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About TheZot

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  2. "It was great once," said the sorcerer, pacing wildly and wringing his hands. His voice had a sing-song quality to it, and William was pretty sure that the man had finally gone completely mad. Or had been taken over by one of the spirits he had been speaking to. Either way, he was unpredictable, and dangerous. "This was a great city. Magnificent, a city for the ages, all great and powerful. There was a flaw, though," the sorcerer said, turning his gaze to William. His eyes were green and brown, the same green as the city's magic. Green, brown, and insane. "Contamination. A source of power, yes, but contamination, ruining the city. It was cleansed, oh, yes, it was cleansed. We cleansed it!" The sorcerer's tone was one of triumph as he shook his balled fists at the air. "But…" William prompted. The sorcerer spun, a wild expression on his face. A little bit of spittle running down the corner of his mouth, and droplets of it were flung around with his sudden movement. "But there was damage! Damage and we were without power. We languished for so very long, broken, and without a focus to fix ourselves." He seemed to draw into himself as he said this, then exploded outward. "Now, we live again, we can work again. We shall be great again!" He gave a mad laugh and it echoed weirdly down the hall, sounding as if there were two voices instead of one. William had a good idea where the power was coming from, and he seriously doubted that the life energy of a half dozen people would be enough to fix the city. He certainly didn't want to be one of the ones used in the failed attempt, and wasn't sure if success might be even worse than failure. The spirit of the city that the sorcerer had tapped into was obviously insane, as was the sorcerer itself, and from the condition of the women here they clearly had no regard for the people they used. It was time to put a stop to this madman and his wild scheme, and for that William needed Ben. Hoping Ben was near, and knowing he had to be quick in case he was overheard, William reached out and nearly shouted with his mind. Ben. Madman in the central tower, possessed by the city. Uses people for power, he's looking to... William was cut off mid-thought by the sorcerer. "Silence!" he shouted.Yellow and gold pinwheels flared at each of his shoulders as the sorcerer called two of his spirits to action. They darted out, spinning madly and throwing off fat white sparks as they flew at William. He dove aside and tried to deflect them, raising his hand in an attempt to weave a half-remembered spirit guard spell, but William's memory was incomplete and his hands too slow – the spirits slammed into him, one into his outstretched arm, the other into his head. A massive jolt of electricity flowed between them as his body crashed to the ground, jerking spasmodically; the pain of the impact dwarfed by that of the fire that danced in his veins. Then darkness, blissful darkness, fell. * * * "So I should go kill this controller and all will be well? What's to stop someone else from coming in and starting all over?" "Because the city is a self-contained pocket realm with gateways only open when the city is active, of course," Drosnen said, again sounding contemptuous. "That means, barbarian," he said, speaking slowly and enunciating clearly in the way people do when speaking to small children and idiots, "that if you take the people out it will be hidden again." "Can we get out?" Ben hardly relished the idea of being trapped inside the realm when its gates closed. "Yes, of course, don't be stupid. Out is easy," Drosnen said, waving away the objection. "Fine," Ben said. "Still, why should I help you? If the controller has the city behind him we're better off ignoring him, grabbing the girl, and leaving." "Because, barbarian," Drosnan said, a nasty smile on his face, "the controller has your partner." Ben scowled, not quite willing to believe Drosnen, yet more than willing to believe that William had gotten himself into deep trouble. William's message reached him then, and Ben stiffened as a small part of the shock that fell William was transmitted across their link and ran through his body. William lived, Ben could tell, but nothing past that; no idea how badly injured he might be. A fury swept over Ben, driving away his caution and his curiosity, leaving only a burning need to find William and rescue him. "You," he spat at Drosnen, "where is he?" "I hardly think you're in any position to make demands," the construct said with a contemptuous sneer. Ben touched the symbol-inscribed band around his left bicep and spoke a single, harsh syllable. His left hand glowed a pale gold as it shot out and grabbed Drosnan by the throat. Much to the construct's surprise, Ben could touch him. Touch him and squeeze, quite uncomfortably. "Positions change, construct," Ben said, the tip of his sword touching Drosnen's chest. Like Ben's hand, the sword made contact as well, cutting through the fabric of Drosnen's shirt. A tiny amount of blood appeared around the sword's point and trickled down the blade. The drip fell off the edge, turning into a tangle of wispy threads and disappearing a few inches before the floor. Ben paid it no mind. "He's in the central control room with the controller and five other people and the city's central consciousness and the city is preparing to power up," Drosnen babbled, afraid for the first time since his imprinting millennia ago that he might be hurt. "Access. Where?" Each word was emphasized with a squeeze. "Out the door on the other side of the room, down the corridor, third on the left!" Ben released Drosnen and sprinted across the room, fear and worry building with each step. The door Drosnen had mentioned was wide open, and the lights in the hallway beyond were lit just far enough to make it clear which door Ben should take. The stairs flew past as Ben ran to the top, slowing just before crossing the threshold, taking one last breath. He knew that as soon as he set foot off the stairs the city proper would know where he was. "Barbarian!" The voice boomed out across the hall as Ben exited the stairwell. He'd emerged at the midpoint of the great hall and turned to his right to look down to the end. "I have your friend, barbarian! I could kill him if I chose!" The words were accompanied by a tittering laughter, making it clear the speaker was dancing on the knife-edge of insanity. The speaker, the hooded sorcerer that William had earlier encountered, was sitting in the large central chair in the middle of the dais. In one hand he held a blade, bigger than a knife but smaller than a sword, and in the other he held... William. Ben could see him, white hair and bangles distinctive even at this distance, slumped and unconscious. The seats on either side of him, and their occupants, barely registered. This man had roused an insane, murderous city, kidnapped an innocent girl, and now threatened William. Fury rose in Ben, fury and fire and rage. He moved, slowly approaching, sword in hand. It hung low, near to dragging on the ground, but clearly ready, only a flick of the wrist away from dealing death. Runes, writ in black and gold, twined up the blade and pale flames danced along its edge. With each step the wind around him grew in strength, whipping around him as he approached, dust and grass circling him, outlining the cyclone. The flames spread, moving up his arm and around his body, the wind making them flicker and dance, tongues of yellow and orange, seemingly innocent, consuming nothing but somehow promising pain. His gaze was fixed on the sorcerer in front of him. A faint glow could be seen from deep inside Ben's eyes, visible if you could meet his gaze, tolerate the cold hatred that dwelt within it. The sorcerer couldn't, the laughter dying in his throat. Behind the sorcerer one of the gemstones inset in the wall, on the edge of the pattern, twinkled. A construct of dirt and grass leapt at Ben from behind a broken slab of rock. Ben's sword flashed out once, cleaving it in half, the twin pieces falling to the ground, burning. His head never moved, his pace never faltered. Behind him his footsteps were obvious, blackened prints in the dried grass set farther apart than they should have been. Ben was covering ground though his stride was slow and even. "Let him go." The words were said quietly, but they carried on the wind. The sorcerer heard them clearly, heard the menace the wind carried with them. "N…no," the sorcerer replied. He cursed the quaver in his voice and the shaking in his hand. The knifepoint he held at William's throat moved in a nervous dance, the long blade amplifying the twitching of his hand. The voices around him were whispering, urging him to hold fast, to take action. The wall panel behind the sorcerer started to glow again. A pair of stones glimmered, the scrollwork connecting them pulsed with a deep green light. Two more constructs leapt out. They fell to the ground in burning heaps before they got near. Ben hadn't bothered with the sword. The vortex around him grew larger, pushing outward, carrying the flames with it. "Let. Him. Go." The words were spoken softly, but the sorcerer flinched with each like they were blows. His face broke out in a sweat, his tunic showing ragged smoldering tears, as if struck by a beast with burning claws. The whirlwind licked at the edge of the dais, stopping at the edge. Something glimmered there, a curtain of force only visible where it stopped the whirlwind, the swirling grass beating against it, the flames licking along its surface. No further, barbarian," said the sorcerer. Any strength had fled from his voice, leaving it thin and reedy. The implied threat was almost laughable, save for the point of the knife so close to William's exposed neck. The entire wall behind him was active now. Gemstones glittered and flashed all across it, while green and brown pulses of light raced around the intricate tracery of lines that connected them. From all around the dais they arose, a score or more, twisted reptilian creatures, borne of magic, built from stone and grass. It didn't matter. Even before they fully formed the constructs exploded, fist-sized stones and burning grass flying everywhere. Nothing reached Ben, the wall of wind surrounding him deflecting everything, sending the pieces flying to smash against the fallen columns and distant walls. Ben reached the foot of the dais, the wall of wind and force in front of him making the air shimmer and dance. The sword flicked out, once, twice, slicing through the barrier as if it were nothing but air, the sparkling trails it left the only sign there had been anything there. He never stopped, never slowed, always moving forward like a force of nature. "No! NO!" The sorcerer screamed as Ben mounted the stairs. He waved the knife at Ben, the voices and his fear eating away at his sanity like an acid on marble. William slumped to the ground as the arm supporting him instead waved at Ben, tracing a rune of summoning into the air. Behind him the gemstones in the mosaic wall all glowed, pulsing green and white. The ground shook, knocking down the few columns that had survived upright. The burning constructs all flared at once, burning away every last flammable bit, the hot stones shattering with the sudden heat. From far behind Ben, at the other end of the massive hall, came a deep rumble. The ground shook, and a massive construct, taller than the ceiling and hunched over to fit, rose from the floor of the hall. Its thunderous footfalls causing the entire building to shake as it came. Ben ignored it as he reached the top of the stairs and stalked towards the sorcerer. The rumbling of the hall as it shook, the crash of the columns as they fell, the roar of the creature as it approached, they were all ignored as Ben moved. The expression on the sorcerer's face was one of sheer terror, his eyes so wide they seemed to bulge, his body shaking so much he could barely hold onto his dagger. "I'll kill him," shrieked the sorcerer. He raised his dagger to strike, ready to plunge it into William's unconscious body, sealing his fate. Ben leapt forward, crossing the distance between them in a heartbeat. The gem in the pendant around the sorcerer's neck flared briefly, but fell dark as Ben's sword thrust through it and deep into the sorcerer's body. The sword hilt slammed into the pendant and shattered it, the sorcerer shuddered, and rumbling in the hall subsided as the life fled the body impaled on the sword. Ben relaxed his arm the lifeless body slid off the sword and slump on the ground. Ben knelt down and checked William. He knew William was still alive, knew the link they shared was still intact, but worried William had been injured by the shock that had rendered him unconscious. He had nothing that would help here, the healing salves and poultices he carried good for cuts and burns, potions that would help speed the knitting of broken bones or curse diseases, but nothing that would help this. For the first time in years he cursed the accident that robbed him of his Sight, that stole the ability to cast spells. He knew a dozen ways to heal William and could use none of them. In desperation he put his hand on William's forehead and relaxed, trying to let the mana he still had flow across the link they shared and into William, hoping that would be enough. "Hey," William said weakly, his eyelids fluttering as he woke, "fancy meeting you here." "You alright?" Ben asked, his normally gruff voice gentle. "Yeah," William said, sitting up slowly. "Everything tingles." He winced and rubbed the back of his head. "Tingles and aches. The sorcerer?" "Dead," Ben replied, his glance flicking to the corpse to make sure. "The other girls?" Ben looked around. In a seat to his left he saw a woman, slumped down, though still breathing. There was no one else in the room. "Only one here," Ben said. "Ah, damn," William said, trying to stand. His legs were wobbly and he didn't quite make it. Ben had to catch him, holding him upright as William leaned into him. "There were four others, though they really didn't look good." "Are you in a state for a healing spell?" Ben asked, looking at William. William's eyes were a little glazed and Ben could feel him shaking a little. "Gimme a second," William said. Ben could feel him relax, could feel the connection between them open, could feel the thudding in William's head subside a little. William muttered a few words of power and Ben felt the familiar tingle of magic as the simple spell cleared away the fog from William's brain and the numbness from his body. "That'll do until I can get someplace I'm not thinking will try and kill me," William said. Ben released him and was glad to see William capable of standing on his own. "We need to get the girl and get out of here," Ben said. "Right. And these damn pendants have got to go," William said, stripping his off and tossing it away before moving over to the girl and removing hers. He was happy to see the gem in the center was still dark. "No souvenirs?" Ben's voice had an amused chuckle to it. William shivered. "No. Not a chance. Not from here, not ever." Despite that, Ben slipped the sorcerer's broken pendant into a pocket inside his cloak. Harmless, he hoped, with the gemstone destroyed, but perhaps it would be enough to allow them to return later. Despite its dangers the city had secrets that Ben found nearly irresistible. William frowned and looked up. His skin was prickling with the feeling of a chill breeze, that deep uneasy feeling again troubling him. Wind was something that shouldn't be happening inside a building, even one as big as this one. He risked letting his Sight shift over, wincing with pain as his head throbbed. The threads were thick and trembling as if they were being buffeted by a gale, streaming towards the far end of the hall. At the end, in the distance William could see a maelstrom, a swirling storm of magic, growing larger by the second. It was dark and menacing, and William could hear a quiet roar, like a distant hurricane. "Ben," William said, turning to him. "We need to go. Now." Wasting no time with questions, Ben turned, grabbed the girl, and threw her limp body over his shoulder. Together they ran to the stairs that led up to the central tower, Ben in the lead, William following close behind, shouting the words of the impromptu shielding spell he had made earlier. He drew as much power as he could, as much as he dared, from himself and Ben, hoping it would be enough to protect them from the storm he knew would soon come. The building shuddered as they ran, both of them feeling the phantom wind, now coming from behind them. They felt it blow, felt the chill, felt it picking at them, though it made no trace in the dust of the room, had no effect on their clothing. There was no doubt a storm was raging, and gaining fast. The twin doors in the great central chamber were still open, though they felt the wind. Their movement was irregular but they were swinging shut, caught in the same wind whipping around Ben and William. Ben slowed for a moment, risking the delay, and grabbed a small flask from a pocket in the lining of his cloak. With a word he threw it ahead of them, between the doors. It exploded with a loud bang, the concussion enough to bounce the doors back momentarily, the doorway obscured with acrid smoke which rose lazily towards the ceiling, unaffected by the winds attacking Ben and William. Ben and William ran through it just as the storm overtook them. It was unreal but no less dangerous for that, the mystic fury sweeping past them, the wind pushing them out while unseen hands tried to drag them back. The raw hate burned like cold flame, the madness cut like razors, the fury choked them, and all around was the screaming of a half a million souls, the last shreds of every person the city had consumed. They wailed and shouted, spitting curses and bellowing warnings, trying to help and hinder in a schizophrenic cacophony of the damned. Ben was spared the worst of the attack, his magical blindness for once a useful thing, but even he staggered under the onslaught. William was not so lucky, the storm's mad blast all too clear, and in his weakened state it was nearly too much, the power of the storm nearly knocking him off his feet. Ben grabbed William as he was hit, scant feet from the edge of the stairs. Ben ran, one arm holding the girl on his shoulder, the other holding William, dragging him as much as supporting him as he sprinted down the stairs. He felt the storm weaken as they descended and, on a hunch, dropped to the ground, pulling William down and shielding both he and the girl with his body. The storm raged overhead for a moment, spewing out from the tower, but its power had been spent in the initial blast, and it lasted only a minute longer. It faded away, leaving nothing but a ringing in their ears and a crawly, shuddering feeling at the backs of their necks. Ben shifted a little and sat, looking down the stairs and out across the central road they opened onto. A dozen of the stone constructs stood before them, but they were motionless and dead, even the grass growing on them had turned brown and withered. Ben let out a breath, finally feeling safe. William's daze had passed with the storm and he was up himself, tending to the innkeeper's daughter they'd rescued. She was unconscious still, but unharmed. The city hadn't drawn enough of her life to harm her, and William muttered a healing spell, hoping to rouse her from her stupor. He was leaning over her as he cast the spell, and as her eyes opened his face was the first thing she saw, tanned and noble, flush with power, the sun over his shoulder making his hair glow. "My hero," she said, planting a passionate kiss on William. "Wonderful," Ben said dryly as he watched. "I save the day, and you get the girl."
  3. TheZot


    Huh. Looks like part of the story got cut off for some reason when it got transitioned from the old GA site to here. Weird. I'll see if I can't dig out the whole thing and get it fixed.
  4. I miss your stories - one of the first I read online. Hope you are doing well!

  5. Happy B-Day, Zot! Miss ya.

  6. Happy Birthday Guy,

    I hope you have a FANTASTIC day and a GREAT year :-)

  7. Happy Birthday to one of my favourite authors! =) May you have a wonderful day! *hugs and love*

  8. Happy Birthday

    Have a wonderful day :hug:

  9. You Meet Your Soulmate In The Strangest Places You meet your soul mate in the strangest places. I met mine on the train. It was a Thursday morning; I remember that much. Thursdays are dull, especially in the morning. The weekend's not quite there, you're run down from actually working during the week, and the train's well on its way to being packed -- everyone goes to work on Thursday to try and get things done so they can take Friday off. I was dozing, ignoring the homework I'd promised the kid next door that I'd look at, my headphones on and playing something I couldn't really hear over the noise of the train anyway. I wasn't alone, half the people on the train were asleep. The other half were getting their morning BlackBerry fix. "Is this seat taken?" The voice was nice enough -- masculine, baritone, confident. If it had been later in the day, maybe after a second cup of coffee, I'd have looked up. It wasn't, so I didn't. I shook my head 'no'; I wasn't awake enough to talk. Not awake enough to look up, really. It was morning, I was on the train. You just don't talk to people on the train in the morning. You can imagine my surprise when, instead of sitting next to me, the guy sat on me. I mean ass right in my lap, his back against the train windows and his feet on the empty seat to my right. He even snaked his right arm behind my head and wiggled a little to get comfortable. "Morning," he said in my ear. His breath tickled a little, but not as much as his tongue did when he licked the top of my ear. "Uh, morning?" Surprised or not, it was going to take me a little while to wake up enough to figure out what to do. This was not something I had habits for. He chuckled a little, the vibration of it sending a little thrill through me. "Not a morning person, are you?" he asked. "Mrf," I replied. At this point I was starting to get reacquainted with consciousness. There was a guy. Sitting on my lap. On the train. Part of my brain registered that as very unusual. Another part registered that he smelled nice, a mix of cologne, soap, and guy. He was too close to really see, but he was a brunette. Definitely lean, given how comfortable he was in my lap. There was a pretty good chance he was wearing a suit, too. "'s okay," he said. "The sleepy look is cute on you." That's when he kissed me. No, nothing passionate, just a nice peck on my forehead. His breath smelled of peppermint. It matched the cologne somehow. I just snuggled into him when he did that. I was sleepy and warm, and he was just so damn comfortable. I felt safe. I'd never felt that way with anyone before. "Go back to sleep," he whispered in my ear. I may have heard him say "I love you" as I faded back into sleep. I woke up with a start as the train pulled to a halt into Grand Central. My mystery man was gone, leaving nothing behind but the smell of peppermint and a lingering warmth on my jacket. * * * It was bright and sunny the next morning. It matched my mood and just seemed appropriate. Four of the women on the train platform even gave me a hard time about my passenger yesterday. They nearly always rode together, joking around and having a good time. "No boyfriend this morning?" one of them asked me. I admit, I blushed. I never blush. But, then, I had never snuggled up with a guy on the train either. Nor, come to think of it, ever talked to the other people on the platform. "No," I replied. "Not this morning." "That's a shame," another said. "You make a cute couple." Now it was really getting embarrassing. "Thanks," I said as the train pulled up. Lucky me, no more talking. I stayed awake the whole way into New York, so I'd be there when he got on. It was the first time in a long time I'd done that. He never came. * * * Three days later I had mostly gotten back to normal. There was no sign of my mystery guy, and if it hadn't been for the other people who'd seen him, I'd have chalked it up as a really nice dream. I was in the main lounge at work. It was up on the 30th floor, and the architect had ripped out everything from the elevators at the center to the windows on one side of the building. It was open, airy, bright, and well-stocked with every type of junk food known to mankind. Had a nice view north towards mid-town, too. I was standing in front of the windows, just staring out at the Chrysler Building in the distance and mourning the untimely death of Art Deco architecture. It was bright without glare, the summer sun high enough that it didn't reflect directly off the windows of the buildings in front of ours. Bright and open and cozy, all at the same time. Someone walked up behind me, and I felt a pair of arms wrap around my waist and pull me back. You'd figure I'd have flinched or pulled away or something. Hell, I'd figure that. Instead I just melted into the embrace. It was... nice. Warm, and comforting, with that familiar smell of cologne, soap, and guy, swirling around me. "Hi, there," he said, his mouth right next to my ear. I felt the baritone voice just shoot right through my chest. "Miss me?" I smiled a little. He couldn't see it, but I knew he could feel it. "Yeah, I did," I replied. I felt his arms tighten around me. "I missed you, too." "Why'd you leave?" I asked. His response was interrupted by Angie, one of my co-workers. "Drew, the boss called a meeting on seven. Gotta go!" I groaned inwardly. I did not want my guy to let me go. The sun was warm, the view was spectacular, and I was more comfortable than I could ever remember. "You better be going," he said in my ear. The things that did to me weren't encouraging me to go. I felt his arms start to go loose, and I grabbed on tight. "Don't wanna," I whined. He pulled me in for one last hug. "We don't want you to get in trouble," he said. He was right, though I didn't want to admit it. Duty, or whatever it was, called, and I had to answer. I sighed and let go. "I know," I said, turning to look at him. Today he was in a charcoal grey business suit, which fit him very nicely. The jacket and loose pants hid the fine details, but I was pretty sure the details they hid really were fine. They also covered the temporary name badge Security made all visitors wear, but there was enough showing for me to see his first name. Peter. Pete, rather, since only his mom called him Peter. I wondered, as I made my way to the elevator, why I knew that. * * * "So who was that?" Angie asked, after the meeting broke up. She had the cube next to mine. "Huh?" I frowned at her, my head still trying to wrap itself around the formulas in the spreadsheets that the marketing department had sent us, trying to justify their budget. I wasn't sure if they were outright lying, deeply delusional, or living in a fantasy realm where math worked differently than it did for everyone else. Maybe all three. "That guy you were with this morning. The cute one with his arms wrapped around you." I blushed down to my toes when she said that. Somehow I was thinking that nobody had seen us. With his arms around me it felt like the rest of the world had just faded away, and I guess I figured nobody would notice. "Oh, um ... that was Pete." "Boyfriend?" she teased. "You two make a cute couple." "Thanks," I said. "We're not exactly...." Exactly what? That was a good question. Here was this guy who'd just come up to me, out of the blue, twice. I didn't know his last name, where he lived, what he did, or how he managed to find me. I didn't know anything about him, I realized. Except that wasn't true. His name was Pete, though his mom called him Peter. He liked model railroads, watermelon sherbet, Jacuzzis, German Shepherds, and really spicy Thai food, though it always gave him heartburn. He couldn't stand country music, and the 'Three Stooges' could make him laugh so hard he'd pee himself. I knew that, and I had no idea how. "Hey, Earth to Drew!" "What?" I shook my head, trying to clear it a little. Angie gave me a grin. "Thinking about your boy, huh?" "I guess," I said, feeling a little bashful. I'd been with him all of maybe twenty minutes, and he could drag me into a daydream. "You've got it bad, my friend," she said. "Maybe just a little," I allowed. "Uh huh," she replied with a smile. "Get it any worse and you're going to be doodling his name in little hearts on your desk." I looked down and realized that I had been doing exactly that, all over the top page of the monthly departmental budget summary. Angie followed my eyes down and broke out laughing. "You just better invite me to the wedding," she said as she went back to her desk. I could hear her snickering over the cube wall for the next half hour. * * * On impulse, I picked up a pack of Skittles at the newsstand at Grand Central along with my paper. Dunno what flavor they were, but the bag was a bright sky blue, and blue was his favorite color. Also chocolate was bad, anything sugary was good, but sweet and chewy was best. I slipped the bag into my jacket pocket. Wouldn't hurt to be prepared, just in case. I carried those things around with me for the next week. * * * It had been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. My morning train was late, someone at the office had managed to switch the decaf coffee for the regular, and I'd spent nine damn hours trying to make sense of the numbers they'd dropped on me for an emergency audit report, only to find out at half past six that someone had put four-year-old data into the reporting system by mistake. I was tired, and cranky, and just wanted to go home, or maybe to Australia, not that I'd get either place any time soon. Between the subway and the commuter train, I was more than an hour out, and that was if I made my connections right. The only redeeming feature of the evening was that, given the time, the uptown five express train was pretty empty. Only a few stops and I'd be at Grand Central, then at least on the last leg to home. The subway platform was crowded, and I had to fight to make my way onto the train. That was kind of ironic too, since after all the trouble, the car was half empty. I still barely made it on.,. At the last minute someone yelled out "Hold that train!" You'd think that, this being Manhattan and all, he'd be soundly ignored. Just my luck someone took pity on him and stuck a foot between the closing doors. They bounced back open, and he ducked in. By he I mean "he". Pete. My mystery guy. Today he wasn't in a suit; instead, he was wearing a pair of those thin fashion jeans, a charcoal grey t-shirt, and a pair of boat shoes without any socks. He had a leather satchel slung over one shoulder, the strap crossing his chest. The clothes were snug and showed the body that his dress clothes had hinted at. "Thanks," he said to the guy in the doorway, flashing a massive smile. I felt a big jolt of jealousy shoot through me. "Hi," he said to me as he walked up. I debated what to say to him. This was the third time he'd just shown up, no warning, no nothing, like it was the most natural thing in the world for us to be running into each other. I wanted to yell at him for leaving, bitch him out for even talking to another guy, ask him to dinner, throw him on the ground and rip off all his clothes. Hell, I'd love to find out his name. Instead I reached into my pocket and pulled out that bag of candy I'd been carrying around for a week. "Skittle?" I asked. Pete's face -- hell, his whole body -- lit up when I held the things out to him. I made a mental note that my guy had a serious sweet tooth. He gave me an impish little smile, hooking one arm around the pole in the middle of the subway car and the other around me. He pulled me in and kissed me. Not a little kiss, either. This was a kiss with full body contact and tongue. Every thought in my head went missing, and I kissed back before I could even think about it. I'd thought that being held by him had been great, but it was nothing compared to this. I had an instant erection and was doing my best to pull the two of us together. His lips were soft, his stubble was rough, his body was hard, and all of it was perfect. I'd lost myself in the kiss, just holding him tight. We stood nearly motionless, but fireworks were going off in my head. The jolting of the subway car as it moved down the tracks made our bodies shift against each other just enough to make my brain melt and send me over the edge. I didn't know how long that kiss lasted. It went on forever, and ended too soon. "This is my stop," he eventually said, breaking away from me. He left me gaping and a little chilled as the breeze from the air-conditioning unit above me washed down across where his body had just a moment ago pressed against mine. "But ...," I started. "Sorry," he said, with a grin. "Gotta go." He darted forward, gave me a quick peck on the lips, then bolted out of the train just before the doors closed. I stared after him, watching him vanish into the swirl of people heading up the escalator. The station sign just barely registered in my brain as the train started pulling out. 59th street. "Next stop, 86th street," came the recorded voice over the speakers. That brought me back to reality. I was one stop past where I should've gotten off, and on my way to the second. I'd kissed Pete up half the length of Manhattan. I seriously debated catching the next train heading back downtown and waiting for him on the platform to see if we could kiss all the way back down again. I probably would've too, if I hadn't suddenly felt something cold and sticky at my crotch. I looked down and realized that, somewhere between Fulton Street and 59th, I'd managed to come in my pants. * * * It'd been three weeks. Three weeks since I'd seen Pete last, and I was starting to get despondent. I was constantly looking around as I went about my day. On the train, on the streets, in the supermarket -- everywhere. I'd tracked down a pair of model railroad shows and drove for hours hours to one of them the past two weekends, spending whole days stalking around and staring at people. I'd even embarrassed myself a couple of times, grabbing at people I thought were Pete. It was driving me nuts. I couldn't eat, I couldn't concentrate, and I couldn't sleep more than an hour without dreaming about him. I'd taken to changing my sheets every morning, since more often than not I left them sticky, sometimes in more than one place. It was insane -- I hadn't been like this when I was in high school, and that was half a lifetime ago. I was worse than a lovesick teenager, and I hadn't been this horny since, well, ever. I'd even had to stop wearing boxers -- they revealed far too much of what I was thinking, as I found in one staff meeting that I'd let my mind wander in. "You OK, Mister G?" Darren asked me. We were in my living room, working on his math homework. Darren and his mom rented part of the house next door to mine. She was a single mom, her husband having gotten killed in a traffic accident a few months before they'd moved in, nearly two years ago. She was working a weekend shift, so I was watching Darren. He was a nice kid -- eleven, good natured, pudgy, and dark skinned. I figured he took after his dad, since his mom was pretty fair. They'd come here from Bridgeport not too long after the funeral, looking for better schools. We'd met when they'd moved in, and I'd been helping Darren out with his math homework ever since. "Nah," I said. I know that, as an adult, I was supposed to lie to kids about life, but I'd never really got the hang of that. It was easier to tell the truth, and it wasn't like they weren't going to find out soon enough. "How about you?" Darren thought about it for a moment. I had only a vague idea what his life was like -- he was almost always upbeat, but his world was a mystery to me. "I'm good," he said. "You know what? Screw this," I said, dropping his homework onto the coffee table. "Let's go to the beach instead." "All right!" Darren scampered out to go get changed, while I got myself ready. Swim trunks, beach towels, a cooler with a few bottles of water, and some sunscreen. SPF 30 for me and 10 for him since, dark or not, it was mid-May and he could still pick up a nasty burn if he weren't careful. I threw the stuff into the back seat of my car as Darren raced back through a gap in the hedge and jumped into the passenger seat. When we got to the beach, the first thing we did was hit the snack bar. I was having a craving for something sweet. "I'm not sure this is really ice cream," I said, frowning at the cone I was holding. "Actually I'm not sure this is food." "It's good," Darren protested. "True," I said, taking another bite. "But that doesn't make it foo...." My voice trailed off as I saw him. Him. Pete. He was standing at the water's edge, wearing a pair of blue swim trunks that went down nearly to his knees, with a dark green towel slung over his shoulders. It was really him this time, not some very confused Croatian tourist. "Hold this," I said to Darren. I handed him my cone and took off down the beach. Running barefoot on sand's tough, but I did it anyway. There was something weird about the situation -- it didn't feel at all like the other times Pete had surprised me, but I guess that was OK, since this time I was surprising him. And boy, was he surprised when I tackled him. He was even more surprised when I laid a hell of a kiss on him. This time he was the one who froze, but only for a second before he wrapped his arms around me and was kissing me back. "Um, hello?" That very uncertain sounding voice brought me back to reality. I'd vaguely remembered someone with Pete, but I'll be honest and say I wasn't paying any attention. Apparently it was a woman of some sort. I hoped it wasn't his wife or girlfriend. Or that I'd actually kissed his twin brother instead. That seemed unlikely, but then so did everything involving Pete, so I wasn't going to rule it out. If it were true, then his twin was a hell of a kisser, so I was good with it if that was the case. I stood up and smiled. "Hi," I said. "Nice day, isn't t? I had a stupid grin on my face so big it made my cheeks hurt, and I think I could've put someone into a diabetic coma with the sweet I was oozing. Then I turned and jogged back to Darren, leaving Pete lying dazed in the sand and the woman standing confused next to him. I'd like to say that only a small part of me felt smug that I'd left him so clearly tenting his swimsuit, but that'd be a lie. Of course, it hit me when we were getting back in my car that I still had no idea who he was. * * * "Well, you seem cheery," Angie said as I got into work the next morning. I was, too. Seeing Pete had brought me out of my funk. Kissing him had me ready to dance on the rooftops. Now all I needed was to figure out who he was and I'd be all set. "Yup," I said, sounding smug. "Aw, you and your boy get all snuggly over the weekend?" She was teasing, but it was close to the truth. Well, mostly close, since I'm not sure I'd classify it as snuggling. Snuggling usually involved less tongue. "Something like that," I said. "Well, you really need to bring him up and show him off the next time he's in the city. You made the girls down in payroll jealous." That's when it hit me. Pete had been here. More importantly, Security gave him a badge, and they keep those records nearly forever. Sometimes they only kept the name, but that was all I needed. I knew he had to live somewhere near me. "You're brilliant, you know that, right?" I asked, as I dashed past her and towards the elevators. The wait for an elevator and the ride down 12 floors was almost more than I could take, and I was bouncing on my toes by the time the elevator touched down. I took so long getting myself composed I almost ended up making the return trip. "Hi," I said, as I approached the Security desk. "Morning, Mister Whittington." I got a little pang about that. I knew the guard by sight, but I had no clue what his name was. I felt a little stupid because of that -- I'd seen him every day for the past six years and didn't know who he was. "Listen," I continued, "I wonder if you can help me. Last month on the seventeenth we had a visitor come up, Peter somebody or other. The boss didn't catch his last name, and now he wants to call this guy up. I don't suppose you keep records that far back?" I had my fingers crossed. They did keep the records, but I wasn't sure if he'd look anything up for me, or whether there'd been a thousand Peters who had come through. I got lucky. "Sure, no problem," he said. Clacking keyboard noises made it clear he was doing something. "Don't suppose you know when he was here?" "Well, I saw him around ten thirty, so he must've come in a little before that." There was a little more clacking. I heard the printer fire up. "Is this him?" the guard asked, handing me a copy of the badge photo. My throat tightened. That was him, alright. My pants were suddenly way too tight. "Yep," I said, trying to sound casual. "That's the guy." "Peter Maxwell," the guard said, reading off the screen. "Don't have any more contact info than that, though." "Good enough," I said. "Boss said he knows where, just not who." * * * When I got home I spent a frustrating hour trying to find a phone number for Peter Maxwell. There were seventy-three different Maxwells within reasonable distance of my house, but no Peter, Pete, or P Maxwell amongst the lot. The Internet wasn't a whole lot of help either -- while I got some 'interesting' results, it didn't help me find him. That's what I get, having a mystery boyfriend with a first name ripe for double entendre. I was tempted just to start calling numbers from the top of the list, but that seemed a little stalkerish. As if spending my day quizzing Google and security guards for him wasn't -- but at least nobody knew that. I toyed with the idea of hiring a private eye to go find him for me, but that seemed way past extreme and into deeply obsessive. I'd hold off on that for at least a week. Yes, I will freely admit that I was so far gone on this guy, it wasn't funny. If the fact that the three weeks without him had ripped my heart out wasn't enough to convince me of that, the boost I got just from seeing him would have. I was dancing on the clouds and I was happy to stay there. The weird thing is, my big break came from Darren. He hadn't said anything Sunday about what happened at the beach, either in the car or after we got home. That surprised me a little; I figured he would have at least asked who it was that I'd kissed. He'd known I was gay ever since a very embarrassing afternoon a year ago, when he'd found some of the DVDs I kept on the shelf inside my closet. It wasn't a big deal to him then, and as far as I knew it still wasn't. Still, when he did ask, it wasn't the question I was expecting. "Why did you kiss Ms. Keller's boyfriend?" "Why did I kiss who?" "Ms. Keller's boyfriend," he repeated, as if I were an idiot. Maybe I was; it was hard to tell these days. "Oh," I replied, stalling for time. Didn't help; I still had nothing. "I didn't realize he was her boyfriend," I said. He looked puzzled. "Oh," he said. It was a very expressive 'Oh', but I had no idea what exactly it meant. "Who's Ms. Keller?" I tried. "She's the principal of my school," he said. He shot me a look that made it clear he thought I should have figured that out. * * * As much as it hurt, I knew I had to let him go. It didn't matter if he'd started it, hell, it didn't matter if he'd made me cream in my pants in the middle of the subway, I wasn't going to steal someone else's boyfriend. Definitely not a woman's boyfriend. I preferred my guys out and comfortable, thanks. So, ignoring the knife that seemed to be stuck in my guts, I picked up the phone and dialed Darren's school. Each ring twisted it just a little more. "Northmont Junior High, how may I direct your call?" asked the pleasant voice that answered. "Principal Keller, please," I said, trying to keep my voice professional. "One moment, please," she said, before hooking me up with Kenny G hold music. Guess they want to lull angry parents to sleep before they get to talk to anyone real. It felt like forever, as my stomach churned in time with the music. The perfect guy had found me, and chased me, and caught me. And he had a girlfriend. Life's viciously ironic that way, I guess. "This is Principal Keller, how may I help you?" "Hi. This is Drew Whittington. We met briefly last weekend." There was a pause. "I'm sorry," she said. "I'm afraid I don't remember you." "I'm the guy who kissed your boyfriend. I wanted to apologize for that. I didn't realize he was taken." There was a long pause, long enough that I thought we might have gotten disconnected. "Hello?" "I'm still here, Mister... Whittington, was it?" "Yes," I said. I was sweating a little. She had the elementary school principal voice down, and I guess you never grow out of the fear it can bring. "Mister Maxwell and I don't have a relationship," she said. "He's a teacher in the school district, and that would be inappropriate." "Oh, thank god," I said, letting out the breath I hadn't realized I was holding. "Is he single? I mean, is he seeing anyone right now? I've been trying to find him, but ...." I babble well under pressure. It's a particular talent of mine. "Calm down," she snapped. I sat down by reflex. Then her tone softened. "No, Peter's not seeing anyone at the moment." "Good." Right at that moment the knife got taken out, and I relaxed. "Is he ... I mean, do you know if he might, y'know ...." There was something about her that turned me into a stuttering idiot. "Yes, Mister Whittington, he's interested. Despite my better judgment, he's interested." I let out a relieved sigh. "Thanks," I said. "Really, I'm not normally such an idiot." "I certainly hope not, sir," she said. "I expect we're going to see each other with some frequency." And with that, she hung up. Teacher. That made sense, and explained why I couldn't find him in the phone book. His number was unlisted, probably to give him some measure of protection from practical jokes and angry students. I probably should've asked what subject he taught, but finding him was enough. He'd found me three times then left. Beats the hell out of me how he found me, but he did. Well, I'd found him once. Twice more would make us even, but there was no way I was going to leave him. He was mine, and I wasn't going to let him go. I now knew who he was, and I knew where he worked, and I even had a sort of a lukewarm 'Okay' from one of his colleagues. All I needed was a plan. While it probably would've been best to stretch out the encounters like he had, I couldn't do it. And as much as I really wanted just to drag him home, rip his clothes off, and throw him into bed (not necessarily in that order), I wanted romance too. This was going to be forever, dammit, and it just didn't seem right to start off with sex, no matter how badly I wanted to. Sex could wait. Half an hour, at least. Maybe forty-five minutes. So, flowers, dinner, and a movie. Preferably a short movie. * * * The flowers gave me a really good idea. Dinner was going to be our third, and final, meeting, but the flowers gave me in an in for the second. A quick search of the school district's website told me he was an English teacher at Eastmont High. That and a quick lunchtime trip to a theater supply shop in the Village to score a generic delivery guy's outfit was all I needed to put things in motion. Wednesday afternoon I called the florist closest to my house to order flowers. Lots of flowers. Three arrangements of lilies, which I knew Peter would like, three vases full of orchids, which I really liked, and three dozen red roses. Maybe a little bit overboard, but we had a theme. Besides, they weighed less than I did, all together. I think. I picked the flowers up Thursday morning and loaded them into the back of my car. The woman working at the flower shop didn't say a word as I loaded up, but the grin she gave me made it clear she approved of whatever she thought I had in mind. I walked into the school office, clipboard and papers in hand, hoping I looked official enough to pass. It was nearly as bad as talking to the principal friend of Peter's. Some fears are too ingrained to ever go away, I guess. The office was standard industrial dingy. Counter in front with some in-trays and a few piles of Xeroxed forms. Behind the counter were a pair of desks, and along the back and side walls were doors with frosted glass windows. There were some of those industrial plastic chairs that seem to accumulate in places like this, where you have to wait but they'd rather you didn't enjoy it. There were three people in the office; at one desk was an older, graying woman who looked like she'd been here forever, and probably had. A younger woman, almost a girl, was at the other desk, and there was a boy, maybe fifteen, squirming on one of the chairs. "I have a delivery for a Mister... Maxwell?" I said, trying to sound like I didn't have the name memorized, didn't go to sleep with the whisper of it on my lips. The older woman gave me a glare. "We don't take deliveries," she snapped at me. "They go to the district warehouse." "It's flowers," I said. I lifted my papers and pretended to read them. "A Principal Keller okayed it." That perked the office staff up. "Flowers? Who from?" I shrugged. "Card doesn't say," I said. And it didn't, because I hadn't put my name on it. The two woman looked at each other and I swear, they giggled. In unison. It was very disconcerting. The kid waiting in purgatory rolled his eyes at the women. I gave a half grin and shrugged. "I'm going to need a cart, I think," I said. "Any chance I could get one for a minute? There are a lot of flowers." "How much is a lot?" asked the older secretary who was clearly in charge. "Nine arrangements," I replied. "Got my car mostly filled. Now, about that cart?" The younger of the two women had dashed into one of the offices as soon as I'd mentioned the cart, and she came out right then with one. It was a metal wheeled one that probably usually had a movie projector or something on it, but was empty now. "Will this do?" she asked. I gave it a look. The thing had three shelves, counting the top, and was pretty roomy. "Should," I said. It only took a few minutes to run the cart out to my car, load it up, and run back. The younger secretary went with me, ostensibly to watch school equipment, but really just to pump me for information. Or she would have, if she had actually stopped chattering long enough to let me answer a question. I tuned her out after about ten seconds. Rude, maybe, but I was nervous enough as it was. She gasped when we got to the car, and gave me a hand loading the flowers up. "Mister Maxwell has room 156," she said as we wheeled the cart up to the school doors. "Just down the front hall here, and on the left." "Thanks," I replied. I didn't look back, but I was sure she was waiting and watching. The hall was a long foreboding thing, with cinderblock walls but paneled with rows of grey lockers punctuated with the occasional door. The rooms were numbered starting with 101, so I had more than enough time to work up a good case of nerves. The cart squeaked just a little, which didn't help any. I took a deep breath, knocked on the classroom door, and retreated behind the cart of flowers. I had my head down a little, my face hidden by the bill of the cap. Hardly anonymous, but he wouldn't be expecting me, and I'd get at least a few seconds of surprise. Lucky for me, it wasn't even Pete that answered the door -- one of his students opened it. She was sixteen maybe, had on way too much makeup, and was showing more skin than seemed right for school. Guess I'm getting old or something. "Delivery for Mister Maxwell," I said. She boggled at the flowers. Stacked on the cart they pretty much filled the doorway, and it reallt was an impressive sight. It was clear she didn't have any idea what to do. "Are you sure those are for me?" Pete asked, coming up behind the girl. I didn't think he had any idea who was delivering them. Between the hat, the surprise, and the huge spray of flowers I was pretty well hidden. "Definitely," I said, trying really hard not to grin at him. That one word was enough -- he knew who I was. I watched his head snap up and his eyes go wide. "Uh..." He was speechless, and very, very attractive. It was a good thing there was a cart between us, or I'd probably have jumped him right there. Hell, it was a good thing there was a cart between us or the whole class would've seen how much I wanted to. I just smiled, tipped my hat at him, locked the wheels of the cart, and moved as fast as I could down the hall without actually running. By the time he recovered and dragged the cart out of the way I'd be long gone. I had made sure there was a card, tucked in with the roses. "Hempstead Inn, Darien, Friday, 7:30". One of the best restaurants in the area, and clear enough, I hoped. Oh, boy, I hoped. * * * Friday I was an absolute mess. Hell, Thursday I was a mess, which is why I took Friday off. I spent the day getting my place ready and trying not to think about dinner, and the evening that would follow. Not that stripping the bed, digging out the condoms, and putting the lube and massage oil in the bottle warmer next to the bed helped there. Most of the afternoon was spent getting the living room set up. The rest was spent toning it down when I realized I'd set out enough candles to set off the smoke detectors in the house next door. That, I figured, was a sign I was a little too nervous, so I changed and went for a walk on the beach. You'd think that a public town beach would be busy, but you'd be wrong. Not too much of a surprise, I guess. It was late, the sun would be setting soon, and Long Island Sound's pretty chilly even in late spring.Even so, it's a nice beach. The sand goes back forty or fifty feet, depending on the tides. Beyond the sand is a little rise covered in grass, then it's trees and park to the street. The city has those standard permanent barbecue grills and picnic tables scattered around, and along the top of the rise they've got benches so you can sit under the shade of the trees and watch the Sound, the islands, the boats, and the birds. I like the place, and when I need some time to think it's where I'll go and take in the quiet. Other people do too -- I'm rarely the only one around. As I walked along the grass, I saw a familiar head hanging off the end of a bench. Pete. He was sprawled out, lying flat, eyes closed, all relaxed and looking like a rag doll. I wanted to jump him right there. Instead I walked over as quietly as I could. "Needed some time to think?" Pete jumped. Well, bounced, really, as he was flat on the bench. He tumbled to the ground, and I winced when he hit. "Just a little," he said, pulling himself back onto the bench to sit. He shot me a look that said he knew I was being a shit on purpose. "Me too," I said, sitting down next to him. I started rubbing his shoulder, working on the one that he'd landed on when he hit the ground. We just sat there like that for a while, all quiet. "I had the whole night worked out, you know," I said, suddenly. "Dinner, movie, some ravishing ...." "Ravishing ... really?" Pete asked, perking up and turning to look at me. "Yes." He smiled a sweet little smile. "Candles too, I bet." I gave an embarrassed chuckle, thinking of the box full of the things I'd hastily shoved into my closet. "Just a few." He laughed, a rich laugh that sent shivers down my spine. "You like to overdo, don't you?" he asked. He reached out and ran a finger lightly down the line of my jaw. "And you love it, too." He leaned against me and I reached around and held him close. We fit together better than I'd ever hoped. "This scares me, you know," he whispered. That took me by surprise. "Really? You seemed so confident, so ... perfect." He snuggled in closer, and I found myself stroking his hair. I knew he liked that. He was almost purring. "That was different," he said. "That wasn't real. This ... this is real." I could feel him tremble as I held him. He really was afraid, and more insecure than I had realized until just now. "You were thinking of skipping out on me, weren't you?" Pete didn't say anything, just gave a little nod. "Good thing you didn't," I said. "I would have had to hunt you down and kidnap you." He looked up at me with a shy grin. "I know." That grin was more than I could take. I slid off the bench and pulled Pete with me, so we were lying face to face on the grass. The next logical thing seemed to be to kiss him, so I did. A lot. After a while, though not nearly long enough, a thought hit me. I pulled back and asked, "You said that wasn't real. What did you mean, 'not real'?" "It was ... um." "Come on," I said, giving him a little prod. My guy was being coy. It was cute, but I wanted the answer. "It was what?" "I got you at a carnival for twenty bucks." "What?" He ducked his head a little, and the tips of his ears turned red. "There was a fortune teller's booth, and I was with Jennifer. You met her on the beach," he said when I gave him a puzzled look. "She said she'd tell me where I could find my soul mate, but it'd cost me twenty." Realization dawned. "So that's how you always found me." "Yeah," he said. "And you didn't ask who I was?" "That would've cost me another twenty and I didn't have it. She told me what to do and where you'd be. I kinda blew it off as a joke, but I had to go into the city anyway that first day, and there you were." I smiled. "I was. Why didn't you ask my name?" He kissed me for a moment. "She said if I didn't do exactly what she said, I'd lose you, and you were so ... right, I didn't want to take a chance. Even after the last time. I hoped you'd come after me." I smirked, thinking about the subway. "I came before you, actually." He laughed, knowing exactly what I meant. "The kids liked the flowers," he said. "You had the whole school talking. They're wondering who my secret admirer is." I smiled back. "You'll just have to introduce your husband around, then." He arched his eyebrow at me. "Aren't you getting a little ahead of yourself?" He was right, I was, just a little. So I dropped to one knee, took his hand, and asked. "Peter Maxwell, will you marry me?" He gave me a smile, one that turned me to mush, one I hoped I'd see every day for the rest of a very long life. "Yes." With thanks to Kitty for edits, and Dio for the readthrough.
  10. TheZot

    Chapter 6

    Chapter 6 It was about six at night, I was up in my room, and I was working with my notecards when the phone rang. I let it go, since it wasn't ever for me and I always forget to give people messages. Mom would get it or it'd ring over to the answering machine, but either way I didn't have to deal with it, which was fine by me. That's why I was so surprised when I heard my mom yell. "Justin, phone!" I dropped all my notecards when she said that, and kind of sat there surprised for a second. I figured I must've misheard her. "What?" "Phone!" Or maybe not. I hoped it wasn't anything bad, and had no idea who'd be calling me anyway. "Who is it?" I heard some mumbling for a second, then she yelled up "It's a Rick Barker." I couldn't imagine what Rick'd be calling me on a weekend for -- I hoped there wasn't anything wrong, but I was kind of worried, so I ran to the kitchen and grabbed the phone from Mom. "Hello?" "Hey, Justin! Trevor and Paul and I were going to go to the concert at the park downtown tonight. You want to come?" "What?" This wasn't what I'd expected. It didn't sound like anyone was hurt or the world was coming to an end. "There's a concert tonight at the park. Paul's got a car tonight, and we were thinking we'd all go. Do you want to come with us?" I just looked at the phone like it was some kind of alien artifact. Nobody'd ever asked me to go anywhere that I could remember, and I didn't exactly know what to do. "Justin, you still there?" Rick sounded a little worried. "Yeah," I said, making a decision. "Yeah, I'm here. I'd like to go, sure. What time?" "Seven thirty at the park. Are you going to drive?" "I think I'll drive, sure. Should I come and pick you up?" "We're set to get there, but Trevor might need a ride home. Paul and I were going to go over some stuff for the show tonight, and he lives near you." "No problem, I can do that. I'll see you in about an hour?" "Yup. Later, Justin!" The conversation ended with a click on the other end of the line. I hung the phone up, and just stood there in the kitchen. A concert. Going out with people. I'd never done that before, and it was... well, it was terrifying, really. I went to my room to change and worry. I'd gotten to the park a little after seven thirty, and everyone was already together. There was a good-sized crowd, maybe five hundred people, milling around in front of a portable stage that had been set up at one end of the park. Along the edges were a dozen booths, most selling food, and they all had pretty good-sized lines. The band was still getting ready, but it looked like things were going to start pretty soon. I took a deep breath, pasted on a smile, and walked over to Rick and the guys. "Hey," I said as I got close. "Hi Justin," said Trevor. Rick and Paul both waved. "Ricky said you might come." "Yeah, he called, so here I am." "Glad you could make it," said Rick. He looked kind of happy, so I figured I'd made the right decision. "So what do you do on the weekends anyway? Your mom said you might be busy." Or maybe not the right decision. "I, um..." I didn't really want to answer that question, because what I did on the weekends was embarrassing. I wasn't sure how to not answer, though, so I did. "I... practice," I said. "Kung fu? Boy, you do that all the time, Justin," said Rick. It would've been easy to lie to them, but I didn't really want to. I wasn't good at it, and it didn't feel right to lie to people I was thinking of as friends. Especially not Rick. "No. Um... on weekends I practice walking. And talking." And at concerts, feeling stupid. They looked at me like I was nuts, and I can't really blame them, since I know what I said hadn't come out right. "Walking," asked Paul. He gave me a look I couldn't figure out. "And... talking?" "Yeah. I mean, not like regular walking," I said quickly, really feeling the need to explain. "I don't fall over or anything, but... walking." I could tell this wasn't going over well. It even sounded lame to me. "And talking," threw in Rick, who was grinning like a maniac at me. "Don't forget that." I wasn't sure if he was making fun of me or not. I hoped he wasn't, but it still hurt a little. "Dude, how can anyone practice talking," asked Paul. "Or is this some accent thing?" "No, I don't need to practice those, I just have to listen. I mean, y'know, talking to people. Conversations and stuff." "You practice conversations," Paul asked. I nodded. "With yourself?" I nodded again. "That's..." Paul trailed off. "I'm not very good at them," I said in my defense. I was squirming and feeling really uncomfortable and I had an urge to run, but I was trying hard not to just bail on these guys. "Like, um, this one." It was hard to keep my eyes on Paul while I was saying this -- they kept darting around, looking at things that were less uncomfortable. "Hey, is anyone else thirsty?" Trevor asked suddenly. I was really glad for the change of subject. "Yeah," said Paul, "I could go for a root beer right now." He was giving me a look. I'm sure it meant something, but I had no idea what. "I'll go get them," I said, as fast as I could. I didn't want to leave, but I needed to get from them for a little while and try to get calmed down. "Root beer all around?" Everyone nodded their agreement, so I left to get them. One of the booths was selling only sodas, so the line was moving pretty quickly. It was being manned by an older woman with a big white beehive hairdo who acted like she was everyone's grandmother. Heck, this was a small town in Georgia -- for all I knew she could've been just about everyone's grandmother. "What kind of cokes do you want, hun?" she asked me when I got to the head of the line. "Huh? No, I don't want cokes, thanks." "That's fine. I have water and lemonade, too." The portable soda machine on the table next to her was one of the standard ones, with pulls for Coke, Sprite, and root beer, but I guess they were out of everything but Coke. I wasn't sure what to do with them not having root beer, since I wasn't sure what everyone else would have wanted instead. "A water, please. Are you sure you don't you have any root beer?" "Sure, hun. I thought you said you didn't want any cokes, though." "I don't. I want a water and three root beers. No Coke." That didn't make any sense. Maybe I had misheard her or misunderstood her accent or something. She didn't seem like she'd be the type to do that stupid 'mess with the Yankee' stuff that some of the people here liked to do. "Hun, root beer is a coke." The woman looked at me like I was nuts, but the feeling was mutual. Root beer was not Coke. I had a feeling this was some weird regional thing and I just didn't want to try and figure it out here. I could do that later -- right now I just wanted my sodas. "Um, okay. Three root beers and a water, please." I forked over the ten bucks, took my four plastic cups, and left feeling confused. At least I had my sodas. Getting back through the crowd without spilling anything was kind of a pain. I didn't figure this town could manage enough people to fill the park, but it did, and they were everywhere. I took it slowly, since I'd forgotten to get anything to hold the cups with, so it took a couple of minutes to make it back to where I'd left them. "Got the sodas, guys," I said, as I came up on them. Rick, Trevor, and Paul were standing shoulder to shoulder, looking pretty grim, and facing four other guys. If I didn't know better I'd think they were looking for a fight. I didn't recognize any of the four guys from behind, but when I'd spoken one of them had turned around and looked at me. He nudged the guy to his left, then all four of them just took off. Strange. "What was going on with them?" I asked, as I handed around the cups. Trevor was wide-eyed. "That was so cool!" "What, root beer?" I wasn't sure what he was talking about. Of course it was cool, they came with ice. "No, what happened with those guys. You just walked up and they ran away. That was great! They were like all afraid of you and everything!" Trevor was waving his arms around as he spoke, and almost threw his root beer at Paul. I spat out a mouthful of water when I heard Trevor say that. "They were what?" "They were scared of you, Justin," said Rick. He wasn't as excited as Trevor but he was sounding pretty happy. "They were some kids from school who like to give us a hard time." "Oh," I said. It made more sense now, though I didn't like it. "They were looking for trouble, huh?" "We were getting ready. I think we could've taken 'em," said Trevor. He punched the air a couple of times with his empty hand. "It was four on three. I think you would've gotten creamed," I said. I was starting to get a little angry, too. This wasn't what I was teaching them things for. "Guys, you can't go picking fights, it's not safe and it's not right." "What about you and Bobby?" asked Paul. "You started it with him." "That was different," I said. "Oh? Different how, exactly?" Paul crossed his arms and looked at me. He wasn't angry, I think, but he wasn't impressed either. "Different like... well, it just was," I said. I knew that was a lame answer, but I didn't have anything better right then. It was different. Really. At least, I think it was. "Come on, Justin," said Paul. "It wasn't." He didn't sound convinced. "Yeah, it was," I said. My voice was hard. I was definitely pissed, and that overrode any uncertainty just them. "What happened between Bobby and me was personal, it was one on one, he started it, and I could finish it. You guys can't finish it, not without getting hurt." Trevor started to say something, but I wouldn't let him. "No, I'm serious. Guys, it's only been a few weeks. You don't know enough. Get in some stupid brawl and..." "Yeah, but they don't know that, Justin," Paul said, cutting me off. "And we do know enough -- we know we're tired of getting the crap kicked out of us. Maybe we don't know how to fight yet, but we know how not to roll over. There were too many people around here anyway. Besides," he said, drawing himself up and putting on an overdone haughty accent, "we're actors. We just acted like we knew what we were doing." I looked at him blankly as what he said sunk in. While I normally felt about thirty seconds behind most conversations, today I was doing really well, and it only took about ten. What Paul had said made a bizarre kind of sense, and once I realized it I started laughing and just couldn't stop. It didn't help when Trevor whacked Paul in the back of the head and said, "you're not an actor, you're stage crew!" Paul was right -- it didn't matter whether they won or lost, what mattered was they'd stood up and said enough was enough. It honestly was the same as what I'd done with Bobby, and just as personal. In a way it was a braver thing to do, since they were risking a lot more hurt than I was, handy crowd or not. "See," said Trevor as the band started playing, "I told you we could've taken 'em!" The concert was okay, if you like guys singing about girls and trucks, and we didn't really talk while it was going on. That was fine, since I wasn't sure what exactly to say. We were out having fun, and it was fun, really, but I just didn't know what to do. At least it wasn't tense. I applauded along with everyone else when the last song was done, though I think I was mostly happy the concert was over. It had been awfully loud, and there were way too many people around for me to be comfortable. "So," I said to Rick as things were breaking up, "you said Trevor might need a ride home?" "I'm right here, Justin," Trevor said, smacking me on the shoulder. "Oh. Um, sorry. Rick said you might need a ride home?" "Yes, please. Those two," he said, waving at Rick and Paul, "have something plebeian to do with flashlights or something." "Well, forgive the humble stage crew, oh great actor," Paul said with a deep bow. "We forget we're in the presence of someone so skilled they can act in the dark on an empty stage." "C'mon, Justin," Trevor said, grabbing my arm and sticking his tongue out at Rick and Paul, who were both laughing. "Let's blow this popsicle stand!" "Uh, okay," I replied. I figured I ought to say something, but I wasn't sure what, exactly. These guys had been bantering back and forth all evening while the concert was going on. I knew what it was -- I did sometimes watch TV, and I could recognize banter when I heard it -- but I didn't know how to do it. I was feeling a little left out and uncomfortable. "That was fun, huh," asked Trevor as we got to my car. "Sort of. I guess," I replied. It was, but it wasn't, too. I wasn't sure how I felt about tonight. Parts of it had been fun, but I'd been on edge the whole time, scared I'd say something stupid and everyone'd laugh at me. "Not a big country fan, huh?" Trevor was grinning at me as he got into the car. "No, not that either," I said before I could stop myself. Yet another reminder of why I hated conversations I wasn't ready for. I'd been messing up all evening, and I now was beginning to regret coming. I was getting nervous on top of the uncomfortable. It wasn't a good feeling. "It's not us, is it?" Trevor sounded worried. "I mean, you like us, right?" "What? No, no, I like you guys just fine," I said as I pulled out and started towards home. I got worried myself, and a nasty thought popped in my head. "You like me, though, right?" "Geez," Trevor said, "what do you think?" I'd been on edge all evening, and that bit of uncertainty was the last straw. I wanted to leave, but I couldn't - it was my car, and I'd promised I'd give Trevor a ride. It was probably stupid, but I started to panic. Trembling hands, sweaty palms, hard time breathing, the works. I hadn't felt like this since the time I got lost at an amusement park when I was eight. I had to pull over to the side of the road before I crashed us into a tree. "It's okay, Justin. Breathe," said Trevor. I felt his hand on my shoulder, gently rubbing it. Breathing sounded like a good idea right then, so I did, and it did help calm me down some. "Not good with people, huh," asked Trevor. I couldn't bring myself to look at him, but at least he didn't sound like he was laughing. That was something. "What gave you that idea?" "I'm not sure. Could've been the panic, could've been the hyperventilating. Hard to tell." "Fucking swell," I said, dropping my head on the steering wheel and feeling like crap. I think I really managed to blow it this time. I hate not being able to tell what people are thinking. Hate it. Now he knew how badly I sucked with people. So much for friends. Fuck. "It's okay, Justin," Trevor repeated. He even patted me on the shoulder. "Really, it is. Don't worry, we like you." "You do?" I lifted my head up and looked at him. Trevor was smiling at me. "Yeah, of course. You didn't know?" "I can't tell," I mumbled. I never could, and it was one of the things that'd been nagging at me all evening, thinking that maybe everyone was only pretending to be nice. It wouldn't have been the first time. "Why'd you come, then, if you didn't know whether we liked you or not?" Trevor sat back. "That must've been kind of scary." "It was," I sighed and rubbed my forehead. "I wasn't sure how tonight would be. It's the first concert I've ever been to, and I don't really get out with people. When Rick called, though, I figured I'd go. Rick's my friend, and I hoped he wouldn't ask if you didn't want me around." "You know, you're the only person in school who calls him Rick?" The change of topic took me by surprise. "What? I am? That's his name, right?" I had this sudden fear that I'd been calling Rick by the wrong name since school started and didn't know it. "Yeah, but nobody calls him that. It's always Ricky or Little Ricky. He hates it, but everybody calls him that anyway. Everybody but you, at least." "Oh. Well, that's how he introduced himself, so that's what I call him." It was, too. The first day, when I sat down in trig class, he'd turned to me and said 'Hi, I'm Rick.' We even shook hands. He was the first person I'd talked to voluntarily in school. I think he might've been the only person I'd talked to voluntarily in school before Bobby and I had our discussion. "It's nice, you know," Trevor said suddenly, "to not be treated like a little kid or a freak. You do that. We're just... us. It's like you don't even notice we're different." I hadn't really thought about it before, but he was right. It was, and that was why I enjoyed hanging around the drama class. Everyone there just treated me like I was normal, not like some side-show freak or something. I liked it, and I hadn't realized until just now how much I liked it. Hadn't realized how much everyone else liked it, too. "Yeah," I said, "I know what you mean. Not being treated differently." "You weren't joking, were you," he asked changing the subject again. It was starting to make my head hurt a little "About the practicing? I mean, you seem pretty normal around school. Maybe a little different, but you're not from around here." "I wasn't, no," I said, remembering that part of the conversation and slumping a little. "Pretending to be normal when you're not takes a lot of work. Thanks for the save, too," I added. "No problem," Trevor said, "I could tell you were kinda freaking on us there." 'Kinda'? That was an understatement. I still was, a little. Talking with Trevor was helping, though. "It was really embarrassing, and it was something I didn't know how to talk about." "It's okay, Justin. Most everyone in drama's different in one way or another. We stick together and help each other out." He thought for a moment. "Hey, tell you what, Justin. I think you're cool, and I really appreciate what you're doing for me with the class and all... Um, do you want some help? You know, someone to practice with? I'm kinda good with people." Trevor had a hopeful puppy look on his face that almost made me laugh. The offer was nice -- really nice, and I don't know that Trevor would ever understand how much it meant to me. "Yeah," I said with a big smile, "I'd really like that." "Cool. One thing, though," he said, grinning like a maniac. "You gotta do it all with an accent. I want to nail the lead in the play!" I grinned back at him and slipped on my Bronx. "You got it, kid." Many thanks to Ashken, Ender, and Kitty, intrepid editors.
  11. TheZot

    Chapter 7

    Chapter 7 "So, you and Melanie, huh?" It was lunchtime, and Rick and I were eating and working on trigonometry at the same time. We were lucky and managed to have two days a week together for lunch. Well, lucky for my trig grade, at least. "Yeah," he said softly with a real dopey grin on his face. I looked across the cafeteria to where Melanie was sitting with Bobby and a few other people. "So why isn't she over here eating lunch with you?" "She can't. You know." He said it like it was some sort of law of nature or something. Unfortunately I didn't know. "Nope, I don't, sorry." "We just..." he trailed off. "We just... nobody can know. We have to keep our distance when there are people around." "So you can't get together during school?" This all sounded like something I was supposed to understand, and I just didn't. "No. She's sort of dating Bobby, and even if she broke up with him everyone would still think they should be going together anyway. His friends would be all over me. Besides, look at me -- I'm a runt." The scorn in his voice was clear, though I really didn't understand that. Sure he was small, but that wasn't a crime or anything. "Why would she want to be seen in public with me? If we tried it'd be hell." I just looked at him. I'm pretty sure my face showed how little I understood. "That doesn't make any sense." "That's high school, Justin," he said. "It doesn't have to make sense." "Oh," I said. This was something I'd never really considered. I'd always assumed the whole social thing had its own logic and I just didn't understand it. I hadn't ever thought that it was inherently unreasonable. "So what you need," I said slowly, thinking hard about this, "is an excuse to be together, right? So people don't talk and throw punches and stuff?" "That would help," Rick said. "Does she act?" Rick sat back and thought. "I don't know. Probably." "You could get her involved in the play, then. Does she know trigonometry? You two could help me together at my house -- my parents don't get home until late most days, and I could really use the help, especially with you hitting the weight room during school. I mean, I don't care about all this social stuff you're worried about." Rick's face lit up. "Yeah, we could do that. That'd be great, Justin. Thanks!" "Gimme a sec here," I said, as I thought about how I'd approach it. There was no way I could just go over without any prep -- inarticulate stammering probably wasn't the best way to start the conversation. Melanie and Bobby were at their usual table in the cafeteria, over with the jocks and some of the other royalty of the junior class. I had to admit that they weren't too bad, all things considered. I couldn't say I really liked any of them, given the crap they'd helped dish out to me at the beginning of the year, but when Bobby'd stopped so had they, and they didn't seem to be giving anyone else too hard a time. All I could think of was to go over, stir things up with Bobby, grab Melanie, and bail out. Getting Bobby flustered would throw everyone off-balance a little, plus it would help advance my plan some. I figured Melanie liked me well enough that in private I could talk with her without a problem, I just didn't think I could do it with other people around. It might be harder for her to say yes in front of everyone, too, and I figured if she knew why, she could come up with a lot better explanation than I ever could, if anyone cared. So, time to go brazen it out. I was a little nervous -- no, that's not true, I was a lot nervous. There were so many ways this could go, and most of them weren't good, at least not for me. Time to paste on a smile, distract, attack hard and fast, then run away. The way everyone was sitting meant Bobby had his back to me, so I came up behind him and put my hand on his shoulder. "Hi, Bobby," I said into his ear. He jumped, and I felt him shiver a little at that. I left my hand resting on his shoulder. "Can I borrow your girlfriend for a minute?" "S...Sure," he said, not turning his head to look at me. "D'you mind, fair maiden?" I asked her with a grin. "Why Justin, are you trying to steal me from my boyfriend?" she asked. She looked amused. "Never," I replied. Though I'd take her away from Bobby in a second if I actually liked girls that way. Since my hand was still on his shoulder, I stroked it lightly with my thumb. I hoped it was subtle enough that nobody noticed. Well, nobody but Bobby. The shudder that went through him told me he definitely noticed. "Just borrowing. I'll return you with your virtue untouched." "In that case," she said, standing up, "lead on, MacDuff." Melanie stood next to me and crooked her arm. I must've looked confused, because Melanie figured out that I didn't know what she was doing almost as soon as I realized that I had no idea what she was doing. She grabbed my arm, stuck it through hers, and walked me out of the cafeteria. We probably should have signed out or something, but she just smiled at the monitor and we headed off to the library. The school library was just across the hall from the cafeteria, and it wasn't that impressive as libraries go -- a dozen tables scattered around, a couple of sets of study carrels, and maybe two dozen half-full shelves of books. There were a few people there, some of whom I recognized from the drama classroom. More than one of them were eating, something I thought we weren't supposed to do. I saw Trevor and Paul off to one side, but Melanie took me in the other direction. Turns out that the back corner of the library had a pair of study rooms, each with a table and enough room for four people. We ended up in one, and Melanie shut the door behind us. "So, Justin," she said as she sat down. "What exactly do you want?" She sounded really flat, and I think she was kind of suspicious. Not really a surprise, given we'd exchanged all of two dozen words, and I knew what was apparently a big secret between her and Rick. Blunt and straightforward seemed the way to go here. "Rick tells me you two don't get enough time together. What can I do to help?" "What?" Melanie cocked her head and stared. I figured maybe she couldn't understand me through the accent, so I repeated myself. "What can I do to help?" This time I made an effort to be clear. "You could explain, for one thing. Why are you offering?" That was a reasonable question. I didn't usually go out of my way to help other people. But, then, I didn't usually have a friend, either. "Rick's my friend," I said, "and he says the two of you can't just be seen together, so I figured I'd help out." She gave me a little smile. "That's sweet, Justin. Did you have anything in mind, or is this just a general offer?" "Well, I figured you could audition for the musical. Rick's stage manager, so he's got reason to hang around. Maybe you could do the self-defense class in the afternoon too, if you've got the time. You could help me with my trig, too. At my house. With Rick." I waggled my eyebrows at her, just in case it wasn't clear. Melanie sat back and thought for a minute. That kind of surprised me, since I didn't figure it would be that big a deal, but I really didn't understand school politics. From what I could tell talking to Rick, she did. "I don't think it'll work, Justin. I might be able to manage the musical, but that really wouldn't give us any time together. I'm not sure about the self-defense class. I'm supposed to be at football practice with Bobby." Okay, now that was an answer I wasn't expecting, especially not Bobby as a reason, seeing as how she was dating Rick. I had to think myself before I said anything. "If you try out and make it, I think they'll respect you for it, especially if Rick and I make nice with you, and I don't think anyone in drama will talk if you have some, erm... 'personal' time. They're good guys, and they're too busy avoiding everyone else around school anyway." "I suppose," she allowed, "that could work. I still couldn't do the self-defense class, Justin, I really couldn't. Bobby..." "Sure you could," I said, cutting her off, "if you had a reason, right? Not like you do anything during practice, right?" "Well, I suppose," she said slowly. "Couldn't you get, I dunno, mugged or attacked or something? Make a big scene, use it as an excuse? I mean, you're a girl, right? Doesn't that stuff happen all the time or something? I could be there with you to make sure nothing happened." "Justin," she said with a frown, "this isn't the city -- it's not like that here. Nobody would do that." "What, nobody? There has to be someone. I mean, this is high school, someone's got to have no self control." I couldn't believe there wasn't anyone around that was handy, I really couldn't. Just because I'd tried hard to be invisible for so long doesn't mean I didn't hear people talking, and I didn't think guys were any different here than anywhere else. From the way guys talk in the locker room, you'd figure any girl walking by herself was a target. "Maybe," she said, thinking about it. "But I'd never get in that sort of situation, and I'm sure it wouldn't happen if you were there. People are scared of you." "Me?" I almost squeaked. "Why? ... Oh, wait," I said, finally remembering the four guys I'd broken, "never mind, that was stupid." "Besides, Justin," she said. "It's not a nice thing to do. Someone could get hurt." "Okay," I said, changing the subject, "if I can get someone to convince you to do the musical, will you do it? At least try out? For Rick? Please?" I tried putting on sad puppy eyes, but I'm not sure if I managed it. Melanie laughed a little. "All right, Justin," she said, "if he can do it, I'll try out and see where we go from there." "Great," I said. "I saw Trevor on the way in. Let me go talk to him. I'll be right back." I was going to talk to him about more than just the musical. Maybe getting mugged wouldn't work, but I'd bet we could at least get her groped or something. I left Melanie in the room and went to go look for Paul and Trevor. I hoped they were still in the library, and I was in luck. "Hey, Trevor," I said as I got close. "Could I ask you guys a huge favor?" They were in the middle of something or other -- there was a picture of what looked like the school stage between them, and they were arguing over colored jelly or something. "Sure, what is it?" Trevor said, looking up. "Do you know any guys who're real pigs? Someone who'd go grab a girl in the middle of the hall or something?" "Yeah, a couple, Justin," said Paul. "Why?" I ignored the question. "Cool. Are any of them in lunch this period?" "Sure," Paul said. "They're why we eat in here." "Great. Trevor, I need you to convince Melanie to audition for the show, and I need you to walk her past this creep so he pulls something on her. Can you do that?" "What? Why would you want him to do that?" It didn't sound like Trevor was going to go for the plan. "The plan here is to give Melanie an excuse to join the self-defense class. I don't think he could do much in the cafeteria, in front of everyone. Worst case he gropes her or something. That'd be fine, really." "Uh, sure, I guess," Trevor said, sounding unsure. "Are you sure it'll be safe?" "You'll have backup, I promise," I said, clapping him on the shoulder. "I'll be there and I won't let anything happen. Just in case..." I gave Paul a look. " Paul, can you whack someone in the head from about fifty feet with a juggling bag?" "Yeah, I think so, but a hackey sack would be better." he said. "Why, got a target in mind?" "Three guesses," I said. Paul got a nasty grin on his face -- I think he knew exactly what I meant. "Can you do any two-person juggling things?" "Not a problem," he said. The nasty grin turned into an open smile. "Why, caught the juggling bug?" I stopped for a second, since it wasn't something I'd really thought about. "Yeah," I said grinning back, "I think I have. Just something simple." "Justin, what do you have in mind?" Trevor asked. "Something simple," I told him. "You walk Melanie back into the cafeteria and do your best to convince her to try out for the musical. You two walk past whoever it is you have in mind, you stop, he gropes, she slaps him or something like that, and make a little scene. Paul and I will be doing something simple and distracting people. If things get out of hand, he whacks whoever it is with a bag, while I get close enough to stop things." Trevor didn't look at all comfortable with that. "Relax, you'll be fine," I said, reassuring him. "If anything happens fade back and remember -- top of the foot into the groin." "I'm not sure this is a good idea, Justin," said Trevor. "I really don't." "It'll be OK, really. We'll be there, and I'm sure Bobby and his cronies won't let anything happen to you. Besides," I said, shooting a grin, "Melanie will be there to protect you. Just brazen it out and keep moving. As long as you're in control, there won't be a problem." "All right," he said, though I could tell he wasn't convinced. "Grab your stuff and follow me, then," I said. "I'll be right back," I said to Paul, who was digging through his bag. "Melanie," I said as I got back to the study room, "you know Trevor, right?" "Of course," she said, standing up and smiling at him. "Hello, Trevor." Trevor took a hard swallow at that and shifted a little on his feet. "Hi," he squeaked. "Trevor's going to try and convince you to try out. Can you give him a chance? Please?" "I said I would," she said. "It's sweet what you're trying to do, Justin. Thank you." She leaned over and gave me a little kiss on the cheek. I saw Trevor swallow hard, shift a little on his feet, and drop his hands in front of him. I had a sudden idea what was bothering him and tried hard not to snicker. "Think of cold showers," I whispered in his ear. Louder, I said, "I'll go check in with Paul. Why don't you walk Melanie back and make your pitch? I'll be at a table with Rick." Trevor and Melanie went off together, and I went over to get Paul. I didn't want to be too far behind Trevor, just in case something really did start, since I'd promised him backup. Paul had collected up all his stuff into his backpack and had already put it on. He had three round leather bags in his right hand. "Ready to go?" I asked. "Yep," he replied. "You ready to do this?" "I have no idea how to do this," I said with a grin. "Fill me in." "Freaky mutants," he said, rolling his eyes. He looked like he thought it was funny, though. "You know, some of us have to work to learn this stuff." "I promise, I'll drop some if you think that'll help." "What, and make me look bad as a teacher?" Paul tossed a bag at me, catching me square in the center of my forehead. We got a glare from the librarian for that. "Hah! As if. We'll do something simple. When we get into the hall, you walk on my left and keep pace with me. We'll do a simple three-bag toss, just like the one you did first, only pretend I'm your right arm." That seemed simple enough, and it turned out to be, though more because Paul was really good than anything else. We managed to keep pace and only dropped a bag once, which was kind of cool. The delay in getting set up had us walking through the open cafeteria door just as the sound of Melanie's slap rang out through the cafeteria. She and Trevor were maybe five or six tables away from the door we'd just walked in, and Melanie was shaking her fist at a scruffy red headed guy who was rubbing his cheek. He had freckles, a nose that bent like it'd been broken once, and a kind of a sleazy look to him. Apparently Trevor had chosen his target pretty well, since this guy didn't look actually dangerous, seeing how he was cowering from the tongue-lashing Melanie was evidently giving him. I started moving over to the table Rick and I had been sitting at earlier. Rick was still sitting, but it looked like it was an effort for him, not being able to go over to Melanie. I felt kind of bad for him, since I realized he had no idea what was going on. I should've filled him in before things started, so he'd know what was happening. "Hey!" Melanie was storming over to me, Trevor following in her wake. I was worried for a moment that I was in a lot of trouble. "Justin. When's that self-defense class you're doing?" "Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, right after school for an hour. Why, you want in?" I could see over her shoulder that Bobby and a couple of the other people at his table had moved in on the guy who'd groped Melanie. I almost felt bad for him. "Yes," she said, loudly. Everyone at the nearby tables was looking at us. "I do." "Cool, then, " I replied. "See you tomorrow afternoon?" Rick and I watched her leave, picking up Bobby as she swept through the cafeteria and went back to her table. "So," I said to Rick after she'd gone and everyone'd turned away. "Looks like you're set." I grinned at him, but Rick just gave me a wide-eyed look. "Justin, could you give me a ride home this afternoon?" Melanie had caught me as I was dragging mats back to their stacks after the self-defense class. This was her second class, and she was doing pretty well, which was nice. She was naturally coordinated and had a certain grace to her. "Sure," I said, finishing off the stack. "No problem. Give me a minute to finish here and change. Meet me at my car?" "I will," she said, as she went off to the locker room. I finished stacking the mats and changed myself. Melanie was waiting at my car for me, so I unlocked the doors. Don't ask me why, but I opened her door for her and, when she'd gotten in, closed it. The ride over to Melanie's house took about ten minutes, and the conversation was entirely taken up by directions. It wasn't tough to get where we were going, but there were a lot of twists and turns to get there. By the end I was wondering if something was wrong, since Melanie always seemed like she was one of those people who could talk for hours. Still, it's not like we actually knew each other very well or anything -- she was just dating my friend, and we'd worked together a little in class. "Could you come in for a few minutes?" she asked as we pulled into her driveway. "I guess," I said. I wasn't sure what she wanted -- I thought it was just for the ride. As we walked into her house, we were greeted by a middle aged woman in an apron, her curly red hair showing streaks of grey. "Hi, Mother," Melanie said, giving the woman a kiss. "Hello, Melanie," her mother replied. "And who is this young man?" she said, looking at me. "Mother, this is Justin. Justin, my mother." "Good afternoon, Mrs. Griswold," I said, trying to be as polite as I could. I felt like I ought to bow or something. Don't ask me why. "And he's so nice. Are you bringing another suitor home to meet your father?" That was not what I had expected to hear. "What? No, I..." "Mother," Melanie said, cutting me off. "Be nice. Justin's the one I told you about. Ricky's friend." "Oh, I see. Well, that's fine, then. There are some cookies in the kitchen if you want any." "Thank you, mother," Melanie said. She sounded a little exasperated, though I couldn't figure out why. "We'll be in my room for a bit." Melanie's mother lifted an eyebrow at that. "He's perfectly harmless," Melanie said. "Really, mother!" "I see," Melanie's mom said. She gave me an appraising look, then a little grin. "I shouldn't warn Matthew, should I? He's quite nice." "Mother!" Melanie grabbed my sleeve and pulled me down the hall. "Who's Matthew?" I asked as I was hauled away. "He's my older brother," she said. "Why would she warn him about me?" "I set him up on a date once. It didn't work." I wasn't sure if this was a non sequitur or not, but since my talk with Rick last week where I'd realized that sometimes things just don't make any sense, I figured it didn't matter, so I'd just assume it might be and let someone else worry about it. I'd decided then that I'd just try and follow a conversation, no matter where it went, and figure it all out later. "Um, why not?" "Turns out he likes girls," she said with a shrug. It took me a couple of seconds, but I could only figure Melanie had set her brother up with another guy, and it hadn't worked out. I think her mom didn't mind, from the way she'd talked to me after she knew who I was. "Melanie, did you tell your mom I was gay?" "Of course, Justin. You don't think she'd let me bring a strange boy into my bedroom if she thought something might happen, do you?" "Oh," I said lamely. That was cool, though. Her mom knew and didn't mind at all. "I don't suppose," I started hesitantly, "that your brother's cute?" She gave an exasperated sigh. "I told you, he likes girls. Besides," she added, "he's at college in Arizona." By now we'd made it into Melanie's bedroom, though I sort of missed the end part of actually getting there. The room wasn't as frilly as I expected from a girl's room, and there wasn't any pink in it. I expected pink, and lace, maybe some dolls. Instead the walls had green paisley wallpaper, hardwood floors, and a rag rug. A nice wood rolltop desk, stained a dark brown, sat in the corner with an old wooden chair in front of it. "Justin," she said, tearing my attention away from my survey of the room, "I'm mad at you, you know." "What?" I looked at her puzzled. "What're you mad at me for?" "Greg McDermott, Justin." The name, I admit, meant absolutely nothing to me. "Uh... who's he?" "He's the boy you set up. I swear, Justin, I can't believe you did that!" Okay, now it made sense, at least some. "That guy who groped you? He didn't have to," I said with a shrug. "Not like you trapped him into it or led him on or anything. His choice. And you did take advantage of it," I pointed out. She ignored that last bit. "Still, Justin, he could've gotten hurt. If I hadn't stopped Bobby and Mike, I think they might've done something." I probably should've worked up some sympathy for this guy, but I admit I really couldn't. I'd talked to Paul and Trevor about him afterwards, and he and his friends really were scum. "So? This is the same guy who thought it'd be funny to nail a set of Paul's juggling penguins to little crosses and set them on fire, and he and his friends threw Trevor into the dumpster behind the Dairy Queen over the summer. After they'd done cleanup for the night." Fast food restaurant dumpsters aren't pleasant at the best of times, but they're particularly nasty when they've been filled with trash bags full of half-eaten ice cream and soda-soaked napkins that have sat in summer evening heat for a few hours. Yech. Trevor said the smell sticks in your hair for days. She glared at me. "And who was it who was lecturing Ricky about starting fights, Justin?" I winced at that. "Okay, fine, you're right," I said. "He may be slime, but setting him up wasn't a nice thing to do. I'm sorry, I won't do it again." Melanie looked satisfied at that. "Thank you, Justin." She sat down in the desk chair and fiddled with a pencil. I figured there must be something else, so I just stood there and waited. "There is something else I wanted to talk to you about," she said. "I'm not sure how to say this, so I'll just be blunt. I've seen how you've been looking at Bobby." That was not what I had expected her to say. "You've seen... what?" I think I started to sweat then. I hadn't thought that anyone else had seen what I had been doing with Bobby, and now his girlfriend -- or whatever Melanie was to him -- had caught me doing it. This wasn't good. I knew she wasn't stupid, and I knew I was in trouble. "You and Bobby," she said. "I've seen you flirting with him in school." She smiled at me. "It's kind of cute, really." "Um..." Not exactly the most eloquent thing I could say, but it was the best I could manage. I needed to stall for time. "It's not what you think..." And it definitely wasn't. I wasn't flirting with him. Well, I guess I was, but not because I wanted to date him. "Oh, it's OK, Justin. I really don't mind." I sat down on hard on the bed, which sank underneath me. A small part of my brain registered that it was just way too soft, but the rest was whirling around. "I need a second," I managed to get out. So Melanie noticed I'd been flirting with Bobby. This wasn't good. From what I'd gathered around school, she and Bobby had been friends forever, so I knew I had to be really careful -- there's no way she'd approve of what I was doing. Hell, she didn't like what I'd done to that McDermott guy, and he was scum. Bobby was too, so far as I was concerned, but I didn't think she'd see it that way. Unfortunately, I knew I couldn't lie to her if we were going to be spending any time together. There just wasn't any way, it was something I couldn't manage. I could handle just not talking about something, though, which seemed the best way to go about it. "Um," I started. Not a good start. "Yeah, I have, kinda. We worked things out at the beginning of the year--we're cool now, so I didn't figure he'd mind. It's not like there's any chance of it going anywhere, or anything." I noticed I'd started fiddling with the bedspread while I was talking. That was a little unexpected. "I hadn't thought anyone else had noticed. I didn't want anyone getting the wrong idea or anything." Wasn't that true? I didn't want anyone thinking I was hot for Bobby, since I wasn't. And I didn't want anyone to think Bobby was gay, since he obviously didn't want anyone to know, and outing him wasn't the point. "It's really not serious or anything. You're okay with this?" I'm sure I sounded really nervous, because I was. I wasn't sure what I really wanted to do with Bobby, but I knew I wasn't done with him yet. I didn't want to stop, either, but I would if Melanie asked. "Of course, Justin," she said. "I'm sure Bobby doesn't mind either." Melanie shot me a really big smile, though I couldn't honestly figure out why. "I've kept you long enough," she said, bouncing up and giving me a kiss on the cheek. "Thank you for the ride. I'll see you at school tomorrow." And with that she escorted me out of the house. Women. Go figure. Many thanks to Ashken, Ender, and Kitty, intrepid editors.
  12. TheZot

    Chapter 10

    Chapter 10 I spent most of Sunday working out and thinking about what had gone on at the art show. Melanie had dropped me off at my house after the show with an apology, but that was it -- we hadn't actually spoken the whole drive home. I was mostly trying to figure out what was going on. I wasn't sure what Melanie was thinking. The one thing I did figure out was that Melanie did know Bobby was gay, and had tried to set us up. I think she was thinking I'd be flattered at Bobby's artwork and maybe make a move or something on him, though there's no way that would've happened, even if I hadn't freaked out so badly at the pictures. She didn't know that, though. I had no idea what was going on with Bobby. I hadn't expected him to just lose it so badly at the show. Guess the death of his dog had really affected him or something. I didn't like him, but I didn't hate him any more. More than anything else I just felt sorry for him. School on Monday wasn't particularly interesting, not that classes in the three days before Thanksgiving ever are. It's like the turkey stupor's so bad it starts before everyone's even eaten. Well, except for Trig class, but Mrs. Daniels just liked seeing us all in pain. By lunch I'd almost fallen asleep, and I wasn't alone. Trevor, Paul, Melanie and I were eating in the cafeteria. Mom had packed me a turkey sandwich -- she wasn't much for affection, but she did have a sense of irony. I felt a hand on my shoulder, so I put my sandwich down and looked around. It was Bobby. "Hi Bobby. What do you want?" My voice was a little fuzzy, though I was quickly waking back up. "You. Outside." Not the nicest way to ask, and kind of puzzling, given how Bobby had been behaving. Apparently he left the nice guy at home, and I was stuck with Mister Hyde the asshole. "I'm eating, Bobby," I replied. I was feeling kind of bristly, and I didn't like having to keep track of how to deal with two different Bobbys. If he wasn't going to be polite neither would I. "Why?" He didn't answer, he just tightened his grip and pulled. I threw a questioning look at Melanie, but she just shrugged. I figured I'd go along for the ride, so I let him pull me up. "Where are we going?" We were starting to get stares from the people at the surrounding tables. I wasn't happy about that. "Outside," was all he said. Okay. Whatever. So, we barged through the cafeteria and out into the courtyard behind it. It was a nice day, if a little chilly, and there were a few dozen people out eating lunch in the sun. Nobody was paying much attention to us. Well, not at first at least. Bobby let go and turned around, looking at me. "I want a rematch," he said. His voice was hard, and so was his stare. Unfortunately I had no idea what he was talking about. "Rematch for what?" He didn't answer me. Instead he took a step back and threw a punch at me. He wasn't even trying to be subtle, and it was easy to block. The next one was, too. Now I was confused. Even with me going nuts on Saturday I didn't think he had any reason to want to fight me, and he had to know there wasn't any way he could win. It just didn't make any sense. "Bobby, what're you doing?" "My. Name. Is. Not. Bobby." Each word was punctuated with a punch. I could tell he was pissed -- there was a lot of power but not too much control behind them. Blocking them stung a little. We'd started to collect a crowd, too. I really didn't know what was going on. It's not like I was in any danger of getting hurt unless I did something stupid, and I wasn't planning on that. Bobby just wasn't dangerous, at least not to me. Something was bothering him, though, even I could tell that. While I didn't like him, I knew him well enough to tell this just wasn't like him. "So, should I call you Ethel Merman, then?" Yes, it was a stupid thing to say, but since he was still throwing punches I was working on making sure neither of us got hurt. My options were pretty limited here. Most of the courtyard was paved, and while I could drop him to the ground any time I wanted, I couldn't do it without hurting him. We were a hundred feet or so from the grass at the edge, so I let him drive me back that way. I tried, at least. By now, the cafeteria'd emptied out, and we were surrounded. While we had plenty of space, the ring of people wasn't moving as I backed towards it. They might get out of the way if I pushed it, but I didn't want to chance that. To make matters worse, Paul, Trevor, and Melanie were watching. So was Coach Wilson and some of Bobby's football cronies. Coach, interestingly, was just watching. I wasn't sure, but I think he knew how things went the first time Bobby and I did this, and I knew he knew what I did to the four idiots who tried to jump me. He seemed content to let us work this one out on our own, for some reason. The football cronies were getting pretty worked up, but I didn't have the attention to spare for them. "Rob. Dammit!" Two more words, two more punches. "Ow, hey, that stings," I said, as I blocked them. He was throwing them hard, and while he didn't have the skill he did have the power. "So what is this all about?" "Payback," he said. This time he launched a kick at me. That was new. If I'd have been a football, he probably would've punted me halfway down the field. As it was, I blocked it. I was going to have a pair of bruises on my arms from that. "For you? For what?" "No," he said quietly. He just stopped and looked at me. "For you." That surprised me, and he could've clocked me then if he tried. He didn't. "I don't want this, Rob," I said. "Too bad. Show people. End this right." He threw a left jab at me. I caught his fist and just stopped it. He followed with a right to my head, and I caught that one, too, though it drove me back a half-step. He tried to pull out, but while he had more body strength than I did, I had better leverage and a much stronger grip. I didn't let go. He tried another kick, but his position was bad, and he had no power at all. I knocked his other foot out from under him, let go of his hands, and let him sit down hard. "That's all you get," I said, and turned to walk away. He was giving me something I didn't want, and I'd be damned if I took it. Maybe it was just ego, but I didn't want and didn't need a gift fight. Apparently one of the football thugs took offense at what had happened, because the next thing I heard was a shout of "Fucker!" and someone was charging out at me, fists swinging. Dunno what he expected, but my reflexes took over before I could think. I side-stepped, blocked his punch, kicked him hard, and spun around to kick a second time. I think I took him by surprise, because I know I took myself by surprise. It was all I could do to pull the second kick, and I managed to twist my ankle doing it. Good thing for him too, since if that kick landed, he would've been in a lot of trouble. As it was, I think I heard a rib crack from the first kick. He went down groaning and I followed, grabbing my ankle and cursing. "You stupid son of a bitch! What the fuck were you thinking? I could've killed you! Ah, damn, this hurts." I was pissed, and my mouth was getting ahead of my brain. By then Trevor, Paul, Melanie, Coach Wilson, and Rob had made it over. The rest of the crowd was hanging back -- I think the sudden violence and me swearing put them off. "Are you okay?" asked Coach Wilson. "I think he..." started the thug, hugging his chest. "Shut up, Carlson. I wasn't talking to you." The thug apparently had a name. He looked startled, but at least he was quiet. Coach looked at me. "Are you okay?" "Yeah," I said. Paul gave me his hand, and I started to stand, keeping my weight off my hurt ankle. "I twisted my ankle pulling that last kick." I put a little weight on it. It twinged, but I didn't think anything was broken or too badly sprained. "Should be fine, but I'd better ice it." "What is going on here?" Oh, great. The principal cometh. The man was a twit, and a smarmy one at that. Me getting into it with two of the football team was not going to go over well. I winced and got ready for a good yelling. Probably a suspension too, even though I hadn't started anything, and hadn't even thrown a punch until that idiot Carlson showed up. Rob surprised me. "Demo got out of hand," he said. We all looked at him with stupid expressions on our faces. Well, except for Coach, who had his poker face on. "The self-defense class demo? Remember?" No, I very much did not, but I had the presence of mind to keep quiet. I was just hoping I didn't have a stupid look on my face. "Uh, Bo... Rob?" Melanie piped up. "You asked me to set that up for the twenty ninth." "Right." He had an innocent look on his face. "It's the twenty second." "What? Oh. Um..." I decided to shift then, to see if we could break things up. "Ow. Uh, listen, could someone help me to the nurse's office? I need to get some ice on this ankle." Paul started to say something but Rob beat him to it. "I'll take you. It's my fault, after all." I shot a look at Coach, who was still wearing his poker face. There'd be a day of reckoning with him at some point, but not today. "Carlson ought to get looked at. Just to be sure." I patted my ribs with two fingers at the same spot I connected with Carlson. I hoped he'd get the hint. Coach lifted an eyebrow and gave me a look I couldn't quite figure out, but I was pretty sure he did. "Get up, Carlson, and we'll get you looked at, too." The kid was hauled to his feet none too gently. If I had cracked some ribs then that must've hurt, but it wouldn't kill him. Coach apparently wasn't too worried about Carlson's comfort. Rob started hustling me towards the building. We were going a little fast for my ankle, but I was just as happy to get out from under the spotlight, especially since I wasn't there willingly. Neither of us said anything. Luckily there weren't any people in the hallways, no surprise with class still in session. The nurse's office was empty, but Rob had a key and seemed to know his way around. I sat myself down and started to take off my shoe as he rummaged around in the cabinets. "Leave that on for now," he said over his shoulder as he gathered some things up. "It'll keep the swelling down." "I'm wearing sneakers, Bo... Rob. They're too low to keep the swelling under control, and if things swell up they'll just bite into the ankle." "You..." he growled. I cut him off. "This isn't the first time I've been hurt. I know what to do." Hell, I'm pretty sure Melanie'd hurt me worse on Saturday. It still ached a little when I sat down. "Okay, I just... just don't want you hurt. This is my fault." Rob was fiddling with something in one of the drawers. He wasn't facing me as he said that. "How exactly is it your fault that Carlson decided to jump me?" I didn't understand Rob's reasoning here. "He did that because I lost." Right, and the explanation wasn't helping. "What, you're not allowed to lose fights?" "No." He looked at me with sad eyes. I snorted. "Then that kid's got to be way past stupid. It should've been pretty obvious that you were badly outmatched. And why did you start that anyway?" "I told you. It was payback." "Payback for what? I don't understand," I said, almost pleading. I could follow the conversation but I couldn't understand it, and it felt like I really needed to. "I thought we'd settled that a long time ago." "Everyone thought I'd won." "So? Since when do I care what everyone thinks? It was between you and me, we settled things, we were done. That's good enough for me. Everyone else can go jump." I just... I just didn't understand. The only people involved in that first fight were Rob and I. I couldn't see how it made any difference to anyone else. "Well, I care what everyone thinks!" There was a sudden heat in Rob's voice. He smacked the instant ice pack in his hand and pitched it at me "I care. I'm tired of all of it, tired of the expectations, tired of the lies." His voice dropped to a near-whisper. "Tired of being Bobby." I may be really bad at figuring out what people are thinking, but this worried even me. "Uh... you're not thinking of..." I just trailed off. Funny how even I couldn't manage to ask him if he was thinking of suicide. I desperately hoped not, since there was no way I'd be able to tell, and I didn't want to pull Melanie into this. I would if I had to, though. He ignored me. "I heard what you said, you know." Now I was really confused. "Huh?" "I heard what you said. 'Rob looks like someone I would very much like to be friends with. I've only met Bobby, though, and he's not worth the time of day'." I tried to remember saying that, when it came to me. I'd said that to his mother the day we'd buried his dog, just before I left. "I thought you were asleep when I said that." He didn't say anything. He just stood there and looked at me for a while, then he handed me an ace bandage. I took it and started wrapping my ankle. Things weren't too bad, but the support would make the drive home easier. The ice pack was cold by now, so I draped it on top and let it sit. It took some of the ache away. Rob was suddenly right in front of me, kneeling down and staring into my eyes. "What do you want from me?" I rocked back in my chair, surprised at his move. "What?" "What do you want from me?" he repeated. "I don't want anything from you, Rob." "Then why don't you like me? I can change if you want. Be someone better." He was pleading with me. I finally got the idea, and felt really stupid for missing it for so long. I also made a note to have a talk with Melanie, since I'd bet money she's known all along. "You've got a crush on me," I said. It wasn't a question, and I was braced for his answer. "I think I lo..." I cut him off hard. God, I was stupid. "No. Do not go there. You don't. You don't even know me." I got up and started to pace. It hurt a little, but I had to move. This was touching some raw nerves. "First off, don't you dare change for me. Not for anybody. If you want to change, change because it's what you want, because you want to be different. Do it to be what someone else wants, and I swear I will kick your ass so hard you won't sit down for the rest of your life. And then I'll hand you to your mother. "Second, you don't know me." He started to say something but I cut him off. "No, you don't, no matter what you think. You know whatever fantasy you've spun, and you know little bits and pieces, but you don't know me." I sat down, sighed, and rubbed my head. It was starting to hurt. "If you want to be friends, we can give that a shot. People I like think you're worth it." And, truth be told, I kind of thought so, too, but I wasn't going to tell him right then. "If you want something else, we can date. If we do that, though, I won't hide. No sneaking, no pretending we're just friends, no nothing. I'm not going to jump you in the halls if it comes to that, and we don't have to make an announcement, but we're not going to be hiding in the back of the closet -- we do it out. And you have to tell your mom first." Rob looked like he'd been hit by a truck. "Why?" "Because she loves you, and if it all hits the fan she needs to know." "No. The... out part." I sighed. "Have I ever been anything other than up front with you?" He shook his head no. "Ever heard Melanie say anything like that about me? Ever heard anything about me being subtle? "That's because I can't be. I really, really suck in social situations. I always have. If I'm not paying attention I say what's on my mind. I don't lie and I don't hide because I can't, at least not for very long. If I try, I will slip up, and then things are worse than if I hadn't tried to in the first place." Rob looked puzzled. "But what about all that stuff in the halls? All the flirting?" I winced. I knew that'd come back to haunt me. "That was all an act, Rob. It was the hardest thing I've ever done, and I'm really glad it's over. I went home exhausted every day, and I almost blew it more often than I can count. Paul, Trevor, Rick and Melanie covered for me a bunch. That wasn't me, and I'm glad it wasn't -- if I'd acted like that without trying to, I'd be a total prick. I know this stuff comes easy, or at least easier, to other people. For me, it's more work than sparring is." I was feeling like a real prick anyway. I hadn't ever thought I'd regret what I had done to Rob, but I was, and had been since we buried his dog. I didn't know what I could do about it, and I couldn't think of anyone I could talk to about it either. Guess I'd just have to get by as best I could. "Oh." There didn't seem to be much to say after that, so we didn't. Yay for awkward silences, I guess. And now, the day of reckoning. I'd gird my loins if I knew what that meant, but since I didn't, I had to make do with a deep breath before I knocked on Coach Wilson's door. Or doorframe, since the door itself was open. Coach was head-down at his desk doing something with a notebook. He looked up when I knocked. "Payne. What do you want?" He was scowling, but he was always scowling. I hoped it didn't mean anything. "I think we need to talk, Coach," I said. "Then shut the door and sit down." He pointed to a chair in the corner. I did, and it was another one of those plastic torture chairs that were scattered around the school. Lucky me. "So," he said. "What do you want?" "That's my question," I replied. I was getting a little nervous. I hated being at a disadvantage, and Wilson had me at a big one. He knew it, too, or was used to having it and just acted that way. I couldn't tell which. Wilson just looked at me. Not good. I had to lead, and I really didn't want to do that. "I know you know what happened in the fall between Rob and me. I know you know what happened to those four football goons. I know you know that demo explanation yesterday was crap. I've cost you five football players, and you haven't said anything. Why?" "You cost me six," he said. I looked puzzled. "Phillips said he's not playing next year." "Great," I muttered. It just got better and better. "Phillips matters. The rest are muscle. I can replace muscle." "Rob wasn't my fault," I said. "Yeah, he was," Coach Wilson replied. "I'm glad to see him go, but he did it because of you." "Glad? What?" Right, there went any shred of control I had over the conversation. At least I was getting used to the feeling of not knowing what was going on. "Do you really think I don't care about my players?" I've got to admit, I did. I mean, he's a football coach. I've always assumed they're a bunch of half-crazed bloodthirsty phobic nutcases. "Uh... no?" "Wrong. Football won't get Bobby anywhere. He's good, but he's not that good, and he doesn't care enough to get that good. If he sticks around, at best we have another winning season with him as quarterback. That buys him nothing. At worst he gets hurt and can't draw. He may play football, but he's not a football player. He's an artist. If he loses football he loses nothing. If he loses the art, he loses everything. There's always another season and another quarterback for the team. You only get one life." I hadn't really thought about that. Nor had I thought that Wilson was an actual caring human being, rather than some sort of jock caricature gone to seed. This was... surprising. "Why haven't you said anything?" "Why should I? What would it get anyone that's worse than what's happened? What happened between you and Bobby was your business. You kept it that way. When you got jumped you dealt with it, and the four involved got their asses kicked and kicked off the team. You did me a favor, and I was glad to see those little psychopaths go. It was obvious what Bobby was trying to do yesterday and how you dealt with it, and I respect that. Carlson was a damn fool. He got what he should've expected, and got off a lot easier than he could have. So what's to say?" When he put it like that, nothing. I could deal with that, I suppose. I still wasn't comfortable with it. And I still felt like I owed him something -- whether or not it was all for the best, I had made a mess of things. I mulled this over for a while. "You and Phillips have something going on," Wilson started, bringing me back to the conversation. I knew exactly where he was going -- it pushed one of my buttons, and pissed me off in a big way. "We do not have something going on, dammit!" Coach started to say something, but I cut him off. First Rob's mother, then Melanie, and now Coach Wilson. I'd had enough. "No. We aren't, and don't even try to set us up. I am so fucking tired of people doing that." I slammed my fist down on the desk and stared Wilson straight in the face. "You," I said, waving my finger in his face, "can tell Rob that if he wants to ask me out he can fucking well do it to my face. I'm tired of all the god-damned proxies!" Coach rocked back in his chair. "What are you talking about, Payne?" "You know exactly what I'm talking about," I snapped at him. I looked at him for a couple of seconds. He didn't. "Oh, fuck," I said, sinking into the chair. I'd just outed Rob to his football coach. Explaining that away was going to be interesting. I didn't think I could, either. He was obviously not stupid, and I'd been really clear. "Coach, about what I just said... I mean, Rob, he's not... I don't want him to get in trouble or..." D'oh! I should be telling him that I was wrong, not apologizing for telling the truth. Things were so much easier when I just didn't talk to anyone. "What, do you think I'm stupid, Payne?" Yeah, like there's a meaningful answer to that one. Wilson was pacing. "If I kicked out every kid who liked dick, I'd lose half my starting line some years." What? That was not what I expected him to be saying. "Do you know who goes for football?" He fixed me with a stare. "Uh, no?" I was squirming a little under his gaze. I really didn't want to be staring him in the eyes, but since he'd snared me, I didn't want to look away either. "I get the kids who want to be heroes. I get the bullies. I get the kids whose daddies are reliving their pathetic childhood glory. And I get the kids who're trying not to be the fairies their families hate." "So the team's a collection of losers and closet cases? Swell." Y'know, I think I probably shouldn't have said that. "Watch it, Payne," Wilson growled. "Your boyfriend's one of 'em." "He's not my boyfriend," I snapped back. I was standing and staring at Wilson, all pissed off. Yeah, I was doing the brainless macho crap my senseis had always warned me about, but I was mad and didn't care. I think they warned me about that too. "Yeah, like you don't swing that way." Wilson was posturing right back at me. "No, because he's not had the balls to ask." That set him back. "What, you think I'm going to tell you I'm not gay? Yeah, right," I said. I settled back into the seat and immediately regretted it. The chair designer hated people, I was sure. "Okay," I said, calming down. "I fucked up big time. Got lucky, but still. I owe you. What'd you want?" Coach Wilson just looked at me for a minute. "What do you play?" "Kung fu. Aikido. Kendo. I don't do team sports." "I've seen you play soccer." I snorted. "You've seen me be goalie. I don't have to do team stuff as goalie, just keep the ball out of the net." Coach Wilson thought for a minute. "You run?" "Yeah, nine miles or so in the mornings. Why?" "Because track season's coming up..." I was walking back from the coach's office when I heard someone running up behind me. "Mister Payne!" It was one of the art teachers. After dealing with the coach I wasn't sure I was up to more teachers. "Um... yes?" "I'm glad I caught you. Could I ask a favor of you?" Favor? What, did he need me to beat someone up or something? God, I hoped he wasn't trying to set me up with Rob too. "That depends," I answered cautiously. "What exactly did you have in mind?" "I saw some of the work that Rob had on exhibition last weekend at the art show. I was wondering if you could model for us next week if you have eighth period free?" That wasn't what I was expecting, and I had a flash of annoyance at Rob for that. Oddly, the idea of modeling wasn't bothering me. Not yet, at least. I was pretty sure could manage everyone looking at me; that wouldn't be any different from being on stage or doing my performance with Rob. As long as I was doing it on my own, it seemed okay. I just... wasn't sure I could deal with the results on display. "Uh, maybe. Rob wasn't supposed to have shown those. I'm not sure I'm comfortable with pictures of me hanging on a wall somewhere..." "This is just for a class project," the teacher said. "It goes into their portfolio, but if you don't want them displayed, we can respect that." "Then sure, yeah." Melanie had been nudging me to get more involved, so this was as good a way as any, I suppose. And art students sure beat football players. So, on Monday, I hustled out of Physics and over to the room where the Drawing 3 class was held. I got there a couple of minutes before the bell and dropped my stuff in a corner. The room was a pretty standard art room -- counters and cabinets all around the edges, filled to overflowing with paint jars, piles of canvases, little wooden manikins, lumps of clay, and unidentifiable containers of colored goo. The center of the room was mostly empty except for a dozen or so easels and stools scattered around, all facing towards, well... my 'stage', I guess. Where I was supposed to stand was pretty obvious. A big piece of dark blue backdrop cloth hung down from the ceiling and draped over a platform, with a plain wood bar stool in the center. Apparently there weren't going to be any visual distractions. "So," I said to the teacher, "I'm supposed to get ready and sit on the stool?" "Yes, if you would," he replied. He was distracted by one of the art students, so I walked over to the stage. There was space behind the cloth, so I grabbed my stuff out of the corner and stuck it there instead. I kicked off my shoes, peeled off my socks, and dropped the vest on top of my backpack. The shirt took a little longer, what with the buttons, and as I took it off someone let out a whistle. I looked up and saw Steph leering at me. I grinned back at her. "Like you've never seen this before," I joked with her, as I dropped my shirt. "Still damn pretty," she said. "Pity I can't touch." She stuck out her tongue at me as she got set up at one of the easels. "Yeah, it's look only today, you perv," I said. I undid the buttons on my pants and slipped them off. I folded them so they wouldn't get creased, then started to strip off my underwear. "Mister Payne! What are you doing?" The art teacher sounded a little panicked. "Huh? I'm getting ready," I said, puzzled, thumbs stuck in the band of my briefs. "You said to." "Why aren't you wearing any pants?" "Um... I thought that's how this was done," I replied. "Strip and stand still for a while?" "Yes, but, you... this... you can't!" The teacher had turned bright red. At this point Steph started cracking up, and I suppose it was kind of funny. There I was, standing in the middle of a high school classroom, dressed only in a small pair of high cut white bikini briefs, arguing with a freaked out and very red-faced teacher over why I thought I was supposed to be nude. "Mister Payne, this is high school. You just can't be naked here. Someone would see!" "Well, yeah," I said, feeling kind of confused and waving at the students in the class. Almost all the easels were taken, and everyone was looking at us. "Them. Isn't that kind of the point?" "Leave your underwear on. You can put your pants on too if you want." "Leave 'em off!" Steph was loving this, as were the rest of the girls in the class. The three guys seemed unimpressed. "Eh, I don't care," I said. "Either way. It's only nudity. No big deal." Being nude in front of people's never bothered me. I really don't care what other people think, and it's not like I've anything to be embarrassed about. I was at the public baths once a week when I was in Tokyo anyway, so this wasn't anything new. "As long as you're comfortable and dressed enough not to be arrested, it's fine," said the teacher. There was a round of "Awwww..." from the girls in the room. "So anyway," I said, sitting on the stool and trying to change the subject, "how do you want me? What are they supposed to be doing today?" "Today's a torso study," he said. The red was draining out of his face, which was turning a more normal shade. I thought for a minute. "Do you have anything that weighs about three pounds? Two of them, close to the same weight?" He went over to one of the cabinets and rummaged around, pulling out a pair of paint jars. He tossed them at me, saying, "These should be about right." "Great, thanks," I replied, as I got up and caught them. I sat back down, one jar in each hand, and held my arms out a bit. I could feel a bit of tension in my chest and figured the stress would make things reasonably distinct. "Good enough?" I asked Steph, who was at the easel directly in front of me. Her eyes were wide, and all she could get out was, "Holy crap." "That's a yes, right?" I said, closing my eyes and trying not to move. From the feel of things, I figured I could hold the pose for an hour or so, and the position was one I could get back into if I needed to move partway through class. Things were pretty quiet for the first ten minutes or so. I just sat there, eyes closed, holding the paints, trying not to move. It was a little tough to get used to just sitting there. A little boring, too. That, at least, was broken by the sound of someone running into the classroom, though with my eyes closed I couldn't see who it was. "Hey, Mister B! Sorry I'm late, coach caught me for..." The voice stopped. It had sounded familiar. "Afternoon, Rob. Grab the last easel, there should still be time." And that'd be why. It was Rob. I shouldn't have been too surprised that he was in this class, given how well he draws, but still, I hadn't expected it. "Uh... sorry, I've gotta go. I'll catch up tomorrow." And with that, I heard him run back out. Interesting. Modeling is a dull thing -- you need to put yourself in a position you can hold nearly forever and then hold it. This wasn't that big a deal, but your mind does wander. By the third day I was bored stiff, but I had promised, so I was going to finish the week off. I had my eyes closed, which made things a little better, but I couldn't close my ears. Most of the noise is ignorable; pencils scratching on paper, the squeak of chairs as people shifted, the sound of footsteps as people occasionally walked down the corridor outside. Some of it, though, was interesting. Halfway through class, I caught bits of a conversation in the hall. "...third class, Rob..." "...sorry... can't..." "...Twenty percent of the semester grade..." At that point someone walked past, and the conversation stopped. Still, I had a pretty good idea of what was going on. Rob ducked out of the first class and hadn't been back since, and if he didn't he was going to end up tanking hard this semester. The rest of the class dragged on as I tried to think about what to do. I was pretty sure that this was because of the fight we'd had at the art show, though that seemed kind of stupid -- this was for class, and a grade, and he could've asked. On the other hand... this could be because of the game I played with him earlier in the year. I know I had an effect on him, a big one that I'd gone to a lot of trouble to make bigger. While I wasn't trying, I guess it could still be there. If so, this was really my fault, and since I'd promised Rob that I'd stop, I needed to do something to make this right. I got dressed as fast as I could manage, dashed out to my car, and drove over to Rob's place. I was hoping he was there, and with his car in the driveway, I figured I'd guessed right. I ran up to the door and knocked. Rob answered, and he looked like crap. "What?" "Well, you look like crap," I said, pushing past him into the house. "Great, thanks, Doctor Pain," he replied. Mangling my last name was funny, all things considered, even though I'd heard it before. I ignored it. "What are you here for?" "I'm here for you to draw. Duh." I was in the living room at this point, and I started unbuttoning my shirt. "What? Why?" "Because you need to, that's why. You've ducked all three classes, and I'll bet you're going to duck the rest. If you do, you're going to fail this project, it'll kill your grade, and that'll make it that much harder to get into art school." He looked surprised at that, but he didn't protest. I thought that was what he planned. "But at the art show..." "Oh, screw the art show! You're not going to throw what you want away because of me." By now I'd thrown off my shoes, socks and shirt. I started to unbutton my pants, and I heard him gurgle a little. "You, wait, you... I can't..." "Can't what?" I shuffled out of my pants and stood in front of him in just my briefs. I didn't see the big deal -- this is how I'd stood in front of the whole class. I'd have done it nude if it wouldn't have caused a problem. I really didn't care. "Can't draw you in just underwear," he managed to force out. It sounded like he was about to choke. "Fine," I said, as I turned away from him and moved to the couch. "Easily rectified." And with that I dropped my briefs, kicked 'em on top of the rest of my clothes, and lay down on the couch. I was on my stomach, arms crossed, facing the back of the couch, in the same position as the nude Rob'd drawn of me before and displayed at the art show. Felt appropriate somehow. It sounded like Rob was about to have a quiet heart attack behind me, too. I had the vague idea that maybe I shouldn't be doing this, but I admit, the idea kind of amused me. "I'll try not to move," I said, "but I may fall asleep." I looked over my shoulder and shot Rob a grin. "Do what you want with me." I did fall asleep, because the next thing I remember was waking up, flat on my back on the couch, with a blanket over me. The room had gotten a bit chilly, so the blanket was a nice touch. I heard noise from the kitchen, so I got up, slipped on my pants, and wandered out, barefoot and bare-chested. "Oh, good afternoon, Mrs. Greene," I said, as I turned the corner. It wasn't Rob in the kitchen after all. "Good evening, Justin," she corrected me. I looked at the clock and saw it was past seven thirty. "Have a nice nap, I hope?" "Yep," I said, feeling good. "Join us for supper?" She gestured at the dinner makings on the counter next to her. My stomach growled loudly at that, and I just smiled at her. She handed me an apron and we started in on cooking. About a half hour later, Rob came in. We'd already finished cooking and were well into eating, though I was still wearing just my pants and the apron. "Supper is on the stove," said his mother as Rob walked into the kitchen. "Catfish tempura," I added. "Mmmm, good eats." I grinned at him. "Oh, and thanks for the blanket." "Blanket," he said, looking at me blankly. "What blanket?" "The blanket that you threw over..." Watching him it was pretty clear he had no idea what I was talking about. There was only one other person it could be. I turned and eyed his mom instead. "Mrs. Greene, were you perving on me?" I raised an eyebrow at her. "What?" Rob's voice jumped an octave across that word. "Of course, dear," she said, patting my arm. "Very nice." "Mother!" "Oh, and Rob, could I get you to drop some film off at the drug store to get developed?" She had a look on her face that was so innocent even I could see it. That, I figured, was a clear sign she was up to something. "Find the macro lens for the camera, did you?" "You should be so lucky, young man. I did find the zoom, so hopefully something will be visible." Rob couldn't manage to do anything but squeak at that one, his face a bright red. Mrs. Greene and I looked at each other for a minute before we both broke out laughing. "Ah, I bet you used to drag Stephen out to the strip clubs, didn't you?" I don't know why that popped into my head, but it did, so I said it. I bet I was right, too. "Oh, of course. We'd go out and meet Rob's father." "My dad was a stripper?" Rob's voice was well into the soprano range at this point. It was funny, but I was starting to feel sorry for him. Even I could see he was an easy target. "No dear, of course not," Mrs. Greene said, giving Rob a gentle smile. "He didn't have the ass for it. He was a bartender." That was too much even for me, and the water I was drinking shot out my nose, I laughed so hard. She looked over at me. "Don't," I warned her between coughs. "Wherever you're going. Just don't." Not that that would stop her if she didn't want to stop, but she took pity on us. "You'd probably best be getting home, Justin," she said, once I finally caught my breath. It was nearly nine, and she was right. My parents would probably be getting home soon, so I ought to at least call. "Yeah," I said. "I should. Thanks very much for dinner." "You're quite welcome," she replied, her voice warm and welcoming. "I'm glad you came over again. You know you're welcome any time." She looked at me, then looked at Rob, and I had a pretty good idea just then what she meant. That was up to Rob, though. He could have said something as I was leaving. He didn't. Many thanks to Ashken, Ender, and Kitty, intrepid editors.
  13. TheZot

    Chapter 2

    Chapter 2 On any day without rain I run in the morning. Saturday was nice, so even with the bruises from the beating I took on Thursday I was out on the road for most of an hour. I got back from my run to find a girl sitting on the front steps to my house. "I'm Steph," she said, standing up. Even on the steps she barely looked me in the eye. She was dressed sensibly enough for the weather -- t-shirt, denim skirt, and a patchwork quilt vest, a navy beret pulled down over her head with bits of red hair sticking out from underneath it. Next to her feet was a bulging olive green canvas bag that looked like it was made from an army surplus tent or something. She had the feel of a mad Irish Munchkin. "And you're the Ken doll I get to dress up," she said, looking me up and down slowly. She let out a whistle. "Nice. Sure I can't just undress you and leave it that way?" "What?" "Nudity," she said, as if that explained everything. "It'd suit you." "Uh..." I don't know if strange girls showing up on people's front steps was normal or not, but I was leaning towards the not. Especially ones who were this... forward. "How cute. Ricky said you were kinda shy." Ricky? "You're the person Rick said had taste?" She grinned at me. "Yeah, I'm Steph. I'm here to make you over. Ricky didn't warn you about me?" Warn me? That wasn't a good sign. "What? No. He just said he knew someone." She gave me a big grin, though it wasn't very reassuring to see. "That'd be me. Okay, let's see what you've got," she said as she stood up. I just looked at her blankly. "Clothes," she said slowly, sounding like she thought I was an idiot. "I need to see your clothes." "Why?" She gave an exasperated sigh. "I need to see what we're starting with," she said. "Oh." I didn't know what else to say, so I just went past her and opened the door to the house. When I looked over my shoulder I saw she was standing still and staring at my ass. "Are you coming?" She shook her head and put on a wicked grin. "Maybe soon." I had no idea what she meant by that, and I didn't think I wanted to. I did notice she was three steps behind me the whole way through the house. When we got to my room Steph marched over to my closet and started rummaging through the stuff I had. There wasn't much there, just some flannel shirts and a suit I didn't fit into any more. She just gave a snort and started digging into my dresser. The contents of that apparently didn't impress her any more than my closet did. "Okay, so we've got jeans, t-shirts, and flannel. That's not a lot to go on." She thought for a moment. "What are we trying to accomplish here?" "Um... what?" "Accomplish, Justin. To what end are we seeking?" "Oh, okay. Sex." She raised an eyebrow at me and grinned. "You're awfully forward. We've hardly just met. Still... sure," she said, and reached for the hem of her t-shirt. "No, no!" I took a step back from her and held up my hands. The look in her eyes made it clear she might just jump me right here. "I want to dress sexy. Be attractive, you know?" "Damn," she said with a smirk. "Pity. So you want to attract the girls, huh?" "What? No. The guys." "You're gay?" "Yeah." "With this wardrobe?" She looked at me like she didn't believe me. "You sure?" "Why, do I have to prove it?" Really, what did she expect? It's not the sort of thing anyone says if they don't mean it. "Yeah. Go ahead!" Steph said. I think she may have started to drool a little. "Uh..." At that point my brain started to short out, and she laughed. "It's okay, Justin," she said, patting my arm. "You don't have to. But don't let me stop you if you want." She sighed and looked around the room again. "What else do you have?" "You mean clothes?" "Yes, Justin," she said. She was speaking slowly, enunciating each word. "I mean clothes. You haven't given me a whole lot to work with here." "I've got my things from last year," I said, thinking of the trunk of clothes down in the basement. "Please tell me it's clothes you've grown out of. I'd hate to think you traded up to that stuff," she said with a dismissive wave at my dresser. I wasn't sure how to describe it, exactly. Last year was something I didn't much feel like talking about, definitely not to a total stranger. "Something like that," I said. "Packed away in the basement." "To the basement then!" She sounded far too eager. Our basement wasn't much, mostly a small storage area. Nothing like the one from our old house, but Dad had said they'd had to look pretty hard for a house with anything at all, so we were making do. Some of it was filled with boxes we hadn't unpacked yet, and I'd taken over the rest for a practice space. "Geez," said Steph, looking at my gear scattered around the basement. "You some sort of ninja or something?" "Um, yeah, I guess. Something like that." What was I going to do, disagree? I had wooden swords, kendo padding, a couple of sticks, and some nunchaku scattered around. What I was looking for was buried in the back corner of the basement. I dragged out the trunk of clothes I'd brought back from last year and let Steph rummage through it. It brought back some bad memories but I tried hard to not think about them. I wasn't sure it was a good idea to let Steph look at it. She thought otherwise. "Hey, you've got a yukata!" Steph held up the thing. "You know what they are?" Most people don't. A yukata's a light-weight kimono, though if I wore it around here everyone'd think it was a bathrobe with a nice pattern in the fabric. "Yeah, I've been trying to get The Griff to do Madame Butterfly. She keeps saying there's too much death and Italian in it. Oh, and Justin! Japanese schoolboy uniforms? Kinky." "What? No, it's not that..." "Sure, sure. I get ya. Gay anime geeks. Right, then," she said, standing up and shutting the trunk, "that was unhelpful. D'you like that sort of thing," she asked, pointing at the trunk. I'm not sure that 'like' was the right word, but I'd worn it all last year, and it was at least comfortable. "More or less," I said. "Well, it's different, and that's a start. Gives me a few ideas, at least. Now," she said, looking me up and down. I felt like a piece of meat. "Do you know your measurements?" Given the way she was looking at me, that question made me very nervous, especially because I didn't have an answer. "Um... no?" Steph's face lit up, and I knew that was the wrong answer. "Oh, good! Let me get my tape measure." Getting measured sure seemed an awful lot like getting felt up, only with a tape measure involved. At least I think there was a tape measure involved most of the time. "Hey, watch the hands!" That time she wasn't even making a pretense of measuring me. There wasn't any way she could be using the tape measure if both hands were grabbing my ass. "I am," she said with a grin. "Don't want to miss." I sighed in exasperation as she groped me a little more while she took my measurements. This was my own fault, I guess -- if I knew what size I was I wouldn't have to be doing this. Or maybe not. I was beginning to think that Steph wouldn't pass up a chance to grope. "Okay, I've got what I need. Now just stand there for a minute," Steph told me. She grabbed a pad out of her bag and started scribbling. After a minute she shouted out "turn to the left!" and scribbled some more. I ended up doing a full 360 that way. I felt very much on display, far more than the times I'd been nude in public, and it was making me really uncomfortable. Still, I'd asked for it. Asked for something, at least. I was pretty sure that I hadn't asked to be groped or leered at. "We're doing the hair too, right?" That question came out of the blue while Steph was still scribbling on her pad. "What?" "That's the word of the day, isn't it?" "What?" "Nevermind, you're getting your hair done while we're out. You have a car, right?" "The grey thing out front, yeah." "Good. Got nothing to do today?" "No," I said, wondering where this was going. "Even better. Got cash?" "I have a credit card that's empty." "Sold, to the sweaty guy in the gym shorts!" When Steph said that I remembered that I hadn't showered or anything after my run, since she'd grabbed me before I'd even made it into the house. "I think I should go shower and change before we go. And no," I said quickly, before she could say anything, "you can't watch." "You're no fun," she said with a pout. That was depressingly true. "Not usually, no. Sorry," I said with a shrug. "Still," she said, "eye candy works for Keanu, so it can work for you! You shower, Justin," she said, patting my ass, "and I'll make some calls." I took the quickest shower I could manage, wrapped myself in three towels for cover, and ducked into my room. I half expected Steph to be there to watch while I dressed, but I got lucky and she wasn't. I considered dressing up, but given Steph's opinion of my wardrobe I wasn't sure there was anything in there that counted as dressed-up. I settled for a clean t-shirt and jeans instead. Steph was waiting for me in on the couch in the living room, sketch pad in hand. It looked like she'd already gone through a half-dozen pages, but I couldn't tell if she'd done them just now or if they were older. I resisted the temptation to peek over her shoulder at them. "Ready to go?" she asked as she got up, putting the pad into her bag. "Yeah," I said as I made my way to the front door. "Where are we going, exactly?" "You know where Atlanta is, right?" Steph followed my out. "More or less. It's over that way?" I waved east. "Close enough," she said, getting into the front passenger seat. "Drive there. I've got some work to do on the way. Tell me when we get close, and shut up until then." Not only could I do that, if it meant I didn't have to try and hold my own in a conversation with her I was all for it. "Gotcha. I can do that." That left me driving towards Atlanta with a growing sense of dread. Steph was sitting next to me with her sketchpad, scribbling like mad as I drove. She'd occasionally look over at me and mutter something, and more than once she held bits of cloth up to my face. I was curious, but asking meant running into a conversational minefield. I decided I didn't want to know that badly. Actually getting to Atlanta didn't help any either. Steph was still spending most of her attention on whatever she was drawing, so her directions were curt, and we ended up doubling back twice because she didn't tell me to make a turn in time. The neighborhood we ended up in was one of those newly trendy ones -- you know, with bizarre shops, specialty art stores, and little boutiques sandwiched between buildings that look like they ought to be torn down. "Park here," she said, pointing down an alley. I wasn't entirely sure about it, but I wasn't going to argue. The alley was next to a hair salon that looked closed. Closed, apparently, didn't slow Steph down any. She grabbed my hand as soon as I got out of the car and barged right in. "Hi Rafe!" Steph pushed me into the salon. "The Ken doll's here. We ready to apply some style?" "Hey Steph," said the guy who I assume had to be Rafe. He walked over to Steph and gave her a hug and a peck on the cheek, then turned to look at me. "What are we looking for?" "Gimme a sec," said Steph, as she ran out of the place. "I'll be right back." That left me alone with Rafe. The situation probably would be less awkward if Steph had actually introduced us. Not that Rafe was bad to look at by any means -- as eye candy went he was just fine, being a little taller than I was with a nice smile, his black hair cut short and spiked up, wearing a black button-down shirt, thin red tie, and tan chinos. He couldn't have been more than twenty or so, and the body under the clothes looked like it would be worth a second look without the clothes over it. Still, me ogling him wasn't the plan for the day, though I wasn't sure what the actual plan was. "Um... hi," I said hesitantly. "I'm Justin." "Rafe," he said, walking over to me and holding out his hand. I took it and shook. I was relieved that I wasn't going to get a hug and kiss. "Well," said Rafe after an extended awkward pause, "we probably ought to get started while Steph runs her errand. You shower this morning?" "Yeah," I said. "Conditioner too." My hair was still wet from the shower, even after the drive here. That's one of the disadvantages to long hair, it takes forever to dry. Still, hair drying from a soaking in the shower beats hair drying from a soaking of sweat. "Good," said Rafe. "Might as well get you into the chair and start cleaning you up." He spun one of the chairs around and took the oversized bright purple bib off the chair and fastened it around my neck. I settled down into the chair and Rafe started brushing my hair back. "Nice," he said as he worked. "Been a while since your last cut?" "Couple of years," I said. "Well, you've kept it in good shape. We ought to be able to do whatever Steph wants done." I wasn't sure what we would be doing exactly, as all I was going to be doing was sitting there and letting things happen, but that was really all I was up for right then. As Rafe started working I heard the door open. "I'm back!" The voice and enthusiasm was unmistakable. "Got what I was looking for, too. Rafe, I was thinking something like this," Steph said. Since I was stuck in the chair I couldn't see what she was holding, but Rafe could. "Are you sure?" he asked. "That'd need a lot of gel. He could kill someone with those things." That is not what you want to hear when you've put your head in someone else's hands. I was getting really nervous -- I wouldn't be too surprised if Steph was thinking of spikes or a Mohawk or something. "Yeah, I know, we can tone it down a little. Still, he's got the hair for it." "But braiding? That's a lot of work, and I don't know that it'll go over too well." That was more than enough for me. I had visions of some sort of bizarre dreadlocks or something, and I didn't care how good she was supposed to be -- there was no way I was going to do anything like that. When I turned around I could see Steph had a DVD case in her hand. "Please tell me that's not a clown movie," I said. "Nah," said Steph, showing me the case. It was worse. Anime. Full Metal Alchemist, of all things. I didn't recognize the American cover art, but it was Ed, one of the lead characters, in a no-shirt beefcake pose, complete with swirling cloak. Ed, unlike me, was short, blonde, and animated. He also had most of his hair back in a braid, with a bunch of it swooping around in front in a gravity-defying style you can only get when there's no actual gravity involved. "You want me looking like him?" "Sure. It's different, looks good, and matches your fetish." "I don't have a fetish. And he's thirteen! And animated." "Thirteen? Really? Wow." Steph took a good look at the picture. "Killer abs for thirteen. They grow 'em nice in Japan," she said with a leer. "I think I want to visit." "Trust me," I muttered, "you don't. Anyway," I said, continuing on, "I'm not blonde, and I'm not going to braid my hair." Steph frowned at me. "Hrmph. You're not being very cooperative." "He's right," Rafe said. "A braid won't work. Still..." he trailed off, looking back and forth between me and and the box, thinking. "I can work with that. Give me forty-five minutes. An hour and a half if you want highlights." "Highlights, definitely highlights. We need to get rid of the mousy look." I was getting a little tired of them talking past me. "Don't I get a say in this?" "Nope," Steph said with a smile, patting me on the shoulder. "You don't. You put yourself in my hands, remember?" "Don't worry," said Rafe. "You'll be safe with with me." "You'll protect me from her?" Rafe looked at Steph and shook his head. "No way. You're on your own with her." Steph snorted at us. "Rafe, you get him fixed up. I'm going to go see about getting his wardrobe started. Justin, you will stay here if you finish before I get back, right?" Like I had much of a choice there. "Right," I said. "Good." She gave me another pat and left. "Just you and me," Rafe said. "Lie back and relax, it'll all be over before you know it." "I wish," I muttered. Rafe started talking but I just tuned him out and tried not to fall asleep, though I'm not sure I succeeded, since I was brought back to the real world by a poke in the shoulder. "Huh?" "You're not much for conversation, are you?" I could see Rafe grinning at me in the mirror. Unfortunately I wasn't sure how to respond to that, and I really didn't want to offend the guy who was hovering over me with scissors. I figured the truth was probably best. "I never really got the hang of it," I admitted. "Well," he said, "you're trimmed, and it's time for the chemistry. Gotta look good for the girls, huh?" Rafe had a few plastic squeeze bottles and a lot of tinfoil. This was making me more than a little nervous, but he was the professional, so I had to trust him and hope for the best. "What? No," I replied. "Oh, I just assumed," he said with a little frown. "Steph called me but she didn't tell me why we were doing this. Some special occasion?" "No, nothing like that?" "General makeover?" The questions were making me really uncomfortable. I mean, yeah, hairdresser and all, probably gay, but I didn't know this guy and I wasn't sure I wanted to talk about what I was doing this for. I wasn't even sure I was comfortable with what I was doing this for. "Um... well..." Rafe gave me another grin. "It's okay Justin. Nothing you say can be worse than whatever Steph would come up with. Besides, if you can't trust a total stranger you've just met, who can you trust?" That, I had to admit, made absolutely no sense. In its own way that fit in with the rest of the day. Besides, I'd gotten this far, it wouldn't do me any good to not finish it properly, and Rafe could probably do a better job if he knew what it was he was supposed to be doing. "You won't tell Steph?" "My lips are sealed," Rafe said. "Promise." "I'm doing this for revenge." Rafe just looked at me. "That," he said slowly, "doesn't help choose a style, unless you're looking to strangle someone with your hair." "Okay," I said with a sigh, "there's this guy at school. He's a total ass, and he's been making my life hell since school started. He's also a closet case, in a big way. I want to look good -- really good -- and I want to jerk him around. Steph's doing a makeover on me to help, though I haven't told her why, exactly. I figure I look good, I dress well, I flirt like hell, and I make him squirm. A lot." Rafe raised an eyebrow at me. "Interesting plan. People are going to think you're gay, though, you know." "I am," I said. "So I don't care about that." Rafe laughed then, long and hard. "Justin," he said, patting my shoulder, "you've got guts. I like that. Between Steph and I, I think we can make this guy wet his pants over you. There is one thing though," he said as he started in on my head with bottles of foul-smelling gunk, "there's more to being sexy than just looking good and dressing well. That helps, but you need the attitude too." This made no sense to me. I'm pretty sure it showed on my face, since Rafe chuckled. "Okay Justin," he said, "object lesson time. Look at me. I'm attractive, right?" "Well, yeah," I said. That was something I noticed when we were introduced. "Look again," he said. "Look closely." I did, and... well, he wasn't that attractive. Yeah, sure, he wasn't ugly, but his nose was shaped a little oddly, his eyebrows were kind of bushy and he had a ragged scar on his left cheek. Yeah, his hair was short and done up well, and he was dressed nicely, but still, when I looked I could see he was just a little shy of ordinary. It was when I stopped looking so close that he turned back to attractive. "Oh," I said. "I see. I think. Why?" "There's more to being attractive than just how you look. There's the way you act, and the way you move, your attitude. It's all important. You can be the most beautiful person in the world, and believe me we get some really good looking people in here, but if you're angry or unhappy or nasty, you won't look good. And you don't have to be beautiful to be attractive, either. The looks help, sure, but dressing well, being confident and happy, engaging people, and moving like you're relaxed all make a huge difference. I mean, look at me," he said with a lopsided smile, "admit it, you thought I was hot when you walked in here. It wasn't until you looked close that you noticed that I'm just ordinary." I think he had a really good point. I wasn't sure, since this was all stuff I just didn't understand, but Rafe seemed like a nice guy and his little demonstration made it really clear that there was more to this than just looks. That was going to put me at a big disadvantage, since I didn't do social things too well. I could move, though, and I knew how to relax if I worked at it. Maybe with a good smile and the assumption that I could pull this off I actually could pull it off. "Now this kid you're doing this to. Basically you're looking to seduce him, right?" I thought about that. I wasn't looking to actually get him, but I was looking to make him think he was being gotten. Or something like that. "That sounds about right," I said. "You always want him to know that you're in charge, that you know what's going on, and you know what you're doing. You've got to be..." Rafe fished for the right word, "engaged with him. Watch him, see what he's doing, make him go the way you want him to, you know? Be friendly, touch him a lot, when you can't touch him with your body touch him with your eyes. Just... stay in contact. Make it clear that you like what you see when you do it. "You could tell Steph, you know," Rafe said as he rinsed the chemical gook out of my hair. "This is the sort of thing she'd get a big kick out of." "Yeah, I got that feeling," I said. I could imagine what she'd do if she knew Bobby was gay. The thought wasn't pretty. "I don't like this guy, but I don't not like him that much. If Steph found out she'd make this guy's life a living hell, and I don't think anybody deserves that. Besides, this is a private fight. I don't want anyone else involved." "I can respect that," Rafe said as he toweled my head off. "I won't say anything to Steph." "Thanks. We done?" "Almost," said Rafe. "Just some gel in the front and a tie-up in back and you're set. I assume," he said with some amusement in his voice, "that you've never done this before, right?" "I usually keep my hair tied back, so I'm used to that. I brought a spare tie," I said, fishing a length of leather out of my pocket. "That'll do," said Rafe, taking the tie. "Now, sit down and watch." He plopped me down in a chair and spun me sideways. In the mirror I watched his hands as he first tied most of my hair back, then worked in some gel and shaped the hair in front. It looked pretty straightforward, though I was sure I'd have messed it up if I hadn't watch him do it. "Done," he said with a flourish. "You're officially ready to break some hearts." I looked at myself in the mirror. I was... different. The shaggy mouse look was gone, and in its place was something that looked, well, attractive. Rafe had done an amazing job. The chemicals had turned my dull, nondescript brown into a collection of highlights that made it look like I'd been in the sun all summer and lightened up. He'd chopped a few inches off the back and pulled it back into a pony tail. The hair on the front of my head was swept forward and to the sides, framing my face. They weren't exactly bangs -- they hung down past my cheeks -- but the gel kept them out of the way without making it look like I'd soaked them in glue or anything. "Wow," I said. "Thanks, Rafe, it looks great." "You gave me something to work with and an interesting challenge," he said with a grin. "It was my pleasure. You can handle the styling?" He took my credit card and swiped it as he asked. "Sure. You were clear enough. Shouldn't be a problem." I signed the receipt and threw on a big tip without really looking at the total. "Good," he said. "You'll need to come back in about a month to keep it up. You can let me know how it all works out too." "I will," I replied as Steph dragged me out of the salon. "Well, we've got the hair," she said as she took me down the block. "Now it's time to get the clothes." The place we stopped at looked to be a combination vintage clothes shop, costume shop, and tailor shop While I'll admit that getting my hair done ultimately was an okay thing, I can't say the same about getting the wardrobe. It didn't take quite as long, but it was a lot more involved and a lot less comfortable. The first half hour consisted of the woman running the shop, someone Steph called Elaine, though we were never actually introduced, redoing all the measurements that Steph had taken, then poring over a stack of pages torn out of Steph's sketchbook. It would have been fine if either of them had said anything, but they didn't, and I was left standing on a stool while they did whatever it was they were doing. That was nothing compared to what happened when they were done. Elaine wheeled out a full rack of clothing, started pulling out pieces and handing them to Steph, who in turn started handing them to me. "Try these," was all she said, though she said it a lot. Every time I came out of the dressing room she and Elaine looked at me for a few seconds, pulled out more things, and sent me back. Most things went back on the rack, the rest getting piled up on a table. I only hoped the smaller pile was the ones we were keeping -- I didn't want to go through them all again. "God, you suck as a clothes horse, Justin," said Steph as I came out of the dressing room for what felt like the hundredth time. I looked down and saw I'd managed to mis-button the shirt again. "Sorry," I said. I was trying my best, since I had asked for this, but I didn't have the hang of it. She was right, though. I hated doing this and it showed. "Don't worry about it," sighed Steph. "You're trying, I know." She shuffled through the clothes she'd picked out. "We want simple. Maybe some day when we've got you better trained you can manage something else." Steph looked at Elaine, holding up a couple of pieces. "What do you think?" "Not the Chinese buttons," said Elaine. "That's too much for every day." "Fine," Steph said, tossing aside the shirt she was holding. "Banded collar?" "Definitely." "Okay," said Steph. I watched her go over to the racks in the store and pull out a half dozen shirts, pants, and vests. "We've got you a style, Justin," she said. "We're going with simple." She showed me the clothes she'd selected. "So I wear a vest, shirt, and pants," I asked, as I looked at them. "Right. The ones I have here," she said, wagging a handful of colored shirts at me, "they all work with your hair and coloring. You should be good there." "Okay," I said, holding up the light blue shirt and green vest I had in my hands. "I can do that." She looked at me, then at the clothes I was holding, then at the collection of colored shirts in her hand. "Right, nevermind," she said, taking the vest and shirt away from me. "We go with white. White is good. You're okay with the pants and these vests?" She waved at a small pile of clothing on the counter. "Yeah. They're tan. No problem." Steph stared at me like I was nuts. "Not tan, Justin. Beige, brown, and... nevermind. I'll make cards. Elaine!" Steph turned and strode towards the front of the shop. She came back a minute later with a bunch of pieces of cardboard with cloth stapled to them. "See, Justin, these combinations here?" She waved a handful of the cardboard at me. "These are good. These here? These are bad." She was talking to me like I was a child or an idiot. "I better label the cards," she muttered. "I better label the clothes." I had a feeling I'd better pay a lot of attention or I was going to be in a whole lot of trouble. Luckily for me we were done. The final style Steph had gone with for me was simple -- white banded collar shirts, a collection of beige pants made from some lightweight cotton cloth, and some beige linen vests. According to Steph I could use any of the vests with jeans, too, so I had a style if I didn't mind being a little repetitive. That was fine with me, since I liked the way it all looked. I could even move well in it, and everything fit really nicely. I'd see if it was worth the hassle and the cost at school on Monday. The one thing I didn't expect to see when we left the store was Bobby. So of course, there he was, coming out of one of the stores at the end of the block. I had no idea what he was doing here, of all places, but then I guess I didn't really care. What Rafe had said to me earlier floated through my brain, and I decided that now was as good a time as any to start things. I slouched back against the store, my shoulders touching the cool brick of the wall, my feet a ways out so my torso was at a small angle. I stuck my hands in my back pockets and, so help me, I grabbed the back of my t-shirt between my thumbs and tugged it down a little so it was tight against my body. I figured that'd get Bobby's attention -- it certainly got Steph's. "Can we take a second before we go?" I asked. It seemed like a reasonable request and would give me a chance to see if Bobby'd notice me. If not we'd go, but if we did I'd do... something. I wasn't sure what. "Yeah," she replied. "It's been a busy day." And it really had, I realized. It was almost four in the afternoon, and I was feeling the day. "It's really a pity you play for the other team," she said with a sigh. I noticed Bobby'd noticed us, though I pretended I hadn't seen him. He'd just stopped and stared at me and I had an idea that'd kill two birds with one stone. "Well, thanks," I said. Then I pushed off the wall, leaned forward, and gave Steph a quick kiss on the lips. I grinned at her as she just stared at me in shock. Bobby, I noticed, had turned and hurried off. "Shall we head for home?" Many thanks to Ashken, Ender, and Kitty, intrepid editors.
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