Greasy sweat coated Fedor’s back and neck as he stared half-focused at the Rusty Sail’s back room wall. Peeling gloss revealed bare pine beneath, the wood’s knots and whorls shifting and expanding in time with his heartbeat.
His eyelids drooped again and the top of his head pressed against the wall behind him as a wave of pleasure washed up from the base of his spine, triggering sparks inside his skull, bliss mushrooming in his mind.
He breathed in another mouthful of smoke, its metallic tang setting his teeth on edge and unmooring his thoughts.
His muscles softened.
Burning flooded his lungs, the heat melting him to wax.
The pipe slipped from his fingers and his head flopped down onto the cushion, his eyes flickering shut, his breaths shuddering.
Something like liquid hands enclosed him, soft and warm and comforting and endless. The edges of memory caressed him—his mother holding him close to her chest, her cheek resting on the top of his head as she rocked him to sleep.
He floated in a pool of yellow light for a long time as colours danced around him, splashing him with love and beauty, every wish fulfilled, every problem, every worry, every anxiety no more than a distant contained dot, no more than an ant trapped under a jar.
The images subsided, melting into yellow warmth, dislocated from time…from everything.
His limbs disappeared, allowing him to drift—a formless self in the endless yellow nothing.
He became aware of another sensation, a sensation beyond his body, beyond the yellow.
A hand, a real hand, two hands. It gripped his shoulder, both shoulders, and shook him away from that place.
His eyes snapped open.
He focused on a familiar face for a second, tried to form a curse, and closed his eyes again.
Words struck his ears as if heard through deep water.
A slap to the face shifted his awareness.
Pain. Stinging. Heat.
He opened his eyes slowly, his hand drifting up to his throbbing cheek, and he met Lev’s glare with one of his own.
“Mate, what the fuck? How many times?” Lev’s features came in and out of focus. “Get up.”
Fedor’s head wobbled to the side and he mumbled something half-formed in his mouth. He just wanted to drift, to return to that place of bliss. If he closed his eyes for long enough, it would all go away—the memories, the pain—all of it would seep into nothing, become one with the endless yellow.
The shakes came again, this time harder.
He looked around the room at the other men and women staring at him and he met Lev’s gaze.
Lev reached down and hoisted him to his feet.
For a moment, he feared he might continue up through the ceiling, and float off through the lower city and into the clouds, joining the balloons and wyverns and seagulls as they glided on the breeze.
“Mate. Look at me. Mate.”
His attention latched onto Lev.
“No. Keep bloody focused on me.”
Fedor closed his eyes and sank back to the cushion.
Another slap came to his face.
He found himself standing again and tried to wriggle out of Lev’s tight grip. But his arms did not move in the way he wanted. “Leave me alone,” he slurred. “Leave me here.”
“No. You’re coming with me.” Lev cupped Fedor’s face in his hands and held his gaze steady, those dark pupils burrowing into him. “You can’t stay here.”
Fedor stared at nothing.
The slap came again and his focus shifted back to Lev and his breath, tinged with whisky.
“Look at me, you fucking dickhead.”
“I said, look at me. You need to focus.” Lev gestured to the door, his words slow and clear. “I am taking you home. Do you understand?”
Fedor gazed longingly at the cushion, his focus catching the play of light down the length of the pipe.
Lev jerked him in a twist and marched him from the back room and into the main bar.
A thin man in a robe blocked Lev’s path and offered him a chequerboard smile. “Brother, your friend shouldn’t be taken like this.”
Lev drew his club and held it out with one hand, his hold on Fedor remaining firm. “You going to fucking stop me, mate? You want me to knock a few more of those teeth out for you?”
The man stepped forward, reaching for Fedor.
Lev shoved him back against the bar.
“Thirty-three, mate. This is a fucking thirty-three.”
“I’m taking you home.”
Unable to protest, Fedor gave a weak nod, and allowed Lev to lead him away.
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