Argh I was supposed to be updating the Shifty fic, but the next chapter of it has stalled a bit, because I need to rewatch a couple of episodes for some context (and I don't always like rewatching post series-5 episodes so I've been procrastinating), so hopefully it'll come in the next week or so. I've also been feeling a lot of Joetina love and feels recently, partially because of rewatching early episodes, partly because of the awesome fics you guys have been doing which I have been loving, which means I've been more motivated to work on this Joetina fic and that's all I've done this fortnight, fic-wise.
This fic will be the final fic in the At The End of the Day-verse and tie up a lot of issues concerning Martina that are brought up in other fics in this 'verse, as most of the other fics I've done have been leading up to it in some way. I've been working on it for seven years and it is massive, and I probably will spend a bit more time fine-tuning it, and finishing off the Shifty fic before I upload more, because there are some things that directly tie in with what happens to Shifty and some things that are a bit dark that I need to make sure nobody hates me for. But I had to get one part of it out my system before my head was cleared to keep going with Fear of God, so here be some depressing Joetina. I promise this fic has a happy ending, so please don't hate me.
Also, as usual, I own nothing, original Joey in mind, and so on.
'Number Twelve!' calls the girl on the end counter, and Joey gets up, trying to keep his confident gait in check, even though he's feeling more and more like a prat as the seconds tick by. He lowers himself into the chair, and the girl eyes him up and down, a look on her face that's half disgust, half trying not to laugh. Joey realises waltzing into the DHSS in all his finery probably wasn't a good idea. He doesn't fit the picture of a destitute trying to sort out his family, and while his new stream of income is keeping his family afloat for now, he's aware it's not stable. Could dry up any minute. They need these allowances. And he might have put his foot in it, ruined his chances. Not exactly what he was going for. Oh, well. He'll push on anyway. Try and ooze a confidence he doesn't feel, charm as best as he can. Bluff his way through the interview, for his family's sake. Shouldn't be too difficult.
He's taken aback when he gets a good look at her, though. He'd assumed they were all older, with their matching frowns and starched shirts, their voices dripping with hatred for the world, but this girl is young. God, she must be younger than him, and yet there's a pain in her face that says she's already been through a lifetime of suffering. How do you get destroyed by life, so young?
An image of his Dad flashes into his brain, disappearing up the street with his hair flying away, Lilo Lil on his mind. Something like that, Joey supposes. Something like that.
'And what have we got here?' the girl's voice is mocking. Her mouth twists, smirking at him, a disbelieving, are you serious smile rather than a friendly one. 'Flash Harry in all his flash gear!'
She eyes him up and down, pointedly, and a part of Joey senses he's losing his dignity pretty quickly. Why did you wear the leather and gold here, you pillock?! His brain screams at him, clashing with the part of him that's, humiliatingly, thinking about sex. She's an attractive girl, beneath that terrible hair and terrible clothing. Her eyes, burning holes of disdain through him like an x-ray, are nonetheless arresting. They knock him back. He's never seen eyes that big on a woman, nor that beautiful (including Roxy's, he thinks with a pang of guilt). They're the colour of the sky when the clouds part after the rain.
Not impressed. Her face doesn't change.
'There's clearly nothing we can give you that you don't have already. So why are you here?'
'I,' he tries again, one last-ditch attempt to bring the situation back under his control, play it his way. 'Am Joey. Joey Boswell.'
He holds out her hand to her. She doesn't take it.
'Oh, yeah?' He's never been able to raise one eyebrow at a time. The girl can do it, and she does it now. It's unnerving.
She narrows her eyes, and then takes the hand he's proffering, a strange smile on her face that sets danger bells off in Joey's brain.
'Martina,' she offers, and then her face becomes vicious, and her voice a thousand knives in his back, 'and I'll tell you now, that wall-to-wall winning smile doesn't work on me, so pack it away and get to the reason why you're here.' She squeezes his hand painfully hard, a clear warning, before she releases him.
It's not working. He's never met someone so unimpressed with him before, someone on whom his affable, lovable nature has no effect, who won't let him talk his way out of a corner as he's used to doing. It's a bit on the terrifying side, only he won't let on. It's also a bit on the arousing side, only he definitely won't let on about that one.
He tries his best, anyway. Gives her the speech he's been rehearsing, hamming up the dramatics a bit in a desperate attempt to secure some pity, tells her of his family's predicament, his father's sudden departure, their lack of incomes meaning there are now six of them – or seven, if you count poor, aged Grandad next door – all in need of basic comforts. How they have nothing. How they need something.
'Oh, yeah? Have nothin', do yer?'
'Nothing that hasn't come to us by chance, tiny little pittances the wind blew our way in a generous gesture of fate.'
'Oh? And bits of gold just dug themselves out of the ground, melted themselves down and turned into gold rings and chains, did they? Grew little legs and walked to your house and climbed onto you, did they?'
Joey gets the sense this is a mental boxing match, and she's just delivered him a killer blow. He picks the first line that blows through his mind.
'Heirlooms. Reminders of better times.'
'Supposing you sold them? You could live off that lot for a few months.'
'With seven mouths to feed? And when it runs out, what then?'
He suspects he might actually have clawed his way back up a little.
Martina's mouth twists into a thin line. She peels a piece of paper off a stack on her desk and slaps it down in front of him.
'I'll put you down to sign-on on Tuesday. We've got a free slot at ten. Put your details down here and sign there and I'll fix it up for you.'
'Oh, I'm busy on Tuesday.' He's got a bit of work arranged for that time, and he's been promised a good few quid. Not that he's going to tell her that.
'I beg your pardon!' If he thought Martina had a general pissed-off-ishness about her, that's nothing compared to how pissed off she is now. Her eyes have doubled in size. Which is attractive in itself, although Joey suspects he's in trouble again, and he should be focussing on that.
'You don't decide you can't be bothered to sign-on when it's your allocated time!'
'I…' he tries one last time, 'am a Boswell, you see.' He says this with some pride, even though he's not sure where he's going with this point, making it up as he goes along. 'We are an honourable family. We stick together – and if one of my beloved, united family needs help at a certain time, I'm going to be there to offer my support. I'll have to reschedule your little signing appointment.'
She does that single eyebrow raise again, a desirably wicked expression on her face.
'I didn't realise I was in the presence of royalty.' Sarcasm at its finest, her voice so thick with it it's like poisoned honey. 'I'll have one of our valets come round and park your car.'
'What makes you think I've got a car?'
'You've got everything else. Stands to reason.'
She's right, though. He should probably get round to getting one. Proper decent one, if he can find one. One that says dignity and style, not a van like Jack's that says poor sod. One that says don't mess with me, or I can end you.
Martina hasn't finished.
'Everyone who comes in here thinks they're special. Everyone's got families with their own little sad stories, with so-called important things they need, thinking they're deserving of different treatment from the rest. Everyone thinks they're better than, above being on assistance, and yet they all come crawling in here to me every week to grovel and scrounge for their giro. What makes you think you're any more exempt from the rules than anyone else?'
She's floored him. Somewhere outside the ring, an umpire is counting the seconds. Joey's got nothing.
'You sign-on when I say you sign-on. Not when you think it's convenient for you. If you want something for nothing, that's how it is.' She pushes the form at him again, tapping the bottom of it. 'Sign.'
Joey feels himself frozen, his mouth the only thing moving, but words not coming out. The umpire's got to ten. He's out of the fight. Defeated.
Joey signs the form she's given him, wishing he had a pen that played music so he could annoy her and bring her down from her pedestal, feeling the humiliation burning on his face. He'll have to try and reschedule his job. Or not turn up to sign-on, although he can't risk the stability of regular money for the family. He'll have to make this work, somehow.
He pushes back the form, still stuck for words, still feeling his face is on fire, and she must have noticed.
'Good day to you,' he mutters, and gets up from the chair quickly, lest he notice her face and see what destroying look she's got on it.
He shouldn't turn back, but something compels him to.
She's smirking at him, leaning back in her chair.
'Don't forget to breathe, will yer?'
Joey finally finds his voice, brings out what she's just called his wall-to-wall-winning-smile, the tease strengthening him just enough to pull himself back together.
'Bit hard with you around.' He takes her hand, kisses it. Her hand cream smells nice. Roses, Joey thinks.
'Oh, good.' She snatches her hand away. 'A few more visits here and we'll have asphyxiated you out of the need for a giro.'
And she laughs. Well, in the broadest sense of the word. She's got her hand over her mouth, trying not to let him see her doing it.
And a stray, rebellious thought comes across Joey's brain, one that guilts him enormously, because he's still holding on hope that Roxy's phone call ending it might have been Billy getting it wrong, that they can still work out, that she might still one day take him back. But it's one that at least gets him through the rest of another struggle of a day trying to hold his family together while they readjust.
Now, that's the sort of girl I'd like to marry.
He leaves grinning from ear to ear, in spite of himself.
Joey buys a 1950s classic Jaguar the following week, a lithe, black bird of a car that glides like nothing he's ever experienced before, that cost him fifteen thousand pounds, that oozes style and ill-earned money, and deliberately parks it out the front of the DHSS as she's leaving for the day. Just to see the look on her face.
It doesn't disappoint.
It's their fifteenth wedding anniversary today.
Joey hasn't forgotten, but he doesn't know if he should say anything. If he should pick up his phone and ring her. Text her, even.
Fifteen years married. Nearly thirty he's known her, give or take a couple of years.
She's seen him from the beginning of his glory days, when he was still building his image, a reaction to having to step up and take care of his family, when he hadn't quite got the suave act down yet but was trying to shape himself into something strong and confident enough to get through it all. She's held his heart in her hands while he healed from a bitter divorce from Roxy, and the loss of a child who meant as much to him as if he were his own, and she's put it back together again.
He's seen her tease and taunt him in the DHSS (then DSS, then DWP), her sharp words and forbidding stare hiding suffering she doesn't want the world to see. He's seen her struggle through her multiple attempts to make things work with Shifty, eventually taking hold of her heart when she let Shifty go, caressing both it and her trust back to health, loving her into a truer sense of security than she's felt in years.
They've brought up a spectacular daughter together (or at least got her to thirteen so far without anything too bad happening, apart from the fact that she's a bit on the obnoxious side).
Today should mean something. They should be celebrating, Joey thinks, curling in on himself in bed, reaching across into the empty space where Martina should be, stroking it as he wishes he could be stroking her. It shouldn't be like this.
She doesn't remember. Or perhaps she does, but she's got other things on her mind.
She's not even here.
Joey doesn't know where she is, but he suspects he knows what she's doing. And it could either save her, or it could destroy the last shreds of her.
God, he hopes she manages. That she comes back to him, alive and well. That he doesn't get another phone call from a morgue somewhere, to inform him that another person he loves more than life itself has died in a fiery wreck of their own making.
And on the morning of his fifteenth wedding anniversary, Joey finds himself shaking and crying, his limbs wrapped around Martina's pillow, unsure whether it's from hurt, guilt, desperation or fear.
Because Martina is gone, and he doesn't know where, and he's got nearly three decades' worth of memories looping through his head, the wonderful times mingling and meshing with the hard ones, with the ones where Martina was struggling, where another shard of guilt-glass pierces his heart and reminds him that he knew. He knew all along what she was going through. That he needed to step up and take the reins from her, and get her the help she needed. And he didn't. Because he wanted her to do it herself. What a daft bastard.
And the good memories assault him, because he wishes they were still going on now, and the bad ones assault him with reminders that he's a failure. That he failed her.
'This is it! This is the bit I like,' Martina says, as Joey starts to spout his story again, raising one finger, a smug smile on her face, and then she presses a button and a sad violin song fills the DHSS.
And Joey wants to grin, laugh, maybe flick her mouth with his finger because her face looks far too serious and he'd love to try and force a laugh from her, too. But instead he goes along with it, adopts a mournful tone, goes through the spiel about the suit for Jack and Billy again.
He's running out of material, though, and he wants to add to the tease, names the composer of the piece that's playing, throws in the dates of his birth and death, hums along to the song, until he's successfully annoyed her enough to snap off the tape recorder and listen to him again.
God, but he loves winding her up. And he loves that, for whatever reason, she's starting to enjoy winding him up, too.
'Throat-cutting, wrist-slashing, tablet-swallowing, stick-my-finger-in-an-electric-socket despair,' Martina says when Joey checks on her after Shifty's letdown, and Joey panics, even as he teases her about her hair in an attempt to snap her out of it.
'Have you ever been in love, Mister Boswell?' Martina asks him, reaching for him with her words, in desperate need of comfort, reassurance, something to hold onto, and he responds, gives her what she needs, settles her out of her suicidal comments, which he hopes to Heaven she didn't mean.
She's okay by the time he leaves her, but Joey still worries.
Worries how many times she's had thoughts like that before, and how many times she might again.
'I – have—been – caught – by – the – tax – man,' Joey says dramatically when she asks him to repeat his bad news. He should be angry by how overjoyed she is at this turn of events, but he can't help being brightened by her evilly astounded grin.
'Oh, God.' She's practically orgasming in her seat. 'It's better than food. Money. Sex. He's been caught by the tax man!'
Her reaction is amusing enough to Joey that, even in his dire situation, he buys her lunch.
'I suppose,' Martina confides in him one day, when they've reached a level of friendship close enough that they can mock Shifty's friendly soul mother excuse for everything together, 'if you follow that theory, it does explain a lot. My childhood was miserable. I had one parent who was a gambler, one who cared about nothing, and neither of them cared about me – I had an alcoholic brother who's still on the run for robbery; a bad influence, but I loved 'im all the same and then he left – I suppose all that's why my life is so hopeless. Why I'm so hopeless.'
Joey feels his blood run cold at this comment. 'You're not hopeless, sweetheart! Don't think that!'
He spends the rest of his life trying to convince her otherwise – but he's not sure if he ever dislodges it from somewhere in her brain.
'I love you…Joey,' she says, standing out on Kelsall Street with him, arms around his waist, tears in her eyes, having messed him around back and forth before finally making up her mind about him. Calling him by his first name for the first time, without drunkenness or mockery involved. She rests her head against his chest, relaxing for the first time in what must be months now, visibly secure in his embrace, and Joey's heart soars and sings. She's finally let him in. And he's not letting her shut him out again.
'Tell me that just one more time,' he whispers.
Joey proposes to her four times. Once when she wakes up in the morning, once with a ring she dubs 'hideous,' once in the DSS, and once in the middle of having sex on her sofa (bad idea, that one).
And he's rejected four times.
He takes her down the docks and asks her to get a house with him, and is rejected for that too.
'Everyone in my life, Joey, everyone I've loved has either abandoned me or hurt me again. I'm not puttin' meself on the line only for somethin' like that to happen yet again.'
'I don't know that, do I?'
'You do know that,' Joey says firmly. He's not going to let her give up on their future this easily, and he keeps working on it, keeps her close, keeps reassuring her.
By the end of that day, she's looked up at him, eyes big and blue and trusting, and asked him to marry her.
'Pretendin' to be sick,' Joey teases, when Martina wakes up one morning when they're newly married and decides on a whim to wag work to be with him. 'Tsk. Naughty, naughty girl. Not up to catchin' out cheats, then?'
'You've corrupted me. And besides, what's the point in chasin' down the cheats when I know exactly where the ringleader is?'
She looks so beautiful and sleepy and sexy, and that comment just pushes him over the line into an ecstasy he can't contain.
'I did warn you, luv,' Martina says gently, combing her hands through his hair as he rambles on, hysterical about Roxy's latest ploy, about her inability to stop tormenting him even though he's remarried and moved on, because he still loves her son.
'I'm not. I'm just sayin'. She knows that boy is yer weak spot, and if she makes you think you have a good hope of getting 'im back, she can own you for life.'
It shocks Joey to his core sometimes how much she understands. Whatever she's been through, whether it's Shifty or the part of her life before she met any of them, she understands him better than anyone else ever can.
'He's not my only weak spot,' he says, reaching his head up to kiss her, overwhelmed by his gratitude for her strength when he needs her the most.
'We made that.' Joey is in awe, looking at the small bundle of Belle in Martina's arms, the doctors around them still taking the screen down from across her middle. 'I mean…I know not really, but…'
'I know what you mean, love,' Martina has never smiled so beautifully, or so authentically. 'I know what you mean.'
And Joey looks at the both of them and he's never felt a love so strong as in that moment.
'He doesn't like me, Joey!' Martina lets out a shriek as Edgar II in his big, hulking glory ambles up to her, pushing his snout up her skirt. 'I'm gonna end up dead.'
'He does, look! He fancies you, see!'
Joey has never seen Martina irrationally afraid before, but God, if he'd known she was scared of big dogs, he'd probably have bought one years ago, if only for the entertainment value. She's got up onto a kitchen chair now, looking terrified, Edgar II reaching up to nip and nuzzle around her ankles.
'Oh, don't be daft, sweetheart! Nothin' to be worried about!'
'I'll probably wake up one morning to find 'im eatin' me face off.'
Joey roars with laughter then, her uncharacteristic histrionics too much for him to keep a straight face, and he can't resist grabbing her around the waist, pulling her forcibly off the chair. She clings to him, though the aggression in it suggests she'd dearly love to murder him, if she weren't so panic-stricken he was going to drop her.
'Watch out! I'm gonna feed you to 'im, Martina!' Joey teases. 'I'm gonna feed you to 'im!'
'Don't you dare!' she shrieks. 'I'm tellin' you now, Joey,' she clings tighter to him as he tries to lower her in front of the dog, kicking him in the shin, 'as soon as your back's turned, I'm getting rid of that thing!'
In spite of her dramatics, it only takes three days for her to warm to the idea of having a big dog around the house. Joey returns home from a late-night job, smiling when he sees Edgar II stretched out across the foot of their bed, Martina asleep in it without a care in the world.
'How 'bout this,' Joey says, pouring Baileys into Martina's glass, snorting at the mess of gingerbread on the table that was supposed to be a Christmas surprise for their daughter, but has turned instead into a war between them, 'we put the pieces together again, and if it gets knocked down, whoever's fault it is has to drink.'
'That sounds like a recipe for disaster.'
'Worried it might be you?'
He has her there and he knows it. She enjoys their little competitions too much. She always has.
'Am I on, then?'
'Oh, you're on, Mister Boswell,' that wicked smile is so attractive he's tempted to concede so he can shag her over the table instead, only he doesn't, because he wants to win this, 'you're on.'
They get spectacularly pissed. Martina still cringes at that memory, but it's one of his favourites.
' I just thought, Joey,' Martina's voice is soft, fragile, and it's worse than her usual hard tones and forbidding stare, 'that perhaps one day you'd wake up and realise that we were enough. Me and Annabelle.'
Joey feels the guilt chewing through his insides. He's wanted to find Oscar Hartwell for so long, he's been blinded to what's going on in front of him. Oscar, who had once hero-worshipped him, who he's missed for so many years, who he'd vowed he'd contact when he turned eighteen.
Oscar, who has, heartbreakingly, grown into another Roxy. Who contacts him only when he wants money. Who's conned Joey out of five thousand quid – five thousand quid that they could do with, right now.
Joey reaches out, touches Martina's arm. She shrugs it away.
'Why weren't we, Joey?'
He's wounded her deeper than he realised – and it's going to take a long time for her to get over this.
Joey doesn't know what to say.
'Bad day?' Joey slides into bed beside her, pulling her against him, brushing her hair from her face.
He can tell when the DWP is the cause of her problems, and it is now. There are marks around her wrist which suggest someone's grabbed her to threaten her, she's shaking, which suggests the threat was graphically violent, as they are more frequently these days.
Martina nods, curling into him, her body relaxing from his touch, though he can still feel an undercurrent of tension running through her.
'Leave it, Martina. Just walk away from it.' He kisses her forehead. 'You know I make enough for both of us.'
He feels her tense again.
'I'm not leavin' my job, Joey.' It's an argument they've had a thousand times, when she's come home in tears because a dying old destitute can't be given anything and cries, while a shedload of nineteen-year-old liars walk away grinning with money they didn't earn and don't need, when someone's struck her across the face, shooting the messenger, when someone from inside the DWP has seen her outside of it and hurled verbal abuse at her from across the road, or in the park when she's trying to enjoy herself and ruined her day.
'One of us needs to do something honest, love,' Martina insists, the one straw man argument she has to cover up the fact that she's just too afraid of change, 'for Annabelle.'
'You could do summat else honest. Anything!'
'I'm no good at anything else.'
Which means she just can't be arsed to try. Or she's too afraid of the consequences if she fails, but doesn't want to admit it.
Joey holds her to him, sighing, and wishing she'd be less stubborn.
'Sometimes, Joey,' Martina says, her voice and eyes distant, 'I feel so far away from you I don't know what to do.'
'I love you, Martina,' he says, pitifully, desperately, before she gets out the car.
'I know.' Her voice is flat. She didn't actually say the words back. But it's all she can muster right now, and Joey holds onto it as tightly as he can.
It's the last thing she says to him before she disappears from his sight.
There have been good times, and there's been so much love he's fit to burst with it. But there were so many signs he saw and ignored, or saw, worried about, and then pushed to the back of his mind.
And he's watched Martina slowly deteriorate over the years, her threshold for what she can take slowly lowering until she seems to be treading water every day, on the edge of a breakdown every moment.
Joey isn't sure exactly what the final straw was, what pushed her over the edge, but now she's gone over it, and he has never felt so helpless. He should have helped her. He should have done something, and now it's too late. She's lost. If not physically (she seemed to know where she was going), in her mind she is.
Joey thinks of her beautifully wicked smile, that he's come to know and love, and then remembers her expressionless face the last time he saw her empty, glassy eyes staring back at him, and wonders how he could have let things get to this point.