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Busting a Hustle

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Stanford's recovery is agonizingly slow, even if it is remarkable. The fact that is able to track movement and sound after only a few days of altered consciousness has the doctors and staff extremely optimistic. Ford hears all of this from Stanley, when he visits the young man sitting vigil beside Stanford. (The young man is in agony, watching his brother fight through minimal consciousness and brain damage. Ford is keenly sympathetic.)

Which is why Ford is surprised one evening to find Stanley at his apartment, glaring into a glass of water instead of faithfully waiting by young Stanford's side. Ford’s older, worn Stan is there, too, sitting at the tiny cafe table with a mug of something steaming.

“What happened?” Ford asks, heart seizing as he fears the worst; he can't imagine anything short of death would tear Stanley from his brother's side. (Ford can't imagine what would tear him from Stan's.)

“We need money,” Stanley says after a tense moment. The words echo hollowly in the chipped glass at his face.

“Money?” Ford repeats.

“Yeah, hospitals are a bitch,” Stan scoffs, reflecting the young Stanley’s scowl. “And the kid’s brother is too recognizable. Can’t just spring ‘im.”

“That’d be high inadvisable, anyway,” Ford absently scolds. “How much is it?”

“More'n we got,” Stanley grumbles. “And the only place I know to get that kind o’ money--they did this.” Stanley stumbles over his words. He clears his throat and drinks his water.

“Bastards,” Stan growls. He reaches across the table easily and grabs the young man's shoulder. “We'll get ‘em. Bet Sixer already has a plan. Right?” Both Stanleys look at Ford. (He still isn't used to it; two versions of his brother focusing the full weight if their gaze at Ford makes him feel lightheaded and weak.)

“Money isn't so difficult to acquire,” Ford says. Stanley scowls at him while the older Stan perks up with a devious twinkle in his eye.

“You gotta plan,” he crows, delightedly.

“If ya got so much money, go pay the fuckin’ bill,” Stanley snaps. Ford frowns at the young man, studies him with more keenness then before. He takes in the wrinkled clothes, the greasy hair and deep, purple and green circles under his bloodshot eyes. (The boy is exhausted, and as much as Ford is irritated with his waspishness, he can pardon a furious, guilty brother.)

“Well, how much is it?” Ford asks again. Stanley shrugs, an irritated twitch of his shoulders.

“Three hundred? Five hundred? I dunno, they wanna bring in therapists an’ shit,” Stanley growls. “Can't ya fix it? Ya fuckin’ time travel, so dontcha got somethin ’?”

“I've told you,” Ford says with a shake of his head. “The human mind is delicate. More delicate than time.” Stanley scoffs. “Time is an illusion,” Ford continues, annoyed. “One that can be manipulated if one understands the magician’s tricks. The human mind is a constantly growing, changing thing.” Ford pauses. “Are you familiar with the Heisenberg uncertainty principle?”

“Gesundheit,” Stan comments dryly while Stanley glares at Ford.

“Well, never mind. Essentially, as something is moving, it becomes harder to pinpoint where in space it is.”

“Pfft,” Stan blows a rude noise in Ford's direction. “I coulda told you that.”

“Yeah, that's why ya move in boxing. Still target's easy,” Stanley adds.

“Y-yes, well,” Ford clears his throat and clasps his hands behind his back. “A mind is constantly receiving input from the world around it. Even vegetative, the mind responds to the most basic and involuntary impulses. It's in constant effect and change, and, well. To put it in a way you might understand,” Ford says when he sees two pairs of brown eyes begins to lose focus and drift. “Trying to mechanically repair the human mind is like trying to patch a damaged ship that is still moving through the water.”

“Oh,” Stan nods, fingers on his chin as he thinks. “Like, when you're sinking, you patch the ship up quick, but it's sloppy. ‘Cause everything is still moving.”

“Well, a little,” Ford agrees. “Not really,” he amends.

“Don't see how that has to do with Ford,” Stanley grumbles.

“Yeah, I don't,” Stan scratches his chin thoughtfully. “Yeah, you lost me, Sixer.”

“It’s difficult,” Ford says after a long, frustrated moment. “It’s very, very difficult.’

“So yer not even gonna try?” Stanley challenges, face twisting in something bordering on disgust.

“Don’t assume,” Ford growls. “I haven’t tried.” (And, he did try, terribly; he has an entire journal full of failed experiments and haunting memories of a man in Stan’s skin begging him to stop in the echoing dark.)

“Ya done jack for Ford!” Stanley shouts as he stands, chair scraping loudly behind him.

“Hey, easy, kid,” Stan scrambles to stand, more slowly than his younger self.

“Be grateful!” Ford shouts back. “Or do you want your brother like him?” Ford points at Stan, whose hands are raised in a placating manner that seems like surrender under Ford’s accusing finger.

“Hey,” Stan says again, offended. “What’s that mean?”

“Nothing!” Ford snaps. “Nothing,” he says again, trying to reign in his frustration with a deep breath that he exhales in a heavy sigh. “Just, that Stanford needs help I can’t offer.”

“I don’t need help,” Stan says petulantly, hands lowered now.

“Bullshit,” Stanley mutters.

“Shut up, kid,” Stan responds absently.

“I know,” Ford carefully puts a hand on his brother’s sloping shoulder. “I didn’t…I’m sorry. You’re doing well.” Ford clears his throat when Stan gives him the tiniest hint of a smile. “Hospital bills,” Ford redirects inelegantly. “We can pay for them.”

“We can?” Stan quirks a brow at Ford.

“Well,” Ford coughs into his fist. “Not presently. But, I know where to get the money.”

“Are you gonna rob somebody?” Stanley asks.

“No!” Ford says. “People can be convinced to part with their money.”

“With guns,” Stanley offers.

“With guile!” Ford corrects.

“It’s called a hustle,” Stan says, grinning widely and rubbing his hands together. “Oh, we’re gonna rob ‘em blind.

 


 

“Shoulda let the old guy come,” Stanley says. He insists on tagging along with Ford to the bar that Ford is sure he isn’t old enough to be in. (Though, Ford doesn’t really care.)

“He doesn’t do well in crowds,” Ford offers, running his fingers through his hair to smooth it back. His curls immediately spring back into their disheveled formation.

“Sounds like bull,” Stanley offers. There’s little heat too it; he seems on edge.

“You should stay in the car,” Ford says. Stanley tightens his grip on the worn-smooth steering wheel of the Stanleymobile.

“Bull,” he says again, though it’s less like a curse and more mechanical, instinctive. He grits his teeth in a grin. “I’d give anything t’ see ya hustle these hicks.” Ford scoffs. They’re hardly an hour outside of Glass Shards Beach, and even though Ford is loathe to call these industrious people ‘hicks’, the bar is certainly patronized by blue-collar factory workers who would be easily deceived with precise flattery and affected incompetence.

“You should stay here. But,” Ford continues before Stanley can cut him off. “You won’t. So, be quiet and don’t do anything foolish.”

Ford knows, before they even exit the car, that asking Stanley to behave in a place like this is like asking water to run uphill. (Which could happen, in some dimensions. But, not this one.) Stanley is already on edge, eyeing the dark cars and the few quiet motorcycles. Ford puts a hand on his shoulder to steady him but feels the boy’s entire body wind tighter.

“If you can’t relax, stay in the car,” Ford murmurs into Stanley’s ear.

“Shut up,” Stanley shrugs away from Ford’s hand and stomps forward, greasy head held high as he slams into the bar. Ford follows more sedately, nose wrinkling as the scent of cheap cigarettes and stale beer wafts briefly into the night air.

The bar is a quieter one, frequented by locals or those passing through. Stanley has already caught some attention, but he isn’t interesting enough for more than a curious glance. Ford walks past Stanley, gesturing to the bar. He takes a seat on a creaking barstool and flags down the bartender as Stanley settles beside him.

“Vodka,” he orders. “And coffee.” The bartender, a man with a thick beard over his gaunt face, looks at Stanley.

“Beer,” Stanley says. The man nods and moves to grab the drinks. “So, what’s the plan?” Stanley whispers.

“Be quiet,” Ford answers. “I’m going to enjoy my drink.”

“No one enjoys vodka,” Stanley snorts. “Or coffee.” When the man returns with the drinks, Ford promptly dumps his vodka into his coffee and sighs as he inhales the tangle of acrid vodka and coffee vapors. “That’s disgusting,” Stanley informs him.

“Hm. Shut up,” Ford hums and takes a scalding sip. It’s bitter and potent and he feels immediately relaxed and aware.

“I saw a pool table,” Stanley continues to whisper unsubtly at Ford. “Are we gonna hustle pool?”

“Stanley, if you don’t stop talking, you’re going to ruin everything,” Ford hisses into his coffee. “Drink your beer quietly or go wait in the car.”

“Whatever,” Stanley grabs his drinks and takes a sip. “Ugh, it’s warm.” Ford sighs.

“Really?” Ford turns to face Stanley, but looks over his shoulder to eye the pool table.

“Yeah, might have t’ ask for ice. What a hick place,” Stanley starts to follow Ford’s gaze, but Ford reaches over and pinches his thigh. “Jesus! That hell?” Stanley yelps and attracts a few looks from the group of men in the middle of a game.

“You’re being obvious,” Ford says lowly. “Stop looking at anything. Just drink your beer and be quiet.”

“Jesus,” Stanley mutters again, but he finally does as he’s told and Ford can carefully observe the game. It’s a good spirited game between two men that seem to know each other well. One is clearly the worse player, and there seems to be no money changing hands by the time the game ends.

“Do these people even have money?” Stanley asks.

“Not for long,” Ford answers, standing with his mug and walking casually over to the table. “Am I too late for a game?” Ford asks. The men eye him with the careful suspicion of a small population introduced with an outsider. “I didn’t want to interrupt earlier.”

“You any good?” One of them asks. Ford shrugs.

“He’s the best!” Stanley says loudly behind him and Ford nearly jumps.

“Really?” The other asks.

“No, not really, I--”

“He could kick your ass!” Stanley continues, ignoring Ford’s furious glare.

“Be quiet,” Ford hisses at him. Stanley shoots him a confused look but doesn’t listen.

“Yeah, kid?”

“Who you callin’ a kid?” Stanley bristles, in his element at the center of attention.

“You, you knucklehead,” Ford growls at him.

“I ain’t a kid! Bet I could kick yer ass, too!” Stanley smirks at the men, at Ford, and Ford has to stop himself from strangling the young man. (Because he really needs Stanley to stop talking. Now.)

“Prove it,” one of the men, the man that had been winning the previous game, gestures at the table and the scatter balls. “Rack ‘em up, Skinny,” he says to the loser. “I’ll even let the kid break.”

“Yer on!” Stanley grabs a cue stick and a small square of blue chalk. “We got, this, right, Stixer?”

“Sixer?” The man asks, eyeing Ford again. (Ford worries, a moment, that this is one of those bars he hit months ago; that Stanley has ruined everything by making them so distinctive.) The man catches Ford’s six-fingered hand as it instinctively wraps around a cue that Stanley thrusts in his direction. “Well, look at that. I only got four,” the man wiggles his fingers at Ford and Ford can see that the man’s smallest finger is missing. “Must be nice, havin’ extra.”

“It’s certainly something,” Ford mutters.

What proceeds is a nightmare. Stanley isn’t a good player. He isn’t a terrible one, but he misses shots more than he makes them and it grates on Ford. (There is a chance that Stanley is playing a con, that he’ll turn this game around with Ford and win, but Ford can also see the way Stanley is squinting at the table and the thoughtful way he sticks out his tongue to make a shot.)
“Let’s make this interestin’!” Stanley says as Ford scrambles to keep their score from dipping too low.

“What you go in mind, kid?” Skinny asks. Despite Stanley’s graceless entrance, he seems to amuse the two men, the one named Skinny, especially.

“Money! What’s more interestin’ than money?”

“I don’t think--” Ford hurries to dissuade either Stanley or the men or both, but the winner, called Frank, waves him off.

“Nah, kid’s got a point. How much you thinkin’, kid?” Franks asks, leaning into the table.

“Well, I’m strapped for cash, but Sixer’s got somethin’! What’d ya think?” Stanley turns to ask Ford and seems to finally realize that he’s overstepped, the way his smile stutters before returning at double watts.

“I think we’re at a disadvantage,” Ford says slowly.

“Don’t be a sore loser!” Skinny elbows Ford’s arm playfully. Ford almost breaks the cue stick over his head. “Five bucks?”

“Yer on!” Stanley answers. “Come on.” Stanley gestures for Ford to lay out the money and Ford does so with a low, unhappy noise.

It gets more challenging from there. Frank has clearly been relaxed in the game, but with money on the table, he becomes more precise and balls begin to disappear into the pockets and with them, Ford’s five dollars.

“Good game,” Frank says when Skinny is racking up the balls again.

“Ya got lucky!” Stanley grouses. “Another game, come on! Double or nothin’!”

“We should get going,” Ford grabs Stanley’s arm, making him wince.

“Hey, come on,” Frank gestures for the bartender. “Hey, Suds, gimmie a round, will ya? Come on, Sixer. One more game. Give ya a chance to impress yer boy.”

“Fine,” Ford says as Stanley happily accepts another beer and drinks, throat bobbing obscenely. It distracts Ford for a moment, watching Stanley, but then Stanley pulls the glass away and belches loudly. (Ford remembers that has no interest in impressing Stanley at the moment.) “But then we really need to get going.”

Ford is impatient and ill-tempered in the next game. He has no desire to drag this ordeal out and the only one who seems to be enjoying himself by the time Ford has the last of his balls lined up is Stanley.

“Told ya, he'd kick yer ass!” Stanley crows at Frank, who grins back at him, but it doesn't reach his eyes.

“Sure did, kid. Yer old man, he's full of surprises, huh?” Frank says coolly.

“Yup,” Stanley pops the ‘p’ obnoxiously as he gathers up the winnings from a scowling Skinny. “He's really somethin’.”

“Thank you for the game,” Ford pulls a few dollars from the wad in Stanley's hand, making the young man squawk.

“Hey!”

“And the drinks,” Ford slams down the Bill's and grabs Stanley forcibly by the arm. “But, we really need to get going. Come on.”

“What? Come on, just one more game, Sixer!”

“Shut up,” Ford snarls at Stanley with a vicious shake as he drags him out of the bar. “I can't believe you!” Ford continues furiously.

“What's yer problem?” Stanley wrenches free from Ford with a frown. “We coulda made way more in there!”

“Yes, but not your way, you bumbling--” Ford cuts himself off with a frustrated snarl, taking off his glasses to rub at his eyes. “Let's go.”

“Hey, Sixer!” A voice calls from behind them.

“Move,” Ford hisses at Stanley and walks swiftly behind him, trying to urge him faster as the young man protests.

“Hey, slow down, slick! You forgot somethin’!”

“Jesus, Ford, slow down, would ya?” Stanley stumbles. They’re at the car when Ford hears the rapid half-jog of feet getting closer and something grabs the back of his coat.

“Hey, I'm tryin’ to talk to--holy shit!” The man, Frank, stumbles back when Ford turns sharply, weapon drawn and ready.

“Woah. Hey, Ford, relax,” Stanley starts nervously beside him.

“Be quiet!” Ford growls at him, eyes trained on the large man with his hands in the air.

“Thought I smelled somethin’ fishy,” Frank says, nervously licking his lips and watching the unwavering gun in Ford's hand. “One o’ the boys mentioned a six-fingered con job around. Thought you's in the big house when ya disappeared.”

“We're leaving,” Ford says coldly. “Stanley, get in the car.”

“You, too,” Stanley says behind him.

“Now, Stanley!” He barks and, though he doesn't turn to watch him, Ford hears the panicked scramble of feet and the pop of the car door. “We're leaving,” Ford says to Frank.

“You owe me money,” Frank says, suddenly emboldened. Ford hears movement behind him and is ready to aim his gun at Stanley, to force the young man into the car, need be, but his blood freezes when he hears a quiet, familiar gasp.

It feels like the gun goes off before Ford even finishes turning. He hears the muted hum of the mechanisms charging and then the crack of plasma slicing through the air, followed by a pained scream. Skinny slumps to the ground behind Stanley, clutching his shoulder and slumping to the ground by the car. An old pistol gleams on the ground beside him. Stanley remains frozen in driver’s seat.

“Shit!” Frank shouts. “What the fuck?”

“Drive!” Ford ignores Frank, the man gapes at him, pale and shaking. Ford runs the side of the Diablo and slams the car door behind him. “Drive, damn it! Move!”

“Is he dead?” Stanley asks, voice loud and panicked and he stares at the man on the ground by his open door. “Ya shot him. Is he dead!?” Ford reaches over and slams the car door shut. While he's crowded in Stanley’s space and Stanley tries to scramble away in terror, Ford growls again:

“Drive!” Stanley, whether he's finally listening to Ford for the first time tonight or just panicking, slams the gas and the tires squeal as the vehicle lurches forward. Ford jerks back into his seat so Stanley can grab the steering wheel and guide the car wildly onto the main road.

“Shit,” Stanley starts under his breath. “Shit, shit, shit!”

“Are you okay?” Ford asks once the lights of the bar fade behind them.

“Ya killed him,” Stanley says.

“He was going to shoot you!” Ford exclaims. “And he won't die. Probably.”

“Ya shot ‘im! With yer sci-fi, laser gun!”

“Plasma,” Ford corrects absently. “He should be fine if they get him to a hospital. He can't bleed out.”

“Ya really just. Jesus, Stanford! Ya shot ‘im!”

“And I would shoot him again, or anyone who threatens you,” Ford says evenly. Stanley turns to look at him, eyes shining in the meager light of the car's headlights. He looks terribly young and shell shocked. (Ford realizes that this Stanley has probably never had to shoot someone.) “It's okay. It's over.” Ford puts a hand on Stanley's knee, making the boy’s entire body, and the car, jump. “Please, Stanley, just listen to me next time,” Ford says softly and rubs his thumb along the outer edge of Stanley's knee. “I don't want to think of what would happen if you got hurt.”

“Yeah,” Stanley agrees, voice cracking. “Me neither.”