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Title: Bitter Gifts
Fandom: The Traitor Game
Characters/Pairings: Michael/Francis UST, OFC
Rating/Warnings: Foul language (when doesn't that warning apply to these two?), romance novel covers
Written For: [livejournal.com profile] hs_bingo, prompt "rivals." It's not explicitly spelled out at any point, but the idea of rivalry and competition did end up forming a running theme, so that's good.
Wordcount: 1000
A/N: The second of two fics written around midnight last night. I may catch up with this whole mess yet, if only I can get tonight's work done at a reasonable hour.

“How about there?” Michael asked, pointing towards a battered-looking store with a dimly-lit sign proclaiming it Harrington’s Secondhand Books and Stationary.

“All right, I suppose,” Francis said, eyeing it rather dubiously. It did look a bit grungy, but it also looked like it might have some relatively cheap books that might appeal to his mother and didn’t have humiliatingly half-dressed people on the cover, which was all Michael cared about at this point.

Pushing the door open revealed a scent of mustiness and a faint whiff of industrial cleaner that was eerily reminiscent of school, but at least they weren’t smacked in the face by tinny holiday music. This store’s sole concession to the season was the dimly twinkling strand of lights around the window, which were almost swallowed up by the cobwebs.

Michael tried to make a beeline for the bargain books but quickly got distracted by the fantasy novels, most of which oughtn’t to have made especially effective distractions. They were all cookie-cutter copies, like Evgard stories might be if they were told in dull ordinary language and without Francis’s gift for coloring in little details of the world. Michael shook himself out of their clutches and turned his attention back towards the realistic fiction and the romances, frowning.

A little poking revealed a still-glossy hardcover that talked about banal everyday life and the longing for a greater destiny, which sounded similar to the sort of books his mother left lying around the house and seemed nice enough to count as a good present, so he took it and worked his way between the stacks in search of the register.

He got embarrassingly turned around given that this was a fairly small shop, and eventually stumbled around a corner to discover not only his destination but also Francis, who was deep in conversation with the girl at the till. He was chuckling in that way he had, the one that made him look like he belonged on a slightly classier version of one of the novels Michael had discarded as too humiliating, and leaning on the counter in a way that pulled his crisp white shirt tight across his thin shoulder blades. Michael watched the girl giggle behind her hand, light flickering off her sparkling nail polish, watched her brace her elbows on the counter and lean in very close to Francis, toying with her scarf, and tightened his hand on his book.

He’s gay, you silly little tart, so leave him alone, he thought, and then wanted to smack himself. Where the hell did that one come from? It wasn’t as if Francis needed Michael to protect him from overzealous women, or some such thing, and she was only barely coming on to him. Possibly not at all; it might be that he was just imagining things. (Again. He dug a fingernail into his palm.)

“Oh, is that him?” he heard the flirty shop girl say, gesturing. Francis turned and smiled, not an embarrassing-cover smile but his typical friendly one.

“Michael, there you are! Find what you were looking for?”

“Yeah,” he said, surprised when it came out a croak. He cleared his throat and tried again. “Yeah, I think I’ve found something.” He hurried towards the counter and slid the book across the chipped and mottled surface.

“Oooh, Miller? That’s a good one. A present for someone? Girlfriend, sister?” the shopgirl asked. He could see her winding a strand of honey-blond hair around her finger at the edge of his field of vision.

“My mum,” he said, handing over the cash without looking up.

“Oh, nice. I bet she’ll love it. I’m Elaine, by the way,” she said, ringing up the sale.

“Thank you,” Michael mumbled, grabbing for the book.

“Er, you’re welcome. Happy holidays.”

“Yeah, merry Christmas.” He hurried out of the store with Francis tugging at his sleeve.

“Why didn’t you talk to her, Michael?” Francis hissed the instant they were out the door. “Didn’t you see she liked you?”

“Wait, what? It was you she was all over.”

“Seriously? No, she was asking me about you.”

“Really?”

“Yes. It was a bit comical, really. She called you the good-looking boy with the lovely eyes.”

“When did she even get a look at my eyes?”

“Beyond me.” Francis brushed at the snow settling in his hair; he was already a bit flushed from the cold, and his eyebrows were pinned down in a scowl that Michael presumed to be directed at the flakes on his nose. “Perhaps she just assumed you’d have nice eyes.”

“I s’pose it’s possible. She must have weird taste, though.”

“And what’s that supposed to mean?”

“Well.” Michael waved his mittened hands vaguely at the air, trying to communicate the obvious difference in quality between himself and Francis. “Looking at me with you right there, and all – I mean, it doesn’t make sense, particularly. That she would.”

“What on earth are you going on about, Thompson?”

“For God’s sake.” Michael was flushing now, hot and furious. Why did Francis have to be so dense all the time? “You’re better-looking than me, all right, Harris? Did you –” and he bit back the end of that sentence, the sharp-edged did you need to hear it or something? Francis wasn’t like that.

“I will never understand how your mind works,” Francis said, frowning at him. “Don’t take that the wrong way, I like how your mind works – ah, don’t take that one the wrong way, either. I just meant I don’t understand how you could possibly end up with that notion.”

“How couldn’t I?” And this was surely one of the odder conversations Michael had had in his life, and not the most comfortable either.

Francis coughed. “Well, anyway. Perhaps she could smell the gay on me, or something.” Michael guessed the noise that followed was meant to be a laugh and snorted obligingly.

“Don’t be a tosser, Harris,” he said. “Anyway, where else do we need to go?”

“I think I’m good, actually,” Francis said, glancing at the packages in his arms. “Off again home, in that case?”

“Sounds about right.” They headed for the train station, and Michael caught Francis smiling at him sideways through the snow, with little flakes sticking to his eyelashes and dampness gluing his hair to his forehead. Michael smiled back, suddenly and inexplicably warm in spite of the weather.
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