Coming in to work at five in the morning wasn’t Joshua Faraday’s favorite part of his day job, especially on top of a seriously lackluster night pursuing his professional poker dreams. He usually came out a little ahead when he played tables at places like Rico’s and The Dogwood - mid-stakes games of Holdem with seats split mostly between part-timers like himself and the kind of overzealous fresh fish that he made a generous portion of his living off of - but he’d been on a losing streak all night, down by almost a full thousand by the time the final hand rolled around and failing to make it up before last call.
He hadn’t bothered sleeping, deciding that the paltry two hours between closing time and his shift at Sam’s Coffee were better spent trying to make some of that money back in a couple of his preferred online rooms than chasing the sandman with no guarantee of success. It seemed somehow fitting, he thought a short while later, staring miserably at the screen of his laptop in the early morning gloom, that his foul run of luck had apparently followed him home.
He barely managed to break even on his buy-in before giving it up as a bad job and retreating into the half-empty fifth of whiskey he kept stashed under his coffee table for precisely these types of occasions. It wasn't the saddest night he’d ever had, though Josh would be hard-pressed to convince anyone that there was any significant measure of dignity in sipping straight out of the bottle and waxing morose to Jack, his shrinking violet of a bulldog mix. Jack didn't seem to appreciate Josh’s maudlin lamentations but gamely attempted to comfort him by hauling all hundred-seventy odd pounds of himself into Josh’s lap even so.
A few more mouthfuls of whiskey than strictly necessary and a perfunctory shower to wash off a little of the lingering bar funk found him on the dizzy side of buzzed and smelling like an indefinable blend of tropical fruits, loitering in the recessed doorway of Sam’s Coffee so early that it was still dark out. He was huddled down into an old hoodie - a relic from his brief, doomed stint in community college - to escape the early morning chill and working his way steadily through a fresh pack of Camels while he waited on the assistant manager, a baby-faced college senior who went by Teddy. When the kid finally showed, neatly dressed and all-too chipper for someone who’d had to drag himself out of bed at the ass end of morning, Josh was halfway through his third cigarette and in a foul temper to boot, hangover slowly drumming to life in his temples.
Thankfully Teddy didn't try for much conversation beyond making half-hearted noises about needing to save coffee for their predawn business crowd when Josh threw himself viciously on the first pot of the day. He hoarded it ferociously, burned and watery though it was, and glared over the top of his truly outrageous mug whenever Teddy made hesitant overtures about sharing.
Josh, in standard form, flipped him off every time he suggested such, in response to which Teddy made the miserable, disappointed face he always pulled out when Josh was being a less than stellar employee - as if Josh’s lack of enthusiasm for taking orders from a kid more than half a decade his junior personally wounded him in some way. By the time the pre-lunch rush had picked up to full tilt, Josh was fielding a moderate strength hangover in addition to all of Teddy’s patronizing.
After the eighth or so potshot about his inability to follow instructions, it got to be a little much - especially on top of the whining buzz of the blender and the unholy chatter of suburban moms shit-talking every single one of their neighbors - and Josh fell back on his usual method of diverting Teddy’s ire: making snide asides about his cousin, who was employed at an adult novelty shop across the street.
“Dude, she’s hot, she’s feisty, and she works at a porn store,” he leered, haphazardly squirting a little curl of whipped cream out on top of a stupid frozen latte. “She’s basically the perfect woman.”
“That’s a no-whip latte,” Teddy sighed.
“What?” Josh frowned, glancing down at the cup. “Well, I’m not making another one. You should’ve written it down, man, you know I’m terrible with call-outs.”
“It’s right there.” Teddy pointed forlornly at the side of the plastic cup, where the words ‘NO WHIP’ were scrawled in crisp, inch-high block letters in the little box set aside for special order notes. Josh stared at it for a long moment.
“Your handwriting is terrible,” he announced, pressing a domed lid onto the cup and setting it on the end of the bar. He leaned forward and barked, “Frozen latte for Debra!” before turning back around to add, “And you’re missing the point.”
Teddy glanced over from where he was in the middle of making another latte - probably to replace the one Josh had just sent out, because Teddy was the kind of young, idealistic worker bee who took customer satisfaction very seriously - and blinked expectantly with his brow furrowed.
“You had a point?”
“My point,” Josh said imperiously, leaning back against the counter and crossing his arms over his chest, “is that your cousin is a full-on dime, man.”
There was a gentle pressure against his shoulder, and Josh turned to find a woman peering over the counter at him from behind a pair of truly gargantuan plastic-frame glasses. Based on the stoop to her posture and the deep wrinkles carved next to her eyes and mouth, Josh would put her generously past middle-age. She was in an emerald green velvet tracksuit, her hair in that bizarre afro-perm so common among elderly white women and dyed a shade of brilliant red that reminded Josh distinctly of maraschino cherries.
He thought she might be one of their regulars, though he wasn't sure. Teddy would know, certainly - probably had her name and preferred beverage order memorized - but like hell was Josh going to ask. Teddy was insufferable as it was; if he ever witnessed Josh make a legitimate effort to be a functional employee he’d be downright impossible. Especially when Josh spent the majority of his shifts insisting loudly and frequently that this barista gig was only a temporary arrangement, a bandage on his pocketbook until his gambling career grew legs.
“Excuse me, young man,” the woman said politely, brandishing the latte Josh had just finished making. She had taken the lid off and had it cupped in one hand, drink in the other. “I think there was a mistake with my order.”
Josh blinked at her. She looked like she’d wandered out of an old retro cartoon - Mr. Magoo or something of that era, all comically exaggerated proportions and outlandish shapes.
“What’s wrong with it?” he asked placidly.
“Well,” she said, leaning over the counter a little and pointing into the cup with a bejeweled finger, short-trimmed nails coated liberally in glittering fuchsia shellac, “there’s whipped cream on it, you see?”
The woman frowned.
“It’s supposed to be a no-whip latte,” she said expectantly.
Josh rolled his eyes and reached out, beckoning with his fingers until she handed the cup over. He looked down into it for a second, weighing his options. There was a chance, however slim, that the beverage Teddy was currently preparing at Josh’s back didn’t belong to this woman at all, that he’d decided to let Josh twist in the wind for once in his life, left him responsible for his poor behavior at the cost of this old woman’s pleasant morning.
Teddy was a deeply empathetic creature with a fairly stringent moral code, he reasoned, and Josh was a gambler down to the bone, so he rolled the proverbial dice and brought the cup up to his mouth, scooping the majority of the whipped cream off the top with a broad stroke of his tongue.
“There you go,” he said, voice slightly muffled around his mouthful of sweetened cream, and handed the cup back. “No-whip. Problem solved.”
The woman gasped at him, scandalized, and brought her hands dramatically to her chest, as though she had ropes of elegant pearls to clutch to her person rather than just a hideously bejeweled, fist-sized zipper pull made to look like a smiling cat.
“W - well I certainly never!” she stuttered, agog, even as Teddy slid a freshly concocted latte - probably made exactly to specification because Teddy was a bit of a perfectionist and a lot of a people-pleaser - across the bar. Josh mentally awarded himself a point of victory, a tiny, acid-edged voice in the back of his mind hissing disparagingly about where that luck had been when he needed it eight hours before.
“So sorry about that, Mrs. Davidson,” Teddy said sweetly, affecting that bashful, ‘aw-shucks,’ down home attitude that had every woman over the age of forty that walked into the shop immediately and irrevocably wrapped around his little finger. He clapped a hand to Josh’s shoulder, squeezing hard, and batted his eyes at Mrs. Davidson as he added, “Josh here was just havin’ a little fun with you while I fixed your drink. Don’t mind him, his sense of humor needs work.”
“Please,” Josh scoffed. “My sense of humor is amazing.”
Teddy squeezed his shoulder hard enough to hurt, pinching and sharp, and Josh cut him a death glare.
“Thank you, Theodore,” Mrs. Davidson replied, casting Josh a suspicious glare. He grinned, wide and amiable, and she narrowed her eyes further. “Your young man here could benefit from some tutelage in improvisational comedy, I should think.”
“We’ll look into it, Mrs. D,” Teddy assured sweetly, at the same time that Josh snorted, “They’d have to pay me more to afford that.”
Teddy dug his thumb into the tender skin just above Josh’s collarbone, unflinching when the sudden burst of pain sent a sharp spasm through Josh’s arm, and smiled sweetly while Mrs. Davidson toddled away. The moment she was reasonably out of earshot, Josh smacked Teddy’s hand off and wheeled around, glaring darkly.
“Ow, fucker,” he grumbled, jabbing Teddy in the ribs with his knuckles hard enough to bruise.
“Jesus!” Teddy coughed and stumbled back. “What the hell, Faraday!”
“What the hell me?” Josh scowled. “What the hell you!”
“What do you mean, what the hell me?” Teddy demanded hotly. “You put your tongue in a customer’s drink!”
“Are we or are we not supposed to implement ‘creative problem solving?’” Josh asked meanly, making quotes with his fingers in the air as he spoke.
“Oh, that’s bullshit and you know it,” Teddy glowered. “You’re being an asshole to everyone because you stayed out too late last night, and that ain’t nobody’s fault but yours, Faraday!”
“Who have I been an asshole to?” Josh demanded, jabbing a finger at Teddy’s chest. “Name one person.”
Teddy stared at him, eyes wide with disbelief, before waving an arm at the backdoor, the little jingling bell over top of it still tinkling weakly as it settled, leaving the two of them alone in the little shop with only an impressive collection of mismatched chairs, faint strains of acoustic guitar music, and each other.
“Mrs. Davidson?” Teddy supplied archly. “Like thirty seconds ago? Or me, all morning?”
Josh rolled his eyes, crossing his arms over his chest and leaning against the counter.
“How have I been an asshole to you?”
“You just punched me,” Teddy said, holding up his hand in the air and ticking a finger off as he went down some imaginary numerical list. “You stole all the coffee when we got here so I had to brew it over again. You’re being gross about my cousin. Want me to continue?”
“I punched you because you pinched me!” Josh insisted hotly. “You started that shit, don’t try to put that on me!”
“I started it because you - ” Teddy took a deep breath, pressing his lips into a thin line, jaw jutting out furiously. He visibly wrested his temper back under control, forcing his shoulders down, and spat, “Fine.”
Josh mentally awarded himself a second point of victory, smirking smugly as Teddy’s face darkened.
“Maybe I deserved that,” he allowed, glaring and pointing at Josh with one hand, the other planted firmly on his hip, “but all the rest of it is down to you being a baby about your hangover!”
“I’m not being a baby,” Josh scowled, smug satisfaction dimming a little at the sudden steel in Teddy’s spine, the sparking fury in his normally puppy-soft eyes.
“You’re being a huge baby,” Teddy assured. “It’s embarrassing.”
“You’re almost thirty,” Teddy spat meanly. “Act like it!”
“I’m twenty-eight!” Josh hissed. “And also, as previously stated, fuck you!”
Teddy threw his hands up in the air and wheeled around on his heel, huffing an exasperated breath as he stalked across the narrow alley between the bar and the back counter. He paced a few feet and then turned around again, putting his fists to his hips and jutting his chin stubbornly forward.
“Twenty-eight, thirty, what’s the goddamn difference!” Teddy snapped. “Ain’t like you’re ever gonna take responsibility for your own damn problems! Just gonna keep talking a big game and never following through like always.”
Josh huffed a couple of furious, stalling breaths while he tried to muster a response. His head was killing him and he was still a thousand dollars poorer than he had been yesterday and this was the moment when Teddy elected to finally develop an attitude.
“You - ” Josh spat, “ I - just what in the hell are you trying to say, Theodore?”
“Exactly what it sounds like I’m saying, Joshua,” Teddy snapped back without missing a beat. “You’re all hot air and bullshit. You don’t have the balls to do half the shit you say you would.”
“Like hell I don’t!” Josh hollered.
Teddy laughed, a bitter grin cutting jaggedly across his face.
“Oh yeah?” he asked meanly. “Emma’s across the street right now. You talk such a big game, why don’t you go over there and see what happens when you ask her out.”
Josh recoiled a little, confused.
“You - are you telling me to go hit on your cousin?”
“I’m telling you to put your money where your mouth is, jackass,” Teddy snarled. He paused for a second and tilted his head, thoughtful and smug. “Unless you wanna admit that you’re full of shit now and save us both the trouble.”
“Fuck you,” Josh muttered. His face felt like it was on fire, he had to be nuclear red by now. He ducked his head and reached behind his back to unknot the waist tie of his apron, tugging it off over his head and launching it furiously at Teddy’s obnoxious face without a word of warning. “I’m taking my fifteen minutes, asswipe, and we’ll see who’s full of shit when I get back.”
Head still throbbing and stomach lurching, Josh turned and stomped toward the door. For better or for worse, he’d never been capable of saying no to a direct challenge, and while he didn't rightly consider himself in possession of enough honor to be worth defending, he couldn't let a jumped up little undergrad talk shit like that to him and just let it slide.
As he stepped out into the crisp, sunny air of early fall, the rhythmic tapestry of a busy main street bustling and humming under the faint trill of birdsong, Josh considered hopefully that Emma might be in a charitable mood when he caught up to her. Maybe his streak of rotten luck the night before had been to balance a better turn today.
With Emma there was almost no way to escape at least a verbal flaying but mayhap he would sidestep any kind of physical repercussion. He paused at the corner, waiting for the light to turn, and seriously considered the chances of Emma not delivering a swift hand to the face the minute he misstepped. Almost as quickly as his hope had sprung up, it deflated.
He was about to get his ass handed to him, no two ways about it.
The stream of mostly sensible midsized sedans on their way to or from one of the many nearby corporate campuses came to a slow halt as the light shifted to yellow, then red, and Josh sighed. Nothing for it but to get it over with quick, he thought miserably, and stepped into the crosswalk.
Two chapters in one day because I'm tired of sitting on this and I just want to get it done and written and clear out my GDocs~
Introducing: Vasquez. Also, Emma. (For the record, Emma and Teddy aren't actually related. I generally headcanon them as being in a polyamorous OT3 with Matt but I needed a plot device to get Josh wandering in the sex shop and lo, here we are.)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Emma Cullen made it a point to always be available for family, and so when her phone started happily humming Rihanna and her cousin’s face flashed on the screen she didn’t think twice about answering despite the fact that she was elbow deep in restocking a selection of novelty restraints. Most adult toy shops didn’t do an abundance of business so early in the day and despite its sparkling reputation as a bastion of knowledge and safe sexual exploration, Goodnight’s was no different. A couple of giggling undergrads had wandered through earlier and purchased a vibrator and a spare set of batteries, holding hands and flushing when they glanced at each other, but beyond that the store had been empty all day, just Emma and her coworker, Ale, trading banter while they tidied and handled all the menial tasks on their to-do list.
“Mr. Quick,” Emma said teasingly, tucking the phone between her shoulder and cheek while she untangled a pair of silk-lined leather restraints. “To what do I owe the pleasure.”
Across the line, Teddy sighed and said hesitantly over the distant buzz of some coffee making technology, “I mighta done something bad.”
“You short an overcaffeinated grad student on their latte for their own safety again?” Emma asked teasingly.
Ale, her coworker, glanced over from where he was dusting an array of display dildoes and wagged a finger at her.
“That was one time,” he grumbled, and Emma cut him a wink while Teddy sighed again, regretful and morose.
“No,” he said glumly. There was a distant, metallic tinkling - a spoon in a mug maybe, Teddy had always preferred his coffee exceedingly sweet. “Faraday is on his way over.”
Emma froze for a second, glancing warily up at the door on instinct, but it remained blissfully shut and free of approaching figures.
“I may have dared him to ask you out,” Teddy explained in a tiny, miserable voice. “And I, uh. I may have neglected to mention your boyfriend of three months.”
“Theodore,” Emma snapped, sharp and vicious, tugging at the tangled restraints a little harder than was probably necessary.
“I’m sorry!” Teddy said insistently. “Just, look, just knock him down a peg or two for me? Please? You’re good at it! And he deserves it!”
“Teddy - ”
“He put his tongue in an old woman’s latte this morning!”
Emma went still again, dropping the restraints back into the cardboard box alongside their brethren.
“He did what? ”
“Licked the whipped cream off the top right in front of her,” Teddy expounded. “I thought poor old Mrs. Davidson was going to have a heart attack. Like a real one.”
The name was vaguely familiar, spinning in Emma’s head for a second before it caught on a memory of a nervously smiling lady in her sixties with cherry red hair and a lot of questions about exploring her sexuality in her golden years.
“Not the Mrs. Davidson who attended my Sextuagenarian seminar?” Emma asked, aghast that anyone, even an ornery sonofabitch like Josh Faraday, could summon up the poor attitude to be rude to such a sweet old lady.
“The very one,” Teddy confirmed.
“She brought lemon bars for the whole class on the last day!What kind of monster would do that to sweet little old Mrs. Davidson?”
“Exactly!” Teddy hissed, dark and insistent. “See, Em, he could use a little embarrassment.”
Emma sighed, pinching at the bridge of her nose. Dealing with Faraday's unholy ego was not on her list of preferred daily activities but it sounded like he was in rare form this morning.
“Fine,” she said after a long second. “I’ll see what I can do.”
“Thanks, couz,” Teddy replied, obviously relieved. Emma rolled her eyes even though she knew he couldn't see her.
“Yeah, yeah. I’ll see you later, Teds.”
As she pocketed her phone, Emma considered her best course of action. Ordinarily, she would sic Billy on any creeps who started harassing her at work, but he and Goody had taken a long weekend together. Something about a couples’ retreat in Sedona, which Emma knew from experience meant they were likely still in town, and dedicated to spending at least seventy-two hours in the plush bed they’d had specially made by a local California craftsman - as Goody was so fond of telling everyone - fucking until they couldn't move.
Besides, while Faraday was certainly irritating to a degree Emma hadn't quite believed existed prior to making his acquaintance, he wasn't really creepy enough merit Billy’s particular brand of ball-shriveling intimidation. He would probably be better served by a swift kick in the ass to rattle some sense loose, assuming he had any lodged in that thick skull of his to begin with.
Emma considered doing it herself - she did so enjoy making grown men squirm, but Faraday could be particularly pigheaded. Plus, little as she cared to admit it, they were similar enough in temperament that anything she could think of to get under Faraday’s skin usually worked against her, raising her dander as easily as it did his until they were both red-faced and screaming at one another like lunatics.
She glanced over to where Ale had shifted his attention to their limited collection of DVDs and narrowed her eyes.
That, she considered, making her way to the front of the store so that she could track Faraday's progress, could work out very nicely indeed.
Ale was in the middle of facing the rifled-through selection on the video display rack - the Western-themed Pleasure Creek series seemed to be getting a lot of attention, which was surprising considering the gauzy, hazy-focus softcore was up against their best-selling line of educational kink videos, though Ale supposed everyone liked a little escapism sometimes - when Emma called his name across the shop.
He looked over to find her chewing on her lip and casting a frigid glare past a window display of glittering burlesque outfits. She had a set of ribbon-lined restraints in her hands and was absently twisting them in her grip, entire body practically vibrating with irritated energy. He had done his best not to eavesdrop on her phone call but it was obvious that it hadn't been anything good.
Emma cut him a glance, narrow and thoughtful, and asked, “You interested in a little mischief?”
Ale considered this.
“What kind of mischief?”
“Nothing illegal,” she promised, flashing a little, impish smirk and tilting her head toward the window. “I just need you to get rid of someone.”
Ale came to stand just behind her shoulder, following the line of her gaze. There was a man hovering awkwardly at the curb on the far side of the street. He had his hands tucked into the front pockets of his jeans, neck craned as he stared into the flow of oncoming traffic. From this distance he seemed attractive enough, tall and broad with classical features, russet hair tinged red in the midday sun, face a little flushed.
“Ex-boyfriend?” Ale asked, nudging Emma’s shoulder teasingly with his own. She rolled her eyes and snorted.
“He wishes,” she muttered. She turned away from the window and gathered up a small cardboard box from the floor. There was a pile of restraints she hadn’t gotten through sorting yet arrayed across the tabletop in front of her, and she swept them into the box with a sweeping pass of her arm. “His name’s Faraday. He works with my cousin.”
“The one at the coffee shop?”
“You ever hear about any of my other cousins?” She asked, smirking sweetly. Ale rolled his eyes.
“A simple ‘yes’ would have been fine,” he said. The little quirk of Emma’s mouth blossomed into a grin.
“But so much less fun,” she replied easily, settling the box against her hip. “Anyway I need you to run him off for me.”
Ale frowned and glanced over at the approaching man as he half-jogged through the crosswalk, hollering and slapping a palm against the hood of a boring beige sedan, swearing at the distracted driver who had cut their stop a little close for comfort.
“Why do you want me to get rid of him?”
“He’s obnoxious,” Emma responded immediately, heartfelt and glaring at the man - Faraday, apparently. “Plus he’s been a dick to Teddy all day and that’s basically the same thing as kicking a puppy.”
Ale snorted and considered Faraday for a long moment - the easy sway of his stride, the confident, if tense, set to his broad shoulders. Near as he was, Ale could see that his bland, oatmeal-hued shirt had writing on the front of it, big blue letters proclaiming ‘I Play Strip Poker’ across his chest with a smaller addendum in red below them - ‘Because even when you lose, you win.’
“I’ll pay you ten bucks,” Emma hedged hopefully. Ale raised an eyebrow at her. While it was true that she was one of his favorite co-workers, and he did so love guiding unsuspecting first timers to sexual enlightenment, he also knew an opportunity when he saw one. Plus, he liked Teddy, even if the kid had shorted him on espresso during his midterms.
“Make it twenty.”
“Deal,” Emma agreed cheerfully, reaching over for a brief, vigorous handshake before sauntering off toward the back of the shop, where they’d cobbled together a little break area in amongst the towering shelves of backstock and inventory.
“Where are you going?” Ale asked to her retreating back, winding his way toward the checkout counter. Emma waved a hand but didn’t bother turning around as she shouldered her way through the metal door in the back wall, sleek painted surface boasting both a port window and a laminated sign that read ‘Employees Only.’
“If he asks, tell him I’m not here!”
There was the brief burst of compressed air and the heavy muted click of the door falling shut.
Almost simultaneously, the infamous Faraday pushed his way through the glass door at the front, accompanied by a sudden wave of noise - the distant blare of traffic and the subdued chiming of the little bell overhead. He glanced up at Ale, mouth tightening into an uncomfortable smile, ducking a nod as his eyes skated away before shuffling all the way inside, peering curiously around like he’d never seen the interior of a novelty shop before.
This, Ale thought gleefully, was going to be fun.
It was cleaner inside Goodnights - Goodnight’s? Josh had never been able to discern whether the little crescent moon between the ‘t’ and the ‘s’ on the sign outside was supposed to be an apostrophe or a simple decoration - than Josh had expected, welcoming and open. The floor was an inoffensive, neutral laminate that reminded him vaguely of a library or an airport, and most of the fixtures and furniture were glass with gold accents, striking against the crisp white of the walls. It was airy and bright, with high ceilings and displays ranging from gleaming metallics to brilliant pops of colored silicon to sleek black latex.
There were tables stacked high with all the sexual accouterments one could imagine, and then some; gold bins at the front register filled with little square foil packs, some that Josh recognized as condoms at a distance, and others he couldn't quite identify. There didn't seem to be any staff in sight beyond a tall, dark haired man lingering casually at the counter, who flashed Josh the perfunctory smile of politely disinterested retail workers everywhere when he walked in and then turned his attention back to fiddling with a couple of DVDs and an iPad on a swiveling stand.
Emma was nowhere in sight, which was something of a relief, if Josh were being honest, though he figured he ought to at least take a cursory turn around the store before admitting defeat. If he went back too quickly Teddy would be smug for weeks no matter how fervently Josh insisted that Emma hadn't been there when he wandered in.
He strolled past the front window displays, salaciously posed mannequins in glittering, flirty bustiers and lacey garters, pausing for a moment to consider a small tiered table broken up into shelves featuring a variety of underclothes designed to meet various needs that Josh wouldn’t pretend to be able to guess at.
He came to a stop in front of a shelf full of especially ridiculous novelty products - strange little bulbs in chalky pastels that appeared to be modeled after candy hearts when he picked them up to get a better look at the bases; a multicolored selection of small silicon rabbits whose tails turned out to be bullet vibrators upon closer inspection. He couldn't quite stop himself from reaching out when his eyes caught on a tray that looked at a glance like a totally standard array of lipsticks in various shades.
He plucked one of the little tubes out of the assortment and twisted it up, hooting a surprised little laugh when it whirred to life against his palm, not especially loud but surprisingly strong.
“Can I help you find something?”
Josh fumbled and almost dropped the little, buzzing lipstick tube at the sudden statement from over his shoulder. The voice was deep, thickly accented, and, Josh suspected, didn't belong to a woman at all, let alone the particular lady that Josh had come in search of.
His theory was proven true when he turned to discover the pleasantly smiling man from the register posted up casually in the aisle beside him. Though the guy, like Emma, had legs for days - standing an inch or two taller than Josh, even, which rarely happened - he was distinctly not a spitfire red-head.
He was better looking up close, deep brown hair edging into black, a few dark curls coiling around his face, while the rest had been pulled into a loose, messy tail at the back of his head. The corners of his mouth were tilted up into a smirk, beard just this side of scruffy. He was in a nondescript white V-neck on top of well-loved cutoff jean shorts, and his appropriately worn sandals had probably come from a sporting specialty shop that catered to surfers, kayakers, hikers, or some unholy combination of all three. He had a little burnished medallion on a thin leather strap around his throat, resting against the hollow between his collar bones, and a braided leather cord around his right wrist.
He was handsome, certainly, in a rugged way - nose maybe broken a time or two, with broad shoulders and a slightly lankier frame than Josh had himself. Every part of him screamed that he either poured a lot of time into affecting exactly the right laissez-faire style to blend in among the general populace of a California beach town, or that he was legitimately just a pretty cool guy. Given their current locale Josh was leaning toward the former, though it was too early to say for certain.
There was a demure little name tag clipped to his shirt, gold letters on a field of black that spelled out ‘ALEJO.’
“Uh, I don’t think so,” Josh frowned, squinting at it and venturing, “AH-lee-joe?”
The guy snorted, smirk tilting up a little higher, and arched an eyebrow.
“Ah-LAY-ho,” he corrected. “Or Ale, if it’s easier for you.”
It was kind of a silly nickname for such a big dude, just a step off from ‘Allie,’ but Josh had known plenty of people who preferred to be called stranger things.
“Ale,” he parroted dutifully, and the guy nodded. “Listen, I’m just here to see a friend. Is Emma around?”
Ale clicked his tongue and shook his head, saying ruefully, “Sorry, guero, you just missed her. She left for lunch a few minutes ago.”
“No shit,” Josh muttered, frowning. “Any idea when she’ll be back?”
“Nope,” Ale shrugged. “We’re pretty lax about break time here so, could be fifteen minutes, could be an hour. You want to leave a note for her or something?”
“Nah,” Josh shook his head, lifting one shoulder in a shrug. “I was just gonna say hey. Nothing important.”
“Okay,” Ale said easily. He stood there for a long moment, still smiling pleasantly and apparently content to let the silence stretch out between the two of them while Josh waited expectantly for him to either say something else or leave and go about his business.
When he did neither, Josh arched an eyebrow at him and offered, “Did you need something?”
"You’re not planning on using that internally, right?” Ale asked, nodding to the little lipstick vibrator still humming against Josh’s palm.
“What? Oh! I - uh,” Josh said hesitantly, inexplicably embarrassed. He twisted the tube until it went mercifully silent, bright coral chisel-tip sheathed, and replaced the cap with a snap. “No. I’m not - uh. I was just curious.”
Ale arched an eyebrow at him, that little, infuriating quirk at the edge of his mouth tilting up further.
“You picked a good place to be curious.”
Heat prickled faintly along Josh’s cheeks and he fumbled the vibrator back into its spot in the plastic tray alongside its brethren.
“No, I - not that kind of curious,” he corrected, stomach twisting a bit, bottom falling out for a second like it did over the first, gentle drop of a roller coaster.
Ale shrugged, reaching out to pluck one of the other lipsticks out of the tray.
“Not even a little?” he asked, amiable and totally lacking judgment, mouth curved up on one side. He uncapped the vibrator and twisted it up, the vibrant plum cylinder buzzing to life in his hands. “They’re not all in funny shapes, you know. We have regular dicks too - cut or uncut depending on your preference.”
Josh opened and closed his mouth a few times like a gasping fish. He could feel his face flaring hotter as he blurted, “I’m straight.”
“Even straight men use vibrators, cabrón,” he replied easily.
“They - what, really?” Josh arched a disbelieving eyebrow.
“Sure,” Ale nodded. “The prostate is a wonderful thing.” He considered for a second and then added, “Plenty of them like to be fucked, too.”
“Bullshit,” Josh blurted, going redder when Ale grinned, sharp and amused.
“It’s true,” he assured with an expansive gesture toward the far wall, where an entire array of dildos in different shapes, colors, and sizes were artfully displayed on floating glass shelves. The topmost shelf was host to a long row of plaster sculptures molded to look like the elegant swell of hips curving into upper thighs, each one kitted out with a belted harness in a differing color and style. “Most of the strap-ons we sell go to heterosexual couples.”
“Are you - should you be telling me this?”
Ale huffed a laugh.
“I’m hardly giving you names and home addresses, guero,” he said, low and teasing. “Besides, I’m here to answer questions, and it seems like you might have a few.”
“Not really, I just -” Josh shook his head, a little bewildered. “I don’t really get it, I guess. I mean, live and let live or whatever, but I don’t really see the draw.”
Admittedly, he’d never really thought about it before now. He’d slept with girls in the past who seemed to get a lot of pleasure out of taking his dick in the back-end but it was a rare enough occurrence that he hadn't considered it much beyond that particular application. He’d certainly never bothered to wonder whether he might want to stick anything up his own ass. It sounded like it would be uncomfortable, more than anything else. He expressed as much and Ale shrugged.
“Different people get different things out of it,” he replied. He wagged the little lipstick-shaped vibrator in his hand back and forth. “Stuff like this is generally better suited for prostate orgasms, usually paired with a plug or another toy.”
“Prostate orgasm?” Josh asked, dubious. Ale simply nodded and Josh frowned. “I thought there was just - you know - ” he made a gesture in the air, clearly delineating two separate areas, “ - orgasm, or no orgasm. I didn't know there were different kinds.”
“A lot of people don’t,” Ale assured easily. “Some men find coming from prostate play more intense than a regular orgasm, longer lasting.”
Josh arched an eyebrow at him.
“No shit,” he said, scrubbing thoughtfully at his jaw. He waved a hand toward the distant wall. “Is that what the fucking does? Gives a, uh - prostate orgasm?”
“It’s called pegging when it’s a woman fucking a man,” Ale smirked, then shrugged. “It can. For some couples it’s more about the control - taking it or ceding it. For some it’s about the gender play.” He shrugged again. “There are a lot of different reasons people like it.”
The dildos on the lowest shelf were all on the thinner side, though they ran a slightly wild gamut of materials and shapes - from a rainbow of flesh-toned silicone molded like real dicks to translucent plastic that looked like a slowly tapering stack of bubbles to marbled glass with rounded ends and gentle curvature in the middle. While Josh still didn't quite understand the appeal, from a purely scientific standpoint he supposed any of those would be manageable. He was hesitant to believe it would be a particularly pleasurable experience, and the outrageously huge dildos higher up on the wall were another story entirely.
“Doesn’t it hurt?” he asked, eyeing a sparkling purple monstrosity - curved proudly toward the ceiling, long and easily as thick as his wrist at its narrowest point - with extreme disbelief.
“It shouldn’t,” Ale said immediately. He followed Josh’s gaze, grin going sharp at the corners when he saw what Josh was looking at. “That’s probably a little ambitious for a beginner.”
Josh flushed instantly at the implication in the statement, face hot with embarrassment.
“I don’t - I’m not -” he spluttered for a second, until Ale turned that wolfish grin on him, leaning in and gently nudging their shoulders together.
“I’m only teasing, guero,” he assured, voice a low rumble, and leaned away again. “If it hurts, it means you’re not taking enough time with the prep work. A lot of people want to jump straight into fucking,” he flashed Josh a sharp, amused smirk, “but in my experience foreplay is half the fun.”
Inexplicably, Josh’s face went hotter, stomach twisting warm and low. He swallowed, mouth gone dry, and ignored the last part of Ale’s statement.
“Stretching,” Ale clarified. He was still smirking that stupid little smirk, eyes dark and glittering with amusement.
“What - uh - what kind of stretching?” Josh asked, a little stupidly. Ale arched an eyebrow at him and there was a low, funny twinge in Josh’s belly. He swallowed, thick, and tried weakly for a joke. “Yoga? Calisthenics?”
Ale snorted and held up his empty hand to wiggle his fingers in the air, grinning sharp and wicked. His hands were big, and broad, with long, capable fingers. Josh thought absently that if he had a mind to try Ale could probably span more than half of Josh’s waist with his spread palm.
“Fingers,” Ale corrected. Josh’s stomach jumped again.
“Fingers?” he echoed, almost croaking.
“Fingers,” Ale confirmed, “and a lot of patience, and a lot of lube.”
Josh made a face.
“That sounds - ” he considered for a moment, ignoring the funny little tug in his belly. “Messy.”
Ale laughed outright at that - a low, pleasant chuckle.
“It is,” he assured, with a small, noncommittal shrug. “Still fun, though.”
Josh could feel his face burning, but the words bubbled up hot in his chest, spilling out past his teeth before he could stop himself, “So do you do it, then? The, uh - ” he waved a hand absently toward the distant wall of cocks, “ - the pegging thing?”
Ale’s eyebrows jumped, surprised, and he tilted his head to peer searchingly at Josh.
“That’s kind of a personal question, guero,” he said gently, and Josh’s face flared even hotter. He fought the urge to squirm under the weight of Ale’s gaze and cut his eyes away, back toward the wall of dildos, which didn’t help as much as he’d hoped it would.
“Right,” he muttered, shifting his weight a little. “Sorry.”
There was a strange feeling gnawing at the pit of Josh’s stomach - it wasn’t altogether unpleasant, but it was tangled together with the desperate, resigned horror that he usually only encountered when he woke up after blacking out drunk the night prior. He was torn between wanting to hiss that Ale had started it, with all his talk of protracted orgasms and fingering and gratuitous lube, and wanting the floor to open up and swallow him whole. He was briefly considering whether it would be worth the embarrassment to sacrifice what little dignity he had left and make a dash for the door when Ale spared him the decision.
“I don’t do pegging,” he said casually. He was watching Josh intently, dark eyes trained on Josh’s face, teasing smirk banked to something small and warm and knowing.
“You don’t,” Josh repeated. Ale shook his head.
“But,” Josh frowned, confused, willing to test the boundaries just a little further if it meant settling the sudden, disappointed twist in his abdomen, “you seem pretty into it.”
Ale sighed, glance flicking quickly toward the vaulted ceiling like he was seeking divine guidance, and clarified, “I don’t do pegging, but I do sleep with men.” He shot Josh another of those little, teasing smirks. “There’s a fair amount of overlap between the two.”
“You - oh,” Josh said, eyebrows jumping, surprised. “So you’re, uh - ”
“Gay?” Ale provided with a grin. Josh nodded.
“Gay,” he repeated. “Yeah.”
“I am.” Ale tilted his head, arching an eyebrow with his shoulders back, confident and clearly not about to take shit from anybody, though it absolutely hadn't been Josh’s intention to try and start any. “Problem?”
“No!” Josh blurted immediately, holding his hands up in front of his chest. “No, totally cool.”
“Is this where you tell me you have lots of gay friends?” Ale asked, heavy with sarcasm.
Josh laughed before he could stop himself, ducking his head to peer down at the tile underfoot.
“Uh, no,” he admitted, shaking his head. “I mean, not that I wouldn’t have gay friends, or anything, I just don't have a lot of friends, period.”
He regretted the words the moment he tilted his head back up and saw the sudden, surprised pity in Ale’s face. He backpedaled immediately, embarrassment twisting in his gut.
"It’s not - I’m trying to break into the pro poker circuit,” Josh explained, face hot, inexplicably desperate to correct whatever sad assumptions about his - admittedly somewhat pathetic - life Ale had made. “It eats up a lot of time, and most of the folk you meet at the tables are sharks. Rough crowd to try and make friends, is all.”
“Sounds lonely,” Ale said gently.
Josh’s face flared even hotter.
He was prickly by nature - bad temper inherited from his mama, bless her - and the tenderness in Ale’s tone dragged rough up his spine, irritation sparking to life in its wake like flame from a matchstick. He liked his life and he didn’t need any pity - especially not from a stranger whose job consisted of peddling dicks all day long, even if his sympathy seemed genuine.
“It’s fine,” Josh snapped. He jammed his hands into his pockets, rather than risk fiddling with some other knick-knack from the eclectic array on the shelves in front of him, wary of inviting more scrutiny upon himself.
If a conversation spurred by a vibrator shaped liked a tube of lipstick had already wandered so thoroughly afield, he shuddered to think of what might happen were he to pick up something more damning. He fought the urge to hunch his shoulders and tossed out the first thing that popped into his mind.
“So what do you do when you’re not turning straight men on to the wonders of ass fucking?”
Ale huffed a little, surprised laugh that dropped like a coal into Josh’s belly - a low, dark rumble he hadn't been expecting.
“I study, mostly.” He shrugged. “Grad school.”
“Shoulda guessed you were a nerd,” Josh offered, grinning a little in an effort to gentle the blow. Ale smirked and snorted, arching an eyebrow at him.
“You have that,” Josh waved a hand in the air, “know-it-all thing about you. Like there ain’t a question I could ask that you wouldn't have an answer for.”
Ale’s returning smirk was all low, banked heat and puckish delight. It made the funny twist in Josh’s belly shiver and pull.
“Feel free to try,” Ale murmured, and Josh licked his lips, mouth gone suddenly dry.
“So, uh,” he croaked, grasping at straws and fighting not to fidget under the weight of Ale’s gaze, “what do you study?”
“Human sexuality, mostly. The psychology behind why we like what we like, how to meet those needs in healthy ways.”
Oh Christ, Josh thought furiously to himself, face heating further still. Even his ears felt hot by now. It was what he deserved for stumbling into a conversation with an amateur shrink, who probably had all kinds of ideas about precisely why he had picked up that vibrator in the first place, and why he seemed unable to stop himself from asking questions about pegging. His headache, forgotten in all the hullabaloo of arguing with Teddy and following his own godforsaken stubbornness out the door, drummed back to life with a vengeance.
“We have plenty of options for beginners, you know,” Ale offered gently. His eyes were warm, the tilt of his smirk infuriatingly soft, coaxing that little shiver in his belly to a full-on twist. “I can show you, if you want?”
For a beat, Josh actually considered it, which was startling enough that he almost physically recoiled. Literally nothing Josh could think of in the moment would be more horrifying than standing around having this man explain the intimate details of sticking a dildo up his ass with his sly grin and knowing gaze. He settled for waving a hand and shaking his head, taking a careful step back while Ale arched a curious eyebrow at him.
“No, uh, that’s - I’m good,” Josh supplied. “Really. I was just looking for Emma, anyway, and she clearly ain’t here so, uh, I oughta get back to work.”
“All right, guero,” Ale said easily, twisting the lipstick down and putting it back. “I’m here if you have anything else to ask.”
“Right, great,” Josh assured, meandering awkwardly backward towards the front door. “I’ll keep that in mind if I, uh - ow!” There was a sharp pain in his hip as he stumbled into a display, turning just in time to catch a few bottles of assorted lubricants from toppling to the floor. He righted them a little awkwardly, frowning at one that came in a container shaped like a glittery cupcake, and made his fumbling retreat with a weak, “Sorry. Uh, bye.”
As the door swung shut behind him, Josh spared a moment to scrub his palms over his heated face, the twisting breeze blessedly cool against his fevered skin.
What the hell was wrong with him? He’d wandered into plenty of porn shops in his time and nothing like that had ever happened before. Josh sighed and shook his head, stalking back toward Sam’s Coffee with his shoulders hunched, that strange twisting heat in his belly cooling and dissipating with every step.
Emma wasn’t too proud to pretend she hadn’t cracked the door and watched while Ale worked some sort of strange witchcraft on Faraday that had him red-faced and spluttering and nearly destroying displays on his way out. She shouldered her way into the shop proper the moment the door was shut behind him, grinning delightedly as she strode toward where Ale was just dropping his hand from the polite little wave he’d offered as Faraday practically fled.
“I’ve never seen him so flustered!” she crowed, nudging Ale’s arm with her elbow and staring in amazement to Faraday’s slowly shrinking figure as it wandered back toward the coffee shop. “What did you do?”
Ale shrugged, casting a quick gaze to Emma that was half confusion and half amusement.
“Just talked to him,” he said, and turned to watch Faraday go.
“Pegging, mostly,” Ale replied absently.
“Huh,” Emma said, bewildered. Ale crossed his arms over his chest and drummed his fingers against his own bicep, gaze narrow and thoughtful where Faraday was barely visible ducking into the quaint little coffeehouse across the street.
“Twenty bucks says he’ll be back before the week’s out.”
Emma glanced up at him, eyebrow arched disbelievingly.
“You think so?” she asked, unconvinced.
Ale nodded. Emma narrowed her eyes.
Ale lifted a shoulder in an easy shrug.
“Call it a hunch,” he replied, extending a hand. “What do you say?”
Emma considered him for a long second before clapping her palm into his with a confident smirk.
“You’re on,” she agreed. Ale’s returning grin was sharp and self-assured.
“Pleasure doing business with you.”
It was closer to twenty minutes later when Faraday came slinking back to the shop, face beet red and proverbial tail tucked. He looked positively miserable and part of Teddy thrilled at the sight.
“Well?” he asked pointedly as Faraday stalked back around the counter and grabbed his apron off the hook where Teddy had stashed it in his absence. “How’d it go?”
Faraday flashed him a scowl, green eyes flint sharp, and muttered, “Shut the fuck up, Teddy.”
While it was possible that Teddy had laughed to excess at that, he still thought that it had been especially rude of Faraday to knock his coffee out of his hands as he stalked furiously past.
Thanks for reading!