Yankee, Chapter 10

This is, it turns out, a story about fear and cowardice. Standard disclaimers would apply if there were any actual sex in this but, as it turns out, there isn't. So, if relationship stories freak you out, or you're looking to get your keyboard sticky, now would be a good time to run away. No, really. Probably the best time, thinking about it.

Many thanks to Ashken, Ender, and Kitty, intrepid editors.

* * *

I spent most of Sunday working out and thinking about what had gone on at the art show. Melanie had dropped me off at my house after the show with an apology, but that was it -- we hadn't actually spoken the whole drive home. I was mostly trying to figure out what was going on. I wasn't sure what Melanie was thinking.

The one thing I did figure out was that Melanie did know Bobby was gay, and had tried to set us up. I think she was thinking I'd be flattered at Bobby's artwork and maybe make a move or something on him, though there's no way that would've happened, even if I hadn't freaked out so badly at the pictures. She didn't know that, though. I had no idea what was going on with Bobby. I hadn't expected him to just lose it so badly at the show. Guess the death of his dog had really affected him or something. I didn't like him, but I didn't hate him any more. More than anything else I just felt sorry for him.

School on Monday wasn't particularly interesting, not that classes in the three days before Thanksgiving ever are. It's like the turkey stupor's so bad it starts before everyone's even eaten. Well, except for Trig class, but Mrs. Daniels just liked seeing us all in pain.

By lunch I'd almost fallen asleep, and I wasn't alone. Trevor, Paul, Melanie and I were eating in the cafeteria. Mom had packed me a turkey sandwich -- she wasn't much for affection, but she did have a sense of irony. I felt a hand on my shoulder, so I put my sandwich down and looked around. It was Bobby.

"Hi Bobby. What do you want?" My voice was a little fuzzy, though I was quickly waking back up.

"You. Outside." Not the nicest way to ask, and kind of puzzling, given how Bobby had been behaving. Apparently he left the nice guy at home, and I was stuck with Mister Hyde the asshole.

"I'm eating, Bobby," I replied. I was feeling kind of bristly, and I didn't like having to keep track of how to deal with two different Bobbys. If he wasn't going to be polite neither would I. "Why?"

He didn't answer, he just tightened his grip and pulled. I threw a questioning look at Melanie, but she just shrugged. I figured I'd go along for the ride, so I let him pull me up.

"Where are we going?" We were starting to get stares from the people at the surrounding tables. I wasn't happy about that.

"Outside," was all he said. Okay. Whatever.

So, we barged through the cafeteria and out into the courtyard behind it. It was a nice day, if a little chilly, and there were a few dozen people out eating lunch in the sun. Nobody was paying much attention to us. Well, not at first at least. Bobby let go and turned around, looking at me.

"I want a rematch," he said. His voice was hard, and so was his stare.

Unfortunately I had no idea what he was talking about. "Rematch for what?"

He didn't answer me. Instead he took a step back and threw a punch at me. He wasn't even trying to be subtle, and it was easy to block. The next one was, too.

Now I was confused. Even with me going nuts on Saturday I didn't think he had any reason to want to fight me, and he had to know there wasn't any way he could win. It just didn't make any sense. "Bobby, what're you doing?"

"My. Name. Is. Not. Bobby." Each word was punctuated with a punch. I could tell he was pissed -- there was a lot of power but not too much control behind them. Blocking them stung a little. We'd started to collect a crowd, too.

I really didn't know what was going on. It's not like I was in any danger of getting hurt unless I did something stupid, and I wasn't planning on that. Bobby just wasn't dangerous, at least not to me. Something was bothering him, though, even I could tell that. While I didn't like him, I knew him well enough to tell this just wasn't like him.

"So, should I call you Ethel Merman, then?" Yes, it was a stupid thing to say. I don't do witty banter well at the best of times, and right now I was working on making sure neither of us got hurt, since he was still throwing punches. My options were pretty limited here. Most of the courtyard was paved, and while I could drop him to the ground any time I wanted, I couldn't do it without hurting him. We were a hundred feet or so from the grass at the edge, so I let him drive me back that way.

I tried, at least. By now, the cafeteria'd emptied out, and we were surrounded. While we had plenty of space, the ring of people wasn't moving as I backed towards it. They might get out of the way if I pushed it, but I didn't want to chance that.

To make matters worse, Paul, Trevor, and Melanie were watching. So was Coach Wilson and some of Bobby's football cronies. Coach, interestingly, was just watching. I wasn't sure, but I think he knew how things went the first time Bobby and I did this, and I knew he knew what I did to the four idiots who tried to jump me. He seemed content to let us work this one out on our own, for some reason. The football cronies were getting pretty worked up, but I didn't have the attention to spare for them.

"Rob. Dammit!" Two more words, two more punches.

"Ow, damn, that stings," I said, as I blocked them. He was throwing them hard, and while he didn't have the skill he did have the power. "So what is this all about?"

"Payback," he said. This time he launched a kick at me. That was new. If I'd have been a football, he probably would've punted me halfway down the field. As it was, I blocked it. I was going to have a pair of bruises on my arms from that.

"For you? For what?"

"No," he said quietly. He just stopped and looked at me. "For you."

That surprised me, and he could've clocked me then if he tried. He didn't.

"I don't want this, Rob," I said.

"Too bad. Show people. End this right." He threw a left jab at me. I caught his fist and just stopped it. He followed with a right to my head, and I caught that one, too, though it drove me back a half-step. He tried to pull out, but while he had more body strength than I did, I had better leverage and a much stronger grip. I didn't let go.

He tried another kick, but his position was bad, and he had no power at all. I knocked his other foot out from under him, let go of his hands, and let him sit down hard.

"That's all you get," I said, and turned to walk away. He was giving me something I didn't want, and I'd be damned if I took it. Maybe it was just ego, but I didn't want and didn't need a gift fight.

Apparently one of the football thugs took offense at what had happened, because the next thing I heard was a shout of "Fucker!" and someone was charging out at me, fists swinging.

Dunno what he expected, but my reflexes took over before I could think. I side-stepped, blocked his punch, kicked him hard, and spun around to kick a second time. I think I took him by surprise, because I know I took myself by surprise. It was all I could do to pull the second kick, and I managed to twist my ankle doing it. Good thing for him too, since if that kick landed, he would've been in a lot of trouble. As it was, I think I heard a rib crack from the first kick.

He went down groaning and I followed, grabbing my ankle and cursing. "You stupid son of a bitch! What the fuck were you thinking? I could've killed you! Ah, damn, this hurts." I was pissed, and my mouth was getting ahead of my brain.

By then Trevor, Paul, Melanie, Coach Wilson, and Rob had made it over. The rest of the crowd was hanging back -- I think the sudden violence and me swearing put them off.

"Are you OK?" asked Coach Wilson.

"I think he..." started the thug, hugging his chest.

"Shut up, Carlson. I wasn't talking to you." The thug apparently had a name. He looked startled, but at least he was quiet. Coach looked at me. "Are you OK?"

"Yeah," I said. Paul gave me his hand, and I started to stand, keeping my weight off my hurt ankle. "I twisted my ankle pulling that last kick." I put a little weight on it. It twinged, but I didn't think anything was broken or too badly sprained. "Should be OK, but I'd better ice it."

"What is going on here?" Oh, great. The principal cometh. The man was a twit, and a smarmy one at that. Me getting into it with two of the football team was not going to go over well. I winced and got ready for a good yelling. Probably a suspension too, even though I hadn't started anything, and hadn't even thrown a punch until that idiot Carlson showed up.

Rob surprised me. "Demo got out of hand," he said. We all looked at him with stupid expressions on our faces. Well, except for Coach, who had a poker face on. "The self-defense class demo? Remember?" No, I very much did not, but I had the presence of mind to keep quiet. I was just hoping I didn't have a stupid look on my face.

"Uh, Bo... Rob?" Melanie piped up. "You asked me to set that up for the seventeenth."

"Right." He had an innocent look on his face.

"It's the tenth."

"What? Oh. Um..."

I decided to shift then, to see if we could break things up. "Ow. Uh, listen, could someone help me to the nurse's office? I need to get some ice on this ankle."

Paul started to say something but Rob beat him to it. "I'll take you. It's my fault, after all."

I shot a look at Coach, who still had his poker face on. There'd be a day of reckoning with him at some point, but not today. "Carlson ought to get looked at. Just to be sure." I patted my ribs with two fingers at the same spot I connected with Carlson. I hoped he'd get the hint.

Coach lifted an eyebrow and gave me a look I couldn't quite figure out, but I was pretty sure he did. "Get up, Carlson, and we'll get you looked at, too." The kid was hauled to his feet none too gently. If I had cracked some ribs then that must've hurt, but it wouldn't kill him. Coach apparently wasn't too worried about Carlson's comfort.

Rob started hustling me towards the building. We were going a little fast for my ankle, but I was just as happy to get out from under the spotlight, especially since I wasn't there willingly. Neither of us said anything. Luckily there weren't any people in the hallways, no surprise with class still in session.

The nurse's office was empty, but Rob had a key and seemed to know his way around. I sat myself down and started to take off my shoe as he rummaged around in the cabinets.

"Leave that on for now," he said over his shoulder as he gathered some things up. "It'll keep the swelling down."

"I'm wearing sneakers, Bo... Rob. They're too low to keep the swelling under control, and if things swell up they'll just bite into the ankle." He shot me a dirty look.

"Listen," I said, "this isn't the first time I've been hurt. I know what to do." Hell, I'm pretty sure Melanie'd hurt me worse on Saturday. It still ached a little when I sat down.

"Okay, I just... just don't want you hurt. This is my fault." Rob was fiddling with something in one of the drawers. He wasn't facing me as he said that.

"How exactly is it your fault that Carlson decided to jump me?" I didn't understand Rob's reasoning here.

"He did that because I lost."

Right, and the explanation wasn't helping. "What, you're not allowed to lose fights?"

"No." He looked at me with sad eyes.

I snorted. "Then that kid's got to be way past stupid. It should've been pretty obvious that you were badly outmatched. And why did you start that anyway?"

"I told you. It was payback."

"Payback for what? I don't understand," I said, almost pleading. I could follow the conversation but I couldn't understand it, and it felt like I really needed to. "I thought we'd settled that a long time ago."

"Everyone thought I'd won."

"So? Since when do I care what everyone thinks? It was between you and me, we settled things, we were done. That's good enough for me. Everyone else can go jump." I just... I just didn't understand. The only people involved in that first fight were Rob and I. I couldn't see how it made any difference to anyone else.

"Well, I care what everyone thinks!" There was a sudden heat in Rob's voice. He smacked the instant ice pack in his hand and pitched it at me "I care. I'm tired of all of it, tired of the expectations, tired of the lies." His voice dropped to a near-whisper. "Tired of being Bobby."

I may be really bad at figuring out what people are thinking, but this worried even me.

"Uh... you're not thinking of..." I just trailed off. Funny how even I couldn't manage to ask him if he was thinking of suicide. I desperately hoped not, since there was no way I'd be able to tell, and I didn't want to pull Melanie into this. I would if I had to, though.

He ignored me. "I heard what you said, you know."

Now I was really confused. "Huh?"

"I heard what you said. 'Rob looks like someone I would very much like to be friends with. I've only met Bobby, though, and he's not worth the time of day'."

I tried to remember saying that, when it came to me. I'd said that to his mother the day we'd buried his dog, just before I left.

"I thought you were asleep when I said that."

He didn't say anything. He just stood there and looked at me for a while, then he handed me an ace bandage. I took it and started wrapping my ankle. Things weren't too bad, but the support would make the drive home easier. The ice pack was cold by now, so I draped it on top and let it sit. It took some of the ache away.

Rob was suddenly right in front of me, kneeling down and staring into my eyes. "What do you want from me?"

I rocked back in my chair, surprised at his move. "What?"

"What do you want from me?" he repeated.

"I don't want anything from you, Rob."

"Then why don't you like me? I can change if you want. Be someone better." He was pleading with me.

I finally got the idea, and felt really stupid for missing it for so long. I also made a note to have a talk with Melanie, since I'd bet money she's known all along.

"You've got a crush on me," I said. It wasn't a question, and I was braced for his answer.

"I think I lo..."

I cut him off hard. God, I was stupid. "No. Do not go there. You don't. You don't even know me."

I got up and started to pace. It hurt a little, but I had to move. This was touching some raw nerves.

"First off, don't you dare change for me. Not for anybody. If you want to chage, change because it's what you want, because you want to be different. Do it to be what someone else wants, and I swear I will kick your ass so hard you won't sit down for the rest of your life. And then I'll hand you to your mother.

"Second, you don't know me." He started to say something but I cut him off. "No, you don't, no matter what you think. You know whatever fantasy you've spun, and you know little bits and pieces, but you don't know me."

I sat down, sighed, and rubbed my head. It was starting to hurt. "If you want to be friends, we can give that a shot. People I like think you're worth it." And, truth be told, I kind of thought so, too, but I wasn't going to tell him right then. "If you want something else, we can date. If we do that, though, I won't hide. No sneaking, no pretending we're just friends, no nothing. I'm not going to jump you in the halls if it comes to that, and we don't have to make an announcement, but we're not going to be hiding in the back of the closet -- we do it out. And you have to tell your mom first."

Rob looked like he'd been hit by a truck. "Why?"

"Because she loves you, and if it all hits the fan she needs to know."

"No. The... out part."

I sighed. "Have I ever been anything other than up front with you?" He shook his head no. "Ever heard Melanie say anything like that about me? Ever heard anything about me being subtle?

"That's because I can't be. I really, really suck in social situations. I always have. If I'm not paying attention I say what's on my mind. I don't lie and I don't hide because I can't, at least not for very long. If I try, I will slip up, and then things are worse than if I hadn't tried to in the first place."

Rob looked puzzled. "But what about all that stuff in the halls? All the flirting?"

I winced. I knew that'd come back to haunt me one day. "That was all an act, Rob. It was the hardest thing I've ever done, and I'm really glad it's over. I went home exhausted every day, and I almost blew it more often than I can count. Paul, Trevor, Rick and Melanie covered for me a bunch. That wasn't me, and I'm glad it wasn't -- if I'd acted like that without trying to, I'd be a total prick. I know this stuff comes easy, or at least easier, to other people. For me, it's more work than sparring is." Truth was, I was feeling like a real prick anyway. I hadn't ever thought I'd regret what I had done to Rob, but I was. I didn't know what I could do about it, and I couldn't think of anyone I could talk to about it either. Guess I'd just have to get by as best I could.


There didn't seem to be much to say after that, so we didn't. Yay for awkward silences, I guess.

* * *

And now, the day of reckoning. I'd gird my loins if I knew what that meant, but since I didn't, I had to make do with a deep breath before I knocked on Coach Wilson's door. Or doorframe, since the door itself was open. Coach was head-down at his desk doing something with a notebook. He looked up when I knocked.

"Payne. What do you want?" He was scowling, but he was always scowling. I hoped it didn't mean anything.

"I think we need to talk, Coach," I said.

"Then shut the door and sit down." He pointed to a chair in the corner.

I did, and it was another one of those plastic torture chairs that were scattered around the school. Lucky me.

"So," he said. "What do you want?"

"That's my question," I replied. I was getting a little nervous. I hated being at a disadvantage, and Wilson had me at a big one. He knew it, too, or was used to having it and just acted that way. I couldn't tell which.

Wilson just looked at me. Not good. I had to lead, and I really didn't want to do that.

"I know you know what happened in the fall between Rob and me. I know you know what happened to those four football goons. I know you know that demo explanation yesterday was crap. I've cost you five football players, and you haven't said anything. Why?"

"You cost me six," he said. I looked puzzled. "Phillips said he's not playing next year."

"Great," I muttered. It just got better and better.

"Phillips matters. The rest are muscle. I can replace muscle."

"Rob wasn't my fault," I said.

"Yeah, he was," Coach Wilson replied. "I'm glad to see him go, but he did it because of you."

"Glad? What?" Right, there went any shred of control I had over the conversation. At least I was getting used to the feeling of not knowing what was going on.

"Do you really think I don't care about my players?" I've got to admit, I did. I mean, he's a football coach. I've always assumed they're a bunch of half-crazed bloodthirsty phobic nutcases.

"Uh... no?"

"Wrong. Football won't get Bobby anywhere. He's good, but he's not that good, and he doesn't care enough to get that good. If he sticks around, at best we have another winning season with him as quarterback. That buys him nothing. At worst he gets hurt and can't draw. He may play football, but he's not a football player. He's an artist. If he loses football he loses nothing. If he loses the art, he loses everything. There's always another season and another quarterback for the team. You only get one life."

I hadn't really thought about that. Nor had I thought that Wilson was an actual caring human being, rather than some sort of jock caricature gone to seed. This was... surprising.

"Still, why haven't you said anything?"

"Why should I? What would it get anyone that's worse than what's happened? What happened between you and Bobby was your business. You kept it that way, and I respect that. When you got jumped you dealt with it, and the four involved got their asses kicked and kicked off the team. You did me a favor, and I was glad to see those little psychopaths go. It was obvious what Bobby was trying to do yesterday and how you dealt with it, and I respect that. Carlson was a damn fool. He got what he should've expected, and got off a lot easier than he could have. So what's to say?"

When he put it like that, nothing. I could deal with that, I suppose. I still wasn't comfortable with it. And I still felt like I owed him something -- whether or not it was all for the best, I had made a mess of things.

I mulled this over for a while.

"You and Phillips have something going on," Wilson started, bringing me back to the conversation. He was a little hesitant. I knew exactly where he was going -- it pushed one of my buttons, and pissed me off in a big way.

"We do not have something going on, dammit!" Coach started to say something, but I cut him off. First Rob's mother, then Melanie, and now Coach Wilson. I'd had enough. "No. We aren't, and don't even try to set us up. I am so fucking tired of people doing that." I slammed my fist down on the desk and stared Wilson straight in the face.

"You," I said, waving my finger in his face, "can tell Rob that if he wants to ask me out he can fucking well do it to my face. I'm tired of all the god-damned proxies!"

Coach was taken aback at that. "What are you talking about, Payne?"

"You know exactly what I'm talking about," I snapped at him. I looked at him for a couple of seconds. He didn't.

"Oh, fuck," I said, sinking into the chair. I'd just outed Rob to his football coach. Explaining that away was going to be interesting. I didn't think I could, either. He was obviously not stupid, and I'd been really clear.

"Coach, about what I just said... I mean, Rob, he's not... I don't want him to get in trouble or..." D'oh! I should be telling him that I was wrong, not apologizing for telling the truth. Things were so much easier when I just didn't talk to anyone.

"What, do you think I'm stupid, Payne?" Yeah, like there's a meaningful answer to that one. Wilson was pacing. "If I kicked out every kid who liked dick, I'd lose half my starting line some years." What? That was not what I expected him to be saying. "Do you know who goes for football?" He fixed me with a hard stare.

"Uh, no?" I was squirming a little under his gaze. I really didn't want to be staring him in the eyes, but since he'd snared me, I didn't want to look away either.

"I get the kids who want to be heroes. I get the bullies. I get the kids whose daddies are reliving their pathetic childhood glory. And I get the kids who're trying not to be the fairies their families hate."

"So the team's a collection of losers and closet cases? Swell." Y'know, I think I probably shouldn't have said that.

"Watch it, Payne," Wilson growled. "Your boyfriend's one of 'em."

"He's not my boyfriend," I snapped back. I was standing and staring at Wilson, all pissed off. Yeah, I was doing the brainless macho crap my senseis had always warned me about, but I was mad and didn't care. I think they warned me about that too.

"Yeah, like you don't swing that way." Wilson was posturing right back at me.

"No, because he's not had the balls to ask."

That set him back. "What, you think I'm going to tell you I'm not gay? Yeah, right," I said. I settled back into the seat and immediately regretted it. The chair designer hated people, I was sure.

"Okay," I said, calming down. "I fucked up big time. Got lucky, but still. I owe you. What'd you want?"

Coach Wilson just looked at me for a minute. "What do you play?"

"Kung fu. Aikido. Kendo. I don't do team sports."

"I've seen you play soccer."

I snorted. "You've seen me be goalie. I don't have to do team stuff as goalie, just keep the ball out of the net."

Coach Wilson thought for a minute. "You run?"

"Yeah, nine miles or so in the mornings. Why?"

"Because track season's coming up..."

* * *

I was walking back from the coach's office when I heard someone running up behind me. "Mister Payne!"

It was one of the art teachers. After dealing with the coach I wasn't sure I was up to more teachers. "Um... yes?"

"I'm glad I caught you. Could I ask a favor of you?"

Favor? What, did he need me to beat someone up or something? God, I hoped he wasn't trying to set me up with Rob too. "That depends," I answered cautiously. "What exactly did you have in mind?"

"I saw some of the work that Rob had on exhibition last weekend at the art show. I was wondering if you could model for us next week if you have eighth period free?"

That wasn't what I was expecting, and I had a flash of annoyance at Rob for that. Oddly, the idea of modeling wasn't bothering me. Not yet, at least. I was pretty sure could manage everyone looking at me; that wouldn't be any different from being on stage or doing my performance with Rob. As long as I was doing it on my own, it seemed OK. I just... wasn't sure I could deal with the results on display.

"Uh, maybe. Rob wasn't supposed to have shown those. I'm not sure I'm comfortable with pictures of me hanging on a wall somewhere..."

"This is just for a class project," the teacher said. "It goes into their portfolio, but if you don't want them displayed, we can respect that."

"Then sure, yeah." Melanie had been nudging me to get more involved, so this was as good a way as any, I suppose. And art students sure beat football players.

* * *

So, on Monday, I hustled out of Physics and over to the room where the Drawing 3 class was held. I got there a couple of minutes before the bell and dropped my stuff in a corner. The room was a pretty standard art room -- counters and cabinets all around the edges, filled to overflowing with paint jars, piles of canvases, little wooden manikins, lumps of clay, and unidentifiable containers of colored goo. The center of the room was mostly empty except for a dozen or so easels and stools scattered around, all facing towards, well... my 'stage', I guess.

Where I was supposed to stand was pretty obvious. A big piece of dark blue backdrop cloth hung down from the ceiling and draped over a platform, with a plain wood bar stool in the center. Apparently there weren't going to be any visual distractions.

"So," I said to the teacher, "I take it I'm supposed to get ready and sit on the stool?"

"Yes, if you would," he replied. He was distracted by one of the art students, so I walked over to the stage. There was space behind the cloth, so I grabbed my stuff out of the corner and stuck it there instead. I kicked off my shoes, peeled off my socks, and dropped the vest on top of my backpack. The shirt took a little longer, what with the buttons, and as I took it off someone let out a whistle. I looked up and saw Steph leering at me. I grinned back at her.

"Like you've never seen this before," I joked with her, as I dropped my shirt.

"Still damn pretty," she said. "Pity I can't touch." She stuck out her tongue at me as she got set up at one of the easels.

"Yeah, it's look only today, you perv," I said. I undid the buttons on my pants and slipped them off. I folded them so they wouldn't get creased, then started to strip off my underwear.

"Mister Payne! What are you doing?" The art teacher sounded a little panicked.

"Huh? I'm getting ready," I said, puzzled, thumbs stuck in the band of my briefs. "You said to."

"Why aren't you wearing any pants?"

"Um... I thought that's how this was done," I replied. "Strip and stand still for a while?"

"Yes, but, you... this... you can't!" The teacher had turned bright red.

At this point Steph started cracking up, and I suppose it was kind of funny. There I was, standing in the middle of a high school classroom, dressed only in a small pair of high cut white bikini briefs, arguing with a freaked out and very red-faced teacher over why I thought I was supposed to be nude.

"Mister Payne, this is high school. You just can't be naked here. Someone would see!"

"Well, yeah," I said, feeling kind of confused and waving at the students in the class. Almost all the easels were taken, and everyone was looking at us. "Them. Isn't that kind of the point?"

"Leave your underwear on. You can put your pants on too if you want."

"Leave 'em off!" Steph was loving this, as were the rest of the girls in the class. The three guys seemed unimpressed.

"Eh, I don't care," I said. "Either way. It's only nudity. No big deal." Being nude in front of people's never bothered me. I really don't care what other people think, and it's not like I've anything to be embarrassed about. I was at the public baths once a week when I was in Tokyo anyway, so this wasn't anything new.

"As long as you're comfortable and dressed enough not to be arrested, it's fine," said the teacher. There was a round of "Awwww..." from the girls in the room.

"So anyway," I said, sitting on the stool and trying to change the subject, "how do you want me? What are they supposed to be doing today?"

"Today's a torso study," he said. The red was draining out of his face, which was turning a more normal shade.

I thought for a minute. "Do you have anything that weighs about three pounds? Two of them, close to the same weight?"

He went over to one of the cabinets and rummaged around, pulling out a pair of paint jars. He tossed them at me, saying, "These should be about right."

"Great, thanks," I replied, as I got up and caught them. I sat back down, one jar in each hand, and held my arms out a bit. I could feel a bit of tension in my chest and figured the stress would make things reasonably distinct. "Good enough?" I asked Steph, who was at the easel directly in front of me.

Her eyes were wide, and all she could get out was, "Holy crap."

"I'll take that as a yes," I said, closing my eyes and trying not to move. From the feel of things, I figured I could hold the pose for an hour or so, and the position was one I could get back into if I needed to move partway through class.

Things were pretty quiet for the first ten minutes or so. I just sat there, eyes closed, holding the paints, trying not to move. It was a little tough to get used to just sitting there. A little boring, too. That, at least, was broken by the sound of someone running into the classroom, though with my eyes closed I couldn't see who it was.

"Hey, Mister B! Sorry I'm late, coach caught me for..." The voice stopped. It had sounded familiar.

"Afternoon, Rob. Grab the last easel, there should still be time." And that'd be why. It was Rob. I shouldn't have been too surprised that he was in this class, given how well he draws, but still, I hadn't expected it.

"Uh... sorry, I've gotta go. I'll catch up tomorrow." And with that, I heard him run back out. Interesting.

* * *

Modeling is a dull thing -- you need to put yourself in a position you can hold nearly forever and then hold it. This wasn't that big a deal, but your mind does wander. By the third day I was bored stiff, but I had promised, so I was going to finish the week off. I had my eyes closed, which made things a little better, but I couldn't close my ears. Most of the noise is ignorable; pencils scratching on paper, the squeak of chairs as people shifted, the sound of footsteps as people occasionally walked down the corridor outside. Some of it, though, was interesting. Halfway through class, I caught bits of a conversation in the hall.

"...third class, Rob..."

"...sorry... can't..."

"...third of the semester grade..."

At that point someone walked past, and the conversation stopped. Still, I had a pretty good idea of what was going on. Rob ducked out of the first class and hadn't been back since, and if he didn't he was going to end up tanking hard this semester.

The rest of the class dragged on as I tried to think about what to do. I was pretty sure that this was because of the fight we'd had at the art show, though that seemed kind of stupid -- this was for class, and a grade, and he could've asked. On the other hand... this could be because of the game I played with him earlier in the year. I know I had an effect on him, a big one that I'd gone to a lot of trouble to make bigger. While I wasn't trying, I guess it could still be there. If so, this was really my fault, and since I'd promised Rob that I'd stop, I needed to do something to make this right.

I got dressed as fast as I could manage, dashed out to my car, and drove over to Rob's place. I was hoping he was there, and with his car in the driveway, I figured I'd guessed right. I ran up to the door and knocked. Rob answered, and he looked like crap.


"Well, you look like crap," I said, pushing past him into the house.

"Great, thanks, Doctor Pain," he replied. Mangling my last name was funny, all things considered, even though I'd heard it before. I ignored it. "What are you here for?"

"I'm here for you to draw. Duh." I was in the living room at this point, and I started unbuttoning my shirt.

"What? Why?"

"Because you need to, that's why. You've ducked all three classes, and I'll bet you're going to duck the rest. If you do, you're going to fail this project, it'll kill your grade, and that'll make it that much harder to get into art school." He looked surprised at that, but he didn't protest. I thought that was what he planned.

"But at the art show..."

"Oh, screw the art show! You're not going to throw what you want away because of me." By now I'd thrown off my shoes, socks and shirt. I started to unbutton my pants, and I heard him gurgle a little.

"You, wait, you... I can't..."

"Can't what?" I shuffled out of my pants and stood in front of him in just my briefs. I didn't see the big deal -- this is how I'd stood in front of the whole class . I'd have done it nude if it wouldn't have caused a problem. I really didn't care.

"Can't draw you in just underwear," he managed to force out. It sounded like he was about to choke.

"Fine," I said, as I turned away from him and moved to the couch. "Easily rectified." And with that I dropped my briefs, kicked 'em on top of the rest of my clothes, and lay down on the couch. I was on my stomach, arms crossed, facing the back of the couch, in the same position as the nude Rob'd drawn of me before and displayed at the art show. Felt appropriate somehow. It sounded like Rob was about to have a quiet heart attack behind me, too. I had the vague idea that maybe I shouldn't be doing this, but I admit, the idea kind of amused me.

"I'll try not to move," I said, "but I may fall asleep." I looked over my shoulder and shot Rob a grin. "Do what you want with me."

* * *

I must've fallen asleep, because the next thing I remember was waking up, flat on my back on the couch, with a blanket over me. The room had gotten a bit chilly, so the blanket was a nice touch. I heard noise from the kitchen, so I got up, slipped on my pants, and wandered out, barefoot and bare-chested.

"Oh, good afternoon, Mrs. Greene," I said, as I turned the corner. It wasn't Rob in the kitchen after all.

"Good evening, Justin," she corrected me. I looked at the clock and saw it was past seven thirty. "Have a nice nap, I hope?"

"Yep," I said, feeling good.

"Join us for supper?" She gestured at the dinner makings on the counter next to her.

My stomach growled loudly at that, and I just smiled at her. She handed me an apron and we started in on cooking.

About a half hour later, Rob came in. We'd already finished cooking and were well into eating, though I was still wearing just my pants and the apron.

"Supper is on the stove," said his mother as Rob walked into the kitchen.

"Catfish tempura," I added. "Mmmm, good eats." I grinned at him. "Oh, and thanks for the blanket."

"Blanket," he said, looking at me blankly. "What blanket?"

"The blanket that you threw over..." Watching him it was pretty clear he had no idea what I was talking about. There was only one other person it could be. I turned and eyed his mom instead. "Mrs. Greene, were you perving on me?" I raised an eyebrow at her.

"What?" Rob's voice jumped an octave across that word.

"Of course, dear," she said, patting my arm. "Very nice."


"Oh, and Rob, could I get you to drop some film off at the drug store to get developed for me?" She had a look on her face that was so innocent even I could see it. That, I figured, was a clear sign she was up to something.

"Find the macro lens for the camera, did you?"

"You should be so lucky, young man. I did find the zoom, so hopefully something will be visible."

Rob couldn't manage to do anything but squeak at that one, his face a bright red. Mrs. Greene and I looked at each other for a minute before we both broke out laughing.

"Ah, I bet you used to drag Stephen out to the strip clubs, didn't you?" I don't know why that popped into my head, but it did, so I said it. I bet I was right, too.

"Oh, of course. We'd go out and meet Rob's father."

"My dad was a stripper?" Rob's voice was well into the soprano range at this point. It was funny, but I was starting to feel sorry for him. Even I could see he was an easy target.

"No dear, of course not," Mrs. Greene said, giving Rob a gentle smile. "He didn't have the ass for it. He was a bartender."

That was too much even for me, and the water I was drinking shot out my nose, I laughed so hard. She looked over at me. "Don't," I warned her between coughs. "I know where you're going. Just don't." Not that that would stop her if she didn't want to stop, but she took pity on us.

"You'd probably best be getting home, Justin," she said, once I finally caught my breath.

It was nearly nine, and she was right. My parents would probably be getting home soon, so I ought to at least call.

"Yeah," I said. "I should. Thanks very much for dinner."

"You're quite welcome," she replied, her voice warm and welcoming. "I'm glad you came over again. You know you're welcome any time." She looked at me, then looked at Rob, and I had a pretty good idea just then what she meant. That was up to Rob, though.

He could have said something as I was leaving. He didn't.

* * *

Comments, critiques, criticism, and crazy rantings can all go to the_zot@hotmail.com.