never love someone who could love someone like me

by shukyou (主教)
illustrated by The Winter Cynic

another round of soulmates are stupid I love you on purpose

 

She didn’t look real to Jo at first; between the hazy colored lights that pulsed in time with the music and the oncoming storm of whatever was in those pills Dominick had sold her, Jo’s first thought on seeing her was, I’m looking at a ghost.

She was solid, though, or solid enough as she sat down on the ratty old couch next to Jo, and her knees bumped against Jo’s. She had long legs, made even longer by the high-heeled platform shoes she was wearing. When she stood up, her head must hit the ceiling, Jo though, or maybe that was the pills talking again. They made everything seem close, almost claustrophobically so. But Jo wasn’t claustrophobic. She wasn’t anything-phobic. A phobia was a fear and she wasn’t afraid of fucking anything.

Not even of this creature, who had nails painted the same red as her ill-fitting dress. It looked like it wasn’t even her dress, like she’d borrowed it for the evening. Maybe that was what made her look like a ghost, the part where she looked like she was just visiting the skin she was in. She had two huge brown eyes framed by red eyeliner. “Hi,” she said, her red lips forming the syllable. Maybe it was her favorite color. Maybe it was the only color she owned.

“Hi,” Jo said back. Her bones felt like they’d been replaced with mashed potatoes. On instinct, her fingers drifted to the knife in the pocket of her ratty cargo pants. Never leave home without it. That was a lesson she’d learned a little too late.

“This is my first time,” said the woman, glancing around the room. Bodies twirled and staggered around them in equal measure, all the bright young things here to get trashed off their asses at one of the south-of-South-Street warehouse parties. Jo didn’t even know who was throwing it tonight, if anybody was throwing it at all. Maybe these things were like natural disasters, popping up unbidden and unstoppable. Maybe they were nobody’s fault.

Jo nodded. “Okay.” She didn’t know what to say to that. There wasn’t a greeting or secret handshake. Jo barely remembered the first time she’d found herself here. After her parents had kicked her out, was all she could say for the timing. So, any time in the last two years. They were all a blur anyway.

The woman in red raised one knobby hand and held it out to Jo, not like a handshake, but like she expected Jo to kiss her knuckles, like she was some medieval princess. “I’m Winnie.”

“Winnie?” Jo repeated, trying to make sure she’d heard it right, that it wasn’t Wendy or Whitney or something more reasonable.

The woman — Winnie, apparently — nodded. “Short for Winifred.”

It was probably rude of Jo to scoff loudly at that, but she couldn’t help herself. A “Josephina” on paper, she either had no room to judge or all the room to judge, flip a coin. “Sorry, I … look, no offense, okay, but you don’t look like that’s the name you started with.”

Winnie’s pleasant expression didn’t go anywhere. She withdrew the offer of a handshake and instead brushed a lock of black hair from her face before settling both hands back around her drink. “It’s not.”

“So…” Jo sat up a little, only to feel her spine give way so that she fell back against the couch cushions. “So all the names in the world to choose from, and you went with Winifred?”

Had she meant the jab to hurt? Absolutely. Not much, of course; she wasn’t out for blood with this complete stranger. Jo just wanted her to fuck off. She wanted her to fuck off and let Jo get back to an evening of letting herself melt into the loud music and the soft painkiller haze, until all the little awful thoughts in her head fucked off too. Maybe she’d get so relaxed she’d stop breathing and die on the couch. That was kind of a nice thought.

But Winnie just giggled like Jo had said the funniest thing in the world. “It means ‘friend of peace.'” She drew one of those paw-like hands to her chest. Most of how the dress didn’t fit her was there. “Maybe it’s an old-fashioned name, but I’m an old-fashioned kind of girl.”

Jo snorted. “Hate to tell you, no tea parties here.” She tried sitting up again and this time actually managed to do it. She used the momentum to lean a little closer, to get more in Winnie’s space. Maybe that would get rid of her. If Jo couldn’t be rude, she could be ugly and off-putting. That was what everybody knew about her. That was all there was about her worth learning. “Nothing here but trash like me.”

“Then I’m in the right place,” Winnie said. Her eyes were even bigger at this distance. They were huge brown orbs, threatening to take over her entire face. Or maybe that was the drugs. “Let’s dance.”

Absolutely not. “I don’t dance,” Jo said firmly. And that was the end of that.

Or at least it should have been, which didn’t explain why a minute or so later she was in the middle of the makeshift dance floor, moving awkwardly to the music. She’d been dragged there by Winnie, who seemed even worse at taking no for an answer than Jo was. She was tall when they were both standing, and Jo wasn’t exactly short. But Winnie was tall tall, and she wore heels that made her even taller, such that Jo had to damn near tilt her head back all the way to look her in the eye. She had her hands clasped behind Winnie’s neck, but not because Jo liked her or anything. It was just a defense mechanism, to keep from falling over. She didn’t trust her wobbly legs to keep her up. That was all.

Maybe Jo didn’t dance, but Winnie did, which meant that holding on to her, Jo danced anyway. Winnie’s hand held the small of Jo’s back, pressing their bodies together. In a ratty undershirt with no bra and a tattered hoodie thrown over it, Jo was a trashy companion to the creature in front of her, this beautiful ghost in her ill-fitting skin. Jo was a wreck, and maybe those big dark eyes of Winnie’ would see that closer up.

Winnie’s eyes were closed now, though, as she swayed with the beat like she was part of it. Her body moved in ways it shouldn’t have, liquid and perfect. She snaked her arms above her head, then brought them down around Jo as Jo could only stare in wonder. It was like watching close-up magic, ten times as baffling for being right in front of her face. All Jo could do was hold on and let the heat from their bodies build between them. Drips of sweat ran down her cheeks, plastering locks of her short, shaggy hair to her forehead. She was caught in the motion of Winnie’s body like a leaf in a windstorm, unable to stop herself from wanting it. When was the last time she had wanted anything? That was what the pills were for, to dull all that bullshit to nothing, until she didn’t give a shit anymore.

None of which explained why she was here, in the middle of a crush of bodies, holding on to a weird tall stranger with an awful name who looked ethereal beneath the harsh colored lights that spun through the darkness. Winnie was sweating too, Jo could see — or no, ladies didn’t sweat, they glowed. And she was a lady, that much was clear, in all the ways Jo wasn’t anymore. She smelled like roses and amber. Her makeup wasn’t going anywhere. She was bizarre. She was perfect.

Winnie’s hand came to rest on Jo’s face tenderly, like Jo was something precious, something worth touching, which was completely fucked up because everybody else could see otherwise. What was wrong with Winnie? Maybe whatever she was on, Jo should try some of it. The bass of the music thrummed slow as the song changed, slow enough that it became Jo’s heartbeat. Everything felt like it was underwater. Jo wasn’t even sure she was breathing anymore. Maybe this was what drowning felt like.

She let out a growl and bit Winnie’s hand. She was doing it before she even realized she was doing it. Her teeth were caught around the knuckle of Winnie’s index finger, biting the webbing between finger and thumb. She was biting, too, her teeth sinking in. That was what Winnie deserved for ignoring all the signs that Jo was a dangerous animal. Stick your hand in the tiger cage, get bit. Jo was a fucking tiger. She could do a lot of damage.

Except Winnie wasn’t pulling back like she should have been, hissing with pain. Instead she grinned down at Jo like this was how the game was played. While Jo sank her teeth in, Winnie took her thumb and pried it between Jo’s teeth, giving Jo more. Jo could unhinge her jaw, could swallow Winnie whole right there, could eat her heart on the dance floor so that everyone would know not to mess with Jo, the crazy bitch, the ugly dyke, the fucking junkie who hadn’t managed to kill herself yet, but it was only yet, because she was getting better at it every time, because everything she’d been good for once was gone–

Jo spat Winnie’s hand out of her mouth. Everything was hot and bright and sick, including the taste of blood on her tongue. “I’ve, I’ve gotta–” Jo pushed away, staggering into another dancer as she wobbled on unsteady legs. “I’m out. I’m out.”

“Wait!” Those impossibly wide eyes of Winnie’s went impossibly even wider. Winnie followed after as Jo cut her way through the crowd, headed toward the door. “Let me give you my number.”

“I don’t have my phone.” Jo had stopped dancing, but the room was still spinning. She wasn’t afraid. It was just unpleasant. She could dislike things without being afraid of them.

“Then–” Winnie caught Jo by her shoulder and turned her around with enough force that Jo nearly lost her balance. Jo barely had time to steady herself before there was a phone being pushed in her face, an unlocked one with the contacts app opened. “Tell me yours.”

Jo took the phone and stared dumbly at it. She didn’t want to give this strange woman the number of her most recent shitty burner phone. She didn’t want to talk to Winnie ever again. She didn’t want to be perceived at all, and especially not by someone who could get her out on a dance floor, someone who could get in her mouth. That was witchcraft too strong for Jo to deal with. Better to leave this as a freak occurrence. It didn’t mean anything. They both probably would forget it by morning.

The entry fields of the empty contact form swam in front of Jo’s eyes. She had to type something. She looked down at all the options. Name. Company name. Work phone. Home phone. Birthday. Address–

Jo snorted. Wouldn’t it be funny if someone just put their address in, and nothing else? That would be hilarious. Of course she wasn’t going to do that. She wasn’t going to give this weirdo any personal information. She wasn’t even going to put in her name. Okay, maybe just her name. Blearily she typed Jo into the name field. Winnie could find that out from anybody. Jo wasn’t giving anything away giving her that.

After a minute, Jo locked the phone and shoved it back in Winnie’s general direction. “There. Go away.”

Winnie gave her a little wave. “Bye.”

The night air outside the warehouse was unpleasantly warm and muggy. Jo staggered over to a pile of concrete and threw up everything on her stomach, which was barely anything. She felt like she was burning up. Her eyes felt swollen in her head. Her heart was pounding. She put her hand on her chest as though she could physically calm it through her ribs. Was this a panic attack? She’d lost the ability to tell. Maybe her life was one big panic attack, with no ending or beginning, just little ebbs and flows.

Whatever. It didn’t mean anything. It wasn’t like she was going to see Winnie again anyway.

 

~*~

 

Jo squinted as her eyes adjusted to the harsh sunlight, which meant it took her a minute to recognize the figure on the bench right outside the apartment building’s front door. “What the fuck are you doing here?” Jo was too hung over for this.

Looking fresh as a daisy, Winnie stood. She had toned down her look from the night before; all the red had been replaced with dark blue jeans and a lacy white top, making her look a little more material. Or maybe that was the hangover talking. “You gave me your address,” Winnie said.

“The fuck I did.” Technically it wasn’t even Jo’s address. It was Charlene’s address, because Charlene had agreed to let Jo crash with her for two weeks while Charlene’s roommate was out of town. Jo didn’t know yet where she’d go next. She was running out of people who both owed her favors and had spare couches. And anyway, it didn’t matter because Jo hadn’t given it to her.

“Of course you did,” Winnie said, smiling. She walked over to Jo and took Jo’s elbow. Jo hadn’t even offered her arm. “Buy me breakfast.”

This was more than Jo had bargained for this early in the morning, and it wasn’t even technically early. How long had this crazy woman been sitting there waiting, anyway? “I’m not buying you breakfast.”

“Then buy yourself breakfast, and I’ll eat half of it.”

“Look, I–” Jo tried to pull away, but Winnie’s grip was formidable. She settled for stopping dead still on the sidewalk, making Winnie turn so they were facing one another. Winnie’s makeup was less dramatic now, a softer daytime look. Well, fine, she was pretty, but she was also clearly insane. “Why are you doing this?”

Winnie laughed as she tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. “Maybe I like a challenge.”

“Maybe there’s something broken in your brain.”

“There’s definitely something broken in my brain,” Winnie agreed. “How about you?”

Jo stared at her for a minute, then grunted and started walking. This wasn’t the kind of neighborhood for trendy sidewalk cafes or cozy coffee shops, but there was a shitty diner a few blocks over. It was as good as she was prepared to give.

Winnie talked as they walked, but Jo pointedly didn’t listen. It was all meaningless, anyway — how nice it was that the weather had started to warm up, a man in a bright yellow suit who’d been on her subway car that morning, the way her sandals were still so new they were a little uncomfortable, a convenience store they passed that was selling a new flavor of soda she wanted to try. Jo just grunted at appropriate intervals, which seemed all the participation Winnie expected. She wondered if she could maybe swap out her own arm with a mannequin arm, if Winnie would just keep on walking down the street, talking to no one about nothing. Jo would bet good money it would be a while.

All the seats at the counter were taken, so Jo seated herself in the nearest empty booth. Winnie slid in opposite her. Moments later, they were greeted by a waitress looked like a veteran of the diner wars; everything from her expression to the way she held her notepad said she hadn’t had a good night’s sleep in decades. “Ladies,” she greeted them after a moment’s uncertain pause. Jo honestly wasn’t sure which one of them had been the greater cause for the hesitation. “What can I get you today?”

“Coffee,” Jo said. “Black.”

“Same, and I’ll have a big pile of strawberry pancakes with extra whipped cream on top,” Winnie said, tracing a little swirl in the air with one perfect red-painted nail. “And a side of sausage, and one of those blueberry muffins, buttered and toasted on the griddle. My girlfriend’s treating me today.”

Jo rolled her eyes. Whatever. It wasn’t worth the effort it’d take to correct Winnie’s weird lie. Besides, it wasn’t like a random diner waitress cared anyway. Winnie could have introduced them as the Duke and Duchess of the Five Golden Fairy Rivers, and this long-suffering woman wouldn’t have given a shit. Jo knew the type. As long as somebody tipped well, everything else was negotiable.

“This is a cute little place,” Winnie said as she looked around. The comment made Jo question both her judgment and her eyesight. “You come here often?”

Jo shrugged. “I guess.” The coffee was not arriving fast enough.

Winnie’s pretty lips curved into a smirk. “Do you bring all your first dates here?”

“No.”

“Then where do you take them?”

Jo set her face into a sharp scowl — one that, unfortunately, Winnie seemed to find funny. God, how was she so irritating? “I don’t date. So I don’t take them anywhere. The end.”

Winnie’s eyes lit up. “Then you mean this is our special place?”

Not a jury in the world would have convicted Jo right then. “Sure. Fine. If you want it to be.” Jo sighed and sank back into the booth seat — then sat right up again as the waitress wordlessly set down two cups of coffee on the table. Jo grabbed the closer one and brought it straight to her lips. She needed more caffeine to deal with this situation.

Well, no, what she really needed was something stronger. But she was out of that, and she couldn’t get any more until the evening. So caffeine it was.

“So what do you do?” asked Winnie after a moment.

“Do?”

“You know. Work.” Winnie said the word like it tasted bad.

“Oh.” Once upon a time, Jo had been asked questions like that all the time — not what she did, but what she wanted to do, what she planned on being when she grew up, what she wanted to study when she went to college. The joke was now on everyone who’d ever asked; Jo didn’t even have a high school degree. In another life, she would probably have been spending that very weekend getting fitted for her cap and gown. Once upon a time, she’d had to try hard not to think of things like that. Now, it didn’t even hurt. “You know. Stuff. Whatever. This and that. You?”

“Publishing,” Winnie said as she poured a truly ridiculous number of creams into her coffee, nearly overflowing the mug. Jo pointedly did not stare at the ghostly little half-ring of faded teeth marks that lingered on Winnie’s hand. “Which is a wretched field, so try not to get into it yourself.”

Jo wasn’t going to have to try hard. “So if you hate it, why do you do it?”

Winnie sighed through thinned lips. “Promise you won’t laugh.”

“I won’t.”

“I’m going to be a writer.”

Jo realized she’d been braced for something much stranger, given that she was clearly talking to a crazy stalker who invited herself to breakfast. Being a writer? It was almost disappointingly normal. Not that Jo was disappointed. Not that she gave a shit about this weirdo sitting across the booth from her. “What do you write?” asked Jo, which was a stupid politeness reflex. She really didn’t care. She really didn’t.

Winnie’s expression brightened. Jo knew she was in trouble.

By the time their food arrived ten or so minutes later, Jo had been thoroughly regaled with the tale of one Miss Mona Black, art thief with a heart of gold and protagonist of Winnie’s dream series of novels. “I have three plotted out already,” she told Jo, sliding the sugar canister across the table as Jo made wordless grabby gestures. Jo upended almost the whole thing over her refilled mug of coffee. “Publishers love a series. Built-in audience. I’ll have to have an agent. They’ll negotiate for me.”

Jo could take or leave strawberry pancakes, but that muffin looked good, slathered in butter and crisped up. She weighed her options and decided it would be ruder to take half than to leave it, so that was what she did. She considered it fair payment for listening to Winnie yap that much. The fact of who was actually paying here was beside the point. “Are you any good?”

“At writing?” Winnie speared a slice of strawberry. “Yes.”

“Then why are you going to be a writer? Aren’t you a writer already?”

With a sigh, Winnie took the syrup and poured it over both the pancakes and the sausage. It was disgusting. She was disgusting. How did she live with herself, being so disgusting? “There’s a difference between writing and being a writer. People expect a writer to write. People who just write have to do it in-between doing other stuff.”

Jo supposed the distinction made sense. “Like working in publishing.”

Exactly.” Winnie began cutting the pancakes up with dainty little swipes of her blunt table knife, which enraged Jo for some reason. Everything about her was wrong and terrible. “But enough about me. Tell me about yourself.”

That was another politeness reflex, Jo could tell. Winnie didn’t really want to know about her. Nobody wanted to know about her. She was trash, something that people endured instead of liked. She didn’t have any big dreams, like being a writer or going to college or anything. She was just her. “Not a lot to say,” Jo said, talking with her mouth full of muffin. Damn, those were good muffins. “Pretty much what you see is what you get.”

“Oh, I don’t believe that.” Winnie pointed at Jo with her fork. “I can tell when a pretty girl has an interesting story.”

Jo snorted. Without thinking, she tugged her ratty sleeves down even further over her hands, making sure everything beneath was covered. “You must be looking at someone else,” she said, staring pointedly at the table. Jo had been pretty once. Pretty never did anyone any good.

“Just at my beautiful girlfriend,” Winnie said, cupping her chin in her hand like some twitterpated tween. Jo damn near rolled her eyes right out of her head.

When they were finished eating, Jo left money on the table. Before she could stuff her wallet back into her pocket, though, Winnie snatched it from her hand and pulled out a few dollars more to toss on the pile. Great, now Jo had a stalker who also critiqued her tip percentage. Her only hope was that maybe this had gotten it out of Winnie’s system. Surely the length of a meal was long enough to realize that Jo wasn’t anyone worth spending time with. Winnie had gotten a free breakfast out of the deal, and now she could move on to her next target.

None of which explained why Winnie slipped her hand in Jo’s as they walked out the door of the diner. Jo yanked her hand away immediately, but Winnie only laughed and took her elbow again. Jo didn’t fight her on that one.

Lacking some kind of declared destination, Jo just started walking. Winnie followed without question or comment. Maybe pancakes needed silence to digest properly. Well, the joke was on Winnie. Jo didn’t know where she was going, and she didn’t have anywhere to be just yet. She could walk forever. It was Winnie’s job to keep up, and in those heels especially. Every now and then, Winnie would wobble in her step, like she wasn’t entirely used to walking in shoes like those. Suited her right. High heels were stupid anyway. All fashion was stupid. Winnie deserved it for being dumb enough to be a stalker who dressed up to go stalking.

People in her usual part of town tended to ignore anyone they didn’t want something from, which suited Jo just fine. The closer they got to the waterfront, though, the more they got into the territory of new developments, luxury condos, expensive high-rises with majestic views. The people they passed on the sidewalk went from pointedly looking away to pointedly staring, and not in a welcoming manner. The harshest looks came from the women, the ones in expensive exercise gear and tailored summer dresses, walking prissy dogs and pushing strollers, their eyes shooting daggers at the two freaks in their midst, the two imposters doing womanhood wrong. Jo drew Winnie closer to her, daring any of those bitches to say a word. She felt like biting her lips until they bled and then baring her bright red teeth.

The worst part about seeing them was knowing how easily she could have been the one on that side of the sidewalk. Her mother would have been. Hell, Jo wondered if her mother would recognize her, if they passed one another on a street like this. Probably not. She’d only ever seen what she’d wanted to see, so she’d never really seen her daughter at all.

“Baby?” asked Winnie, startling Jo out of her thoughts. Jo realized that not only had she grabbed Winnie’s hand, she’d been squeezing it tight enough to break bones.

With a heavy exhale, Jo let go, then wormed her arm fully out of Winnie’s grip. “Don’t call me that.”

Winnie’s smile broadened. Jo had a sudden sinking feeling that the fastest way to make Winnie do something was to tell her no. Standing opposite her on the sidewalk, Winnie folded her arms across her chest. “So what should I call you, then?”

“Don’t call me anything.” Jo made a shooing gesture. “Fuck off.”

“That is no way to talk to your girlfriend,” chided a still-smiling Winnie.

Jo didn’t know how to talk her girlfriend. She’d never had a girlfriend. She barely had friends. Winnie wasn’t either. “I’m not your girlfriend.”

Winnie shrugged. “Fine. Then I’ll be your girlfriend until you come around.”

Jo wasn’t going to come around. This entire situation was ridiculous. The fact that the inside of her elbow was now unpleasantly cool without Winnie’s hands wrapped around it was stupid. The fact that she’d just had a longer conversation with her freak stalker than she’d had with anyone else in years was stupid. Everything was stupid. “Fuck off,” Jo said again, starting to walk back in the direction she’d came. She was choking. Even the air around here was too expensive. She had to get back to the gutter where she belonged. “And don’t come back to that building. I’m not even going to be there after Tuesday. You hang around like a creep and scare people, somebody’s going to call the cops on you.”

“Then where do I find you?” asked Winnie. They were near enough to the shore that the wind was blowing her dark hair free from its careful knot and into her face, across her pretty red lips. There was something statuesque and perfect about her, just like that, in the warm midday light filtered through thin clouds and across her bare shoulders. Jo had the thought right then that Winnie was the most beautiful, kissable woman Jo had ever seen. She wanted to tear off her own head about it.

So instead was going to walk away, because that was the only thing she was good at. “I dunno, probably dead in a ditch somewhere.”

Winnie’s expression darkened a little. “That’s not funny.”

“Wasn’t meant to be.” Jo exhaled through pursed lips. “I don’t know. Might see who else owes me a favor. Offer to work it off. Call Dominick or something.”

“I don’t know who Dominick is,” Winnie said softly, as though explaining something to a child.

Jo snorted. “That sounds like a you problem.” And before Winnie could say anything else, Jo took off, walking as fast as she could without outright running until she was a few blocks away and out of sight of the marina.

Then she did start running. With her stomach full of blueberry muffin and coffee, and her feet in sneakers so ratty their soles were falling off, it felt terrible, but she didn’t care. Let it feel terrible. She deserved to feel terrible. She ran with an angry sprint that slowed to a more reasonable jog after a quarter mile or so. Anyone who saw her could think she was a normal person out for a normal jog, living a normal life, having normal feelings, going to do something normal later that wasn’t taking pills she couldn’t identify until everything numbed to a quiet fog that eventually went dark.

Sweat rolled off her skin, sticking her hair to her scalp. Maybe she’d get in a fight tonight. Maybe she’d let someone fuck her for money or drugs or just because she didn’t feel like saying no. There were lots of ways to hurt. She was getting good at them all.

 

~*~

 

Jo spent the next week jumping at each scrap of red fabric she saw. It was never Winnie. Other people wore red too, Jo told herself. For fuck’s sake, Winnie hadn’t even been wearing red the second time they’d met. It didn’t help. Every time a red scarf or skirt or pair of high heels passed into her field of vision, she felt her heart seize. There was never a good reason.

Not that there would have been a good reason at all, except that Jo couldn’t stop thinking about Winnie. Which was stupid, because who thought about their stalker? Who was sad and desperate enough that a stupid coerced breakfast in a stupid shitty diner was the best thing that had happened to them in literal years? Jo didn’t want to be that person, so she decided she wasn’t going to be. She wasn’t going to think about it anymore. She definitely wasn’t going to think about Winnie’s hands, or the curve of her lips, or the way she pulled her hair back from her face, or the soft scent of her perfume. Jo was going to put all that useless bullshit out of her mind. Sometimes she even managed to do it.

Then she’d catch a glimpse of a red dress moving through a crowd and it would be all over again.

She had to sleep rough a couple nights after leaving Charlene’s, which wasn’t so bad in the warm weather. She paid cash for a week-by-week membership at a twenty-four-hour gym that let her in because she was young and clean and sane enough that everyone could pretend they didn’t know she was homeless. She stored what little shit she had in one of the lockers. In the middle of the night, she would beat punching bags like they’d wronged her personally, shower, try to grab a nap in a corner where the cameras couldn’t catch her, and leave about the time the white-collar overachievers started arriving with their protein shakes and their expensive sneakers. It wasn’t a bad life. Not sustainable, but not bad either.

On the nights there were parties, she’d go to parties. She’d take anything she could get her hands on and let the wash of it take her. It almost didn’t matter how it made her feel — sharp, fuzzy, up, down, sideways. Whatever it was, it was different. Sometimes on other evenings she’d go to normal bars, straight bars. When she’d first been out here, she’d turned her share of tricks, while she’d still been cute and manic. Now she was ugly and depressed, which meant fewer people looked at her beneath her oversized hoodies and shaggy haircut and thought, yeah, I want to fuck that one. Shame she couldn’t have advertised that she was underage at the time. A couple guys might have paid extra for that, but a couple might also have called the cops, and that wasn’t a risk she could have taken.

At times she’d sit down by the shoreline, watching the lights reflect off the water and rubbing the scars on her arms. Most of the cuts had been made for pain. A couple had been made to do real damage. She could remember being in the hospital and hearing her mother ask a doctor about plastic surgery, like it was worse to have a daughter who looked like she’d tried to kill herself than a daughter who’d tried to kill herself. Which maybe it was.

Dominick did owe her a favor, and he knew someone who cleaned those overachievers’ expensive condos for a living, so Jo came along for a couple of those jobs. The pay was shit and all under the table, but it was more money than none. It was outside one of those buildings, standing on the street and reeking of disinfectant, wondering where she should head next, that she caught the scent of amber on the late afternoon air. A second later, she heard a low, sweet voice announce, “Your girlfriend’s here!”

Jo couldn’t breathe. Her immediate instinct was to throw herself into Winnie’s arms, to yell at her for being too stupid to find Jo any sooner than she had. It had been nearly a week. A week! Didn’t she know how long a week was? Did she have any idea how brittle Jo felt every time she looked and Winnie wasn’t there, or how much worse it was now she was actually here?

But she would have died before admitting all that, so Jo stuck her hands in her pockets and shrugged like she didn’t care. “You mean my stalker,” Jo said, rolling her eyes.

Winnie grinned — then sniffed and wrinkled her nose. “You smell terrible.”

Jo had no doubt that was true. “Yeah, well, not all of us get to work cushy office jobs.”

Winnie’s little laugh at that sounded forced. “We could get a hotel room with a nice shower,” she offered with a wink.

Fuck, that sounded good. A real shower, not a shitty gym shower, with real privacy and soft towels and maybe even a steady supply of hot water, and an actual bed afterward. So of course Jo refused. “So my stalker can molest me? Pass.”

“I would never.” Winnie put a hand to her chest, her face a mask of appalled innocence. “Unless, of course, my beautiful girlfriend wanted me to…”

“Pass extra.” Jo turned and started walking the other way down the sidewalk, as though she had some particular destination in mind. A half-second later, she heard the near-martial clip of Winnie’s high heels following her. Jo felt her lips starting to betray her with a smile, so she bit the inside of her mouth until she had her expression under control again.

Alas for Jo’s great plan of retreat, traffic at the hour meant she was forced to wait at the crosswalk. That in turn meant that Winnie was upon her almost instantly, leaning down so that her lips hovered a hair’s breadth away from Jo’s ear. “Maybe my beautiful girlfriend would like me to eat her out,” Winnie purred, her voice soft enough that even people standing only a few feet away could never have heard her words. “To get my face between her thighs and lick her–“

Jo bolted the instant the light changed, leaving Winnie trailing along after her, laughing like silver bells. “You’re insane,” Jo said, like Winnie didn’t know that already. “You are a crazy person.”

“A crazy person with certain talents,” Winnie chirped, like they were talking about her typing skills. “Ones I would be happy to demonstrate for my beautiful girlfriend–“

“Stop.” Jo spun on her heel and put her hand right in the middle of Winnie’s chest, keeping her at arm’s length. Winnie’s dress tonight was royal blue and just as soft as it looked. Jo could feel the heat of Winnie’s body through the fabric. It made her think of dancing. “You don’t have a girlfriend.”

“But I do.”

And,” Jo continued, unwilling to listen to this nonsense, “she’s not beautiful.”

“But she is!”

Jo snorted. “You don’t know me. You don’t know anything about me.”

“And whose fault is that, hm?” Winnie arched one perfectly groomed eyebrow.

This was an insane argument to have, especially in the middle of a public street, and double-especially when Winnie looked so put-together and polished and Jo looked like absolute trash. Everything felt disconnected from reality, most of all the part where Jo wanted to feel Winnie’s skin between her teeth again. “I could stab you,” Jo said, and it was true.

Winnie shrugged. “Go ahead.”

Jo lived in something of a glass house regarding self-destructive behavior, but that seemed a bridge too far even for her. “So why me, huh? Why are you stalking me?”

“Maybe we’re soulmates.”

That got a derisive snort from Jo. “We’re really not. Believe me, I’d know.”

“Well, then, I’m still an excellent judge of character,” Winnie said with audible pride, “and I have a keen taste for beauty. Also, how is it stalking when you keep telling me where to find you?”

Now that was bullshit. Jo had never told Winnie anything of the sort. Jo didn’t want to be found, and she was very good at not being found. There was no way she suddenly would have become not good at it. That meant that Winnie had to be some kind of super-stalker. A psycho super-stalker, the papers would say when they found Jo’s serial-killer-murdered body. Whoo, she was dizzy. That ammonia had been potent.

When Jo didn’t reply, Winnie reached up to her own chest and took Jo’s hand. She interlaced their fingers and stepped close. “Is it really so bad, putting up with me?”

It was terrible. It was the worst. It was an absolute nightmare. It was the second worst thing in the world. Unfortunately, while Jo wasn’t looking, the actual worst thing in the world had become not having Winnie there to put up with at all. It had happened so fast it had all but broken Jo’s neck.

Of course, that didn’t mean anything. Jo had just spent the last two years without talking or touching anyone any more than she strictly had to. Wanting Winnie to stay close was just a holdover of the soft, stupid, naive girl Jo had once been, one of those pesky parts of her old self she hadn’t managed to kill yet. More drugs, more booze, more time alone, and it would die eventually. And when it was gone, no one would miss it.

No one, that was, except Winnie. “You fucking suck,” Jo muttered, closing her eyes because nowhere was safe to look.

“I would,” Winnie said, so quietly and casually that it took Jo a moment to get the innuendo. When Jo did, her heart started thrumming. Fucking traitor organ. Jo should have cut that one out a long time ago. “I bet you taste sweet. Hard shells make for tender fruits. And I can be tender. I can be sweet too.”

Jo’s hand tensed in Winnie’s grip. She tightened her jaw. “Look, if I buy you dinner, will you shut the fuck up?”

Winnie squeezed her hand right back. “One way to find out.”

Jo couldn’t imagine a restaurant in the vicinity that wouldn’t reject her and her stench at the door, so dinner was burgers from a food truck, eaten over their laps on a little rise overlooking the water. Despite wearing a dress, Winnie plopped down eagerly n the soft grass, stretching out her long legs in front of her. She kicked off her shoes and let her toes wiggle. All her toenails were painted sparkly red.

The day wasn’t as deadly hot as the others that week had been, and the breeze off the water was cool and nice. Jo wanted to peel off the heavy canvas shirt she was wearing, to strip down to her undershirt beneath and feel the air on her bare skin. She didn’t. They were already living dangerous, as two freaks in a fancy public park. If she let her cut-up arms and unshaven pits out in public, the cops would be here in seconds. She didn’t need that. Winnie didn’t need that extra.

So instead Jo compromised and unbuttoned her shirt nearly to her navel, then pulled the high collar away from her neck. She was sure Winnie was looking disrespectfully, and Jo was simply going to ignore that, the same way she was doing her best to ignore all the other things Winnie said but she didn’t mean. How could she mean them? They were just weird bullshit. The fact that Jo kept turning them over in her mind the way she might tongue a cut in her mouth was just a weakness on Jo’s part. Like all weaknesses, it could be corrected or it could be amputated. She was working on it.

“My, um, my cousin,” Jo heard someone start to say, and the worst part was, she knew she was the one talking. “My cousin Haley. He’s actually got a soulmate. So, you know, no. We’re really not. We’d know if we were. It’d be a whole thing.”

“Haley Prince is your cousin?” Winnie asked, eyes wide with surprise.

Jo nodded and took a huge bite of her burger, hoping the time it would take to chew would be enough to end the conversation. When it didn’t, she sighed and swallowed. “Yeah. I haven’t seen him in years, though.”

“Why not? Is he an asshole?”

Leaning her head back, Jo laughed. “Yeah. He is. But kind of in a sweet way, you know? And Bailey’s even sweeter. This is going to sound weird, but those two were the least fucked-up people in that whole fucked-up family. They didn’t, like…” She shut her eyes and let herself sink back the rest of the way onto the grass. “I don’t know. They were basically kids when I left, eleven or twelve. I bet they forgot all about me. Probably for the best.”

There was a soft, quiet pause, and then Jo heard Winnie move. She had a brief moment of hoping that Winnie was leaving, abandoning Jo to her stupid family traumas. But no, when Jo opened her eyes again, she saw Winnie stretched out right beside her, curled on her side facing Jo. “I think it’d be hard to forget about you,” Winnie said with a smile.

Jo rolled her eyes. “That’s because you’re a crazy stalker. You don’t count.”

Winnie reached over and took Jo’s hand again, then brought their joined hands to rest atop Jo’s belly. The weight made Jo conscious of how her middle rose and fell like the tide with every breath she took. Not for the first time in her life, Jo resented the mechanics of survival. A body was a terrible and stupid thing. It wanted things Jo didn’t. It remembered things Jo wished she could forget. No matter how much she tried to abuse it into submission, it just abused her right back. Well, she supposed it made sense — it was half her mother and half her father, after all.

No, they had to keep talking. As much as Jo hated having conversations, it was better than being left alone with the thoughts Winnie made her think. “So, talk to your family much?” she asked Winnie.

“Not much, no.” Winnie’s fingers were warm and steady as they wrapped around Jo’s colder ones. “And it’s going to be even less once they find out about all of this.” With her free hand, she gestured down the length of her body, from the neckline to the hem of her dress.

Well, that at least explained why nothing Winnie owned seemed to fit quite right. Jo would hate to think that had been a long-term problem. “Oh, so this all is, um, new.”

“Old and new, you know how it is.” A deep sigh slipped from Winnie’s lips. “A weekend affectation. Not ready for prime time.”

“Yeah?” Jo frowned. She thought Winnie looked pretty fucking great just like she was, but obviously Jo wasn’t the world’s number-one arbiter of Girl Correctness. “How come?”

There was a moment where Winnie just looked at Jo, and really looked, as though waiting for Jo to reveal her question had been a lead-in to some kind of joke. It passed, though, and instead Winnie lifted her free hand and booped Jo on the tip of her nose. “You’re sweet, baby. Some steps in the process are easier than others. Finding pants in a women’s extra tall, easy enough. Getting a doctor to prescribe you things that you couldn’t afford anyway, less so. But we were talking about you.”

“We were not.”

“Yes, we were.” Winnie scooted a little closer, until her knees butted up against Jo’s thigh. “You were telling me all about yourself: about your family, about your celebrity cousin, about why such a beautiful woman goes out in public looking like absolute dogshit–“

That surprised Jo into a full belly laugh. “Oh, fuck you,” she managed, though she couldn’t stop grinning. All the other stuff Winnie said, it all felt like hollow compliments, like Winnie was just saying that shit to be polite. When it was mean, it felt a little more like it might be real.

“Why she treats her poor devoted girlfriend so terribly–“

“I bought you dinner!” Jo protested, rolling on her side to face Winnie, their hands still joined. She tried to be mean about it, but the corners of her mouth weren’t budging. “I bought you dinner, and this is the thanks I get.”

Winnie sighed beatifically. “Why she doesn’t allow her girlfriend to kiss her beautiful face…”

That absolutely did not make Jo blush, and Jo knew it because she didn’t blush. Ever. And if she ever did, it wouldn’t be because of something stupid like that that someone like Winnie said. “Shut up. You want to be my girlfriend? Fine. Now you’re my girlfriend. And now I’m breaking up with you.”

Winnie shook her head. “No.”

“What do you mean, no?” Jo rolled her eyes, an expression she assumed lost some of its bite by how their foreheads were nearly touching. “You can’t say no to a breakup.”

“Your application for breaking up with me has been denied,” Winnie said in what must have been her best customer-service voice. “You said I’m your girlfriend. That’s been entered into the permanent record.”

Jo exhaled heavily. “Fucking stalker.” She took another deep breath. The ambient heat made it feel almost like she was drawing the late afternoon sunlight itself into her lungs. She imagined herself filling up with gold. Stupid, useless things to think. They didn’t mean anything. They didn’t help anyone. “So why me, huh? You didn’t give me an answer earlier. Not a real one. Is this a setup? Did someone put you up to this?”

Winnie was quiet for a moment, then slid her hand from Jo’s grasp and cupped Jo’s face, the same way she had while dancing. Her thumb brushed at the corner of Jo’s mouth in a way that made Jo’s nerves flutter. “Nobody put me up to anything. I’m just here because I went to a party, and I saw a beautiful girl.”

Now that was bullshit. Nobody who looked at Jo saw a beautiful anything. Jo had in fact gone out of her way to ensure that. She knew what beautiful girls did — they dd what Winnie did. Winnie was beautiful. Jo was trash. Nobody bothered trash.

“And,” Winnie continued after a moment, “I asked that beautiful girl to dance with me, and she said yes.”

There had been no asking. Jo had been fucked up at the time, but she was very clear on that part. Winnie didn’t ask. She just took what she wanted, and Jo, for some stupid fucking reason, let her. Anybody else in the world, Jo would have used her knife on them long ago. She definitely wouldn’t have wound up lying on the grass in a public park with them, letting them touch her face. Absolute psycho behavior on Jo’s part. What the actual fuck.

“And then she bought me breakfast and I fell hopelessly in love, and that’s the story we’re going to tell our grandchildren.”

Jo snorted. “No kids.”

“Metaphorical grandchildren. Statement still applies.” Winnie’s thumb traced the curve of Jo’s mouth, then pushed her lips open ever so slightly, a tease and a promise. “Maybe when I saw you, I just knew I’d like the feel of your teeth.”

Jo wasn’t smiling anymore. She was breathing heavily, enough that she could feel each rise and fall in her ribcage as she lay on her side. Maybe she should run. She could run farther now, no clues this time. She could leave the whole damn city, start over again somewhere else. She only stayed because it was familiar. With enough time, anything could become familiar.

Winnie leaned closer. “I’m going to kiss you now,” she said, which was even more of a threat and a promise than her thumb had been. Then she did it.

Jo had kissed people before, not many and sometimes not even on purpose. This wasn’t some magical never-been-kissed situation that opened the door to a whole new experience. That was why Jo couldn’t understand why it felt that way — why kissing Winnie felt right. She thought how her family, her fucked-up family, had sometimes put together puzzles as a family night event, and how sometimes you thought you had a puzzle piece wedged into the right place, but you realized that it was meant to go somewhere else, and the second you put it down in the place where it actually fit right you realized, oh, that was how easy it was supposed to be, and that was a stupid way to think about kissing a girl, but Jo had never in her whole life felt like she’d slotted into anywhere so perfectly as her mouth fit with Winnie’s. It was stupid and she hated it and she would never want anything else.

To Jo’s surprise, it was Winnie who broke from the kiss first — who, more than that, outright pulled away sharply enough to make Jo wonder if she’d done something wrong. But no, Winnie was just a little breathless, laughing a laugh that only sounded slightly forced. “So, ah,” Winnie said, sitting up on the grass and smoothing out the skirt of her dress, “are we going out tonight?”

I am,” said Jo, who sat up as well, trying to get a look at Winnie. Had Jo done something wrong? No, Winnie didn’t seem mad or upset. She just seemed … skittish? Was that it? “Not we. Me. Dominick’s got a thing going.”

“Sounds great.” Winnie all but hopped to her feet, then looked down at Jo and smiled. “But I can’t wear this out. And you need a shower.”

Jo thought what Winnie was wearing was just fine, but she couldn’t argue on the shower front. And anyway it was all a moot point because Winnie hadn’t been invited. Of course, try telling Winnie that. “I didn’t say I was going with you,” Jo said, leaning back on the grass. From the angle, the sun behind Winnie gave her a golden glow, like some kind of radiant divine being that Jo hadn’t believed in since she was six or seven years old. Which was a stupid thing to say. The sooner she could stop thinking stupid things, the better.

“You didn’t have to,” Winnie said with a wink. She blew Jo a kiss and walked off without further comment. Jo watched her the whole time, until Winnie crossed a street at the far end of the park and vanished from sight. She never looked back.

 

~*~

 

Jo wasn’t waiting for Winnie. She definitely hadn’t dressed up for Winnie. She didn’t have enough nice clothes to make dressing up for Winnie worth it anyway. So what if she’d taken a little more time in front of the locker room mirror, doing her best to tame her shaggy hair back from her face with a comb someone had forgotten by the sink a few days ago? There were plenty of reasons for her to wrap what few bracelets she had around her wrists and forearms, to make sure all the holes in her ears had something in them. Tons of reasons. Reasons that had nothing to do with Winnie.

And she absolutely, positively was not thinking about Winnie like someone might think about a drummer practicing in the apartment next door. Under no circumstances had her heart started racing as she’d walked into the doors of the old warehouse, her eyes scanning the crowd caught in half-glimpses beneath the colored lights. She would have kicked anyone who’d suggested otherwise. And she was wearing boots. She kicked hard.

At least the pills she’d taken beforehand kept her from vibrating off into space. She wasn’t so good at keeping track of which ones did what — they all did something, and sometimes in combination they did something else, and that was good enough. This combination seemed to be good at allowing her to stay upright, which wasn’t always the case. She’d take it.

As it turned out, Jo actually wasn’t waiting for Winnie. That was because Winnie had beaten her there and was now in the middle of the writhing crowd of dancers, tall enough that Jo could see her head popping up over the rest of them like a buoy on rough ocean waters. Jo had always avoided that part of the room, choosing to lurk in the darkness on the edges, no one’s business and no one’s problem. Now she squared her shoulders and walked right into its heart, letting the motion of the bodies around her swallow her whole.

Winnie’s face lit up when she saw Jo. Nobody’s face did that, but Winnie’s did. Nobody was ever glad to see her, but Winnie was. Winnie had been dancing with no one in particular, but as soon as Jo appeared, Winnie was on her. Winnie leaned down in a way Jo was sure was for a kiss, so Jo closed her eyes — and then found herself obnoxiously disappointed as Winnie’s painted lips only brushed Jo’s cheek instead. That was fine. That was better, in fact. One stupid kiss in a park and now Jo was obsessing over it, that was the stupid thing.

Then Winnie swept her up into the music, and there wasn’t much room for thinking anyway.

She was wearing red again tonight, a dress with long sleeves and a short skirt and a wide neck that showed off more of Winnie’s pretty collarbone than Jo had seen before. Her shoulders were broad and sturdy, sturdy enough that Jo could hold on to them and be sure she wouldn’t fall, even as Winnie turned and gyrated in her arms. Jo barely dared to move for fear of how stupid she was certain she looked, but Winnie moved through the music like a swimmer. Maybe they were underwater now, and Jo just hadn’t noticed. Maybe her girlfriend was a mermaid. Not that she had a girlfriend, but if she did, maybe she would be a mermaid. That seemed like the kind of stupid problem Jo would get herself into, being in love with a mermaid. 

Not that she was in love. She was sure she wasn’t in love. She was pretty sure she wasn’t even capable of being in love. They must have removed that at the hospital during her mandatory seventy-two-hour hold, to make her more manageable. They’d stuffed it with gauze and patched her up and let her loose on the world like that, the girl with a hole in her heart, or brain, or wherever it was that love came from. Maybe it was her wrists. That would explain a lot of things, actually.

Winnie’s hands were on Jo’s waist now, pulling up at the hem of her shirt, running her fingers around Jo’s bare and sweaty middle. Ticklish, Jo had always hated having her sides touched, which didn’t explain why she was letting Winnie do it — why, in fact, she was lifting her arms higher to make sure Winnie could have more of her. Winnie didn’t tickle, though. Her fingers didn’t tease. They grabbed and pulled like they wanted something. Like they wanted Jo, which was stupid and wonderful and dangerous and terrifying and a number of other adjectives that Jo’s brain wasn’t giving her right now. She could barely remember that they were called adjectives. Hooray for third-grade language class. Clearly her education had prepared her for the real world.

How long were they out there? Hours? Days? Maybe just a few minutes. Some time between instantly and forever, that was how long they danced. Winnie didn’t seem to tire, neither of dancing nor of Jo. Her long, strong legs held her as she crouched down before Jo, lifting Jo’s shirt and, fuck, licking up Jo’s belly, from her navel up nearly to the flat plane between her breasts. Jo let her head fall back, baring her throat. Fuck, Winnie’s mouth was good. Not that Jo had ever doubted her ability to make good on promises about tasting her, but … fuck.

When Winnie stood upright again, she was grinning. She took two of her fingers and traced them across Jo’s lips. Jo snapped her teeth and caught Winnie’s fingers right at the knuckles, holding her in place. She flicked her tongue across Winnie’s fingertips, which made Winnie’s pretty red lips part in a noise that vanished in the pounding music from the speakers. Now that was a victory, getting that reaction from Winnie. With a laugh, Winnie yanked her fingers back out, drawing a damp trail down Jo’s chin and on toward her throat.

Trusting someone enough to put your hand in their mouth was stupid. Trusting Jo with anything was doubly stupid. Why did Winnie keep doing it? And then why did she keep stopping? It felt like a dance they were doing, where Winnie pushed forward and Jo held her ground. Except that Jo felt like every time they switched roles, every time Jo was the one who momentarily took the lead, Winnie let go completely. Like she wanted to want Jo, but didn’t want Jo to want her back. Except that was stupid, because of course that was what she wanted. That was why she said dirty things that made Jo’s pulse race. Wasn’t it? Jo had no doubt that Winnie wanted to fuck her. Hell, Winnie practically wanted to wife her. Didn’t she? Then why did she seem to retreat every time Jo was going to let her?

Fuck, it was all stupid. Why was it all so stupid? Or did it all make sense and Jo was stupid? Fuck, probably.

Well, one way or another, she had to pee. That was a thing she’d learned early on, that you didn’t want to walk into one of these smelly, sweaty things without being properly hydrated. It had just never interrupted anything worth interrupting before. “I have to–” Jo started to shout, before she realized that was the least effective method of communication under the circumstances. So instead she pointed toward the door, then motioned for Winnie to wait. Jo would be back in a second.

Winnie nodded, then waited until Jo had started walking away from her to reach down and grab Jo’s ass. She got a good fat handfull of it, too. Dammit. Winnie was the fucking worst.

She took care of business, then stepped outside for a moment for some fresh air. As warm as the day had been, the outdoor night was still cooler than inside the warehouse. Jo bent over and braced her hands on her knees, then took a couple deep breaths. It was fine. Everything was fine. She could get right back in there and dance until she fell the fuck over. It was the perfect way to spend an evening. And whatever Winnie wanted to do, she could do. It wasn’t like it was Jo’s job to take care of her. It wasn’t like Jo cared.

As she reentered the warehouse and approached the place she’d left Winnie, she felt her blood pressure spike. Winnie was still there, but now she was surrounded by three guys Jo had seen hanging around before. They were nasty pieces of work — townie shit, preppie motherfuckers slumming it for whatever drugs they could score and hell they could raise. They’d never bothered Jo, and she’d never attracted their attention. Too ugly, too dykey, too unimpressed by their shit. But Winnie was a different kind of target.

The pounding noise from the speakers meant Jo couldn’t hear what they were saying, but from the sneers on the men’s faces, it wasn’t kind. Winnie was standing her ground, her expression impassively pleasant even as she shifted her weight in shoes that made her taller than all but one of the men confronting her. She was clearly trying not to let on that she knew how much danger she was in, not when they’d smelled blood on her already. Maybe she was trying to talk her way out of it. Winnie was smart. She probably could. Jo would just make matters worse by getting involved. Best to stay out of it.

She was trying to convince herself of the wisdom of that strategy when the one of them most up in Winnie’s face spat something that made Winnie’s smile vanish, then reached forward and grabbed the front of her dress, yanking Winnie forward and off-balance.

Fuck that noise. Almost before she had registered what she was doing, Jo was racing through the crowd directly at them, her right hand balled into a white-knuckled fist. She might have been yelling, but all sounds were lost beneath the music. Because of this, the head shitbag, the one with a fistful of Winnie’s dress, didn’t even see what was coming until Jo’s knuckles connected right with his handsome preppie jaw.

He went down like a twig in a hurricane. Assholes like that were all talk and broad shoulders. Jo knew the type — maybe they’d played rugby in school or even wrestled, but they’d never been actually in a real fight, one where there were no pads and no rules. All their money and do-you-know-who-my-father-is meant they’d never gone at it with someone who’d break their jaw or smash their balls, which was were Jo went next. She could almost feel his agony like a pulse through the air as the toe of her boot connected.

That left the other two, the main fucker’s little henchmen. She could see the hesitation on their faces. Were they supposed to retreat with their leader, or did they need to defend his honor? They broke half and half; the smaller of the two bent down to check on his fallen comrade, while the larger one took a swing at Jo, leaving his dumb ass wide open. His fist clipped her right on the corner of her mouth, but Jo barely felt it. She just pounced on him like a wild animal, using the weight of her body to tackle them both to the floor. He made a grunting sound as he connected with the hard concrete. Jo brought her fist down right on the bridge of his nose, earning a satisfying crack and a spray of blood. “Don’t you fuckers touch her!” Jo screeched at him, or words to that effect, enough to burn her throat raw. She wanted to hit him and keep hitting him until there was nothing left of him to get up again.

Before she could, two arms grabbed her, one on each side, and yanked her up. She growled and kicked, but they held her fast. One was Dominick, who all but tossed her into Winnie’s arms. “Get them the fuck out!” he shouted, and for a moment, Jo thought he’d meant her and Winnie. Well, as evictions went, she would at least have deserved this one.

What happened instead, though, was that a couple of the toughs who served as security for Dominick descended on the preps. They hauled the two wounded ones to their feet and toward the door. The third needed no further encouragement to follow them. He didn’t even dare glance at Jo as he walked by, probably out of fear that she might be provoked to violence again. No lie, it would have been a close thing.

That settled, Dominick turned to Winnie. “Clean her up,” he shouted, only this volume came from necessity, not emotion. “And you,” he continued, this time getting in Jo’s face, “don’t pull that shit again.”

“Yes, boss,” Jo tried to answer, except that her mouth felt slow. She brought her hand up and drew it away bright and bloody. He must have hit her harder than she’d thought. She didn’t even feel any pain. Her heart was still pounding. Who wanted next? She’d fucking rip them apart.

Winnie led Jo away from the main room, down the hall toward the clutch of rooms that Dominick kept as something approaching an office. There was a little single bathroom connected to it, something left over from when this building had been a real thing with a real purpose, instead of a shitty semi-illegal squat doing its best impression of a nightclub. Jo was starting to feel her lip pound in time with the pulse of the music, or with her own heartbeat. At this volume she couldn’t tell the difference.

“Look at you,” Winnie said, or started to say, as she closed the bathroom door behind them. Jo didn’t let her get the words out. She grabbed both sides of Winnie’s face and kissed her, kissed her hard. Red smeared across their faces where their mouths touched, blood or lipstick, there wasn’t a difference. Winnie didn’t hesitate in returning the kiss, just raked her hands through Jo’s sweaty hair and held on tight. Her short nails bit at Jo’s scalp. Jo loved it.

Maybe Jo would hate herself for this later, but she didn’t care. She wrapped herself around Winnie, all but climbing her. Winnie got her hands around Jo’s round ass and squeezed it, then hefted Jo almost effortlessly up onto the edge of the sink. There, that closed the height difference just fine. Jo got her legs around Winnie, locking her ankles behind Winnie’s back and pulling her close. “Shut up,” Jo said into the kiss, even though Winnie wasn’t talking. “Shut the fuck up.”

Winnie just grinned as she slipped a hand under Jo’s baggy shirt. Jo hadn’t worn a bra in years, which meant that Winnie’s fingers found her bare nipple almost immediately. Surprised and aroused by the touch, Jo made a noise. She hated making noises. She bit Winnie’s lip about it, but Winnie’s grin didn’t go anywhere. “You like that, do you?” Winnie teased right into Jo’s mouth.

Yeah, Jo liked it. She hadn’t entirely known that sex could be a thing she liked, or wanted. It could be a thing she did, sure, but she did lots of things, like cleaning rich people’s apartments and buying stupid stalkers breakfast. Now she could feel an ache between her legs, like if her pussy didn’t get touched right now she might die. She tightened her legs around Winnie, desperate to feel something of Winnie’s body she could rub up against.

And there it was. Jo had known from the start that this was the case, but it was still something of a novel experience to be kissing a pretty girl and all of a sudden feel her dick under her pretty red dress. At least that dick was hard, which Jo took as a good sign, along with the way Winnie was touching her and smiling at her and leaning in to kiss her ear and whisper all sorts of stupid nonsense things about how Jo liked what was happening to her. Jo could feel her cheeks flush with embarrassment. She didn’t want to like any of this. She didn’t want to need it like she needed to breathe.

“Tell me what you want,” Winnie murmured breathlessly against Jo’s ear, because she was a monster who was going to make Jo fucking say it. “Anything. I’ll do anything. Let me touch you and I’ll do anything.”

Letting Winnie touch her wasn’t a problem at the moment. The thought that Winnie might stop was what made Jo feel like a lit stick of dynamite. “Do it,” Jo grunted, hoping that would be enough.

Of course it wasn’t. Winnie brushed Jo’s hair tenderly from her forehead. “Do what?” She closed her teeth lightly around Jo’s earlobe.

Jo’s cheeks were on fire. Everything she could think to say sounded stupid. If she said the wrong thing, would Winnie stop? What could Jo do to ruin this like she ruined everything else in her life? “Fuck me, you bitch,” Jo spat through gritted teeth. She could taste her own blood on her tongue.

That was all the encouragement Winnie needed. She went for the fly on Jo’s jeans, then hauled pants and underwear and all roughly down to Jo’s ankles and off over her boots, all but knocking Jo off the counter in the process. The porcelain edge of the sink was cold against Jo’s bare butt, but she only had a second to think about that before she was distracted by Winnie’s fingers between her thighs. They glided slickly up Jo’s slit. Jo was so turned on that now she could feel the music pounding in her clit along with her lip, especially when Winnie’s fingers pressed against it. The pressure made Jo shiver so hard she might have fallen down, had Winnie’s body not been there to hold her in place.

From some hiding spot, Winnie produced a condom and handed it to Jo. “You want it, you have to work for it,” she said with a grin.

“Bitch,” said Jo, who tore the wrapper open with more force than strictly necessary. Condom in hand, she reached down and hiked up the skirt of Winnie’s dress. Later, Jo knew she’d kick herself for how transparently eager and needy she was being. That was a problem for later Jo, though. Jo right now rolled the condom right down Winnie’s dick, getting a good feel of it as she did. It felt good, hard and ready, both for her. Running her fingertips across its surface made Winnie make pretty little noises.

If there was one thing that the previous years had taught Jo, it was that it was stupid to want things. It was even stupider to want things that only other people could give, because those people could take those things away. Better to find whatever she could to dull the wanting. The worst thing in the world was to need someone else.

So Jo let herself be stupid. “Fuck me,” she all but begged Winnie, grabbing Winnie’s hips and yanking her close. “Just fuck me.”

The feel of Winnie’s cock pressing inside of her made Jo make the worst possible sound, a moan so loud she was sure all the partygoers could hear it even over the music. Winnie didn’t tease or hesitate — she wanted this as much as Jo did. And oh, if Jo had thought their lips fit together well, she knew that had nothing on this. She was gasping now, panting and grabbing at Winnie’s back. Fuck, when had she become the kind of dyke who needed dick?

When she’d met Winnie, of course. A lot of things had happened when she’d met Winnie, and Jo hated and needed every one of them in equal measure.

“You like that?” Winnie purred in her ear. Her voice was a husky whisper, so deep it undercut the throbbing bass, deep enough that Jo almost felt the words more than heard them. “You like how I feel inside you?”

Jo was not going to give Winnie the satisfaction of knowing the answer was yes. Unfortunately for her, her body was a goddamn traitor. Whimpering at an absurdly telling volume, Jo grabbed the back of Winnie’s dress, looking for some place to hold on as Winnie began moving inside of her. Jo had always barely tolerated getting dicked down — the feeling was weird and intrusive, and she’d never been able to relax enough into the knowledge that someone, something that wasn’t her was inside of her.

How had that become the appeal? Because it was Winnie. Because her damn stalker, the freak who’d followed her home, was the first person in Jo’s life who’d ever seen her for the mess she truly was and said, yeah, that one.

Winnie’s hand pulled at Jo’s nipple again, tugging roughly in time with her thrusts. Jo felt tears forming at the corner of her eyes. Why were they there? She wanted to wipe them away, but she couldn’t let go of Winnie long enough for it. If she let go of Winnie, she’d float off into space. At least, she was pretty sure that would happen. Better not to test it.

“Don’t be quiet, baby,” Winnie said with her teeth closed around Jo’s earlobe. “I want to hear you. You’re so pretty, let me hear you. Let me hear what you sound like when I’m fucking you.”

God, did Winnie ever shut the fuck up? Jo wanted to ask her that, but she couldn’t make her mouth work. It was too busy making all those embarrassing noises Winnie said she wanted to hear, the groaning and panting and wordless cries that Winnie said were pretty. Jo didn’t want to feel pretty. She didn’t want to want to feel pretty. She hated that she loved that Winnie thought she was pretty. She wanted to be the kind of hideous beast that kept the other hideous beasts at bay, not the kind of hideous beast that attracted the others. Dammit.

The worst part was how this clearly wasn’t some act of charity or good deed on Winnie’s part. At every point her body pressed up against Jo’s, Jo could tell that Winnie wanted this bad. She’d skipped right over how she’d promised to eat Jo out, and it seemed she’d done it because she couldn’t stand for one second longer to not have her dick inside Jo.

That was a new thing in Jo’s book, being wanted for reasons other than that she was the nearest body to fit the bill. She held on tight for the ride, letting the sensation of Winnie’s body inside of hers take over all her other senses. It was almost too much, enough that it wrapped around to her not liking it — but Winnie had her. Winnie’s strong hands were under her thighs, holding her up as Winnie fucked Jo like she meant it. Like it mattered that it was Jo whose legs were around her. Like it wouldn’t have made sense to be anyone else.

“Come on,” Jo found herself saying through gritted teeth, long past the worries that had first caught her tongue. She could say the dumbest thing in the world right now and Winnie wouldn’t stop. She’d rarely felt so sure of a thing before in her whole life. “Make me come.”

Winnie rose to the challenge. She was practically holding Jo up now, with Jo’s ass all but off the sink as Winnie fucked her. Winnie’s chest brushed up against Jo’s nipples every time Winnie thrust into her, making Jo whimper loudly. It was terrible, it was a perfect kind of terrible, to have someone who could reduce you to nothing but pleasure and instinct. Jo drew in a giant breath and held it, then exhaled hard as she came, shivering and bucking as her whole body shuddered around Winnie’s cock.

Winnie wasn’t far behind — a few strokes more, just enough for Jo to get an awareness of herself back, and then Winnie pushed in deep and held herself there. Jo held her close, feeling the way Winnie shook as she reached her own climax. Fuck, it was good, it was so very good.

The only way Jo knew time hadn’t actually stopped was that the pounding beat of the bass kept rattling through the warehouse walls. Their bodies were still against one another, though, as they caught their shared breath. In that moment, Jo couldn’t tell where she ended and where Winnie began, or where the music ended and her own pulse began. It was just that, for that perfect heartbeat, Jo wasn’t alone. She was a little bit of everything, in fact, all tied in with everything else. Maybe it was the drugs, or maybe it was the sex, or maybe it was just that for that briefest of moments, it was actually true.

It was Winnie who again moved first. “Fun way to spend an evening, huh?” she said, or started to say, because as she said it, she started to pull away. Jo moved on instinct — she wrapped her legs tight around Winnie, locking her in place. Winnie’s mouth opened with surprised, so Jo kissed her again, not like it was fun but like she’d die if she didn’t.

Jo was embarrassing herself, making a whole damn fool of herself, and she didn’t care. She’d do anything, take down anyone that looked at Winnie wrong. She would have killed those men. She still wanted to. She would tear down the sky if Winnie needed it, because Jo had found the one good thing in the whole stupid world, who just coincidentally happened to be the worst person in the world. Maybe it was karma. Maybe it was trauma. Jo didn’t care. Good or bad, she wasn’t going to let Winnie go. “Stay here,” Jo murmured into Winnie’s mouth. “Inside me.”

And for a moment, she did. But when that moment was over, Winnie broke the kiss again, just like she had on the grass. “Sorry, I–” She shifted her hips a little, making it clear that there were still some things that needed to be taken care of. Right, dicks. Jo relented and released the lock her legs had on Winnie. Winnie gave a weak little smile, then went about the business of dealing with condom disposal, a business that should have been easy enough, except that Winnie was fussing and couldn’t quite look Jo in the eye.

“Hey,” Jo said softly. When Winnie turned to her, dark eyes wide, Jo reached out and brushed the backs of her fingers across Winnie’s lips, which were a mess of smeared lipstick and blood. Jo figured she probably looked much the same. It didn’t matter. “You’re beautiful.”

Winnie just gave a soft little laugh as she looked back at the floor. “No. But thanks.”

Okay, now something was definitely up. Jo hadn’t been imagining it earlier. “What’s wrong?” Jo asked, even though she absolutely did not want to hear the answer. She wanted everything to be fine. She didn’t want to feel the pit that felt like it was opening up in her stomach.

Forcing a laugh, Winnie tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. Even in the dim, shitty light of the dim, shitty bathroom, it was clear she was pale. “No, I’m just, I–” She took a deep breath and let it out. “So I’m just … you know, I think I heard something out there, and I’d better– I’ll just be right–” And before Jo could call bullshit on the idea that anyone could hear anything out there except for the music, Winnie was out the door.

Jo didn’t chase her. She sat right there on the sink for a moment, barely half-dressed, looking like a total trainwreck and grinning because of it. So what if someone saw her like this? What was there to be embarrassed about? That’s right, I’ve got a girlfriend who can fuck me within an inch of my life, keep on stepping. It was a funny thought. She’d be sure to share it when Winnie got back.

A little thought snapped clear and cold into the front of Jo’s mind: Winnie’s not coming back.

No, that was stupid. Of course she was coming back. She had just popped out for a second to do something stupid and romantic and Winnie-like. Maybe get them some water, or fix her makeup or something. She’d be back any minute now. 

But as the minutes dragged on and the doorway to the bathroom remained empty, that little thought grew louder until it made Jo think about the expression on Winnie’s face, the one she’d been trying to swallow beneath her forced smile. That had been fear. Winnie hadn’t been scared before when the men had been threatening her — she hadn’t liked it, sure, but she’d never let them see her sweat. But that expression, the one when she’d looked back at Jo, had hidden barely contained terror. This clearly had always been at least something of a game to Winnie, a fun diversion, a new friend to joke around and fool around with in equal measure, grandiose play that was at its core nothing serious. What if it had suddenly not been a game anymore? What then?

The little thought told her that, yes, Winnie had been scared. Winnie had been scared and she had run off like a little bitch and Jo was alone again like she always knew she’d end up being and that was the end of it and Jo deserved it.

Or okay, sure, maybe Winnie had panicked. But she’d be back tomorrow, or the day after. Jo would walk out of whatever building she was staying in, and there would be Winnie on the street, dressed in some bright color, demanding Jo give her food and attention. What kind of stalker would she be if she stopped doing that? A shitty one, was what. So she’d be back. She had to be.

Jo’s hand was free now, so she could use it to wipe away the tears that were stinging the corners of her eyes again. Maybe she was wrong. She was wrong about a lot of things. She’d wait another minute. And another minute more after that. And then one more just to be sure.

 

~*~

 

Day one After Winnie was normal. It was a normal day. Jo took advantage of her gym membership to beat a punching bag like it owed her money. She only stopped when she noticed the troubled looks she was getting, and she was used to getting troubled looks, so that was normal too. She took a couple of the pills she had stashed and went down to watch the sunset over the water. She didn’t even look around for Winnie. Winnie would appear when she appeared. That was normal too.

Day two After Winnie was also normal. Jo got brought along to clean a couple apartments under the direction of a woman she’d never met before, who spoke no language in common with Jo. She didn’t really need to, though, not to chew Jo’s head off when she found Jo passed out sideways on an unmade bed. Jo tried to protest that she hadn’t meant it, she’d just sat down for a second and the next thing she’d known, she’d been being screamed at. The woman did not understand and made it very clear that Jo was no longer welcome. Jo went jogging down by the seawall until she threw up, then jogged some more until she threw up a second time. She wound up sleeping in the doorway of a cafe that was only open for breakfast and lunch. She figured she’d be gone before she was a problem.

Days three through five After Winnie were a blur. Those were the days she took the rest of the pills, usually more than she strictly needed, definitely without knowing what they were individually. She had a vague recollection of yelling at a cop, or maybe it was a guy who just looked like a cop. She had a slightly less vague recollection of getting jumped by a couple of dumb teenagers who must’ve thought the ugly, crazy, strung-out woman looked like an easy mark. The joke was one them: Not only did she have nothing on her worth stealing, she wasn’t going to give up that nothing without a fight. She wanted Winnie to look at her face with concern and horror so Jo could just smile and say, You should’ve seen the other guy.

Day six After Winnie was rough. The pills were gone, but so was Jo’s motivation to go get more. The gym kicked her out after one of the custodians caught her sleeping in the locker room. Fucking narc. She decided to sit under a tree in a public park and feel sorry for herself. Maybe someone would think she was a college student, with a backpack that was full of books instead of full of literally every object she owned.

This was the part where Winnie was supposed to show up. She’d be standing right there, tall and pretty in a summer dress that went down to her knees, and she’d tell Jo how shitty she looked, and Jo wouldn’t have any room to argue, so she’d just do whatever Winnie told her to do. Did Winnie want breakfast? Jo would buy her breakfast. She’d buy her anything. Well, no, she couldn’t afford anything. But she’d figure out a way to. There were ways to make money, to survive, if you didn’t care.

Day seven through at least ten After Winnie, Jo didn’t want to talk about.

Around day eleven After Winnie, though it might have been as many as fourteen or fifteen days After, Jo faded back into awareness of her general when she realized she was bleeding. Her arm was bleeding. It was trickling red down her bicep, down her arm, all the way over the little lines she’d made there herself once upon a time. She didn’t remember doing this one, though. And that was still blood. It was going to get on the floor, and then where would she be? It was blood. She had to do something about the blood.

“That’s not blood, silly,” said a voice she faintly recognized. “It’s ink.”

So she was bleeding ink. Jo didn’t think she liked that, but wasn’t really in a place to question it.

She wasn’t really in much of a place at all, honestly. It was an apartment, but a shitty one. She’d been here before, she thought. No, she definitely had. Some time before, on some bender. Was this Tomie’s place? Shit, maybe. Tomie with all the piercings. Tomie who had the tattoo gun she’d gotten cheap from some shut-down parlor, who was always asking people to volunteer to let her learn how to–

Jo hauled herself up out of the fog she’d descended into and got a good look at her left bicep, which was now sporting a fresh red — and very shittily done — tattoo somewhere in the general shape of a heart. It was shaded in badly with a red ink that trickled down her arm in rivulets. At least someone had been smart enough to lay some trash bags down underneath.

That someone was probably Tomie, who was standing in front of her, still holding the tattoo gun. It was still buzzing. That meant she probably thought there was more tattoo for her to do.

Nope, she was done. Jo decided. With a grunt, she tried to sit up. She could feel the drugs in her system, like weights on a diver’s belt, dragging her back under into the fog. She couldn’t let them. Her arm hurt — there, that was something. Focus on the pain. It was what she’d done before. The pain was sharp, bright. She liked it. It brought her clarity.

“Stay still, I’m not finished,” Tomie said.

“Done,” Jo managed, flapping her hand in Tomie’s direction to shoo her off. Fuck, why was everything so difficult? Oh, right, because Jo had made everything more difficult for herself. Well, that explained a lot.

“Okay, okay, just–” Tomie flipped a switch, and the tattoo gun stopped its mechanical whir. “Okay, no more, I promise, just let me wrap that up for you.”

All right, that was fine. Jo could allow herself to be bandaged. And anyway, she didn’t think her legs were much in shape to go anywhere just yet, to say nothing of how she wasn’t even wearing a shirt. She relaxed back onto the ratty recliner that was apparently Tomie’s home tattoo bench. It smelled like cigarette smoke and– No, you know what, she was just going to stop identifying smells right now.

Tomie put a damp cloth over Jo’s freshly tattooed skin, soothing and irritating it all at once. Jo gritted her teeth and let it bring her back to the surface of consciousness. “Fuck, girl,” Tomie said, chuckling through her teeth, “you act like you never got dumped before.”

Jo hadn’t been dumped before. She hadn’t dated before. She’d never had a girlfriend before. She didn’t have a girlfriend now. Things should have been back to what they were before. Situation normal. Balance restored. Not getting some amateur to tattoo a fucking heart on her, holy fuck, how pathetic could someone get?

“I’ve got some things that’ll take the edge off, if–“

“No.” Jo shook her head. “No drugs.” The edge was all that was keeping her … well, her. She felt like she was perched on an edge, and beneath her was the sea of fog she’d so recently congealed from. Not even since Winnie — since everything had gone to hell, she’d just let herself disperse into it. She’d stopped being a person and started being a loose affiliation of cells. “I’m done.”

Tomie whistled through her teeth, then laughed. “That girl must have done a number on you, shit. Speaking of numbers, why don’t you give me hers? I could use another bad relationship right–“

The thought of Winnie with anyone else made bile rise in Jo’s throat. She shoved Tomie away, or at least she tried to, even if the result was more of a sad little push. Everything Jo did was sad and little. She had once been full of fire and life. Now she was cold and wet. She put all her energy into coordinating her body enough to get her up from her seating position.

Tomie, however, just got a hand in the middle of Jo’s chest and shoved her back against the recliner. “I said, stay still so I can clean you up.”

Jo was all but certain Tomie hadn’t said that. She’d probably meant it, though, so Jo figured it was close enough. She exhaled and decided to let Tomie finish whatever she was doing. Maybe by the time she was done with that, Jo could try walking.

“Girl, what is your problem, anyway?” Tomie shook her head and got out what looked like … plastic wrap? That couldn’t be right. No, that was what it was, and she was going right for Jo’s arm with it. “You obviously came from a nice home. Fuck, I bet you had braces and shit. Now you’re all pissed and wanting to punch the world. I know how I got here. How’d you?”

The words were like bubbles inside her. Jo felt them rise from the deep, shimmering all the way to the surface of her mouth: “Fucked my dad’s boss.”

Tomie’s eyes went wide. “Oh shit, for real?”

No, this was bad, this was so bad. Jo didn’t talk about this. Jo didn’t say anything about this. She didn’t talk about how nice he’d been at first, how the attention had been flattering, how her mom had even encouraged it, saying he was such a nice man, a nice widower, nice and wealthy and important. How it had gone bad. How he’d seen her walking down the street and offered her a ride in his fancy car and handed her a drink like grownups did. How she didn’t remember what happened after. How she’d had to piece together the story from the evidence, in the back of a taxi he’d called to get her home. She could only think of these things sideways, the way some middle-school science teacher had taught her about the human eye and rods and cones and how you couldn’t look at dim stars directly or they’d vanish from your field of view.

Besides, it was just sex. People had sex all the time without winding up in the hospital, forearms wrapped in bandages, arms and legs shackled to the sides of the bed. So what if she’d been a little young? People had sex when they were young, too, and it didn’t end up with their parents screaming at them about how they were going to ruin everything, why couldn’t they just be normal, why did you have to fuck this up for all of us. It was normal stuff. Jo didn’t have to make such a big deal about it. She didn’t have to be such a dramatic fucking baby about it. She didn’t have to pull out her own IV and sneak out of the hospital in the middle of the night two weeks later about it. Things like this happened all the time to people who responded by continuing to be fucking normal.

Except it wasn’t normal, was it? It was mean and it was shitty and awful, and in that moment, all Jo could think about was telling Winnie what she’d never told anyone else before and watching Winnie’s pretty face turn as she was horrified to hear it. Because Winnie would be horrified, wouldn’t she? She’d hate that this had happened to Jo. She wouldn’t think that Jo deserved it. She wouldn’t think Jo deserved any of it. Because she was Winnie. And maybe Winnie would be right.

Jo should have understood immediately. She knew firsthand what running away felt like. She’d been doing it so long she’d forgotten other people did it too.

“I mean, shit,” Tomie said a moment later, after no more bubbles of secrets had managed to escape Jo’s lips, “I’m sorry. Making fun of you getting dumped. I didn’t mean it. You know I didn’t mean it, right?”

Of course Jo knew. Tomie didn’t mean anything by it. She had a good heart. Unlike whatever rotten little thing was left half-alive in Jo’s chest. Tomie had a good heart. “Thanks,” Jo said at last. She sighed and forced herself to finish: “For the ink, too.”

“Really?” Tomie’s grin widened. “Because I’ve been practicing all this writing–“

“I’m good. Thanks.” Jo managed a weak little smile. She forced it at first, and then found she actually meant it. It was the first time she’d smiled After Winnie. “Can, um … maybe, some water?”

Tomie nodded. “You got it.” She walked over to the kitchenette on the other side of the apartment and started filling a glass from the sink.

Jo sat up enough to get her feet flat on the floor. Her arm was throbbing in time with her pulse, the same way her heartbeat and the music had been the same in the club. She opened her mouth to tell Tomie that, you know what, Jo would take her up on that offer of something stronger — but she bit her lips back between her teeth and didn’t say anything. She was done. She had condensed into herself again, and she didn’t know how many more times she could dissolve before that wouldn’t be possible to come back together anymore.

But she was together now, because anger was what had always held her together, and because she was angry again. She was angry at Winnie for leaving. She could understand it and be angry at the same time. She had pulled herself back together and now she was going to go kick Winnie’s ass about being a coward. One coward to another.

Her backpack was by her feet. She had no idea how she’d managed to hold onto it for so long. Maybe the universe could be nice sometimes. She fumbled with the zippers until they opened, then pulled a black undershirt from out of the mess inside and, being mindful of her new ink, tugged it on over her head. It even smelled mostly okay.

Tomie returned with the glass. Jo took a grateful sip, focusing on how good the water felt and not on how clean the glass wasn’t. She could actually feel the cool liquid pour down her throat and land in her stomach. Someone had told her once that that was a sign you were really dehydrated. She had no idea if that was true or not. “Hey, still got that set of clippers?” asked Jo.

“Yeah.” Tomie nodded. She had everything. Everything in the world, it was contained in Tomie’s little studio apartment. She was a goddess of stuff. Jo was possibly delirious. She decided she didn’t care. She could be delirious. She was back inside her own head again. “How come?”

Jo grabbed a ratty lock of her hair and gave it a sharp tug. “Maybe want to do something about this?”

 

~*~

 

She knew she was tempting probably the best security money could buy. Her only hope was that they’d recognize her first, newly buzzed head and all. The two figures were all the way to the car, almost inside, when Jo called out, “Haley! Bailey!”

They both turned to look, as did the man holding the door for them. He and a couple others in suits began to take up defensive poses, as they no doubt had many times against their charges’ self-proclaimed biggest fans. But even beneath the dim suburban streetlight, Jo could see the expression on the taller boy’s face change. A voice she barely recognized asked softly, “Jo?”

“Yeah.” She stepped out from the hedge she’d been half-hiding behind for the last two hours, waiting for her aunt’s birthday dinner to end. That was how she’d figured they’d be here tonight. Everything else was luck and chancing that the universe would be nice to her twice in a row. “Yeah, I’m–“

She didn’t get any further than that, because they were running away from the cautious and baffled faces of their security detail, and right toward her. With his longer legs, Bailey got there first and grabbed Jo up into a hug that knocked the wind out of her. He was taller than she was now. When had he gotten so damn tall? Two years was a long time. Shit, she was crying. She had sworn she wouldn’t cry, and here she was, leaking tears into what was probably a very expensive blazer.

Haley he stopped short of a full embrace, because of course he did, opting to put a hand on Jo’s shoulder instead of squeezing the life out of her, which was what Bailey was threatening to do. “Oh my god, Jo,” Bailey said, speaking right into her hair, because he was, again, so damn tall now. “We were so worried, we thought something had happened, we–“

“We looked,” Haley added, his hand tightening, grabbing the sleeve of her ratty hoodie. Why hadn’t she put on something nicer? Not that she had anything nicer, but still. Here she was, showing up after all this time, looking like hell. They were celebrities. She owed it to them to be better.

“No, it’s okay, I–” Jo cleared her throat. “I know you did, I just…” She hadn’t wanted to be found, and so she hadn’t been. She’d been successful. She should have been prouder of herself. “I know. I’m sorry, but–” Just breathe. She needed to keep breathing. God, she was a fucking mess. She needed to get her shit together. “I wanted to call first, but I didn’t have your numbers, and then there’s all the security stuff, and I just … look, I’ll apologize later. I need a favor.”

“What is it?” Haley asked without hesitation. He had always been the one who got things done, who had little use for sentiment. Jo loved him so much. She loved both of them. Leaving them had broken her heart. She hadn’t even been able to tell them she was going, because they would have found a way to convince her to stay, and she hadn’t wanted to stay. At the time, she’d believed staying would have been so much worse. She was pretty sure she was still right.

Jo huffed a deep breath and wiped her eyes as best she could with the back of her sleeve. “So, um, there’s someone I need you to find.”

Before she could even finish her sentence, though, the door to her aunt’s house opened, and all three of them froze. Ever the man of action, Haley was the one of them who remembered how to move first, taking Jo and all but dragging her toward the car. Bailey fell into step right next to him, so that together, their shapes would block any view from the front porch that they were three and not two. Jo kept her head down and pointedly did not look back to see whose eyes they were avoiding as they shuffled through the same rear door into the back of the car, Bailey first, then Jo, and finally Haley, who pulled the door shut behind him.

The car was nice. It smelled nice and clean. Jo couldn’t remember the last time she’d been in a car. Definitely before everything had gone so wrong. Maybe she would have made a note of it at the time if she’d known how long it would be before it happened again. Bailey put his arm around her shoulders, and she leaned in and buried her face against his chest. God, she’d missed him. She’d missed them both.

“All right,” Haley said as the car took off. He hadn’t even had to specify a destination. They’d just started moving. “Who are we finding?”

Shit. That was right, they needed details. “She’s, um…” Jo’s brain scrambled, trying to scrape together what little real-life information she could about the most important person in her world. It was embarrassing how little she had. “Well, she works in publishing. Here. As a … I don’t know, something entry-level. A lot of paperwork. She hates it.”

Haley made a skeptical little snort. “Works in publishing and hates it. That doesn’t narrow it down much.”

Good point. “And she wants to be a writer. So maybe she’s submitted things somewhere? She hasn’t published anything before, though,” Jo added, which she thought was true. Fuck dammit, why hadn’t she listened more closely? Why hadn’t she asked more questions? She hadn’t known there’d be a fucking quiz.

“And does this somebody have a name?” asked Haley. Though Jo’s face was turned away from him, she could hear him tapping on the surface of his phone. “Or am I just finding every frustrated would-be writer in the city?”

Jo exhaled through pursed lips. “Winnie. Winnifred. I know. She says it means ‘forest friend’ or something. But, um. That’s probably not the name she goes by. You’re probably looking for a guy’s name. For a guy.”

There was a quiet moment where Jo was certain Haley and Bailey were exchanging a look over her head, but Jo was in no position to see The moment passed as quickly as it had arrived, though, and Haley was back to tapping on his phone. Bailey kissed the top of Jo’s head almost maternally. It was so strange now, how old they felt. They’d never really felt like kids, not really, but at least when they were smaller, it was easier to think of them just as really precocious. But the first throes of puberty had revealed them both to be full adults, despite their still-growing bodies. They were older than she was, and always had been.

After a minute’s worth of tapping and making frustrated little thinking sounds, Haley sighed. “This isn’t something I can do myself. I’m going to need to talk to a professional. I can call you when I have an answer, though.”

Jo swallowed. Shit, she hadn’t thought this part through. “I don’t, um. Have a phone.”

“Did you lose yours?” asked Haley.

“No, I–” Lost wasn’t what had happened to her phone, at least not to the one she’d had the last time she’d seen them. Abandoned by the side of the hospital bed, so they couldn’t use it to track her, that had been its fate. She’d had a few shitty little phones since then, pay-as-you-go types, but the last of those had disappeared somewhere in the days she couldn’t remember, and good riddance. “I mean, you know how you couldn’t find me? That’s a lot of how.”

She could just imagine the look on Haley’s face. Bailey, however, gave her a reassuring squeeze. “Then we’ll go shopping in the morning for one, yeah?” he said, giving her short hair another kiss. “Where are you living these days?”

Oh, now Jo was crying again. Fuck, she hated crying. She couldn’t help it, though. Having to admit the thing about the phone had been humiliating enough. This part might actually kill her. “I don’t really…” She forced a laugh, trying to make this sound casual and intentional, instead of pathetic. “I mean, kind of nowhere?” Nope, that had landed squarely in the realm of pathetic. She wondered if she could crawl over Bailey, get to the door, and throw herself out onto the road. They were on the freeway now. It might be a solution.

Haley said something in a language Jo couldn’t recognize, though some kinds of swearing were clear in any language. He let out a sharp, exasperated breath, then reached up to rap on the glass that partitioned the back of the car from the front. It was a very nice car. “Home,” Haley instructed the driver. “And just in case anyone, particularly my mother or my aunt, broaches the subject, you’ve never seen this woman before in your life.”

“What woman, sir?” asked the driver, his affect flat. Money bought discretion. Handy, that.

“No, just let me out here,” Jo said, trying to sit up despite the steady weight of Bailey’s arm around her shoulders. Not that she knew where she was, not really, but she could figure it out. That was what she’d gotten so good at these past years, figuring things out. “I can just — I’ll walk.”

“Walk where, Jo?” Haley’s voice was sharp. His face was drawn, even lit only by the occasional streetlamp and the headlights of other cars.

“It’s not–” She wished words would come to her as easily as the tears did. God, she was such a fucking mess. This had been such a bad idea. “It’s fine. It’s cool. I was staying with a friend.”

“Uh-huh. And now you’re staying with us.”

The no-nonsense tone of Haley’s voice should probably have been comforting, but instead it just made Jo aware of how trapped she was. There were few prisons smaller than a car in motion. Could she climb over Bailey to the door? Maybe two years ago it would have worked, but now he was all legs and protective hugs and completely in the way. Haley was still smaller, but Jo had no doubt he was an equally formidable opponent. “No, you guys, just let me–“

“Jo!” barked Haley, a sound that bounced around the inside of the car like a thrown ball. “For fuck’s sake, let us help you!”

No, see, that was what Jo didn’t want at all. She didn’t want help. She didn’t want the pity that came with help. Crashing with friends was one thing, because it was a favor, and she’d do favors in return for them when she could, and it would be an even exchange, one where she didn’t wind up owing anybody anything. She’d only allowed herself to approach Haley and Bailey because she’d figured it could be a quick search for them, they’d get her the information about Winnie, and then she’d disappear from their lives once more, promising to never be a bother to them again.

Haley’s expression, however, had already disapproved of that plan. “I have an alert on my phone,” he said, shaking the device at her as though she might have forgotten what phones were, period, “that tells me whenever one of the morgues in the area turns up a body that might be you. About once a month, give or take, I get a picture of an anonymous dead girl that somebody thought might be my missing cousin. Now you tell me why I’m supposed to drop you off by an underpass and go back to holding my breath every time a coroner texts me because there’s a chance it’s you. Go on. I’m listening.”

Jo felt herself get smaller with every word, until she could have fit into Bailey’s pocket. It would probably be nice in there. She might not even feel like such a piece of shit about everything in there.

How could she explain to them that it wasn’t supposed to happen that way? She was supposed to just walk out of the perfect family picture and let everything close back in behind her like she’d never been there at all. Everything was supposed to have been better without her. Hell, she bet most of it was. It wasn’t like her parents cared; if they had, Haley and Bailey would have rushed her to her aunt’s open door, not shielded her from it. They understood that the family was better without her in it.

Or maybe that wasn’t it. Maybe they understood that she was the one better without the family. Maybe the two of them understood that more than anyone else possibly could. Because maybe — no, more than maybe — it was true for the two of them too.

 “I…” she started, but she couldn’t. She had nothing. She felt completely deflated. Deboned, maybe. Just a Jo-shaped lump of heart-tattooed skin stretched over a wire frame of questionable durability. One strong breeze and she’d collapse, revealing nothing inside. Nothing, that was, except the yearning for Winnie that had driven her to this point in the first place. Stupid yearning. Stupid everything.

Bailey, always the calming presence, just drew her close to his chest. He smelled like old man cologne. It was unbearably cute. “How about,” he said in his gentle and shockingly grown-up voice, stroking her back, “you come back with us tonight, and you sleep in our guest bedroom, and in the morning, we start to figure a few things out? Okay?”

Jo nodded, defeated. “Okay,” she mumbled against Bailey’s shirt.

“And,” Bailey continued after a moment in which Jo felt almost certain he and Haley exchanged another meaningful look over her head, “maybe you can tell us a little more about this Winnie the writer who works in publishing.”

Jo was startled into a snotty laugh. Bless Bailey that he didn’t seem to mind. “She’s, um.” How to explain Winnie? Jo’s only consolation was the knowledge that whatever she said, Haley and Bailey would understand. At least, she hoped they’d understand. They understood a lot of things, even when she didn’t want them to. Especially when she didn’t want them to. So Jo took a deep breath and began.

 

~*~

 

The second Jo laid eyes on Winnie, she knew she had been wrong to worry that she might not recognize her. Even in a cheap and stupid suit and tie, with her hair pulled back into an approximation of a man-bun and not a swatch of makeup anywhere on her face, Winnie was still Winnie. And that still-pretty face of hers drained of all color as she walked out the front door of her downtown office building and saw Jo sitting on one of the plaza’s benches.

Jo had been sitting there for a few hours, in fact. She’d arrived mid-afternoon, just in case Winnie was working a short day. Now the sun was all but hidden behind the tall buildings, casting long shadows where its orange light still managed to sneak through. Winnie’s eyes darted around, taking stock of who was still there at this hour. “What are you doing here?” she asked, her hands tightening nervously around the strap of her messenger bag. Even her voice sounded wrong — too deep, too harsh.

“What, I don’t get to be a stalker too?” Jo shrugged as she stood. “Anyway, fair’s fair. If you get to say no to a breakup, so do I.”

“What?” Winnie caught her lips back between her teeth. They looked too pale like that. They needed to be red. A pretty mouth like hers deserved to be dressed to the nines. In fact, all of her did. She looked so drab as she was, like someone had painted over a beautiful mural. It was disrespectful. Jo meant to do something about that. 

“I’m saying no. You don’t get to break up with me. We’re still dating.” Jo traced a line through the air between the two of them, as though Winnie might in some way be unclear about who, exactly, was supposed to be doing the dating here. Jo wasn’t ready to leave any of this to chance.

With caution in every step, Winnie approached Jo, until they were standing only a few feet from one another in the middle of the concrete plaza, as the end-of-workday city bustled around them. “How did you find me?” Winnie asked.

Jo folded her arms across her chest. “I have my ways,” she said mysteriously, ignoring how those ways had taken two days’ worth of the detective skills of an actual private investigator Haley had hired. She’d give credit where credit was due later. “Quit your job”

Winnie looked at her like Jo had just grown three heads. “Sorry, do what?”

Okay, Jo had to admit, it was a bit of a strong opening. But she’d wanted to get it out there before she could chicken out. The folded arms may have made her look confident and cocky, but they also disguised how hard her hands were shaking. “Here’s how I see it: You quit your job and start writing. I work shitty jobs to pay the bills. Then you become a rich and famous writer, and I become a kept woman, and we live happily ever after. Deal?”

This was clearly not the situation Winnie had been expecting to face after a long day at the office. “I don’t think that’s…”

“Just say yes, okay?” Jo sighed and ran her hand across her head. It was getting shaggy again. Maybe she’d start actually doing something with it. “Because I’m actually a shit stalker, and I don’t think I could pull this off a second time.” Maybe she could. She had Winnie’s information now. That could get her a lot. But she didn’t want to oversell her abilities, for fear Winnie would put them to the test.

Winnie shifted her weight on her feet, looking lost inside her grey suit. She didn’t look wrong like this, not necessarily, just … sad. That was what Jo was seeing, like how cats looked sad when they got wet. Even the ill-fitting dress she’d been wearing the night they’d met had suited her better than this awkward attempt at playing normal. She pressed her lips together again, those too-pale lips that Jo found herself so badly wanting to kiss, then opened her mouth to speak.

Before she could say anything, though, a voice called Winnie’s name — not her real one, the other one, the one a private investigator had needed to turn up. Both of them turned to see a small pack of young men emerge from the front of the building, all wearing similar suits and laughing like jackals. If Jo had been a wolf, she would have bared her teeth at them.The one who’d called out raised his hand and waved in a way that was probably supposed to appear nonthreatening, except that Jo could see the predator grin that accompanied it. “Look who got cornered by one of the junkies,” he teased, a taunt that nonsensically made the rest of Winnie’s coworkers laugh. “Give her a dollar and maybe she’ll suck your dick!”

The moment Jo turned on him, she could see in his face that he knew, he knew he had fucked up. It was too late for that, though. “I’m her fucking girlfriend, bitch!” she screamed at him, loud enough that it made a number of heads turn. There were eyes on them now, and those eyes probably saw her as trouble, but she had to hope they deemed him the worse threat. That would be the only thing keeping them safe. The next step was violence.

Thrown off his game, he was still smiling, but it was a residual effect, like an afterimage after looking into a bright light. Jo could tell he was starting to sweat. None of what she’d just said had made any sense to him. “Okay, okay,” he said, backing off while holding his hands out like she was a dangerous wild animal. She was. “Good luck, man, she’s all yours.” And with that, the little pack took off, giving her a wide berth as they went on their way to fuck knew where, Jo didn’t give a damn. No wonder Winnie hated her job, if she had to put up with that bullshit all the time.

When Jo looked back, she saw a little smile turning up the corner of Winnie’s mouth. “That’s…” She shook her head, laughing a little. “They’re going to be talking about that one for a while.”

“So what! Who fucking cares?” Jo shrugged. “Because you’re going to quit your job and you’ll never have to see any of those fuckers again. Except maybe when you show up with your book and they’re all falling over themselves to be the one to publish it. And then you can just be smug.” Jo didn’t know if the publishing world worked like that at all, but for the sake of her pitch here, she was going to pretend it did.

Winnie took a deep breath and let it out slowly, her eyes shut. Jo knew she shouldn’t rush her. All Jo wanted to do was rush her. She wanted to throw Winnie over her shoulder and cart her off somewhere safe, somewhere far away from suits and ties and office jobs and a life that only let her be herself after hours. She didn’t. She shoved her hands into her pockets and then balled her hands into fists. She rocked back and forth a little on the balls of her feet. She waited.

“It wasn’t…” Winnie began at last, then shook her head and tried again. “This wasn’t supposed to … I didn’t think it’d ever mean anything to you.”

Jo scoffed. “What, this was your test run at lesbianism? Just to see if you could pull off being a girl when it didn’t matter? And you thought it might work better because you found a dyke who didn’t give a shit?”

Winnie gave a small, sheepish nod. “Something like that.”

“Well, forget it, bitch.” Jo stepped closer and poked Winnie in the middle of her chest, right in the middle of her stupid tie. “I’m in your head now. You picked the wrong freak to stalk. I stalk back.” She poked Winnie again. It was a weirdly satisfying gesture. “So don’t you fucking ghost me again. Because I’ll come after you. Don’t think I won’t.”

That made Winnie laugh softly, though as she did, she turned her gaze on Jo — and there it was, that fire behind her eyes. Jo had thought the suit might have sapped it all out of her, but there she was again, Winnie for real. “As I recall,” Winnie said, one of her eyebrows arching wryly, “I’m not the only bitch here with a track record of running away.”

It was Jo’s turn to laugh. Fuck, it felt good to laugh. A couple people were still watching the dyke drama unfold. Jo didn’t care. She took Winnie’s face in hers and drew her down for a kiss, even though it meant Jo had to stand on tiptoe to get the angle right. Just her fucking luck she found a tall girlfriend. Everything about Winnie was such a fucking pain in the ass. Jo loved every bit of it. “I’m not going anywhere,” Jo said against Winnie’s lips, “and that’s a threat.”

Winnie grinned — and then turned that grin into a snap of her teeth, catching Jo’s lower lip between hers for a short, sharp bite. Jo felt her knees all but give way. Fuck, that was a hell of a thing to discover about yourself in public. “How am I supposed to write my book,” Winnie asked, pulling back enough to look Jo in the eye, “if I’m busy tracking your ass down to new locations all the time?”

“Still sounds like a you problem,” Jo said with a shrug.

Winnie rolled her eyes and grabbed for Jo’s waist just above the waistband of her jeans, giving her middle a playful little pinch. “What I mean is, it would save me a lot of time — and get you to your kept woman status a lot faster — if I already knew where you’d be every morning. To say nothing, of course, of the time it would save you, having to drop all your little hints…”

Jo snorted and screwed her face into as much of a scowl as she could manage, given how giddy she was feeling. “I dropped no hints.”

“You dropped a lot of hints.”

“I did not!” Jo got her hand around the strap of Winnie’s messenger bag, hauling her back close. The gesture somehow felt correct, as though they’d been tethered together all along. “You are just a freak who likes to make her own life difficult. There is something broken in your brain.”

“Baby, there are a lot of things broken in my brain,” Winnie said.

“Don’t call me that,” said Jo, who didn’t mean it at all.

“Baby,” Winnie repeated, this time taking the initiative for another kiss. It was so stupidly romantic that Jo felt like she was going to barf. Ugh, when had she become the kind of sentimental sap who liked this kind of thing? The answer, of course, was obvious: the second she’d met Winnie. It had all been over from there. “Move in with me, baby. I’ll quit my job if you’ll move in with me.”

“I’ll move in with you if you quit your job,” Jo countered.

“Done.”

“Done.”

Winnie took both of Jo’s hands in hers, twining their fingers together as they stood facing one another. Winnie’s hands were so big and strong; Jo was having real problems not thinking of the last time Winnie had touched her. “And if you leave me again, when I find you, I stab you,” Winnie warned, her voice sweet as pie.

Jo rolled her eyes. “Bitch, you’ll have to stab me to get me to leave you.”

“Perfect,” said Winnie, and the strange thing was, it was.

 

~*~

 

It was almost two in the morning, according to the clock on Winnie’s dresser, when the city was as quiet as it ever got. They’d kicked all the covers off the bed some hours ago, and now they were lying together, catching their breath as the sweat dried on their skin in the humid night. Jo was close to dozing off, greying in and out, when she heard Winnie chuckle. “Having fun?” Winnie asked, her lips pressed to Jo’s scalp.

At first, Jo didn’t know what she was talking about. Then she realized that somehow during their post-coital cuddle, her hand had found its way to Winnie’s spent cock and was now … well, playing with it was the only real way to describe it. She was just sort of pawing it idly, squishing it with no particular goal, with no input from her conscious mind. “Oh, um.” Jo’s fingers stilled. Obviously Winnie could put that piece of her anatomy to good use at appropriate moments, but Jo didn’t know how she felt about it on its off hours. “Should I not?”

Winnie shrugged. “It’s fine. You’re just sort of treating it like a fidget toy.”

With a little giggle, Jo caught Winnie’s cock between her fingers and gave it a little wiggle. It shimmied back and forth in a rubbery sort of way, which just made Jo giggle more. “I like it. It’s … I don’t know, friendly. Like, hi down there.” She made Winnie’s cock wiggle again in her best approximation of a wave hello.

Winnie, for her own part, endured this with great dignity. “Haven’t really had many dealings with one of these before?”

“Eh.” Jo stopped fussing and let the friendly little organ lie against Winnie’s belly, then cupped her hand over it. “More than you’d think. But usually they’re just sort of there. They show up, they do a thing, and then they’re not my business anymore. Not a lot of before or after. Definitely not a lot of just having them around like this. Not a lot of having anybody around like this. I don’t know. How about you?”

“I had a girlfriend once,” Winnie said. “We were in the second grade. I let her paint my nails. Very romantic.”

“But you’re not, like…” Jo frowned, thinking of how to phrase this. “I mean, you’ve obviously done this before me. The sex part.”

“The sex part, yes,” Winnie agreed with a nod.

“Just not the..” Jo had no idea how to finish that sentence. Words weren’t coming easily to her. This shit was hard to talk about. “The everything else part.”

Winnie shook her head, then kissed Jo’s fuzzy hair. “Not the everything else part.”

Jo had told Winnie all of it. They’d come back together to Winnie’s tiny apartment and eaten cold pizza from Winnie’s fridge, and Jo had started at the beginning and just kept going. She’d told Winnie everything, and every time she’d added a new piece to the narrative, she’d all but held her breath, sure that this time, this one would be the part that made Winnie say that no, that was too much, it was time for Jo to go away and leave her alone forever. In a weird, awful way, Jo had almost been looking forward to it. It would at least have fulfilled her expectations, which would have meant that the universe was operating in a largely predictable manner.

But Winnie never had. She had listening to the whole thing, getting mad at the parts that Jo didn’t get mad about anymore, and getting sad at the parts that Jo didn’t get sad about anymore. The daylight had slowly faded around them as they’d cuddled on the couch, with Jo’s head on Winnie’s shoulder and Winnie’s hand stroking her back. That had led to the nicest thing about a studio apartment, which was that the bed was never more than a few long steps away from anywhere.

It was a tiny apartment, though. Definitely not worthy of a real writer. Jo would need to get one of those shit jobs soon, maybe even two of them. She might even have to swallow her pride and ask Haley and Bailey for help, which of course they’d be more than happy to give, but that wasn’t the point. The point was that Winnie needed something better. That, Jo could do.

Winnie let her fingers brush down the curve of Jo’s shoulder, over the inked skin on her bicep. It hadn’t fully scabbed off yet, leaving the heart itself textured enough that fingerprints could read it. “Did you get this because of me?” Winnie asked sweetly.

No,” Jo lied. She rolled her eyes. “It’s just a tattoo. It doesn’t mean anything.”

“Uh-huh.” Winne continued to trace its contours, lightly brushing the lines between smooth and rough skin. “It’s ugly.”

Jo snorted. “Shut up. It’s dark. You can’t even see it.”

“It is an objectively ugly tattoo.”

“Your face is objectively ugly,” said Jo, which was completely untrue. Winnie’s face was amazing. Jo could look at it for hours. It was perfect and striking and extremely kissable. Jo was going to buy her all the makeup she wanted, all the pretty lipsticks she could stand. She’d have a color to go with every outfit. Maybe two, so she could have options. Jo didn’t even know where to buy the kind of lipsticks Winnie liked, but she could learn.

Lucky for her, Jo could talk shit all she wanted, and Winnie only ever found it funny. Case in point, Winnie just giggled and cuddled Jo closer. “Well, that’s very sad for you, because you’re the one who has to look at it.”

Son of a bitch, she was right. “Then it sucks to be you, because your girlfriend is even uglier.”

“My girlfriend,” Winnie said, with all the patience of a preschool teacher, “is stunningly beautiful. She may, in fact, be the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. Of course, this is despite her terrible choices in fashion, haircuts, tattoos, hygiene–“

“What about her choice in girlfriends, huh?” Jo asked, rolling onto her belly half-atop Winnie so she could look Winnie in the eye. “Are you going to roast her for her shit taste in girlfriends?”

Winnie sighed, though she still wore a pretty, patient smile. “I am going to point out that she probably could have made some better choices in life, but,” she added quickly, before Jo could comment, “that I am very grateful for her questionable taste.”

There was little more to do then than to lean forward and kiss Winnie, which led to more kissing, which then led to Jo’s getting her leg over on the other side of Winnie’s hips, which itself led in short order to Winnie’s dick inside of Jo as Jo rode her. The first time they’d fucked had been adrenaline-fueled and frantic; the second time, earlier that evening, had still had that edge of desperation to it, as though neither of them could quite believe that it was actually happening. This, however, was different. With Winnie flat on her back, Jo took her time, setting a slow and measured pace. They weren’t fucking to get somewhere. They were fucking because it felt good to be like this, together.

Winnie held her hands up and Jo took them, twining their fingers together for balance. Bathed in the ambient city light through the curtained windows, Jo knew that Winnie could see her, ugly tattoo and ugly face and ugly haircut and all. That was okay. Winnie could look. For the first time in as long as she could remember, Jo didn’t so much mind not being invisible.

Especially since there was no arguing with the way Winnie looked at her — dark eyes wide, pretty lips parted, like she was beholding something truly magnificent. It’s just me, Jo wanted to tell her, except she knew that she wasn’t just anything, not to Winnie. It was terrifying and vulnerable, to be open and seen all at once. Jo knew why Winnie had run away. She was just glad she also knew why Winnie had come back.

Of course, none of these magical romantic feelings made Winnie any less of an insufferable bitch. Still gazing on Jo with wonder, Winnie quirked her talented mouth into a smile and sweetly said, “My tits are bigger than yours.”

Jo had never before had occasion to laugh while someone’s dick was inside her. It was weird and good at once, like Jo suspected a lot of things in her life were about to become. “Yeah, well, you fuck like an old woman,” Jo said, wiggling her hips.

Winnie’s smirk just grew even more obnoxious. “Yeah? You fuck a lot of old women?”

“Just you.” Jo leaned over Winnie, putting more of her weight into Winnie’s hands. “Or what, is that all you’ve got?”

The way Winnie rolled her over right then and pressed her to her creaky single bed just made Jo laugh more, even as those laughs turned into deep and hungry moans as Winnie showed Jo that, no, that was definitely not all she’d got. Definitely a bigger apartment, then, and with it a bigger bed. And a place for Winnie to work, so she could become a real writer. And a place for Winnie to put all the stupid pretty things Jo was going to buy her, like lipsticks and dresses that fit just right. 

And a place for Jo too, somewhere she could belong, instead of just letting the inertia of her life carry her forward. She’d tried lots of things in her life, but she hadn’t tried belonging. Maybe she’d like it.

No, Jo figured, from the way Winnie kissed her, she’d definitely like it. So Jo grabbed Winnie’s face with her hands and kissed her right back, promising that Winnie wouldn’t have to go looking for Jo in the morning. She’d be right here.

 

~*~

 

“Wow.” Dominick looked up with surprise from the ledger he was annotating. Obviously of all the people he’d expected to have walk through the door of his makeshift office, a freshly washed, mostly tidy Jo had not been on the list. “Long time no see.”

“Yeah, well.” Jo had been honest from the start — with herself, if with no one else — about how hard this was going to be. Even in the daylight, the whole place smelled like forgetfulness. There was something deep in the center of her brain that told her just to lie down in it, to sink into the colorful dark and drown happily in its waters. It would probably always be there. Jo had just learned a way to keep treading water. “Been an eventful couple weeks.” More like a month, even, but who was counting?

Dominick gestured that she should take a seat, which she did. It had always seemed so strange to her, how much he’d insisted on maintaining the facade of a businessman. She got it a little better now, though. “So, what can I do for you?” Dominick asked. Sometimes Jo wondered, if the two of them ever sat down and compared their backgrounds, how much they’d find they had in common. There was a world out there that neither of them was connected to, at least not anymore, but they both spoke its language fluently.

Jo reached into the pocket of her jeans and pulled out a sheet of paper. She hadn’t wanted to leave this to chance. “Can you get this?” she asked, handing the paper over to Dominick.

Dominick unfolded it and read the drug name written on it — and then squinted and read it again. “That estrogen?”

“Estrogen and some other stuff, yeah.” Jo couldn’t swear she’d understood the full brief, but if didn’t matter what she’d understood. She’d heard Winnie talking about it, so she’d written it down. Winnie didn’t even know she was here. Jo hadn’t wanted to get her hopes up over nothing.

“Huh.” Dominick quirked his mouth to one side and tapped his desk. “I mean, sure, probably. I’m going to have to ask around, though. Don’t exactly keep this in stock. But yeah, I’ve got some pharmacy connections. This’ll probably be even easier to walk out than the stuff they usually get for me,” he added with a dry chuckle. “So I guess things are going well for you and that new girlfriend, huh?”

It never ceased to amaze Jo how quickly word got around in certain circles. “Going fine,” Jo said, hoping to leave it at that. Not that she was embarrassed about the relationship, so much as … well, Jo had noticed a terrible problem she’d developed, which was that when she started talking about Winnie, it was hard for her to stop. More than once she’d caught Haley and Bailey hiding smiles behind their hands as Jo realized she’d been going on for ten minutes about sometime Winnie had done or said or written. It was a terrible affliction, possibly the worst thing that had happened to her in her entire life. She never wanted it to stop.

Dominick nodded. “Good, good.” He folded the paper back up and slipped it into the breast pocket of his shirt. “Anything else I can do for you?”

Oh, there were so many things. Entire cabinets of things, in fact, that he could do for her. And maybe someday she’d been back for some of them, when she could trust that a little escape wouldn’t become an excuse to run away entirely. For now, though, Jo shook her head. “I’m good, thanks.”

“You are, aren’t you?” With an approving nod, Dominick looked her up and down, taking in her whole cleaned-up act. “You’re good.”

Jo hadn’t meant it like that, but … yeah. Yeah, she was. And no one was as surprised about that as Jo herself. “My number’s on the paper too. Call me when it’s in.”

Part of her — and not a small part — wanted her to stay around, to settle back into the old habits had become her only sources of comfort for the previous two years. That was why she left. She left and kept on walking, back to the subway stop, back to her new apartment, back to looking for more shitty jobs to apply to so she could make good on her promise to her terrible, wonderful girlfriend. The summer sun beat down on her bare shoulders, warming her arms and all the marks on them. She drew the afternoon air into her lungs and let it out with a sigh. It felt good to breathe.

Love11
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2 thoughts on “never love someone who could love someone like me

  1. Oh man, I am having the gender feels with this one. You don’t have to be pretty Jo! What a sweet and hopeful story.

  2. Plain and simple, this story needs more comments on it, so here is one. I’ll admit I didn’t recognize Jo at first (to be fair, she’s trying to live the life of a sentient rat, so she’s not exactly the Jo we met in the previous story), but as soon as Winnie gave her name, I was *so* excited to see what ended up being a meet-not-so-cute. Even knowing that everything would be fine in the end, parts of this were incredibly tense! The fact that they were both allowed to make mistakes, and often, made their happy ending feel earned. And, of course, we got to experience Bailey’s grandpa cologne. He probably wore it for at *least* one previous lifetime, bless him.

    I’m actually a little glad it took me a while to leave feedback on this story, since it gives me a chance to appreciate the fully-colored artwork and not just the lines! The fact that Winnie’s head is tilted so similarly in both illustrations, but her expression is so vastly different, is such a nice and subtle detail that hammers home how much more comfortable she is in her own skin when she doesn’t have to pretend to be a guy, even while still figuring out the shape of who she’s supposed to be. Just wonderful!

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