“Would you like more water, sir?” There is a hint of contempt in the waitress’s voice, and it is far from unearned. “Ahem,” I cleared my throat to cover the sound of my stomach growling. “No thank you. Although if you could bring my check, I’d appreciate it.” The joke was that there was no check, because I’d just been drinking water for the past three hours. She didn’t laugh. “We close in ten minutes, but you’re welcome to leave before then,” she said. Oof. No ordinary man could recover from such disdain, but I was no ordinary man. “If ten more minutes I can stay, then ten more minutes I shall,” I said, “Would that I could bask in your splendor forevermore, but alas, I have no recourse but to give the next ten minutes the weight of an eternity in my heart.” The scowl on her face was broken by a smile for only the briefest of moment. It seemed that no extraordinary man could recover from such disdain, either. She left without saying another word.
The bartender caught my eye as I desperately glanced around the bar to find a last-minute mark. He had the look of one who is well versed in many areas of study which aren’t fashion; his clothes were nearly offensively drab, save for a single earring in the shape of some magical or alchemical symbol hanging from his pointy ears. He had the thick glasses, pasty complexion, and doughy physique of a scholar locked away in an ivory tower. My tiefling eyes allowed me to get a good look at him without squinting through the dim light, but they also ensured a glance from me drew as much suspicion as a stare from a human. Luckily, a glance told me all I needed to know: he was cute, and I was hungry, somewhat metaphorically, and very much literally. I snuck into the bathroom and waited until he began closing up shop to make my move.
“Boy, are you a mimic?” I asked, “Because you look like a treasure to me.” “Huh?” he looked around in confusion. “Are you talking to me?” “I don’t see anyone else,” I said, “And I’ve only ever seen someone as good-looking in the mirror. What’s your name?” “I-I’m an elf,” he said, blushing and adjusting his glasses as if he could hide his entire face behind them. “’I. Iman Elf’, you say? I suppose it’s only fitting that a unique beauty should have a unique name,” I said, flirtatiously. “N-no, sorry, I’m saying I’m not a mimic. I’m an elf. My name is Rofaren.” “Of course, of course, I’m only teasing you,” I said, “I didn’t think it possible, but you’re even more cute when you’re flustered. “Oh, uh, thanks, I guess?” he said, picking up a glass and idly cleaning it so he’d have an excuse to avoid eye contact, “We’re actually closed, so I can’t serve you.” “Oh, but you’ve already served me something far more delicious than any food or drink,” I said. He began blushing furiously. Well, even more furiously. “W-what’s that supposed to- oh, I get it. You’re Mordai, aren’t you?” he asked. “I see my reputation precedes me,” I said, “No wonder you seem so intimidated. But don’t worry, I don’t bite. Not unless you ask me very nicely.” I winked. It was a bold move. Perhaps too bold, but I had a reputation to maintain. He was so taken aback by my comment that he dropped the glass. I darted my hand for it and managed to catch it before it hit the ground. “That was close,” I said, my voice charged with sexual energy, “You’re lucky I’m so good with my hands.” That one didn’t even need a wink. “I won’t let myself be swayed by your ‘clever’ wordplay, so you can just drop the act already,” he said. “What act?” I asked, very much keeping the act up. “I know who you are, and I know what you do!” he said, trying to hide his bashfulness behind anger, “We’ve all heard about you, how you flirt with girls to try to charm them into giving you free food.” “Well, if that’s what you’ve heard, then I’m afraid you’ve heard lies,” I said, “First of all, Mordai does not ‘try’ to charm, he succeeds. Second of all, I flirt for their sake more than my own. Every day they are forced to toil in the service of thankless drunkards, louts, and perverts, and I wish only to offer them reprieve. Everyone wishes to feel that they are beautiful and wonderful and desired, especially by a man as devilishly handsome as myself, and I wish to fulfil their wishes. My sole selfish desire is that I may see the fruits of my labor, the smiles that I bring. Not the ugly, empty smiles their boss demands of them because it’s good for business, but true joy, the kind which can make a mere beauty gorgeous enough to rival even you. That smile is all the payment I ask of them. The free food, they give me of their own volition.”
“Wow,” he said, “I can see why they fall for you. That would be really sweet, if any of it were true.” “It’s all true! Were I as selfish as you suggest, I would’ve robbed you by now,” I said, dishonestly suggesting that I was above robbery. “It’s a lot harder to rob a place you’ve already robbed than charm someone you’ve already charmed,” he said, “You’re just doing what’ll benefit you most in the long term.” “Hah,” I laughed, “You’re pretty clever. I like that.” “I’m glad someone thinks so,” he said, more to himself than me. “Who doesn’t?” I asked, “Should I have a word with them? Or perhaps a blade?” “Huh?” he seemed panicked by my threat, “N-no, nothing like that! Just, forget it, it’s a long story.” “I have all the time in the world, darling,” I lied. “Yeah, well, I don’t.” He said, “I was supposed to have already locked up by now, so if anything, I have less than no time.” “Who cares?” I asked, “That’s what your boss wants you to do. What do you want to do?” “I… I want to be an alchemist.” He said, quietly “OK, good, we’re getting somewhere,” I said, “Why are you a bartender, then?” “I failed the alchemist academy entrance exam,” he said, “And as far as it is from being an alchemist, it’s the closest job I could find.” “So they’re the ones who think you aren’t clever?” I asked. “Yes. But I am!” He said, sounding rather desperate for me to believe him. “I believe you,” I said, “But why didn’t they?” “Because they mistake obedience and rote memorization for cleverness!” he said, with more anger than I’d imagined him capable of, “Alchemy isn’t about memorizing recipes for potions and bombs that some ancient greybeard wizard came up with a thousand years ago! If it were, anyone with a textbook would be an alchemist!” “Then what’s alchemy about to you?” I asked. “It’s about experimenting!” he said, “It’s about the thrill of never knowing if your next experiment will change the world or blow up in your face! It’s about the hours and days of menial trial and error that go nowhere, and the one brilliant moment of revelation that it all leads up to! It’s about creating new potions with old ingredients, old potions with new ingredients, or new creations that aren’t potions at all! It’s about pouring your mind, body, and soul into creating something unlike anything that has ever existed before!”
He had gotten so worked up that I could hear his heavy breathing in the ensuing silence. “S-sorry I got carried away. I didn’t mean to bore you by rambling about stuff you don’t care about.” He said, as meek as ever. “You care about it. And I care about you,” I said, “Don’t ever apologize for caring about someone or something. What you care about is what defines who you are. That is what makes you truly beautiful. Well, that and a face sculpted by… uh, do you know any gods or goddesses of beauty?” “Uh, Sune?” He offered. “A face sculpted by Sune,” I said, “Nailed it.” He laughed. For a few seconds he wore a smile as joyful and radiant as I’d described in the excuse I had made up. I could feel my own smile fade as I watched his face twist into a frown. “What’s wrong?” I asked. “Maybe nothing, Maybe everything.” “Everything?” “Well, not everything,” he said, “Just you.” “Me?” I asked, “What do you mean?” “I like you,” he said. I nearly had to bite my tongue to keep from responding with a smug “obviously”. He continued, “You’re funny, and charming, and really, really hot. And, rarest of all, you seem to like me, too. You just seem too good to be true.” “Then I guess I’ll just have to prove that I am true,” I said, “lean forward and close your eyes.” He hesitantly obeyed, puckering his lips. I gently grabbed his chin. “Oh? Did you think I’d kiss you?” I asked, teasingly, “Is that what you want?” “Huh? I-I d-didn’t think anything! I-I was just-” The rest of his panicked excuse was stolen by my lips. I hoped he was too distracted by our romantic moment to notice my stomach growling. “Do I taste like a lie to you?” I asked, still holding his chin and forcing him to look into my eyes. “Er, well, I, uh…” he sputtered, “I don’t think lies have a taste.” I laughed as I released him. “You really are too cute,” I said, “But I see what you mean. I say I like you, and you want to believe, but you don’t know if you can trust me. Then again, isn’t that true of anyone? It’s impossible to ever truly know another person. Hell, it might not even be possible to truly know yourself. Trusting someone is always a gamble. But taking that change is part of what makes us… well, we’re not human, but you know what I mean.” “That’s a really nice way of putting it,” he said, “But just because it’s always a gamble doesn’t mean that the odds are always the same. Not everyone has a reputation for sweet-talking people into giving them free stuff.” “Hah,” I laughed, “Well, I’ll admit, I am a risky gamble.” I gently ran my fingers down his cheek, my nails lightly scratching his skin. I could feel the shiver run down his spine. “But I assure you the payoff is well worth it.”
“Y-you’re just trying to keep me from thinking straight!” he stuttered, accusingly. “Then I’ll just have to think straight for you,” I said, “Just think of trusting me as another one of your experiments. You don’t know what’ll happen if you pour your mind, body, and soul into me, but isn’t part of the thrill in finding out? Maybe it’ll go nowhere, or maybe it’ll lead to a brilliant revelation. Maybe I’ll change your world, or maybe, I’ll” I leaned in and whispered into his ear, “Blow. Up. In. Your. Face.” “I… that’s not fair!” he said, “You can’t use alchemy against me, that’s cheating!” “All’s fair in love and war, baby,” I said. “I… fine,” he said, “You win. I trust you.” “Thank you,” I said, “You won’t regret it.” Maybe I was even telling the truth.
“I guess they should have trained us men, too,” he said, laughing softly. “I beg your pardon?” “Oh, it’s just… the owner has started training the waitresses specifically not to fall for your charms,” he said. “Hah! Then he’ll have to train them much harder, because so far it’s been completely ineffective!” I said, “And it delights me to know that they’re wasting more time and resources failing to starve me than it would cost for them to just let me have some free food.” “I… hadn’t really thought of it that way,” he said, “It sounds so cruel when you say it like that.” “Because it is! The world is full of cruelties too civil to be seen for what they truly are. But that’s neither here nor there,” I said, despite it being everywhere. “Well, I wish I could help, but the owner’s started making us throw away any food that isn’t fresh enough to serve.” “Throw it away where, exactly?” I asked. “I… you’d seriously eat from the garbage? What happened to doing it for the smiles?” He asked. “I find that it’s somewhat more difficult to bring smiles to people’s faces when I’ve starved to death,” I said. He frowned. I may have gone a bit too far. “W-Well…” he said, hesitantly, “I have some food back at my place. I’m not as good as the chefs here, but I know the recipes, plus a few alchemy tricks. Maybe I could cook you up something nice to thank you for making me smile.”
That was… actually pretty sweet. No one had ever really seemed to take an actual, serious interest in me. I started blushing. I tasted my own medicine, and I was not terribly fond of it. “W-well… maybe some day.” I said. “But if I let that food go to waste, it’s basically like I threw it out myself, and I can’t stand that. But I really do appreciate the offer.” “Oh… that’s fine.” He said, breaking my heart with how obviously not fine he looked. “The dumpster is behind the building two buildings to the right of the front entrance, but it’s locked. I can give you the key, but-” “That won’t be necessary,” I said. “What do you mean?” He asked. “Listen,” I said, “Don’t even worry about it.” “I guess I’ll… see you later.” He said. “See you around,” I said as I left, “And stay beautiful, Rofaren.”
I found the dumpster, but I wasn’t the first to do so; I caught a red-handed bandit stealing the reward I’d worked so hard for. I laughed a broken laugh. “Any chance my devilish charms could convince you to spare a bite?” I asked the raccoon. It ignored me and continued eating, as one would expect. “I could kill you, y’know,” I bluffed, “No jury would convict me. And I know an alchemist, I’m sure he could treat whatever horrid diseases I’d contract if you bit me.” I continued to be ignored. “Why aren’t you scared?” I asked, “Can you not hear me?” The raccoon stopped chewing and gazed up at me with glowing green eyes, brighter than any light they could be reflecting. Then, after a second or two, he resumed his meal. “Why are you ignoring me?” I demanded, “How are you smart enough to pick a lock, but too stupid to know your life’s in danger?” Ignored. “Unless…” I said, “Unless you’re smart enough to know it isn’t. But how? Well, I guess I just told you, didn’t I?” I sighed. “It’s bad enough that I turned down a hot meal from a hot guy to play mind games with a raccoon, but could you at least let me win?” Ignored. “Is it OK if I sit here?” I asked, collapsing to the ground without waiting for an answer. I laid on my back and looked up at the stars. Some people feel awe, or tranquility, or humility when they look up into the vast, twinkling night sky. But I felt only hunger. “Why do you think they hate us so much?” I asked. “What drives people to hate a stranger so much that they value their garbage more than his life? That they’d sooner fill their wastebin than our bellies?” No answer. “Yet we are called thieves for taking it. We are punished for surviving while our murderers walk free. In a society that hates us, we can only survive by the kindness of strangers. I hope you don’t squander the kindness I’ve shown you the way I squandered the kindness that was shown me.”
I closed my eyes and whispered a silent apology. My stomach growled one last time. “Yeah, yeah, I get it.” I muttered. Then, silence. I could no longer hear the raccoon eating. Had he run out of food? I heard the clack of his claws as he climbed out of the dumpster, then walked across the ground. Was he heading towards me? The sound stopped, mere inches to my left. I turned my head and opened my eyes. The raccoon was standing there, offering me a stale loaf of bread. I hesitantly reached for it, trying not to startle him. Once I grabbed it, I wolfed it down as quickly as I could, chewing only just enough to get it down without choking. When I looked back up, the raccoon was still there. The moment I looked into his eyes, I knew that our souls shared a bond stronger than any magic, a connection that would outlast our bodies and minds and the very artifice of time itself. Or maybe I was just really glad to no longer be starving. “Thank you so much!” I said. The raccoon smiled, something I didn’t know raccoons could do. “Was that the last of it?” I asked. He looked down sadly. “That’s OK,” I said, “I’ll manage somehow.” He tilted his head curiously. “I don’t know! I’ll think of something. I always do,” I said. “Wait… how long have I been here? Do you think Rofaren’s still there?” The raccoon seemed to shrug, but I probably imagined it. “His offer to feed me is probably still good. But would he really be willing to feed me every day? I don’t want to be a burden on him. I’ll need to come up with another source of food.” The raccoon sniffed in the direction of the dumpster. “I guess it’s better than nothing,” I said, “But are you sure you want to give your food away?” He put his paw on my shoulder reassuringly. “I… thank you. You’re right,” I said, “but I can’t just take your food for free. How about I give you some table scraps? You won’t believe how much better actual food tastes than garbage.” He chittered excitedly. “Then do we have a deal?” I asked, extending my hand. The raccoon extended his paw, and we shook. We had a deal.