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.
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After winter break, rehearsal started in earnest, and any thought of doing anything with anyone went right out the window. What time I had left after homework, rehearsals, and forms was spent with Trevor, me working on his accent and he trying to teach me how to act. In the end it mostly worked -- he had a passable Brooklyn sound, and I didn't come off too wooden on stage.
It was kind of a pain to make sure things worked out right with Trevor singing my songs, but getting him off-stage or behind some people when it was my turn to sing worked out OK. Wireless microphones are a wonderful thing, and Mrs. Griffin said he was my perfect Jimmy Bryant, whatever that meant.
Things did get sort of weird as we got closer to the actual performances. Rob, along with a bunch of other art students, was working on the sets for the show, so we saw each other for most of March without actually saying anything past hello. That was fine with me, since it meant I didn't really have to deal with him much. I still didn't know what he wanted, and until he got his head together, it was easier to dodge the problem completely.
The weirdest part of the whole thing was with Melanie playing the part of Maria. With Rick doing stage manager duty, he got to see me kissing the girlfriend nobody knew he had. Word got around school that she and I were secretly an item, which amused the both of them no end, though I think Rob got some flak for it, as she was officially dating him.
Anyway, the performances were a success, school rumor mill notwithstanding. The acting was pretty good, the singing worked out really well, and the dancing... well, the dancing was damned good. Besides having a lot of good choreography to draw on, more than half the cast was doing the self-defense class. Most of the dances in West Side Story are some form of fight or other. Ours were just a little more authentic than usual, and everything flowed really nicely.
We were all at Trevor's house for the cast party after we wrapped the show Saturday night. The place was packed with the whole cast and crew, and Trevor's parents had provided beer to anyone who dropped off their car keys. That was a pleasant surprise, and I had a few as the party went on. I was wandering around being sociable. I still wasn't that good at it, but it was a lot easier being in a house full of people who were mostly friends. Yeah, I was still kind of weird, but the rest of the drama guys cut me a lot of slack.
"...You should have seen it. Justin walks in and just starts stripping!" Leave it to Steph to be telling that story again. I think this was the fourth or fifth time I'd heard her tell it, though it was still sort of funny. We'd actually worked out an informal routine with it, which was kind of fun, and gave me a chance to not sound like a moron.
"It's not like I was nude, Steph," I said, butting into the conversation.
"Yeah, but that's only because Mister B stopped you, wasn't it?"
"You got me. Not like you were going to say anything."
"Oh, I was going to say something all right," she said, waggling her eyebrows at me. "Anyway, Mister B gets all red and starts stuttering and Justin just looks at him and says 'Isn't that how these things work?' "
"Well, how was I supposed to know? That's how they did it last year."
"You were in another country last year, dumbass. So after we convinced the exhibitionist here to keep his shorts on..."
"After who convinced me? Who was it chanting 'take it off'?"
"I have no idea," she said, never batting an eye. "As I was saying, after that we got him to leave his shorts on. We probably should've gotten him to stay dressed, 'cause about ten minutes later, Bobby Phillips walks in, takes one look at Justin, goes dead-white and runs out of the room. We didn't see him for the rest of the week, Justin scared him so."
"Yeah, yeah," I said, "he was just overawed by my masculine beauty and stayed away feeling hopelessly inadequate." That line was courtesy of Trevor, and I liked it. "Anyway, where is Rob? I figured he'd be here."
Steph scowled. "Oh, he's probably around somewhere. He comes to these things but doesn't stay too long. Most of the drama kids don't like him much."
"Why's that?" Not, I suppose, like the answer was too hard to figure out, but still, he did work with the drama club for a couple of months every year. I hadn't seen him really talk to anyone, but you'd figure he'd have some contact and be friendly with someone.
"Because he's a football player. The team's always going after the drama kids. You'd think he'd be better since he does art, but you'd be wrong." Steph took a swig of the beer she'd been holding. "I think he only does the art classes because his mom makes him."
Well, that was interesting. I figured I'd go find Rob and see what he was up to if he was still around.
It took two full circuits of the house to find him, sitting out in the dark on the back patio, nursing a beer. I sat down on the ground next to him and shivered -- the South or not, it was still March and chilly.
"Hey," I said, after a minute of silence. "What's up?"
"Nothin'." Rob slammed down the rest of the beer he was holding and pitched the can as hard as he could into the dark. The night swallowed it up, and I didn't hear it land.
Well, great. Not exactly the way to get a conversation going. Melanie or Steph could've worked with this, but not me. Plan B time, I guess.
"Okay, great," I said, trying to sound enthusiastic. "Then we mingle!" I stood up, grabbed his shirt by the shoulder, and just about dragged him into the house. We made a slow circuit, me chatting with folks, Rob tagging along behind. Nobody said anything, but I noticed he was getting a lot of nasty looks. He looked embarrassed, but I just ignored it.
The circuit got cut short when I was tackled from behind. "Justin! We were great!" I turned and got a big hug from Melanie. Rick and Trevor were with her.
"Yeah, we were, weren't we? Good thing Trev can sing, though, or I would've really cleared the house out," I joked.
"Aw, c'mon," said Trevor. "You know we were only joking when we said you couldn't sing well, right?"
"Yeah, really," he said, then paused. "We didn't want to hurt your feelings, 'cause you really suck."
I just gave him a steely glare. "Damn right I do," I said, after a pause, "but I thought you liked girls."
Trevor just boggled at me for a second, then busted out laughing. I could hear Rob choking on his beer behind me. Melanie smacked me in the head, and I knew I'd done good. I was surrounded by friends, having the best time I could remember ever, and right then I never wanted it to end. A sudden thought hit me.
"Hey, why don't we celebrate tomorrow? All of us? Hit Atlanta, do some stuff, have fun?"
I got a chorus of agreement, though Trevor was looking warily at Rob, and Rob was looking anywhere but at us. I figured something was up, so I grabbed him and dragged him off to the side.
"What's up with you and Trevor?" I demanded.
He didn't answer and wouldn't look at me. I stuck a finger under his chin, lifted it up, and stared him in the eyes. I swear, it looked like he was about to cry, and even that close up he couldn't meet my gaze. "What's up with you and Trevor?" I repeated.
"We... had some issues freshman year."
I groaned. "Don't tell me, let me guess. Faggy drama kid and asshole football player? Wedgies, swirlies, locker stuffage, crap like that?" Rob didn't answer, but he looked profoundly ashamed.
"And the irony's so thick even I notice it, because he's straight and you're gay." Rob winced and looked around to see if anyone'd heard. I didn't care.
"So," I went on, "what are you going to do about it?"
He looked at me like I was insane. "What do you mean what am I going to do?"
"Hey, you're the one who was talking about trying to make good and not be an asshole any more. So, don't be an asshole, and go make good." I didn't give him a chance to say anything and just dragged him by the shirt front back to where the others were waiting.
"Trevor," I said, "there a quiet place around to talk?"
"Sure," he said, "I think my room's clear unless someone's snuck off to get laid."
"Great. Come on," I said, grabbing his shirt and dragging both him and Rob to the stairs with me.
"Oh, and tell Steph we're going to do the city tomorrow," I shouted at Melanie and Rick over my shoulder as we went. Both Trevor and Rob looked profoundly uncomfortable, but they didn't have much of a choice.
"Rob," I said, as I dragged them along, "did your mom come to this performance?"
"I think so," he said, sounding puzzled.
"She still up?"
"Probably, if it's before eleven."
"Great." We'd gotten to Trevor's room. I let go of Rob long enough to open the door, then pushed the two of them in.
"So, I need to make a call. You two talk!" And over their protests, I shut the door.
I figured they'd talk for a while, and if they didn't they could stay there in silence and cope. It was 10:45 according to the clock on my cell phone, so I figured I'd give it a shot and dialed Rob's house.
"Hey, Mrs. Greene! Hope I didn't wake you!"
"Nope, still up for a bit." Even over the phone she sounded cheerful. "The show was good, Justin."
"Thanks," I said, blushing a little. "Listen, I need a favor. Doing anything tomorrow? And do you know of a real sushi restaurant in Atlanta? I'm feeling a craving."
She was silent for a moment. "I don't think so, no. But," she went on, "I think I know someone who might. Can I call you back in a few minutes," she asked.
"Sure, no problem."
I hung up and waited. Standing outside the door, I could hear that Rob and Trevor were talking, but I couldn't make out what they were saying. It didn't help that at least two couples were going at it in the room next door, but at least there wasn't any shouting or violence. Mrs. Greene called me back a couple of minutes later with a restaurant name and phone number.
I knocked on the bedroom door. "Guys, I'm going to make arrangements for tomorrow. Find me when you're done. Both of you!"
I caught Steph on my way through the living room, and we found Melanie and Rick. The two of them looked at me strangely.
"What's going on, Justin?" Melanie fixed me with a look.
"Lunch, of course," I replied, deliberately misunderstanding her. I dialed the number for the restaurant, hoping they'd be open late Saturday night. I was in luck -- not only were they open, but the guy answering the phone had a strong Tokyo accent. I switched into Japanese.
"Hi. I was hoping to make reservations for lunch tomorrow?"
The guy on the other end paused for a second. No surprise, since I didn't expect too many people in Georgia spoke Japanese, and my accent was dead-on Tokyo generic, but he recovered well. "Certainly, how many?"
"Seven. This will be new to five of them. Would it be possible for us to get a seat at the bar?"
"Is everyone of age?" Damn, I'd not expected that.
"Unfortunately not," I replied. "Very sorry."
"Still, I think we can accommodate you. What time would be good?"
"12:30, though we are very flexible."
There was a pause. "We should be able to accommodate you then," he said. "May I have your name?"
"Payne Justin," I said, falling into old habits. Last name comes first in Japanese, and my pronunciation probably sounded a little strange to everyone listening.
"You're confirmed for 12:30. Thank you for calling."
"Thanks for arranging this," I replied, as I disconnected.
"Okay," I said, English sounding a little weird for a moment, "We're on for lunch at 12:30 tomorrow."
"Where?" asked Steph, as she wandered in from the other room.
"Atlanta," I replied. "Food, fun, shopping, and a good movie if I remember right."
"What?" Rob and Trevor had come up, and looked as puzzled as Steph did.
"Fun. You know, the opposite of not fun? Scheduled for tomorrow. Trev, I'll pick you and Steph up at eight. Rob, can you pick up Rick and Melanie? No, wait, I'll pick up Melanie and Rick, you drive Trev and Steph. Your mom's got more room in her car. We'll meet at your place, Rob."
Rob and Trevor looked at me warily. "You two've worked something out, right?" They nodded. "Good. Don't worry, it'll be fine. Besides, if anything happens Mrs. Greene will kill you both. Tomorrow's on me, so don't sweat it."
I looked at my cell phone. "Listen, it's past eleven, I should get some sleep for the morning and I'm a little fuzzy, so I don't think I should be driving. I'll jog home and come back in the morning for my car." Trevor's house was only half a mile from my house, so that wouldn't be a problem. "I gave your mom my keys, Trevor. I think my car's out of the way, but move it if you need to."
Rick and Melanie went out with me as I left. I could tell that they both wanted to grill me on what was going on, though they waited until we were outside.
"Justin," Melanie began, "what are you up to?"
I seriously considered a joke there, the beer loosening me up enough to be tempted. Melanie's tone made me think twice and skip it. "Just pointing people at broken fences, Melanie."
"You do know that Trevor's hated Bobby since freshman year, right?"
"Really? I knew Trevor didn't like Rob much, but he never really talked about it," I said. "I think they're over that now."
"That's not the sort of thing you just get over," said Rick. "I saw some of what Trevor went through."
"Well," I said, a little peevishly, "then Rob can damn well make amends. He's the one who wants to change."
Melanie hit me with that piercing stare of hers. "What are you talking about, Justin?"
That surprised me. I thought they were best friends, and talked about all sorts of things. That's the impression she gave me back in the fall, at least. "Him changing because... you know. Haven't you and Rob been talking lately?"
"No, we haven't," she said. "I thought it was because we were both busy. I've only had a couple of minutes with him since you shouted at him at the art show last year."
"Oh," I said lamely. Guess she really didn't know what was going on. This was going to be awkward. "So... you've not talked to him since we had our big public encounter?" I didn't want to call it a fight, since it really wasn't.
"No," was all she said.
"Uh, I'm not sure..." Now I was really sure I shouldn't say anything. I'm bad enough with secrets at the best of times, and being a little drunk definitely wasn't best times.
"Too bad. Spill it." She had steel in her voice, and I knew I wasn't going to get out of this.
"Okay. Short version. Me freaking at him at the art show? Really bothered him. He got it in his head I wanted something else, apparently thought about it, and figured that setting people straight about us was a good first step. That's why he started that fight, so people would change their minds about what happened back in September. That was really getting to him, I guess.
"Anyway," I continued, "he knew I really didn't like him as the big asshole football player, so he wanted to be something else for me. He told me that in the nurse's office after the fight. I yelled at him and told him to get his act together for himself and not for me, and I guess he's been doing that. I think he's finally realized that he's really been a jerk, and is trying to stop. Trev was one of the people who he really messed with, so I told him to go make good."
Melanie seemed to understand, but Rick looked confused.
"Why should he care what you think? I thought he hated you."
"Me? No, he's been crushing on me since school started, apparently," I said, before Melanie could stop me. "Fuck. I don't think I should've said that," I said. Rick was looking at me like I'd just said something too bizarre to understand, which I suppose I had.
"If it were anyone else, I'd think it was a joke," Rick said, looking at me.
I sighed. "Rob's got some issues he's dealing with. But yeah, he's had a crush on me since school started, which is why he did his macho football bully thing at me. We had it out a couple of weeks after school started, and I figured out he was some sort of closet case during the fight. I spent the next month or so screwing with him really badly."
"You did what?" Melanie sounded really pissed.
"I was screwing with his head. You know when I did my makeover? Well, I knew what effect I was having on Rob, and I worked it really hard. I didn't realize it was me just me, I figured anyone could've done it -- I wasjust the only one who tried. I put on the heavy sex appeal thing any time he was around. Strutted, flaunted, leered, the works. It worked, too, and that's all I'll say. Ask him for details if you want 'em." There were limits to what I was willing to say to Melanie, no matter how much she wanted to know, even if I was in range to get killed.
"Anyway, I called us even and stopped it after a while. A month or so later there was that art show where I went ballistic at him."
"What? Why?" Rick was puzzled, but I figured he'd not gone to the show.
"There was this big art show in Atlanta in November. A lot of artists, a lot of stuff on display, and a juried show. Rob had a spot in it. He had a bunch of pictures he'd done, but there were only two subjects. One was Kismet, his dog. The other... was me." I shuddered a little. It still bothered me.
"I really don't like being on display, especially when I don't know that I am. It's a long story, but it really freaks me out. Well, little Miss Helpful there," I said, pointing at Melanie, "dragged me up to see what Rob'd done. I saw, all right. I'd no clue he'd done it, and as soon as I saw it, I ripped into him. I was furious, and embarrassed, and really freaked, and I just let him have it. I was... more blunt than I ought to have been."
"I'm still really sorry about that," said Melanie.
"I know. You didn't know I had no idea, and you were really proud of what he'd done. He is very good, and the pictures of Kismet, at least, were amazing. I probably should've been flattered. I probably should've realized how he felt, too."
"What, you didn't?" Melanie sounded amazed. She'd probably known since the first day of school.
"Nope. Y'know, I tell people I suck at this social interaction thing, but nobody believes me. I had no idea. I didn't realize until later. He didn't used to be such an asshole, apparently -- that's sort of recent. Gift from his step-dad, from what I can figure. His mom refers to him as 'that bastard I married' so I'm guessing he wasn't a swell guy. It's like a mask Rob put on. Between his feelings for me and my ripping into him, apparently the mask got broken, and the old Rob's showing through some."
I stopped for a moment. We were in the dark space between two street lights. I really wished I had something to drink right then. Nah, that's not quite true -- I really wished I had a beer. The buzz from earlier was fading, and the approaching sobriety was bringing a sort of sick realization about what had been going on with Rob. It hadn't seemed like all that much at the time, but when it was all wrapped up together I saw just how big a thing it was.
"That's why he did that public fight with me. He felt it wasn't right that everyone thought I'd lost the first time because of that stupid door, and figured the best way to fix it was to demonstrate that I could've taken him any time I wanted." I shook my head. "Stupid. I didn't care what people thought. The only bad thing that happened was me getting jumped the next afternoon in the parking lot, and dealing with that convinced everyone I wasn't someone to be messed with. I dunno if everyone thought Rob was some sort of superhero or something, to have taken me down after what I did to those four bozos, but still, I didn't care. And then... Carlson." He still bothered me. Not Carlson specifically, but how automatic my reaction was when he jumped me, and how close I came to really hurting him. I started walking again, Melanie and Rick following.
"That twit took me by surprise and I damn near crippled him before I could stop. When I hurt myself, I think it pushed Rob over the edge. I finally realized how he felt in the nurse's office, just before he went and confessed to me."
"Before?" Melanie sounded surprised.
"Yeah, before. He was crushing on me. That was weird and freaky, but fine. He didn't know me at all, though. Not enough to know if he even liked me, let alone... well. Believe me," I said, with an ironic laugh. "I know. I had a crush on a whole damn country. There's a real big difference between a crush and love, and fooling yourself just means you're going to get hurt really badly.
"He really wasn't happy with being Bobby. You notice he doesn't call himself that any more? Bobby's the football-playing jerk. Rob's the nice guy artist, I think. He used to be Rob, and he's trying to be him again. I just... I don't think he remembers how.
"It's kind of hypocritical, I guess," I said with a sigh. "I threatened to kick his ass left, right, and center if he changed for anyone other than himself, and now I'm the one pushing him to change. And I don't even know if I like him or not."
Melanie reached out and smacked me on the side of my head.
"Hey, what was that for?"
"That was for being stupid," she said, glaring at me. Her voice was fierce and her face was hard. "You do like him and you know it. You like him and you like being chased, and don't even try to tell me differently."
I winced a little. She'd caught on in a couple of minutes to something that'd taken me a couple of months to figure out. "Yeah, okay, I admit it. I do sort of like him. I could do without the chase, though." Melanie raised her hand to smack me again, but I threw up my hands in defense. "I mean it. I don't like being chased. It bugs me, I don't know how to deal with it, and I really wish he wouldn't. Yes, I admit, if he hadn't chased me I wouldn't have ever stood up for myself, I wouldn't have met everyone, and I wouldn't be this close to...normal. It's nice to have friends, it's nice to feel comfortable around people, I enjoy teaching people to do stuff, and I even like the acting."
Melanie stopped walking and looked at me really hard. "Do you have feelings for him?"
That question took me by surprise. "What?"
"I said," she repeated, "do you have feelings for him? As more than a friend."
I thought about it. Hard. This was something I'd never really considered, since I was more concerned with how Rob felt and how I had to deal with that than how I felt. And I realized the answer was..."No. I don't."
Melanie looked surprised. Hell, I was surprised too.
"Really, I don't," I said with a shrug. "Yeah, I suppose he's nice enough eye candy, but past that I really don't know him. Everyone around here's known him for years, but I only met him at the start of school this year.Since then we've been either playing some game or other with each other, or he's been on some grand trip of self-discovery or something. Good for him and all, and I wish him the best, but we've never taken the time to actually get to know each other or anything.
"I know you're his best friend," I said to Melanie. "I told him that if he wanted to just be friends, that was fine with me and we could do that. It's tough, but I'm trying to do that now, really. And I told him if he wanted to date, I was fine with that too as long as he was out. Maybe something could happen once we get to know each other better. I don't think he's okay with that, and I'm not sure he should be, not around here."
"So why do it that way? Why does he have to be out?" Rick sounded sort of conflicted. "I mean, I really don't like him, but still, being out has got to be tough. You manage, Justin, but you scare people, and besides you're a Yankee -- I think that's worse anyway."
"Gee, thanks," I said. "It's got to be out because it's the only way I can do it." I looked at the two of them. "Really, honestly, do you think I could hide that I was dating someone? Anyone?" They just looked at each other, looked at me, and then broke out laughing. "See? You know. I don't want him getting hurt, so it's eyes open the whole way." I sighed again. "I dunno. Maybe when he hits college he'll be comfortable enough to go find someone."
"So how many people know about Rob?" asked Rick.
"Counting you now? Four. You two, his mom, and Coach Wilson. If there's anyone else, I don't know about them."
Melanie looked surprised. "Coach Wilson?"
"Yeah," I sighed. "We had it out the day after that public fight. I thought you'd gotten him to try and set Rob and me up." Melanie started to say something, but I cut her off. "I know you were trying, and I thought Coach was too. Turned out not to be the case. I'm now officially a track jock as penance."
"Seeing how you keep secrets so well," Melanie said dryly, "that's probably for the best. If you're on the run you can't talk to people."
"It's not like that's a secret," I said in return. By now we'd made it to my house, though I'd not paid a whole lot of attention to the trip. My head was feeling a lot clearer, which was nice.
"Oh, did that answer your question?" I asked Rick.
"More than I expected," he said.
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