's toxic?"

That could be useful in two ways, maybe. Poison or a high.

Alvarez kind of glared at him, in that way of his where his expression turned darkly serious, but he still looked a little too brightly amused for it to carry the weight of his usual stony version. "How the hell would you even manage to poison a fucker with this? I think even the dumbest wop would notice you trying to feed him a frog. You ain't selling licks to people promising they'll trip balls neither."

Ryan held up his hands in surrender, noting again how well Alvarez was keeping up with his thoughts. "Still... you been holding it awhile." Ryan tilted his head, his own teasing grin just coming out naturally. "How ya feeling there, pal?"

Miguel snorted, and the thing still didn't move, but he'd trapped it a bit better again now that Ryan had taken a look. Just peeks of green, stolen through long fingers forming a cage. "Sorry, amigo. Not your lucky day. I'm feeling fine."

"What, you think I'm wishing you dead so I can steal your frog? My day is going fine." Different, but fine. Interesting, even. He didn't want Alvarez dead or anything. It wouldn't gain him shit. "If I wanted you dead--"

Alvarez was mostly regarding the creature he'd caught in his hands, but he kept an eye on Ryan, too. "I'd already have another shank in my ribs, I know."

"I don't shank--"

"I know that, too. Be a Nazi or something. Or one of the guy's already half-gunning for me," Alvarez stated evenly, not allowing Ryan to get a bead on him. Didn't seem pissed or all high and judgy or nothing. "If I dropped dead, you'd take opportunity --and the frog-- though. Sell it to someone desperate for a high or something."

"True," Ryan conceded, resting back on his heels, wrist resting on a knee. "What the hell are you going to do with it, then?"

Another shrug.

Yeah, Alvarez actually had some decent qualities. Not stupid. Loyal. Strong stomach. Vicious when needed. Good at sticking shanks in people who wanted him dead.

Wasn't a good enough planner, though, among his many weaknesses. Everyone in here had a shit ton of weaknesses. Alvarez was always on just the razor thin edge of balancing it with his strong suits. He fell a lot, but not permanently, not fatally. He'd still survived despite those vulnerabilities, again and again. Some guys? Didn't do so good.

"Look, if you're that desperate, I'm sure I could scrounge up some acid or something." Ryan offered, fully intending to charge him for the pleasure, if the licking and tripping possibility was why Alvarez was hesitant to get rid of it.

"Not gonna lick it, pendejo." Miguel's sharp denial of that little theory was clear. "I'm staying clean. Ain't keeping it." He regarded his hands again, sounding less sure as he continued. "Just don't know how to get it out-- somewhere it belongs, you know?"

Sounded like it mattered to him, even.

Fuck.

Fine.

Ryan was feeling generous today, maybe, because it was a weird fucking day, and a little bit of nature had come inside their grey. (It was definitely dead if it stayed in here alone.) "Gloria."

"Fuck off." Alvarez replied to his honest suggestion really fucking quickly. "I'm not handing him over to you so you can use fucking frog rescue as an in with the Doc--"

Ryan merely rolled his eyes as it rolled off his back. "Shut up for a second, Frog Prince-- I meant you. I take it to her, she's liable to throw it at me."

"Oh." Alvarez didn't apologize, he just stopped being an annoying lecturing dick. "She would, you know."

"I'm aware," Ryan agreed drolly. "You take it to Gloria. She's your best bet for making sure it gets released into the wilds past the parking lot unharmed."

"What about McManus?" Alvarez contemplated, like he was good with hashing it out with Ryan, wondering about his opinion. "His office is closer. Be harder to hold onto it until my work detail. Does act like he's a do-gooder or something."

"Seriously?" Ryan's eyebrow raised in disbelief. Some of those points were good ones, but Alvarez wasn't properly factoring in the people involved. "You think that pussy doesn't yelp and run when he sees creepy crawly nature?"

Low laughter shook Miguel a little that time. "Good point. Probably jump on his fucking desk screaming for Murphy."

"Right?" Ryan was maybe chuckling a little with him, too.

"Yeah, alright. It's just an hour. Keep him in my pocket, maybe," Alvarez agreed, seeing Ryan's point, "Until-- actually, my med cup. Think it's still in my trash. Could probably uncrumple it, poke some holes. Keep him under there until time."

What do you know? A plan.

Maybe Alvarez wasn't hopeless. (With a little help.)

They both stood, before some curious asswipe noticed they'd both disappeared downwards together in the laundry room. Scheming or illicit dealing only took so long, and they were both clean so playing high might not work.

Too much longer? Only thing they could be doing is fucking or fighting.

Ryan brushed off his pants, as Alvarez went to tuck away his only friend--

--fucking hell.

"Fuck!" Alvarez was less vaguely annoyed and more obviously upset by the frog finally getting its shit together, coming out of its fear freeze, and hopping away.

Alvarez? Also quick and keen-eyed, though. (And yeah, moved really well, smooth and strong.) Ryan? Leaned a hip against the washer and didn't join in the mad scramble.

"O'Reily--"

"If you think I'm crawling around the floor--"

"Door!" Alvarez made a quick adamant gesture towards it. "Know you won't, asshole. Know you. Just watch the door."

"That, I can do," Ryan said agreeably, actually fucking meaning it.

Yeah, quick of body and mind, Miguel had it caught again in no time.

"Stop that, baby. Nothing here for you, gonna get you somewhere safe, okay?"

There it was again -- warmth.

Really strange fucking day.

And it wasn't just because of a fucking frog hopping its stupid ass into prison.

This-- yeah, it felt different. Ryan used to read the shifts and flow so well, it's how he fought his way through life. But lately, he'd been-- it was starting to seem like a long fucking life. (Tired. He was getting fucking tired.)

Today, though...

His pet tucked back away, securely this time, Alvarez's gaze caught on his again.

Yeah, that looked different, too.

Awake and alive, instead of dire resignation for a moment. (Warm.)

Maybe... maybe Alvarez would get better at fucking balancing this time. Wouldn't fall.

(He did better with help.)

***
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