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    Dabeagle
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Sanitaria Springs - 1. Chapter 1

I was sucking for air as we rounded the field, the shoulder pads rubbing uncomfortably, the helmet trapping the heat and the thick padded pants were starting to feel like they were made of concrete. I tried my best to regulate my breathing and concentrate on lifting my legs and putting one foot down in front of the other; with all this gear I'd never reached the runners high I'd heard so much about. As we rounded the last corner the front of the group stopped and the coaches began to yell out 'walk it off, don't stand still!'.

I trotted the last few paces and then put my arms over my head, walking and trying to steady my breathing out. After a minute or so of that, with my arms getting tired, I pulled my helmet off and put my hands on my knees to rest a moment. I heard the click of a camera, the electronic mimicry of the mechanical sound an old camera would have made. I glanced up to look for the camera but could see nothing with all the players around me.

“Okay ladies, that run time was pretty lame. I expect you to work this weekend, get with the team captains and make sure your time improves on Monday. Stamina wins games, stamina is the key and you poor slobs are sorely lacking. Hit the showers!” Coach said loudly. The team broke and headed for the locker room, most of us taking our time. I rolled my head on my shoulders to loosen the muscles and then pulled off the shoulder pads that had been chafing me. I wasn't sure why, maybe the tee shirt was too thin. I heard the camera sound again and glanced around, this time spotting the photographer.

Average build with long medium to dark brown hair, an army surplus jacket and jeans with canvas sneakers, the photographer had a small digital and was snapping various pictures of the team as we came off the field. I was bumped by a teammate who mumbled an apology as he went by. The photographer turned his lens towards me and, perhaps noticing me noticing him, pulled the camera away from his face. He smiled and gave me a quick wave before lifting the camera back up and resuming his picture taking. Weird.

“Got a problem?” My view of the photographer was blocked by one of the team's linebackers, a senior. He was freaking huge and I got just the tiniest bit nervous looking up into his scowl; I say tiniest bit because saying you almost wet yourself just isn't manly.

“I have a lot of problems. Was there a specific one you have in mind?” I replied. Stupid mouth, this one's gonna hurt.

His scowl was slightly occluded by confusion, but he recovered. “Hit the showers, nub.”

I opened my mouth, a flip reply on my lips but he put a finger up to silence me. “Look weird new kid who thinks he belongs on my team, I don't repeat myself. Hit the showers.”

“You just repeated yourself,” I said while backing away. The cameraman, who'd apparently been approaching us burst out laughing. The lineman scowled again and took a menacing step in my direction and, for once, my body did what it was supposed to. It ran like hell.

I'm sure it looked awkward, running with my helmet in one hand and my shoulder pads in the other; in fact I'm sure it looked funny as hell, but the more important part is I wasn't getting my ass kicked. Yet. Clamoring into the locker room, I put my gear on the racks and went to my locker. I changed quickly, just pulling on shorts and swapping my cleats for sneakers then grabbing my bag. I scouted briefly to make sure the senior wasn't waiting and headed for the stairs. I figured rather than go back out on the field, I'd go out through the school, just in case he was still scowling in my general direction.

“Hey, smart ass!”

Uh oh. I stopped in my tracks immediately, calculating that I could run but that would make him scowl harder and possibly hit me harder. In addition the coach may not let him gut me here in the locker room; unless he was looking to set an example of course. I hated being an example, it never ends well. I turned to face the scowl and the chorus of 'ohhhhs' bounced off the walls and filled the room. I squared my shoulders as I faced him, about ten feet away.

“What? I did what you said.” I replied more calmly than I felt.

He smiled, a grim smile if there ever was one. “Do you know who I am?”

I put a hand to my chin and then snapped my fingers, “Of course! I'm sorry, I didn't recognize you without the ax.”

“What?” The scowl grew deeper and the room tittered.

“Brawny paper towels, right?” He took a step towards me, and my mouth ran on. “Wait, Green Giant? Ho, ho, hoooo?” My last ho stretched out as he grabbed me by the shirt and lifted me up to his eye level. I gulped.

“I'm team captain Buchanan. Your address is geographically close to mine.” He let that sink in for a second. I tried to gulp again but there seemed to be no muscle movement there. Stupid muscles. “Saturday you will show up at Granger Park, seven AM for an informal workout. Do not be late.” So saying he released me and I stumbled back, quickly regaining my feet.

He scowled at me again. I saluted, “Yes Captain, my Captain!”

He took a step forward and I turned to make for the stairs, “What? I thought you were waiting for a response!”

“Don't be late!” He bellowed.

I turned halfway up the stairs and grinned at him, “You just repeated yourself again.” Then I ran like a jackrabbit. Hell, this was the primary reason I could run at all, to escape getting my ass kicked. I hooked my arms through the straps on my bag and headed out to the school parking lot. My little shit box awaited, sagging valiantly as it mostly succeeded in not letting the seats rust through the floor. It was unlocked because I was sure the key would break off if I ever dared to actually try and turn the lock. I opened the door, which squealed in protest, and tossed my bag in the passenger seat. I settled in and closed the door.

The car turned over, sputtered and caught. The exhaust rattled, a noise that only got louder as I backed out of the space. Once I got going it was better, but after I turned on the radio it almost disappeared. Perception is reality. Once home I showered and sat in my room to do my homework. My sadistic English teacher had told us there would never be a day without homework in her class, and so far she was honest. Boring as beige paint drying, but honest. Poetry was the current assignment and I was struggling with it, to put it mildly.

My phone beeped, signaling it was near dead. I pulled it out to charge and, once plugged in, the screen brightened for a second. A text message was waiting and I opened it, curious to see what I'd missed. Besides what were my options, study poetry? The text was from a number I didn't recognize, but there was no confusion about the message.

He's mostly bark, but if you're late he'll ride you hard.

Well, that was reassuring. An inside track on my captain? I leaned back and read the text again. In a way we were all new students this year. The school district had decided to consolidate the schools, and then realized they could save even more - even sell off some excess land at a profit – if they merged the two schools. Columbia Consolidated School District was now separated into East Columbia and West Columbia technically, but in practice we were all one school; for bonus points no one knows where the name Columbia came from – the closest was a county two counties over. But before this year, we'd been two schools with my house near the border of the district. Now we were one big happy cesspool of teenage angst with half of us not knowing the other half.

So, who could my benefactor be? I texted back to ask who this was, not really expecting a truthful answer. I did, however expect an answer, but none came. I set the phone back down and let it charge. Curious. I glanced at my English book and decided there was no reason to do that today as Sunday would get here soon enough. I started up a Civ game and played that until dinner, and after that I was wiped. After checking my phone again to see if there was a follow up, which there wasn't, I fell asleep.

It was a tad chilly at 6:45 and very few of the team members were in evidence. No doubt they'd stream in mere moments before the appointed hour, as I normally would, but I'd decided to start the day off not getting beaten to a pulp. Instead I stretched out, trying to get my blood flow moving. The captain spotted me and gave me a curt nod, I suppose acknowledging my being on time. I saluted, not being able to help myself, and he merely shook his head. Perhaps he'd decided this wasn't a fight worth having. I was like Luke with the force, but my strength was smart-assery; and I think he recognized that.

Buchanan took a quick head count and got us going on stretches, jumping jacks and all that stuff before outlining the running route we'd take. We formed a straggling line as our group headed up the street at a brisk pace, one that should be easier to maintain without the pads and helmet on. Captain Buchanan called out a cadence and, while I felt silly, I admitted to myself that it was helping to keep us in rhythm. That was kind of important, since some folks could run faster and some couldn't keep up – this set a general pace everyone matched their stride to.

The hardest part was the long uphill stretch, even Buchanan's voice wasn't at its strongest then. As we rounded the curve at the top of the hill, runners strung out unevenly, yesterday's photographer was snapping away at the team. He turned the camera, saw me and waved as he had the day before, and then returned to his camera. The camera looked like it was on me so I spread my arms out and grinned like an idiot. He laughed and gave me a thumbs up and then there was a huge hand in the middle of my back.

“Keep moving, nub. You can pose when we're done.”

“Why can't I do both? You saw just now, I'm graceful, I can pose and run all at once.” I replied.

“Because if you don't focus you could trip, then the only one taking pictures will be the doctors so they have a good example of what road rash looks like to show the interns.” Buchanan rumbled. I gulped. Since my mouth needed to say something, I switched tacks.

“So do all the teams get random people taking pictures of them? Or is it because I'm here?”

“Kinda full of yourself, aren't you?”

“So you're saying teams do get random people snapping pictures?” Talking while running wasn't as easy as it might sound. You made a lot of extra exhalations that made you sound kind of...breathy. “Cause if that's the case I don't feel quite so special.”

“I'm saying if they are for the school paper you'd better not make us look like a bunch of fuck ups. Like spreading your arms out and grinning like an ass.”

I contemplated this. So the photographer was for the school paper? I matched Buchanan's pace as we headed back down a milder hill towards the park. In the distance I saw the photographer, exiting a little VW Rabbit, and he looked like he was going to set up to get some extra shots of the team as we neared the stopping point. I glanced at Buchanan who was breathing like a bellows, as he was much heavier than I was.

“Look, picture time. Hey, better suck in your gut. I thought you had to be in shape to be a captain?” I grinned at Buchanan and his scowl was back. He reached to shove me and I sidestepped just far enough to be out of reach, more by accident than design. He grunted and picked up his pace to smack me, so I turned away and ran like hell.

“Gonna break your neck!” He bellowed and then all I heard was his huge feet hitting the pavement. That was all I needed for encouragement as I fairly flew down the homestretch to the park. I glanced behind me once to see him puffing; sprinting is not the forte of the linebacker, and I burst into a fit of breathless giggles, stumbling into the park and leaning against a tree to catch my breath. Buchanan lumbered up, slowing and working to regulate his breathing. He fixed me with a glare and pointed.

“You're gonna be a problem.”

“No,” I elongated the word into several syllables.

“Mess with me and I'll work you hard.” He puffed a bit more and then called out to the group. “That run time was on the crappy side of suck! Meet back here at one o'clock, be ready to do it again!” This was met with some quiet groans and, of course, my snappy salute.

“You're pretty scrappy for a little guy.”

I turned to face the photographer, who'd been addressing me. “No, I am a smart ass technician; hardwired to make inappropriate or ill advised comments punctuated with uncalled for visual queues.” I grinned and he smirked at me. “And I am not little. I'm pretty average.”

“He is going to kill you one day, you know that right? Let's not forget that compared to him, you are definitely little!”

“No, I'm indispensable. The team needs a certain number of bench warmers otherwise the real players can't put their sensitive tushies down in between plays. I play a critical part in our success.” I grinned and started to walk to my car. “I'm not trying to be rude, but I have water stashed in my shit mobile and I need some.” I heard his footsteps trailing mine.

“You don't look familiar, and I'm sure I'd remember your...attitude. You a westy?” He asked.

“Yep, for all the difference it makes.” I opened my door and pulled a water bottle off the back seat and began to drink.

“Yeah, it is a little strange. You play football last year too?” He leaned against my car. I stopped drinking, spitting some out and waving him away from the car.

“Dude, you'll get rust stains!” By then he'd jumped away from the car in confusion, and then shot me a wry smile as he started to laugh. “No, this is my first year. My dad claims it will teach me some respect.”

“How's that working out so far?” he grinned at me.

“Well, Buchanan has only threatened to kill me, so far he hasn't actually done it. I'd say that's in my favor.” I took another swallow of the water.

“I heard he lifted you up about six inches yesterday, something about paper towels?” He crossed his arms and waited. I held my hands out.

“Okay, no, no, no. See here's the thing, Buchanan asked if I knew who he was, okay? So no, of course not, but if you say something like that you sort of expect people to know, am I right? So I just compared him to the two biggest people I could think of.” I gave the photographer my most serious, sincere expression to back all this up with my...sincerity. Yeah.

“So, you compared him to two cartoons. One who is a lumberjack peddling paper towels and one that is green and peddles vegetables.”

“Well, in my defense, the look he was giving me made me think he was going to make me into a vegetable so...it was an honest case of mental association.” I shrugged. “Ho, ho, ho.”

“Hmm, I think you're trouble.” He smiled broadly and I choked on my water. I mean, he sort of got...pretty...when he smiled. I mean, I guess he was pretty before but when he smiled it just became...evident. Obvious. Noticeable. Un...well, you get the idea.

I coughed out the water I tried to breathe, and as soon as I tried to breathe for real I started to cough again. I heard him laughing at me and hitting me on the back, which wasn't helping even a little bit. I tried waving his arm off and stumbled a few steps away. I tried to regain some semblance of respectability and said, in between coughs, “Not everything I do is for your amusement.”

He burst out laughing, and covered his mouth while obviously giggling. He really was kinda cute, I decided, and my next thought was how to make him do that again. He glanced down at his watch and then back at me.

“I have to get going, I have an article to write and I have to add these pictures in.” He waved a hand at his camera as he started to back away.

“Oh, well,” I coughed suddenly and he paused long enough for me to catch my breath. He was also, however, biting his upper lip to keep from laughing. “Don't you need quotes or something for an article? Like an interview?”

“I talked to the coach yesterday. He told me specifically not to interview bench warmers,” he held his hands up once more in retreat, “No offense.”

“Liar,” I grinned. “Bench warmers are essential I tell you!”

“That's my story and I'm sticking to it,” He grinned again and climbed into his little boxy Rabbit and motored away. I headed home, car rattling the whole way, and took a shower before meeting my folks at the kitchen table.

“Got a position staked out yet?” My dad asked over his coffee cup.

“I'm thinking the left side looks a touch more comfy than the right.” I glanced at his clearly displeased expression. “Think they'd frown on it if I brought a pillow to sit on or something?”

“That smart mouth is going to bite you in the ass one day.”

“That's physically impossible.”

“Today is looking like that day,” My mom fixed me with look number 6, as in 666. Go no farther or face the consequences. I itched to respond but there was smart-assery and there was stupidity. Often confused, and admittedly a fine line, but there is a difference. “Lawn needs mowing.”

“I have a double today, I have to be back at the park by one.” I said quickly, knowing in my heart it wouldn't be enough.

“Best get to it then, daylights burning.” My mother smiled grimly. I sighed and put my dishes in the sink and went to find some old sneakers. Our lawn wasn't that big, but it was boring. Well, lawn mowing was boring. It'd be a lot more fun to do with a flame thrower, plus you severely cut down on the chances of having to do it a second time. So far I hadn't been able to sell my parents on that, but it was only a matter of time until they saw the financial positives of my suggestion. No more buying new lawnmowers or getting blades sharpened. No more buying gas and oil or storing them. Well, maybe the flamethrower needs gas...

I finished the lawn with just enough time to get back to the park and a repeat performance of the morning routine, except that Buchanan had decided I was to be an example. I hate being an example, have I mentioned that?

“Nub here is special,” Buchanan announced to the assembled group. “He's fast, he thinks. So, in the interest of improving team spirit I'm going to put nub here to good use.” He clapped me on the shoulder and resumed addressing the group.

“We need to improve our time, so we're going to start with nub at the back of the run. Whoever finishes after nub gets an extra three laps tacked on to practice Monday.” He waited for the groans and nasty looks to settle before he continued. “However for every person that finishes ahead of nub, he gets an extra lap.”

My head snapped to look at him in alarm. Was he nuts? I began to open my mouth to tell him just how nuts, but he leaned in and lowered his voice.

“Bitch and it'll be two laps for everyone that beats you. I told you not to fuck with me.”

I, wisely I thought, shut my mouth. The group started to run and I tried to thread my way to the front, but as I did the group would close ranks. Even if I tried to run past, they'd block me going so far as to pull me back or shove me towards the back of the group. Buchanan was up front, calling out a steady cadence and so had plausible deniability in the unfair race he'd organized. Duh; he'd organized. I was so screwed. As we reached the top of the hill I allowed myself to stay in last place, not trying to pass the guys ahead of me. As the front of the group started to turn I darted to the side and over a fence, dashing through backyards and over hedges, through garden gates and avoiding dog shit. Mostly.

I burst over hedges on the opposite side of the block and dashed across the street, sucking for air, and into the next blocks worth of yards. I scrabbled over more than one fence, got chased by a dog and screamed at by some lady with her bathroom window open. Hey, she had it open! I exited onto the street and turned down towards the park making it there well ahead of the group. Minutes later the rest of the group arrived, puffing and groaning. Buchanan stopped next to me and clamped a meaty hand on my neck while he regained his breath.

“You cheated,” He finally said.

“You didn't say how,” I began but he cut me off by shaking me by the neck.

“Look, nub, you knew the route. You knew you were cheating when you started jumping fences.”

“Like you didn't know people would grab me and shove me to stop me from passing them?” I replied hotly.

“Sometimes, that's the way things go. You gotta realize not everything is a joke; sure you can run, I'll give you that. How you ever going to get past someone if you can't shake off a bump? Or if someone, you know, tries to tackle you?” he put his hands to his cheeks, “You going to smart ass your way to the end zone?”

“Bullshit, you and I both know I'm riding the bench. Even if I am the most athletic gamer geek you ever met.” I stopped and glanced skyward, “Is that an oxymoron? Athletic gamer geek?”

“Now see, you don't know everything nub. Speed is an asset, just not always when it comes from your mouth. You might think there is nothing you can learn here, but I guarantee if you shut up and listen sometimes, you'd be surprised what you don't know.”

“But how will I know that I didn't know? I mean once you know, too late, now you know. You know?” I smirked. He scowled back.

“Fifteen extra laps Monday, don't be late.” and he strode away. I grumbled and headed back over to my shit box so I could go home and shower. Again.

~SS~

Sunday was a total wash. I played World of Warcraft all day, we had a scheduled raid and by the time it was over I'd forgotten about my poetry assignment. So as I entered the English classroom I was wracking my brains to come up with a good reason for not having my homework. Somehow I didn't think that a raid, no matter how successful, would cut it. I could just say my internet was out, but then she'd probably want to know why I hadn't printed it. I could be out of ink, of course, or simply not have a printer because everything was emailed. Those excuses were for amateurs though. I had a blank thumb drive in my bag, one that needed to be formatted, so I could tell her that although my email was down I'd brought the assignment with me. As soon as she plugged it in to her computer, it would tell her the drive needed to be formatted and voila! I was off the hook.

“Let's get into your seats, people.” She said in a severely aggravated tone. We settled in and I pulled out my book and got my thumb drive ready for action.

“People, I realize poetry isn't exactly in fashion right now; I realize the language isn't what you are used to. None of that matters; you all have brains and you can all reason, you can all puzzle and interpret. We read language and we come across words we don't understand, but frequently we can conjure up a meaning based on the words around it.

“This can get more difficult with poetry, especially with outdated language. I understand that, but the assignment remains that you have to try. The assignments I received in my email this morning were atrocious, unreadable. In fact I doubted that anyone had actually read them at all, so I deleted them without reading all of them, either. So, we're going to do your homework here and then you can have a double helping tonight, since you'll understand it so much better.”

With a groan we began shuffling our books open as she called out the page number, and I shoved the USB drive down into my pocket; save that baby for another day. All was working out fine until she read the poem and then, can you believe it, she called on me to interpret it.

“Alec, when we read Blake's 'A Poison Tree', what is it you interpret from his words?” She said while taking a seat on the edge of her desk.

“Oh, well, it's kind of a complex poem, isn't it?” I was stalling for time to come up with a good bit of bullshit. That's the thing I love about essay questions is the bull you can weave into it to make it sound like you have a clue.

“It can be interpreted that way, what does it say to you?”

“Well, for one thing don't eat apples. Especially if the guy that owns the apples is pissed at you.” The class chuckled and the corners of her mouth moved down. “But it's true! Look, he says that he grew this tree out of his anger and so the fruit on it was bad.”

“Yes, that is a bit better, a more appropriate interpretation. But we have to look deeper to find meaning in the poetry, much as we have to look deeper into people to find their true meanings and motivations. What else is in here?” She glanced around the room and nodded at someone I couldn't see.

“I think what Blake was driving at is that how you deal with things has consequences. Like when he said he was angry with his friend and 'he told his wrath and the wrath ended'. That's like working it out, dealing with the issue and letting it go. But when it was his enemy he held onto it, he was bitter about it and this tree is like a,” the person took contemplative pause and I began stretching to see who was speaking. “It's a representation of carrying a grudge or nursing one, nothing good comes from it, whatever the outcome. In this case he got pissed at someone and the fruit of it resulted in their death.”

“Very good, someone read the work before today. Alec, after hearing that what would you say was Blake's point?”

I jerked in my chair, having just figured out that mister pretty was the person that answered the question. That was one problem with all these new classes, new faces and a new building; I didn't know everyone in my classes yet. Who knew he was here?

“Alec?”

“Well, I'd say he's basically saying it's better to deal with things and have them settled than letting it fester?” I ventured.

She put her hands in the air, “And a light filters through the darkness. Hope remains!”

I frowned at her dramatics; it wasn't like I was stupid, I just didn't like it. She continued on with William Blake's poems and I tried to pay attention, since it would make the homework easier. I hoped. At least that was my plan, I swear, but I was kind of distracted by the photographer, especially since I couldn't see him; oddly that was really aggravating. Finally the class came to an end with her assigning Blake's “The Tiger” as our reading and interpretive assignment, along with a dire warning about it having to be better than the drivel that had occupied her inbox that morning.

I stood and scanned the room, but the shutterbug had slipped out and that kind of bummed me a little. I headed to lunch, after dumping my books and picking up my lunch bag. It was an insulated cooler with a couple bottles of water for later. If I had to run fifteen extra laps for real, I was going to need them. I sat down with some of my friends from the previous school year who all looked overwhelmed in the new space.

“This sucks,” Tony muttered, “I hate this place.”

“Why?” I asked as I dug into my sandwich.

“I was all set to spend four years of purgatory in the old school, now I jumped right to hell with all these other people. It's like first year all over again instead of tenth grade!”

“Baby,” Valeria told him before directing her attention to me. “So, is football making you any more respectable?”

“My IQ is shrinking daily,” I told her between bites.

“Do you even like it?” Tony asked.

“Captain has a hard on for me.” I shrugged.

“For real? Or like, he's pissed at you?” Valeria leaned forward.

“Val, he's huge. Monstrous. He keeps threatening to split me in half.” I deadpanned.

“Oh my god, you are such a pig!” She exclaimed. “Is he your type?”

“Val, he's jerking your chain. I bet the cap is just pissed at him. What did you do, salute him? Call him Captain Crunch?” Tony grinned.

“Nah, he asked if I knew who he was and, cause he's huge, I suggested the green giant.” I shrugged, “He has no sense of humor, he didn't even threaten to make me a vegetable.” I held up a finger, “And I saluted him.”

“Well, I guess a hot gay football guy is to much to hope for, huh?” Val sighed.

“What the hell am I?” I demanded.

“Not hot,” she frowned, “Maybe lukewarm. Or warmed over.” She glanced at Tony, “Which sounds worse?”

Anyway, I did meet someone interesting.” I cut off their musing.

“Oh? Interesting as in...?”

“He was taking pictures of the team for the paper, kind of an alternative artsy looking guy. I can't put my finger on it, but I'm liking him.”

“Let me guess, he laughed at your lame ass jokes?” Tony snickered.

“You laugh at my jokes, I'm not interested in you.” I snorted.

“That's cause he'd turn you down, we all know he can't be swayed from Selma.” Val grinned at Tony who blushed.

“Shut up, it'll happen. I'm wearing her down.”

“Yep, slow sneaky approach. Better move faster than erosion though bro, you want to lose your virginity before you need viagra.” They burst out laughing, Tony turning red all the more. Valeria pulled out her phone and hit the web and I turned to look out the window at the kids hanging out on the strip of grass that passed for a lawn.

“Hey, what's the guys name?” Tony asked.

“Who?”

“Captain Crunch,” he said rolling his eyes, “The photographer, moron.”

“Oh. You know what? I don't know.” Now I felt stupid.

“If he was taking pictures of the team for the paper and the school website, his name is Sasha Buchanan.” Valeria supplied.

I dropped my sandwich. “Did you say Buchanan?”

“Yep, he's a cutie too,” Valeria turned her phone to face me and it showed a picture of the article's author. Yep, it was him all right.

“Shit. The jolly green giant's last name is Buchanan.” I muttered.

“Really? They can't be related?” Tony said as he looked at Sasha'a picture. “He's not exactly intimidating.”

“Nice picture, Alec,” Valeria burst out laughing quickly followed by Tony. She turned the phone to me and there I was, arms spread and goofy grin on my face. The caption read 'You must be happy in your work'.

~SS~

Practice was brutal and when it was finally done, as I stripped off my helmet and shoulder pads, Captain Buchanan was standing right there to make sure I ran my laps. I was tired and I seriously considered fighting him, but I didn't want him giving his brother a bad report on me. Plus, maybe if I let him have this little humiliation, he'd lay off a bit. Wouldn't hurt if I closed my mouth but I'm not really a believer in miracles. I set my gear down and turned back to start my laps.

It was easier to do without the extra gear, even though the heavy pants kind of made my legs and crotch hot and sweaty, which made me think all kinds of gross things were happening. I bet this is his plan to give me jock itch or something. I turned my idle thoughts back to Sasha and just kind of rolled that exotic name around in my head.

I hadn't been especially turned on by any of the westies in my old school, they were too familiar maybe since it was a small school and I'd seen them every year. Don't get me wrong, had a few in my spank bank but as far as clicking, it just hadn't happened. But this Sasha guy was someone that attracted my attention, but him being related to Captain Crunch might be a problem. There couldn't be two Buchanan's, could there? Like two families? I let my mind wander as I jogged, keeping up a steady but not punishing pace.

Buchanan waved me in on the eighth lap and I came to a stop, breathing heavily and holding my arms up to get the airflow moving though my lungs.

“I'm impressed you didn't bitch, and you didn't drag your feet.” He grunted.

“I aim to please,” I smiled through my attempts to bring my breathing under control.

“Why are you here? Why are you trying to play football, nub?”

“Dad. Thinks it'll make me more respectful.” I answered honestly.

Buchanan snorted.

“Yeah, I agree. You know, I'm a smart ass, it's what I do. I don't mean anything but Dad is trying to drive in that whole time and place thing. I think it's a passing fad, never catch on.” I leaned onto my knees and slowly felt my breathing return to normal.

“You trying to say you actually do respect things?”

“Sure. I respect you could break me in two, but kissing your ass to prevent it just isn't me.” I shrugged, “I've gotten my ass kicked before, it won't win anyone any prizes to do it again.”

“Listen, you and I have to reach an agreement, this is taking up too much of my time. I can't have you being all stupid in front of the guys. It undercuts the leadership I bring to the field, their trust in me when I pump them up for a goal-line defense or to gut out that little bit extra we need. I can't have you being a smart ass with everyone around or you're going to force me to do shit like this to you every practice till you quit.”

“Um, so...”I looked at him in confusion.

“Like your old man said, time and place. Plus you give me too much shit, the other captains may not like it. I don't control everyone and it seems like you've pissed off some of the westies on the other squads before.”

“I'm pretty much an expert at getting under people's skin.” I confirmed.

“Well, watch your ass.” He turned and started walking towards the locker and I jogged past with my gear. I dumped my helmet and pads, grabbed my bag and took my shitmobile home to try and wrestle with Blake's Tiger.

~SS~

Tuesday I waited outside the English classroom for Sasha to show, and was quite pleased when he smiled at seeing me.

“Hi Alec, need some pointers on the Tiger before class?” he grinned.

“Oh, ha, you must think I'm a mental midget after yesterday but you, sir would be wrong!” I pulled myself to my full height, “I am a mental dwarf which gives me a few extra inches, always a good thing.”

He giggled into his hand, shaking his head at me.

“So hey, my friends saw my goofy picture on the football team website, thanks for sharing that one.” I stuck my tongue out at him.

“Hey, I thought of keeping it to myself but in the end I figured you'd want to be shared with the world.” He smiled and I think I made googly eyes at him. Doe eyes at least, but my tongue was still in my head. I think. Stupid tongue. Can I also mention my heart fluttered a little at the thought he kept a picture of me for himself?

“So,” he said.

“Yeah, so, um.” I was stunned, for a moment there I was absolutely speechless.

“Move, fag,” a solid guy shoved Sasha against the wall as he went in the English room. Sasha blushed in embarrassment and I, typically, opened my mouth.

“You feel more like a man now, or did you just want to touch a real man?”

He stopped and turned to menace me. “Smart ass, do you know who I am?”

“Oh, I'm good at this game! Let me guess!” I said sarcastically.

“Captain Carlisle, JV. I've already heard about you and your mouth.”

“Pretty, isn't it? But you know what, you don't look like a captain Carlisle. I'm thinking you look more like Captain Kangaroo. Are you any good with kids? We can rent you out to baby sit.” Then I put a hand to my forehead, “No wait, with your limited IQ I'm going with Captain Caveman!”

He puffed up and took a step towards me. I reached for a chair, to even the odds but the teacher must have realized something was happening in the back of the room, and called out for people to take their seats. Sasha slunk by me and into his chair and Carlisle just gave me a malevolent glare before taking his seat.

“So, assignments were better today. Who wants to start?”

~SS~

Practice was brutal, again. The jolly green giant had me running both sides of the ball, first trying to play as a running back, where I got crushed. Then he tried me as a wide receiver and I could catch the ball with no problem, but then I'd get crushed. Then he put me on the other side of the ball and I kind of got run over. Coach screamed and yelled and finally called a timeout to take five. Or he swallowed his whistle, wasn't watching so it was hard to be sure. I took off my helmet and knelt on the ground, catching my breath.

“Two things, nub.” Buchanan said as he knelt down next to me. “One is you're earning some respect out there, you can take a hit.”

“Well, I was hoping to be known for my clever wit and brazen charm, but I guess pinata is a start.”

“Yeah, well, I hear you pissed off another Captain.”

“Caveman,” I nodded.

“Listen, we have a code here. Teammates stick together, you don't go against the team. Be careful, not everyone is as tolerant as I am.”

“Tolerant?” I laughed.

“Yeah. I actually want my teammates to succeed, not everyone else does. Power trip. Now listen, I'm going to put you on as a free safety this time. Watch the QB, Ryan has a tell. If he pumps twice he's going to throw the opposite way he's looking. Watch for it, time it and intercept it.”

“I'm gonna get crushed again if I catch the ball, aren't I?”

“Don't lose your balls now, the team is just starting to think you have a pair.” He gave me a light shove that almost put me in the next county. I staggered back to my feet and put my helmet on as the coach called for another play. We ran four more before the tell came up, and as soon as it did I started to run, one of the few things I was reasonably good at. Sure enough the QB threw the ball to the left side of the field and the intended receiver didn't even see me coming. I glided right past him and caught the ball heading the other way. Coach whistled the play dead and I stopped instead of sprinting to the goal line and doing a victory dance. Since I'd just intercepted our own quarterback I figured the others would frown on it if I celebrated.

That didn't stop Buchanan from hitting me in the back in a congratulatory attempt to dislodge a lung. I smiled weakly and tried not to cough blood before trotting back to my position. Coach was still screaming, and the quarterback was glaring at me something fierce. Once practice ended I wandered into the locker room with the rest of the team. I dropped my helmet and shoulder pads at the equipment rack and headed for my locker to get my bag.

I've always laughed at people who say 'it happened so fast!' because there is always time to do something, at least that was my impression. I think what worked against me was that my head was rebounding off a locker before I really realized it, then my shirt was pulled up and kind of over my eyes as I got hustled by multiple hands towards the back of the locker room. I began to struggle against the hands that held me, pulling an arm free momentarily but a quick shot to my solar plexus knocked the wind from me and the fight as well.

Once in the back of the room my shirt was pulled over my head so I was bare chested with my arms pinned painfully behind me. I was turned to face several helmeted players, dark visors over their faces.

“Oh,” I coughed, “I didn't know there was a Klan meeting here, sorry guys.” I pulled a touch as if stepping away and my arms were wrenched hard behind me.

“The charge?”

“Going against the team, embarrassing a captain.”

“Captain Caveman, that you?” I squinted as though trying to see through the visor. “Maybe you shouldn't have shoved a kid and called him a fag; you kind of looked stupid without my help.”

“Captains, all in favor?” Each helmeted head nodded and I was flipped around and slammed against the lockers. One arm was free for a moment and I tried to push away from the locker, but my arm was grabbed and held firmly against the metal.

“Come on now guys, I know hot ass and all, but this is ridiculous!” A nervous tremor ran through my voice but that was nothing compared to the ice in my stomach as I heard a belt snap.

“Gag him.” I began to struggle mightily as my shirt was used to gag me, and then tied off behind my head. I screamed and thrashed, but the big players held me firm and then the belt whistled through the air and cracked as it hit my back. I screamed and bucked as the belt came down again and again. I lost count after six, maybe before then. I was too busy screaming into my sweaty shirt and struggling ever weaker against the people holding me. Finally, blessedly it stopped. My hair was grabbed and a voice I recognized as Captain Caveman's growled in my ear.

“Next time you'll shut the fuck up, won't you?”

I wanted to respond, I wanted to be flip just to let them know they hadn't broken me. But the gag was in place and my hands were still being held so I simply hung there, seething and hurting. My hands were dropped and I crumpled to the floor, weakly reaching for the tee shirt in my mouth. My back burned something horrible. I sat, breathing heavily and just catching my breath.

~SS~

Wednesday saw me in front of English class again, waiting for Sasha. He showed up and, on queue, smiled at me in greeting.

“Alec, what a pleasant surprise.”

“Of course I'm pleasant, but what's with the surprise?” I grinned insolently.

“Well, after the fag comment yesterday I figured you'd be scarce, most football guys do that.” Sasha replied, perhaps uncertain if I'd picked up on the insult the day before.

“Oh, so he wasn't just calling you names?” I felt my heartbeat pick up a touch.

“Yeah, it's true. Far as I know I'm the only out one, I get shit sometimes.”

“Oh, well then, I'll be glad to break the rainbow barrier.” I grinned, “Besides,” I began but was cut off as Captain Caveman slapped me on the back. Hard.

“Hanging with the fag, huh nub?”

“Yeah,” I said through gritted teeth, “He's sure relieved to not have to share a locker with you. Not everyone is as into leather as you are.”

“What?” Sasha asked.

“Team business, fag,” he glanced away from Sasha, “And you nub, I'll see you this afternoon.”

“Alec, what was he talking about?” Sasha asked with a trace of worry.

“Aw, you know, I found out he has a leather fetish. He's embarrassed, no one likes to be caught in assless chaps I guess.” I grinned as the last of the sting started to leave my back. The teacher began to call out to take seats and I reluctantly left Sasha at the door and took my seat. My mouth just got me into more trouble, but I found out Sasha is gay; it's so worth it.

~SS~

Buchanan's idea of playing me at free safety was paying off as I created havoc with my running and jumping. I was tall enough to disrupt plays, but small enough to be fast. I wasn't tackling very hard though, and I took some shit for that, but otherwise Buchanan was pretty pleased with me. I intercepted the QB again and Buchanan was all over me.

“Fuck yeah, that's what I'm talking about!” and he bumped helmets with me.

“What are we, goats now? Shall we back up and ram our heads together?”

“If it'll fire you up, yeah! Put on a dress and call yourself Phyllis if it makes you play like a winner!” Buchanan yelled as he went to reset the defense. I'm pretty sure the offensive coach hated my guts now, but I guess if I could get the ball for us in a real game he'd like me again. Thank goodness, then I could sleep at night I thought as I mentally rolled my eyes. At the end of practice I hefted my helmet in my hands and as I entered the locker room I left my shoulder pads with the rest of the equipment, but kept the helmet. They were waiting.

I brandished the helmet, “Now guys I don't want to have to give anyone head, I'm kind of a romantic.”

“You just can't shut your fucking mouth nub, can you?”

“Well, sometimes you just don't sound stupid enough; have to make sure everyone knows cottage cheese has more brain activity than you do.” He stepped forward and I brandished the helmet, and once more it was the speed that got me. Oh and four of them at once. Maybe five depending on how brave I want to sound, but regardless they had me and I opened my mouth to scream blue murder and got hit in the solar plexus, again. I was beginning to think these guys had this crap down to a science.

As soon as I was able to get some strength back I started to struggle, but it did me as much good as it did before. My shoes and socks were pulled off and they shoved a sock in my mouth before tying my shirt around my head. I was retching on the sock, the thought of it filling my mind with the desire to puke. I was then roughly tossed face down on the bench that ran down the center of the aisle and my legs were grabbed at the calf, forcing them to stand up.

“Charges?”

“Sharing team business in public, embarrassing a Captain.”

“Captains in favor?”

The belt snapped and I began to struggle hard, shaking my head and my eyes bugging out. The belt came down on the soles of my feet and I screamed. And then I did it again. Then I threw up, and I could smell it as my mouth had a sock in it, so it went out the other available path. My hands were released as they backed away and I yanked the gag off and sock out, spitting and retching. The belt came down again and landed on my back and I howled.

“What the fuck?” Heavy steps could be heard and the players scrambled like rats. “Nub?” I turned my head, still having the occasional dry heave as I tried to lift myself from the bench and the smell of vomit.

“Captain my captain. You'll have to forgive the lack of a salute.” I tried to sit up and slipped off the bench and into my own mess. That set off another series of dry heaves and I felt lower than I think I had ever thought possible. Big hands slid under my arms and dragged me back through the locker room and dropped me in the shower. Seconds later water was cascading over me. I rolled over, trying to move into a position where I could get my legs under me even with as unsteady as they felt. Each flex of my feet was a misery.

“I warned you nub, I tried to tell you. What the fuck was the problem? Holy shit your back, dude...”

I rolled my back to the wall, even though it was still sore. I grinned at Buchanan and managed to grind out, “I guess it's still worth a few points to kick my ass, huh?”

“What happened.” He demanded, no question in his tone.

“Captain Caveman was picking on Sasha, called him a fag and was pushing him. So I kind of implied a few things. You know, I can't help myself,” I shrugged. “That was Tuesday. Today he called me a fag for talking to Sasha again, so instead of a belt to the back it was to my feet and back.” I shook my head, “ I just don't learn, do I?”

“You're a tough little bastard, nub. But this is way beyond team justice, and I'm not gonna stand for it.”

I slid back down the wall and looked up at Buchanan towering over me. “Jesus you look huge from here. Ho, ho, ho Green Giant.”

“Come on smart ass.”

~SS~

Since I was covered up when I got home my parents actually fell for the story that I had gotten shoved in the showers after practice and didn't give me any crap about wanting to soak in the tub. I stretched out and inhaled the clean scent of the bath salts and tried to relax each muscle group so it wouldn't hurt so much. The belt had hurt at first, but the next day it had really been sore. After a quick meal I was out for the night, homework be damned.

Thursday came and I was standing in front of English class waiting for Sasha. His smile was not the one I was used to, and not the one I wanted to see. “Alec, are you all right?”

“Uh, sure. Peachy. You know the only thing more scarce than being peachy is fine and dandy? It's a scientific fact.”

“Will you stop being a wise guy for a minute? Bobby told me what that animal did to you.”

“It's no big deal, I was just about to bust their asses when...wait, Bobby? Captain Buchanan, aka the jolly green giant is Bobby?” I grinned and Sasha gave me a weak one in return.

“I'm sorry you're involved in this, maybe it's better we don't talk.” Sasha gave me the weakest smile yet, one of those impersonal retail smiles and my hand shot out.

“Um, no? Yeah, how about no.”

“Alec, don't be stupid. I'm not sure why you'd risk,” he started to turn again and I interrupted him and pulled him back again.

“Hey, I've already taken some lumps, they can't break me. Now if you turn your back, especially now that would hurt a lot worse...I mean,” I coughed, “It would really suck. Yeah, royally suck.”

“Consider me royalty then, I don't want you hurt.”

“Oh, nub, new rule. Stay away from the fag.” Carlisle laughed and entered the room. I looked at Sasha who just closed his eyes, obviously trying to let it flow past him and not hurt him. It wasn't working, even I could see that. Well, I guess I'd go piss him off again and try to find a baseball bat before practice.

“Oh Captain! Captain Caaaaavvvvvveeeeemmmmaaaaannn!” I called. He hadn't sat yet, but turned to give me a look that promised vengeance. “Oh there you are! I almost didn't recognize you without your club, good thing stupid rolls off you like stink!”

“You. Are. Dead.” He said through clenched teeth.

“Yeah, maybe. Probably, once you get a few friends with you. But right now you got no one, and you hurt my friends feelings.”

“He's a faggot!” Caveman screamed.

“Excuse me, Mr. Carlisle?” Finally that English teacher would be good for something. “Sit down, I'll deal with you after class.” Okay, maybe still not worth shit.

~SS~

At lunch I met up with Tony and Valeria and, of all people, Selma. I flashed a smile at Tony who grinned from ear to ear.

“Wow, Selma, hey how are you?” I asked.

“Good,” she smiled while glancing at Tony. “Really good.”

“Okay then, no real conversation from either of you today. Val, what's new?”

“I heard a rumor one of the football players has been getting beat on after practice.” She said softly. I choked on my sandwich. “That's what I thought.”

“I'm sure you realize I can't talk about team business.” I took on a formal tone.

“Oh don't even try that closing ranks bull, you don't actually care about any of those idiots.” she snorted.

“Well, I do respect Buchanan, believe it or not. I think he almost doesn't hate me.” I grinned.

“Are you the one they are hitting?” Tony said so quietly it was almost a whisper.

“Why would they be hitting me?” I spread my arms out in a display of innocence. Neither of them was buying it. “It's jealousy, okay? You know how my quick mind makes people crazy with envy.”

“So you're being a smart ass and they want to kill you.”

“No,” I put a finger up while I set my sandwich down. “Now, I know that's easy to think but that Captain Caveman guy keeps calling Sasha a fag and shoving him, so I have to say something, don't I? Isn't that the politically correct thing to do?” My phone vibrated with a text message and so I turned from their disbelieving faces. The text was from the unknown number that had warned me not to piss off Buchanan that first day in the park; not that it had done me much good.

Stay away from Sasha

I frowned. Then I just followed my natural instincts.

No. And don't bother threatening me or I'll park my car on you and let it rust you to death.

I pocketed my phone and looked up into Valeria's worried expression. “You need to be careful, Alec. These guys could seriously hurt you.”

“Do I look scared? Cause I am, ready to shit myself but I'm not letting anyone tell me who I can and can't talk to and I'm certainly not letting anyone bully an openly gay kid; especially if I want to get to know him better.”

“Can it be worth all this?”

“I guess I'll find out, won't I?” I started to pack my trash up. “If I don't go through it, I'll always wonder I bet. You wouldn't want me to wonder what might have been forever, do ya Val?”

“I'd like you to not get killed,” She rolled her eyes.

When I got down to the locker room to change there was a sign on the door. I read it and couldn't help but grin from ear to ear.


Dear kid bullying the only openly gay boy in class,

 

I dare you to lay a finger on him.

Sincerely,

The linebacker with two amazing dads.


I strolled into the locker room and grabbed my gear and hit the field. Buchanan was waiting and started to run the defense through our warm ups and then he started barking like normal. I have to admit, even for a non conformist like me, I could see the defense coming together. Made me think Captain Crunch knew something about teamwork and results; sort of like when he tried to tell me what I didn't know. Except now I knew, so it didn't count anymore.

After practice I dawdled a bit, waiting for Buchanan to finish up with the coach and then I fell into step with him as he walked to the locker room.

“I was going to tell you to wait for me, glad you were smart enough to.” He rumbled.

“So...two dads huh?” I gambled. He didn't even break stride.

“Yeah.”

“You know...you're not really who I thought you were.” I actually kind of surprised myself by saying something that had absolutely no smart assery involved.

“Oh yeah? You're exactly who I thought you were.” He snorted. “ A smart ass that actually needed a little real accomplishment, a little support to stop being so insecure.”

“I'm secure. I'm okay being gay, and as far as support I am wearing a jock strap as per requirements.”

Buchanan laughed. I mean he actually laughed at me and shook his head. “You're too much. Now act.” So saying he began yelling at me for my poor on field practice and, with only a moments confusion I retaliated with sarcasm. He shoved me with his paw and told me to get changed and get out, and I did. As I motored away in my shit box I realized that if others thought Buchanan was watching me to make sure I didn't slack, they couldn't get away with their team justice since he wouldn't allow it.

~SS~

That night I struggled with more Blake and this time it wasn't just because it was poetry. I keep flicking to the messages on my phone, studying the ones warning me off Sasha and answering Valeria's texts with my typical charm. I glanced again at the text warning me off Sasha, telling me to stay away and then thought about my last conversation with him, where he'd tried to walk away from me. Symmetry. I began to text.

Is Sasha there? I don't understand this poem.

I waited, continually pushing the button to make my phone stay active. I glanced at the poem again and back to my phone. Val texted me and I grimaced with the false excitement of anticipating a response to my text, the important one; jeez. I replied to Val and went back to monitoring the messages. Impatient, I decided to go with plan B: annoyance.

Look, this poem is kicking my ass and I know he gets this stuff. Just get him will you?

I waited impatiently, pushing back in my chair and tapping my pencil on the edge of my desk. When my phone vibrated to announce a text message I almost over balanced. My natural grace kicked in and prevented it of course.

They'd stop hitting you if you stayed away from him

Oh, so my mystery texter knew about my top secret torture, did they?

Not really, they'd just find a less interesting reason to keep it up

I stared at my phone and willed a response. I've always thought patience was something I needed more of, but it never comes fast enough. I began tapping the pencil on the desk again. Val texted me again, switching from the mundane and wanting to know if I was going to ask Sasha out since I was getting beat for talking to him already. I told her about the note on the locker room door and expressed unbridled optimism that the beating would end.

So talking to him is worth getting beat so far?

Ah mystery communicant, why are you so deep in the shadows? Well, I've never been known for half measures.

I'm still new at asking for dates, you mean this isn't how it usually goes?

Val texted again and I groaned. She needed a boyfriend right now, or a vibrator, something to keep her busy while I tried to figure out if this mystery texter was Sasha or not. At least I'd just outed myself, hopefully that would give him some courage.

Do your homework, Smart Alec

Now that was decidedly unromantic.

Is that a no on the date then?

Jesus they really needed to learn to text faster. Val interrupted my mojo again and I nearly screamed with frustration.

No

My heartbeat picked up.

Is it a yes then?

Patience, patience...and give it to me right now...

No

No, shot down! I rolled in my chair and was about to type back when the phone vibrated again. If it was Val I'd have to kill her.

Maybe

Yes! Victory! I danced in my room, exulting in the message. Going from no to maybe is what we call progress baby, especially since just this afternoon it was 'stay away'. I shut my computer down knowing full well the poetry wasn't going to sink in now and went to bed. I lay awake, thinking of Sasha and then a thought occurred to me. If Buchanan had left the note and had two dads that meant, probably, he was adopted. If Sasha was his brother, then he might be as well? It would explain the difference in name styles, I guess, Bobby versus Sasha. Points to ponder.

Of course there was always that Sasha wasn't actually on the other end of that phone and I'd outed myself to a total stranger; that was a possibility. Stupid possibilities.

Homeroom found me studying the poem from the night before. I decided I was going to be uncharacteristically positive and assume I was texting with Sasha last night. Therefore to maintain my mental dwarf status I needed to try and understand the supposed deeper meaning of this poem by Blake. I sure hoped she'd get off poetry soon, and I wouldn't mind not ever dealing with William Blake again in my life either. I opened the poem and started to read it again, trying to focus on it and not the picture in my head of Sasha smiling while explaining the poem to me.

'Songs of Innocence – The Chimney Sweeper' was actually a pretty sad read. I mean, it was obvious the kids mom died and his dad basically sold him to some chimney sweeping mafia but the problem was that deeper meaning the teacher was always going on about; something just below the surface. I read the poem again, the part about one of the sweeps dying and them telling each other they'd be happy again in heaven or something. I kind of smelled a line of bullshit there, and I should know as I was a master bullshitter.

“So, there actually is a moment where you aren't being a smart ass?”

I glanced up to see my football coach. I closed my book and stood up. “Well coach, honestly, to be a top notch smart ass you need constant input; there are so many variables to consider in a real response that study is absolutely required.”

He goggled at me for a moment and burst out laughing. “Okay smart Alec, I hope you're that smart on the field. I only picked you up for varsity because of your speed, I was thinking kick off return but Buchanan says, and I've seen, you have other talents.”

“That's nice of Bobby to say,” I smiled mischievously.

“Bobby, huh? Well, whatever. You only have a week till the first game, so shut your mouth and get your mind on the field.” Coach strode away and I watched him go with curiosity. That was almost a respectful conversation. With an adult who thought he was in charge. It felt so odd; this was a new concept for me. The bell sounded and I headed off to first period, still no wiser about the chimney sweep

At fifth period I took up my spot outside the class room and waited for Sasha. He appeared, a pleased smile on his face and I returned it.

“So are you ready today? I'm guessing this assignment was pretty difficult for you since you are completely lacking in innocence.” He smirked and I rose to the challenge.

“Lies and slander! I'm completely innocent and will remain so until it's to my advantage to claim otherwise!” I grinned at Sasha, enjoying the fact that he was smiling back at me. He was just so pretty and it was so easy to just stare at him when he was speaking...oh crap he was speaking.

“I'm sorry, what were you saying?” I said sheepishly.

“I was saying that since poetry isn't your strong suit I made you a cheat sheet for last nights poem. Word is there's a pop quiz with discussion to follow.” He handed me a printed single sheet.

“Oh. Oh! Pop quiz? That's so unfair, how did you find out?”

“Friend in an earlier time slot. Better sit down and read, smart Alec.” He walked away with a grin and it was only after he and I were both sitting that I realized Captain Caveman hadn't given either of us shit. I glanced at his seat to see him studiously ignoring me. Can't have that, can we? I began rolling little balls of paper to use as spit wads later while I read over the sheet Sasha had given me.

'On the surface Songs of Innocence – The Chimney Sweep is about a child who loses his mother and is sent to work as a sweep. He has a dream in which his fellow sweeps have perished and are released by an angel in to heaven; he then tells his fellow sweep how he shouldn't despair since he'll regain all his happiness in heaven.

Although Blake claimed to be devout he often ranted against the churches policies, and this is an example of that. The church required a mother and father, no single parenting, and children who'd lost a parent were routinely taken away and, in some cases, were put to work as chimney sweeps. Younger kids especially because they could fit into the tight spaces; unfortunately they also tended to die from inhaling the coal dust which is the actual point of Blake's stanza concerning the sweeps in coffins.

Blake was critiquing the social practice of this kind of forced labor by the church and the ignorance of letting children die so their chimneys would keep the clergy warm.'

Wow, he got all that from a poem? I opened my book and looked again at the poem, comparing it to what he'd written and found myself impressed. When the teacher announced the pop quiz I smiled smugly and glanced across the room to the spot Sasha would be in, if I could see him. I was pretty sure I aced the quiz, thanks to Sasha's notes and when the class conversation came up the teacher tried her best not to notice my raised hand but at last gave in and called on me.

“Well, this is another complex poem,” I began and was pleased to see her slump her shoulders as she mentally prepared for another of my bullshit assaults. “But I think that this is, overall, a critique about institutions and what is allowed to pass as normal.” My pleasure trebled when the look of shock crossed her face.

“Go on.” she nodded.

“Blake is clearly critiquing the policy of using children for the dangerous job of chimney sweep, and makes allusions to them dying young. The practice was socially acceptable at the time as there was no one to protect those kids.

“That mirrors social policies today that are slowly falling out of favor, like bullying and homophobia. I think if Blake were writing today he'd be using gay kids and bullies as his theme instead of chimney sweeps.” I sat down to a stunned look on my teachers face which quickly switched to complete happiness.

“That is a phenomenal interpretation,” she turned to the class in general, “This is how poetry has the capacity to move us, this is the many shades and layers that poetry can reveal in just a few lines of text!”

“Poetry is like an onion.” I smiled.

“Alec! Do not quote Shrek right now!” Sasha stage whispered and the class burst out laughing. The teacher gave me a wry smile, knowing I couldn't be all good in class.

“The onion in Shrek is a good analogy for many things, and yes, poetry qualifies.” She began to lecture and I surreptitiously pulled out my phone and sent a text to my mystery contact.

I deserve a reward; this is a lot of work to get a date

I listened to hear a vibration or chime that a text was received in the room, but nothing. Of course his phone could be on silent or turned off or in his locker; technically they weren't allowed in class.

“Alec, phone off or lose it.” My teacher warned. I nodded, having been caught and stuffed it back in my pocket. Moments later it vibrated with an incoming message. Now that was torture.

As soon as the bell had rung I glanced around the room to try and catch Sasha's attention, but he only smiled at me as he went out of the room. I grabbed my phone and flipped to the waiting text.

What is your idea of a date?

Oh crap. I kind of got the idea that I needed a real response to this. I dropped my books off and snagged my lunch bag before hitting the cafeteria. I sat down with my friends and puzzled over my response. It had to be just right, something more than my casual flip responses. I mean, sure that was fine for flirting, but at some point someone is going to want to know who I really am, right?

Oh god, what if that's all I am?

“What? Are you sick or something?” Valeria asked as she cruised the net on her phone.

“What?” I squeaked.

“You normally have a running commentary on something so either you're sick or...” she looked up from her phone and I gave her a sick little half smile. “Oh my god. Is it Sasha?”

“I'm not sure I know what you mean,” I replied as I took a bite of my sandwich.

“Oh, no,” she pulled my sandwich container away, “Oh no you don't. Spill it, I want to know.”

“There isn't anything to tell; give me back my sandwich you roast beef thief!” I reached for my container and she kept moving it.

“I want to know, you aren't denying me this one Alec Kutsenko!”

“Oh, dude, you're screwed. She used your first and last name.” Tony smirked and went back to making eyes at Selma.

“Fine, keep the roast beef. I will tell everyone you've had my beef though.” I leaned back in my chair.

“You'll be wearing your beef in a second smart ass,” she glared.

“I do that all the time, it's standard for guys my age.” I grinned insolently and I would have won right there, I mean I had her. She was spitting mad, stonewalled and everything and then Buchanan stepped up to the table.

“Nub.”

I glanced up and smirked. “Bobby.”

He grabbed the front of my shirt and dragged me in close. “Only my family gets to call me that, nub.”

“Okay, sorry. Ho, ho, ho?” He dropped me unceremoniously and my tailbone paid for the landing. I grimaced and shifted in my chair. “So what's up, Cap?”

“Team pictures, you get yours taken with the defense. See me for your uniform shirt right after school.”

“Why am I getting my picture taken with the defense? I'm first string bench warming, remember?”

“No, you're the starting free safety if you can learn to tackle someone,” he held up a finger to silence me, “But that's as long as you keep working. Slack off and you won't be able to be the team water boy.” He turned and stalked away from me.

“You want to date his brother? Wow,” Valeria waved her hand in front of her face. “You'd better treat Sasha right, I wouldn't want him pissed at me.”

“Yeah,” I said absently. I'd finally thought of the right, I think, response to that date question. I pulled my phone out and hit reply.

A date should let you know about the other person, get to know each other – not like a movie date, that's lame since you watch the movie and not each other

I sat back and wondered what I could suggest as an alternative, but I was hoping my message was right. I mean, it was true, but on the other hand I guess looking at the screen and not interacting might bring some balance so you didn't overdo it or something. My sandwich plopped down in front of me and I glanced at Valeria.

“Would it kill you just to tell me?” She crossed her arms.

“I could, but why?”

“It's romantic! I love romance!”

“I'm not sure how romantic it is. I am getting mystery texts and I think they are from Sasha but I'm not one hundred percent.”

“Like a secret admirer?” She smiled, “How is that not romantic?”

“Well, it's not exactly describing hot monkey sex is it?” I tore back into my sandwich, lunch was almost over.

“That's erotic, not romantic. So...”

“I asked for a date,” I shrugged, “He asked me what my idea of a date was.” I filled her in on my answer and she leaned back and smiled at me. “What?”

“Every once in a while you surprise me, that there really is a brain and heart under all that bravado. That and you've got it really bad.” She smiled smugly.

“Yeah, well, I can't really argue with any of that.” I stuck my tongue out with remnants of my sandwich on it, which grossed her out; call it a partial victory.

~SS~

I headed down to get my uniform from Buchanan and felt my phone vibrate. I snatched it from my pocket and was about to thumb eagerly to the messages screen when Sasha started laughing at me. I glanced up and smiled at him.

“Hey, Sasha.”

“Hi, smart Alec. Pretty slick discussion in English today, I was impressed.” He leaned against the wall and rewarded me with a smile. I just loved it when he did that.

“Well, I had good notes, makes all the difference.”

“I didn't include anything like that though, comparing Blake's work to modern day critiques.”

“Well, it wasn't that much of a stretch, was it?” I shrugged.

“So, have you been up to the old sanitarium?” He asked while glancing away from me and back almost as if nervous.

“Not in a long time, I think I went there once just to see. Why?”

“I was going to go up there Saturday, try to get a few artistic shots. Thought you might want...”He coughed lightly, “I thought I'd see if...”

“Oh, yeah, absolutely! I'm totally up for that.” I frowned suddenly, “Except your brother has us at two a days still.”

“We could go after the one o'clock run, if you won't be too tired.”

“It's a date.” I grinned.

“Okay!” he gave a little hop and then seemed embarrassed and said much more calmly, “Okay. Good. Well, I have to go set up...team pictures you know.” He smiled and backed up hitting the wall, which seemed to surprise him and then he glanced behind to make sure nothing else was there and slowly backed away before turning completely and heading into the gym.

I whistled as I went into the locker room and made my way over to Buchanan who was handing out the defenses' jerseys. He spotted me and put his hand protectively over a set of jerseys. Oh man, he'd picked my number, this should be interesting. Instead of giving it to me he just kept handing out the rest of the jerseys until I was the only one left. I stepped up and he handed me number 13. I should have known. As I went to take the home and away jerseys from his grasp he pulled on them, and by proxy, pulled me close.

“Look. You seem okay in spite of your fucking mouth, but let me just remind you that if you hurt Sasha I will crush you.”

I glared at him. “I wouldn't do it on purpose, but you looming over us won't make it any easier for either of us. Back off, Captain Crunch.”

His glare melted into a grudging smile, “Just remember I got your number; and your back.”

~SS~

After pictures we put our jerseys away and practiced again. I spent all my time in the free safety slot, except when coach put the special teams on the field and he wanted to see what I could do returning kicks. I caught the ball more often than not, but I still got crushed. The coach and Buchanan seemed to think that was all right, the sadists. Once practice came to a merciful end I headed to the locker room and turned in my gear. Then my shirt got pulled over my head and I got punched in the solar plexus knocking the wind out of me.

Again.

I fought feebly as I was carried to the back of the locker room again and, once more, slammed against the lockers. My shirt was pulled off and I was faced with the damn captains again in their stupid helmets with the dark visors. I rolled my eyes at them even though my stomach was filled with ice and a cold hand gripped my spine; the fear of what they were going to do to me.

“Charges?”

“That you guys are bunch of assholes, firstly.” I muttered.

“Insubordination. Incomplete punishment. Being a faggot.”

“If you were men at all you'd face me one on one instead of ganging up like rats!” I snarled.

“All in favor?” All the hands went up and I started to scream, but was punched yet again. That was getting really old, damn it. My shirt was bunched and tied off again and I got spun around against the locker. Then my pants were forcibly yanked down and since they are laced about crotch level that hurt all by itself. I started to scream and struggle before the first crack of the belt, panic ran loose in my mind and I began to struggle violently.

“He's getting hard to hold,” One muttered, which only egged me on.

My hair was grabbed and my head thrown into the locker, I felt the warmth of blood as my nose began to bleed. “Just want to make sure you ass is warmed up, faggot.” The belt snapped again and then it whistled and landed on my bare ass, and then on the back of my thighs and then my back. I screamed and drummed my knees into the locker. Hot tears of shame poured from my eyes as the belt came down again burning my backside.

“Hold it right there!” Coach bellowed. Hands released me and the rats were ready to scatter again. I slumped against the locker, pulling away the gag, trying to cover myself and crying in shame. I turned to see the coaches had blocked them in, preventing them from getting away, along with the senior captains. “Get those helmets off, uniforms too. You're all off the team for starters. Captains, make sure this filth gets into my office.”

The coaches moved to obey, and the captains as well except for Buchanan. He glanced at the coach and I, feebly, was trying to pull my pants up but the very nature of them makes them so tight as to be painful on my freshly beaten skin. Not to mention they hadn't been untied, just forced down so there was almost no way they were going up without me passing out. Buchanan rumbled to the coach, “This one's mine.”

Coach nodded and went to take care of business. Buchanan knelt down and I flinched. Damn, they'd finally broken me.

“Take it easy. Lets get you to your locker.”

“I can't, I'm...naked.” I burst out in fresh tears, unable to stem the tide. I was humiliated and what did it matter now if Buchanan saw me cry? He'd seen me strung up like a criminal and being beaten, welts covering my legs and ass. He put his hands under my arms and helped me to stand, and I did so awkwardly as I tried to cover myself. He undid the laces to the front of the pants and helped me get them pulled back up, enough to allow for a semblance of modesty.

”You're kind of a mess, Thirteen. Grab a shower, you'll feel better. We'll talk after.” He walked away after patting my back briefly.

“Hey,” I said to the floor, not looking at him. He glanced back over his shoulder. I wanted to say thanks, I wanted to tell him how much it meant for him to have stopped it and how much it hurt to be seen like that. Instead I said, “You didn't call me nub.”

“Nub's a 'non-useful body', but now you're Thirteen. You belong to the defense now, and we belong to you.” He walked away and I heard the shower start in the distance.

~SS~

My parents were all up in arms when I got home, and I guess I couldn't really blame them. They were apologizing for forcing me to play and I let them run themselves out a bit before telling them I needed to take a bath and get some rest as I had two a days the next day. That brought another round of arguing and I patiently explained that the coach was taking care of it and I also had a team captain watching out for me now and I felt safe. They didn't seem convinced and were going to be seeing the coach on Monday, as arranged earlier when he had called them to apprise them of the situation.

I felt reasonably okay in the morning. I'd soaked in the tub and even though I was mostly just sore, I knew those bastards had taken something from me. I got down to the park at 6:45, ready to go even if I was still walking a little weird.

“Thirteen, you're excused today.”

“No way, Cap.”

“I said, you're excused.” He glowered at me.

“Cap. I have to.” I held his gaze. I knew the only way to get back what I'd lost was to go right back at it, to fly in the face of whatever damage they thought they'd done. Even if I knew, acknowledged to myself the part of me they'd crippled I wouldn't let anyone else know. I was still me.

“Okay.” Buchanan nodded. I smirked and saluted.

After the one o'clock workout I was hurting, but the soreness had been worked mostly out of my muscles. Sasha was there to meet us when we ran in and I walked towards him with my arms up and laced over my head to open up my chest for oxygen. He smiled and I felt a little renewed. Maybe they hadn't broken me, or whatever they did break was fixable. He'd changed styles today, no army surplus coat or canvas sneakers. Today it was slim jeans with Doc Marten's; the jeans neatly covering the top of the boots. A button up shirt, left untucked with a v-neck white tee underneath completed the look. It was very hot.

“You still up for our date?” He asked.

“Hell yeah, after I shower.” I grinned.

“I thought I'd follow you back to your house, so we could take my car.”

“What? No faith in my trusty rusty steed?”

“Nope, not even a little bit,” he laughed and I felt a little better yet again.

After showering I began to agonize over what to wear. I stood in my room in my boxers rifling through my jeans when I heard the door open behind me.

“Mom, have you seen my black jeans?”

“Um, oh.” Then a gasp, “Oh my god.”

I closed my eyes and gave a mental sigh before turning to see Sasha in the doorway covering his eyes, grimace on his lips. “Hey, you think this looks bad you should see me with my boxers off!” I quipped. He lowered his hand and shook his head.

“It's not that, Alec.” He gave a trembling sigh, “I'd heard some about...what happened, but I had no idea. It looks...” He shook his head.

“It's okay, not as bad now.” I shrugged.

“Maybe this was a bad idea,” Sasha turned and I, well, sort of yelled at him.

“Hey! I want my date! If I don't get my date then the terrorists win!” I sort of half grinned half grimaced at him, but I was still kind of pissed too. “If I can go and have a good day with you, well, it'll help a lot. I may need a lot of good dates to totally make up for it, maybe a few years worth but today, right now, I need a good date.”

He gave me a sad smile and wiped his eyes quickly and gave me a nod, “Okay then. I'll ask your mom where your black jeans are.” Out the door and down the stairs he went. I turned back to the drawers and closed them before heading to the hanging closet and my shirt selections. As I did so I passed the mirror and realized, with a start, I'd just had an entire conversation with Sasha while standing in my underwear. Will the idiocy never end?

Okay so I settled on my black jeans, thanks to my mom, a striped tee under a button up shirt that I left undone and flip flops. I felt it was casual yet somewhat sexy. Okay, I was out of socks. I grabbed my phone and headed down the stairs to find my parents engaging Sasha in conversation. I'd sort of forgotten they might interrogate a new friend; oops, my bad.

“Um, Parents? I have a date with Sasha now so you guys will have to set up a play date with him later, he's mine now.” I grinned and Sasha just froze. Oh, maybe they didn't know he was gay?

“You constantly surprise me,” Sasha said as his face slowly relaxed into a smile.

“You're not the only one,” My dad laughed.

“Mister, kitchen, now.” My mother said using look number 6.

I glanced at Sasha, “If you hear screaming from the kitchen, save yourself.”

“Alec!” My mother snapped.

“Coming, Fuhrer, coming!” I goose marched into the kitchen where my mother was waiting, look number 6 no where to be found. She had tears standing in her eyes and I instantly stopped the goofing I was doing. I hate it when people cry, there just isn't anything funny about it.

“Mom?”

“You know, I never know what's going on in your head. You are always so flip and sarcastic...Do you have any idea how hard it was to let you go back out there this morning? Or to let you go now? How long was this thing at school going on?” She had a hand over her mouth, large tears standing in her eyes.

“Just this week. Look they were bullying Sasha and I kind of mouthed off. It's okay now, he and I will be fine.” I soothed and gave her a hug. She gripped me hard, a big silent sob wracking her.

“It's just...I didn't want you to go back this morning. I hear so much about kids being bullied, about how things happen that they never tell their parents about or ask for help. I never know what you need, you spend so much time deflecting and making everything into a joke.” She squeezed me to her and began to rub my back, “I'm afraid we're going to lose you and never know you.”

“Aw mom, you know me.” I pulled back a little and looked into her eyes. “I'm okay, really. I mean I won't be if you don't let me go out with mister pretty in the other room there.”

She guffawed though her tears and hugged me again. “I didn't even know you were seeing anyone.”

“I wasn't, this is our first date.” I smiled at her, “Really, I'm okay.”

“Promise me if anything happens, if you ever feel like you can't take any more.” She put a hand on my chest, “Promise me you'll come to me. If we ever lost you...it would break my heart, Alec.”

“I'm not going anywhere mom,” I replied.

“Promise me, Alec.”

“I promise.”

She sniffed a few times and then ran her hands through her hair. She walked over to her purse and pulled out forty dollars. “Take him out to eat, he seems nice.”

“He is nice, mom.”

“He makes you happy?”

“So far, yeah. Just seeing him smile makes me happy.” I grinned at her, “If you want to see just look on the school website, he's taken pictures of the team for the school.”

“Okay, I''l do that.” She gave me a wan smile and I realized for her, this wasn't over either.

I kissed her and headed back out to Sasha who stood as I entered the living room. “Ready?” I asked.

“Yeah, all set.”

I glanced at my dad, “I have my phone, mom gave me some bucks.”

“Okay, be safe guys.”

Yeah, we were going to an abandoned building, what could go wrong there? I decided it would be prudent not to mention that, so I chose to follow Sasha out to his little Rabbit. It was an older model, boxy unlike the newer version they had out now. We buckled in and the little three note chime went off signaling something. I'm sure it was important to the driver.

“Stick shift, huh? Nice.” I said by way of conversation.

“Yeah, my dads say it gets better gas mileage that way. It's kind of fun to drive too.” We motored across town and as we went, Sasha filled me in on the building we were breaking into. No, wait that's illegal. We were urban exploring. Illegally. Stupid laws.

“Yeah so this guy named Dr. Kilmer built the original Sanitarium in 1892 and it was pretty popular since people thought sulfur springs had some medicinal uses. That's why old pictures of the town have huge hotels that were demolished in the sixties when the sulfur springs fell out of vogue.”

“So people jumped into stinky water to get well or something?” I wrinkled my nose. “That doesn't seem all that bright.” I gripped the oh shit handle as we took a turn.

“Well, it's the same idea behind mineral baths, they are supposed to help pull impurities from your body.” He worked the clutch and popped the car in to a lower gear for more uphill speed.

“Holy shit, keep that stuff from my head, it'd be gone if it weren't for my impurities!”

“Not impure thoughts, Alec.” he laughed. “The weirder part was when he opened a clinic where he claimed he could cure cancer with homeopathic treatments that involved diet, the spring water and some concoction he made up himself.” He braked for a millisecond at a stop sign, then blasted onward.

“A cancer cure?” I wrinkled my brow in disbelief.

“Yeah, part of what made people ridicule him was he was involved in what you'd call proprietary medicine, meaning he'd make up something and then patent it so only he could make money from it.”

“Sounds fishy,” I nodded as I double checked that my seatbelt was not only belted but the seat was firmly bolted to the floor.

“Yeah. But after the sanitarium closed the state took it and made a mental hospital out of it; they closed that in the early eighties with a huge wave of scandals that forced a lot of those shit holes to close.”

“You know, I appreciate the history of our little town,” I began.

“You should, Dr. Kilmer convinced the town to rename from Osborne's Hollow to Sanitaria Springs. Personally I think Osborne's Hollow sounds more mysterious.”

“Yeah, but I'd rather hear your history.”

The car jerked for a moment, his hands quickly regaining control of the wheel. “Yeah, I figured we'd have to get to that sooner or later.” He glanced at me.

“Twenty questions, trade questions or you just want to lecture me?” I grinned.

“Does anything bother you? I mean, you take everything in stride?” He shook his head at me.

“You haven't said anything particularly shocking yet.” I pointed out.

“Yeah but. Okay, look, maybe with you being gay it doesn't mean as much for me to say I am, so I kind of understand you not freaking some about that.” He downshifted and took a turn that pointed us to the edge of town.

“Actually, that stopped me in my tracks. Made me very happy and I was speechless for almost thirty seconds.” He glanced at me with a smirk and I nodded sincerely, “No shit.”

“Okay, well...how about you ask me what you want to know.”

“Are you actually okay going out with me or is this kind of a pity thing?” I asked with no delay.

“Pity? Alec, you've said some confusing things before but you lost me there.”

“I think you're really pretty, Sasha. I've liked that you're smart and can carry a conversation and not think I'm a total waste for joking all the time. But,” I hesitated and decided there was no use delaying. “I know you get inside info from your brother so you probably know what happened in the locker room. I'm just wondering if you like me for me or if you feel bad about...all that stuff.”

“Of course I feel bad about that stuff, Alec!” He put a hand on my leg. “But I like your quick wit and that you make me laugh; that's pretty important to me. Plus I can tell you're smart.”

“Oh, okay then. As long as it's not from, you know, pity. I can handle being the hot court jester.”

He burst out laughing and withdrew his hand to shift the gearbox. “What else?”

“I don't know if there is anything else important. You're smart, good looking, and I love it when you smile. Do I need to know anything else? Oh, by the way your brother has promised to break my kneecaps if I hurt you, that's handy info to have right there.”

He put a hand up to his face, “Oh he did not say that, did he?”

“Well, he just said he'd crush me and left which body parts to my imagination. He's pretty smart when it comes to threats.” I nodded and clutched the oh shit handle again.

“He's a little protective, Bobby is.”

“Yeah, he is. So hey, question. I'm guessing both you and Bobby are adopted?” He nodded in response. “So Bobby seems kind of all American and Sasha seems so...”

“Girly?” He groaned.

“Exotic,” I smiled. He glanced at me and returned his gaze to the road with a little smirk.

“Well, Bobby is American, he was adopted in the US but I am from Romania. My real name, in English, is Alexander but Sasha is common as a diminutive; kind of like Robert and Bobby. My dads wanted to preserve some of my ethnicity.”

“Sasha definitely sounds more exotic, I like it.” He turned quickly and smirked at me again before pulling over to the side of the road.

“Okay, we walk from here.”

We climbed out and I made a show of making sure everything that was supposed to be attached to me still was. He laughed and pushed me before grabbing a bag and handing it to me as well as his camera and a collapsible tripod. We walked up the road a bit and then cut through a hole in the chain link and then across tall grass.

“So at first I thought your brother was a dick, but now I'm thinking he's pretty cool.”

“His bark is worse than his bite,” Sasha smiled.

“So...how did you get my number to text with?” I ventured. He stumbled and flashed me a surprised look. Aha, gotcha!

“Well, since my brother is Captain of your area, and now your defensive captain, he had a contact list. I think you filled that out?”

“Oh, right. That reminds me, I never saw your answer to my last text about the date. I better look and see what you said!” I pulled out my phone and thumbed through the messages to the the one he'd interrupted me from checking the day before.

“You want to look now? I mean, we're already here!” He laughed at me and I smirked.

“I want to know if you said yes, of course.” The item I'd missed wasn't in text format, but a picture. There was a butt on my phone screen. “What the hell? Someone's ass is on my cell phone.”

“It's yours,” he burst out laughing and his face went tomato red.

“Hey, good picture. By the way, did you keep any of the pictures you shot for yourself?” I grinned at him and watched him go from tomato to cherry. I pumped a fist, “Yes, you did. How many?”

“I'm not telling you!” he giggled and I just smiled at him. Finally we reached the dilapidated building, and we began circling the outside. He uncovered his camera and began snapping pictures as a mood or angle caught his attention and I stayed quiet, just watching him work. In fact one of the nice things was that I could just watch him, as much as I wanted to. He had some stubble on his face that looked thicker than it was if he looked right at you. Oh, he was looking right at me.

“What?” I asked.

“Nothing.” He raised his camera and took a picture of me. Grinning he went back to the building and we found a back door that was broken in half and provided us with entrance. We walked through the destroyed rooms, the hanging ceiling fixtures and cracking plaster dominating the deserted tableau. Slowly we advanced, him testing the floor and snapping pictures.

We went downstairs and there were implements left behind: shelving, a broken wheelchair and the odd box or cart. He stopped and took shots as the mood struck him and I just watched. He stepped into a room, one with the ceiling missing and, above that, a gaping hole in the roof.

“The natural light will make for good shots, let me see.” He set up the tripod and mounted the camera, steadying his hand to take different angles of the room.

“Want to model for me a little?” He asked.

“Me? What do you want me to do?”

“Just walk around, look at things. Pick something up if it looks interesting, do naturally inquisitive stuff.” He shrugged and I set the bag down and began to walk around the room. It might have been a store room but all together it was just creepy. I touched shelves, a stud sticking out of the wall and reached up for a beam overhead that creaked ominously with even minor weight on it. I turned and looked at Sasha and suggested we go outside.

“Sounds good, I brought some picnic stuff in the bag, a light snack.” I grabbed the bag and, as I reached the doorway Sasha called my name. I stopped and turned to look at him and he snapped a photo. “Doorways are great for framing someone.” He explained. I just smiled at him and kept walking. It took more than an hour to make our way outside, what with Sasha stopping us or detouring to get more shots. I will say my ego was severely inflated at being the object of so many pictures.

We finally made it outside and he set the camera down and took the bag from me, pulling out a thin blanket and spreading it out. This was followed by some pieces of fruit and a couple of bottles of juice and water. He sat with his Doc Martens off the cloth and I just kicked off my flip flops and sat down with him.

“So what got you into photography?” I asked as he handed me a bag with grapes.

“It was an early interest for me, I liked the old mechanical cameras, or at least playing with them when I was small. When my dads would upgrade the family camera they'd give me the old one and I would go around taking pictures of the dog or Bobby.” He popped a cherry into his mouth and I pulled a couple of grapes from the bag.

“The thing I like about it is, you capture a second and it can be any second you want. Like,” he turned and laughed, “When you were being goofy while the team was running or when you were being goofy by teasing Bobby into trying to kill you at the end of the run.”

“I excel at goofy, I have a patent pending.”

“I'll bet you do,” He smiled. “But then you get shots like this for balance.” He shifted the camera to me and I saw myself, staring at the camera. Of course, I knew it wasn't the camera I was staring at, but the photographer.

“Well,” I coughed, “That's a pretty nice picture you have there. Handsome devil.” He looked at the screen and rewarded me with another smile.

“I have to agree.” He handed me a bottle of orange juice and grabbed one for himself. I popped a grape in my mouth and was toying with the idea of trying to feed him grapes when he poured his orange juice all over himself. No, that's not completely accurate. He was fighting with the plastic pull tab and when it suddenly let loose, he splashed his shirt with OJ. I started to laugh, and then the grape went up and out of my nose. It was still funny. He was laughing at me and I was laughing at him.

He pulled off his shirt and then the undershirt as it was wet too, rinsed them off with water from his bottle, then laid them out on the tall grass to dry.

“So, Um, you know...I have no pictures of you. Seems kind of unfair.”

“You just happen to mention this now, when I have no shirt?” He put a hand on his hip.

“Well, I admit, it did put me in mind of it. I'm sure it would have occurred to me sooner or later though.” I said while openly ogling him.

“Uh huh.” He glanced around seemingly uncomfortable. “You know, one of the nice things about taking the pictures is the control. I'm not sure how good I'd do without that.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean. It's scary not being in control.” I said, my voice dropping and I looked away from him. He knelt down next to me and put a hand on my shoulder. I glanced up at him and he gave me a sad smile.

“I guess maybe it's better if you trust whoever you give that control to, that is a form of control too, choosing who gets it.” He handed me the camera and walked over to the wall a few feet away. I raised the camera and began taking pictures. He started out nervously, his arms down at his sides but as he grew more comfortable he began to look around and ignore the camera and then move his arms. He crossed one arm over and wrapped his fingers around his elbow. I called out to him, a soft request for him to favor me with his gaze, and when he did the breeze picked up and tousled his hair. That one is my favorite.

“Here, let's try something.” He walked over and set up the tripod, then took the camera from me and sighted it in. He reached out his hand to me, “Come on.”

I took his hand and walked with him to where he'd been standing, and he put his arm around me and faced the camera. I automatically put my arm around his waist as the camera clicked. He told me to stay put and then walked over to the camera. After a quick check he came back.

“Okay, auto pictures for the next few minutes. Be nice to have one of us together, right?”

“Yep.” I grabbed him, turned him to me and kissed him. The click indicated my perfect timing.

~SS~

When we finally came down from the old Sanitarium, we went into town and spent my moms forty bucks on a nice sit down meal. Sasha was very animated, telling me all about his dads and Bobby and the amazing family unit they had. I told him about my folks and Valeria and Tony, punctuated with stories about how often my mouth had gotten me in trouble. He pulled up to my house that night to drop me off and I looked at him carefully, his face partially shadowed by the lights reflecting from the dash. I pulled out my cell.

“So I guess I can officially put your name in for this number that sends me texts to stay away from you, right?”

“You know, I was just trying to protect you.”

“I know. I have people though.”

“You have people?' He laughed.

“Yeah. Bobby counts as more than one, right?” I grinned.

“He may still kill you, one day.”

“Yeah, not tonight though.” And I leaned in for the first of several goodnight kisses.

 

 

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How could I not love this story? Alec and Sasha are two of my favorite people in the world, even if they are fictional.

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Beagle, Beagle, Beagle, I don't know how you do it, but every story I read by you is better than the last, and that's hard to believe. I hope this is going to be more than one chapter, these guys are so great, even Bobby!

Incredible warm feelings from this!

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On 02/14/2015 05:18 PM, Cynus said:
How could I not love this story? Alec and Sasha are two of my favorite people in the world, even if they are fictional.
I do so wish they were real.
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On 02/14/2015 09:15 PM, ColumbusGuy said:
Beagle, Beagle, Beagle, I don't know how you do it, but every story I read by you is better than the last, and that's hard to believe. I hope this is going to be more than one chapter, these guys are so great, even Bobby!

Incredible warm feelings from this!

Thank you so much! Alec and Sasha have a long storyline, but as I put in the notes, I don't own them all so Cia has allowed me to link to their entire story at my site. In case you didn't see it, http://www.dabeagle.com/Sanitaria_Springs.htmland of course, like us on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/dabeagles.doghouse
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On 02/19/2015 01:11 PM, hillj69 said:
This story is even better the second time around: thanks for sharing it here, Dabeagle!

:great:

Glad it still resonates!
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On 02/16/2015 09:39 AM, Gandalf said:
So good to find these old friends again. I am glad to see you posting here. Thanks. Steve
Feels like you could live next door, right? :-D
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This is a lovely story. The characters ring so true. I particularly like Booby who defies easy stereotypes. The only surprises is that the other captains didn't clue in that Sasha was his brother in spite of the merging of the two schools.

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On 09/10/2015 03:34 AM, Rndmrunner said:

This is a lovely story. The characters ring so true. I particularly like Booby who defies easy stereotypes. The only surprises is that the other captains didn't clue in that Sasha was his brother in spite of the merging of the two schools.

The reason they didn't was because the teams were still newly formed and the difference between varsity ve JV and Freshman football, as the other captains were younger than Bobby.

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Well I'm a newbie here but this story is absolutely fabulous!  The characters are very engaging and real!  I am in awe of you ability's to render various character as loveable - friendly - sarcastic - or even hateful!!  Sorry it took me sooo long to find your stories dabeagle!!  They are wonderful!! Thank you!

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