Try A Little Tenderness




Late afternoon and the air was crisp for once. Cool on the extremities. The weather was in between seasons, in between muggy days and brisk nights. Kay took a step outside, leaving the always musty hallway of her building to survey the uneven streets of the neighborhood. She was dressed not in her usual regulating gear (strapped down, all boots and draping shroud shapes), but in a pair of bleached-out canvas slip-ons and old house cottons, hood pulled up against the wind, hands stuffed in pockets. Rahl had come back to the hood after a run all the way out in West Rundown; eight weeks with no contact. Meet at the front of Fu Wah was the message Kay received, out of the blue and to much excitement. Her homeboy was back and there was finally someone to break it down to proper.

The front of Fu Wah was, as usual, busy with the comings and goings of the local heads. You could buy drugs there (legal), or small parts, or soap, or produce, grain, liquor. Or a good box meal. Kay supposed her and Rahl were going to get a pair of those and post on the stoop outside like they usually did; like five or six other cats would be doing at any given time. When Fu Wah closed at eleven every night, there was always a rush for last order and then a mighty congregation on their stoop for at least another hour or two, till folks started their evening transition to the local bars (or wherever else). There were tons of other ramshackle general stores around this part of Omwenga. But they didn’t sell the combination goods that Fu Wah did. This always puzzled Kay—why not rip off a good bit like theirs and make bank? When she thought about it, the stoop was what really sealed the deal. A general store on a corner spot, at a busy intersection, with a stoop they didn’t chase you from? There probably wasn’t another place in town so tolerant.

The chill air felt good against Kay’s face as she walked against the blowing breeze. She closed her eyes for a few steps and listened to the hum of rickety power lines overhead and (no doubt scruffy) dogs barking. Rahl was standing out front of Fu Wah, arms crossed over his chest, idly staring at the sky when she opened her eyes. A deep grin set on her face. He gave her the old what’s up toss-back nod, and seven paces later was in a tight embrace, no back pats. She stepped back, hand still on his shoulder, and gave him a hard once-over.

“You’re looking good for coming back from that kinda run, pard!”

“Really?” His face softened, looking both relieved and surprised at once. “That means a lot right now. I feel like shit and I just wanna fucking beast on some meals and crush bottles till I pass out,” he huffed. Then, looking at her: “Damn, Kay, just come here boy,” Rahl pulled her back to him and hugged her tight, his sighing breath blowing past her ear. Kay laughed and gave his lithe frame a good squeeze.

“You can do all a’that, pard. Welcome home.”

“Thanks, boy.”

“Naw naw. . .” she smiled, squeezing again before stepping back.

“What you want, a number three or a two?”

“Man, you know I was thinking about that when I was waiting for you — and by the way, what you’re wearing right now is tight — I like it. Anyway, man, I can’t decide. I don’t even know what it is I want to taste anymore right now. Just anything that isn’t a fucking packie.”

Kay threw back a nostalgic laugh. “Damn! They still mess with packies out there? Those shits are all hard and don’t even taste good or anything.”

“Yeah, right? They gave us each a wad of twenty every time we went back to base and re-upped. I wanted to throw them right in the distributor’s face every time, like DO YOU EVEN KNOW HOW AWFUL AND UNSATISFYING THESE FUCKINGmatter bricks are?! Make better cyborg food! I don’t need your stupid new edition guns!! Spend the fucking money on real food! Please!

“Did you ever say anything?”

“Fuck no. It was stupid.”

“Why?”

“I dunno,” he huffed. Kay shook her head disapprovingly. “Look, don’t give me that!” he shot back. “I know, if it had been you, you would’ve had real food on the second re-up. But you know how I don’t have the patience to deal with people’s crazy bullshit lies on why they can’t do the simplest of things like that!”

“Yeah, I do know,” she nodded gently, like a mother listening to her young child’s recount of what the school bully did that day.

“Can we crush now or what?” Rahl asked, agitated from his friend’s unrelenting smirking.

“You just tell me what you’re in the mood for, baby girl,” she offered, her smile soft and genuine this time, all too grateful for this kind of easygoing banter and Rahl’s hilariously passive/manic, non-native English speaking presence to be back in her life.

“I want a grip of wash and. . .hm,” he paused, still undecided.

“Got ya,” Kay said, already heading to the window order counter.

On the stoop, one grip of wash down and two remaining, the pair ate their box meals in silence, content with taking in the comings and goings of the intersection, the brisk air, the taste of hot, freshly made, homegrown edibles, and each others’ warm bodies.

“So what have you been doing this whole time?” Rahl finally picked up in between mouthfuls, leaning back against the wall behind them. Kay slipped an arm behind Rahl’s waist and gripped his hip affectionately.

“I don’t even know,” she sighed.

Rahl draped his arm across her shoulders likewise and gave her a concerned look. “That bad? Has it been just you regulating this whole time I’ve been gone?”

“Not even. I dunno, pard. I can’t get into talking about it right now.”

“You sure?” he offered once more. Kay looked at him in the eye and nodded a yes, I’m sure before resting her head on his shoulder. They both leaned back. Rahl brought the mouth of their second grip to his lips, the bite of Fu Wah’s house blend liquor settling down good in his stomach as he drank, thinking: Those resource-hoarding dome motherfuckers can manufacture super high-end prosthetic bodies, but they can’t grow good edibles. . ..

Sitting there quietly resting against each other like they were, one might assume any number of relationship dynamics between the two cyborgs. Back when the pair of them were coming up, it was common to have a publicly accessible profile out on the Net (so you could read up and find out those sorts of things). Back then, that kind of personal broadcasting was popular, and one could access all the inane personal details about strangers that one wanted. In fact, Rahl used to list his whole system rundown stats, thinking it was cool and made some sort of statement about who he was. Eventually, though, all that got to be information overload and folk went back to keeping restricted access profiles, or in Kay’s case, none at all. Right now Rahl was recalling the first time they met, feeling nostalgic for Kay’s old tricked-out profile. She used to be much more flashy back then. Nowadays, she was a visible-enough figure around town that the old kind of posturing was probably too much. Or maybe you could say that their way of posturing was old hat compared to the way all the young bucks did nowadays. Kay was fond of giving him bits of critique that usually ended with don’t play yourself or naw, that’s played out. And that’s how he felt about laying back now: let’s not play ourselves out — we’re the oldheads now.

Kay was asleep against him. Up late, huh? He drew her closer, acting like it was for (the sake of) warmth, but they both knew (hell, their whole crew knew) how much he liked playing protective girlfriend. Sometimes she let him act that part, usually in times like this when she was exhausted. (He had to ignore the fact that it was probably out of some pack animal mentality where the alpha lets beta run some things.) Other times she shut him down hard, and he would see the boundary line of their intimate yet very platonic friendship. But nothing bothered him, so long as she kept him close.

After a while she woke back up. She didn’t move but he could hear it in the change of her breathing. She took the remaining grip of wash when he offered it, downing a sip to wake up fully.

“Did I miss anything?”

“No, not really,” he said, easing up his grip on her shoulder as she straightened up. “You’re exhausted, huh.”

“Yeah, you could say that.” She paused and shook her head. “Sorry I fell asleep on you.”

“Don’t even say that,” he offered quietly.

“Thanks.” She picked up her box lunch, literally in a box fashioned out of strategically folded butcher paper, and began picking at the leftover bits. Rahl hummed quietly when the heat of her hand left his torso. “You trying to get into anything tonight?”

“Hmm, I wanted to, right. But I think I should kick it at home, at least tonight. . . Why? You got plans?”

“Nothing.”

“Yeah, it is feeling quiet around here. . .”

“Well you’re always welcome over if you want. We can break bread and maybe watch something.”

His brow perked up. “You sure?”

Suddenly, a dusty pair of sandaled feet were in front of them.

“Hey! You’re back.”

Rahl angled himself to look at the body of an unfamiliar voice — ‘Try A Little Tenderness‘, a tattoo said on the outside of her left calf, one of many. This girl looks good, he realized. Hair shaved on one side, fading out into longer curls on the other. She had one big earring on and a piercing through her bottom lip. She was looking at Kay, smiling — glowing, in fact. Kay was silent. This person is talking to me, she realized in slowly-forming thoughts. Rahl nudged her as if to say the same thing.

“Yeah, I got back last night.”

Last night? Where she been at? Rahl puzzled.

“How was it?” This chick, her face and voice were so vibrant, so awake and interested, looking expectantly over Kay’s mutely agonized expression as she struggled to gather her thoughts.

“It was. . . Well.” she stopped. “Well I’m real tired, to be honest,” she sighed out, squinting. “It was the hardest dive I ever had to do,” she paused, trying to absorb some of the positive tension from this girl, failing. Silence.

The girl picked up with a sympathetic tone. “Yeah? How’ve you been? Aside from the dive.”

“Me? Well lately we’ve been going out to the riverfront to relax. My brain’s been tired.”

“I can only imagine!”

The two chatted on, with Kay struggling to remain coherent. Rahl was mystified. Who was this chick? Where had Kay been? Why was she so drained? Whatever, he concluded. Kay would tell him all about it when she was ready. Hopefully. Tonight.

“Well let me know when your schedule is open, boy.”

“I’ll do that,” Kay managed a smile.

“Okay. Hope I see you soon.”

“You and me both, Par.”

Par flashed the pair a smile that made Rahl’s breath hitch up in his chest, then they turned on their heel and walked off with a swing in their hips.

“Are you talking to her?” Rahl asked as soon as she was gone.

Them,” Kay corrected. “I wish, though,” she laughed, “Not enough time to, lately.”

“Yeah, she—they’re really fine, huh.”

“They are available, pard. And they’re into being exclusive, just like you like.”

“Oh for real?” Rahl piqued. “Wait, how do you know?”

“We been kicking it is all. They moved here since you been gone. They seen me out on my rounds and just started talking to me one day, all asking how my job is and shit. I dunno. Just on some chance is all.”

“All right, all right,” Rahl parsed, nodding. “So, aside from fine-ass Par, where did you just get back from last night?”

“Aw shit,” she huffed. “I’ll tell you later. Really.”

“All right.”

“Let’s go, though. I’m getting cold. Trying to go reserve on my hook-up so I don’t have to go in for maintenance right away.”

“Yeah, I just got updated,” Rahl frowned with understanding. “To your place?”

“Course you did. Yeah, my place.”

• • • • • • • •

Kay unlocked the door to her quiet spot, ushering Rahl in before her, then taking the worn canvas bag of groceries from him once she was inside. He locked as many of the manual entry mechanisms as he could. The rest needed her personal touch.

“I should’ve asked before we got here,” she called from the kitchen space.

“What?”

“If you needed to stop at your place for anything. I want you to stay over tonight.”

“Oh. . . Oh, okay,” he fumbled, surprised. “Should I. . . do. . .?”

“Naw, you’re here now.”

Rahl walked into the ‘kitchen,’ intent to help, but saw she was in one of her I got this moods and just posted up against the wall instead. Still. . .

“You want any help?”

“Naw, I got this,” she said, wiping crumbs off a cutting board.

“Gotcha,” he nodded. He watched her get everything ready in silence, washing vegetables and setting up stock pans. Occasionally, she held something out, a knife or cooking sauce, or a piece of compost for him to take care of. When she turned on her beat-up audio deck and put it on one slowed-down chill record from back in the day, he gave her a sudden look. She stopped what she was doing and returned his gaze.

“Look, I’m that tired. I hope you don’t mind,” she asked softly.

“I don’t mind,” he replied quickly, a little startled. Did he? She poured a glass and handed it to him, receiving it almost instinctively. “What’s this?”

“Some of my good stuff,” she half-grinned. “Sip it.”

“Are you having any?”

They clinked cups a moment later. Right before they sat down to eat she jumped up and changed into an old rag of a t-shirt and worn-out shorts, the ones they used to have to wear in their training sessions before deployment. Dinner conversation was warm and nostalgic, sipping all the while on her high-quality booze.

“Do you wanna change?” she asked, smiling slow and tipsy, obviously running herself on very low metabolic settings.

“Should I?” he asked, standing and bringing their plates to the sink. She stood as well, swaying next to the table, watching him.

“I’m asking if you want to. I got our old training sweats still that you can wear. . .”

“Yeah, if you think I should,” he began to say.

“I’m saying you should. But, I understand if you don’t.” She paused. “You don’t even have to stay here tonight if you don’t want to. . . You know I know you’re nervous about this whole situation,” she added quietly.

“No—” he began.

“What?”

“I’m just thinking, like am I gonna piss off one of your, you know, ‘friends’ when they roll up in here and see the two of us—”

“No one’s gonna roll up in here,” she bit, as if the idea was absurd, which it was.

“All right,” he fell back. “I’m just trying to gauge what the situation is.” Kay was frowning, her eyes on the floor. “What? What did I say?” He began to approach her.

“Nothing, I’m just feeling stupid is all. And you’re always over-cautious. It makes me feel bad.”

“What over, Kay? Everything’s cool.” He stepped in closer to no protest. Rahl felt a wave of deja-vu hit him, from their front days on broad patrol, with those other goons Suli and Braga and them, before Omwenga was a proper territory. Kay had been in charge of their posse and Rahl, while you couldn’t say he was the second-in-charge, did become her right-hand. She’d have these occasional freakouts and he’d be the only one she would let talk her down. Right now, Kay was just drunk and stressed out and unsure of herself, no where near the crises-level losses of control he witnessed on the front. He was pretty confident he could keep cool, nonetheless.

“I dunno, Rahl. Everything is like, really fucking sloppy for me right now. That dive was one of the worst messes I ever got mixed up in, and it was mostly my fault, not looking out. My rep was on the line, I feel like.” She paused to catch a breath. “And you saw Par! That person is so fine, trying to ask about me. You know how I am. But. . .” She lapsed into silence, clearly flustered with herself. Meanwhile, Rahl found himself struggling with an old familiar inner monologue of ‘should I…? shouldn’t I…?‘ He looked her over, standing there leaning against the table, needing something. A hug, or an encouraging word, or maybe just his silence. The way her shoulders were sloped, he sensed that a hug was a safe approach. He’d been shrugged off before plenty of times. Hell, over those eight weeks out in West Rundown, he would’ve loved a shrug-off from her. Suddenly she picked her head up and looked at him.

“I’m just. . . I’ve been real tired lately. Lonely.” she muttered.

“Lonely,” he echoed. His inner conflict ceased and he took her in his arms. “What got you lonely?” he asked gently. She huffed and put her head on his chest. Rahl sighed himself, feeling all too close and intimate to her, wanting to sit her down and work on her muscles, comb her hair — something like that, that he wasn’t actually confident enough to go through trying without fearing some negative reaction from her. Still, he found his hands creeping up her back, the nape of her neck, stroking the short tangled wisps of hair there. He felt her body relax against him, her shoulders unhitch and her hips sink forward slightly.

Kay thought pitifully about all the things she could ask him: Let’s take a bath, or, Can you take my clothes off for me?, or, Can you just lay in bed with me and kiss me till I fall asleep? She knew he might do them if she asked. She knew that she could give herself safely up to his careful obedience, his loyalty, and have little to worry about — no street rep or particular gender role or bi-tactile syncing — none of that. But there was always something that made her hesitate to cross that line, ever since those first few messy times back on the front. Perhaps it was exactly the loyalty, the obedience, or the understanding in his austere gaze, like that of certain children who have seen too much. He didn’t have the heart to deal with how she handled her relationships, was the thing. She wouldn’t put him through the jealousy or doubt, even though they’d been living for each other since that first deployment …

“Kay. . . Kay. . . ?” His voice was tickling the inside of her ear. She opened her eyes and looked up at him, feeling warm and safe, realizing then that she’d dozed off right there. “Hey, I was thinking. . .” He looked down at her, embrace easing up nervously.”

“Yeah?” she asked sleepily.

“That, if I’m staying over tonight, well, you seem like you need a rest and. . . How bout I get you ready for bed, tuck you in, and then maybe we could do like uh, some platonic cuddling while I watch a movie or something.”

“Platonic cuddling?” she repeated with an amused, lazy snort. He grinned at her, at his own foolishness.

“Yeah, that. How’s it sound?”

“You don’t even know, pard. . .” she began.

“It’s good?” he asked, eyes like a child asking for permission.

“Yeah it’s good,” she asserted, nodding against him. “It’s straight nice,” she reiterated. “But just, like—”

“What?”

“Just, yo. I want a bath and clean pajamas and all a’that.” Rahl smiled, feeling a bit relieved. She had succumbed to her fatigue, words coming out in lazy strings of thought, hands loosely clasped around his back, nuzzling against him like certain alley cats are want to do.

• • • • • • • •

Later that night Rahl dreamt of sleepy-eyed Kay with her legs wrapped around him, watching himself push into a past vision of her again and again. She was Kay but not Kay, the sharply defined striations of her abdomen and thigh muscles replaced by the softer, more supple body of lower conversion percentage cyborgs and junkie juicer types, those kids with thick hips. Maybe it was Par’s body.

He woke up with cum wet on the hairs of his lower abdomen and Kay’s knee draped just above his. He tensed in a moment of panic, thinking the hand resting on his chest would any moment brush through that sticky warmth. But Kay was fast asleep. And Rahl, wide awake with the thundering blood brought by adrenaline (with none of the cheap chemicals), was trying to calm himself down. Breathe it out, just close your eyes, he thought. Normally he would wipe away his cum with a cloth or get up and use the faucet in the washroom, but oh—what the hell? Rahl realized the magnitude of the situation; that his dick (which, incidentally, he was born with) was out in the air and he didn’t know where his underwear was. He pushed a constricted sigh through his nose, adrenaline peaking as he remembered with some relief Kay’s midnight insistence that clothes were ‘in the way,’ and ‘too hot,’ and ‘a joke.’ She had pulled those old training sweats off the both of them and flopped down back to sleep in seconds. Recalling this—remembering the sequence of events—things didn’t feel so alarming anymore. He quietly scooped up the small milky pools and licked away what stuck to his fingertips. Then it was all gone, his skin cool as it dried in the pre-dawn air.

Later (not much later), Kay would rise first, stretching up and up, straight towards the ceiling, listening to the sounds of breathing, the boisterous cawing of all-black trashpicking ravens, the ambient hums of fans and power supplies, and the approaching singsong call of the local water tank man, who always gave her a friendly nod, even though she never bought anything from him. She reached lazily across the bed, across sleeping Rahl, to pull a tattered gray shirt off the floor and over her head. Kay wasn’t ready to all the way, and neither was he, but Rahl was somebody she could really love, she thought then, looking at the calm of his sleeping face, and his half-erect penis. She laughed to herself, at the same time feeling poorly for putting Rahl in this situation. Rather, dragging him into her pathetic, attention-starved fog last night. Her gaze drifted towards the floor.

Kay gathered up the kicked-off covers from the floor and laid them over her friend gingerly. She stood at the side of the bed, watching him, waiting for his eyes to pop open and stare at her, or look at her in horror, knowing he was naked in her bed or—Who cares, she resigned suddenly, stooping to place a kiss near the corner of his mouth. She paused, then slid a hand under the covers and fondly stroked that supple, half-erect length. He didn’t rouse.

“Rahl,” she uttered gently. “If you got somewhere to be, you should get up now. Rahl.”

“What time is it?” he muttered, eyes closed.

“You got your clocks, don’t you?” she chided. His brow perked, remembering those standard internal system clocks, and mouthed an oh of understanding in the same motion.

“Naw, I don’t gotta be no where till one,” he managed, manner of speech unconsciously mimicking hers. Then, “Why is your hand on my dick?”

She laughed, drawing it away quickly, and his eyes finally opened to look at her. She was grinning, trying to stifle a laugh.

“Seemed like a good idea is all. Like you would’na minded, I mean.”

He looked at her for a long beat, and she at him, considering perhaps that maybe it wasn’t a good idea at all, or that he didn’t like feeling jerked around because she was lonely, or that he wanted something more from her than this. She wasn’t sure. She looked away suddenly.

“Kay, I don’t care. I was just curious,” his tone mellow and soft. “The last time your hand was on my dick, you know?” he ended playfully.

“Yeah,” she managed a smile, consoled by the sober understanding steeped in his teasing voice. How did it happen that in her whole posse, it would end up that there’d only be one person who could really follow her thought process, she wondered.

“How you feel today?”

“Better.”

“You wanna go to Fu Wah again? Get some breakfast?”

“Yeah. . . I’d like that.”

First Online: January 30, 2010
Tagged for themes of: , , , , , ,
Filed Under: all that's left, fiction, zero packet

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