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.

* * *

When I got to school Monday morning my stomach was in knots. I'd managed to borrow Mom's Prius for the day. I startled her when I walked into the kitchen, and she didn't protest. I figured that was a good sign. I took a couple of deep breaths, grabbed my new bag, pasted an unfamiliar smile on my face, and stepped out of the car.

I'd timed my arrival to try and get the best impact. Early enough that people weren't racing the bell, but not so early that there wasn't anyone there yet. The lot was half full, and there were groups of people savoring the last few minutes of morning freedom. Good. An audience, and they didn't know it.

I'd practiced the walk most of the weekend, and I wasn't sure that I'd gotten it right, but I put it on and let it go. Normally I kind of... stalked around school. Not exactly hunched up, but tense, and no nonsense. It was a northern city walk, one that said 'I have a place to go, I'm going there right now, and get out of my way since I'm not getting out of yours'. Even in high school people got out of my way, but it stood out as unfriendly.

My walk this time was anything but unfriendly. It was two parts panther, two parts martial arts, and one part sex, or as best I could manage. I knew my body, and I wasn't just walking -- I was reveling in walking, just enjoying moving. I'd dressed for the day as well, from the new white sneakers through the tailored khaki pants, banded collar linen shirt, and light vest Steph had chosen, and taken a little extra time getting my hair right. The highlights Rafe had put in were't quite blonde anywhere, but some of them were pretty close in the morning sun. I'd done it as I was shown, with most of the hair back in a ponytail but with some on each side of my face loose, and it was a little shaggy in the front. I liked the effect.

From what I could tell, so did everyone else. I kept a casual face on and didn't exactly look anywhere, but it was pretty clear there were stares, and the breeze brought some whispers my way.

"...who's that?"

"...another new kid?"

"Damn, get me a phone number!"

That last one was funny, so I looked over in the direction it came from. There was a group of girls, and while I wasn't sure who'd said it, I gave them a smile and wave anyway. They giggled at that.

I just... sauntered into school, making my way over to my locker. There were stares, and some near-drools, and I made it a point to smile at everyone who even looked my way half-interested. Mostly girls, but there were some guys too, though I tried to be more subtle with them. Wouldn't do to have someone out themselves just because I was on a mission.

My locker needs were met, and I still had time before I needed to hit my first period class, so I figured I'd take the long way there and use the time to spread the new impression around. I was still picking up the stares and smiles, which was turning out to be sort of fun, though keeping up the act was a lot of work. I caught sight of Bobby partway through the circuit, so I figured it was time to put the other part of the plan into action.

"Hey, Bobby," I said, as I made my way over to him. His eyes bugged out a little at me. Good. "And I don't think we've met," I said to the girl standing with him. She was attractive -- a little shorter than I was, brown hair done up simply, no makeup. She looked vaguely familiar, and I think she was in the honor society or something. "Justin Payne," I said, extending my hand.

"Melanie Griswold," she replied, reaching out to shake.

"My pleasure," I said, taking her hand and kissing the knuckles. She smiled and blushed a little at that. Yeah, old fashioned, but I figured old world charm would work here.

"Just wanted to say thanks for the hand last week," I said to Bobby. "I appreciate it. We're cool?"

"Y...yeah." He looked a little flushed, and had a slight stutter. Good.

"Great." I gave him a clap on the shoulder. "Listen, I've got to get to class. Nice meeting you," I said to Melanie. "Later, Bobby." I let my hand slide lightly down his upper arm as I moved off. I could feel him shudder a little at the touch. Even better.

* * *

I made my way to my first period class, putting the act on the whole way there. It only took a few minutes, but it was a lot of work. I was still a little early and I took the time to pop a sugar cube and rest. Ricky got in just after I did, and when he caught sight of me he boggled.


"Yeah. Like the new look?" I asked, grinning at him.

"It's... wow. Nice."

"Thanks," I replied. "Steph helped me kill my credit card this weekend."

"It died for a good cause."

"That seems to be the general consensus. Everyone thinks I'm a new student." I laughed at that, and so did Ricky. Daniels came in then and did a double-take when she looked at me.

"Morning, Mrs. Daniels," I said, with a cheery wave. She gave me a puzzled half-scowl, but otherwise left me alone all period.

* * *

By the end of my seventh period class, physics, I was about ready to fall over. You might not think that just going to school was that tiring, but it was near 1:30 and I'd been performing for almost six hours straight. It wasn't so bad actually in class, though I still had to pay attention and keep the act up, but between periods was like being in a constant fight. I couldn't even hurry between classes, since taking time was the whole point.

Dr. Smith (and yes, we did have to do all the lame Lost in Space jokes, and he did all the ones we didn't know) caught me on the way out of class. I'm pretty sure I looked like I'd been run over by a truck, but I was working to pull it together enough to go back out into the halls.

"A moment please," he said. I wasn't sure if I was happy or sad for the respite. Still, I pasted my new face on.

"Sure. What's up?"

"Are you feeling well, Justin?"

I gave him as best a smile as I could muster. I liked him, though, so I figured I'd be honest. "Feeling a bit rundown right now. Not bad, though."

He snorted. "I saw how many of those sugar cubes you had during class. You're exhausted. What do you have next period?"

I groaned. "Study hall." It was the last period of the day, but the school didn't let anyone but seniors duck out early for last-period studies. I'd be in a room with fifty other students for forty-five minutes doing improv. The thought made my head hurt.

"Well," said Dr. Smith, with a grin, "given your performance so far today, perhaps you should spend your time in the drama room instead. They've got some comfortable couches, and you can try out for this year's play if you're interested."

He wrote me out a pass and I took it with thanks.

* * *

I put on my new face long enough to make it to the study hall, present my pass, and make it to the drama classroom. As promised, there were couches in one corner. I staggered in and fell on one without thinking. The teacher, a short, plump, older woman named Mrs. Griffin, gave me a questioning look.

"Dr. Smith said I could crash for a bit, " I explained weakly waving my pass at her. "And I'm supposed to try out for something." She just gave me a nod, which was fine. I closed my eyes and rested.

The bell rang and class started, though I didn't pay a whole lot of attention. I was really wiped. After a couple of minutes, I was recovered enough to rummage around in my backpack for a bottle of water and a few sugar cubes. I was surprised to see Rick on the couch. I looked at him. "Didn't know you do drama," I said.

"Stage manager." he said proudly. "So what happened last week? You never really said." Rick and a couple of the other drama kids were on the couches with me. Mrs. Griffin was going on in the background about Victorian bustiers, whatever they were.

"Not much to tell. I was here late practicing. It was getting dark, and when I got out near the parking lot some guy grabs me, said he was going to `teach the Yankee faggot a lesson...'"

"Mister Payne! We do not use that language in this classroom!" I turned and saw Mrs. Griffin standing with her hands on her hips, visibly angry.

Don't ask me why, I was feeling like a smart-ass. Personally I blame the new clothes. "I'm sorry," I said contritely. "I won't use the 'Y' word again."

She glared at me. "That's not what I meant, and you're well aware of that."

"It's only descriptive," I replied with a shrug. "Hardly an insult."

Rick was looking at me in shock, his mouth open. "You mean, you..."

"Yes, Rick," I said solemnly. "It's true. I'm... from Massachusetts. I'm sorry, I didn't want to tell you, I knew you'd be upset." Rick responded to that in the only way possible -- he pitched one of the couch's throw pillows at me. A couple of the other people in the class started to laugh.

"Justin, that wasn't funny."

"Yeah, it was and you know it. That might have been my first joke ever. Consider yourself privileged." I stuck my tongue out at him. "Besides, it's not like it matters. At least three of the other guys in here go for guys too," I said, waving vaguely at the class.

When I said that, one of the guys in the front row started getting angry. He was an effeminate kid, looked like he had to work to not swish when he walked, and I'd bet he got the crap kicked out of him regularly. "Not you," I said. "Unless that redhead I saw you with earlier had two guys stuffed under her shirt you're straight. Sheesh, you were staring her straight in the nipples." I paused. "Oh, and if you're going to do that? Don't wear boxers with loose pants." I leered and waggled my eyebrows at him. He had the presence of mind to blush.

"By the way, I'm Justin," I said with a wave. I figured I'd better distract him before he felt too bad.

"Trevor," he said, coming over to sit on one of the couches. "I can't believe you just came out in a room full of people. In school."

"Huh? This is a drama class. The whole school figures everyone in here's gay or weird enough to make no difference. Besides, I'm not `in'. Don't much care who knows. I mean, what're they going to do? Jump me in the parking lot?" I snorted and put on my best Bronx accent. "They mess with me, they gonna be regretting it, y'know what I mean?"

"Say that again," said Mrs. Griffin, her voice sharp.

"What, 'they mess with me they gonna be regretting it'?" I said, normally.

"No, with the accent."

Oh, the accent. Slipping on my southie, I asked "What accent are you talking about?"

"Not that one."

"Do you mean this one maybe?" I said with my thickest downeast accent.


"Oh, is this one you were speaking of?" I said in a lilting Irish brogue.

"Mister Payne..."

"Sorry," I said, grinning, "just goofing on you. Y'know what I mean?" This time I put the Bronx back in.

"Wow," said Rick, "how many of those can you do?"

"Reliably? Seventeen in English, if you can tell the difference between an Alberta and Newfoundland accent. A lot of people can't."

"I don't suppose," Mrs. Griffin said hesitantly, "that you can dance?" At this point the whole class was staring at me. Swell, I was a spectacle. That was the whole point of today, I suppose.

I thought for a moment. I didn't know how to dance, as such, but dancing was moving, and I learned that fast, so I just needed something that looked like dancing. I kicked off my shoes and moved into the open area in the classroom.

For the next four minutes I just flowed, trying to be as graceful as I could. Sweeping arm movements, open hands, easy kicks, and gentle jumps, slowly moving back and forth on a line. When I finished, the whole room was staring at me. I looked at Mrs. Griffin and said, "was that what you had in mind?"

"Yes, I think so," she said, her eyes gleaming. "I don't recognize the style, though. What's it called?"

"Violence deferred, I think," I said wryly. "It's not really a dance, but I can learn." I dropped my vest on the couch, stripped off my shirt and dropped it there too. "It's really just this."

And with that, I did the same routine again, this time for real. Where before there were gentle, graceful moves and open hands, now there was quick, violent spins, punches, kicks. What looked like a dance routine was revealed as combat.

"See," I said to Rick with a grin as I plopped down on the couch, "I do know what I'm doing."

"I'm going to learn that?" His voice was a little squeaky.

"Eventually, I guess. Not for a few years, though. That one's pretty advanced. Takes most people years to get the basic skills you need to do it, and another six months or so to get it down." Trevor was staring at me. "What?" I asked.

"You're going to teach him that?"

"Yeah," I said. "I told him I'd teach a self-defense class. Why, you want to learn too?"

"Yes," he breathed. His eyes were wide and eager. Yeah, he'd caught more than his share of crap.

I shrugged. "Sure, no problem. Anyone else?" I asked, raising my voice. I think I pretty much killed class for the afternoon. About half the hands in the class went up.

"Class," I heard Mrs. Griffin say, "I think this is the year we do West Side Story!" She started rummaging through the cabinets.

"You spent six months learning how to do that?"

"No, that one took me two days to nail down. It's tricky." Rick and Trevor looked at me like they didn't believe me.

"Six months for us, two days for you?"

"Yeah," I said, suddenly embarrassed. "My freaky mutant superpower." They just looked at me. "It's like the accents. I pick this stuff up really quickly." I thought for a second. I needed something simple but flashy. "Does anyone here juggle?" I asked the room.

A reedy looking guy in the back of the class raised his hand. "I do."

"Got your stuff with you?"

"Of course," he said with a grin.

"C'mere, then. Show me."

He grabbed some bean bags out of his backpack, came over to the couches, and started a simple pattern. I watched him intently for a minute, stood up, and started miming his actions. I figured people were probably looking at me weird, but that was too bad--doing what he was doing was the fastest way for me to get the hang of it.

"Got a spare set?"

"Sure," he said, tossing me the three bags he was using. He went back to his seat and grabbed three penguins from his backpack. I just looked at him, and he grinned at me, then started juggling, walking back to the couches as he did.

"Show me the start," I said. He stopped, then started. I watched. "Again," I said. We did this five or six times, and by now I'm sure everyone thought I was nuts. An amusing nuts, though, judging from the grin on the juggler's face.

I figured I had it, so I tried to start. No joy -- my aim was off, and I managed to smack Rick in the head with the first bean bag. I tried again, and a third time, but each time I was off by a little bit. I stopped, and stared at the juggler for a second.

"Stop," I said, "and hold out your arm." He did, and I stood next to him. The problem was obvious then, as my arms were a few inches longer than his were. That made sense, the timing would be off and the arcs would be different. I thought for a second, stepped back, and tried again.

This time it worked exactly right, and after a few moments of uncertainty I got the rhythm and was pitching the bags hand to hand with no troubles. I gave him a grin, and he winked, then shifted into a more complex pattern. I watched him for a dozen times through it, then shifted myself, matching what he was doing. He frowned at me and shifted into a third pattern, some weird thing with a complicated set of high and low tosses. The basics were the same as what I was already doing, so I managed to copy.

"Okay," said the juggler, "how long have you been doing this?"

I looked at the clock over the door. "Looks like about five minutes," I said. He gave me a look of disbelief. "No, really," I continued. "I had no idea how until you showed me. Thanks." I handed him the bean bags back and sat down. "I'm Justin, by the way." I extended my hand to shake.

"Paul," he said warily, shaking my hand before he sat back at his desk shaking his head.

Rick eyed me. "Five minutes?"

"Maybe six," I said. "I didn't check when we started exactly."

"Nobody learns to juggle in five minutes."

"Yeah, but it was six," threw in Trevor with a grin. "That's different." Rick just hit him with a pillow.

"I told you. Freaky mutant superpower. On the other hand, I have all the social skills of a rock. I think I could do with more balance." I shrugged. "Nobody asked me, though. Life sucks sometimes." Which it did, but there wasn't anything I could do about it. I'd have been happy to trade all the kung fu in the world to be able to carry on a conversation like a normal person, but I couldn't. Sometimes you just have to make do as best you can.

I looked around at the class, which at this point was pretty chaotic. Mrs. Griffin was rooting through the cabinets looking for something, half the class was helping, and the other half had broken up into small groups and were talking. According to the clock we still had nearly a half-hour before class was over.

"Did I miss a bell?" Rick looked at me like he was puzzled. "Everyone's kind of doing their own thing. I thought there was a class going on now or something."

Rick and Trevor laughed. "This is normal, Justin," Trevor said. "It's drama class. Everyone who takes it gets involved in getting the plays going. Since The Griff decided to do West Side Story, we're getting ready for that."

That sort of made sense, but I was still puzzled. "Half the class isn't doing anything, though."

"They will," said Rick. "Those guys over there," he said, waving at a few people in the corner who were just sitting and talking, "they handle the lights and set design. Not much for them to do until the scripts get dug out and some basic decisions get made. Some of the other people act, and there's not much for them until tryouts. Me, I'm going to be stage manager, so I don't have to do much until it gets a lot closer to curtain, then it gets insane."

"And I'm listening to your accent getting ready for the part," said Trevor with a grin.

"Which part," I asked, "and I don't think this is the right accent." I'd done a Bronx, and my southie was pretty far away from that. Well, I thought so, at least.

"Closer than what I've got," Trevor replied, and I did have to give him that.

"Not even close," I said, slipping the Bronx back on. Though he was right, it was a lot closer than his rural Georgia accent. "You hang around me, kid, and I'll get you fixed up. Now, youse guys, anyone care if I take a nap?" I didn't wait for the answer. I figured the class was chaotic enough, and I was there on a pass anyway, that nobody'd notice, so I did.

* * *

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