Author name: Penknife -- author LiveJournal, author email, author website
Recipient name: Propaganda
Requested character(s): Grace Choi
Story title: Under Pressure
Rating: Appropriate for older teens and adults
Spoiler warnings: Spoilers for OUTSIDERS #1-#20
Acknowledgments: Thanks to anneline for beta reading.
Summary: The shortest distance between two points is rarely a straight line.
The walls came tumbling down. That's how she remembers it in her dreams, although she knows there was some other stuff, too -- she remembers the sound of chains snapping, and she remembers hitting a bunch of people and yelling things while she did it. But the thing she dreams about is standing in front of the warehouse door that wouldn't open, with some of the littler kids starting to cry, and telling them to stand the fuck back, and putting her hands on the cinderblock wall and pushing.
And the walls came tumbling down.
It was stupid, of course. She was lucky the ceiling didn't fall in on their heads. Now she'd punch a neat hole through the wall and blow the cement dust off her knuckles like a gunfighter. Or just kick the door down. But now she's not twelve years old.
She knew the kids couldn't run far, so she got them a few blocks away and started breaking windows. When the police came, it wasn't her who explained; it was one of the other kids who was younger and cuter and better with words.
When they put her in the police car, she leaned back and closed her eyes, feeling suddenly really tired. She let someone put a scratchy blanket around her shoulders and give her orange juice with a little straw in it. It tasted like the best thing ever.
She'd told herself that if she ever got away she wouldn't let them put her in another foster home. She'd just run. But now she thought she'd stick around for a while, because at least being in a foster home meant they gave you clothes and orange juice and a library card, and if they hit her now she could damn well hit back.
She didn't have to run yet, because she was strong.
Grace was glad the last foster home wasn't a good one, because she would have felt bad about ripping off people she liked. But they both drank, and when she got home from school and found them both passed out in the living room, she figured it was about time. She'd had her bag packed for weeks, and all she had to do was lift the bills out of his wallet and her purse and grab some crackers and canned soup out of the kitchen to last her a few days.
She flicked off the TV before she left, because it had always annoyed the fuck out of her blaring in the background every minute of the day. She thought about putting her fist through it, but figured it wasn't worth cutting up her hand just to make a point. "Bye, now," she said, and walked out the front door.
She found the right part of town pretty easily, where the bars opened early and stayed open late and the apartments above them looked cheap. The first thing she needed was not to be fifteen, so she hung around on a corner and asked the whores and the dealers if anybody could set her up. Lo and behold, someone could.
She got ripped off pretty badly for the fake ID and social security card, but she didn't know any better then. She slept in a doorway and ate cold soup out of a can for breakfast. The next couple of weeks were not real fun, but at the end of them she had a job, waiting tables and washing dishes in a grimy bar that also served bad food.
Six weeks of dishpan hands and fifty-cent tips was a deposit on the crappiest apartment Grace had ever seen. One room with a toilet and chipped enamel sink in the corner, space for a bed or at least for some blankets on the floor, an electrical outlet where she could plug in a hot plate if she ever had power, and an empty light socket with a broken chain overhead.
Grace counted out the bills happily, and when she'd slammed the door and twisted the lock as far shut as it would go, she found herself grinning. "You suck," she said to the apartment, "but you're mine."
Grace came out the back door of the bar one night for a smoke break to see a drunk guy shoving one of the local working girls up against a wall and hitting her. She was striding across the alley before she really had time to think about how much this was not her problem, and she grabbed the guy by the back of his jacket and pulled him off the girl.
"Please don't tell me he paid to do that," she said.
"I paid the bitch, all right, only now she won't put out."
"What do I look like, the Better Business Bureau? Now fuck off."
The guy looked her up and down. He was scruffy and unshaven, with light brown eyes that made her skin crawl. "You going to make me?"
"Well, damn, I guess I am," Grace said, and broke his nose. He fell with a satisfying clatter and lay sprawled among the beer cans in the alley. Grace kicked him. "Get up. Fuck off."
He scrambled up and stumbled off toward the mouth of the alley, swearing. The girl looked up at Grace. "Thanks," she said. "I'm real grateful." She flashed Grace a shaky professional smile. "Want me to show you how grateful?"
"No, thanks," Grace said, because that sounded too much like paying for it, and there were things Grace did not do. "You have friends? He may come back with his."
"I got a man," the girl said. "He's just got business tonight."
Grace rolled her eyes. "You go on home to your man, then. Much good he's apparently doing you."
"They just don't make pimps like they used to," a dry voice said from the opposite side of the alley.
Grace looked. The girl had a leather jacket and good shoulders. From the hair and the fingernails Grace figured her for a dyke. She'd been drinking, but she wasn't drunk. "What's your problem?"
"Nothing." The girl smiled and tilted her head to one side. "I'm just impressed."
Impressed was different than grateful, Grace thought. She let herself slowly smile back. "You want to show me how impressed?"
Later, leaning back against the wall with the girl's head between her legs, Grace braced her hands on the girl's shoulders, head thrown back because she was getting ready to come again. "I could... seriously get used to impressed," she managed, and then had to shut up and focus on important things like not breaking bones.
That was Kate, and Grace might have been in love with her, at least in a good light. Kate liked old movies, and sex, and authors Grace couldn't even pronounce, and heroin. The last was kind of a problem, but Grace was not shy about saying no, or more to the point "wave that stuff in my face again and I am throwing it out the window."
Kate had a tattoo, a thick black briar around her ankle, and Grace kept touching it because she wasn't sure if she thought it was kind of sexy or if it made her sick. When they had sex, Kate usually ended up bruised, no matter how hard Grace tried to be gentle, but she didn't seem to mind. She also didn't seem to think the bruises were sexy, which was good.
Kate stayed at Grace's place for a while until Grace caught her shooting up in Grace's bed for the second time and kicked her out. They kept having sex, because Kate was really good at that, but one night when Grace came around Kate didn't answer a knock on the door.
Grace knocked, and swore, and went around asking neighbors, who mostly said they hadn't seen her and they didn't care. Finally she said to hell with it and kicked the door down, but there was no one inside. She'd just gone.
It happened. Grace went home and tossed out Kate's stuff that was still lying around, except for the books. She'd always had a thing for books. She lay in bed and smoked and tried to read Chekov and wondered what it was like to be Kate, although she knew the real answer was "like being so stoned you can't stand up."
That summer Grace started paying for boxing lessons, because she figured "just hit them really hard" was only going to get her so far. Marcos was an aging Greek immigrant with perpetual three-day stubble. He watched her rip a punching bag in half, nodded, and scowled. "You going to pay for what you break?"
Grace shook her head. "Probably not."
He shrugged. "What the hell. People find out I taught freakin' Wonder Woman, it'll be good for business."
The first thing he told her to do was quit smoking. It pissed her off, but she had to admit she could run longer after she quit. She worked out in the middle of the day when hardly anyone else was around, so she could take off her shirt and beat the hell out of punching bags in her sports bra rather than steaming in the sticky heat.
Anytime someone came in, it made her itch to turn her back to them; she kept expecting to turn around again and see guilty recognition in their eyes. Finally she figured she should do something about that, so she got drunk enough that she thought she could handle it and went down to the local tattoo parlor.
"You want me to work around the brand?" the guy said when Grace was stretched out on her stomach, her eyes shut against the harsh neon lights outside.
"I want it gone."
"I can't do gone. I can maybe do less obvious."
When she looked in the mirror later she figured she’d look pretty good from across the room, but when she brushed at the sore spot with her fingers she could still feel the brand; it was the one place that didn't hurt. She rubbed at the scarred ridges. It felt as familiar as getting herself off.
The thought made the stinging pain and the anger all clench together into a solid knot in her stomach, and she crouched by the toilet until she threw up and then sat with her back to the wall next to it and said all the swear words she knew over and over again. It kept her from crying, which was what she wanted.
The next day at the gym she took her shirt off. After a few weeks it even started to feel all right.
"And stay the fuck out!" Grace yelled, watching with some satisfaction as the three lowlifes bounced off the concrete in the alley and rolled around trying to get up. One of them pushed himself up and reached into his jacket.
"Oh, don't even," Grace said, but there was a sudden weird blur in the air and the gun went clattering across the alley. There was a noise like "thwock," and the gun was pinned to the ground with an arrow.
"Anybody else with a gun?" a man's voice called from above. "It's been a slow night. I'm getting bored."
The guys were on their feet, their eyes darting around like they weren't sure which way to run. Grace had backed up enough to see the man in green on the roof of the opposite building.
"Guess I've just got to make my own fun, here," he said, and jumped down. He leveled his bow at the one who'd dropped the gun, and glanced at Grace. "I may have to ask you to tie them up. The only arrows I've got with me are the kind that make holes in people."
"These guys probably aren't bright enough to care," Grace said, a second before one of them proved it by rushing the man in green.
He lashed out with his elbow and sent the man sprawling. "You're right, they're not." He followed through with a sharp upward motion of the bow that somehow left the man in front of him lying on the ground nursing a bleeding jaw.
The third one tried to wade in, but Grace grabbed him by the back of the collar and picked him up with his feet off the ground. "Wait your turn," she said. "I'm sure when the nice man's finished beating up your friends he'll be happy to beat you up, too."
"Always happy to oblige a lady," the man in green said. He lowered the bow and decked the man with a neat right cross.
"Hi," Grace said. The man wore a green domino mask that fit like he'd had it custom-made. That made "psycho" seem less likely than "genuine superhero." It was much later before she realized the two were not mutually exclusive.
"Nice throwing distance. I wouldn't have figured those three could get airborne."
"I work out," Grace said. "Nice shooting. You go to summer camp?"
"Something like that." The man shoved back his hood to show gold hair just starting to go gray. "Green Arrow."
"Grace Choi. I have a problem with people who don't pay for their drinks."
"I have a problem with people who deal drugs."
"Pretty cheap for dealers."
"Things are tough all over."
"You're telling me," Grace said.
Ollie was the first mask she ever slept with, and she certainly could have done worse; he had good hands, and he went down on her without being asked. Afterwards, though, she watched him roll over and stare out the dark window with that married-man stare, and had to bite her tongue not to say you fuck like you're running away.
"Don't tell me I came on too strong," she said.
He turned back to her and grinned fiercely. "I'm used to strong women."
"Sure, but there's strong, and then there's, you know, circus-freak strong."
He shrugged. "I'm used to metas."
"Metas," Grace said, testing the word. It was a newspaper word, one she'd never quite dared apply to herself. "I guess you know a lot of people with powers."
"Comes with the territory," he said. "Of course, a lot of them I meet because they try to kill me."
"Guess you're glad I'm not robbing banks or something."
He shrugged. "Metropolis isn't my territory. I'm just passing through. If you start robbing banks, that's Superman's problem."
"You think if I robbed banks, I'd get to meet Superman?"
"Maybe. It would help if you dressed up in tights and started calling yourself Bloodbath or something." Ollie smiled crookedly. "Don't get your hopes up, though. He's not on the market."
"Gay, or taken?"
Ollie shrugged. "As far as I can tell, just the world's biggest Boy Scout."
"I can't believe I'm having this conversation."
"You get used to it."
"I guess you do."
"It's not such a hot life," Ollie said. "But it's damn hard to give up."
"I guess it would be," Grace said.
A while later she read the newspaper stories about his death sitting in the window of her apartment in the choking heat. "Ollie, you stupid fuck," she said out loud. She balled up the paper and tossed it angrily out the window. "Anything's better than dying."
When the weather was good, she started going for long walks at night. The first few times, she got hassled. Pretty soon, all the locals knew better. Some of the women started meeting her eyes when she walked by, and some of the men started looking away. She thought she could live with that.
She met Roy when he offered to sell her drugs. Some mutual injuries and a fair amount of property damage later, they sorted out that he was doing some kind of sting operation.
"You could have said," she said over beers in a bar where she didn't work.
"If you have a sting and tell everyone it's a sting? Not so useful."
"Isn't that, like, entrapment?"
He shrugged and smiled sideways. She liked his smile and the way he carried himself, like he knew people were looking and just lapped it up. "I'm not a lawyer."
"Just a cop."
"There's a difference?"
"So I'm told."
"It doesn't seem to freak you out that I broke your gun."
"That's okay. I've got more."
"Well. Okay, then."
"I'm used to it," Roy said.
"Are you impressed?'
Grace tilted her head to one side and thought about it. "I could be impressed."
She spent a satisfying few weeks having a lot of sex and listening to Roy tell her all about his time with the Teen Titans, although she reserved the right to mock the stupid code names. She didn't mention having met Ollie already, because it wasn't any of his damn business. She wasn't sure Roy would have thought it was funny. Or even that Ollie would have.
"You ever think about getting into the game?" he asked her one night, not long before she kicked him out.
Grace shook her head. "I want a good job. Running around wearing tights is not a job."
"I don't wear tights."
"I bet you used to wear tights."
"Everybody used to wear tights. It was a thing. Well, Robin actually wore these little shorts."
"It was a thing."
"I'll bet it was a thing."
"Not that kind of thing."
"We're kind of drifting from the point, here."
"I want a real job. I want a real life."
"I have a real job. And a real life. Okay, it's a freaky weird life, but it's real."
"I'll think about it. That's all. It's not like the world's having a hero shortage."
Roy frowned. "There's always a hero shortage," he said.
Her first night working at Chaney's, some guy caught on fire. It didn't seem to bother him any, but the owners told her to throw him out, on account of something about the fire code. Grace showed him the door and watched him weave his way down the street, sizzling softly, and she threw her head back and laughed.
A few months later there was some trouble at the door, and when Grace went to take care of it she found herself staring at Superman. She recognized him well enough from TV. She took a deep breath. "No costumes," she said.
"I just need to talk to someone who's in there," he said. "I'm not here to make trouble."
"No costumes. I don't make the rules."
He tilted his head to one side a little bit and looked her up and down. "And what if I say I'm going in anyway?"
She shrugged. "You want in, you've got to go through me."
"That's not a fight you can win."
"It'll be worth it to say I mixed it up with Superman."
He smiled a little. "Will it?"
"You know, your friends say you're a real Boy Scout."
"And you have something against the Boy Scouts?"
"Just an observation."
"I already knew they said that. How about moving out of the way?"
"Nope. Sorry." Grace wondered just how much getting hit by Superman would hurt, but she figured it really would be worth it.
"If you're going to be that way about it," he said, and disappeared in a blur of blue and red. Pretty soon, a tall, black-haired woman walked up, looking around curiously. She was wearing jeans and a white shirt, which looked more like a costume than Superman's tights had. Grace envied her shoulders.
"Superman said you gave him trouble," she said, her lips twitching.
"We don't allow costumes," Grace said. "And there's no fighting inside."
"I'll keep that in mind," the woman said. She didn't return Grace's frankly appreciative gaze, but she didn't seem surprised by it, either.
"Don't tell me you're Wonder Woman," Grace said as the woman brushed past her into the club.
"As you like," the woman said over her shoulder, looking a little puzzled.
All Grace could do was laugh.
Anissa found Grace at Chaney's after midnight, watching the strobe lights turn the crowd blue and red and green by turns. She sat down at Grace's table without being asked, sliding a couple of beer bottles out of the way.
"I thought you might want to talk," Anissa said.
"I mean, about --"
"I know what the fuck about."
"It always helps me to talk to my friends."
"Yeah, well, you are not me."
"I know," Anissa said seriously. "I still get scared."
"I can't hold your hand tonight," Grace said. "Okay? I can't."
"I didn't mean that. I just --"
Grace shoved her chair back from the table abruptly. "I'm not here to talk. I'm here to dance. You want to dance?"
"I can dance," Anissa said.
Out on the dance floor she let the beat pound through her skull and the soles of her feet, working hard, working up a sweat. Anissa moved pretty well, but she stiffened a bit when they started attracting attention from drunk men with hungry faces. Grace met their eyes without missing a beat.
She wasn't about to look away, because she was strong.
Reference images taken from OUTSIDERS #1 and #18.
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