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CONTROL and KAOS
After dinner, they picked up Theo at his house. Topher got out, letting Theo slide into the middle. When he got back in, he stretched his arm along the back of the seat behind Theo's head. EJ peeled out, screeching the tires as the truck accelerated. There was something in the air in the pickup. The boys didn't talk much as EJ drove them to the mall.
"What's up with you two?" Theo asked as they walked in.
"Nuffin'," Topher answered. EJ said nothing, which was as much as he had said for most of the ride.
They were an hour early for the show. Topher shivered in the conditioned air. It was too cool for a short sleeve shirt, but he had worn it anyway. Topher took off his letterman jacket and gave it to the boy. It was so big he swam in it.
EJ and Topher knew a lot of people. More accurately, Theo realized, a lot of people knew them. A surprising number of adults and almost everyone their age greeted them as they passed. Theo recognized some of them from the party. They stopped frequently to exchange pleasantries. He found himself fading behind Topher's shoulder when they did. Neither of the boys introduced him, and he seemed all but invisible to the people they were talking to.
He also began to notice the admiration with which so many people approached Topher. You could see it in their eyes and posture and the way they spoke to him.
For their parts, the boys accepted the attention with casual nonchalance. There was a swagger to their step while they walked, but, Theo realized, there always kind of was. At least whenever Topher was with EJ there was.
They wandered into one of the clothes stores. EJ started looking for pants. Theo followed Topher to a table of shirts.
"You sure nothing's wrong?" he asked again.
"Yuh," Topher said picking up a vintage Tupac shirt. "I'm glad you're here." Topher held the shirt up to himself and turned to Theo, who squinted at the shirt then shook his head.
"No, I mean something wrong between you and EJ?"
"Oh, we're okay," Topher said, finding a polyester leopard print shirt and holding it up. Theo rolled his eyes. Topher put the shirt back. "We piss each other off all the time. Doesn't Seth ever piss you off?"
Theo laughed. "When has Seth ever not pissed me off?!" He picked out a black rib-knit long-sleeve V-neck and handed it to Topher.
"This?" Topher asked incredulously. Theo nodded sagely.
"Why are you pissed at him?"
"I'm not," Topher said, beginning to pull his shirt over his head. "He's pissed at me."
Theo smacked his hands away. "Changing room," he said.
Theo smiled enigmatically and led him by the hand toward the fitting room. "So why's he pissed at you?"
"S'nothing," Topher said, falling in docilely behind the boy. "He and I just think different. That's all."
When they got to the changing room, Topher entered one of the booths and began shutting the door, but Theo squeaked past him into the booth.
"Okay," Theo said, smiling. "Now you can take your shirt off."
"Perv," Topher chuckled. He stripped and was about to put the jersey on, but Theo pushed him back against the mirror. The shove caught him off guard and he lost balance, falling hard against the glass.
Theo launched himself at Topher, taking advantage of his temporary disorientation. Theo's tongue was in Topher's mouth before the blond even knew he was being kissed. The kid's hands went for his nipples. They were cold. Topher started laughing, despite his full mouth.
"Don't laugh while I'm ravishing you. Very rude." Theo said, breaking off the kiss and punching him on the left pectoral.
"Ow." Topher was smiling. He took hold of Theo in a bear hug and squeezed.
"Punch me, will ya?" He squeezed harder. Theo's cheeks broke out in red patches. But he was laughing.
The boys played for a few minutes, attacking each other with kisses or smack-down moves. For the latter, Theo's weren't that effective and Topher's were well restrained. Still, they were rambunctious enough to earn a knock from the attendant, who reminded them that only one person was allowed in the fitting room at a time. Topher put his shirt back on and the two left the booth, sheepishly apologizing to the attendant as they passed.
EJ was at the far end of the store, talking with a cute redhead who was leaning back against a wall of cubbies and clearly enjoying the attention. Even from a distance, it was clear that EJ was standing intimately close to him. Theo knit his brows.
"Is that a friend of yours?" he asked Topher.
"Who, the kid EJ's picking up?" Topher asked steering them back toward the table so he could return the shirt. "I never seen him before."
"EJ's picking him up?"
Topher looked over again. They were smiling. The kid stood with his hands in his pockets. EJ was scratching the back of his head with his elbow out to the side in a way that made his biceps quite pronounced.
"Prol'ly just flirting," Topher said. "That's just EJ. That's what he does. He flirts with everyone."
"Really?" Theo asked as they headed over.
"Do you flirt with everyone too?" Theo asked.
"Me?" Topher asked with surprise in his voice. "Naw. Wouldn't do any good. I can never tell who likes me."
"Everyone likes you, Topher," Theo said.
"Naw." Topher waved dismissively.
Theo would have pressed the point, but they had come up to EJ and his intended conquest. Topher and EJ bumped knuckles. Theo retreated to his post behind Topher's shoulder to watch.
Close up, the kid wasn't as slight as he had looked from across the store, or as young. He had to shave, for one. And his jacket covered well-defined if lithe muscles. His voice was also deeper than Theo had expected. But he was definitely taken with EJ. That was as clear close up as it had been far away.
EJ introduced the redhead to Topher. "You remember Sean, used to play on the freshman football team back in 9th grade? Moved away? This is his older brother."
"Oh, yeah," Topher said, shaking the guy's hand. "Played defense, right? He was in one of my classes. Where'd you guys move?"
"Folks moved to the city," the redhead answered. "I went to college, and they put Sean in private school there."
"Cool," Topher said. "Tell him Topher says hi."
"Listen," EJ said, turning his full attention back to his prey, "we were just about to see a movie. You want to join?"
"Man, I'd love to," the redhead said, "but I can't. I'm meeting a friend here in a few minutes."
"Too bad," EJ said.
"Yeah," the redhead echoed with genuine melancholy, "too bad."
A few minutes later, they were back in the main section of the mall. Again, Theo was taken aback by the buzz of activity that went on around them. Guys and girls alike turned their heads doing their best to not seem like they were staring, as they walked by. EJ as clearly enjoyed it as Topher was oblivious to it. He seemed surprised by each person that said hello to him.
"I gotta pee," Topher said out of the blue. "I'll meet you at the Bell." He turned toward the rest-room, leaving EJ and Theo awkwardly alone. After watching him disappear into the crowd, they turned to face each other.
It occurred to both of them how little they actually had to say to each other. Theo smiled uncomfortably, then began to chew his upper lip.
His lips were cute, EJ thought. The top one stuck out as if he had buck teeth, even though he didn't. He was a pretty cute kid, actually, even if he wasn't EJ's type -- too olive. He was slender, though, in the way that sophomores who were going to end up being built were. Not too tall. His hair was a mess.
EJ just looked at him, knowing how intimidating his direct gaze could be. The kid was certainly cowed, but there was something else there. He tried to read himself in the kid's face and posture. There was the openness of the eyes, the slight tilt down of the head, the nervousness, the way his smile drew his cheeks out but not up, the crossed arms, the feet pointing askew. Yes, Theo was attracted to him but no, he wasn't into it. And there was something else. What was it?
"So how long have you and Seth been friends?" he asked, not knowing what else to say and still searching for visual clues to the buried feeling.
"Since sixth grade," Theo answered, relieved to have had the silence broken. "We moved in from out of state. You and Topher have known each other a long time, huh?"
"Since birth, about," EJ said.
"That's cool. You've known him for what? Like fifteen, seventeen years? That's a lot."
EJ thought about it. It was cool. He knew Topher better than anyone except his folks. "Yeah," he allowed. "he's chill. I'd do anything for the guy."
Theo wondered if he'd do anything for Seth. Probably not. A lot, but not anything.
"Him too, I think. When he talks about you, he sounds...I don't know...kind of awestruck."
"No, that's just the way Topher talks," EJ said, laughing. "I don't think he's awestruck by me." What was it? Jealousy? Was the kid jealous of their friendship? Close, but that didn't seem quite right. Jealousy would have looked more bitter. The kid didn't look bitter. He looked...what?
"I don't know, he has a lot of great things to say about you."
"Yeah? Well I have a lot of great things to say about him, too," EJ answered.
Theo got the impression the older boy was studying him. It made him even more uncomfortable. "Fer'instance?"
"Fer'instance? Fer'instance he's got an incredible arm. When you catch a pass it's like getting shot in the chest with a bullet. Pow." EJ smacked himself in the chest for emphasis. "Dead on accurate usually, too. When he's concentrating."
"You mean like when the guys who are trying to maul...you mean like when the offensive...thingy...holds?"
EJ laughed again. "The offensive line?"
"Yeah. The offensive line. You mean like he can't concentrate when the offensive line breaks?"
"No, he's okay in a collapsing pocket. I mean when he's concentrating on the game. When there isn't other shit in his life to distract him."
He noticed a slight frown appear on Theo's lips. "What else do you like about him?" the kid asked.
"You're the new guy. Shouldn't I be asking you that? What do you like about Topher?"
Theo became guarded and he wasn't sure why. He knew, at least, not to answer because he thought Topher was sweet. He decided on a safer route. "You know Seth and I had a nickname for him before we met. Called him, Mr. Yummy. You'd have to be nuts not to like him. Everyone likes him."
"You have nicknames for everyone?" EJ asked
"What was your nickname for me?"
Theo could feel the red patches form on his cheeks. He hadn't seen the question coming. Stupid, he thought. Once he had fallen in, the trap was too obvious.
"Oh, we had a band name for you."
"Yeah?" EJ asked, "what?"
Theo could feel EJ's eyes boring into him. He felt like an insect mounted on a pin. The guy was so good-looking it was difficult to think around him, and he seemed to do everything he could to compound that difficulty. He stood too close, for one. Theo had kept taking a step back just to give himself more room to think, but each time, EJ had bridged the gap again. Now Theo was standing with his back to one of the big potted palms that lined the center of the main corridor of the mall. EJ was inches from him. Of course, Theo thought, that's why every time he's seen someone talking with EJ, their back has been to the wall.
His eyes were distracting as well. The overall impression was that they were brown, but close up Theo could see that the irises were actually a kaleidoscopic amalgam of ambers and shades of dusk. They looked at him in an unwavering, unbroken stare which left Theo wondering if he could ever remember seeing EJ blink.
"Seth'll tell you," he said lightly, turning to his left and taking a few steps. "You'll get a kick out of it. Hey, shouldn't we be heading toward the food court to meet Topher?" Thus he was able to sidestep both the question and EJ's unnerving proximity. They made their way down the corridor.
Angry, EJ thought. The kid's angry at me for something. It was there to read between his eyebrows. Is he pissed at me for doing Seth? Is it that kind of jealousy? EJ looked Theo up and down as the two sauntered toward the food court. No. The posture he saw confirmed his initial assessment: Theo thought he was hot, but didn't want him to jump him. But definitely angry at something.
"Hey," Theo said, "I got a question. Does Topher not know how sexy he is?"
"What do you mean?"
"Well, he can't take a compliment, and just before, I was saying to him just what I said to you -- that anyone would be happy to be with him -- and he totally dismisses it."
"Okay," EJ said, "I get you. The answer's yes and no. Yes, he knows he's hot, and he knows he's good looking, and he knows he's a catch. But no, he doesn't know that everyone wants him."
"Serious?" Theo asked wide-eyed. "How can he not?"
"He can't tell when people are flirting with him."
"Why not?" Theo asked.
"I dunno. He's too literal, maybe. But he really can't. He has no clue. One time we were at a party and this girl had to actually take his hand and put it down her pants. And even then he wasn't completely sure."
"We'd go out, and I'd be flirting with some guy, and Toph would keep coming back and saying, Her? How about her? and I'd have to go over and tell him yes or no." There, EJ thought. There it was again. The kid was definitely angry about something. "I've tried to give him lessons, but he just doesn't get it."
"But, like, everyone likes him."
"I know," EJ shrugged. "That's Topher. There are some things he just doesn't see."
They had arrived at the food court. They scanned the crowd but didn't see him. They turned to face each other. Theo felt the eyes on him again. Unconsciously, he took a step back. Topher came up from behind him, putting a hand on his shoulder. Theo jumped.
"You want anything?" Topher asked. Theo shook his head. "Why don't you go and find us a table then. I'm going to get a taco."
Topher and EJ sauntered over to the Bell while Theo made his way to lay claim to an open table. He sat, trying to catch Topher's eye to show him where he was. At the next table sat a rather imposing young man who was wearing a green and yellow letterman jacket. Those were the colors of the dreaded rival: North. He was dark and roguishly handsome in an overgrown sort of way, which is to say that there was probably a good-looking guy living somewhere inside all that excess muscle. Theo noticed he was looking at him. He smiled back cursorily and continued craning for the boys.
"Hey," the guy said. Theo continued to scan the counter. "Hey," the guy said again, louder. Theo turned to look at him if for no other reason than he was surprised that the guy had spoken to him in the first place. "You play football, a little thing like you?" His tone was playfully condescending.
Theo looked down at the jacket he was wearing. "It's not mine," he said.
"N...ye..." Theo didn't know how to answer the question, so he just shrugged and turned back to look at the line of people waiting for food.
"What's your name?" The guy was insistent. And intrusive.
"Theo." He said it without even looking at the guy. Maybe if he ignored him, he'd leave him alone.
"Brian," the guy said, oozing out of the seat at his table and into the one next to Theo while holding his hand out all in one smooth move. "Hi."
Theo looked at the hand, up at Brian, then down at the hand again. "Hi," he said without conviction and without shaking it.
"Brian," Brian said leaning forward. He'd be handsome, actually, Theo thought. If he had a neck.
The hand remained extended. When it was clear Theo wasn't going to shake it, he reached over and took Theo's for himself.
"You're a cute one. Anyone ever tell you that?" Theo looked, again, from the large paw gripping his hand up to the face of the intruder. He blinked while it finally dawned on him that the guy was trying to pick him up. It was a first. Maybe people could tell he wasn't a virgin anymore just by looking. He smiled to hide his embarrassment. Misreading, the guy took it as an invitation. "You got great lips."
"I'm not alone," Theo said, suddenly very uncomfortable.
"Not with me here," the guy answered, all smoothness. "You're too pretty to be left alone." He had big eyebrows and widely spaced green eyes and his smile broke each cheek into two continents.
"No," Theo said, motioning vaguely toward the line, "I'm with some..."
"What year are you in?"
"Huh?" It was all happening so quickly he was getting confused. For example, it was not until then that Theo noticed the guy was still holding onto his hand.
"What year are you in, Theo? In school?"
"Ummm...I'm a sophomore. Look, I really don't think..."
"Yeah," Brian said, "I thought you looked young. You're hardly shaving yet." With his other hand, he brought his finger up to Theo's face and brushed his cheek and jaw line tenderly.
Theo frowned. "I don't think you underst...."
"You really do got the cutest lips in the world. I love the way your upper lip kind of curls up. Makes me want to kiss them"
Theo's brows knit. He was trying to be polite about it, but the guy wasn't listening. "Look," he said, slowly and clearly, "there's no way I'm going to..."
"Your eyes are really pretty too," Brian interrupted him, "I love guys with brown eyes." The hand that had been on his cheek joined the other one which still trapped Theo's. "Can I buy you a soda or something?"
"No," Theo answered abandoning the attempt at politeness. "Get lost." He tried to wrench his wrist away, but the larger boy held on.
"Don't get upset, Theo," he purred. "I was just being friendly."
"The kid said get lost." Topher and EJ had come up from behind. They put down the food and faced the rival, Theo between them. Topher's voice was quiet and firm. Theo jerked his wrist free and stood, backing up to just in front of Topher, who put his arm protectively over his shoulder, draping it over his torso in a relaxed show of possession.
"This guy bothering you?" he said softly into Theo's ear.
Theo took hold of Topher's hand with both of his, pressing it to his stomach so he could feel more secure in Topher's grip. "Kind of," he said.
"You want me to take him out?"
"Who the fuck are you?" Brian said belligerently, standing to his full six-foot-four-inch height. He sized up Topher and EJ both separately and together. From the look on his face, he didn't consider them a particular challenge.
"I tried to tell him," Theo said.
Topher ignored the larger foe. "It's okay. You want me to kick his ass?"
Theo squeezed Topher's hand. The very idea of it thrilled him to his marrow. But he shook his head. "Naw, let's just get out of here."
"If that's what you want," Topher said. It was clearly not the answer he had been hoping for, but Theo was relieved he had agreed. EJ stood silent and edgy, watching the action, ready to assist if necessary.
"You're going to kick my ass? Is that what you said? That's a fucking laugh."
Theo could feel Topher tense behind him. But he picked up the food with his free hand and, still with his arm protecting the boy, turned the two of them around and began to leave.
"All you fucking pansies are the same in this God damned town. I should kick your ass. Then after the kid blows me, I can fuck you two good. Or maybe I should just fuck the kid, huh? Let him know what it's like to have a real dick up his ass."
Topher stopped walking. Theo could feel the charge in his muscles. He let go of Topher's hand, pushing back as he did so to indicate that Topher should stay where he was. Theo spun around and started walking toward the asshole.
He approached him slowly, his attitude a study in coyness. He looked up at the guy through heavily lidded, awestruck eyes and let a subtle smile play on his lips. When he was only inches away, he stopped. His stance softened completely.
"You're a real man?" he asked as sweetly as he could.
"You know it, baby," the asshole said, looking down into the cuteness of Theo's face. He put his arm around Theo's waist.
Theo's knee came up so quickly and forcefully it lifted the 235-pound linebacker a full inch off the ground. When he landed again, he crumpled into an agonized heap on the floor.
"Not any more, baby," Theo said and, just as sweetly as he had begun, turned back to the stunned looks of the two boys. "C'mon," he said, taking Topher's hand. "Let's go see the movie."
It took some work to drag Topher from the scene. Both he and EJ kept turning back to look at the groaning, senseless puddle of jock they were leaving behind. The expressions on their faces were of flabbergasted disbelief. Theo found himself having to pull hard just to get them to move.
They were well clear of the food court before either of them could speak.
"Note to self," EJ said. "Don't piss off the boy."