Title: born losers
Summary: They’re friends. That’s it.
EVERYBODY EVER Mainly Angry Joe and Stacey, with lots of others on the side. You know how this goes.
Word Count: 15,582
Warning(s): Alcohol, language, sex, drugs, and violence. Ladies and gentlemen, I believe I have hit the Hooker!Verse jackpot.
Disclaimer: None of these marvelous people are mine: anybody with a name you recognize presumably belongs to themselves
and hopefully will not hurt me if they find this, pretty please? I enjoy living!, while Stacey and the other club girls are all thanks to the incredible
A/N: xraraavisx, thank you for continually putting up with my madness and for fixing my grammatical errors – I now owe you five cakes, three Captain-laced Shirley Temples, and a kitten – specifically, this kitten, because it’s probably the only one you’ll ever let anywhere near you. Also, if I’m ever asked about the origins of this story, I think I’m just going to make wild flailing motions in theladyisatiger’s direction and shout “Enabler!” over and over again. That’ll work. ;o)
( when the lights come on, this whole place gets ugly )
“Pour me another!” Lucy orders with a wide, bright grin, pushing at his arm until Joe finally leans forward and picks up her empty glass from the table. She mimes a whipping motion and adds, “Andalé!”
Ever since her shift up at the club ended – and they had to learn the hard way that Lucy has been banned from Heroes for the next few weeks – she and Joe have been stretched out on the couch in hers and Stacey’s apartment, drinking cheap booze and watching old westerns. He always has a good time with her, even if their nights out together usually end up with one of them getting hammered and trying to start a fight with a stranger. Most of the time, it’s Lucy. But this is cool, too: just hanging out and watching a movie, eating popcorn and going through the liquor cabinet. It seems like the more alcohol Lucy has in her system, the better her John Wayne impression gets, and Joe reaches for the bottle of Four Roses in the hopes that with another glass or two, she’ll stop singing in a weird voice and start quoting True Grit again.
“I’ve done siiiiiix shots,” she sings in a high, breathy voice. John Wayne, it is most definitely not. “Siiiiiiix shots, and you’ve only done threeeeee.”
“That voice,” Joe answers, deadpan, “Would kill children in their sleep.”
“Don’t be jealous, Joe,” Lucy sings. She’s started adding strange, Saturday Night Fever-like arm movements to her singing and comes dangerously close to smacking him in the face. By pure luck, she only barely grazes his ear. “Don’t be jealous of my mad drinking skills.”
“I don’t think having the tolerance level of a small elephant actually counts as a ‘skill’.”
“Hey.” She jabs him in the side with her elbow and despite himself, he winces. “My link to our elephant brethren is none of your business. And did you just use ‘finger-quotes’ at me?”
“Did you just use finger-quotes while asking if I used them?”
“Doesn’t matter! I am trying to –” The front door creaks as it opens and Lucy turns her head so sharply that something in her neck cracks. It must not be as painful as it sounds, though, because she breaks into this grin that’s bright as a sunlamp right as her roommate walks through the door. “Stacey!” she crows, “You’re late!”
“And you’re…drinking. Again.” She drops her books onto the table and then looks over at Joe, doing a bit of a double-take when she realizes who he is. She waves. “Hey…Joe.”
“Hey yourself. You coming from the club?”
“My study group,” she shrugs as way of explanation. Stacey unwinds the scarf from her neck, the ends of her hair sticking to her face in a static-y cloud as she drops it on top of the bag she’s set next to her books. “How long have you two been at this?”
“What’s the occasion?”
“Occasion?” Lucy tips her head back so she can swallow what little is left at the bottom of her glass and then reaches, again, for the bottle. “Did I miss Arbor Day again?”
“…It’s a Thursday.”
“Only for another hour – and, hey, it’s already almost Friday night in Australia!”
Stacey drapes her jacket over the back of a kitchen chair and looks at them blankly. Lucy breathes out in a theatrical sigh, and in a lofty voice, announces, “Fine. If you must know, there is a John Wayne marathon on one of those old-timey movie channels, and we are showing our respect.”
“Respect?” Stacey raises her eyebrows. “By drinking an entire bottle of whiskey?”
“Hey, that man is a legend!” Joe says, pointing at her. “We show our respect in a lot of ways!”
Lucy snorts into her glass and Stacey rolls her eyes. “Right,” she says, crossing the room to drop her body next to his on the couch. “So…have they run Rio Grande yet?”
Lucy shakes her head in the negative and pulls herself upright, taking the almost-empty bottle with her into their kitchen to get a clean glass for Stacey, leaving them alone.
They don’t do this very often – talk outside the club, that is. When he comes in during her shift, she’ll wander over on her breaks sometimes and they’ll make small talk, but it’s nothing too substantial; he knows the very basics, nothing more and nothing less. Joe likes Stacey, he does, but it’s not like with Mary – or even Lucy, actually, now that he thinks about it – where he makes a point to see her in a place where she can relax, where her entire personality isn’t an act. This is…different, sitting next to her on the couch in her own house, listening to her riff on the movie and watching her get comfortable.
Lucy comes back with two full glasses and an unopened bottle tucked under her arm. Some of the amber liquid in her own glass sloshes over the side as she passes the other one over, and when Stacey sniffs the contents of the glass Lucy has poured for her, she wrinkles her nose and grimaces.
“Ugh, Lu, this – this smells like paint thinner.”
“That’s too bad.” Lucy licks the spilled whiskey off her knuckles. “You know we don’t waste in this house. Drink up.”
“It’s a rite of passage,” Joe adds. “If you want to be as cool as us, you’ve got to pass the test.”
Stacey gives him an odd look as she brings the glass to her lips, shuddering when she catches the smell again. She almost moves it away, but then she closes her eyes and takes the tiniest sip possible. Joe leans over and tips the bottom of the glass upwards, forcing her to drink all of it in one go; her eyes get wide, the muscles of her throat contract as she swallows. She sputters when she finishes, gasps as she slams her glass down on the hard surface of the coffee table, and Stacey glares at him when she wipes at her mouth with the back of her hand.
“That is disgusting.” Stacey shoves him hard into Lucy. “I hate you both.”
Lucy reaches over him to ruffle her hair. “Oh, come on, you know you love me.”
“See, now I know you’re drunk. I can’t see any other way you’d be able to mistake ‘abject hatred’ for ‘love’.”
“Meh. Hate, love, same difference.”
Lucy kicks her feet up onto the table and Joe holds up his hands like he’s weighing the words. Stacey shakes her head and says, “No, I’m pretty sure I hate you.”
Lucy turns the volume up on the television and right as the three of them start settling in to watch the movie, Stacey’s phone starts ringing in her schoolbag. She leaps up from the couch to answer it and as she talks to whoever’s on the other line, Lucy starts making hand gestures that mimic the conversation. Joe snickers appreciatively and knocks her hands down, but Lucy lifts them right back up and continues in her impromptu puppet show.
“Hey! I was wondering where you…really? That bad? Oh, geez, Linkara, that’s – no, no, I’ve got the notes – hold on, let me go where it’s quiet.” Stacey holds the phone against her chest as she walks away and tells them, “Have fun destroying your livers. The number for poison control’s on the fridge.”
When Joe wakes up the next morning, the TV is off and he’s still lying on the couch, but Lucy’s head is pressed against his arm and there’s an afghan covering the both of them. There’s something blocking his vision in his right eye and it takes him a minute to figure out that no, the absolute bottom-shelf rotgut Lucy brought out last night hasn’t made him go blind, but there’s a post-it note stuck to his forehead that must have slipped down a little during the night. The glue sticks to his fingers when he pulls it away, and Stacey’s handwriting is so small and cramped that he has to squint to read it properly.
I’m glad you two enjoyed yourselves last night, it says, but there’s Advil in the cupboard and coffee’s on the counter. Make sure Lucy adds some to her morning cup of sugar.
Joe kind of likes this place. The Pixel Palace isn’t somewhere he’ll go on a regular basis, but it’s a nice changeup from the bars he usually frequents: cleaner, friendlier. Better lighting.
There’s an odd purplish glow to the room, which is crowded full of people with a good vibe and loud, pretty decent music coming from the band across the room. Benzaie’s up at the bar with Lucy and Donna and Paw have already left for home, Critic and Liz are squashed together on Mary’s other side and Stacey’s knee keeps knocking into his underneath the table. He was a little surprised when Critic invited him along earlier in the night; he thinks it’s probably because of Mary – he goes where she does, all that noise – but he’s on his third drink of the night and surprisingly, he’s actually having a good time. It’s fun, even if he could do without the evidence of what total nerds these people really are.
“Wolverine!” Linkara adds excitedly. He’s sitting two seats over from Joe, on the very outside of the booth. “Wolverine keeps going after Cyclops about his lack of depth-perception, so Cyclops melts the soles of his boots in revenge!”
Stacey throws her head back and laughs at this, the color high in her cheeks as she covers her mouth with her hand. “And, and Pyro,” she gasps, hiccupping through her laughter, “Pyro tries to cheat when his ball goes into the woods, but instead of moving it to a better spot, he accidentally sets the woods on fire.”
They both dissolve into another giggling fit and Joe rolls his eyes, reaching across Stacey’s section of the table for his drink as he tells them, “You guys are weird.”
Stacey waves her hand in his face in response, turning her body away so she can rattle off all the ways Magneto would use his mutant powers to cheat at a golf tournament. Linkara’s gaze has shifted toward the bar and Stacey smacks him lightly on the arm, trying to pull his attention back to her. The band plays the opening strains of “Santeria” and Joe hums along, tapping his fingers against the tabletop in time with the beat.
“You okay?” he asks, turning to look at Mary. She’s leaning against him, her arm looped through his, and she nods, playing with the zipper on the sleeve of his jacket. “We can go, if you want.”
“No, I’m good,” she tells him, yawning widely on the last word. She blushes and laughs, “I don’t want to leave yet.”
“Because falling asleep at the table sounds like a great idea.”
Mary’s smiling as she presses her forehead against his shoulder, mumbling, “Soon. We’ll go soon,” while on her other side, Liz pointedly checks her watch.
Critic’s phone rings on the table and when he gets up to answer it, Benzaie and Lucy finally manage to elbow their way back through the crowd. Benzaie’s got his arm draped over Lucy’s shoulders and she’s laughing at something he says in her ear, answering his question in halting, high-school French as they approach the table. Her accent is terrible, but she must say something right because when she finishes, Benzaie grins and presses a quick kiss to her cheek.
“What up, mon frère?” Lucy says, disentangling herself from Benzaie and squeezing into the sliver of empty space next to Linkara. She drops her arm over his shoulders and gives him a quick squeeze. “You enjoying yourself?”
“Immensely,” he laughs, and just as he starts to say something else Critic appears at the head of their table, white as a ghost and staring at his phone like he’s not sure it’s even real. Liz lifts her head when she sees him, brows knit with worry, and when she asks if he’s okay, Critic nods his head in the affirmative as he tries to climb back into their booth. The people on Joe’s side of the table are practically sitting on top of one another as Critic makes himself comfortable; he accidentally jabs Stacey in the ribs with his elbow, but she doesn’t seem to notice.
“That was – God, Benzaie, move your leg – that was the Nerd. He’s coming back.”
Stacey’s head snaps up. “He’s what?”
“He’s coming back,” Critic repeats. “Another couple months and he’ll be ‘gracing us with his presence.’ Those were his exact words, too, the dick.”
“Aw, that’s so cute,” Lucy says, and Mary nods in agreement. “I think he missed you.”
“I don’t blame him – who wouldn’t miss this face?” Benzaie leans over and pinches Critic’s cheek, laughing when Critic knocks his hand away. “It’s no wonder Nerd’s fallen so hard: truly, our Critic is the greatest male specimen Chicago has to offer. So tall! So whiny! So incredibly pale –”
“Wait,” Joe interrupts, “Who are we talking about?”
“The Angry Video Game Nerd,” Linkara answers smugly, leaning back against the booth, “Better known as Critic’s boyfriend.”
“He is not my ‘boyfriend,’ you fucktard.” Critic balls up a wet napkin and throws it at Linkara, who doesn’t manage to duck in time. “He’s a total nutcase from out of town who happens to owe me money and a good movie. There’s a difference.”
Linkara raises his eyebrows, unconvinced. Critic throws another napkin at him.
“So he’s coming back?” Stacey asks, shifting in her seat to look directly at Critic; she sits up a little straighter, she folds her hands on the table. “Nerd’s definitely coming back?”
Critic nods his head. “Looks like it.”
The topic shifts as Linkara suddenly brings up some random piece of gossip he’d overheard at the club earlier in the night, but Critic and Stacey don’t contribute to the conversation. Neither one of them is looking at the other, but they’re both staring down at the surface of the table, wearing the same small, hopeful smile on their face. It’s weird.
Liz makes some noise about getting home to relieve the babysitter and Mary’s practically asleep, Critic and Linkara decide to head out and Benzaie and Lucy have come to conclusion that the only thing they want to do is keep the evening going at another bar. Linkara clambers over Lucy to get out of the booth and Lucy leans in on Stacey, trying to convince her to come with them. Stacey is having none of it.
“No.” She shakes her head, crossing her arms over her chest. “There is no way, Lucy – I am beat. All I want to do is finish this drink and go home, alright? We’ll go clubbing another time.”
“How about this: I’ll trade you your keys for cab fare. That way, everybody wins!”
“Look, I just want to dance, okay?”
Lucy folds her hands like she’s praying and sticks her lower lip into a pout. Stacey holds Lucy’s pleading gaze for a long time, then sighs and starts to dig through her purse for her keys. “Fine,” she sighs, defeated. “Just remember: if you break my car, I’m going to break your face.”
Lucy slides her fingers through Stacey’s hair and presses a loud kiss to the side of her head, plucking the car keys out of her roommate’s hand. “Ta, darling. Love you, too.”
The group is getting smaller. Liz gets up to grab hers and Mary’s coat from off the hook outside their booth, and when Stacey doesn’t move, she takes a deep breath and tells her, “Honey, I’m not leaving you here.”
“I’ll be fine,” she says. “If you’re tired, go.”
“No, no, that’s not right. Somebody should stay to make sure you get home safe.” Liz turns to look at him. “Joe. You wouldn’t mind staying, would you?”
Joe coughs and straightens out his posture. “No, but –”
“Don’t worry – I can take Mary home.” Liz gives him a tight smile, looping the keychain around her fingers so that her keys rattle in the palm of her hand.
“You’re sure?” he asks, and Liz nods.
“It’s no trouble. Really. Mary, you’re ready to go, right, sweetheart?”
She nods, sleepily, and when they say their goodbyes, Mary leans over and kisses him quickly before sliding out of the booth. She buttons up her coat and over her shoulder, he’s pretty sure that Liz is rolling her eyes.
As they walk away, Joe says to Stacey, “Liz doesn’t like me, does she?”
“I doubt it.” She gives this thought a dismissive little wave as they watch their friends make their way through the crowded bar and out the doors. “She’s probably just tired. Liz has a lot on her plate right now.”
“Family stuff, personal stuff. None of our business.” Stacey shrugs and takes a long sip of her drink. “So. Where exactly are you from, Joe?”
He shakes his head. “Couldn’t think of anything else to change the subject with?”
“No, I want to know. I mean, you had to come from somewhere, right? Guys like you don’t exactly grow on trees.” She pushes her hair behind her ear. “So spill it – what brought you out to Chicago? Money? The absolutely fantastic job market? A girl?”
It takes him a moment too long to answer and Stacey interrupts him before he can even speak. “Never mind, I know that look. Ugh, that’s such a cliché.” She says the word like it’s left a particularly nasty taste in her mouth and then swallows another mouthful of her martini. “Was she pretty? She was, wasn’t she?”
“The girl, idiot. She had to be something special if she made you decide to drop everything and move all the way out here.”
He doesn’t know how to answer that, because, yeah, Lisa’s got a good brain in her head on top of being gorgeous, but things with her were always nothing short of complicated. It was actually kind of difficult being with her, especially by the time they broke things off, which is probably why the only thing Joe can think to say is just a muttered-out, “She’s an actress.”
“What’s she like?”
“Amazingly lifelike,” is his quick response, and that gets a laugh out of Stacey. “Lisa…Lisa’s something else, but she’s not important anymore. Get it?”
She nods thoughtfully. “Okay, that’s fair. What about family? You do have a family, right? You didn’t crawl fully-formed out of a pod in a basement somewhere?”
He winks at her. “What if I did?”
“Shut up.” Stacey pushes at his arm. “Be serious for a second. Do you have any brothers? Sisters? Maybe a dog that your parents dressed up and treated like a child?”
Joe sighs and rolls his eyes. “Two younger brothers – a lot younger. There. Happy?”
“Very much so.” She brushes some of her hair behind her ear. “I’ve got a sister. She’s a sophomore this year.”
He leans forward on an elbow and props his chin in his hand, ready to turn the tables on her. “What about you? Tell me about your parents.”
“What about them?”
“Do they know what you’re up to out here? Be honest.”
She looks down into her glass, swirling around the last bit of gin at the bottom. There’s a moment where he isn’t sure she’s even going to answer, but then in a quiet voice, she says, “My parents…my mom and dad don’t have a clue about what I’ve been doing. As far as they’re concerned, I pay for school with all the tips I get from waitressing.” Stacey laughs, wryly, and sets the glass back on the table. “They probably still think I’m a virgin.”
He leans back in his seat, stretching his arm along the back of the booth, right above her shoulders. They could have spread out once everyone else left, taken up a little more room, but they haven’t. Their knees are touching underneath the table and it’s not as weird a feeling as it probably should be. “You think you’ll ever tell them about all this?” he asks. “Your parents, I mean.”
“Tell them what?” She tilts her head to the side when she looks at him. “Tell them about the club, or about what I do there?”
“Either,” he says. “Both.”
“No.” It’s a quick answer: decisive, final. She’s thought about this before. “No. They don’t need to know any of that.”
Joe scratches at the label on his beer bottle with his thumbnail and Stacey twists the narrow stem of her glass between her thumb and forefinger; there’s a long minute where neither of them says anything, studiously avoiding the other’s eyes. The band finishes their song and someone in the back whistles and calls out “Free Bird!” There’s scattered laughter in the bar as the keyboardist plays the first few bars before moving into a different song.
“We should probably get going,” he finally says, offering her his hand after he stands. She takes it, and he helps her navigate the steps, guiding her with that same hand at the small of her back as they settle their tab and leave. She’s a little unsteady on her feet and he’s not sure how much of it is from the alcohol. Stacey tucks her hand into the crook of his elbow and it stays there as they cross the parking lot.
When they finally catch a cab, he opens the door for her and she scoots in, sliding to the middle of the seat while he gives the driver directions. They pull away from the curb and after about a block, Stacey twines her arm with his, linking them at the elbows. Joe folds his hands together in his lap, flexing his fingers, twisting them against each other, and when she hugs his arm against her chest he laughs a little, squeezing back. They don’t talk for the rest of the drive.
It’s early, a couple of hours before the club is due to open, and Joe is honestly a little surprised when he finds the front doors unlocked. He’s looking for Michaud, not that he actually wants to talk to him, but he figures that he should try and thank him – for the doctor, for the ER visit yesterday afternoon, for letting Mary take the week off so she could stick by him and play nurse – and it’s the right thing to do, whether he likes it or not. Stacey is alone at the bar when he walks inside, absentmindedly knocking one sneaker-clad foot against a rung on the barstool and a book propped open on the counter in front of her. She looks up when she hears the door open and when she sees him, she smiles. Almost immediately, her expression shifts: recognition turns into confusion, worry, fear.
“Oh my God.”
Stacey’s hand flies up to her mouth, but the words are already out and she can’t take them back. She jumps out of her chair and her eyes are wide and fearful as she rushes around the counter. Before he can even say anything, Stacey has grabbed him by the hand, pulling him into the hallway between the bar and the back rooms.
“What happened to your face?” she hisses, her gaze darting quickly between the cut and his eyes. “Oh my God, Joe, what happened to your face?”
He grins at her, trying to tease, but it falls flat and she grimaces, unable to tear her eyes away from the angry red line that runs up from his mouth to his ear. Joe launches into a condensed version of the story, and as he talks Stacey reaches out unexpectedly, carefully bringing her hand up to his face. The skin underneath his stitches is tight and sensitive, itching almost constantly but still too painful to scratch. She traces the contour of the wound with her fingertip; her touch is gentle, curious, but for as light as it is, it stings.
“Ow,” he says, and Stacey jerks her hand back, embarrassed.
“Sorry,” she mutters, and he shakes his head.
“No, it’s okay, it’s – it’s still kind of sore, is all.”
She bites her lip and he shrugs. It’s not like he can hide the fact that the cut is pretty swollen, still barely a week old, and two of the smaller stitches have already popped. He dabbed away blood a few times this morning and he keeps unconsciously running his tongue along the inside of his cheek, trying to remember what it felt like before: smooth muscle, unbroken skin.
“I heard you got hurt,” Stacey whispers. “Liz said something about a fight, and that it’s the reason you haven’t been around lately, but she didn’t say anything about – I, I mean, she didn’t –”
She breaks off suddenly, bringing her hand back up to cover her mouth and pressing the tips of her fingers to her lips. Stacey shakes her head, blinking rapidly – and shit, is she actually going to start crying over him, too? – and then without any warning she throws her arms around him, hugging him so tightly that it’s almost hard to breathe.
“You’re so dumb,” she murmurs, the side of her face pressed against his chest as she squeezes him tighter. “Jesus, you’re just…you’re so dumb, Joe.”
“Yeah, well,” he mutters, “At least I’m not crying. Like a girl.”
She hits him. He hugs her back.
He never does get around to thanking Michaud.
Heroes is crowded tonight – busier than he’s ever seen it, even for a Friday – and even though it’s just four of them, they’re packed in tight together at the far end of the bar, practically standing on top of one another while they wait for Mickey to come back with their next round.
Courtesy of Lucy, Stacey has long since given up on whatever plans she had to stay sober. She’s finished up her fifth shot of the night and already, Stacey is starting to get a little wobbly: her eyes are bright and glassy, she keeps trying to hold Lucy’s hand. Joe is on the outside and she’s sandwiched between Y and Lucy, leaning on her elbow against the counter while Y lectures at them about all the things he hates in Prince of Tennis. Lucy’s standing with her back to the bar and a guy with a pretty blonde attached to his arm slides up, trying to wedge themselves into the small space next to the redhead so they can give the bartender their order. The guy has a stupid-looking haircut – like a Mohawk, except…not – and the blonde looks in no way happy to be there, but then Mohawk-Man says something in her ear and she’s suddenly all smiles, leaning over the surface of the bar while she tries to catch Mickey’s attention.
“…and Ryoma,” Y continues, “Oh, don’t even get me started on Ryoma. He’s such a whiny little –”
“I thought you weren’t going to talk about him?” Stacey asks innocently, and Y gives her a dirty look. Lucy rolls her eyes and turns away, trying to flag down their bartender.
“Explanations don’t count,” Y tells her, “Especially for a character that creatively bankrupt.”
Mickey comes back with their drinks and when a table in the corner suddenly empties, the blonde at the bar rushes away to save it. Joe moves aside so she can pass him. “You know,” he says, “I think I know what your problem is with this Ranma guy.”
“Whatever. What you’ve got to do is, you’ve – okay, you’ve got to think of him as a deer.”
“Think of him as a what?”
“No! I mean, okay, think of him as being all shy and scared and really repressed, and with messed-up sexual morals and ideals –”
“What kind of screwed-up deer have you dealt with?”
“Wait, are you making the analogy, or am I?”
“What are you even comparing?!”
Y groans, clapping his hand over his eyes. Stacey holds up her hand and Joe high-fives it.
The guy standing next to Lucy at the bar nudges her, and when she leans over he says something that makes her laugh. Y either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care, but after a minute or two Lucy nods her head, smiling, and Mohawk-Man smirks before laying his money down on the counter. He walks over to where the blonde is sitting and Stacey excuses herself, wandering off to get some air. Right as she leaves, two strange women walk over; standing on the fringes of their group until Y finally notices them. He taps Lucy on the shoulder and she turns, a quizzical smile on her face as she asks, “Uh, can I help you?”
“You’re a bitch.”
Joe turns to face this new intruder and immediately, there’s a palpable wave of negative energy just radiating off this woman. The ‘forties pinup look she’s sporting makes her look older than she probably is, and she runs her hand over her ear, tucking a loose hair back into place in her antique up-do. He frowns at her, narrowing his eyes, and the smaller woman at her right flinches at the sight of his scar. He’s still not used to getting that kind of reaction, and he doesn’t know how to respond to it.
Lucy raises her eyebrows. “Excuse me?”
“I said you’re a bitch.” The pinup-looking woman steps closer, crossing her arms over her chest as she does so. “Do they teach you how to steal taken men at whore school?”
“What the – whore school? Are you for real right now?”
“Admit it, you tramp! You tried to pick up my best friend’s boyfriend!”
“What boyfriend? What the hell are you talking about?”
“Mark!” she cries. “The man you were hitting on at the bar!”
Lucy gapes at her like a fish out of water and Y slides up next to her, resting his hand on the small of her back. “Is that true?” he asks, a teasing edge to his voice. “Lucy, I thought we talked about this – you have to stop picking up strangers in bars to bring home for threesomes. That’s why we keep Stacey around.”
He smiles down at her beatifically and Lucy jabs him in the ribs with her elbow, hard enough that it nearly knocks him over. Y rubs at his side and Joe does not envy the bruise that is probably forming.
“What guy are you talking about?” Lucy asks. “Do you mean the guy who asked me if I could put his order in for him?”
Pinup’s friend rolls her eyes. “So you say.”
“Mark is classy, sexy, and more importantly, hers.” Pinup jerks her thumb at the brunette at her right, who nods vigorously. “How could you even think that you could try to get with him?”
“Lady, what’s your deal?” Joe asks. Pinup’s eyes linger a little too long on his scar when she finally deigns to look at him.
“My deal,” she says, “Is that I am trying to help out my friend, and you are not a part of this conversation. So please,” She waves her hands for him to leave, “Do me a favor and take a step back, okay, Frankenface?”
Lucy takes a deep breath and sighs. “Listen, cuntwaffle, I don’t know how they handle this kind of shit in 1940, but in the millennium, us women have stopped using the rhythm method and learned how to fight our own battles. If your little friend has a fucking problem with me, then she should just come on out and say it to my face.” She leans back against the bar, crossing her arms over her chest. “And okay, did you seriously step out of a time machine, or something? Because if you’re looking for the USO show, I think you’ve come to the wrong place.”
The woman scoffs, smoothing down the sides of her dress. “Excuse me, but this dress is vintage.”
“Vintage?” Lucy echoes bitterly. “I think ‘ugly as all fuck’ is what you mean."
“Well, at least I dress with something resembling class.” She pauses, the corners of her mouth twitching slightly as she suppresses a smile. “Tell me, how much did you pay for that shirt? Did you get it off the clearance rack at ‘Sluts-R-Us’?”
There’s a long moment where Lucy and this “Vintage” chick just stare at each other, sizing the other up, but then Lucy rolls her eyes and tells her, “Oh, blow me, you pathetic fucking hag.”
Lucy starts to turn away and the girl pushes her, hard; caught off-guard, she loses her footing and stumbles backwards against the bar. Joe and Y reach out at the same time to steady her but she brushes them off, glaring daggers at the woman in the ugly retro dress. Over Lucy’s head, Y meets his eyes and grimaces. There’s no way that this can end well.
“Really? You are really doing this right now?”
“What are you going to do about it, slut?” Vintage Chick shoves Lucy again, a little harder this time, but she’s ready for it: Lucy’s hand grips the edge of the bar and she remains unmoved, standing steady on her feet while Vintage and her equally cheap-looking friend stare her down. Just as Joe’s about to say something, Stacey appears out of absolutely nowhere; she marches up to Vintage Chick and taps her on the shoulder. A soon as the woman turns, Stacey lets her arm swing wide and punches her straight-on in the mouth.
For a second, it feels like time has stopped: Vintage crumples to the floor while Stacey stands over her prone body, her right hand still clenched into a fist while everyone else just stares at them in shock. But when Vintage’s friend starts screeching about how she’s going to have them all arrested and Tom and Mickey finally realize what happened, it doesn’t take long before the entire group scatters. Y snatches up coats and he and Lucy manage to make it out the back door, but Stacey is still standing by herself at the bar, dazedly staring down at the other woman sprawled out on the floor. Joe makes an irritated noise and steps back, grasping Stacey by the elbow and tugging her in the direction of the door the others have already rushed out of. She starts at his touch, spinning around so fast he thinks she’ll lose her balance. His grip on her arm tightens.
“Easy, killer,” he says, and he backs up, still holding onto her elbow as he leads her away. “We’ve gotta go, like, right now.”
They’ve lost the others once they make it out of the alley; Y and Lucy have completely vanished into thin air by the time Joe and Stacey arrive at the spot where Stacey parked her car at the beginning of the night. The car, her rusting green Camry, is also missing, and Stacey stares blankly at the empty parking space. Joe swears under his breath and almost immediately, his cell phone buzzes in his pocket.
“My car is gone,” Stacey says disbelievingly. “My car. It’s gone.”
“I can see that,” he replies, and then into the phone, half-yells, “Where the fuck are you guys?”
It’s Lucy on the other end of the line, shouting an apology into the speakerphone for abandoning them. The two currently driving away left with Stacey’s coat and keys, they left not knowing where Stacey was, and for some reason they decided it would be easier if they hightailed it out of there and acted as a “distraction” for whoever might come after them. Never mind the fact that he and Stacey are on foot, never mind the fact that it would probably be easier to find the girl who did the actual punching than the one who disappeared in a car the victim wouldn’t recognize; Lucy is both fairly angry and a little bit buzzed – in this situation, logic is not exactly her strong suit.
Y wrestles the phone away from Lucy and drops it; there’s the sound of scuffling, a weird humming noise, Lucy insisting that it’s a left on Southport, not right. The call cuts off and Joe snaps his phone shut, stuffing it back into his pocket. He knows where they’re headed – Charlie’s, this tiny little hole-in-the-wall diner Lucy usually goes to when she needs to wake herself up from a hangover – and he turns his attention back to Stacey, who is still rotating slowly in a circle where her car used to be, looking nervously around the parking lot.
“Let’s go,” he says, setting a hand on her shoulder, waiting for her to stop. “I know where our idiot friends are headed.”
She bites her lip, pushing a hand through her hair. “Where are they? Do they have my -car?”
“Yeah, they do. It’s a couple blocks away, at that diner Lucy likes. It’ll take us, like, ten minutes to walk there – less, maybe. Let’s go.”
He turns away, ready to leave, and it’s only when she asks, “But why didn’t they wait?” that he realizes that she isn’t right next to him. He stops short, sighing as he turns around.
“Because they suck, and because Lucy is freaky-persuasive when you get a couple drinks in her.” He waves a hand at her, motioning for her to catch up. “It’s like her superpower, or something. Now come on.”
They walk in silence for a few blocks, a couple feet apart from each other. There are other people out tonight, little groups of men and women travelling from bar to bar in packs, and a couple times the groups made up of men call out to Stacey, asking her name, her number, if she’s free tonight. She ignores it, but Joe still hears them – and some of these people are seriously, seriously, screwed up in the head, with the things they’re saying to her – so after a while he moves in closer, glaring at the freaks as they pass them by. He drapes his arm over her shoulders and she looks up at him, surprised, but neither one of them says anything about it.
Joe lets her go when they reach the crosswalk, right as the traffic light switches from yellow to red; he presses the button for the signal and Stacey leans against the lamppost, anxiously wringing her hands together while they wait for the light to change.
“How’s your hand?” he asks.
Stacey sighs and stops rubbing at her knuckles. “Stings,” she says. “Is it supposed to do that?”
He chuckles. “Yeah, but only for a while, though. It’ll stop hurting soon enough."
“That wasn’t a good idea, was it?”
“I’m probably going to get banned from Heroes, now, aren’t I?”
“Eh,” he shrugs, “If Tom and Mickey keep letting Lucy back in, I don’t think they’d keep you away for long.”
“But that’s just because Tom loves Lucy. Me…not so much.”
The light changes and they cross the street, the heels of Stacey’s shoes tapping against the pavement as she rushes to match his long strides. The diner is midway down the block and even at this distance he can see the sputtering light of the “open” sign hanging in one of the windows. He pulls out his phone and sends a text to Lucy, letting her know that they’re close.
“It’ll work out eventually,” he tells her once they reach the restaurant. “I wouldn’t worry too much about it.”
“But I hit someone in the face,” she answers, her tone light, incredulous. “I…I punched a complete stranger. In the face.”
“You did,” Joe says with nod. “And honestly? It was kind of awesome.”
The light from the “open” sign keeps flashing color out onto the sidewalk where they’re standing. Stacey looks up at him through her bangs and her face is tinted blue, then red, then blue again. She laughs when she says, “I think you’ve been a bad influence on me.”
Joe grins and makes a fist, tapping her lightly on the arm. Y waves at them through the window of the diner and he opens the door for Stacey, lifting his hand in greeting as they both walk inside.
Mary is standing with her back against the wall, and some weedy-looking jerk’s leaning in, smiling down at her with obvious interest in his eyes. He says something in her ear, toying with the ends of her long hair, and when she laughs, Joe’s a little surprised at just how much it feels like being punched in the stomach. The guy’s just kind of staring at her, watching her mouth as she talks, and then without any warning he moves down and kisses her.
Joe turns away, a heavy, furious feeling welling up in his chest. This is the third guy in as many hours who’s caught Mary’s attention at the last second; she’s been trying to get back to him all night and yet again, she’s been sidetracked by some creep who wants a dance or worse. Joe takes a long pull from his beer, finishing it off, and Mike Ellis frowns at him from his place behind the bar.
“Fucker,” Joe says to no one in particular. “Creepy, four-eyed –”
“Would you calm down?” Ellis asks. “Welshy’s broke. Mary’ll get away as soon as he realizes she’s only interested in his money.”
Joe nods in agreement, more out of habit than anything else, but Ellis’s reassurance doesn’t last long. This Welshy guy must have some money socked away somewhere, because almost as soon as they break apart, he whispers something in her ear and she nods, guiding him through the club and to the hallway off the bar that leads to the back rooms. Right as they pass through the doorway, Mary glances down to where Joe is sitting at the opposite end of the bar, holding his gaze for a second before she looks away. He thinks she might be blushing.
Joe folds his arms on the surface of the bar, pulling at his sleeves until the straight white lines bend under his fingers while Mary walks off with someone else. He doesn’t know what she’s thinking, but he can’t help but remember how the last time the two of them were alone together for an extended period of time, she was naked, and the same hands he has gripping the sleeves of his jacket were exploring every inch of her body and Jesus goddamn fuck, he has got to get a fucking handle on all of this before he completely explodes.
“Cocksucker,” he mutters under his breath. “If he does anything – if he tries – he better not even think he can get to –”
“Look,” Ellis sighs, “If you can’t behave in public, then you’re going to have to wait it out in the back.” He leans against the counter; his voice is flat and bored, like a parent lecturing a child. “I can tell Mary where to find you when she gets free.”
Joe looks up at him, wide-eyed, disbelieving. “The back?” he echoes. There’s another empty room right now, but not even Michaud would be that cruel; it’s bad enough knowing what she’s doing back there, but having to see, having to hear –
“I meant the dressing room and you know it,” the bartender replies coolly, picking up the empty bottle and setting it behind the bar. “You can either wait back there or wait outside – it’s your choice.”
Joe glares at him for what feels like a long time, but in the end he’s the one who looks away first. His chair scrapes against the floor when he pushes away from the counter and he can see Ellis shaking his head out of the corner of his eye as he slinks away, pulling back the curtain and stalking off into the dark.
The hallway that leads to the back of the club branches off into two sections: the left leads to the storage closet, the dressing room, and the back-alley entrance, the right to the two empty rooms reserved for more…private entertainment. There’s a minute where he just stands there in the half-light of the hall, staring at the one closed door. He thinks about what would happen if he went in there, if he just grabbed Mary and ran, and he gets this image stuck in his head of that loser with his hand curled around Mary’s neck, of her laugh, his lips on hers. Then his mind goes all cruel on him and takes one of his memories of Mary, but the asshole she’s off with gets to play his role.
Joe walks away before he does something stupid; he knows it’s a fight he can’t win.
The lights in the dressing room are so bright they almost hurt; the fluorescence gives everything weird shadows, brightens colors where it shouldn’t. In the corner, someone pulls aside the curtain and Stacey steps out from behind it. She’s already back in her street clothes – a t-shirt and jeans, a green hoodie and sneakers – and she’s got the yellow dress she was wearing earlier bunched up under her arm. She raises her eyebrows when she sees him, giving a little wave, but doesn’t say anything.
“Shouldn’t you be out on the floor?” he asks.
Stacey shakes her head. “I’m off early tonight. Donna wanted more hours, so Michaud changed the schedule at the last minute.”
“Oh.” He nods, stuffing his hands in his pockets. “That’s good.”
She scratches at the back of her neck. “Yeah. It’ll be nice, getting into bed before dawn.”
Stacey looks away, a strange expression on her face, and starts packing up her things. Joe sinks onto the couch by the door and watches as she drops a paperback into her duffel bag, her makeup case, a deck of cards. She just looks so normal folding up her clothes, putting away her work shoes. She’s already taken her makeup off and it’s weird, he thinks, how he almost never sees her without it these days.
“I’m taking off now. You sure you’re okay?”
She’s still looking at him strangely, equal parts worry and curiosity, and he nods. “Don’t worry about me,” he says. “Go home, get some sleep. Nothing you can do about it, anyway.”
Stacey narrows her eyes at him, shifting the strap of her bag over her shoulder, but he ignores it – he’s allowed to feel terrible, he doesn’t need her judging him for it. Joe tips his head back against the wall and closes his eyes, but increasingly horrible scenarios start to fill up his headspace, flashing behind his eyelids in eerily vivid Technicolor: Mary on her knees, Mary on her back, Mary finding him and saying that she’s fallen in love with that stupid fucker – somehow, out of all of them, that last one manages to be the worst. He opens his eyes again and stares up at the cracks in the ceiling, feeling like he’s going to be sick. After a moment the springs of the sofa squeak, he can feel the cushion next to him dip as Stacey takes a seat.
If she were Penny or Liz, maybe she’d try to tell him that things would be all right – that it’s not going to last, that Mary will come back in the end. If she were Donna or Lucy, she’d probably make some smart remark, thinking that making him laugh would be enough to get his mind off of everything that’s going on. Stacey doesn’t do any of that: she stays quiet and sits next to him, taking his free hand in one of hers and holding on.
“Let’s get out of here.” She links their fingers together when she says it, nodding toward the door. “We’ll go over to Walker’s, just you and me, and we’ll play cards until Rob kicks us out.”
He lifts his head to look at her and she smiles. “I thought you were going home.”
“Nah,” she says, “This is more important.” Stacey rises from the couch and tightens her fingers around his, squeezing his hand as she pulls him up with her. “Come on, Joe. Let me buy you a drink.”