Drinking Buddies

Ice feebly clung to the sidewalks, while the snow that drifted from the thick cloud cover was half melted by the time it reached the ground. Few cars prowled the dangerously slick roads covered with patches of black ice. Even fewer people were braving the cold night. A nearby church bell started tolling. It rang bleakly eleven times before the last note was swallowed up by the darkness. The blue neon lights of a 24 hour grocery store flickered briefly as a women exited through the automatic sliding glass doors. She paused to shove a small box wrapped in a plastic bag into her large canvas purse.

Her straight auburn hair was pulled back haphazardly into a bun that was held in place with a metal pick. It left her pale oval face completely exposed. She brushed a few errant locks of hair back over her left ear and stepped off of the sidewalk onto the asphalt parking lot. The only cars parked there belonged to the few night employees who were still stuck at work and one religiously adorned bus parked around the corner. She walked towards the sidewalk, glancing around warily, feeling ill at ease. A woman walking about at night made an easy target and she was in no mood to be mugged, as if anyone ever was. She quickly left behind the brightly lit parking lot and started down the hazardous sidewalk. Only a few of the street lights worked and more than several of them flickered repeatedly, as if threatening to die at any moment.

A cold wind blew and tugged at her long cotton trench coat. The coat no longer possessed any buttons so she was forced to grab hold of the lapels to hold the coat shut. Her skirt blew back as well, crawling up her legs and briefly exposing her scuffed up black ankle boots. She shivered and forced her skirt back down with her other hand. As she bend forward her purse fell off her shoulder and spilled onto the ground. Its contents emptied across the ice covered cement. She groaned loudly and knelt down, gathering her things together. Several tubes of lipstick, all the same shade, a compact, day planner, pens, bottles of pills, receipts and a wide assortment of knickknacks had scattered around up to several feet away from her. She squatted in an attempt to stay as clean and dry as possible, but this only made the task of collecting the items harder.

Across the street from her a tall lean man exited an alley way. In his right hand he held a black cane tipped with a gracefully curved pewter handle. He was wearing a black cotton twill fitted Cossack coat that almost completely obscured the rest of his outfit, all that peaked through were his matching black slacks. His shoes were classic black oxfords and fit in perfectly with his elegant demeanor. The man was clean shaven and had sharp features that were made much hasher by his cold expression that made the night air warm in comparison. His hair was dark brown, almost black and styled back from his face. No gels or styling products held it in place and the wind quickly mussed it up, revealing how fine and soft it was. He scanned the streets and his brown eyes, warm in contrast to his face, settled on the woman.

She was still struggling to get everything back into her bag and was balanced poorly on the balls of her feet. To her side was a dark alley, much like the one the man across the way had just exited. As she bent further forward some of her hair came loose and fell across the side of her face, obscuring her view of the alley. She made a flustered sound of annoyance and started to stand, having snatched up the last of the wayward items. Just as she stood fully up a pair of men lunged at her from the alley. One grabbed her wrist as she lifted her hand to push her hair aside and the other took hold of her left arm. She cried out briefly in shock as she was drug bodily into the alley.

The man across the street stared in surprise for a moment then darted towards the alley. He gripped the cane like a weapon and charged bravely into the alley. As soon as he arrived he skidded to a halt and stared in astonishment. The woman had somehow managed to slip her hand from the first attackers grip and now held his wrist. He watched as she twisted his arm and slammed the hilt of her palm into his elbow. There was a disgusting sound of popping tendons and cracking bones, the man screamed in pain as his arm bent the wrong way. She released him and got grabbed from behind by the second man, who had been reeling back from her until this point. He wrapped one of his arms around her chest and the other around her neck. She lurched back then tipped forward, almost throwing him completely off balance. He managed to stay standing though and shifted his grip to place her in a rough headlock.

Having simply watched until this point the well dressed man stepped forward and soundly struck the man in the side of the head with his cane. The mugger stiffened for a split second then crumpled into a heap. The woman wheeled around and swung her bag at her 'rescuer' not knowing that he had helped her. He blocked it with his forearm and backed up quickly, throwing his hands up in defeat.

"I am no mugger milady! I simply came to help!" He said quickly.

She paused, her bag swinging back and forth from the momentum of her attack. Her angry hazel eyes quickly took him in. She narrowed her gaze and said curtly: "I don't need any white knights ridding to my rescue."

He lowered his hands and leaned against his cane, looking at the two men on the ground. The first mugger was still whimpering in pain and clutching his injured arm to his chest. "I can see that." He remarked dryly.

The woman took a few deep breaths and shouldered her bag. "Sorry, that was rude of me to say. Thanks for your help."

"I am happy to be of assistance." He said bowing his head.

She looked him over again and smirked in amusement. "You look a few years out of style. Give or take a century."

He spread his arms and looked down at himself. "What is wrong with what I'm wearing?"

"It's a bit… gothic." She chuckled.

"I like it that way." He said defensively, placing his cane in front of him, resting one hand on the other.

"Hey, don't be so sensitive. It's not like it's a bad thing." She said, making a similar gesture of defeat that he had. Then she held out her hand. "My name is Gretchen."

"A lovely and strong name." He said with a smile, taking her hand and lightly kissing her knuckles. "I am Antonio."

She stared at her hand as if he had spit on it. "Um… ok…"

"I thought modern women missed such gestures." He remarked wryly.

"Well, I wasn't really expecting it is all…" Gretchen muttered, dropping her hand to her side.

"I apologize if I offended you." Antonio said graciously.

"Accent, check, good manners, check, good looks, check. Yep, you're a figment of my imagination." She said playfully.

He poked himself in the chest and looked at her innocently. "I assure you, I am completely real."

Gretchen poked him in the chest as well. "I don't know… I might just have had a psychotic break."

Antonio laughed. "Not likely."

"Still…" She eyed him suspiciously and gingerly stepped over the unconscious mugger. The second one had since passed out from the pain of his injury and was crumpled on his side.

He followed her out of the alley and walked beside her. "Would you like an escort home?"

"Where are you from?" She abruptly asked.

Antonio looked mildly surprised by the question. "Spain."

"Well, that explains the accent." Gretchen said to herself.

"Does it bother you?" He asked.

She shook her head. "No, it's really pleasant."

"I'm happy to hear that." He smiled at her a few wrinkles appearing at the corners of his eyes. Showing that he was a bit older than he first looked.

"Thanks for the escort offer but I can handle myself." Gretchen said hesitantly, not ready to trust him enough to allow him to follow her home.

"Yes, I saw." He glanced over his shoulder then looked back to her. "But you never know what the night will unleash."

"Yeah, a pack of ninjas might jump me." She said with a laugh.

"I didn't know they traveled in packs…" Antonio said in a mock serious voice.

"Yep, and they're really common in this area. The police really should do something about it. Like, set ninja traps or something." Gretchen replied very earnestly.

Antonio laughed despite himself. "You have a very eccentric sense of humor."

"I'm not rich enough to be eccentric in any way." She corrected him.

"I apologize." He said bowing his head again.

"Apology accepted." Gretchen giggled then stopped herself. Antonio glanced at her curiously but didn't ask. She smoothed down her coat lapels and looked ahead of them. They were coming up on a small pup that she would occasionally frequent. She hesitated and decided to be daring.

"How about we get something to drink?" She asked, trying to sound casual and most succeeding.

"That sounds nice." Antonio said with a smile.

"This place up ahead is great. It's nice and small and only locals go there. No noisy collage kids and plenty of empty seats. Just the way I like my bars." Gretchen said with a sweeping motion towards the pup and a proud smile.

Antonio picked up his pace and stepped before her and opened the door to the bar. "Sounds delightful."

She rolled her eyes and barely managed to keep from scolding him for being a gentlemen. After she had walked in he entered behind her and looked around the room. Just as she had said there were plenty of seats at the bar and at the various tables that dotted the room. Towards the back there was a single pool table with only three pool cues hanging on the wall behind it, despite there being enough room for ten. Only one man tended to the bar and he was absently watching the television which was on a sports channel. The few people that were there sat huddled at the bar, curled around their mugs of beer and ignoring one and other. The room was shockingly quiet and the sound of their footsteps disturbing the calm seemed blasphemous. Outside of a brief glance from the bartender no one acknowledge their entrance.

Gretchen walked to a table at the far end of the room, near the pool table and as far from the bar as they could get. She dumped her bag onto the booth that faced the door and looked towards Antonio.

"What kind of beer do you like?" Gretchen asked as she stood back up.

"Surprise me." He said with a small smile, sitting down across from the seat she had chosen.

"Alright." She smirked and walked to the bar.

Antonio watched her go, his expression having softened considerably from before. He regarded her with something near fondness. When she arrived at the bar she said a few words to the tender and he handed over a pair of bottles after removing the caps. She nodded to him in thanks and walked back to the table.

"Here you go." She said holding out one of the dark bottles.

He took it and raised an eyebrow. "Guinness?"

Gretchen chuckled and sat down. "You said to surprise you, and this is Fitzgibbons. So Guinness seemed the most fitting."

"I suppose I can't argue with that." He said with a small smile.

She took a long drink then sat the bottle on the table, cradling it between her hands. "So, Antonio. What brings you to America?"

"I have lived here for many years." He pointed out, lifting the bottle to his lips gingerly.

"Ok, what brought you here in the first place?" She said while rolling her eyes.

He flinched and lowered the bottle back to the table. "I wanted to travel."

"Why did you stay?"

For a moment his expression became cold and the his eyes grew distant. It only lasted for a second and his smile swiftly returned. He met her eyes and said: "This land is so big and diverse. It is nice to be surrounded by so many different things."

"I've always wanted to travel too." She said sadly, taking another drink of her beer. "But unfortunately… things don't always work out."

"How so?" He asked gently.

"It takes money to travel and its really hard to get time off work… hell, I haven't had a real vacation in years." She rubbed a hand over her eyes. "The longest I've spent away from work was when I was down with the flu for a week… Some vacation."

"That's rather unfortunate." Antonio said sympathetically.

"That's a good way to describe work: unfortunate. It sucks… as children we can't wait to grow up and be 'free'. Then we actually grow up and find out how wrong we were." Gretchen sighed loudly and finished off the rest of her drink all at once. Antonio watched in surprise.

"Sounds like you're pretty miserable." He said thoughtfully.

"No shit." She grumbled, pushing the empty bottle aside. "Live to work, work to live. That seems like all I do anymore."

"What about a boyfriend? Don't you have someone there for you to help you out?" He asked, leaned over the table, holding his drink with one hand.

"I haven't dated since college and all my friends got married and moved away. The last time I heard from one of my friends was when she called me up to say she had just given birth." She sighed and stared at the table intently. "I had a hard time just pretending to be interested and happy for her."

Antonio stared at her silently then reached over and brushed his fingers over the back of her hand. She lifted her face and looked at him curiously. He tilted his head to the side and smirked at her. "How do they describe it? White picked fence… two point something kids…"

"Yeah, the American dream." She snorted. "But what do you do when that's not your dream?"

He shrugged, not able to answer her question. She stood up and looked down at him. "Want another beer?"

"No thank you, I'm still working on this one." He said and demonstrated by taking a sip.

She nodded and went to the bar to fetch another bottle. When she returned Antonio looked across the table at her and asked: "What about the American dream differs from your own?"

"I don't want kids; in fact I had my tubes tied just a few months ago." Gretchen said bluntly.

Antonio stared at her in blank confusion then said: "Excuse me?"

"I had my tubes tied." She repeated looking at him then realized he had no idea what she was talking about. "I can't get pregnant any more. Not ever. It's permanent."

"Oh." He looked startled.

"Don't tell me you're one of those people who thinks I'm crazy. 'What if you change your mind?' 'Don't you want kids? Everyone wants kids!'" She said in a scathingly angry voice. "Why would I want to give up everything just to bring another life into this world? It's not like the human race is threatened with extinction. Heck, more people need to make the decision not to breed." She snapped, taking a long pull from her beer.

Antonio gave a brief bark of laughter before he stopped himself. He looked embarrassed and gave her an apologetic look. "I'm sorry, your rage was amusing. I've never heard anyone describe it as: breeding."

She chuckled slightly. "Yeah, I've offended my fair share of people by using that term."

"I don't think is offensive." He smiled at her. "It's charming."

"Charming?" Gretchen laughed.

"It's true. I enjoy your candor. That is one of the things I hate, is when people aren't honest." Antonio said very sincerely.

"When they pussyfoot around?" She asked before taking another drink.

He nodded. "Yes, another excellent term."

"Well, there's no fear of that from me. I've been chastised by dozens of people for being too blunt." She made a sweeping gesture as if motioning to the world at large. "Grow some balls people and stop being so sensitive!"

A few of the men at the bar glanced over at that unusual outburst, but they quickly returned to their drinks. She tipped back her head and poured the last few gulps of Guinness down her throat then slammed the bottle to the table. Antonio watched her with a mix of mirth and sympathy.

"Would I be too presumptuous to ask if you had a bad day?" He asked solicitously.

"Not at all." She said dryly, holding her chin in her hand and resting her elbow on the table.

He chuckled and shook his head. "Alright then: Did you have a bad day today?"

"Hell yeah." Gretchen replied pithily.

"Would you like to talk about it?" He pressed gently.

"I wouldn't want to bore you…" She said with a sigh, already noticeably tipsy.

"No, it wouldn't bore me at all." Antonio said smiling.

"Alright." Gretchen stood up. "First, I'm getting another beer."

"Are you sure? You're already getting a little unsteady…"

"It's not like I'm driving." She snapped, walking towards the bar.

He sighed and watched her order another drink. She came back with two bottles and sat one down in front of him. He nodded in thanks and pushed aside his first beer, which was barely missing a drop from it. After taking a few gulps she put down her bottle and stared at him.

"I hate my job." She said bluntly. "All I do all day is go through paper work and plug the information into a computer. I sit on my butt from six in the morning to three in the afternoon. The only fun I ever have is when I go to Karate class, which by now I go to almost nightly. My sensei says I practically live in the dojo."

"What does that have to do with today?" He asked curiously.

"Simple, my computer crashed this morning and I lost a ton of work so I had to stay late and redo it. Then, when I finally get to the dojo I find a sign on the door saying its been closed! No warning whatsoever!" Gretchen dipped her head for a moment then lifted it to look at him miserably. "Apparently the lease expired and the owner of the building had planned on selling the whole strip mall to a company that is going to tear it down."

He nodded sympathetically and listened to her talk. She took a deep breath and sipped at her beer for a moment before going on. "Also, I've been cramping up like crazy all day so I finally was forced to go the store to buy some more Midol and then those guys jump me. You know the rest…"

"I wish I could say something to make you feel better." Antonio said sincerely.

"Forget about it. I'm used to bad days." She said with a shrug, leaning back. After finishing off the rest of her beer she sat the bottle aside and met his eyes. "So, tell me about yourself, what do you do for a living?"

"I appraise antiques." He replied with a small smile, slowly peeling the label off of the bottle in his hands.

She raised an eyebrow. "Are you straight?"

He looked startled and tore part of the label off. "What?"

"Do you bat for the other team? Are you camp as a field full of boy scouts? You know, gay?" She giggled.

Antonio furrowed his brow and shook his head. "No, I am not homosexual." He didn't sound overly offended, more confused than anything else. "Why do you ask?"

"Well, that's the kind of field of work that people traditionally think only gay men are interested in." She said with a little shrug. "I just had to ask anyway."

"Why is that?" He asked with a playful smile.

"Because, then if I flirt with you at least I know you'll shoot me down 'cause I'm ugly, not 'cause you're gay." She paused and got a thoughtful look. "Though, I guess being brushed off because you're gay would be better…"

"I think you've had enough to drink." He chuckled.

"Feh." She announced, snatching his beer out of his hands and taking a drink from it. He sighed but didn't protest. She lowered the bottle and eyed it. "You've barely touched this."

"I'm not much of a drinker…" Antonio explained casually.

"Fine then, I'll do the drinking for us." Gretchen announced, promptly demonstrating her words by drinking the rest of his beer.

He sighed and shook his head. "How about I escort you home now?"

"I need to pay the bartender." She protested, starting to stand.

"I'll pay him." Antonio said quickly, jumping to his feet and gently pushing her back down.

"Ok, ok… if you insist." She muttered, sitting back down and stealing his first drink, which was fairly warm by then. It didn't bother her and she downed it all in the time it took him to pay their bill.

Antonio returned to the booth, took his cane in his left hand and held out his arm to her. "Come along."

She muttered something intelligible and took her bag, pulling her bag onto her shoulder at the same time. He helped her to her feet and led her out the door. She started to say away from him as they stepped outside and he put his arm around her waist pulling her against him.

"Don't get fresh with me!" She protested, putting her hand on the side of his chest and pushing herself away. As she stepped back her foot landed on a patch of ice and she pitched backwards with a yelp.

Antonio grabbed her wrist and was pulled off his feet with her. He landed on his butt beside her and she landed flat on her back. After a second of startled silence from both of them she started giggling. He sighed and stood up, pulling her to her feet.

"That was your fault you know." He scolded her.

"Sorry…" She said between giggles.

"I will carry you if need be." Antonio said curtly, putting his arm firmly around her waist again. This time she didn't protest and accepted his support, even leaning into him.

"I'll behave." She said with a serious expression which didn't last long as she started to giggle again.

"At least you aren't an angry drunk…" He said weakly, leading her down the street.

"I can be if you want me to be." She offered with a lopsided smile.

"No thank you." He said gravely.

"Alright." She laid her head against his shoulder and partially led the way. He followed the subtle signals she gave and mostly held her upright as she walked. She only lived a short distance from the pup, down a side street and inside a small apartment building. It took her two tries to key in her password correctly to get the front door to open. Once inside her legs gave out and she fell giggling. He scooped her up and carried her towards the elevator.

"What floor are you on?" He asked her patiently.

She pointed a finger towards the panel but didn't say anything. He sighed and moved closer so that she could push the button herself. She pressed the forth floor button and the elevator doors slid shut. When it lurched into motion she groaned in protest.

"Perhaps you shouldn't have had so much to drink?" He suggested.

"Nonsense, I'm half German half Irish, there is no such thing as too much." Gretchen said petulantly.

He chuckled and stepped out of the elevator as soon as the doors opened up. "It has been a very long time since I have escorted a woman home, and even longer since the woman in question was drunk."

"So you used to do this all the time?" She asked, pointing to the left of them.

Antonio nodded slightly. "You can say that."

She wiggled out of his arms and he put her down before she could fall. He put his hand on her back and help keep her upright as she unlocked her door. She paused and looked back at him, asking: "So why'd you stop?"

"We all must grow up eventually." He replied with a shrug.

"Ah… no more whoring around for you?" She remarked with another giggle, pushing open her door.

He laughed. "Yes, I suppose you can put it that way."

"Don't think that you're going to get into my pants just because I'm drunk!" She announced, stepping inside.

"That would be rather hard." He said gravely, walking in after her, still supporting her.

"Why is that?" She asked, stopping abruptly enough that he bumped into her.

"Well, you're wearing a skirt." He explained, motioning towards the garment in question.

She looked down. "Don't be so literal."

"I apologize." He chuckled, leading her towards the bedroom.

"Yeah, you should be sorry." Gretchen muttered grumpily.

Antonio reached around her and opened the door, pushing her in gently. As they passed through the door he searched for the light switch and flipped it on. She stumbled a little and he kept a hold of her.

"Hey!" She suddenly said, stopping again, but this time he anticipated it. "I don't remember inviting you in!"

"I'm sorry. I could leave if you like?" He offered, starting to pull away.

"No, no. It's ok." She said quickly, reaching around behind her back to grab his wrist.

"Then I'll stay." Antonio said softly, staying where he was, holding her upright.

She sighed in relief and released his hand. He slowly moved his hand up her back, then around her shoulder. For a second she tensed but when his hand moved to remove her coat she relaxed. He carefully pulled it off her, catching her bag as it fell. She walked towards her bed and fell face first into it. He draped her coat over the end of her bed and hooked her purse over the bedpost next to it.

"You're the first man I've taken home." She said quietly, her voice partially muffled by the pillow she was laying on.

He sat down next to her feet and started to unlace her boots. "You can't be serious, I'm sure you've brought at least a few home."

"Well… yeah, but not to this home." Gretchen clarified.

"I thought so." He nodded, removing her left shoe first, and dropping it to the ground.

"You don't have to do that you know." She mumbled.

"I want to." Antonio replied.

"Why?"

"Because I enjoy it." He said taking off her other shoe.

"You got a foot fetish?" She asked, warily pulling her feet away from him.

"No!" He laughed, grabbing at her ankles. "But perhaps with such pretty feet I will develop one."

She squealed in protest and wiggle to get her feet free. He laughed harder and flipped her onto her back. Gretchen grunted in surprise, caught off guard by his strength and speed. He removed her socks and tickled the bottom of her left foot.

"No stop!" She cried out, jerking her feet away from him and protectively sitting on them.

"Too sensitive?" He asked with a wide smile.

Gretchen sat up, staying on her feet. She pouted at him. "Some gentleman you are, picking on a poor drunk defenseless girl."

"Defenseless? If you were unconscious I still wouldn't call you defenseless." Antonio protested, shaking his head.

"Thank you for taking me home." Gretchen said in a sober voice, looking downward. By then her hair was almost completely free of the bun, and spilling over her face and shoulders.

Antonio reached out and pushed it away from her face. "You are welcome."

"I'll wake up tomorrow and it will be like you were never here." She said softly, still staring at her sheets and refusing to look at him.

He reached into his coat pocket and withdrew a business card. Taking her hand he placed it in her palm and closed her fingers over it. "There, you have my card, so you can call me if you ever need someone to carry you home again."

"I don't get drunk very often… heck, I rarely even drink any liquor at all." She said with a shrug, staring at the card in her hand.

"Then maybe you'll have to make a habit of it, if only as an excuse to call me." Antonio suggested with a smile, standing up.

"I would rather get to know you while sober." She objected, looking up at him.

He retrieved his cane from where it fell and nodded to her. "As entertaining as you are drunk, I agree."

"So you don't care if I call you?" Gretchen asked shyly, staring into his eyes.

Antonio smiled broadly and returned her intense stare. "I would enjoy the chance to spend time with you again. Though our time together tonight was brief, I enjoyed every moment of it."

"You foreign guys sure know how to talk pretty." She giggled, putting the card on her table side bed.

"Goodnight milady." Antonio said softly, bowing to her slightly.

"Goodnight sir." Gretchen giggled in reply.

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Authors Notes: - I have no idea if I'm going to continue this or not or whatever… it just wrote it 'cause. And if you can't guess, Antonio isn't a normal guy.