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KH AU:: Through Thick and Thin Ch. 6

If I get another comment about Snape on this, I'm gonna cry. Or choke a bitch. I have no idea what Snape or Harry Potter has to do with this, but spammers keep leaving nonsensical comments about it and it's very wtf-inducing. D: Anyways, Chapter 6! I'm sorry, it's a boring one... but it's necessary. Next chapter will be better!

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Rudol's first conscious thought was that his head was splitting in two. He could feel the blood throbbing in his temples as the blurry events of last night slowly swam into focus. Wincing, he tried to sit up, and a fresh wave of alcohol-induced nausea washed over him. He blearily checked the time on his watch, which he had evidently fell asleep wearing, and grimaced. Nothing like being hungover at 5:30 A.M. on a Friday morning.

As tempting as it was to stay in bed and sleep it off, he wasn't tucked in his own bed and couldn't afford to stay around until last night's hookup awoke. He wasn't a fan of the awkward early morning encounter. Against his better judgment, he carefully eased himself out of the unfamiliar bed and silently gathered up his clothes.

He felt miserable this morning, and it wasn't solely the fault of the hangover, although that admittedly wasn't helping matters. No, Rudol's heart felt strangely heavy in his chest, a foreign sensation to him. He couldn't place why he felt so dejected, which was the most worrisome part. Ordinarily, a string of one-night stands, a binge of sorts, left him feeling elated, as if he was on top of the world, ruler of all he surveyed. Today, however, he just felt… empty. And even though he rarely lacked for someone to share a bed with, he felt more alone than ever. When, he wondered, did getting lucky turn into simply being bored?

Rudol tugged his shirt over his head and quickly scanned the room to make sure he was still in possession of all his personal belongings. He couldn't help but catch sight of a wallet tossed carelessly on the bedside table and instinctively made a convulsive motion towards it, but something made him stop. He glanced shiftily at the stranger sleeping a mere two feet away from the temptation of free cash and shrugged uneasily, letting himself out of the room before he could change his mind.

Rudol glanced about him as he left the building to figure out where on earth he was (the events of last night were still quite hazy) and realized that he was on the far end of campus in an apartment disturbingly close to where Dilan lived. Rather than begin the long walk of shame back to his own dorm room, he sat down on a bench outside, heedless of the chilly, early morning air. He replayed the events of the last few days in his head, trying to see if he could pinpoint just when – how, why – he started feeling this way, this incomprehensible sensation that he couldn't put in words.

Tuesday night. Sure, it had begun well enough. He'd given L'Erena and Lumaria the slip after dinner, firing off a quick text to one of his occasional hookups, euphemistically listed in his phone as "BJ Boy." Rudol couldn't be arsed remembering his real name when he only used him for one thing. Besides, he was only an every-so-often, on-the-side thing, and B.J. was as good a nickname as any.

Hey stud, you up for a quickie?

Barely half an hour, his booty call met him at the door, shirtless and impatient. "Just make it quick," he said, stepping aside to let Rudol into his apartment.

"Well, someone's eager tonight. What's the matter, can't get laid?" Rudol commented slyly, but he was already on his knees, unbuckling the other man's belt and pushing his jeans down around his thighs.

"Oh, just be quiet," he groaned, closing his eyes and bracing himself against the wall. "I like you so much more when you keep your mouth shut."

"Funny, people seem to express that opinion of me a lot," Rudol murmured.

"Then maybe you should list—nghh," he cut his diatribe short, gritting his teeth as Rudol's mouth closed around him.

Rudol had to smirk in self-satisfaction as he reached between his own legs (for he never gave if he didn't get something out of it himself); there was nothing he liked better than driving someone out of his (or her, he wasn't picky) mind with pleasure. It was an ego boost. Still, it didn't take him long to notice that B.J. was distracted. The other man kept glancing nervously at the clock until Rudol, annoyed that he wasn't paying enough attention to him when he was doing him a favor and sucking him off, bit down. Not enough to really hurt him, just enough to make him hiss and sharply tug his hair. His focus now solely directed on Rudol, he kept his grasp tight until he finally came with a shuddery gasp and unclenched his fists. He took a moment to recover, catching his breath before speaking, his voice a low croak.

"God, you're good. Okay, time for you to go."

Rudol swallowed and wiped his mouth. "What about me? I didn't finish yet!" he said indignantly.

"Too bad. Now seriously, get out before my girlfriend gets home."

He couldn't help it; he laughed. "Crikey, I've nabbed me a breeder!"

Unfortunately, the other guy didn't seem to find it quite as funny as he did. And, okay, maybe that wasn't exactly the best thing to say in such a situation. On second thought, the threesome comment probably wasn't such a good idea either. He would have to remember that it's not necessarily wise to run his mouth off whenever an entertaining thought struck him.

Wednesday night had held more promise. He picked up a chick at a club, a petite redhead who was making eyes at him from across the bar. He played the part of the gentleman, charming her with subtle seduction; it was actually the girl who suggested that he come back to her place. She was young, most likely a freshman, but saucy, and he was intrigued. So, it was with high hopes that he accompanied her to the brownstone that she lived in, which was an unexpected perk, since it afforded more privacy than the large dormitory-style residences.

Of course, girls could never make it that easy to get into their pants, and he was forced to wait in her room while she retreated to the bathroom to get ready. (That was the problem with women, Rudol thought, they felt the pathological need to prepare for sex. Can't they see that they're already beautiful as they are?)

He was busy studying the collection of seashells that decorated the top of her dresser when his phone blared from his pocket, causing him to jump. "Let's have some fun, this beat is sick, I wanna take a ride on your disco stick—"

He automatically flipped his phone open and held it to his ear. "Hullo?"

"Rudyyy," an all-too-familiar voice slurred, a clear sign that its owner was completely sloshed.

Stunned, he pulled the phone away from his ear and frowned at it before venturing, "Dilan? What on earth—"

He didn't get a chance to finish his sentence, because Dilan blurted out, "You suck!"

Taken aback and caught off guard, he had no idea how to respond. "Er…"

"Yeah, that's right," Dilan plowed on, the alcohol loosening his tongue considerably. "You suck, you and your, your dirty, backstabbing, cheating ways. And I don't care how good you are in bed, 'cause I'm done with you and your motherfucking mind games. Fuck you!" There was a slam and a shuffling sound before the phone finally disconnected, and Rudol was left staring at his phone in disbelief.

"Who was that?" the redheaded girl asked, looking at him curiously as she returned from the bathroom, all dolled up and ready.

"No one, m'dear," Rudol said smoothly, forcing what he hoped was a natural smile and tossing the phone aside. "You look ravishing." He was determined not to let the interruption ruin his conquest.

The second time Dilan called, a mere ten minutes later, he was too far gone to hear the persistent ringing of his cell phone.

It would have been a good night (and he fooled himself into believing that it was) had he been able to dismiss the drunk-dialed phone call. Instead, it lurked in the darkest recesses of his mind, even as he seduced the girl with falsehoods and flattery.

He couldn't stick around afterwards. He just couldn't. Under ordinary circumstances, he would spend the night and wake up early enough in the morning to slip away undetected, or if he was feeling antsy and wanted to book it, he would at least wait until his partner was asleep to make his getaway. He wasn't that cruel.

Until now, apparently. He must have been more badly shaken up by Dilan's accusations than even he realized, because he couldn't handle playing the waiting game, couldn't handle staying a minute longer than was necessary.

The redhead smiled up at him after he'd finished, the sultriness she'd exuded in the club giving way to the innocent, glowing face of a smitten young girl. He wasn't able to shake off the disconcerted feeling that descended upon him when Dilan called, and he was ashamed to say that he ditched the girl immediately afterward, instead of doing the respectable thing and waiting until morning, or at the very least, after she had fallen asleep, too make his exit. Distracted and strangely unsettled, Rudol mumbled some excuse, he couldn't even remember what exactly he'd said, and left her alone and naked in her bed, leaving behind another broken heart in his wake.

Thursday night. He went out with the sole purpose of getting as drunk out of his mind as he possibly could. And if he didn't have to pay for it, all the better. He had an uncanny ability to single out the one person in the bar who would, with a little bit of coercion, would unthinkingly buy him as many drinks as he wanted. It didn't take him long to spot his target at the bar. He swiftly slid into place in the seat next to him and casually greeted him with an offhand quip. "I need a stiff one," he commented idly, glancing sidelong at his neighbor to gauge his reaction. "And a drink too, for what it's worth." He grinned mischievously, knowing that he had the boy he'd set his sights on hook, line, and sinker. Within minutes, Rudol had his prey wrapped around his finger and managed to get him to buy him a drink. Or two. Or four.

After five drinks, things were a bit fuzzy. He distinctly remembered tumbling into bed with the other man, who had imbibed just as much as alcohol as he had and was consequently somewhat uninhibited and rough in his actions, if the blossoming bruises on his wrist were anything to go by. The sex itself was electrifying yet ultimately unsatisfying for reasons that he still could not put his finger on. It was disconcerting.

Now, he was more lost than ever. He blindly pulled a cigarette out of his pocket and lit it in the hopes that it would steady him. It didn't work. Not even the hit of nicotine to his lungs, the intoxicating rush of that first drag, helped. If anything, it made him feel worse, which only made the situation even more bizarre because cancer sticks always made him feel better. He exhaled and tossed the unfinished cigarette to his feet, grinding it into the concrete sidewalk.

"I don't get it," he said aloud, baffled by the unfamiliar, unnamed emotion twisting in his gut. "Can there be too much of a good thing?" Unable to answer the question, he heaved a sigh and buried his head in his hands. He rubbed his face and mumbled, "I don't know what's wrong with me today. Maybe I just need a break. Yeah, some time away from it all, to figure out why I'm feeling so depressed and focus on getting the rest of that money." He sat up straight again, running his fingers through his short, blond hair before dropping his hand in his lap. "… Shit. That's a lot of money."

He could have laughed; the enormity of the situation only just struck him. Still, he knew what he had to do, and that entailed not running away and hiding from his problems anymore. He stood, full of newfound determination, and set off down the grey, deserted street.

------------------------

Step One: Find out just how much money he really had, and how much left he needed to pay off his debts. His first stop was the ATM, where he drained his debit card of every last cent in his checking account. He returned to his dorm room, which was remarkably clean and empty, given that he rarely spent much time in it these days, and began ransacking his pockets, school bag, and dresser for any loose cash. Lastly, he emptied his wallet and began carefully counting his accumulated money.

"That's it? $553?" Rudol said, aghast. "Oh, you have got to be fucking with me. I can't make $1200 in two weeks! Not even two weeks – twelve days!" He slumped against the wall, trying to come to grips with the situation and resist the urge to fall back on his usual method of dealing with things – denial. "Okay," he said, trying to calm himself down. "I'll just have to ask for an extension, that's all. No sweat. But first, I need to hit up Rennie and Lulu." He knew that he wouldn't be able to do this alone. It was time to stop sailing solo and start letting others in, especially the only two souls in the world who accepted and supported him, no matter his numerous flaws.

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He went to see Lumaria first. He knew that the other boy would be up despite the time; he was an early riser, impossibly perky and upbeat at 8 A.M., when Rudol and L'Erena were fighting to keep their eyes open even with the assistance of highly caffeinated beverages. L'Erena would be sound asleep if he came calling at this hour, and he wasn't about to risk being shanked for rousing her from her slumber.

He wet his lips and, taking a deep breath, rapped twice on the door. It swung open, and a fluffy, cotton-candy hued head poked out, bringing with it the overpowering smell of cherry blossom body wash and lavender-scented shampoo.

"Yes? Oh, Rudy!" Surprised, Lumaria pulled the door open further and stepped aside to let him into his suite. "What are you doing here so early?"

Rudol took a deep breath; it was now or never. "I need your help," he confessed. "Is that job at your nursery still available?"

A slow, catlike smirk crept across Lumaria's face. "I knew it," he said, his voice smug with satisfaction. "I told my uncle to keep the position open for a bit. I knew you'd come around."

Rudol collapsed on a kitchen chair. "How do you know me so well?" he asked, staring up at the ceiling. "Sometimes I think you and Rennie know more about me than I do. I just wish it hadn't taken me so long to realize that I needed to do this the hard way."

Lumaria patted his hand kindly. "Hey, that's what friends are for. It's still early yet," he said, glancing at the clock, "but I'll call my uncle at 8:00, and he'll probably want to talk to you. I'm gonna make breakfast now – do you want to shower or something while you wait?"

"That," Rudol said, "sounds like a plan." The prospect of a job lifted a heavy weight off his shoulders, and it was with a considerably lighter heart that he emerged from the bathroom half an hour later.

"I smell like a fucking fairy," Rudol complained good-naturedly, toweling his hair dry.

"Hey, just be glad that I ran out of passion fruit and sweet pea the other day," Lumaria warned, pointing a spatula at him.

"I dunno, cherry blossom and rose petals is pretty bad. I'd almost prefer the fruit," Rudol said, but he sat down at the table with a grin nonetheless. "Are those chocolate chip pancakes?"

"Yup. Dig in," Lumaria answered, sliding the plate onto the table and joining Rudol.

"Cheers."

"So once we're done eating, I figured I'd call my uncle and we'd see about getting that job."

"Excellent," Rudol said through a mouthful of pancake, giving him the thumbs-up sign since he was quite sure that Lumaria couldn't understand a word he said. He finished shoveling the pancakes down his throat and handed him the phone, antsy to know for sure whether or not he'd be hired.

Lumaria held up a finger warning him to be patient and finished his own pancake before taking the phone and dialing his uncle's number.

"Hey, Uncle Marly, it's Lulu," he greeted when his uncle answered. "Remember how I told you that I had a friend who could use a job at the nursery? Well, he's here with me and he decided that he'd be interested in filling the position. Mhm. Yeah, sure, I'll put him on." He passed the phone to Rudol, whispering, "He wants to talk to you. Just be honest with him, and I'm sure he'll take you in."

Rudol nodded twice. "Hullo?" he ventured.

The line crackled with static as Lumaria's uncle spoke. "So you're Rudol, Lulu's buddy, are you?"

"Yes sir, that's me."

"He speaks very highly of you. We're primarily a family-run business, but any friend of Lumaria who deserves such high praise is welcome around here, and he assures me that you'd do a good job. I'd just like to ask you a few quick questions before I make any promises."

"Of course, sir," Rudol said with a surprised glance at Lumaria, smiling at him.

"Alright. First of all, tell me a little bit about your skill set. What do you know about plants? Can you lift two 50 pound bags of mulch and carry them easily? What's your work ethic?"

Rudol remembered Lumaria's advice on being honest and carefully weighed his answers. "I'm afraid I don't know much about plants, only what Lulu's told me on occasions. I'm a quick learner, though. I don't exactly do much weightlifting, but I believe I'm capable of doing that much. I've worked at my uncle's corner shop in the summers, restocking coolers and the like, so I've done quite a bit of heavy lifting. One flat of soda weighs about 22 pounds, and I've had to lift a number of them and bring them out of the back room when refilling the coolers. The bags of mulch shouldn't be too difficult. As for my work ethic, I'm willing to work as hard as possible. I'm investing all my energy into this job and am prepared to do whatever it takes. You can count on me, sir."

"Wonderful. Like I said, I've heard only positive things about you from Lulu. I like you and am sure you'll fit in just line, as long as you can keep up with the work. I'll be taking you on for mainly manual labor, so I expect a lot from you. I can only pay you minimum wage, I'm afraid—"

"That's perfectly fine, I assure you."

"—But I'd be glad to have you aboard. Our busiest season is fast approaching, so we usually hire seasonal help at around this time, especially someone who can help with the manual labor. Come down tomorrow and let me see what you can do. We'll get some training under your belt, and you can start first thing on Monday. I'll put you alongside Lulu to start. He's in here all the time, about 26 hours a week, I'd say, but that might be a bit much for you…"

"Oh no," Rudol interjected quickly. "I'd be glad to come in with him! The more hours the better, I say."

He could hear the smile in his employer's voice. "That's what I like to hear. Have Lulu bring you in tomorrow, and we'll see what you're capable of us."

"Thank you so much, sir, I greatly appreciate it," Rudol said, his voice sincere. "I'll see you tomorrow, and thanks again."

A grinning Lumaria took the phone from him

"Thanks, Uncle Marly! You're the best. I knew you'd like him, I told you he was a good kid. I'll see you tomorrow. Bye-bye!"

"Did you really tell him all that about me?" Rudol asked him the minute he hung up, touched by Lumaria's kind words.

"Of course. I told you I'd put in a good word – and really, you are a good kid, even if you make bad decisions sometimes. You're my best friend for a reason, Rudy." He leaned across the table to give Rudol a hug. "And I'm impressed, and so proud of you – I didn't know you could be so polite!"

"Well, I am British, you know," he said modestly, bowing his head in acknowledgment, and Lumaria let out a laugh.

"And now we're going to be roommates!" the pink-haired boy said, squealing and bouncing him up and down.

Rudol laughed aloud and allowed himself to be jostled. "Bleeding pansy," he said, grinning broadly, and Lumaria giggled and let go of him.

He checked his watch. 8:30. He had class at 10:00, so if he was going to solicit help from L'Erena as well, he had better act now. He bade Lumaria goodbye and, anticipating his other best friend's displeasure at being woken up on the one day she did not have class (asides from an engineering lab, but that was at 6:00 P.M. and hardly counted), decided that he ought to bring her some coffee to appease her. Rudol headed to the Starbucks down the block and bought a tall black coffee with a shot of espresso, extra hot, just the way she liked her morning coffee. Returning to the seventh floor, where both Lumaria and L'Erena resided, he braced himself and knocked on the door of Room 712.

"Morning," he said brightly when she finally opened the door, bleary-eyed and resentful.

"Oh god, it's you," L'Erena groused. "How can you be so fucking cheery at this godforsaken hour – what time is it?"

"8:40," he supplied, still smiling winningly in the hopes of assuaging her temper.

"I hate you," she replied bitterly, but she held the door open and let him inside grudgingly.

He held out her cup of coffee once he was safely inside, and L'Erena softened slightly, taking it gratefully and looking at him with a newfound respect. She breathed in the rich smell of espresso and sighed.

"Okay, that redeems you a little bit," she admitted. "Now whaddya want?"

"Can't a guy come and visit his best friend in the whole wide world for no reason?" he asked, sounding offended.

She snorted in a rather unladylike fashion. "At 8:30 in the morning? Yeah right."

"Okay, you got me," Rudol fessed up. "I'm here because I need your help, and I want to apologize. I… screwed up. I haven't been doing anything about getting the money I need. I lied, I don't have even half of the money I owe, only a little over $550. But I'm doing something now!" he said earnestly, speaking quickly and not giving L'Erena an opening to berate him. "Lulu got me a job, and I'm going to find the bookie and ask for an extension, and I can do this, Rennie. I'm prepared to do whatever it takes. But I need your help." He held his wallet out to her. "Take my money. I can't trust myself to not make a stupid decision and gamble it away on a spur of the moment thing. That's what got me in this situation in the first place. And I need you to keep me in check. Every time I get a paycheck, I'll leave it with you. I figure if I don't have any cash on me, I won't be tempted to use it. And I'm going to be tempted, I know it." He ended his monologue and braced himself.

L'Erena set down her coffee cup. "You lied to us, Rudy," she accused, glaring at him through slit eyes.

"I know I did. Can you forgive me?" he said, his voice pleading.

For one long, horrible minute she looked at him unblinkingly before sighing. "Fine, fine, whatever. Give me the fucking money. I can't believe you woke me up so early for this."

Rudol lit up when he realized that he had managed to avoid the thunderstorm of her wrath. He handed over his cash and said, "8:30 isn't even that early, Rennie."

"To me, it is. You know I sleep in 'til 11:00 on Fridays. Besides, I was up really late talking to Nami on the phone."

"Ooh," Rudol said, forgetting all about his own troubles. "You really are serious about her, aren't you?" he asked her.

She smiled faintly. "Yeah," she said, fingering the rim of her coffee cup. "It's like, it doesn't even matter what we're talking about. I just love listening to her voice. The content doesn't even matter – her voice is that of an angel. Like, she was telling me a long story about how her friend had just called her all upset and crying because she'd lost her virginity to some guy she met at a club because he made her feel special, and then he just left, like right after he finished…"

"You don't say," Rudol said nervously, tugging at his collar.

L'Erena looked at him, and then realization dawned on her. "Oh, Rudy," she groaned. "Don't tell me you…"

"Well, I didn't know she was a virgin!" he cried out, raising his palms defensively. "I mean, what kind of girl loses her virginity to a guy she met at a club, ferchrissakes?"

"The kind of girl easily taken in by flattery," L'Erena replied, narrowing her eyes at him. "You are such a dick."

"Be that as it may, I'm not apologizing," he said stubbornly, crossing his arms. "I didn't do anything wrong. Besides, she started it."

L'Erena sighed and shook her head, giving up. "What are we going to do with you, Rudol?"

"Well, if it makes you feel any better, I've sworn off on the random hookups for a while. I really need to get this money and figure out why I'm feeling so lousy. Speaking of which, I need to go find Seifer after class and ask him about getting an extension… I'll talk to you later, I love you, and thank you!" He waved goodbye and hastily left the room, taking the stairs two at a time.

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He didn't pay any attention at all in class, instead using the ninety minutes to calculate how much of an extension he would need. If he could work 26 hours a week at $8 an hour, and today was the 19th… he would have to shoot for the end of the next month and hope that Seifer was feeling generous, which he usually wasn't. Especially not to people like him, who avoided payments and bet way too much money in the first place.

With these thoughts in mind, he left class and set off for the one place where the bookie was likely to be found. He approached the building with trepidation, glancing around the sketchy alleyway nervously. He spotted one of the large thugs, one of Seifer's cronies, who roughed him up a little bit that night so long ago, when he found out just how deep he'd fallen.

Rudol approached the hulking, dark-skinned man and spoke up. "You're one of Seifer's mates, correct?" he said, trying to keep his voice light.

"Maybe," the other man grunted, looking at him suspiciously. "And you're the kid who owes us, yah?"

"Maybe." Two could play this game. "I actually came to talk to Seifer about that. I don't suppose you could convince him to, ah, grant me a teensy little extension?"

"I dunno, Seifer doesn't do extensions, ya know?"

"Please?" he wheedled. "Is there any way I can… persuade you?" Hey, desperate times called for desperate measures.

"Uh, man, I don't swing that way, ya know?" the larger man said, backing away from him.

"Hey," called a sharp voice. "What's going on out here?"

Rudol turned to find the blond haired, scarred bookie clad in his usual flashy trench-coat standing on the doorstep.

"Oh, nothing of consequence," he said airily. "I simply wished to speak to you about the debts I owe."

"What, you got the money?" Seifer asked, descending the steps and approaching Rudol with his arms folded.

"Er, not exactly," Rudol said, stammering slightly.

"You've got twelve days to get that money to me, or you'll be going home with what's left of you in a body-bag. $1721. Don't be late."  Seifer's partner-in-crime cracked his knuckles threateningly to drive the message home.

Rudol swallowed and bit the bullet. "Can I request a small extension? I swear on my mother's life that I'll get every cent of that money to you in one month's time."

Seifer stared at him coldly. "And why should I do that?"

Rudol fumbled for a reason. "Because… I'll pay up and give you all the money I owe you, and if you don't give me an extension, you'll only get $500 and my life?"

Seifer didn't say anything, simply looked at him with cold, unfeeling blue-green eyes.

"Fine," he said finally. "But only because I'm a nice guy." His hand lashed out and gripped Rudol's arm warningly. "You have until the end of next month. One month."

"But—"

"One month," Seifer repeated evenly, cutting him off with a sharp twist to his arm that made Rudol's eyes water. With that, he departed with his lackey behind him, leaving Rudol to wonder just what he got himself into.