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strange attraction

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The guy’s name is Caspar. He has blue hair, a voice six times louder than he is tall and a deeply apologetic expression when he knees Balthus in the junk.

“Yeah, I’m sorry about that, man,” he says, actually sounding sincere as he watches Balthus huff through his nose, hunched over with his hands on his knees. “But you know you owe the boss money, and we got rules.”

In the same breath, Caspar -- which, what kind of hired goon gives his actual name? -- says, “But there are some reasonable financial planners out there! My buddy’s one, let me give you his card.”

“No offense,” Balthus wheezes, “but I think maybe I should, y’know. Avoid doin’ business with your friends.”

“Nah, Lin’d just send actual creditors after you, the kind that just call a lot, you know,” Caspar says, cheerfully. “Though he usually gives a lower hourly rate to my, ah, referrals. Since, if you had money, I wouldn’t be here in the first place.”

With the pain starting to fade from a bright blaze to low throb, Balthus feels clear-headed enough to ask, “You do that often? Refer guys you beat up to your buddy’s company?”

Caspar shrugs. “Tough world out there, man. Everyone’s just doing the best we can, yeah? That’s why I hope you didn’t take that personally.”

“Nah, it’s cool, I get it,” says Balthus. “Might sing a different tune if you’d broken my kneecaps with a tire iron or somethin’, though.”

Caspar laughs. “That’s not me they send to do that. I’m more your first-warning kinda guy.” His voice sobers. “Just, you know, pay up. The next one isn’t nearly so nice and, uh, you definitely don’t wanna meet Mr. Third Warning.”

“How many are there?” Balthus asks.

“Three, and that’s if the boss likes you,” says Caspar. “Hey, by the way. I was in the crowd for that last fight of yours, the one in Enbarr? Brutal, man.” He shakes his head. “And by crowd, I mean I was watchin’ it in a bar, but that counts, don’t it? It was definitely a crowd.”

“Sure,” Balthus says. He’s not inclined to argue with a man who surprised him before his shift at the bar with a groin kick and a financial planner’s business card.

“Anyway, totally sucked that you got hurt like that. Sucky way for the King of Grappling to go out.”

“You’re telling me,” says Balthus, who ends up signing his autograph on a cocktail napkin for Caspar. “You sell this for any money, let me know, yeah? I got enough napkins here, maybe I can pay your boss what I owe from the proceeds.”

“I doubt it,” says Caspar, with a chuckle.

Balthus sighs. He glances at the card, which has the name Linhardt von Hevring, Financial Analyst on one line, a phone number, email address, and legitimate inquiries only, please in small print on the bottom left-corner.

“Who the hell was that?”

Balthus shoves the card in his pocket as Abyss’ owner and Balthus’ boss, Yuri Leclerc, strolls out from the back. Yuri, a former exotic dancer, had given Balthus a job as a bouncer even though Balthus had straight-up told him he was in debt to some pretty shady people. Well, kinda. He’d said I owe some money to people who don’t garnish your wages, you catch me, and Yuri had just raised one perfectly arched eyebrow and said, Yes.

“Guy sent to knee me in the balls,” says Balthus.

“Any particular reason, or...?”

Balthus flashes a grin at him. “I got that kind of face, I guess.”

Yuri sighs. “Balthus. This situation with your debt --”

“Yeah, I know. Trust me, I’m figuring it out,” he assures Yuri, though honestly, he’s not sure he won’t be living out of his car before too long.

Things were not like this a year ago. Balthus had been high on the best MMA season of his career, called the King of Grappling around the circuit, selling out crowds and raking in royalties from pay-per-view fight specials. But Balthus had gotten cocky, and he was good at fighting but he’d never been good at money, and soon he was losing fights and racking up debt faster than he could keep up.

The last fight had been a shitshow. He didn’t think his opponent cheated -- Raphael Kirsten wasn’t that kind of guy, he was just younger and hungrier and hell, the guy’d taken Balthus out for a beer after their fight. But there’d been something off the entire day, and Balthus was superstitious and should have known when his blender top blew off and soaked him in his protein shake that morning that his fight was going to end badly.

That was an understatement. It ended not just with a loss, but a tear to his ACL that meant his grappling days were over. No one wanted to go out on a loss, but a career-ending injury and a loss? Hell if he wasn’t the most unlucky son-of-a-bitch to ever live. The worst part was that it wasn’t anyone’s fault but his own. Balthus had done a stupid risky maneuver, knowing he was going to lose, and it paid off about as well as all his bets on wyvern racing.

“I wish I could help you, but I’ve already got you on as many shifts as I can,” Yuri says, now, pushing his long, pretty violet hair out of his face. He’s gorgeous, Yuri, and Balthus would be sad he’d missed his exotic dancer days if he didn’t get the occasional private show when Yuri was in the mood to show off.

Which was why, even if Yuri could help him out, Balthus wouldn’t want him to. He’d already done enough, and he liked their friendship-with-benefits too much to fuck it up by borrowing money. Not that Yuri had any to spare; all his assets were tied up in Abyss, which hadn’t been opened long enough to turn a profit.

“I’ll figure something out,” Balthus says. “I always do.”

“Do you, though?” Yuri tilts his head and sighs. “Wash up the glasses for me, yeah? Ask Coco if she wants a few nights off, you can take over at the bar. Tips aren’t bad, especially if you don’t wear your shirt.” Yuri gives him a playful leer.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Balthus says, but he knows he won’t. Coco -- Constance -- is bartending while putting herself through school, and she and her girlfriend Hapi, the other bartender, don’t make enough to sacrifice a lucrative weekend night just because Balthus thought driving a Hummer was a good idea. A Hummer he’s going to be living in, if he can’t pay his rent on time this month, so good thing it’s so roomy. Given how expensive gas is and how it’s been on Empty for two months, at least he’ll get some use out of it.

***

“Seriously, B, you need a side hustle.” Hapi, wiping down the bar after the last reveler has stumbled their way out of the door, makes a face and scrubs at something sticky. “Why do people always spill the stickiest things and not, like, water? Ugh.”

Balthus swipes the rag and rubs at the stain for her. “I’ve been tryin’ to think of something, but Hapi-girl, I’m not qualified for much. Bouncing, but who needs a bouncer during the day? Anything else I could do’s a nighttime job, and I like working here.”

“I think you’re selling yourself short.” She holds her hand out for the rag once Balthus has eradicated the sticky mess on the counter. “There has got to be something you’re good at besides tossing people out of buildings. Something more daytime appropriate.”

Balthus winks at her and stretches his arms over his head. “Sure. I can think of a few things.”

“I said daytime appropriate, B, but...I mean, brothels are legal.”

“Brothels do their business at night, though, yeah?”

“Uh. Maybe you could cater to the daytime cougar crowd? Is that a thing?” Hapi asks.

“Ain’t real sure, but I think cougars get their freak on at night like everybody, don’t they?”

“Why are you asking me?”

“Why are you asking me?” Balthus asks. “And hey, maybe I could make more money at a brothel, but I don’t wanna leave Yuri in a bind. Could find a day job moving shit, I guess. I’m good at heavy lifting.”

“That sounds pretty tiring,” Hapi says. “Carrying other people’s furniture all day, then hauling drunk idiots out of here until 3 am?”

Balthus finally figures out what’s going on. “Got something in mind, do you, pal? Let’s hear it, I ain’t very good at guessing games.”

Hapi beams. “Bingo. Look at this. Coco and I found it the other night.” Hapi shoves her phone at Balthus.

He takes it and frowns, trying to make out the words under the cracked screen. “Sweet Delights? What’s this, like, a bakery? You ever seen me try and bake? I’m defeated by packaged cookies.”

“Well, that’s why. You’re supposed to eat those raw, not cook them. But no, it’s not a bakery, keep reading.”

“A -- sugar baby? Is that what this says?” Balthus can’t really make heads or tails of this. “Hap, stuff with kids is illegal.”

Hapi stares up at the ceiling. “You definitely took one too many hits to the head. No, it’s to find a sugar daddy, or a sugar mama! One day, me and Coco are gonna find a sweet sugar baby and spoil her. Once we have some money. Now it’d be, you know, ramen noodles and generic-brand soda on our floor.”

“Hey, that I like ramen,” says Balthus. “So that’s what this app is for, huh? A way to find someone to buy noodles for?”

“I can’t...I mean, sure, yes, it’s not noodle-specific, but that’s the gist. It’s for people who want to spoil someone. With money and material goods and also probably their rent.”

“Uh-huh.” Balthus snorts, scrolling through the photos. “So it’s sex. Why didn’t you just say that?”

“But it’s not... I mean, okay, fine, maybe sometimes, but the actual point is to pay for things for people.”

“I ain’t got money for my rent, Hap, what makes you think I --wait. Come on,” he laughs. “No one wants to spend money on a guy in his thirties with a torn ACL who’s only talents are grappling and beating up drunk people. Is there an app for people lookin’ for guys to beat up their asshole exes?” Maybe he should ask Caspar if his boss is hiring.

“That’s going to end with you in jail and you know it. But I’m just saying, you never know. Maybe you’d have to drop a bouncer shift one night a week, or even take off a weekend every so often, but look how much some of these people are paying!”

He looks. “Most of these people want women, Hapi.”

“B, really, use the filters, are you new to websites?” Hapi scoffs and grabs the phone, showing him. “See? Look, there’s at least four people looking for….well, there’s no preference, which is basically the same thing as muscular, hit in the head too many times, great body, sort of loud.”

Balthus flashes her a killer grin. “You and Coco wanna share your ramen and generic soda with me, that it? Is this all a ploy? Could’a just asked, Hap.”

“Ha, ha, no thank you, you’re too...you, and also, a dude. I mean, you can come over but you bring your own ramen.”

Balthus yawns, tiredness dragging at his eyes. Truthfully, he probably does need to find a job that pays more or else get a second one to supplement his income. He really needs to pay off his debts, especially the ones that might end up with him floating face down somewhere in a river or buried in a shallow grave.

But this kind of thing? Agreeing to let some rich guy or gal pay for him to...what, take them to dinner? Maybe fuck them? Can he really do that? Would anyone even want him to? Balthus is pretty sure no one who’s wanted to hook up with him would ever think it required a down payment or something, first.

When Balthus gets back to his apartment, though, he notices a few things.

One, his Hummer is gone. Repossessed, probably. Which, well, there goes his housing plan if he can’t pay the rent in his apartment. Maybe he can sleep in the back office at Abyss. It’s barely big enough for him to stand up in, but then again, you don’t sleep standing up, right?

He has bills shoved under his door, one for the Internet and one for an old credit card he thought he’d dodged, but so far so good as far as power and he’s been stealing the Wifi from the chicken joint across the street -- cluckyone is not a very strong password -- and so that’s all right. His next two paychecks can go to avoiding Mr-Ms-Mx Second Warning, and the car...he can walk.

Farewell, Hummer.

Balthus takes a shower, eats some cold pizza and falls into bed wet-haired and wearing a threadbare pair of gray sweatpants. He puts his arm above his head, and he’s tired but thinks he might need to do something to relax so he can sleep. Porn is the obvious solution, and hey, maybe he should get into that? He can rail people no problem, no matter the gender. Do they do porn shoots in the daytime? It sure looks sunny in all these videos where people are fucking by a swimming pool.

Out of curiosity, he downloads the Sweet Delights app and takes a look, plays with the filters, just so he can tell Hapi that he did his due diligence and her idea is dumb, then get her advice on an appropriate porn name. Balthazar something? Yeah. Balthazar Beefcake? Nah, that makes him sound like a professional wrestler. Balthazar Bolt?

No. Balthazar Blaze. Probably better in porn if you come across as hot rather than fast. Right.

He’s just about to close the app when a new listing pops up under most recent.

“Hold up,” Balthus says, sitting upright. “What’s this?”

Wealthy scientist seeking moderately attractive person of any gender to attend parties/conferences as a plus one, all expenses paid. Conversational skills must either be exceptional or awful enough people will try once and stop. Need to have a strong constitution for badly-catered food, boring speeches, and my personality. The fact I’m warning you about it should tell you all you need to know.

Balthus is moderately attractive, surely. He cut mold off bread the other day for a sandwich, so the constitution for dubious food isn’t a problem. And he deals with drunk people all the time, so, how bad can one dorky scientist and their cohorts be?

There’s no picture with the entry, just a username, but hey, he might as well try. Balthus navigates to the set up a new profile and starts typing.

“All right, DarkSpikes228, get ready to meet your future sugar baby...BalthazarBlaze69!”

***

Lysithea von Ordelia, holder of two PhDs and the youngest ever recipient of the Royal Fodlan Excellence in Science award and youngest-ever PhD graduate of the prestigious Almyran University’s astrophysics program, puts her hands on her face and considers throwing her phone into the fire.

Not that it would do anything more than make a smelly, stinking mess of melted plastic and shattered glass, since the actual reason for her panic is an app that could just as easily be deleted. But the thought is still promising. It would be nice to watch something metaphorically destroyed.

Instead of burning her phone, she places a call to her best friend and keeps calling, over and over, until the frustrated and slightly-panicked voice of Hilda Valentine Goneril, fiancee to the crown prince of Almyra, says, “Lysithea, what the fuck, do you know what time it is?”

“I got five responses to my stupid post,” she says, because of course she knows what time it is, she just doesn’t care.

“Did you say -- five responses already?” Hilda’s voice goes from cranky to intrigued. “I -- hang on, wait. No, it’s fine, go back to sleep! It’s Lysie. I -- Claude, shh, no, I’m not telling her that, ugh, I -- fine.” Hilda says, into the phone, “Claude says you’re up too late and your babysitter should get in trouble.”

“Ask him if he’s gotten his AARP card in the mail yet,” Lysithea says. She smiles a little when she hears Claude’s laugh in the background and pads over to her laptop, which is open on the desk in the corner of her room. She’s at her parents’ “lakehouse,” which by most people’s standards would qualify as a mid-sized mansion, the doors open to let in the cool night breeze from the water.

“I kind of can’t believe you did it,” says Hilda. She was Lysithea’s college roommate, assigned entirely by chance, and by all sense they should have hated each other on sight the day they met.

Hilda was bubbly, popular, beautiful and studying fashion. Lysithea was two years younger than all the other freshmen at Garreg Mach University, caustic, small for her already young age and deeply enmired in her goth stage, and a physics major. Hilda joined a sorority, Lysithea joined the math club. Hilda started dating Claude von Riegan, an actual member of royalty. Lysithea lied to Hilda’s over-protective big brother about it every time he called. Claude sweet-talked her into attending the University of Almyra for her doctorate, probably because he knew Hilda would be less reticent to move there if she had her best friend nearby.

“I only did it because my date cancelled and you know it,” Lysithea says, opening up the web interface for Sweet Delights on her laptop. She’d originally asked her friend Leonie to go to the conference in Derdriu with her. Leonie had agreed, but then her girlfriend had surprised her with a trip and of course, Lysithea wouldn’t want her to miss out on that. Even if she couldn’t imagine preferring camping over a five-star hotel.

“Can you imagine going camping with Leonie and Shamir,” Hilda says, snorting. “Do they stay in hostels, or are those too fancy for those two?”

“Are you kidding? Leonie said all they’re bringing is a pocket knife, a tarp, a pack of matches and some beef jerky.”

“That’s not a vacation, that’s capital punishment. And you’re sure you don’t want to ask Cyril?”

Cyril was a mathematician she’d met in Almyra and been on two dates with before realizing they were better off as friends. “He’s got a conference of his own in Enbarr that weekend. Maybe I should just delete these messages, and the app, and go solo.”

“Nope. You woke me up in the middle of the night, you’re going to read them to me. Out loud. Come on, you know that’s why you called me. If you weren’t curious, you would have deleted them without ever telling me they existed.”

Hilda knows her a little too well. Lysithea sighs.

“Well. First, there’s an ad offering to introduce me to, quote, chatty singles in my area,” says Lysithea. “From a girl in a string bikini.”

“Is she hot?”

Lysithea considers the smiling woman on the ad. “She’s not not hot, but also not my type. Also I’m pretty sure she’s a bot.”

“Like a robot? You like robots, don’t you?”

“Hilda,” Lysithea chides, deleting the message. “I’ve never bought your bubblegum brain act, stop that.”

Hilda gives an indelicate snort. “Right. What else?”

“This one is just says send nudes,” says Lysithea. “But they misspelled nudes as newds, unless that’s some slang I don’t get because I’m boring.”

“Either way, trash it,” Hilda agrees.

Lysithea opens the next message. She reads it halfway through, then says with quiet horror, “this person wrote me a story.”

“Ooh! That’s good! Unusual, and unique, I approve.”

“An erotic story,” Lysithea clarifies.

Hilda coughs. “Oh. Is it any good?”

Mistress I want you to step on me and tell me I’m a bad boy and call my penis small --” She pauses. “Penis is spelled with two n’s, by the way.” She scans the rest of the message. “It’s all one paragraph and there aren’t any punctuation marks. Also they want me to spit on them and asked if I’m into watersports.”

“You do have a lakehouse!”

“Hilda.”

“Sorry, sorry, wow, that’s...awful.”

“Yeah. And, oh, the last message is from someone named BalthazarBlaze69 so I should probably just delete this and also the app, and pretend this never happened.” She moves her cursor to the trash can next to the unopened message.

“Noooo, Lysie! You can’t. Also, Claude says he’ll get you a cushy job as his science advisor for his council when he’s king if you send him that erotic story.”

“It’s a constitutional monarchy, can he even do that?”

“He says yes, but I’d ask for it in writing,” says Hilda, shrewdly. “Just read the last one, come on!”

“Ugh, fine.” She clicks open the message and scans through it.

Hi there, I’ve never done this before so I hope this is what I’m supposed to say. Not real great with science talk, but for dinner I ate two-day old pizza so I’m sure the food at your thingy’s gotta be better, that pizza wasn’t even that great when it was fresh. And I deal with drunk people at a bar -- I’m a bouncer -- so as long as you’re not trying to yell in my face or crying after taking six Noa Fruit Jello Shots in a row, I’m guessing I can handle it. Anyway, I don’t know if this helps but I have nice abs, people like those. Thanks.

“This one,” Lysithea says, staring at it. “This last one. It’s not...not bad.” She reads it to Hilda.

“Well? How are the abs?”

Of course that’s her question. Lysithea sighs and checks out his profile.

Wow. No one she’s ever seen in her whole life outside of television has abs like these.

“That bad?”

“Fake, probably, I don’t know,” Lysithea says, but something about the message sounds...very real. The cold pizza, the job as a bouncer. Her gaze returns to the abs. “But if they are real, yeah, they’re nice.”

“Might mean he has an ugly face, though. You can’t bring him shirtless to your party, can you?”

“What kind of parties do you go to that you’d ask me that?” Lysithea bites her lip. It’s late, and she should be asleep, but her night-owl tendencies from college never have changed. “Should I message him back?”

“Can’t hurt, right? If he sends you an epic erotic story, just delete it. Maybe he’s just a nice guy who could use a break, isn’t that why you went with the app in the first place?”

“I guess.” Lysithea honestly isn’t sure how Hilda managed to talk her into downloading the app, much less setting up a profile and posting a message. It’s not like Lysithea was desperate for a date or anything, she just wanted someone to go to the conference with her so she had an excuse to leave dinner early. Like when they brought you dessert and it was fresh fruit with whipped cream or bread pudding, or something equally awful. Then you left, went to your room, put on your pajamas and ordered the far superior room service desserts while watching Haunted Fodlan and sleeping with the hotel bathroom light on because ghosts still freaked you out, even if you were a scientist in your twenties and --

“Lysithea!”

She blinks. “Oh, uh. Sorry. I’m here.”

“Great.” Hilda yawns loudly in her ear. “I’m going to go back to bed. Just message him, Lysie! You came this far, shouldn’t you, I don’t know, see your experiment through? Isn’t that how science works?”

She opens her mouth to explain the finer points of experimentation procedure to Hilda, but...actually, she’s not entirely wrong. “Fine. But if I get another story about worshipping my toes like Sothis Herself, you will never sleep again.”

Hilda chuckles. “Let me know how it goes tomorrow. Preferably after noon.”

“You’re going to be the laziest queen ever,” Lysithea mutters.

“Uh, newsflash, but that’s a good thing. It’s the ambitious ones who always cause trouble, don’t you remember history class?”

Lysithea smiles briefly. “I guess. You’re just in this whole queen thing for the accessories, don’t lie.”

“Damn right.” Hilda makes a kissy noise and hangs up.

Lysithea stares at the message for a few minutes, considering. She finally replies with a quick note.

I’m going to Derdriu for a conference about astrophysics. If that doesn’t sound too boring for you, meet me for ice cream on Tuesday. You can see if my personality is agreeable enough for a weekend. I’m interested in bringing someone I can use as an excuse to leave dinner parties where the desserts aren’t up to my standards. Yes, I’m serious.

There. That looks good. She’s about to close the app and go to bed with the notification pings and she sees she has a message back from Mr. Balthazar Blaze the 69th.

Great, just let me know what time/place and I’m there. My name’s Balthus. Here’s my actual face.

The attached picture is a guy with eyes of an indeterminate color of gray, messy purple hair, and a smile that says I eat trouble with my protein shakes for breakfast. His profile says he’s in his thirties, and used to do MMA, whatever that means.

A quick Google says it means he was a professional fighter. A reverse-image search gives her his name, Balthus von Albrecht. He was apparently good at fighting until he wasn’t, which seems like that’s how things like that work. Either way, she’s intrigued. Not only can he go to dinner with her, he could carry her suitcase. And her car, probably.

Lysithea suggests they meet at a local sweet shop she likes, then clicks around her computer looking for a half-decent photo. In the end, she picks up her phone and puts on the selfie mode, and sends him a picture of her from the neck up -- unsmiling with her hair loose, which is how she looks a lot of the time, so.

My name’s Lysithea.

She’s a little on-edge waiting for his response -- is he going to say something stupid about how she looks young, and that’s why she picked an ice cream place? She hates coffee, and if this is on her dime, she’s going to go where she wants.

Instead, she gets back see you Tuesday, Lysithea! Great place, love their sundays!

It’s not really how you spell sundaes, but it’s better than misspelling penis, so she’ll take it.

The last thing she does before bed is copy-and-paste the entire erotic story into an email and send it to Claude. Long live the king.