Product Placement

Chapter 18 - Tempest in a Teacup


Business was business – or so he kept telling himself. Francis was a hustler- the hustler- and the best around. He had a job to do, and he did it well and made lots of money, and that was all he really knew. But, staring up at the mound of discarded, steel-rimmed tired, Francis felt his resolve shaking ever so slightly. He wasn't afraid (not at all!) just a bit anxious. Once he stepped inside he was on their turf and had to worm his way around their rules – or at the very least survive them. He'd thought long and hard about skipping this investment, letting it simmer and just doing casual business, but the thought of losing the chance (or worse yet – losing it to Fingers) superimposed itself over his nerves.

He knocked on the door waited, unconsciously dusting himself off some and standing straighter. Look good, formal, and at least somewhat trustworthy – especially for his newest (richest) customers.

After a moment the door creaked open and the soft, melodic voice of Ashley A. called him in.

He took a breath to steady himself and slid in.

Having landed successfully, Hustler stood and brushed himself off. He looked around the clubhouse out of compulsion, taking in the details before his focus snapped to the four socialites seated perfectly on the floral-printed gilt-lined couch. It was almost unnerving how perfect and feminine everything in here was. He knew he should relax some, but he kept his back to the only exit and awkwardly (oh, that was a weird feeling) took a few steps in, pushing everything but business at hand aside.

After all, Francis considered, these wee essentially the same Ashley's he'd always dealt with, however fleetingly. Time had done little to change them. Ashley A. was still the pretty blond leader, decked out in the latest fashions and regarding him from her centerpiece seat in the exact middle of the couch – parallel to him (he'd be doing business with her primarily, he figured). On her left was Ashley B., who like Ashley A. looked the same- but had a recent switch in personality. She had always been rather headstrong herself, and from what the hustler had heard she was looking into restarting and maintaining the family business – and was already succeeding. On Ashley A.'s right sat Ashley Q., who upon entering high school had embraced her athletic talent (and the chic sporty look) and currently fought tooth and nail to captain every sport. Rumor had it that she gave Vince LaSalle a run for his money – and Francis was inclined to believe it.

The only one he didn't see was Ashley T., and that made him worry more than the china-doll like look of the visible three. He wondered briefly if the rest knew about their long-running affair. It had ended a few months ago, and since then he hadn't really seen much of Ashley T. Francis decided that she had gotten tired of waiting and found herself a new boytoy. Surprisingly enough, he was just fine with that, and took the seat they had set out for him, folding into it as gracefully as he could (it was obviously hand-made for someone smaller and more female than him), and giving them a charming smile despite his nerves acting up somewhat.

His assumptions that he would only be dealing with three of the four Ashley's were dashed when a small clattering of a cart sounded behind him (which, much to his embarrassment, made him twitch). Ashley T. came rolling up with a small, silver cart covered with lacy white tablecloth and littered with small porcelain odds and ends. He recognized a teapot and several teacups and eyed them suspiciously, forcing a smile when the Ashley's smiled at him.

"Hustler Kid. It's good to see you." Ashley A. said finally "How are you doing?"
"Rather well, actually. If you'll pardon my bluntness ladies I was hoping we'd get down to- oh. Thank you." He took the tiny tea cup frm Ashley T. and set it in front of him "Like I said we should really-"
"Oh Hustler Kid, you should, like, relax." Ashley A. supplied, "Take off your coat and, like, stay a while."
"No no, I'm fine." He bit his tongue - almost correcting his title (the kid was no longer used, and yet she seemed to be making a point to use it).
"We like, insist." Ashley B. chirped "Like, lose the coat and have some tea. It's like imported all the way from Florence."
"Yeah you totally need to try some!" Ashley Q added, taking up her own delicate cup and sipping. "It's like to die for."

Francis smiled awkwardly, sinking back into his chair while the girls giggled. He didn't like the idea of taking off his coat. His whole livelihood was in its folds, but if there was no other way to keep Ashley B. from walking over and taking it from him (she was already getting up and slipping to one side of him), he shrugged it off his shoulders and draped it over the chair behind him. Ashley B. then diverted and re-handed him the cup of tea. Francis held it this time, glancing at the dark water but not drinking despite the four girls gesturing for him to do so.

"We promise it's not, like, poison." Ashley A purred, drinking from her own cup to prove her point.
"I'm not that big a fan of tea…"
"Oh please – We won't take no for an answer."
"Ah… okay. I guess it couldn't hurt. But we really must be getting on with business-"
"Sure thing. Go on. Have some. We promise you'll like it."

Chalk it up to nerves or (though it was a bit of a stretch) intimidation, but the hustler was ignorant of the silent conspiracy. Despite his usual keen eye, Francis somehow missed the knowing glances and half smiles exchanged between the girls, the clink and pop of a flask being opened and the splash of colorless liquid poured into his share of tea. Unaware of his misstep, Francis drank the vodka-laced tea china cupful by china cupful while the girls (who were, as always, masters of manipulation), slowly but surely worked him over with bleached-white smiles and high, hopeful voices.


Francis was feeling considerably pleased and joyous with whatever arrangement he just made. He wasn't sure about the details but he'd work them out later. He felt warm and fuzzy and really rather happy. More so than usual or ever, probably. He laughed aloud and waved to the lovely ladies in their weird tire house and their pretty smiles and their really good tea that he really needed to get the recipe for. But later. Now he had to go find… something. Or someone. Whatever. He'd figure it out on the way! That was the fun part of life, anyhow, the journey was everything and it began with some… cigarette smoke?

Butch! Francis liked Butch. He thought it would be a good idea to go see him now.

Francis, being Francis, had the mentality of someone drunk, but looked, walked, and generally acted like nothing was wrong. The only thing that was out of place was the unnaturally large smile on his face – and even that wasn't as unheard of as most people made it seem. To everyone in the yard it just looked like the hustler had closed one hell of a deal, and since he came from the Ashley's Clubhouse, then he was appropriately on cloud nine. They left him be, ignoring the sway in his walk and unnaturally large smile as he wandered into the nearby, slightly smoky alley.

As predicted, Butch was standing there, staring off into space, his mouth moving around his smoke as he muttered to himself. He wasn't crazy – just trying out words and sentences out loud to make sure they didn't sound stupid. Francis thought it was funny, and unabashedly strolled right into Butch's shadowy sanctum, promptly breaking the storyteller's concentration. Butch spasmed a bit, his head snapping up to see who was fool enough to wander in uninvited, but relaxed when he saw the happy hustler. Butch chuckled and shrugged, waving him in. Francis promptly took the invitation and slid in rather close, but even then Butch didn't balk. He merely smiled.

"What're you so smiley 'bout?" Butch cooed, pulling away his smoke "You finally finish paying off Mikey's Winger Dinger bet?"
"Nooooo… I did that years ago. Yeah."
"Then what's up?"
"M'just happy to see you. Can't I be happy to see you?"
"Well yeah, but you usually express it without the big creepy smile. And not in public."

Francis seemed upset about Butch's bland rebuttal, but only for all of three seconds. The happy smile bounced right back and, without warning, he pushed Butch up against the wall and kissed him, which in and of itself wasn't unheard of, but it threw Butch off enough to panic and push him away. He quickly looked around to make sure they weren't seen, and only then drew Fran back to his mouth, kissing him while stubbing his smoke out on the wall. Francis just went with it, settling himself onto Butch in a familiar way, blocking him in with his arms and surrounding him with his coat.

Despite the familiarity of the situation (it wasn't unheard of for them to want a bit of a fix during school hours- they were teenage boys, after all), Butch was still wary. Francis usually never approached him, and even in the rare times he did he was so much more cautious about it than Butch ever was. Something about this whole situation seemed off to him, but the warm hands on his sides and back helped him ignore the weird twist in his gut.

Or at least until he parted his lips to let the Hustler kiss him right.

He'd tasted the hustler before and, since a great deal of their encounters were impromptu, he'd tasted things other than minty fresh breath or the occasional flavor of gum or even the dull taste of saliva. It was a bit on the gross side to thin that he'd tasted Francis' lunch before, but there was a distantly sharp tang this time around that Butch couldn't quite place. At first blush it was just strong black tea, which was a bit different than Fran's usual coffee, but wasn't something to get freaked out about even if it was different than usual. However, when Butch breathed in, pushing his hand through the short brown hair and tilting his head to reciprocate the kiss more fully, there was a sudden sting of something burning his nose and mouth that didn't add up at all.

Butch pulled back and stared, and when Fran opened his eyes to plead with him suddenly, Butch spotted the spidery red veins at the corners and smelt it on his breath with the exhaled, desperate sigh.

"You're drunk." Butch said quietly, then with more malice. "You're fucking drunk! What the fuck is the matter with you?"

Francis pouted and chose not to answer, trying to duck his head and kiss Butch again. The smaller teen squirmed out of his hold and punched him in the side, remarkably furious at the normally composed hustler for being drunk. It was too much and wasn't fucking fair. The hustler was supposed to be the stabled one – what the fuck.

Suddenly Butch was fearful. It was mostly out of concern for Francis – if he should be caught like this then he would most assuredly be expelled, and even if he could sponge off mom and dad or live as a high school dropout selling shit to people, his reputation would be slaughtered and credibility would be shot to hell. Not that Butch should care, but he did, and he had to help the stupid asshole. The only way he could see out of this was to flee, and since Francis drove he had a pretty easy escape plan.

"We're going home. Give me your keys." He told Francis, holding out his hand.

Francis just smiled a smug, though still uncharacteristically happy smile, and stood back, his arms spread wide.

"Try and find 'em."


A hasty yet charming explanation, and awkward search, and an hour later, Butch got Francis back home in one piece despite Francis' insistence he veer off the road and into a tree due to distractions. Butch had to pull over and knot him up in the back seat and smoke a few cigarettes to calm down.

It wasn't that Butch was particularly mad at him. Just frightened. He worried about Francis. He acted so different when drunk. He knew he was in there and wasn't trying to be so weird, but here they were. Chain-smoking helped, but it wasn't curing his nerves. The situation was too familiar for his liking, and while he knew Francis wouldn't do anything to hurt him while sober, he didn't know what he'd do if he couldn't remember it in the morning.

He shook his head, helping Francis to his feet while puffing away on his latest cigarette. It wasn't the same, he kept telling himself. It was totally different. Francis was just a bit tipsy and he was always handsy around him. He was just a bit more clumsy and bubbly than usual. He could forgive the unneeded and unprompted kisses and sudden grasps to his sides and legs. It was just normal behavior for the two of them in private.

Once they were inside, greeted by the kind of quiet that made the air buzz, Butch felt doubly uncomfortable. Francis seemed to know where he was and stood a little straighter and lead Butch toward the living room while Butch held him upright. He kicked the door shut behind them and flipped the lock, then instantly regretted it. Fran all but dragged him to the nearby couch and flopped on it over the back, taking Butch with him. Butch fell over the couch entirely, landing on his side while Francis landed face first on the overstuffed sofa. He laughed, then grabbed Butch up by the back of his shirt and attempted to drag him up with him.

Butch slapped his hands away and scrambled to the kitchen, trying to calm his hammering heart.

Having crushed his last cig falling over the couch (that was probably going to leave a stain in the carpet he'd apologize later), Butch lit up another and wandered around the kitchen, looking for coffee and filters and the damned coffee pot and repeating a the mantra 'it's not the same it's not the same' over and over until he was forced to light up another cig. The shaking in his hands stopped after he found something to do with them, and he set about making a big pot of strong coffee. He usually didn't drink the stuff but he'd make an exception. Maybe it would quiet his nerves some. At the very least it should help Fran sober up a bit, if the stories could be believed.

It's not the same.

It wasn't. It really wasn't because he wasn't trying to be an asshole or push him it was just what happened. In all other circumstances Butch would have been more than aright with it. Hell, if he hadn't tasted it he would have been on his back on the couch begging him to keep going. But the booze on his breath and the half-hollow look in his eye just unnerved him too much. It was too much like that time. He touched his scars briefly and then shook his head, filling the coffee maker with water and setting up. He had no idea how this thing worked, but if it kept him out of the living room then he'd figure it out.

He neglected to realize that Francis was not only able to stand upright, but navigate his own house rather well. As a result, he found Butch with relative ease, and wandered over to him as he smoked and huffed and puffed, focused on the sink and the coffeepot. The hustler was touched, and wanted to thank Butch for being so nice and taking him home. So he draped himself over the smaller male and attempted to hug him, though he couldn't make his arms work as correctly as normal. They got around the thin frame haphazardly, holding onto his sides and shirt. He inhaled and noticed how good Butch smelled today, and then Francis remembered why he wanted to see Butch in the first place, and leaned in to kiss the closest patch of skin. He missed and ended up in his shirt, but it would do. He could work his way around.

Butch was hardly flattered. He yelped and attempted to wiggle out of the hustler's hold, but he just held on and kissed at his neck. Due to Fran's larger size and greater strength, Buch found himself pinned and though that and the hustler's roaming hands irritated him, he was rather amazed that Francis was still this good at feeling him up despite being totally smashed. That thought was passing, however, replaced by irrational fear. He tried repeating his little mantra over to himself, tried convincing himself that Francis wasn't the object of repressed nightmares or trying to be anything like that.

And then the bastard squeezed and Butch just about fucking lost it.

He grabbed the nearest movable object and with a feral cry he swung. Whatever it was connected with a thud, and another thud accompanied it as the hustler's body fell onto the ground. Butch opened his tightly closed eyes and saw the toaster in his hands. Then he looked down and saw Francis, sprawled out and groaning on the floor.

"Oh shit."


Butch hadn't hurt him. At least he hoped not.

He continued to smoke, wandering around the house, mapping it out in his head (and using the old string trick to find his way back to the starting point). After his minor panic attach Butch dragged Francis to the nearest bedroom and barred him in with one of the hall tables. He was pretty damn sure it wouldn't hold if the other male didn't like being trapped, but it soothed his nerves marginally. His smokes, aimless wandering, and whiffle bat he pilfered from Fran's garage helped calm him down to a manageable level.

Despite his shaking hands he checked Francis out once he got him on the guest bed. There was no dent in the toaster or visible red mark or bruise on Francis, so Butch figured he hit him in the side or chest and just knocked him over instead of knocking him out. The hustler had taken to the bed rather well so Butch hoped he was no worse for wear and content with just sleeping it off.

Butch found a phone on his travels and called his parents once he got his voice to stay even enough to make up a convincing lie. He told his mom that he'd be stayin the night with Francis to work on a project and that he'd be back tomorrow after school. He assured her that he was fine there, and he would eat, and that he would sleep his regular eight hours and not goof off to play video games or act upon any number of any other worries she had. A second after he hung up he wondered why he didn't make the awkward leap from independent teen to momma's boy and ask for her to come pick him up.

Shaking off the idea, he made another few turns and finally stopped stinking up Francis' house, stubbing out his smoke in a convenient, decorative ashtray. He knew he should leaves and his mental health was surely going to suffer now that he'd trapped himself, but he couldn't make himself leave. If he did, something terrible would probably happen and haunt him for the rest of his days. Butch had enough traumatic events to cope with. He didn't need another.

Butch found his way back to the living room with the aid of the string and sat on the couch, fighting with himself. If he left now, he could be safe at home and probably get there in time for dinner. But if he left, then Fran could do something stupid like light himself on fire or fall of the bed and smash his head open or drown in his own sick. If he stayed, he'd be able to help, but he'd also put himself at some sort of risk if Francis decided he wanted to get up and have some fun.

The storyteller rubbed his eyes and shifted to lie down, sighing softly. He knew Fran wasn't like that. He knew he didn't mean it the way Butch interpreted it. But it scared him – terrified him. True, Butch knew he wasn't over the event that scarred him for life (literally and figuratively), but he didn't know he could and would still react that violently, especially around someone he more or less trusted and often fucked. Though he was rattled, he was slowly convincing himself that it was just normal behavior in a very abnormal situation.

But that raised more questions. Why was he drunk in the first place? Why would he seek Butch out? Didn't he remember Butch's sob story? Wouldn't that be a clear signal not to come right on over? How often had this happened? Why was he still so good with his hands and his mouth even if he was drunk?

Butch found himself unwilling to try and devise answers. Instead, he drew the bat to his chest and shut groped for the remote. He'd just chill out. In a half hour or so he'd make sure that Francis was okay. He knew what to look for thanks to health class and various darker movies. He wouldn't give up on the hustler just yet.


Despite his resolve to do the right thing, Butch had to work up the nerve to actual put action behind the thought. He stole a pack of cigarettes and lit up, gripping the plastic bat to steel himself. He pushed the table out of the way and set it roughly where he found it and peeked in.

That was the extent of the first checkup.

The second time he was considerably less of a whimpering little bitch and he actually got a few steps in. He leaned over the foot of the bed and craned his neck to check and make sure his chest was still moving. It was, and Butch though himself a good caretaker. At least until Francis stirred in the bed, making groaning wake-up noises and shifting his weight.

He bolted out and smoked a few more cigarettes before even considering going back in.

A large pot of coffee, three more cigarettes, and an extra tight grip on the whiffle bat later, Butch tried for the third time. He took a few tentative steps in despite the obviously awake hustler stirring in the sheets. He swallowed, switched the cig from one side of his mouth to the other, and readied the bat before he spoke (in a regrettably shaky voice).

"H-Hey there Fran. How you feelin?"

The large body seemed to suddenly erupt from the covers, which made Butch spaz, but he grabbed the door handle instead of running in fear. He couldn't really see in the darkened room, but he felt Francis' eyes on him and they made him squirm something awful. The longer he stayed here, the worse this idea seemed to be. But he stayed put, partly to secure his own bravery, partly to know what Fran was saying. He was mumbling and stringing words together and hiccupping, but Butch could make out the gist of it.

"M'okay who's… issat Ashley? No… no she was-she was with the restof'em. Couldn't be. N- 'sucuse me no. Nope not her I went … I found someone. Who? I 'member smoke and dark an-" Francis lurched forward and squinted hard in the thin light "Oooooh. Hi Butch!"
"Hi! How're – How are you?"
"I'm fine." Butch said warily "How are you feeling?"
"M'good!" Francis laughed, lifting the sheets and blanket and then letting them drop. "M'great. Hi!"

Butch had to smile. It was too bizarre not to smile. The Hustler – inept and so bad with words and totally out of it was a rare sight to behold. Slightly terrifying, but rare and really funny. Butch wondered, though, why he was talking about the Ashley's (or was it just one of them) and why he was so happy to see him. He'd think later – so long as Fran stayed put in that bed and he didn't have to use the bat then he was fine.

By the time he refocused his attention onto the hustler, he was less deliriously happy and more… well, Butch wasn't sure. He'd tangled himself up in the sheets and was looking at Butch with a small smile, swaying back and forth.

"C'mere." He said, leaning forward far enough to tip him off balance (not that it stopped his eye contact any).
"Oh no. No I think I'll stay right over here"
"Don' be li-like that… c'mere an' see me."
"I can see you fine from here."
"No." He readied the bat "None of that. Just sit back and think of things that aren't nice. Cold things. Like ice. Or grandma. Or money."

Butch winced a bit and backed towards the door. Considering his luck money probably turned HK on more than it helped him sober up. At least he wasn't moving forward. Instead he stayed put, blinking lazily. Then Butch witnessed something he'd never thought he'd witness ever: Francis' eyes began to water and he sniffed. Then, all of a sudden, the happy turned horny drunk started to sob.

"My profits!" He wailed, falling back on the bed dramatically "They cheated me! THEY CHEATED ME!"

Butch backed up, nice and slow, and closed the door behind him.


Francis woke up in a room he recognized, but not one he was in often. It was one of his guest rooms downstairs – small and somewhat stuffy, but it had a bed and a closet and was more than enough for most people. Not that they had guests often. Francis had little time to think about it because he decided to move. Moving turned out to be a terrible idea. His head throbbed maddeningly and his stomach lurched.

He waited for the episode to pass, but the symptoms merely dulled. So he groped blindly and kept his eyes shut. Mercifully, he found the small bottle of aspirin stashed away in the drawer, next to the spare sleep shirt and pants and monogrammed kerchief. He fished out two and gagged them down and waited. It took a while, but he was able to sit up and move and open his eyes.

The hallway was dark, mercifully dark. Francis managed to get to the kitchen and spotted the time on the microwave and the stove and the clock radio all reported that it was ten-thirty or sometime near that. The only other light in the whole house spilled into the kitchen from the living room, splashing over the tiles and into his eyes, making him hiss. He stumbled toward the source anyway, more curious than willing to give in to self-preservation.

Staggering into the living room (after sucking in a breath and covering his eyes, the sudden harsh light nearly making him retreat, he spotted the table lamp and the television as the sources of light. In the middle of both pools of light was Butch, spread out on his couch, cuddling a bat. Francis blinked, then shrugged, having seen him do weirder things. He leaned over Butch some and cradled his own head, brushing some hair out of Butch's face and shaking his shoulder lightly. It was late, his head was killing him, and Butch didn't look like he was willing to spend the night unless he was heavily armed.

"C'mon." Francis croaked, surprised at the roughness of his own voice "C'mon and get up. You gotta go home."

Butch stirred marginally, hissing in a breath. Francis took the remote from under him and shut off the TV, then shook him again. Ever the stubborn one, Butch squirmed but didn't wake – that was, until Francis tried to reclaim his plastic bat. Then Butch's eyes shot open and, upon seeing who it was, tried to punch him. Francis hadn't been expecting that reaction, so he staggered back into the coffee table and into the nearby ottoman with a heavy grunt. None of that motion was any good for his headache.

Francis struggled into a sitting position and stared, bleary eyed, at Butch, who was holding the bat aloft and looking at him quizzically.

"What the hell are you doing?" he asked, shutting his eyes and taking a few breaths.
"What are you doing?"
"I'm living -barely- in my house. And I'm trying to get you to go home so I can sleep off this terrible headache… I feel like I've been run over."
"You don't remember?"
"Remember what?"
"Most of the afternoon."
"No I just went to the Ashley's to do some business and then that's about it. What happened? Did I get reamed by a wayward maul ball?"
"No, but you got reamed alright."


A few cups of coffee and one long explanation later left Francis sitting at his kitchen table and Butch leaning against the sink, drinking a glass of milk despite the fresh pot beside him. Francis' headache was still terrible, but he tolerated the dimmed kitchen lights, keeping his eyes mostly shut to focus on listening rather than looking. It suited Butch just fine. He was squirming a bit when he explained – and for some stupid reason he told Francis everything that had happened, including unwelcome advanced and the subsequent toaster swinging. Francis had nodded quietly and muttered something about the bat now making sense, but Butch pressed on to his hypothesis concerning the Ashley's and a few hangover remedies he heard worked okay.

The room lapsed into silence. It wasn't exactly awkward, but it was far from comfortable. Butch was afraid of a demand for payment or a sudden demand that he never speak a word of this (he never would). Francis was more concerned with his unacceptable behavior and Butch wanting to cut off all ties due to totally understandable trauma. Both wanted to apologize, but neither were sure how to go about it.

Francis kicked out a chair for Butch, his head still lowered to block out the lights, and waited. It took a bit, but Butch finally got the hint and slid into the chair beside him, clutching his glass. The hustler lifted his heavy head, cradling it in one of his palms to hold it up, and regarded Butch. He looked haggard, maybe a little embarrassed, but not frightened or uncomfortable. So Francis took the chance and used his free hand to grasp Butch's forearm gently. Butch didn't flinch, and that made him infinitely happier.

"M'sorry I did that."
"You didn't mean it."
"I know. But it shouldn't have to happen- especially since you were trying to help. Thanks for that, by the way."
"I couldn't just leave you there.-"
"But you could have. And you didn't. And for that I thank you."
"That mean you're not going to charge me for the toaster?"
"Yep. Won't charge you for the stuff you stole either."
"How did you-"
"You left the garage door open."

Though his speech was hushed and slow and sort of gravely, Butch caught all of it and was more than happy to accept the terms of Francis' thanks. He found himself smiling some and even scooting toward the sobering hustler. Why he was getting so friendly he had no idea. He blamed it on some sort of protective instinct, and resolved to help him get upstairs to bed.

"You think you can take a shower without drowning yourself?"
"I will try my very hardest." Francis started to stand, holding onto Butch's arm and the table "You're staying the night?"
"Yeah. Told mom early this afternoon."
"We're not having sex tonight. If you'll excuse the cliché – I have a headache."
"I know. I wasn't expecting any."

Francis looked at him, blinking languidly. How… bizarre. Butch usually constantly teased and angled for it. He never usually made this much physical contact (scooting close, patting his hand, pushing hair out of his face) unless he wanted some sort of relief. But then again he would be fool to question it. The very thought of continuous motion like sex made his stomach turn sour and his head throb angrily. He must have winced, because Butch pressed his cool fingers to his temple and made him feel slightly better. Moments later, Butch was standing with him and supporting a great deal of his weight, guiding him upstairs.

"Aren't you just full of surprises." Francis murmured, nudging him good-naturedly.
"Shut up and walk. One foot in front of the other..."


Then free period rolled around the next day, the four Ashley's came out of the building arm-in-arm, clogging the doorway, chattering to themselves loudly and laughing, topping it off with a loud, chorused 'Scandalous!' However, their demeanor changed to reflect Ashley A., who remembered something, and was suddenly unhappy with her privileged life.

"Like where is Hustler Kid?" Ashley A. asked them, snapping her gum loudly "We need the tracking number."
"I like, don't know." Ashley B. stated, just as snobbishly "Ashley Q.?"
"He wasn't in first period. Have you seen him, Ashley T.?"
"No..." She murmured, looking towards and alley, "But I might know someone who has." She cleared her throat and motioned for the other Ashley's to follow.

Unsurprisingly, they found the storytelling shadow-lurking boy with next to no fashion sense smoking heavily in the alley. After a short discussion they remembered his name was Butch, and Ashley A. took the helm and approached Butch, snapping her fingers to get his attention. He didn't look well – but they wouldn't 'dream' of giving him a makeover. He was far from having a spot anywhere near their wall of acceptable boys.

"You, Butch. You have, like, classes with the Hustler Kid, right? We need to know where he is, like, now."
"You're gonna have a hard time with that." Butch answered cryptically, refusing to look at them.
"What?" Ashley B. scoffed "Like, I don't think you know what you're talking about. Just, like, give us a clue or something."
"That's not gonna help you. Nothing's gonna help you. Or him." Butch inhaled and exhaled smoke, his free hand balling into a fist. "God… it's not fucking right."
"Like… what's not right?"
"He was just a fucking kid, Jesus Christ."
"Like who was?"
"No one even tried to help him – he could have been alright. But no one knew…"
"Like what the hell are you talking about?" Ashley A. Snapped suddenly, sneering at the gibbering boy.

Butch looked up at them, pale and shaky, looking like he'd seen a ghost. Once he had their full attention, he dropped the bomb.

"The hustler is dead."

Butch wasn't an experienced stalker or actor, but he played his role damned well. He showed up where he was needed and played the part required, and as such achieved results. True, it usually ended up scaring people, and doubly so in this case, but this time it hadn't been tinkered and toyed with. Butch had just flat out lied. Artlessly and tonelessly. And it had worked better than he'd ever expected or experienced with his masterpieces. He wasn't sure how to feel about that. So he just shut his eyes and sighed, putting his head in his hands and 'composing himself' before nodding to them and wishing them the best. Then he promptly made escape.

Once vanished into his alley, the Ashley's subsequently erupted into high-pitched, panicked chatter. They all but ran back to their clubhouse, slamming the tire shut and raising the flag to notate an emergency meeting. Butch rubbed one eye and took a few calming breaths, smiling widely and almost laughing. He pulled his cell phone out with one hand and a cigarette and lighter with the other. He punched in a number, lit up, and was finished with his first drag by the time someone answered.

"'Lo?" Francis croaked on his end, coughing wetly after and then groaning.
"Oh good. You're not drowned in your own sick. You're ahead of the game!"
"Not so loud, please."
"Still fighting that headache, huh?"
"Remember that metaphor I said last night about a truck? Still that bad."
"It was a simile, actually."
"I'm hanging up."
"Aw don't be like that. I'm sorry it still hurts. It'll get better in a while. You took more aspirin?"
"I took more aspirin."
"Good boy."

Francis sighed into the phone and curled up on his side, picking at the side of his blanket absently. All things considered – this was actually pretty good. The Ashley's were out of his hair, if not traumatized to boot. It would take a while to earn back his profit outright and live down the humiliation of being duped like that, but they were out of his hair for good. It made him feel a bit better to know that – and even better to know Butch had a hand in it. He was probably going to get an earful when he showed up tomorrow, but that was tomorrow. While he mused, Butch murmured stupid things to him, little bits and pieces of advice, then sweet nothings. Francis put a stop to it when Butch defaulted into talking dirty.

"As much as this is helping my headache" he interrupted blandly "I think I should attempt a shower."
"If you'll wait another five hours I can take one with you."
"I'll pass."
"Raincheck then?"
"Sure. Why not." The hustler more or less ignored the weight of a promise behind that agreement. "Anything for the only man I know who could kill off his best friend without shedding a tear."
"I was going for 'shell shocked' instead of grieving. If you need tomorrow off too I'll burst into hysterics and get sent 'home' by third period."
"How sweet. Remind me to kiss you if I can move my head without wanting to throw up."
"It'll pass, trust me. And I'm holding you to that, too."

Francis laughed and snapped the phone shut, rolling over onto his back. He was feeling better already.



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