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Coffee Stains and Cigarettes

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Ford flips thorough some of the highlighted texts he has laid out before him. The lighting in the coffeehouse isn’t very conducive to studying, but he promised Stan he’d be here. Besides, Fidds is working the counter tonight and he makes the best cup of espresso in the joint. He scribbles some notes in the margins of his already overstuffed notebook and scratches at his forehead thoughtfully. He’s pretty sure the math here is correct, but it’s hard to say – but then, that’s what theoretical physics is – theoretical.

“Another cup?” Fidds asks, holding out a small china mug. Ford nods and grabs it, “I take it Toby’s not here.”

“What makes you say that?”

“You’ve been slipping me free drinks for about an hour now.”

Fidds grins, “Maybe. But honestly, even if the boss man was here, I’d get you something to drink. After all, you pull the occasional shift here. Hell, I’d pull less if I didn’t have to pay off these damned college loans.”

Ford rolls his eyes, “Hey, we barely get by as it is.”

Fidds laughs and shakes his head, “You ever get tired of saying ‘we’. I swear, I think you say it far more than ‘I’.”

Ford shrugs, “It’s what we’ve both done our whole lives.”

And it’s true. Ford and Stan have been joined at the hip since birth – they are, after all, twins. When Ford got offered a full ride to West Coast Tech on a scholarship his only demand had been that Stanley join him. No way was he going to leave his bro in Jersey with their folks. Stan had naturally been jubilant but then came the very delicately placed questions. Was Ford sure he didn’t mind Stan tagging along? Was Ford okay with the fact that Stan wasn’t going to his nerd college? That Stan would have to find some source of income? Was Stan going to drag him down and yes, he never actually asked this question exactly, but Ford heard it in his brother’s tone.

Stan acts the role of someone super confident to the ‘T’, but Ford knows better. Knows Stan is unsure and he knows exactly where it stems from. Hence why he refused to leave Stan behind in Jersey with their folks. It wasn’t that their parents don’t try – they do. But neither one of them has ever seemed to know what to do. And then it was as if the clouds parted and God handed down a golden ticket to give them a way out. Granted, the ticket had Ford’s name on it, but Ford refused to leave Stan behind. They were a ‘we’, dammit. They would be a ‘we’ until the very end. So Ford convinced him to come along and now they are nicely ensconced on the west coast – miles and miles from the east.

Ford had been assigned a dorm room when he first arrived and this is where he met Fidds. It was also where he snuck Stanley in until such and such time as they’d been caught out. This led to a dicey situation wherein the school board threatened suspension, but considering Ford’s stellar conduct and overall grades he was instead given a mere slap on the wrist. Yes, they had to move off campus, but Ford was still allowed to attend the school. And honestly, that was all that really mattered to him.

And Fidds, in a surprising move, chose to join them. As such, the three formed a trinity for a while – living together, working together, and it was all pretty awesome. Until, of course, Fidds found a girl. Then it was all about her and the next thing Ford and Stan know, he’s ducking out all the time and practically living with her. Not that Ford isn’t happy for him – Fidds is a romantic soul and love suits him.

Ford and Stan, however, continue to only have one another and sometimes Ford worries about this. Are they too close? He shakes his head to himself, not wanting to fall down that rabbit hole again. Instead he looks at Fidds, “And might I ask where your lady love is tonight?”

Fidds grins, bashful, “Work. But I’ll be going to her place when I get off, if’n that’s okay.”

“Fidds, you’re a big boy. You can make your own decisions. You don’t need my approval.”

“I know, I know. But I feel bad I ain’t been hangin’ out with you fellas as much.”

“Hey, I see you plenty in class and frankly, buddy, that’s where I need you the most. Professor Tanenbaum’s course is a killer.”

Fidds puffs out a breath, “Yeah. Swear that woman feeds on test papers. Can you believe that mess she assigned us on Monday? I mean, I love quantum theory as much as the next person, but her requirements for that essay were insane!”

Ford nods in agreement when suddenly his cell phone buzzes. He picks it up and idly touches the screen. He finds a text from Stan: Startin’ soon. Nervous.

He feels his lips twitch as he quickly messages back: Don’t be. You’ll be great.

Text right.

I am.

No, u type 2 much.

What are you implying?

6er, u killin me.

Fidds looks at him with a frown, “What’s up?”

“Eh, just Stan bitching at me about how I send him texts. He hates when I type out whole words. Always wants me to use the letter ‘u’ for ‘you’ and things like that – always wants shorthand.”

Fidds blinks, expression nonplussed, “You shorthand your texts to me.”

He gets a wicked grin in return, “Yeah, I know. I just do it to Stan to rile him up.”

Fidds rolls his eyes, “You two. Christ. Well, I’ve gotta get back to the counter. You need anything else, you let me know.”

Ford gives him a sharp nod but his eyes are back on his cell, waiting to see if Stan will message him again. Sure enough: Don’t know if I can do this.

You’ll be fine. I’m out here and I’m rooting for you.

What if no 1 claps?

I’ll clap.

Gr8. 1 person clap. That’s not sad n loserish.

You are not a loser and my clap should be the only one that matters, right?

Ford looks at this text before sending it, wondering if it’s okay to send. It seems a bit much. He can’t put his finger quite on why, but he eyes it for a while, feeling apprehensive. He should just delete it and think up something better. But he takes a deep breath and clicks ‘send’ anyway, because – well, because he can’t think of anything else. And he should be the only one that matters…right?

God, talk about conceited. He snorts at himself and sips his espresso. The surge of heat in his body convinces him to take his beanie off and stick it in the pocket of his black pants. He sits there, fingers idly tapping at the table as the lights dim. There’s a cleared out space in the coffee shop and Shandra walks out, microphone in hand, “Hello and welcome ladies and gentlemen to our Friday night jam session at The Press Room. Just as a reminder, our pumpkin spice lattes are now in season and are being offered for twenty percent off tonight for those with a college ID. Also, we have a new vanilla cranberry biscotti that is out of this world.”

This is met with a weak smattering of applause and Shandra grins, “Now, for our first performer tonight. Please put your hands together and give a warm welcome to Mr. Mystery.”

Stan comes out from the backroom, a guitar slung over one shoulder and a harmonica kit resting around his neck, the instrument near his mouth. He’s wearing a red thermal and jeans and his overly long hair is sticking out at weird angles, clearly showing he messed with it a lot before coming out. Everyone claps (especially Ford, who also makes sure to whistle) as Stan sets up his gear and sits on a high, rickety looking stool near a stationary microphone. Stan clears his throat and while Ford sees the nervous light in his brother’s eyes his voice is the complete opposite, “Hey, how you all doin’ tonight? Ladies, you are all looking fine and gentlemen, you are looking lucky to be surrounded by such fine ladies.”

There’s a low hum of laughter and Stan laughs the loudest, clearly trying his best to get over his nerves, “Before I start, a quick joke-”

Oh god, Ford thinks as he covers his face with his hands, oh god no, no…Stan, no jokes…

“My girlfriend still misses me…but her aim is gettin’ better!” he pauses as no one laughs, “Her aim is gettin’ better!” Still no laughter, “Y'see, it’s-it’s funny because relationships are terrible.”

Someone coughs.

Ford peeks out through his fingers and Stan tugs at his collar, “Hoooookay, well, um – now on to some music. You guys oughta love this – I call this song, ‘Whiskey Eyes’.”

Stan starts strumming the guitar and people perk up, bad joke forgotten. Ford looks around and grins. He makes sure to look directly at Stan and their eyes meet as Stan begins singing. Honestly, his voice is too deep and too warbly, but the way he sings and what he sings about…it’s always resonated with Ford. And his instrument skills more than make up for it. The sounds he wrings out of the guitar and harmonica respectively make Ford feel transcendent.

And Ford rests his head in his hands, watching Stan, blissfully unaware that he has the dopiest look on his face. Stan finishes that song up and transitions into the next, this one entitled ‘Afraid’, following that with ‘Forbidden’, and then finally ‘Nerd Next to Me’, which Ford smiles at, because he knows this song is actually about him. And the response to Stan’s performance is pretty damn positive.

Ford sees people bobbing their heads and tapping their feet and he feels a burst of pleasure, proud of his brother. Stan always seems to think he’s a failure at everything, but he’s actually pretty talented when it comes to music. It’s not something he’s interested in making a career on, but he’s earning some extra pay tonight on top of his usual. He also works for Toby, although he works more than Ford does.

He works here at The Press Room but he also pulls various construction jobs. Many is the night Stan's come home exhausted and sweaty, covered in a layer of soot and Ford has had to shove him into the shower and forced him to eat a well balance meal. Not that Stan hasn’t returned the favor, dragging Ford away from his schoolwork. Honestly, Ford would stay buried in it and not shower or eat for days if it wasn’t for Stan’s intervention.

But this is also because Ford plans on trying to go from undergrad to PhD three years ahead of schedule and if he wants to do this he needs to focus. To his mind, the sooner he’s out of school, the sooner he and Stan can move on to their next adventure. After all, he doesn’t expect to stay here forever. Stan has had yet to find the thing he excels at and Ford wants that for his brother. He wants it so desperately that he’s willing to try and get a quicker move on with their lives.

He’s been thinking about researching anomalies full time and there’s this great spot in Oregon he thinks will be perfect for them. If he can just get a good grant…

“Why, if it isn’t Stanford!” Preston Northwest remarks dryly and Ford has to withhold an annoyed groan. Preston Northwest is just about the last person he wants to see tonight. Preston draws out a seat at the table, “Mind if I sit?”

“It’s a free country,” Ford mumbles and he looks at Preston with narrowed eyes, “Why are you here?”

“As you said: free country.”

“Yeah, but –ah – this doesn’t seem your kind of place.”

“That is correct, it would appear that I am lowering myself in this moment, but I happen to have a date with Shandra later tonight. I figured I’d sit through this freak show and then we’d have a lot to talk about on our evening out.”

Ford scowls. He’s not necessarily surprised Shandra agreed to go out with Preston but honestly – she can do better. Preston is currently riding through West Coast Tech on his Daddy’s money. As far as Ford can tell, Preston is pretty much buying a diploma. He’s hardly ever seen him on campus, much less in a classroom. Yet somehow he always manages to show up when it’s the least convenient, ready to nettle you with his very presence – like a living canker sore.

He certainly seems to be set on this course now, as he watches Stan and crosses his arms, “I see your boyfriend is performing.”

“Stanley is my brother, Preston.”

“Hmm, he can be both. From what I understand, that’s not that uncommon in that backwoods place you two come from.”

Ford bites his bottom lip, hands clenching into fists and he tries to control his temper, because really? What is he going to do? Instead he breathes in deeply, “Is there something you need from me or-?”

“No, I just wanted to be up close and in person to watch you squirm. After all, that buffoon of yours is making quite the ass of himself.”

Ford’s feels his blood pressure spike, “Stan is doing a great job!”

“He sounds like a sentient rock tumbler.”

Ford picks up his espresso and takes a long sip of it, trying to lose himself in its dark flavor, hoping Preston will buzz off. No dice. Preston leers at him, “A rock tumbler that’s professing its love for you.”

“That’s not what he’s doing!”

“Please, every song has been about you!”

This is met with an incredulous laugh, “Yeah, right!”

Preston rolls his eyes, “Do you even listen to the lyrics of these songs?”

“Every one!” Ford argues, “And none of them are about me! Okay, yes, ‘Nerd Next to Me’ is, but the rest-!” And then he stops, a thought occurring, “Hey, I thought you just got here.”

“Oh no, I wandered in right when your lover’s show started. And I assure you, every song is about your torrid, incestual, co-dependent love for one another. Or, at least, his love for you.”

A few of the lyrics from Stan’s various songs sound in Ford’s head and he thinks over them with a frown.

Your dark eyes meeting mine and never seeing me, I’m so close, so there, but I’ll never get anywhere, not with you – never with you…

It’s wrong and it’s bad and we shouldn’t but oh man, what I wouldn’t give, to have you, to have you…

Born together, die apart, I can’t stand the thought. It breaks my heart. Someday you’ll leave and I’ll have to let you go and the worst of all is that you’ll never know, you’ll never know…

And Preston is…he’s crazy. Right? I mean, some of the lyrics could be kind of...suggestive. but there’s no way in hell they’re about him. They-they can’t be. Stan just…just wrote these songs. No real reason, no real thought. He’s always said that when inspiration strikes he just…writes. And yes, Ford has asked the origins of some of the songs before and yes, Stan’s been vague about it, but to think that he…

Ford finishes off his espresso and gets to his feet, glaring at Preston, “You have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Yes, yes – you keep telling yourself that, Fordsy.”

“Don’t call me that!” Ford hisses and Preston holds up his hands in mock surrender. Ford goes to the counter and Fidds senses something is up, “You okay, buddy?”

Ford manages a weak nod, “Yeah, yeah. I’m-I’m fine.”

“You want another espresso?”

His fists unclench as he shoves one sweaty hand through his brown mop of hair. He pulls out his beanie and slips it back on as he answers, “Nah, not if I want to keep my skin on. Think I’ve had enough caffeine for the night.”

“How’s about a lemon tea, then? Made it myself. Just like my Momma taught me.”

“Sounds good,” Ford returns weakly and Fidds offers him the tea. It’s cold and crisp and Ford sips at it slowly, waiting for Preston to fuck off away from his table. But Preston is clearly having too much fun riling Ford up, so he doesn’t move. He just sits there serenely, waiting to bug him more. As such, Ford sticks by the counter and idly chats with Fidds when he’s not busy.

Stan’s set finishes up and he gets a wild ovation. Ford offers some himself, but it’s not as boisterous as he initially planned for it to be. He’s still lost in thought and his drink is almost done, his attention on Fidds when he hears a loud crash behind him. He turns to see Stan fighting Preston. They’ve knocked over the coffee table Ford had been sitting at – sending his textbooks, cue cards, and notebooks to the floor – all of it spilling across the ground in a messy splash.

Stan has a firm grip on Preston’s collar and is jerking him around and Preston is trying to land a few hits but to no avail. Stan is bigger and stronger and certainly more pissed off. His fist meets with Preston’s jaw, a loud cracking sound resounding and then a thicker smacking one as Stan hits him in the gut and some girl is screaming as Ford runs over. He grabs Stan and tries to drag him off the other man.

“You Neanderthal!” Preston moans, clutching his chin, “I think you broke my jaw!”

“I’ll break your whole fuckin’ face, Northwest!” Stan snarls and Ford is struggling to hold him back, his brother a damn powerhouse as he shouts, “Stanley! Stanley! Stop it! Knock it off!”

Preston wipes a trickle of blood away from his mouth, sneering, “That’s right – listen to your little bitch.”

“What the fuck did you say?! I’ll tear your goddamn head OFF!” Stan shouts, fingers like claws as he reaches out for Preston and Fidds has come into the picture. He’s helping Ford push Stan away and Shandra’s gone to Preston’s side. Preston is spouting out about how he’s going to sue and Stan’s goading him on – telling him to go ahead and try it even as he’s working to get free of both Ford and Fidds so he can keep fighting. They manage to ease Stan into the backroom and then out the back door. Once they’re in the alley behind the building, Fidds looks chagrined as he says, “I better get back in there. Try ‘n settle things.”

“Yeah, yeah. You go.” Ford mutters and Fidds leaves the Pines siblings behind him. Stan, now released from Ford and Fidds hold, is pacing back and forth and cursing a vicious blue streak under his breath. He kicks out at the nearby dumpster and Ford shakes his head, "Have you lost your mind? What on earth-?”

“I saw him!” Stan hisses, “I saw him talking to you and your fuckin’ face, Ford! It was like watching a flower wither up and die in front of me! What the hell did he say to you?”

“N-nothing.”

“Bullshit!”

“Stan – it was nothing. Certainly nothing to attack him over!”

“Son of a bitch ruined my show,” Stan spits, “I finished – barely – because when I looked up and he was there and – your face, Ford.”

Ford swallows, “I’m sure you’re overreacting.”

“No! No, he made you look…you didn’t see it! Your face-!”

“Stan, we’re not kids anymore. You can’t just rough up any idiot who talks shit to me. This isn’t like bullies on the playground. We’re adults now. He could sue.”

“He can blow me!”

“Stanley…”

“No, serious. I am so done with Northwest! He’s been giving you shit ever since we got here!”

This is true. Preston is part of a special elite set of students – yes, his money bought him into it – but he's there and Ford is part of it as well. Ford, however, got there on his own educational merits. Still, when they met, Preston zeroed in on Ford’s ‘freak hands’. Of course, he's also been bitter because Ford is considered by many of the faculty to be a golden student and Preston hoped to hold that title for himself.

But it isn't something that can be so easily gained via monetary contributions and, as such, he's had a long history of giving Ford a hard time. He's called him ‘Fordsy’ before, he's needled him before. And Ford's always done his best to brush it off. But he's also voiced these issues to Stan and clearly Stan let them build up inside of him until tonight where he just…exploded.

But as far as Ford is concerned, it's still unnecessary, “Stanley, I’m a grown up. I can handle myself. Now, I’m sorry if I had some-some expression that upset you and that you felt damaged your performance, but I think you did an amazing job.”

Stan breathes out heavily, still pacing and Ford continues, trying his best to calm him, “Before your, ah, confrontation with Preston - people were clapping and having a good time! You’ve always been so worried about playing for an audience, but you did great tonight.”

“I-I did, didn’t I?”

Ford nods, “You really did.”

Stan chews on his bottom lip then hisses, because it’s been slightly damaged since the fight. Preston got in a few good licks. None as good as the ones Stan delivered, but enough to wound him a little and Ford sighs. He goes over to Stan and takes his face in his hands, “Looks like you might have a fat lip, tomorrow.”

“I always have a fat lip.”

“Shut up,” Ford chuckles and he lets Stan’s face go to take hold of his hands. He inspects Stan’s bruised and bloody knuckles when Stan asks, “What did he say to you?”

Ford looks up and Stan is…close.

Ford hadn’t even noticed.

They’re in one another’s personal space…less than inches away. Ford looks into his eyes and hears Preston’s words:

Every song is about your torrid, incestual, co-dependent love for one another.

He swallows and feels his heart skip a beat. Stan’s eyes are…brown. And, okay, yes – this is a dumb thought. Stan’s eyes have always been brown. But Ford’s never noticed how brown before. How deep. Like the espresso he drank earlier – warm and thrilling and making his nerves jump. And what Preston said rings again:

Or, at least, his love for you.

No, no – that’s…nuts. Ford shakes his head and offers a weak smile, “It's nothing. Just the normal crap he always says.”

Stan harrumphs and it’s clear he doesn’t believe Ford, but that he’s willing to let it slide for now. Ford releases his hands and sighs, “We should probably go back inside, gather up our stuff and go home.”

Stan gives a curt nod and the brothers start walking.