"How is that different from the track you just played?" Stephen Stills asks, and Joseph shoots him a withering stare.
"The reverb is doubled," he says, like Stephen is an idiot.
Stephen's forehead wrinkles with his frown. "It sounds the same."
Joseph stares at him.
"It does!" he insists more vehemently.
"Get your head checked," Joseph says, in that fierce quiet way that he says everything.
"You didn't change anything," Stephen accuses. They've been hunched over the computer and the mixing equipment for hours, their shoulders a few inches apart as they listen, but now Stephen turns toward Joseph. "You just moved some sliders around to make it look like you did!"
"You're a delusional little bitch," says Joseph, and he's glaring, but it's without genuine heat. Stephen thinks. It's a little hard to tell with Joseph, but sometimes, he uses insults as a form of communication, not because he necessarily means them.
Sometimes. Stephen's still figuring it out.
"You're both bitches," says an exasperated Hollie, passing in the hallway. "Shut up."
Joseph leans across Stephen -- he's warm; his sweater sleeve brushes against Stephen's chest -- and shuts the door in Hollie's face.
"...Play it again," Stephen suggests into the silence, and Joseph does.
Later, over a basket of Sneaky Dee's very finest greasy french fries, Joseph is talking shit about Sufjan Stevens when Scott swings into the booth beside him. His mouth is flapping before his butt even hits the seat, in true Scott Pilgrim fashion; in further Pilgrim fashion, he doesn't even seem to notice who he's sitting beside, as he's focused on Stephen across the table.
"Okay so if someone theoretically accidentally broke seven plates but then swept up the pieces -- beard! oh hey Joseph -- do you think Dominique would notice?"
"Theoretically," Joseph mutters in a low but devastating deadpan.
Stephen stifles a snort, and he tells Scott, "I think Dominique will notice if there's a stack of plates missing."
"Seven!" Scott protests. "Seven theoretical plates!"
"Your friends are intolerably stupid," says Joseph.
"Seven is a stack, Scott," Stephen says. "She's just going to take it out of your paycheck."
"Oh," says Scott, and Stephen can practically see the wheels turning behind his eyes. "Is there a way to ... not, have that happen?"
"No," Joseph says. "Get out of the booth."
It's a testament to how scary Joseph's low intensity is that Scott immediately, instinctively obeys. He scrabbles out of the booth, and stands there for a second, and says, "Well, okay!" and sidles off.
"Seriously," Joseph says to Stephen, and their hands almost collide in the french fry basket. "Intolerable."
It's only later that Stephen realizes that was the first time the two of them have hung out without the excuse of recording.
"Get outta my head," Stephen sings, strumming the hell out of the chorus, the strings of his battered guitar creaking in protest, "get outta my head, get outta my head."
The main reason that Sex Bob-omb always rehearses at Stephen and Neil's house: everyone who lives in the house is either in the band or is a fan, so there are no noise complaints.
But the other reason they always rehearse at Stephen and Neil's house: the living room actually has decent acoustics.
It's ringing with sound now, the final chord of the song fading away, and then with Knives's applause. Knives always applauds, though she has actually been a lot cooler about it lately; not quite so desperate. Less like she thinks they won't talk to her unless she claps til her hands turn red. "I like it!" she tells him, beaming. "It's very romantic."
Sitting all the way across the room, arms folded, Young Neil makes an unimpressed grunt. He hasn't liked hanging out with Knives since the end of their weird jealous fling, and he's being a total dick (he's apparently still mad that Stephen has been recording a lot lately), but he's slouching in the living room, playing Gameboy and pretending he isn't listening.
"I bet Julie will like it better than 'All Your Hating,' " Knives continues brightly.
Neil mutters something about Julie not liking anything. Stephen ignores him and stares at Knives, confused; it takes him a couple seconds to remember singing on the beach earlier this summer, Julie insisting that she hated the song because it was about her.
"The new song isn't about Julie," Stephen says, the second he realizes Knives is assuming that. Knives blinks at him; even Neil stops sulking long enough to glance over. "It's not about anybody. It's just a song." The second it's out of his mouth, he knows he snapped; Knives looks like a kicked puppy. Stephen lurches into over-energetic motion, throwing his guitar into its gig bag and zipping it up. "Look at that, it's 4:30, I'm pretty sure Scott forgot he was supposed to be here again and Kim's probably at work so we should just go."
Stephen is fully aware that he goes a little manic when he's panicked, but it doesn't usually show up unless he's in the throes of a pre-gig freak out. He's feeling the panic crawl under his skin right now, though, and he's going with it.
"Where are we going?" Knives asks as he shoves her coat at her.
"Out," says Stephen, and then he makes a decision on the spot and adds, "The Happy Avocado, right now; Neil?"
"I'm writing a paper," says Neil, as his Gameboy makes high-pitched bleep bloop sounds.
"Fine," says Stephen, which is how he winds up sitting at a table across from Knives Chau in the vegan restaurant where he works.
"I love this place," Knives says happily, over a plate of nutty pumpkin and tofu coconut curry. "It's so good. Are you sure you don't want any?" She holds up a forkful of very, very orange tofu.
"I'm good," says Stephen. Dominique is giving him the stink eye from behind the counter. He shrugs at her when Knives isn't looking, as if to say, What do you want? It's not like he would date Knives. She's a seventeen-year-old Catholic school girl. He's not Scott Pilgrim.
"Have you heard any of Moulin Rogue's new stuff yet?" Knives asks.
"No," says Stephen. "What? Why? Are they good?"
"They're okay," Knives says, either not noticing his sudden descent into neurotic intensity or choosing to ignore it. "You guys are so much better."
Stephen decides on the spot that he definitely likes Knives. She can stay, no matter what Scott, Neil, Julie, or anybody else tries to say.
"I mean, when you play," she continues. "Is Sex Bob-omb still doing shows?"
"We're recording right now." Stephen has been saying that sentence so much lately that he's starting to think he should have it tattooed across his forehead.
Knives gives this due consideration as she chews, and she says, "That makes sense. You can't expand your fanbase without at least releasing an EP!"
Stephen studies her for several seconds, then he says "You're okay, Knives," and she smiles brightly.
Julie's pure capacity for bitchitude has always simultaneously been one of Stephen's favorite and least favorite things about her. Favorite when it's directed at somebody else, because it's generally hilarious; least favorite when it's aimed at him.
It's been aimed at him a lot lately.
"Oh my God, Stephen," says Julie's voice, and Stephen stares at his beer for a long moment before he turns to see Julie pushing her way through the crowd. She's tottering in a pair of very high heels, which have been paired with stockings, short shorts, and some kind of fitted top that looks like it would be hell to get it off of her. Not, given Julie's thunderous expression, that that's probably going to be an issue tonight. She parks herself in front of him and puts her hands on her waist. "What are you wearing?"
"Uhh," Stephen says over his bottle of beer, "a large hat." It’s an accurate description. It’s velvety and broad-brimmed. The feather keeps drooping into Stephen’s eyes.
"Stephen," says Julie, in the tone that almost always means they're about to break up for 10 minutes, "you're not even trying."
"I brought a hat," he protests stubbornly. "A hat counts as trying."
"No, it doesn't." Light only glints off Julie's glasses this intensely when she's really, really mad. "You're my boyfriend; this is my party." She hisses: "You're making me look lame!"
"I brought," Stephen points out, "a hat."
Julie makes a noise that sounds something like ughargh, and she folds her arms over her complicated corset top. "Whatever," she says. "I don't care." (She does care.) "Just be ready to play in fifteen minutes."
"Why, dude?" asks a voice from beside him, and Stephen glances over and finds Ramona standing beside him, watching Julie storm off.
Stephen shrugs. Nobody really even asks that question anymore; they all just assume that he and Julie are going to break up and get back together in a never-ending cycle of annoyance and boredom.
Ramona eyes him dubiously, but says, "Nice hat." She's wearing a similar one, only her feather is even bigger than Stephen's, and she's carrying a cane. Stephen tips his giant hat to her.
"Bass guitar in the house!" crows Scott, coming up behind them.
Stephen looks at Scott over his beer. Ramona slowly shakes her head.
Scott is wearing a hoodie, but Stephen is pretty sure he catches a flash of fishnet under it. He decides he doesn't want to know. "Julie wants us to go on in fifteen minutes," he says.
Scott flashes him a cheesy thumbs up, working around the guitar case in his hands. "We are going to rock these pimps and hoes!"
Ramona makes an inarticulate noise, then says, "Where's Kim?" Stephen points toward the open floorspace where Kim is shoving pieces of her drum kit around, and Ramona immediately heads that way.
"Sometimes, I think she likes Kim more than she likes me," Scott says mournfully in her wake.
Stephen claps him on the back. "We all do," he says, and he hitches his guitar up on his back and pushes past a sweaty guy in a giant fur coat and platform boots. When Stephen glances back, he finds Scott suddenly on his heels; to the point where, when Stephen looks over his shoulder, he can't see anything but Scott's giant head inches away from his. "Scott!" he barks, more out of surprise than anything.
"Did you see that?" Scott asks, not even looking at him. He's all twitchy, watching the crowd. He looks more strung out than the time he popped two of Comeau's pills, thinking they were Tylenol, and spent six hours insisting that mermaids were just sharks with less teeth.
"Did I see what?" Stephen finally asks, since that's what seems to be required of him here.
"Blonde girl!" Scott seems to be trying to use Stephen as cover. Stephen steps away and Scott yelps, practically spinning in circles as he tries to watch every corner of the room at once while shrinking into as small of a target as possible. "Wearing all black! Smudgey things around her eyes!!"
"That's like ... every girl here, buddy," Stephen says slowly, and he leaves Scott to his inexplicable panic attack.
Sometimes, even Stephen isn't sure if he's off or on with Julie on any given day. He's pretty sure they're off tonight because she's pissed that he accidentally hung out with Knives last weekend and that he vouched for her with the bouncer at Sneaky Dee's on Tuesday; just like he's pretty sure they'll be back on again tomorrow.
Stephen's hand slips across the frets, strings pushing hard against his fingers, and the next chord he tries to strum is a discordant crash of notes. He stops playing and starts laughing, bent over his guitar with a pair of headphones hanging haphazardly off his head.
He distinctly hears Joseph snort (which is, Stephen is pretty sure, the closest that Joseph ever comes to laughing), and then say, "You're a failure."
"I," says Stephen, with great dignity, "would like to see you do better after three beers and four shots of bargain basement tequila."
Joseph studies him for several seconds. Then he picks up the bottle and pours himself a neat tequila shot, which he promptly knocks back. He's moving so efficiently that he has the first shot down and the second one ready to go before Stephen completely realizes what he's doing.
Stephen raises his eyebrows at him. "Seriously?"
As if in answer, Joseph drinks the shot, his throat working as he swallows, then he sets the shot glass down hard on the desk and he reaches out. His fingers rub across Stephen's hand on the fret board as he unceremoniously grabs Stephen's acoustic guitar by the neck and pulls it out of Stephen's hands and across the couple of inches separating their chairs. His fingers are firm, no-nonsense, the pads rough and callused from -- from what Joseph has said -- years of electric guitar. He settles Stephen's guitar in his lap and he proceeds to play a slightly plinky but technically flawless cover of the opening bars of "Erasmus."
Stephen's mouth goes dry as he watches Joseph curve around his guitar, the body resting on his knee; he's looking down at the strings as he plays, eyes hooded and expression fiercely intent. His hands look strong and sure, long fingers curled around the neck of the guitar and brushing across the nick in the wood just below the soundhole. His hands are touching places that only Stephen usually touches, playing one of Stephen's songs. Stephen could shut his eyes and almost feel the chords and the warm, battered wood under his fingers.
Instead, Stephen swallows hard and pours himself another shot of tequila. What this situation needs is more Señor Frog's.
"Spill on any of the recording equipment and die," Joseph says conversationally, ripping through the bridge's fast set of chord progressions like it's nothing. Even while playing, he has apparently noticed that Stephen's hand was unsteady while pouring and shook several drops onto the desk.
Stephen knows he's been friends with Scott Pilgrim for too long (and that he is drunk, and his brain is still stuck on the sight of Joseph cradling his guitar) when his retort is, "What are you, a mutant?"
Joseph hits a string too hard; it twangs in protest, and that ugly sound echoes through the room as he stops playing and glances over at Stephen, who stops with the shot glass of terrible tequila raised halfway to his mouth and tries not to squirm under the full force of Joseph's sometimes I don't even know why I hang out with you look.
He stubbornly stands his ground, which is what Joseph always does: makes him want to fight back. "Nobody should be able to play that smoothly after all that drinking, while talking."
"It's called focus," says Joseph. "And being better than you."
"Shut up," Stephen says with no rancor, and he tosses off his headphones, pushes off of the floor, and then lifts his legs as he rolls across Joseph's bedroom in the wheelie chair. He stops when the back of the chair thuds lightly against the bed, and then he knocks back the shot in his hand. It tastes like paint thinner and burns going down.
"Drunk," Joseph insults idly, propping his feet up on his desk and twisting in his chair to look at Stephen, one hand on the guitar still in his lap.
He snorts. "And you're not?"
Joseph arches an eyebrow. (Stephen's right eyebrow twitches sympathetically.) "Do I seem drunk?"
"No," Stephen is forced to admit. "But that just means it's time for another shot." Joseph looks at him for several long, inscrutable seconds, and then something in his beard twitches. Stephen leans forward (the room lurches with the sudden movement, and he grabs the seat of his chair) and peers at him. "Did you just--?"
Joseph ignores him in favor of pouring himself a shot, then holding out the bottle until Stephen extends his shot glass so that Joseph can dump more tequila into it, but Stephen is like 80.6% sure that Joseph just smiled.
They take the shots.
They take a lot more shots.
Stephen blames the shots entirely for the facts that: he's warm and actually kind of happy, sprawled in Joseph's bed with his back against the wall, and his arms and legs are heavy. The room has gone pleasantly hazy and when Stephen laughs, he slowly tips over sideways until his shoulder hits Joseph's.
Joseph snorts. "Lightweight."
"You're not human," Stephen says blearily, slumped against him. Joseph's arm presses warm against his, solid in an otherwise-wavering room. Stephen glances up in time to catch Joseph rolling his eyes, but he doesn't shove him off or tell him to get lost. Stephen's face is several inches from Joseph's jaw; he smells like cheap tequila and a hint of old cigarette smoke and something that has to be soap. Joseph's face is in profile as he takes a swig from the bottle that they've just about killed. Maybe he's human after all -- his hand slips as he drinks, and a trickle of tequila trails down the corner of his mouth and into his beard. Something heavy settles in the pit of Stephen's stomach and he's slammed by the overwhelming urge to reach up and wipe those drops away with his thumb.
Stephen Stills is drunk, but he still has enough self-possession to first: lower his hand before it comes anywhere near Joseph or his mouth (he turns the motion into an awkward, uncoordinated scratch at his own nose), and second: think oh and then shit.
Stephen barely even knows some of the people gathered around the Korean Delite table -- he hasn't said more than a couple sentences to Kim and Scott's friend Lisa in all the time she's been in Toronto, and this is her party -- but the food is great, pretty much everybody is in a good mood, and Julie is so busy trying to get in Lisa's good graces (in case she makes it in Hollywood) that she seems to have forgotten that she was pissed at Stephen. All is right with the world.
(IT'S REALLY NOT.)
Stephen is trying not to be weirded out by the fact that he's sitting between Julie and Joseph right now. There's nothing to be weirded out about, he reminds himself. He's at dinner between his girlfriend and the guy he's recording with, who's kind of a friend now. That's it.
"She'll have the sweet memories of her time in Toronto to keep her company!" Knives proclaims loudly. There are practically literal stars in her eyes.
"Are we letting her drink beer again?" Julie asks, grinning and then ducking back toward Stephen as Knives gives a wide, animated swoop of her hands. Slouched on Knives's other side, Neil looks like he'd rather be taking a cellular biology exam than be here. Neil has been a serious bitch lately.
"Hell yes we are, and it's hilarious," says Stephen, watching Knives now wax poetic on the wonders of California.
"It is a little cute," Julie allows. "In a puppy kind of a way. A drunk puppy."
There are zero safe responses to that; not after Julie's weeks-long freak-fest over her conviction that Stephen is cheating on her with Knives. "I guess," he grunts. It seems like the most neutral answer possible.
Hollie and the dude who Kim used to date are laughing at something Joseph just said. Stephen is not paying undue attention to the fact that Joseph is sitting beside him on the bench. He barely noticed when their shoulders collided as Joseph slid along the seat when he first got here, and he definitely doesn't stare at Joseph's hands where they're neatly folded on the table.
(None of that is true. He is paying undue attention. He noticed. He stared. Shit.)
Julie's eyes have sharpened behind her glasses; she is, Stephen suddenly realizes with no small amount of apprehension, studying him.
He tries to think about anything other than Joseph sitting on his other side.
And Brian Hinman, who Stephen had a thing for when they were in grade 8, until Stephen (Stevie, at that misguided point in his life) convinced himself that he was being delusional.
Stephen determinedly doesn't think about Brian Hinman, either.
Unexpectedly, Julie's face softens. "I'm sorry I've been so stupid about this whole thing," she says, and she scoots around the corner of the table and slings her arm across his shoulders.
Stephen can't remember the last time Julie apologized to him for anything or referred to something she did as stupid. She's warm pressed against his side, a familiar light weight, and she's speaking quietly and looking up at him sincerely. Sincerely.
He is such an asshole.
"Nah, whatever," he says, eyes fixated on a bowl of kimchi on the table. "Don't worry about it."
"I mean what could you possibly see in her, right?" she snorts, resting her chin in her hand and her elbow on the table. "I have nothing to fear!"
This is quite possibly the most uncomfortable Stephen has ever felt. "Right..."
23 years old
Rating: Wants to crawl under the table
"Yeah..." Stephen continues, with the world's least convincing tiny smile.
Julie apparently doesn't notice the incorrect lip-to-teeth ratio; she wraps her arms around his bicep and leans on him.
"--exploded!" finishes Ramona, and everybody at the other end of the table -- everybody but Scott, who looks indignant, and Young Neil, who has pulled out his cell phone and is probably getting his ass kicked by Bejeweled right now -- breaks out laughing.
Scott objects, "Hey. HEY!!" with a flail of his chopsticks, and Julie laughs, too, even though she wasn't listening and she can't possibly know what's funny. She does that sometimes.
Stephen takes a sideways glance and sees Joseph roll his eyes at Scott; he half-grins before he can quite stop himself. Julie pulls away from him and starts trying to talk to Lisa about Hollywood, unashamedly leaning across Knives, Neil, and Kim like they aren't even there.
Julie does that, too, sometimes.
Stephen inhales, exhales, and looks to his left. "Dude, do you even know Lisa?" he asks.
"No," Joseph answers readily, barely slowing down in his systematic destruction of whatever exactly it is that he's eating, "but I was promised jeon if I came."
He stares at him blankly. "What?"
Joseph points at a communal plate with his chopsticks. "They're like pancakes but from heaven."
Stephen reaches over and hooks the plate with two fingers to draw it in. Joseph insults his table manners but pushes the plate toward him, and then they argue about the proper balance of bass line and drums on the mix, as they absently fight over the pancake things (which totally are from heaven). It's easy.
Too easy, Stephen thinks suspiciously.
Stephen finally takes Julie aside a couple days after Scott's late September birthday party, where he somehow got stuck sitting between Julie and Joseph again. The exact moment when Stephen knew that even if he wasn't sure what the hell was going on, he couldn't keep dating Julie while he figured it out: when she smiled, small and private, and slipped him a neat forkful of her piece of cake. Stephen knew he had to do it even before he finished chewing.
The resulting conversation didn't go particularly well, but Stephen can't blame Julie for that one.
Everybody keeps making smartass comments about how this is the millionth time that Stephen and Julie have broken up; as they start to realize just how pissed off Julie is, the smartass comments slowly shift into "what did you do to her," which Stephen usually just shrugs at and then tries to change the subject.
(Julie's stunned voice saying "You think you're what?" currently feels like it's going to be echoing on a loop in Stephen's brain forever.)
23 years old
Status: Maybe gay??
Joseph is leaning over the computer, staring intently at the equalizing bar over the bass drum part on "Friday Night Dance Party," when Stephen says, "Can I ask you something?"
Joseph doesn't look away from the monitor. "Are you going to ask it even if I say no?"
"Fine," he says. "You can ask me something."
This is so epically stupid. This feels like it belongs in Scott's life, not Stephen's. But he has to know, and Joseph is by far his closest gay friend. (Stephen had momentarily considered pulling Scott's roommate aside, but (1) that felt way, way too personal for a guy who Stephen primarily knows because he shows up and gets drunk at some of their shows, and (2) Stephen draws the line at spending an entire conversation being called "guy.")
So he forces the question out before he can come to his senses and think better of it. He will think better of it.
"When did you know you were into guys or whatever?"
Joseph doesn't say anything, his back still turned, and then he reaches up and lifts one side of his headphones off one ear. He slowly looks over at Stephen, who honestly thinks he isn't going to say a word until he suddenly opens his mouth. "Olivia Roth," he says. "She kissed me when we were eight; I said I was going to marry her brother."
Stephen smirks a little bit, because it's kind of a sweet mental image, and because it's pretty much the answer he expected. Joseph knew when he was eight; Stephen can't figure it out when he's 23 years old. There is something wrong with him!!
"It's different for everybody," adds Joseph. "I know queers who didn't figure it out til they were old enough to have real weddings, instead of ones where the rings are dandelions." He shrugs, making every appearance of being casual as he turns back to the computer. Over his shoulder: "Some people get there a little late."
Stephen says, "Cool," his mouth all too dry, and then he suggests recording the cymbal crash in a different register.
In November: Scott is seriously like the worst employee in the world. He can't even slice onions right.
"You're doing it wrong," Stephen says, leaning against the countertop in the Happy Avocado kitchen. "They're not -- they have to be uniform, man."
Scott continues chop-chop-chopping away, uneven bits of onion flying.
Stephen says, "Come on, here," and he reaches over and grabs the knife handle before Scott can protest. Or start waving it around for emphasis when he talks. Stephen begins chopping the pile of onions that they have to get through as prep work for the lunch rush, his slices neat and clean. He has his back to Scott, but he's pretty sure he's being eye-rolled at. Scott can suck it.
Out of nowhere, Scott says, "If someone keeps one secret, does that mean they probably keep a lot of secrets?"
Stephen nearly chops off his own finger.
He pauses for several telling seconds (telling to anyone but Scott, anyway), and then he resumes, bringing the knife down on the cutting block harder. "Stop. I don't want to talk about anything except knives and the band."
"Knives Chau?" Scott asks, sounding both suspicious and startled.
"Knives like the one in my hand," Stephen grits out. He is now sure that Scott is being self-centered and wasn't talking about Stephen at all, but he keeps slamming the knife through the onions anyway, because it's violent and weirdly satisfying. "Restaurant talk. Band talk. That's all."
They go through the (pretty much nonexistent) plan for playing at Sneaky Dee's on Monday, and Stephen is totally committed to the band, but he keeps hearing stupid Scott's stupid question. If someone keeps one secret, does that mean they probably keep a lot of secrets?
"Okay," says Kim flatly, and yeah, she's staring at him over the counter, but it doesn't look any different than a normal bored Kim Pine stare.
"Really?" Stephen says dubiously, eyebrows pulled down low. "That's it?"
"I can express shock and dismay if it would make you feel better," Kim deadpans.
"No," he says. "Thanks. I'm good."
The bell over the No-Account Video store's door rings, sounding the entrance of the first customers in more than an hour. Kim doesn't even look to see who entered; she just says, "No, you cannot go in the section behind the curtain," and the two 13- or 14-year-olds freeze in the doorway, then they hiss something at each other and bolt back outside and down the street, giggling.
Stephen and Kim look at each other.
Kim sighs, and she gives in. With the least amount of inflection possible, she says, "Why would you say you only 'think' you're gay." She does finger quotes on "think."
"Uh," says Stephen. "I date girls. I mean, I've only dated girls."
"So date a guy." Kim is now glancing between the notepad on the counter and the computer screen as she types up account notes. "Problem solved."
"Yeah," says Stephen. "But." He resists the urge to tug on his hair. He has been friends with Scott Pilgrim for too long. "What if I try it and decide I'm not -- you know. Gay?"
Kim stares at him, fingers paused over the keyboard.
"That wouldn't be cool," he insists.
She doesn't say anything.
"To the guy."
She raises her eyebrows silently.
"Stop it," Stephen hisses.
She rolls her eyes and types the next row of information from her notepad. "So go find a hottie with a body and make out with him as a test."
He squints at her. "Did you seriously just say 'hottie with a body'?"
"Go to a club, Stills," Kim says ruthlessly. "Pick up a dude. A hot one." She abruptly smiles at him, too bright for it to be anything but mocking.
He scoffs, winding his scarf around his neck, and he heads for the door. Over his shoulder: "Thanks a lot, Kim."
"Stephen," she says, and he glances back. Kim is watching him, chin in her hand. "We have gay friends, you know." Her voice softens a very, very tiny bit. "Nobody's going to care."
It's pretty much the best thing she possibly could have said.
Very dry: "Thank you, Kimberly. You're a hell of a lady." Stephen may have said that with a deep sense of sarcasm but he actually does mean it. He thinks -- from the way that one corner of her mouth tips upward -- Kim gets that. "A hell of a lady who gives really crappy advice," he tells her.
"Worst advice," Stephen mutters, leaning on the bar. Terrible electronica throbs from the oversized speakers, loud enough that he can feel it in his head and his brain is pounding. He takes a slightly desperate slug from his beer -- and somebody hip checks him from behind, while he's still drinking. Stephen rocks with the hit and hurriedly lowers the bottle, swiping a hand across his mouth and swallowing, narrowly avoiding spilling crappy beer all over himself and the bar.
"Sorry," says the guy pulling up to the bar beside him. He has long, curly red hair and looks like he belongs at a skate park somewhere. "My bad, man. Some asshole bumped me; it was like dominoes."
"It's cool," Stephen says, wiping a couple drops of beer off his shirt.
"It's definitely not cool," says the guy, and Stephen finally realizes that the stranger is looking at him with more than cursory interest. He reflexively stands up a little straighter. "Here, c'mon." The guy flags down the bored-looking bartender, who apparently doesn't have much business on a Wednesday night. "Let me buy you a drink to make up for it."
Stephen looks down at the beer in his hand, then he shrugs, says, "Sure," and downs the rest of it.
He leaves the club at midnight with stubble-burn, half a hard-on, Fred's number, and the knowledge that:
(A) He is never going to call said number, because
(B) He is seriously hung up on Joseph. Also:
(C) Stephen is really, really gay.
Stephen doesn't know why he volunteered for the job. He really doesn't.
(Yes, he does.)
(He overheard Sandra and Monique laughing that Julie couldn't find anybody who was willing to help her load the truck for her move to Montreal.)
These have been two and a half of the longest hours of Stephen's life.
"We were together a long time, Stephen," Julie says, finally, after an excruciatingly long, awkward silence. "A really long time."
"I know," he says, and they stare at each other across several feet of sidewalk and the box he's still carrying. It's a December night in Toronto; Julie's bundled up in a parka with the fur-lined hood up, and Stephen wishes his coat wasn't inside on the stairs leading up to Julie's former loft. He hunches his shoulders up.
"Years of sex with me, and you're just -- suddenly gay?" Stephen has no idea what that sudden, violent hand motion means. It looks like it's supposed to signify an explosion of gayness or something. A passing car honks at the moving truck parked in the street.
"We didn't have that much sex," he points out, and her eyes narrow. Their sex life -- or lack thereof because they fought all the time -- when they were dating isn't exactly a topic that Stephen wants to get into, either; he quickly powers past it. "It's not sudden. It just--" He fumbles. "--Took me a while to work it out."
"A while?" Julie asks sourly.
"Fine!" Stephen snaps. "A couple decades!"
Her mouth purses up. He shoves the box into the back of the truck with more force than is strictly required, then reaches up and ratchets the door down. The slam echoes.
Julie sighs. "Thanks for helping carry stuff." She looks and sounds disgruntled at having to thank him, but she does it, which is a surprise. "I won't tell anyone about you being gay or whatever."
"It's really not a secret," he says, awkwardly rubbing the back of his neck. "I'm pretty sure everybody but Scott knows."
"Scott's an idiot."
"He's been pretty messed up lately," Stephen says.
"Ugh." Julie folds her arms over her chest and shoots him an obstinate stare that Stephen is all too familiar with. "Can we not talk about Scott Pilgrim right now?"
"I'm good with that."
"So," says Julie.
"So," says Stephen, and then he exhales. "Good luck in Montreal, Julie."
"Thank you," she says stiffly. For several long seconds, he thinks she's actually going to lean up and kiss him. He's still struggling to decide how to handle that when she touches his elbow, says, "Goodbye, Stephen," turns on her heel, and walks away. The passenger door slams shut and the truck's engine rumbles to life.
Stephen figures this is as close to closure as he and Julie are going to get.
"Mr. Mystery Guest? Are you still there?" asks Hans Gruber (the smug bastard).
"Yeah, I'm still here," says John McClaine. "Unless you wanna open the front door for me."
Stephen glances sideways out of the corner of his eye. Joseph is watching Alan Rickman get taunted by Bruce Willis, who has spent the last hour dodging bullets and crawling through air ducts. Joseph's profile is cast with weird-but-attractive flickering shadows thanks to the light from the TV and the string of Christmas lights that are taped to the wall in a random pattern. They're sitting together on Stephen's couch -- the movie-watching location chosen after the news that Hollie apparently sold the couch at Joseph's apartment -- almost hip to hip and thigh to thigh. Stephen can feel how warm Joseph's side is; a lean of only an inch or two would put them right up against each other.
Stephen has no idea how to do this. He hasn't had to do this in a long time. He was with the same girl for almost four years. It went off and on, yeah, but he didn't exactly date a whole lot of other people, even when he and Julie were off. Joseph thinks he's hot (or "finds him attractive," or whatever exactly he said), which seems like a good start -- but where does he go from here??
It's not until Joseph turns his head and faces him that Stephen realizes that at some point while he was thinking, he went from side-glancing at Joseph to full-on staring.
The two of them look at each other.
Stephen can't read Joseph's expression. He thinks there's something warm in it, though, despite -- or maybe because of -- the electric charge that is suddenly in the air. Joseph's eyes unmistakably flick down to Stephen's mouth.
"Yippee ki-yay, motherfucker," says John McClane in the greatest Christmas movie ever made.
That's enough of a sign for Stephen.
He leans in and kisses Joseph on the mouth. Joseph's hand immediately comes up and rests on the back of Stephen's neck, a warm heavy weight, and they slowly kiss. Loose-limbed and practically boneless with relief, Stephen shifts in until the side of his leg is pressed against Joseph's, and he parts his lips.
AND IT WAS PRETTY AWKWARD
(BUT IT WAS ALSO AWESOME)
They're trying to figure out how to best fit their mouths together, and the soft scrape of Joseph's beard against Stephen's is totally alien, and they keep bumping noses, and it's really sloppy. Seriously. Incredibly sloppy. But it's exactly what Stephen has wanted. Joseph's rough thumb slides in slow strokes against the back of his neck, and Stephen is relatively sure his brain is going to spectacularly short out at any moment now.
He already, on instinct, curled his fingers into a death grip on Joseph's shirt over his chest; now he carefully slings his other arm around Joseph's waist and splays his hand open in the small of his back. It seems like Joseph is good with that, from the way that he squeezes Stephen's knee, but then he presses his mouth against Stephen's in one final peck (much neater than most of the kisses they've been exchanging) and draws back.
Stephen sits there with his eyes shut for several seconds, then he says, "Uh for the record I'm gay now."
"I'm shocked," Joseph deadpans. Stephen opens his eyes. Gratifyingly, Joseph actually looks a little flushed. Score one for Stills. Meanwhile, Joseph's hand is on Stephen's thigh. This is not in any way helping Stephen's powers of coherency. Score at least 17 for Joseph. "Also for the record, that's not really how it works and you're the slowest human being on the planet."
"Hey," says Stephen. "Figuring out that you've always been gay when you're way past puberty is hard. I know it's not like throwing a switch."
"Stop," says Joseph. "Before you say something even more stupid."
Stephen considers it, then decides that that's actually probably a reasonable request. "Okay," he says.
Gunfire rattles on the TV. John McClane is killing terrorists and cracking wise.
The two of them eye each other, then both move all at once.
When the front door opens an hour later and somebody steps inside with a rustle of plastic bags and winter coat, they're very seriously making out in front of Die Hard's end credits. "--Uh," says Neil, wide-eyed, and then he goes back out onto the porch and slams the door shut behind himself. Muffled through the door: "Aughaslasfdg!!"
"Your friends are jackasses," Joseph says matter-of-factly, his breath tickling Stephen's neck.
"You seriously don't know how to skate?" Stacey asks, turning around and walking backward on the path so that she can see Joseph and Stephen as she talks to them. "Are you sure you're Canadian?"
"Those are fighting words, Stacey Pilgrim," Kim says, grinning under the raised collar of her coat.
"I've never felt the need to strap sharp objects to my feet and bludgeon people with sticks," Joseph retorts. "Though now that I phrase it like that, I'm starting to understand the appeal. Who are you again?" Stephen snorts and pats his shoulder. Joseph pulls a bitchface but slips his hand into Stephen's. He's wearing gloves; the leather is smooth and warm against Stephen's bare palm. Stephen slants a glance sideways, and he laces their fingers together.
Stacey's eyes flick down to their joined hands, then back up to their faces. "Kim invited me," she says breezily, barely skipping a beat (hereby cementing Stephen's theory that Scott somehow manages to surround himself with girls who are way, way cooler than he is). "Are you a skater, Stephen Stills?"
He twangs the laces of the skates that are tied together and hanging around his neck. "Since I was three," he says.
"Kim?" Stacey asks, turning back to face Kim in the front of their little group.
"Thank you, but no," says Kim. "I'm here to drink hot chocolate and watch all of you make asses of yourselves." The friend who Stacey brought -- a tall girl who wound her dreadlocks up inside a loose slouchy beret -- laughs and protests that Kim can't be serious (Kim is definitely serious).
As the three girls continue to talk, Joseph says, "I like the way Kim thinks."
"You're not even gonna try?" Stephen asks, and he grins when Joseph frowns.
The ring of lights surrounding Campbell Park's outdoor rink are in sight up ahead now, boards and chain link fence rising just beyond the last patch of snow-covered bushes and trees. There's a flurry of activity around the rink; a hot chocolate stand, some guys leaning on the boards, little kids in brightly colored snowsuits sitting in snowbanks while their parents untie tiny skates. Five or six people are playing a disorganized game of hockey on the ice, carefully maneuvering around a handful of kids, some couples holding hands, and two teenage girls who seem to be practicing figure-skating spins and jumps.
"There are toddlers on that ice," Stephen points out. "Actual four-year-olds."
"Fine," says Joseph. "But if I go down, you're coming with me."
IT TURNS OUT HE WASN'T KIDDING.
While Stephen is broad-shouldered and a reasonably strong dude, Joseph is taller and they're about the same size. There is no possible way for Stephen to keep Joseph up once he starts to wobble.
It's less like a wobble, honestly, and more like he's in the middle of an earthquake. A constant earthquake.
"You need to glide," Stephen coaches, skating backward with his hands clamped tight on Joseph's forearms as he haplessly clomps along. One of the figure skaters swoops past them, all effortless grace. Joseph glares after her. "Don't pick your feet up so much." Joseph stands up straighter and opens his mouth to retort, and Stephen can feel the exact moment when he locks his knees and starts to overbalance.
Stephen has two options:
(1) Hold on and go down with the ship; or
(2) Save himself.
His knees and his ass feel like one giant, interconnected purple bruise after all the falls he has taken in the last half hour. There's an especially giant one across his hip. And, granted, winding up flattened under Joseph isn't a bad experience at all, but that ice is damn cold and unforgiving, and Joseph has sharp elbows.
Which is to say: when it becomes clear that there's no saving this one, Stephen lets go and Joseph falls flat on his ass. Stephen grins down at him unrepentantly, and Joseph looks like he's seriously considering stabbing Stephen with his rented skate. Thankfully for Stephen's femoral artery, Stacey and her friend skate up just then. They've been going in circles arm-in-arm, strong skater Stacey supporting Simone, who looks like she's a much better student than Joseph.
"Oh no!" says Simone, laughing with her hand over her mouth, as Stephen grabs Joseph's arm and helps haul him back up. "Are you okay?"
"This is a pointless hobby," says Joseph, scowling and brushing off his jeans.
"I think we'd better leave them to it," Stacey says, grinning, and she and Simone push off and go onward.
Stephen and Joseph look at each other for several seconds, people skating around them, and then Stephen says, "You've got to keep your knees bent."
That earns him an immediate, "Smug bitch," and Joseph struggles on without him.
Stephen watches him wobble along, arms spread in an obvious attempt to maintain his balance, and grins fondly for a second before he goes after him. The ice feels good under his skates; smooth but not too artificially slick, and only pitted here or there. Joseph seems to be finding every single divot. The toes of his skates are like hole-seeking missiles. As Stephen draws even with him, gliding while they go around the curve, Joseph's arms windmill and Stephen grabs his elbow to steady him. Joseph huffs, white cloud of breath floating in the cold. Across the rink, Simone shrieks and she and Stacey go down in a giggling heap.
Kim perches on the boards with her boots hanging out over the ice and her back pressed against the chainlink fence, cup of hot chocolate in her hands, and, true to her word, she laughs at all of them.
"I, uh, actually have a new song," says Stephen, perched on Joseph's bed; "kind of new. Old-new," which gets pretty much the reaction he was expecting.
"No," Joseph says vehemently. "No more recording."
"No more recording," Stephen agrees. This was a stupid idea. He thinks longingly of backing out but it's too late now. Joseph will be a total pain in the ass until he finds out what the hell Stephen was talking about. "I just figured I'd play it, I'm going to play it now," he says all at once, and before Joseph can object, he hits the opening chord.
"Shake me up, the volume's off / back to back connect the dots--" Stephen doesn't have to even think about the chord progressions or the fingering for this song anymore; he's practiced too much for that. (Enough that Neil threw a shoe at their shared wall, the other night, and yelled at him to quit it.) He pretends he has to keep an eye on what he's doing, though, because that way he can look at the guitar instead of having to watch Joseph's face. He's sweating profusely. He's holding it together better than he did when Sex Bob-omb would play actual gigs, but not by much.
He wrote the song before he was willing to admit who it was for, so it was originally meant for a three-person band: guitar, bass, and drums. It still sounds weirdly quiet and stripped back when he plays it by himself. "I'm in this to make a mess / evanescent, won't confess," he sings. "Cutting the line, I can't hear her / everything's fine when I'm here." He glances up on that line -- it's too tempting not to -- and spots the end of a beard-twitch, a sure sign that Joseph is flattening a smile. Joseph himself is listening attentively, sitting in the computer chair with his eyes steady on Stephen.
"Get outta my head," Stephen sings. "Get outta my head / get outta my head." He tears through the accompaniment at the end and then he lets the last chord drop out and he finishes the last line (the line that he has been going back and forth on, when it comes to whether he should sing it to Joseph). Quietly: "I like you."
"It's not ... completely finished yet," Stephen says, into the awkward silence, when Joseph doesn't immediately say anything. It's "not completely finished" in the way where he only has one verse and a chorus and he has held onto those for months.
"Well," says Joseph, "I guess it didn't make me want to throw up," but his beard is definitely twitching, and he reaches over and pulls Stephen's guitar out of his hands and gently places it on the floor.
Stephen furrows his eyebrows at him. "What ar--"
Joseph gets up out of his chair and cups Stephen's jaw in his hand, and he leans in and kisses him; he keeps leaning, and the bed creaks as he comes up, knees on either side of Stephen's legs. He grabs Stephen around the waist and pulls him down, and they hit the mattress still making out.
Apparently, he liked the song.
After a brief struggle, Joseph comes up on top, lean body pinning Stephen to the bed. Stephen magnanimously decides that Joseph can stay there, after he yanks Stephen's collar aside and starts sucking a mark into the juncture where shoulder meets neck. Stephen throws an arm around him and shoves them up a couple inches in the bed, enough that when he reaches out, arm straining, he can just catch his fingertips on the edge of the bedroom door and fling it shut.
Joseph huffs against his skin, a breath that's probably part snort and part stifled laugh, and he leaves obscenely wet scraping kisses up Stephen's throat even as he slides a hand down his side. He hooks his fingers under the waistband of Stephen's jeans, and Stephen grunts and finally succeeds in hauling him up into a real kiss, tongues slick.
In a fit of damn-the-torpedoes, full-grope-ahead, Stephen grabs Joseph's ass, which helps roughly push their hips together, which makes them both swear at once. The feel of somebody else's erection should probably be weird -- it's definitely unfamiliar, and yeah, okay, it is pretty weird -- but it's also hot. 1) Stephen also got some welcome friction out of the deal, and 2) Stephen caused that, hell yeah.
Joseph pants against his mouth, again sounding like he's on the verge of a rare laugh, and pushes Stephen's T-shirt up his chest. They're apparently going to do this. Awesome. It has officially been More Than Long Enough, Stephen feels. He'll figure it out as they damn well go.
Joseph slides down his legs.
Stephen strongly resolves to write more songs about him.
"That song wasn't terrible," Joseph says. His arm is folded on Stephen's bare chest, his chin resting on his forearm, the two of them sprawled together in his bed. "Why aren't you in a band anymore, again?"
Stephen lifts his head enough that he can peer down at Joseph. His "obnoxious" (according to a mocking-but-smug Joseph) expression fades into bemusement and are you serious, dude? "We recorded for four months instead of playing gigs, our drummer is moving back in with her parents up north, and our bass player broke his guitar, had a mental breakdown, and won't leave his apartment. Sex Bob-omb is officially dead."
"Most bands record albums and play shows simultaneously," Joseph points out dryly.
Stephen says, "Ehh" and shrugs as well as he can while his hands are still clasped behind his head. He's warm and sleepy and comfortably boneless (in more ways than one, hey-oooo), leg tangled with one of Joseph's under the covers; it's hard to get worked up about weird questions about a totally defunct band.
"Whatever, I didn't mean why aren't you in that band," Joseph says, ignoring him. He has the gleam of an idea in his eyes. There's definite gleaming going on.
He frowns, then he slowly asks, "What band did you mean?"
"Scott Pilgrim, this is your life," Stephen intones, then listens. There's nothing. He kicks the door. "Scott, seriously. Open the damn door."
"He must not be here," Joseph says, standing at his side with his hands in his coat pockets. "We can probably leave."
"Quit bitching," says Stephen. "We're getting him out of there."
"You're getting him out of there," Joseph corrects. "I don't know what I'm doing here."
"You're being a supportive boyfriend," Stephen says, pounding the door with the side of his fist. "And you're probably helping me drag him."
He realizes, about two seconds before Scott opens the door, what he just said. Stephen turns and finds Joseph looking at him -- and then Scott flings the door open and immediately walks back to his couch, blanket trailing behind him. He goes facedown into the couch cushions and doesn't get back up.
Joseph and Stephen exchange a glance. Joseph looks very what have you gotten me into, which is better than WHY DID YOU JUST REFER TO ME AS YOUR BOYFRIEND; WE HAVEN'T TALKED ABOUT THAT; Stephen shrugs in response and walks into the empty little apartment.
"This is even more pathetic than I expected," says Joseph, following Stephen inside and closing the door on the snow.
"Hi Joseph," Scott says morosely into the pillows. He is surrounded by piles of empty ramen packages and bowl after bowl of old noodles. The smell isn't quite overwhelming, but it's well on its way.
Joseph coils his scarf up over his nose and mouth. It's a pretty good call, between the smell and how cold it is in here. "I'm catching dysentery just standing here."
"Time to get up, Scott," Stephen says brusquely.
"Five more minutes," says Scott's muffled voice.
"Nobody's seen you leave this place in like two weeks." Stephen folds his arms.
"You can get up, take a shower, and come out with us now, or you can have Stacey and Wells show up here tomorrow and kick you out a lot less nicely." It's actually not an empty threat. Stacey sent a flurry of texts this morning to see if anyone had had a sighting of Scott Pilgrim in the wild in weeks; she's threatening to team up with Wallace and -- do what, Stephen doesn't know, but whatever it is, Scott definitely won't enjoy it.
Scott apparently reaches the same conclusion, because he makes a noise like a wounded cow and then rolls off the couch. He shuffles past them, through the door that is presumably the bathroom, without saying a word. He looks like hell, like he either hasn't slept in a week or has done nothing but sleep for a week. His hair is standing on end, thanks to what's probably days' worth of grease.
"This is sad," Joseph says, looking around the mostly furniture-less apartment, and Stephen definitely agrees. "And disgusting." He nudges a tower of ramen noodle bowls with the tip of his boot. It shifts ominously but doesn't fall.
"You think we should--?" Stephen asks, and Joseph says an emphatic no as the shower starts up in the bathroom, but five minutes later, he's up to his elbows in suds and dirty dishes in the kitchen sink.
"This is the last stack," Stephen says, carrying in a bunch of used bowls and a single plate caked with a dried substance that he really hopes is ketchup.
"Dysentery," Joseph says ominously, and then he attacks a bowl with a sponge that Stephen is frankly shocked that Scott even owns.
Stephen puts down the dishes and he skates a hand across Joseph's hip and mutters, "Thanks" into the back of his neck.
Joseph leans back against him as he scrubs ramen residue out of the bowl; Stephen hooks two fingers in a belt loop of his jeans and it still, even a month later, feels really weird, like the other shoe should come down any second now because dating isn't supposed to be this easy, crises of sexuality aside.
"Uh," he says, "about what I said outside--" And then there is a tremendous crash from the bathroom.
"Don't make it weird," says Joseph, after a half a second's pause. "We're boyfriends. Go make sure your idiot friend didn't give himself a concussion with a shampoo bottle."
Stephen almost smiles, startled, and he presses a smacking kiss to Joseph's nearest body part, which happens to be his ear. Joseph retaliates by grabbing a wet, sudsy handful of his shirt; Stephen dodges a second grab and heads into the living room.
"Scott?" He knocks on the bathroom door. The water is still running, both in the shower and in the kitchen. "What the hell, man?"
There is a pause, then Scott says, "The shower curtain fell down."
Stephen slowly shakes his head. Maybe this isn't such a good idea, he thinks.
THIS DEFINITELY WASN'T A GOOD IDEA.
They manage to get Scott's apartment clean, and Scott himself dressed, out the door, and onto public transportation. That's not the bad part.
The bad part comes at the bar, when Cole barely has a chance to get up and say "Hey" before Scott points, hollers, "GIDEON! YOU WILL BE MINE!!" and launches himself at him.
CASUALTIES OF THE ENSUING MELEE INCLUDE:
-Joseph's gloves (due to blood from Cole's head)
-Convincing Cole to join the new band without having to resort to bribery
-Any chance of Stephen getting laid tonight
"Oh, God," says Stephen. "Oh my God. We shouldn't even be here." The green room at Cameron House is less of a green room and more of a closet, but that doesn't stop him from pacing its tiny confines. It's so small. He is sweating like a pig. He frantically yanks at his collar. "It's so hot in here; why is it so hot in here??"
Sitting on the floor and re-tuning his guitar, Joseph looks up, scowls, and inquires: "Are you having a stroke?"
"I don't know," says Stephen; "AM I??"
"It's cool. He does this." Cole is perched on a radiator, ankle on his thigh. He's idly keeping time by drumming his sticks on his sneaker. "Or he used to, anyway." He thumps his closed fist over his heart, two times in quick succession. "Kid Chameleon represent."
"I've only been playing bass for three days!!" Stephen tugs at his hair, and then he slumps over the green room sink. "We're gonna crash and burn."
23 years old
Status: Totally losing it
Joseph's voice says, "Oh for fuck's sake," and then somebody unceremoniously grabs Stephen by the arm and drags him outside. It's cooler out in the hall and it feels less like the walls are closing in, even if he can hear the echoes of Moulin Rogue's last song -- and the shouts of the crowd -- bouncing down the corridor from the stage.
Apparently (unsurprisingly), it was Joseph who marched him into the hall. His expression is fierce but he doesn't say a word; he just makes Stephen sit with his back against the wall, then sinks down beside him. They sit in silence, shoulder to shoulder. Stephen can feel Joseph's side steadily rise and fall.
"Deadly robot / you don't fool me / I know you have laser eyes," bellow the guys in Moulin Rogue.
Joseph scoffs under his breath. "They're a good act to follow," he says scornfully. "They're terrible."
Stephen smiles a little bit.
"Uh, guys?" says Cole, poking his head out into the hall. He has his drumsticks in his back pocket and is carrying a guitar in either hand, well away from his body, like he doesn't know what to do with them. "We've kinda got to go."
Joseph stands up and slings his guitar strap over his shoulder once Cole hands it to him. "I won't murder you if we crash and burn," he says to Stephen, retracting the threat he made when they first arrived for sound check, and Stephen glances up at him. "I'll just kneecap you a little."
"Thank you. That's really generous of you," Stephen deadpans, and he takes the hand up that Joseph offers him. Joseph squeezes, grip quick but very firm, before he lets him go, and Stephen's hand is mostly steady when he reaches out for his guitar.
It's not Kim's voice that yells, "We are the band that doesn't have a name yet, 1-2-3-4!" and sends them crashing into the opening number, but Stephen glances to Joseph on his left as he steps up to the microphone, and he thinks he could get used to this.