master the merry go round Who: Alice and Rafael What: The black boxes cause discomfort Where: Rafael’s apartment When: After Alex’s visit to Alice.
It wasn’t until after Alice had knocked on Rafael’s apartment door that she thought this might not be the best idea. She stood in shorts and a tee, an upgrade from her pajamas earlier, with her hair still in a messy ponytail. It was early still, early enough that Rafael could be sleeping, early enough that Gabe may have spent the night there. Hell, maybe Rafael wasn’t even home, he could be over at Gabe’s apartment and at this, Alice gave a wary glance toward Gabe’s door. Still there was no turning back now. She had done the first thing that came to mind after Alex had left: get dressed, grab a treat, and go up the number of floors to her friend’s apartment. She had considered going to Isobel, but she still didn’t want to trouble her friend with her own concerns, and Rafael had already seen so much of what powers Uke Mochi had, he seemed like the next best candidate.
So that’s where Rafael found her; standing before his apartment door with a frown of concern on her face and a furrowed brow. The black box held between her hands and a plate of danishes placed on top of the box. He opened the door wide the moment he realized it was her. With one bare arm he made a sweeping motion, welcoming her inside the apartment.
"Good morning," he said, beaming brightly. His hair was still saltwater damp, his skin still flecked with crisp white sand. Board shorts rode low on his hips, the rest of him unabashedly uncovered. "To what do I owe this pleasure? And breakfast, too, no less…"
Rafael swiped a danish from the plate. He took a small bite from one edge, humming his approval as he chewed.
“Um, well,” She glanced at the doorway of the apartment then back to Rafael, a frown hinting at the corners of her mouth as she stepped into Rafael’s apartment and turned toward her friend. “Did you...did you get a box like this?” She held it up higher and tilted her head to look at it. “You know, without the danishes. My neighbor and I both got black boxes at our doors this morning and with a note from management.”
Nodding, Rafe closed and locked the door behind her. "I did…" Still munching on the pastry he moved deeper into the apartment. He took a seat on the sofa and patted the cushion beside him. "Do you want to take a look at yours?" He smiled softly, trying to be encouraging. "I'm sure it's nothing to worry about. Or I'll get mine if you like. Maybe you could help me decide what to wear with it."
Alice’s eyes went wide as she took her seat beside Rafael. “You--you’re going to wear it?” Her voice was quiet, mouse-like as she stared at her friend, the box still firmly held in her hands with the danishes balancing on top. “You’re going to go to the party?”
He blinked. It seemed the idea to not attend had simply not occurred to him; a party with Gabe at his side had seemed too great to even consider passing up. That he would have a chance to dress well and perhaps meet some of the building's newest arrivals were icing on the cake.
"I've already tried mine on," he admitted. His brow furrowed, he studied her face. "Nothing happened, at least as far as I know. It's just an ordinary mask." Nodding toward the box in her hands, he asked, "Have you really looked at yours yet? I can hold it, if you want. Just see if anything seems, I don't know, off about it."
Alice looked down at the box and leaned forward to sit the package on the coffee table and move the danishes off it to sit beside. “I’ve looked, I read the message too, but I haven’t touched it and I’m scared it’ll make me turn into Uke Mochi or something awful.” Pulling the lid off produced the invitation and the white mask with golden accents. She glanced at Rafael as color crept up her cheeks. “I’m worried I’ll turn into a pile of rice and no one will know. I...I didn’t want to touch it or try it on while I was alone.”
Rafe nodded. He inched up to the edge of the couch cushion, peering down into the box and the delicate mask it contained. "Oh that's beautiful, Alice. It would look lovely on you." He reached over to her, his hand coming to rest on her thigh. He squeezed her gently, encouraging. "I'm right here," he said. "I've… you know. I've met her. If anything happens—and I don't think it will—I'll talk to her, OK? I think it'll all be fine, but if it isn't, at least I can talk to her and get you back." He smiled. "Trust me."
Alice bit at her bottom lip and looked at her friend before giving a small nod of her head. She looked at the mask and leaned forward, one finger extended to gently tap at the mask as if it might be hot. Of course, it wasn’t, and it didn’t create any feeling or sensation in Alice’s finger. With another glance at Rafael, and her lips parting, Alice reached to pluck the mask out of the box. She let out a shaking sigh as she sat up straight and held the mask with both hands, looking at it quietly and feeling the light weight of it all. “I don’t have wheat in my hair or anything, right?” She asked Rafael, her eyes not moving from the mask and her voice conveying her nerves.
He moved back on the sofa, searching her hair for any sign of the change he had seen before. Unwilling to pass judgment too quickly, he reached up with one hand, delicately toying with one thick ginger lock. He leaned forward, searching still, and still he saw nothing. He shook his head, sitting back, a relieved smile playing on his lips. "Nothing. You're still our Alice." He quirked a brow. "How do you feel? Do you think you could try it on, now?"
“I feel fine. It… it feels like a mask. Nothing weird about it.” She took in a breath and moved her thumb over the golden pieces of the mask. It was beautiful. Licking her lips, Alice began to lift it to her face and paused. “You tried yours on?” She asked before frowning, remembering he already said he had. He nodded anyway, working to reassure her in any way he could. Scrunching her nose, she committed to the action and pressed the mask to her face, her eyes squeezed shut all the while. She didn’t bother to tie the ribbons behind her head but held it in place, taking a moment before she opened her eyes a peak. “Still no wheat?”
One hand on her shoulder, he peered cautiously and curiously over her. He studied her hair, moved thick locks once more, and still he saw nothing unusual. He shook his head. "Still nothing," he said. He reached up, running his fingers over the ribbon. "Do you want me to tie it? You can take a look in the mirror and see for yourself." He leaned over to where she could see his smiling face, his hands still on the ribbon behind her head. "It really does look lovely on you."
Alice’s cheeks reddened, looking to be a deeper color with the white mask pressed beside them. “Sure, you can tie the mask on. Maybe that’ll be what makes me change,” she replied, still not believing the mask was simply a mask, but at the very least accepting that if she should become rice, Rafael would be capable of handling her.
He smiled at her deep blush, but called no attention to it. Instead he leaned back, tying the ribbon loosely behind her, careful not to catch her hair. He made the little knot tight enough to hold the mask in place, but simple enough to undo with a slight tug. Then he held out his hand, guiding her up from the couch, and deeper into the apartment and his own bedroom. There, a full-length mirror rested in one corner. He led her to it, then stood beside her, both of them gazing at her reflection. Seeing no immediate change, and markedly pleased with this fact, he gave her upper arm a little squeeze.
"See? Nothing to it. Just a mask."
Alice watched her reflection for a moment and slowly a tentative smile appeared. “Just a mask,” she repeated with a nod, glancing to her side to meet Rafael’s eyes she smiled more broadly. “Thanks for dealing with me. I’m sorry I’m being so paranoid. So, you’re going to the party they’re throwing?”
Rafe nodded, sliding one arm back around her shoulders. He gave her a brief, tight hug. "I want to," he said, "but you're not paranoid. Not after everything that's happened in this place." He withdrew from her, turning away and moving toward his closet door. "I'll show you mine. I'm still debating what to wear…"
He returned with a gold domino, its face embossed with elaborate knotwork. He held it out for her to see. "Any suggestions?"
Alice grinned at the sight of the other mask and took it in her hands, her earlier fears gone. “Oh, Rafael, you need to dress up like him.” She looked up at her friend with a spark in her eyes, made all the more bright with the mask still on her face. She offered the mask back to him and looked him over. “You could grow a longer beard, right? And we can get you fabric and make it sort of like a cloak. At least that’s how I remember him in the dream. You should cosplay the deity.”
The warmth that rose to his face was answer enough. He pressed his free hand to his nape, his weight shifting from one foot to the other. "Oh, I could get a little beard going by then, I suppose… I've never really let it grow out. But I think… I think I'd like that, if you don't think it's too silly. I was really just thinking a suit, maybe a gold tie…" He shrugged, self conscious but still enjoying the mental image the thought made. He set the domino down on his bed, tapping one finger to his lips as he studied her in her mask.
"OK," he said, "if you dress up as her, I'll do it. That way neither of us would be the only one dressed up… like that."
Alice smiled but was shaking her head. “Oh, no, I don’t know if I’m going to go. And also, I don’t know how I could dress up like a naked grain woman.” Color spread across her cheeks as she looked down at her current outfit. “I was thinking of dressing up as Alice in Wonderland...that’s if I went...”
"You should absolutely go," Rafe insisted. "Alice in Wonderland would be perfect. I think it would go with the mask, too. And I can go with you to pick out a costume, if you wanted. Maybe we'll find something I can use for Freyr, too?" Without waiting for another denial, unwilling to let her spiral into worry, he took her hand and led her to the living room, where his laptop rested atop the coffee table, ready to be used in their costume shop search.
Alice went willingly and even smiled as she was led away, her mask still in place and forgotten. “You know, finding costumes together would be nice.”