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.

* * *

Tuesday morning things were a little bit closer to back to normal for me. Mom had a shift at the hospital different from Dad's, so she wanted her car back, and I didn't think I needed to put on the same show in the morning anyway, so I didn't. My car's pretty nondescript, so I was pretty sure nobody'd notice me right off. I grabbed a few tennis balls out of the basement before I left too, just in case.

I didn't manage to get to school with that much time to spare, not enough to do another walk around the halls before the first bell rang, but I at least didn't have to rush to get to my first period class, as if I'd rush to trigonometry. Time enough to use what I'd dubbed my 'friendly walk', at least. And since spectacle was sort of the point, I pulled out the tennis balls from my bag and started juggling them. Nothing fancy, since all the books in my bag were throwing me off-balance some, but it was still sort of fun, and it did attract some attention.

I didn't manage to see Bobby in the halls before class, which sort of disappointed me, but I wasn't sure I had enough time to put The Plan into motion in the thirty seconds we'd see each other anyway. On the other hand, it took almost nothing to get Bobby to react to me yesterday, so I could be wrong there. Besides, I needed to see Rick about the self-defense class anyway, and we only really shared first and last period. I got lucky, and he was already at his desk when I got to class.

"Hey, Rick."

Rick turned, his eyes lighting up when he saw me. "Hi, Justin! Still doing the new look?"

"Yeah," I said with a chuckle. "I kinda like it, so I'm keeping it."

Rick laughed a little. "Well, word is that it's going over pretty well with the girls. You're a big hit."

I laughed myself. "Not my target, but hey, I'll take it. Beats getting body-checked into a locker."

"I'll bet," he said. He got more serious for a moment. "Listen, I know you promised to teach the self-defense thing..."

"Oh, right," I replied, cutting him off. I knew there was something I still needed to do. "Gotta get that going. Do you think you could handle getting things arranged for right after school? I don't know anyone here, really, and what with you being on the student council and everything, it'd probably be easier for you to do whatever needs to be done."

"Um... I can," he said. He seemed a little hesitant. "I wasn't sure..." That didn't sound good. Maybe sophomores weren't supposed to be setting up clubs or something. I didn't want Rick getting in trouble over this.

"It's OK," I said. "I can do it. I don't want you getting into any trouble or anything."

"No," he said quickly. "It's not that. It's just... are you sure you want to be doing this?"

That was something I'd spent some time thinking about last night. Could I really do this, teach people how to do, well, anything? I mean, I just didn't do people. I really wasn't sure, but I'd promised, so I was going to follow through on it.

"Yeah," I said. "I mean, I've never taught, and it's been a long time since I've been new, but I promised, and if it means someone doesn't get hurt then it'll be worth it."

Rick still looked uncertain. "Don't worry," I said, patting his arm, "everyone'll be fine. If it doesn't work out then we'll stop, and that'll be fine, too. Can't hurt to try."

Rick still looked like he wasn't happy for some reason, but I couldn't figure out why. "I can get it set up," he said.

"Cool. We can..." I was interrupted by the bell. "I'll catch you in the drama room last period," I whispered.

* * *

My first encounter with Bobby was in the hall just before my fifth period class. He was coming out of one of the art rooms for some reason, and I almost didn't realize it was him, since he'd taken off that stupid letter jacket he always wore around school. I wasn't close enough to talk to him, but I was close enough that we could see each other.

I decided I wasn't going to get too close this first time, but I needed to get his attention somehow, so I 'accidentally' smacked one of my books right into a water fountain. Wasn't a loud noise, but it was enough that a couple of heads turned my way. Bobby's shot around, and he damn near stabbed me with his stare.

Remembering what Rafe had told me over the weekend, I looked right back at him and put a sly smile on my face. I could see him start to get nervous at that, so I just licked my lips. While staring right at him. That definitely got a reaction from him -- I could see it in the front of his pants. It was a lot easier than I expected, too. Normally I hate looking people in the eyes, but this wasn't tough at all. Maybe because this was more like a fight than some social thing, I dunno. I was just glad I wasn't having the urge to go look somewhere else.

There was a girl standing just behind Bobby, someone I didn't recognize, and she was smiling back at me too, not realizing I wasn't looking at her. I figured I could use her as a convenient excuse if need be, so people wouldn't think I was flirting with Bobby, so I shifted to look at her instead, though we were far enough away I'm sure Bobby couldn't tell. I let my smile get just a little bigger, and I saw I was getting a reaction out of both of them.

I didn't have a whole lot of time, and I'd done what I set out to do in making first contact with Bobby, but since it was going so well I figured I'd leave him with something to really make him walk funny. I turned a little, spread my legs just slightly more than I needed to, and bent way over to get a drink. I guess I didn't really have to stick my ass out as far as I did but, well, why not? If he was going to stare, I wanted to make sure he had something to stare at.

I guess I'd gone just a little too far when I heard the sounds of running feet. I finished my drink and looked up to see that Bobby was gone. The girl was still there, though, and still staring, which was kind of flattering, really. She didn't move as I walked past, so I made it a point to say "Hi," as I went by her.

* * *

I figured I'd need another pass to get out of study hall last period, so when physics was over I hung back to talk to Dr. Smith. He'd gotten me hooked up with the drama class yesterday, and he seemed to like me, so I figured he'd probably help me out today, too.

"I was wondering what I needed to do to get out of study hall for the rest of the semester," I asked him.

Dr. Smith looked at me with a smile. "Decided you like drama, Justin?"

I hadn't actually thought about that -- I'd decided I liked the couches and the company. "I dunno," I said. "Seems like a lot of work."

"Rewarding, though, if you enjoy it," he said. "Mrs. Griffin was impressed with you yesterday."

"She was?" I was surprised. I mean, yeah, I could do accents, and I could move well enough to dance if I had to, but it's not like I could act or anything.

"Yes. It took quite a lot of courage to do what you did. Not many students here would have done that. This town can be... unkind, some times."

I figured I knew what he meant there. I'd certainly gotten enough crap from being a Yankee, "Well, y'know, it was only some accents, and everyone was pretty cool. Nobody really cared where I came from."

Dr. Smith cocked an eyebrow and smiled at me. I had no idea what for, though.

"Take this," he said, writing a note, "to your guidance office, and they'll take care of you."

* * *

The drama classroom, it turned out, was an official study hall room, so switching just required some signatures and a couple of forms. It took more time to find the teacher watching my study hall than anything else.

The period was half-over by the time I was done, but the class had broken up into groups with everyone doing whatever it is they were supposed to be doing. I didn't know what that was, but it did mean I wasn't going to disturb anyone by walking in late.

Rick was sitting on one of the couches with Trevor and the guy who'd taught me to juggle yesterday, talking about something or other. Mrs. Griffin was sitting at her desk with a couple of students clustered around, and there was music playing. That was cool -- drama class wasn't like any class I'd ever been in, and I kind of liked it.

"Hey, Rick," I said as I plopped down on the couch, "how'd things go for the self-defense class?"

"I talked to Coach Wilson," he said, "and we're OK to use the small gym after school as long as we pick up when we're done."

"Great," I replied. "No problems?" That was weird. I'd figured they'd give Rick a hard time and we'd have to go jump through whatever hoops we needed to or something to get it going. I kind of assumed it'd take a week or two to get going.

"No, none. I talked to him a little after second period about it. Went back after fifth to see what he thought about it, and he was fine with it. We're even set up as an official club and everything, with him as advisor."

Trevor broke in. "We're on for today? That is so cool!"

"Yeah, guess so," I said.

"We need a schedule," Rick said.

"We do? Oh," I said, thinking, "I guess we do. Every day's probably out, I bet?" From Rick's and Trevor's nods I could see it was.

"Why don't you guys do every day this week," said the juggler. "Then when things settle out, you can do two or three days a week? Start things ten minutes after school's done to give everyone time to hit their lockers and change."

I thought about it for a second. "Yeah, that's a good idea. I think Monday, Wednesday, and Friday'd be good for a regular schedule. Everyone doesn't have to come to every session that way, but there'll be something running for when you can.

"Anyway," I said, "if we're ready to go today, I should probably go set things up. Do we need keys or something?" I asked Rick.

"I've got what we'll need," he said. "Can you tell everyone?" he asked Trevor.

"Sure, no problem," Trevor said.

I went up to Mrs. Griffin's desk, since I figured I should at least check in before I left again.

"Um, hi," I said to her as I stood in front of her. I always felt really awkward talking to people, and the new clothes weren't helping that right now. "Dr. Smith arranged for me to switch my study hall to here this period, if it's OK."

She gave me a smile and took the paperwork I was holding. "Certainly," she said. "You are trying out for the play, I trust?"

"Yeah," I replied. "I figure I can be an extra or something. I can do that."

"Well," she said, "we'll see how things go after tryouts. We're always happy to have more boys participating."

"Uh, right. Anyway, is it OK if I grab Rick and go? The self-defense class is starting up today and I want to get things set up and everything."

"Of course. I think a number of the students are looking forward to it."

"Great, thanks," I said. Then I ducked over to the couches, grabbed Rick, and headed out.

* * *

"Gimme a sec," I said as we got to the gym. I was glad Rick had arranged for everything, since I don't think Coach Wilson was too happy with me. "I'm going to duck into the locker room and change. You want to do that now?"

"I'll change later," he said. "I'll open the place up."

"You got keys? Great. Do we need to give them back later?"

"Nah," he said as he opened the gym door. "Gym's got the same locks as the auditorium, so I can just use my key."

"Okay, no problem." I dropped my equipment bag just inside the gym door and grabbed my gym bag. "I'll go change and be right back. Could you start pulling down the mats? We need to cover about half the gym, and maybe stand a few of the thick ones up against the wall." This was the same gym Bobby and I had fought in, and it had a set of both two inch and six inch thick mats. The thinner mats were good for the floor, while the thick mats were handy to prop up against the wall to kick against. I didn't think we'd get to any sorts of kicks, but I didn't want to be doing any example kicks and smacking the wall by mistake.

"Sure," Rick said.

Since the period was well underway, the locker room was empty, and it only took a couple of minutes to change When I got back, Rick was almost done. "Wow, looks good," I said. "Give me a hand with these big ones and you can go change before the gym class lets out. People will probably be here in a couple of minutes anyway."

* * *

At the end of the first self-defense class, I was ready for some cooldown, and I knew I really needed to find out how everyone thought things went. Rick had hung back from the rest of the group when they headed off to the locker rooms, and I could hear them chattering about what we'd done in class. Nobody sounded like they thought they could try anything yet, which was a good thing -- there was no way a single class was going to make enough difference to keep someone from getting hurt. That was something I was actually kind of worried about.

"Hey, Rick," I said, as I started dragging the floor mats over to the pile in the corner. "You up for hanging around after this? I need to take a couple of minutes and get this picked up, then I figured maybe we could do something that wasn't, y'know, trig."

"I don't have to shower, do I?" Rick looked a little tense.

"Shower?" I hadn't thought about that. We'd never done that after gym back in Massachusetts, and last year... well, not there either. This place seemed to have a cleanliness fetish, though, and they insisted. Given how nasty some of the towels smelled I wasn't sure that we were better after the shower than before. "Nah, not if you don't want to. Never understood that whole shower after gym thing."

Rick relaxed when I said that. I can't say I was too surprised -- he was little, and I'd noticed some of the guys could be pretty nasty in the showers. Nobody'd bothered me, but I was pretty ignorable with my clothes off, and one thing I'd not looked like in ages was a target.

"Sure," he said, grabbing a mat himself. "That'd be great."

With the two of us, it only took a couple of minutes to get the gym back the way we found it, and I was kind of surprised how quick it went. I'd assumed that Rick, since he was little, wasn't much for moving stuff around, but I was wrong about that.

"Damn, you haul stuff around pretty good," I said.

"I told you, Justin," he said. "Stage manager. I'm a professional gopher."

"I'll remember that if we ever move again," I replied. "I think we're set, though." I grabbed my bag from next to the door. "Time to change, I guess."

"Okay," he said, locking the door after we left.

"Careful," I said jokingly. "If anyone sees you going into the locker room with a gay guy, they'll get ideas. They might think I was gonna molest you or something."

"Yeah, right," he said, laughing and dancing back. "I'll just use some of my new secret ninja moves on you." He waved his fists at me.

I laughed too, and cowered under his assault. "Besides, your girlfriend'd kill me."

"Nah," Rick said, sounding pretty nonchalant. "She'd just rough you up real good."

"Should we be quick?" I asked as I started to get changed. "I don't want to run into the football team or anything."

"Their practice goes longer," Rick said as he started changing himself. "And not on Tuesdays anyway. They only do three days a week during the season."

"Oh, great, let me guess -- Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays?" Rick nodded. "Swell. Someone'll have to make sure we finish on time, then, so we can all get out before they start." I had no idea what it would be like in the locker room with the whole football team, but given that the people in the class were the ones the football team usually beat up, I couldn't see it being anything but bad.

"Want some ice cream? I'm having a craving," I said as we headed out to my car.

The high school was only a mile from the center of town. This place wasn't entirely uncivilized, and there was a park right near downtown, with what I guess were supposed to be 'quaint' shops or something. One of them was an ice cream parlor, which was what I wanted. Class had been kind of stressful, and I needed some ice cream. Preferably with chocolate, nuts, and marshmallows. I ended up with a pair of Rocky Road cones, while Rick had an orange sherbet freeze, a kind of a sherbet milkshake, only without any milk in it.

"So," I said as we walked towards the park, "what'd you think? First class go OK?"

Rick slurped for a minute. "I think so," he said. "It wasn't what anyone expected."

"No flashing swords and black ninja costumes and breaking boards?" That's what people seem to expect if all they've seen is stuff in movies. At least I didn't have to do any drunken boxing or anything.

"Something like that." Rick sat down on a bench at the edge of the park, and I sat down next to him.

The park was pretty busy for a Tuesday. There were a couple of groups of younger kids playing around, and at the far end of the field were a few guys playing a game of football. Gotta admit, I did not see the appeal, but they seemed pretty obsessed with it around here. The game was rougher than I expected. One of the guys playing was pretty big, and I watched him slam one of his opponents into the ground hard. Stupid game or not, I winced at the hit.

"It's not the movies, that's for sure," I said. "And if there are any secret ninja skills or magic, nobody's taught me. It'll take a couple of months before anyone's really up for anything serious." That was very true. Nobody thinks about it when they start, but there's more to getting good than just memorizing the moves and making things reflex. There's a lot of body shaping that goes on too, stretching tendons, getting more movement out of joints, and stuff like that.

"Geez, Justin, you got enough ice cream there?" Rick was watching me devour the second cone.

"Almost," I mumbled through the ice cream. "Class is tough on me, too," I said. "Not good with people."

"You did fine," said Rick. "Everyone appreciates what you're doing. I don't think anyone figures you're going to make 'em into superheroes or anything. It'll just be nice to not worry so much when one of the football apes hassle you." He almost spat the last sentence out.

"Not your favorite people?"

"No," said Rick, "not at all." His eyes were narrowed, and he was glaring at the group of guys playing football. The group had moved closer, and I could recognize some of them. My gut clenched a little as I did. Bobby. And two of his football cronies. I didn't know the fourth guy, but he was huge and obnoxious. I watched him smack one of other players in the back of the head hard enough to stagger him. He was shouting something, but I couldn't make it out from this distance. Didn't really care, though.

The big guy got the ball, and the group started running around. The guy with the ball had a lousy arm -- it looked like he was aiming at Bobby, but when he threw the ball it didn't go anywhere near him. Bobby chased after it anyway and plowed right into a crowd of little kids. I saw Bobby and a couple of kids go down in a heap. "Asshole," I muttered under my breath. I couldn't believe Bobby'd run into someone just to try and catch a stupid football

Rick glanced over to where I was looking. The guy who'd thrown the ball was laughing at the mess. "Yeah," he said. "Right into those kids, on purpose. Fucker." Rick scowled and took another pull on his drink. "After football he's not good for anything besides flipping burgers and shouting at people. He's going to be at McDonald's for the rest of his life."

"That's where he ended up? Serves him right," I agreed.

"Haven't had the pleasure of seeing him at work?" Rick almost spat that out.

"Nah," I said. "Don't eat there. I prefer to eat real meat, thanks."

Rick spewed the mouthful of orange freeze he had right out his nose at that, then he fell off the bench coughing and laughing at the same time.

"Oh. My. God. I can't believe you just said that, Justin," said Rick as soon as he could breathe again. He was laughing so hard he couldn't stand. It was kind of cool to see him laugh that much, but I didn't see the joke.

"Um, yeah," I said. "Uh... what did I say?"

"You just... it was... meat, Justin!" He fell down again and just howled.

"Right," I said, smiling weakly. "You know me, always making jokes." I was just hoping that he'd explain it to me later.

* * *

By Friday I had things mostly down, and while it was still a lot of work, I could go through the day more or less by reflex, pasting a smile on my face, and either saying hi or waving to everyone I'd met. It helped that most of the drama class thought I was funny, or at least weird enough to be amusing. It also helped that I was teaching about half of them how to not get the crap kicked out of them.

The funny thing with the self-defense class is that nobody actually needed it, at least not that I could tell. I mean yeah, there was more than enough harassment going on, but no actual violence. Still, it made everyone feel better, so who was I to argue? We ran in the afternoon for about an hour and a half or so, and today had been the third class. Things were going a lot better than I had expected, and a lot better overall than other beginner classes I'd seen. The fact that everyone who was there desperately wanted to learn what I was showing them probably had a lot to do with it. Everyone knew how to take direction, which was a help too.

From what I'd seen so far this week, football practice ran a half hour past the end of the self-defense class, and I knew that being quarterback Bobby was usually late getting out. I had no idea why, but that wasn't really important. What was important was that he came out late, and usually alone.

Today was warm and a little humid, perfect for what I had in mind, and I'd gotten prepared. Bobby had a parking spot reserved for him right at the edge of the lot, right under a big tree, one with a bunch of low-hanging tree limbs. I'd hung around the music room practicing for a while until I knew the team was done and mostly gone, then I ducked into the bathroom to change.

I'd brought an outfit just for this, stuffed into my bag. 'Outfit' was maybe too strong a word -- it was a pair of black lycra bike shorts and a white lycra shirt. The thing was so snug that, since I wasn't wearing any underwear with it, it looked more like body paint than clothing. It was tight enough that I thought I could see my kidneys under it, and I can't say that I really liked wearing it. It was positively obscene, though, which suited my purpose just fine.

I had a few minutes before he was likely to appear, so I did a few chin-ups on one of the branches, just enough to start to work up a sweat and get the shirt working on being transparent. Then I pulled myself up on the branch, got as comfortable as I could, pulled out my trig book and waited for Bobby.

I didn't have long to wait, though it was long enough that my head was starting to swim. Wasn't sure if it was the heat or the triangles, but either way I was glad to be putting my plan into action. Bobby wasn't paying much attention as he trudged out of the school, so I think my "Hi, Bobby" took him by surprise.

"Uh, hi, Justin." He looked a little distracted but that didn't last as he caught sight of what I was wearing.

Time for part two of the plan. I turned a little so I was facing away from him, then I let my body drop down, so I was hanging upside down from the branch, holding on with my knees. Tight or not, the shirt rode up a little so I was showing skin from the top of my shorts to my navel.

"Is it always this hot down here?" I tried to keep my voice innocent. It was a little difficult, what with the blood rushing to my head, but Bobby didn't notice.

"Um, yeah, sorta. It'll get cockler, uh, cooler soon..."

I had him good, I knew it, and he didn't. You'd think that hanging upside down from a tree wasn't something someone in high school would do, and you'd think that my lame attempts at conversation would get laughed at by anyone with social skills, and you'd think that the skinsuit I was wearing would get me ridiculed. You'd think that. I'd chosen the branch with some care, though. Bobby was staring me straight in the crotch and wasn't thinking anything. Well, anything derogatory, at least.

"Good," I said. "Hey, could you take this for me?" I held up my trig textbook, making sure to lightly brush the front of his thighs with it.

"Yeah, sure..." Bobby moved like he was sleepwalking, and had the hardest time tearing his eyes away from my crotch.

"Great," I said. "I think I need to get down." He managed to take my trig book after the third try, since I was having a hard time holding it up straight. Wasn't having a hard time touching Bobby with it, though.

Once my hands were free I let them hang down to the ground. Palms flat, I straightened my legs and gave a little push off the tree branch with them. My head was swimming a little and I pushed too hard. I slammed into Bobby, he tipped over, and we both went flat on the ground, him on the bottom and me on top.

I don't know if you've ever fallen out of a tree and slammed someone's head into the ground with your dick, but I really don't recommend it -- it hurts. Even though Bobby managed to break the fall some I hit a lot harder than I liked.

"Ow! Oh, man," I said, "that hurts! Sorry!" I rolled off him, but not before I felt a really strong breeze through my shorts. That took me by surprise -- I mean yeah, I'd just slammed my crotch into his face by accident and knocked the wind out of him, but he didn't have to breathe that deeply.

I stood up, but Bobby still lay there with a dazed expression on his face. I figured I had a couple of seconds, so I could play it up big. "Ah, that really smarts," I said, reaching my right hand down my shorts and 'adjusting' myself. I didn't have to, and it kinda hurt some to do it, but I could see where Bobby's eyes were locked and I thought I'd take the chance I'd been handed.

"Better," I said, taking my hand out. "You OK?"

"I think so," Bobby replied, sounding dazed. Not dazed enough to keep his eyes from tracking my hand, though.

"Here, let me help you up," I said, reaching down with my right hand to him. He reached up and I pulled, hauling him up. He was sort of heavy but I'm a lot stronger than I look, and it wasn't difficult. It did make the muscles in my upper body stand out. Bobby definitely noticed that.

"Thanks," he said. He wasn't looking at all well.

"No problem," I said. "It was my fault. Guess I'm just clumsy sometimes." I turned and took a step over to the tree I'd just fallen out of, reaching up to take my pack off the branch where I'd left it. I had a flash of annoyance as I felt my shorts ride up my crack, but when I realized what was happening I took an extra second or two fumbling with the bag. I didn't know if Bobby was watching, but I figured if he was I might as well put on a good show.

"Anyway," I said, pulling the bag down, "I probably ought to be heading home. Later, Bobby." I walked past him as I said that and gave him a playful swat on the ass as I went. He just stood there as I sauntered off to where I'd parked.

When I got into my car I collapsed and breathed a sigh of relief. You might think I put on a good performance, but I can guarantee that I didn't -- the only thing that made it work was the fact that a combination of hormones and being deep in the closet made Bobby desperately clueless. I didn't think there was any way I was going to be able to do anything like that again. If I was lucky, though, I could get away with simpler stuff from now on.

* * *

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