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.
* * *
The single nice thing I've found about moving to Georgia is the weather in the morning. It was October, and back in Massachusetts it would've been cold at six thirty, but here it wasn't bad. More than nice enough to be running in shorts and a t-shirt.
While it had taken a few weeks, I'd finally settled on a route that worked for me. It was a little less than nine miles, and I could do it in the hour before breakfast. Yeah, it was a pretty good pace, but the roads were mostly flat, there wasn't any traffic, and it was nicely peaceful in the woods. Joys of rural life.
Today I'd made it a little under two miles and I was pretty deep into the woods when I came across Rick. He was at a spot where one of the forest paths and the road crossed, sitting by the road, holding his ankle and crying.
"Hey, what's up," I asked. A stupid way to start things, true, but you've got to start somewhere.
He looked up at me with tears streaming down his face. He was a little scraped and banged up, and had some dirt and leaves mashed into him. The pain was pretty obvious, even to me, and a quick glance around showed what happened -- there was a rock that'd been recently moved and a big spot in the forest litter that was disturbed.
"Lost your footing?" He didn't answer, just nodded a little.
I knelt down and moved his hands away from his ankle. I took it in my own hands and moved it around a little. Nothing felt broken, but it was swollen and tight, and from the gasps I could tell it hurt a lot.
"This looks like you might've sprained it," I said. "Hurt anywhere else, besides a few scrapes?"
He shook his head no. He looked like he was trying to get his tears under control, and I suppose he was embarrassed to be caught crying or something. No big deal, twisted ankles hurt a lot, and there's no shame to tears of pain. I'd certainly dropped enough, though I was used to most stuff by now.
"Well, this'll hurt like hell for a while, but you should be OK." I eyed his t-shirt, which was ripped in a couple of spots. "Take your shirt and shoes off," I said.
He got a little wide-eyed at that. I smacked him lightly on the back of his head, and I think it took his mind off his ankle for a minute. "I'm not going to molest you. That shirt's trashed. We can use it to make a bandage for the ankle. It'll make things better in the long run."
Reluctantly Rick took off his windbreaker and t-shirt, putting the jacket back on and zipping it up. I took my pocketknife out of the jogging pack I was wearing and cut the shirt into strips while Rick took his shoes off. "Tie the laces together and sling the shoes around your neck," I said as I bandaged up the ankle. The shirt was thin and a little stretchy, but it worked OK, and in a minute I had him fixed up as well as I was going to. There was some shirt left over, so I wadded it up and soaked it with some of my water.
"Take your glasses off," I said, "I want to make sure those scrapes on your face are clean." He did, and I cleaned him up a little. He didn't look too bad, just the standard set of scratches you get from a face-plant into the ground.
I reached over to unzip his jacket, but he grabbed my hands and said "No." A good sign, the pain was down enough that he could talk.
"I need to make sure the scrapes on your chest are clean, Rick," I said. "Your shirt got ripped up, so I'm pretty sure you've got a few." He looked at me uncertainly. "Okay, fine," I said with some exasperation, handing him the water bottle and damp shirt remnants. "Check yourself, then. The sooner you get cleaned up the better you'll be."
I stood up and turned around, pointedly not looking. I was a little annoyed. While we weren't great friends I did like him, and it bugged me that he was uncomfortable around me.
I heard his zipper get opened, the sounds of water falling on the leaves, and a few caught breaths. I figure he did have some scrapes, but I didn't look. If he didn't want me cleaning him up that was his problem, not mine. When I heard the zipper again I turned back around. Rick was standing, holding most of his weight on his good foot, his eyes downcast.
"Right, then," I said, "can you walk?" He took a step forward, and almost pitched himself onto the ground when he tried to put weight on his hurt ankle. I grabbed him to steady himself, but he shook me off.
"Okay, that's a no. How far's your house?"
Rick looked at me uncertainly. "About a mile up the path," he said.
"Any chance someone can get you? No way you're walking that far today."
He looked torn. "No," he said finally, "I don't think so. I can make it if I take it slow."
I snorted at that. "No chance. Try it and you'll get nowhere and really screw that ankle up." I turned around in front of him and got down on one knee. "Get on," I said.
"Get on. Arms around my neck, knees up around my waist so I can hold you steady."
"I don't think I..." he sounded panicky.
"Rick," I said harshly, "shut up and get on. Now. Otherwise you're fucked. Suck it up and deal."
To his credit, he did, though he was a little hesitant. That, at least, wasn't too surprising, as this wasn't something people did around here much, but I'd seen it done enough last year. I stood up and started down the path at a moderate pace.
"About a mile, you said?"
"Yeah," he said quietly in my ear.
I wasn't going to do a three minute mile on a forest path with someone on my back, but I figured we'd get to his house pretty quickly. "Should take about fifteen minutes, then."
Ten of those went quietly. Rick was small and light enough, maybe a hundred pounds soaking wet, that it wasn't a big problem. I wouldn't want to be doing this at my normal pace, but slower I could keep it up for quite a while.
The only bad part about this was the chance to think. That's never good, especially when the things being thought about were uncomfortable. Rick was my friend, or so I thought, and while I was new at this whole 'friend' thing, I thought that friends were comfortable around each other. Rick hadn't given me any feeling that he was uncomfortable around me in school, but it was really clear he was really bothered by me now. I could only figure that my being gay was a problem and he was only being polite when other people were around.
The silence was getting to me, which was pretty ironic. Silence had been my friend for years, and now ten minutes of it were driving me crazy.
"Y'know, Rick," I said, "I'm not going to touch you."
"Touch you," I repeated. "We're friends. At least I thought we were. You don't have to worry about me."
"Justin, I don't know..."
"Oh, come on, I'm not stupid, Rick. It's pretty clear I make you uncomfortable." I tried to keep my voice steady, but I've never been that good at it, and I'm sure the hurt was obvious. "I thought you didn't care. Guess I was wrong."
If I thought the silence before was bad, this was worse.
* * *
We got to Rick's house without any other incident. It was a pretty standard house for the area, with a beat-up pickup truck in the driveway. A little small and a little run down, and the neighborhood was a little scruffy, but compared to a lot of the suburbs around Boston it wasn't anything. Rick did insist on getting off and walking up the steps to his house, though I gave him an arm up. When we got inside I figured out why.
"What happened to you, runt? Get your faggot ass kicked by a squirrel?"
This guy talking was as big as Rick was small, and had a braying laugh like a donkey. He had to be at least six two, topping me by nearly half a foot, and probably a full foot over Rick. He was solid, though well-padded, like he worked out hard but ate more. Or, judging by the smell of his breath, drank more. Beer, breakfast of champions.
I recognized him, too. He was that asshole I saw Bobby playing football in the park with a couple of weeks ago, the one with the lousy aim. Figures he'd be the kind of guy Bobby'd hang out with. Up close he looked a lot like Rick, only bigger and nastier. Guess they were brothers or something.
"Morning, Dale," said Rick. He didn't sound at all happy. "Twisted my ankle." He started limping out of the room.
"Had to have your boyfriend come rescue you?" Dale sneered. Right. Now I officially didn't like him.
"We were jogging," I interjected as Rick disappeared down the hall. "I tripped him. My fault." I couldn't tell you why I was making excuses for Rick -- I mean, I didn't think he liked me. "Besides, if I did anything his girlfriend would kill me dead." That last was a feeble attempt at a joke. I was pretty sure Rick had a girlfriend, but I didn't know who it was, and he wouldn't talk about her.
"I wasn't talking to you, boy."
Between the faggot cracks and the hassles with Rick in the woods I was already pissed, and Dale had just said the exact wrong thing.
He may have been big, and he may have been strong, but he was also stupid, and a little drunk. I kicked his left leg out from under him, grabbed him by the throat, and slammed him to the ground, making sure my knee was grinding into his elbow when he landed.
My voice was low and cold. "If I ever," I said, emphasizing each word with a squeeze to his windpipe and a push of my knee, "hear about you making cracks about gays, I will fucking neuter you. And if you even think about touching Rick, ever, I will leave your body in a ditch. Are we clear?" I wasn't sure why I said anything about Rick, but he used to be my friend, and if he had to live with this moron he deserved at least something.
Dale looked at me with fear in his eyes. Good. I got up watching him. I didn't expect him to do anything, but it was always possible his ego would get the better of his common sense. Luckily for him it didn't.
At this point I wasn't entirely sure what I should do. It was really clear that Rick was bothered by me, but I wasn't comfortable leaving him with Dale. Rick solved that problem for me when he stuck his head out of his room.
"Justin... could you give me a ride into school? Dale needs to go to work soon and it's a ways to the bus stop." He sounded a little nervous.
Color me confused. Still, I could use the time to think.
"Sure," I said, a little hesitantly. It was about three miles back to my house on foot, probably four back by car. "I need to shower and grab some breakfast. Meet you in... 45 minutes?"
Rick's face lit up with a big smile. "That'd be great. Thanks!"
At this point I really had no idea what was going on, so I did the sensible thing and didn't think about it.
Not thinking got me home, cleaned up, and back to Rick's. The pickup was gone, so I guess Dale'd left for work. Dunno if that was a good thing or not, given how his breath smelled, but there wasn't much I could do about it. I honked, and a minute later Rick hobbled out of his house and into my car.
"Is that ankle wrapped? If it isn't you're going to have a miserable time at school."
"Um... I thought I'd get it wrapped at the nurse's office," he said hesitantly.
I glared at him. "That's stupid. Nobody'll be in the office for another two hours, and if you don't keep that ankle wrapped you're going to regret it." I shut the car off, yanked my keys out of the ignition, and went around to the trunk. I kept a well-stocked first aid kit in there, and it had a few bandages and some clips.
"Take your shoe off and put your foot up," I snapped as I got back into the car. Rick did as I asked, but he was obviously upset about it. Too bad, he needed the ankle wrapped, and I have to admit I didn't much care what he thought about it at this point.
I did a fast but adequate wrap job on his ankle, probably a little more rough than I really had to be, but too bad, I was pissed. Rick winced more than once, and shied away from my touch, which just annoyed me even more.
"Done," I said. "Put your sock back on. If you've got gym today, stop by the nurse's office and get an excuse note or something. If you need it and think they'll believe me, I'll tell 'em what happened."
I glared at him again, and he shrunk from it. "I'm driving you in this morning because you're hurt and that Dale guy's an idiot. After that we're through. It's pretty obvious you don't want me around." The more I said, the more pissed I was.
"What?" I snapped at him. "It's clear the gay guy bugs you. Fine." I jammed my keys into the ignition and started my car up.
"That's not it, it's just..." Not it my ass.
"Justin, shut up!" Rick was shouting, and when I looked over at him he was red in the face and furious. "I don't care that you're gay. I really don't."
"I said shut up!" He was breathing hard, and I think he might've been ready to hit me. "It's not you, you idiot. It's me. I was... embarrassed." He had to force that last word, and it made it out almost as a whisper.
"Huh? By what? You got hurt, you needed a hand. Big deal. Happens to everyone."
"Does everyone cripple themselves stepping on a fucking rock? Have to be carried home like a baby? Have to strip by the side of the road?" He was shaking now, and looked near to tears.
"You really don't understand, do you?" I had to admit, I did not, and I shook my head no.
"Look at me, Justin. I'm fifteen. The kid next door's eleven, and people think I'm his little brother. I had a doctor's appointment last week and they offered me a fucking lollypop. Nobody thinks I've hit puberty, and the first day of classes this year the bus driver told me I should wait since the elementary school bus wasn't due past for another hour. I'm a god damned sophomore." He took a deep breath and tried to calm down a little.
"I started the morning off walking to my girlfriend's house. I ended it hurting myself on a stupid rock, having to strip on the side of the road, being carried home, and then face Dale. And you had to see it all." The breaths hadn't worked, and the tears were streaming down his face.
I may be really slow with all this, but I'm not completely stupid. What I thought was him being disgusted with me was really him being disgusted with himself. Rick was always cheerful and funny, and it just hadn't ever occurred to me that he was deeply embarrassed by his body and the things he thought it couldn't do.
"So that whole thing with the shirt..."
"You mean the part where I was standing by the side of the road showing the world there wasn't anything under it?" Rick snapped at me.
"Um... yeah." We sat there in an uncomfortable silence. I thought about how he must've felt. He was more than old enough to take care of himself, but I just barged in and took over without giving him a chance to do or say anything, and managed to make him do something he was really uncomfortable with. I felt horrible, and very stupid.
"Listen, Rick? I owe you an apology. I just pushed in and took over, and didn't realize how you must've been feeling. Then I misunderstood and overreacted and made things worse. I'm really sorry. Friends?" I stuck my hand out to shake. He looked at it for a second, then took it and shook back.
"If it happens again, I promise, I'll think first. But Rick? It's OK to take help when you need it. That's what friends do, they help each other when they need it."
He cracked a smile. "Yeah, I guess so." He smacked me on the shoulder. "You have to go look that one up?" He was grinning by now.
"Yup," I said. "Told 'ya I was new at this. Did some research on the Internet!" I grinned back at him and pulled out of the driveway. Things were OK again.
* * *
"Um, Justin? Tell me again what we're doing here?"
Here was the weight room, and "we" was Rick and I. We both had lunch, so I dragged him to the locker room to change instead of eating. We were in our gym clothes, and I had my duffle bag of practice stuff with me.
"We're here," I said, "to use the weights."
"And why exactly are we doing this?"
"We're doing it," I said, "because we are uncomfortable with how we look without a shirt on." Though, granted, you'd be hard pressed to notice that Rick was really scrawny, if for no other reason than the shirt he had on was at least a size too big and hung so loose you could barely see him under it.
"I'm not, but we are. So we are here to start doing something about that." Rick looked a little panicky. "If we work on it, we'll be embarrassed now, and not embarrassed later. If we don't, we'll be embarrassed both now and later."
"Won't the stuff you're teaching help?" He was fishing for an excuse to not do this, I could tell.
"No, it won't," I said as we entered the room. "That'll get you endurance, definition, and some muscle, but it takes a long time. Pretty much everyone in here," I said, gesturing to the room full of jocks working on an array of machinery and weights, "is stronger than I am."
Rick looked at me with skepticism, but it was true. Yeah, I've been working out for the past twelve years and I was in better shape than anyone else in the room, but I was all speed, endurance, and accuracy. I wasn't weak or anything, but when I hit it hurt because I knew where to hit, how to hit, and how to use what I had to my best advantage.
"No, really. Half the guys in here could bench press twice or more what I could I'd bet. Anyway," I said, looking around, "we need to find someone who knows what they're doing to show us how to use this ... stuff. Torquemada, maybe."
Over in the corner was a guy I vaguely recognized. He was sitting in one of those cheap plastic chairs that seem to grow in places like this, sucking down a bottle of water. I was pretty sure he was on the swim team, so he seemed a better bet than the football guys to give Rick the rundown he needed.
"Hey," I said, heading over to the guy I'd spotted, Rick trailing behind.
"Hey," he said back. "Hi, Ricky."
"You know him?" I asked, turning back to look at Rick. He was blushing a little.
"Yeah, Ricky tutored me in geometry last year. Dan Baker," he said, extending his hand. He was giving me the once-over. Fair enough --Rick was someone he knew, but I was a stranger.
"Justin Payne," I replied, shaking hands. "You on the swim team?"
"Thanks to Ricky, yeah."
"Great," I said, oblivious to Rick's embarrassment. "Listen, Rick's learning kung fu. His form's good, but he needs some power. We're new to this stuff here, and I have no idea what you're supposed to do with it all, or how. Could you give Rick a run through and maybe get him up to speed?"
"Sure, no problem!" Dan seemed pretty enthusiastic. I guess geometry must've been kicking his ass. I knew the only reason I was doing well in trig was that Rick was helping me.
Dan took Rick over to the machinery and started running him through the routines. I didn't care much, so I looked around to see what else was in the room. I figured Rick probably didn't want to be left alone here until he was more comfortable, though if Dan was here regularly then maybe they could be workout buddies or whatever it was that guys did when they worked out together.
The room had, as I said, a lot of those workout station machines, the ones with bars and rods and whatnot all hooked up to stacks of weights. There were a few sets of free weights and barbells. And in the back, what I was looking for.
The back part of the room had a thin mat and one of those big punching bags. This was a freestanding one, which was exactly what I wanted. The bag itself was maybe five and a half feet tall, and it had a base that was filled with sand to give it some weight. Nobody was using it, so I figured I'd do some contact kendo work.
My practice duffle's got a lot of stuff in it. If I weren't officially teaching a class, I could probably get in trouble for the stuff that was in it, and as it was, I had to leave it locked in the gym office when I wasn't using it. I pulled out my favorite wooden practice sword, and just let loose.
Practicing sword work with a bag is a lot different than practicing solo, or with a partner. When you're on your own you have to visualize where your opponent is and how he moves, there's no resistance except what you provide yourself, and there's no real feedback from what should be hits. With a partner you do get that feedback when you hit them, but unless you're really sociopathic, you're going to pull your hits at least a little, and there are some strikes you just don't make.
With a bag, though, there's no worry. Sure, you don't get the dodges you might with a person, real or imagined, but you can also hit full strength, aim for where the neck and joints are, and do some really fun combination sword and footwork, since the bag's not hitting back. And yes, I know you're not supposed to go for the neck, knees, or ankles, but if I'm in an alley or parking lot and someone jumps me, well ... someone with a shattered kneecap's not likely to keep fighting. One of my senseis once told me 'know the rules and follow them, but when someone jumps you with a knife, go for the balls and throat.' Always struck me as sensible.
So, since I had the time, I just had fun and pummeled the heck out of that bag. Side slashes, overhand strikes, spins, kicks, snap strikes -- I kept the sword moving the whole time, using the bounce from hits to change direction and hit somewhere else. If the bag had been a person, he would've been dead a dozen times over, and damn, I had a good time. I finished off with a "Ha!" and a double-hand downward strike that would've left my sword, if it were real, lodged deep in the skull of my opponent. And while it wasn't, and my opponent wasn't real either, it was still awfully satisfying.
That's when I noticed the room was dead silent, apart from the fading echo of my yell and the slap on the bag that went with it. I looked around and saw everyone just ... looking at me. A few of the guys looked a little pale. Rick was in the back with Dan, and had a huge grin on his face.
"What," I said, "haven't you ever see anyone practice before?" It was a little embarrassing.
"I think you killed him," called out Rick. Dan laughed at that, and the tension in the room broke as a half dozen other guys started to snicker themselves. I grinned, put the sword back in my bag, and made my way back to where Rick and Dan were.
"I guess I overdid it a little, huh?" I was dripping from the workout, and felt a little wobbly. I stripped off my damp shirt and wiped my forehead. There was a crash from over by the free weights, but I wasn't paying much attention to that -- Dan was very obviously trying hard not to stare. Failing, but trying. I grinned at him and he snapped out of it, looking a little sheepish.
"You were going at it for ten minutes," said Dan. "I think you really freaked some of these guys out, too."
I sat down in the chair, then regretted it. The floor would've been more comfortable. I think a pointed stick would've been better.
"So," said Dan, "you do that a lot?"
"Nah," I replied without thinking, "I don't usually have a bag to use. I normally spar with the air for an hour or so."
"An hour of that?" There was something strange in his tone, but I wasn't paying that much attention. I'd overdone it a bit and was definitely feeling the after-effects. I rummaged through the duffle looking for my spare water and sugar cubes.
"Yeah. Hour of that, couple hours of forms, maybe a half-hour of tai-chi to cool down."
Rick and Dan were looking at me like I was insane. "You work out three and a half hours a day?"
"Um ... yeah. Jogging doesn't count, right? It's only nine miles in the morning ..." Okay, their looks were definitely making me feel seriously like a freak. "Well, trig's a lot harder," I mumbled.
"No wonder you go through so much sugar," remarked Rick.
"Don't these guys, y'know, do that? Football and all that?"
"Five hours a day?"
"Four and a half," I said defensively. Dan looked at me. "It's only nine miles. Takes about an hour."
"They'd all drop dead if they tried that. Don't you have a life or something?" I blushed at Dan's question.
"No, not until recently. Maybe I should cut back ..." I trailed off.
"I think that'd be a good idea," said Rick.
Time for a change of subject, since this one was bothering me a lot. "So, Dan, are you around here this period?" Yes, I admit, it was awkward. This social thing's still new.
"I come in here a few days a week, sure," he replied.
"Cool. D'you think you could spot for Rick?"
"I don't need a chaperone," Rick said indignantly.
"No," I said firmly, "but you do need someone around who knows what they're doing, and that's not me. If you screw up on these things you could get hurt. Besides," I said with a crooked grin, "I think I intimidate these guys."
"I can't imagine why," he said dryly.
"I'd be happy to do it," said Dan. Rick eyed him warily. "No, really," he said. "I started out that small, too," he went on. "I know what it's like when the football gorillas give you a hard time."
* * *
"Hey, have you seen Rick?"
I'd stopped in the drama room just before the start of last period. I was going to get together with Rick after school to work on trigonometry, something Rick understood and I didn't. We'd a test coming up, and I needed the help getting it nailed down.
"I think he's in the student council room," said Trevor, who was digging into a box of scripts. Mrs. Griffin really had decided on West Side Story after all, and tryouts were in a week. The drama class was getting things ready, doing whatever it is you do to get ready for tryouts. Got me what that was, but all I had to do was show up and try out, not set up for it.
"Thanks, Trev," I said, and bailed out.
The student council room was in the administrative core of the building, along with all the offices, the computer room, and the auditorium. I'm not sure why the student council got their own room, but they did. Prerogatives of being in charge or something, I guess. When I got there, the room was locked up, but the auditorium door was propped open, so I stuck my head in to see if maybe Rick was backstage, getting ready for tryouts. I could hear some voices, though I couldn't make out whose they were.
The auditorium was almost pitch black, the only light coming from backstage and from a few dim row lights. I took a few seconds, letting my eyes adjust when I slipped in. The voices were coming from somewhere down near the stage, so I made my way down. I didn't really sneak, as such, but the aisles were carpeted, and I usually move pretty quietly. Whoever it was probably didn't know I was there. I figured I'd wait to find out who it was before I said anything, just in case, since I knew some of the drama students slipped in for some privacy.
As I got closer to the stage, I could make out the voices, at least a little. It was Rick all right, and he was with a girl. I couldn't hear clearly enough to tell who it was, but her voice sounded vaguely familiar. Sly dog -- he and his mystery girlfriend were having a quick get together while there was nobody around. I grinned in the dark and decided to spook him, which'd be good for a laugh and a chance to see who he was dating.
The best thing to do would be to turn on the lights, but I didn't know where they were in this place, so I did the next best thing and sat up on the edge of the stage. Rick and his girlfriend were in the front row, and at this range there was enough light to make out faces. Or, rather, faces joined at the lips. I knew I really shouldn't have done it, but ...
"Hey, Rick, is tangent sine over cosine or the other way around? I can never remember."
Yes, apparently I am a shit sometimes. This, I think, is probably a good thing for me to know for the future.
The couple flew apart in surprise, looking around. I just sat there with a big grin on my face.
"Hi, Rick. Hi, Mystery Girlfriend. So, anyway, which one's on top?" I hesitated as the implications of that one settled in. "Sine or cosine, I mean."
"Uh ... Justin, this isn't what it looks like ..." Rick sounded panicked as he tried to get himself together. His girlfriend was a lot more composed. She looked surprised, but there wasn't any panic there.
"It's sine over cosine," said the Mystery Girlfriend. Her voice sounded familiar.
"Tangent. It's sine over cosine. That is what you wanted to know, isn't it?" She sounded amused, and I knew I'd been caught.
"Well, that and who you are."
"Why, Justin, how could you forget a lady?"
That's when it hit me. "You're Melanie Griswold." Melanie was the junior class president, honor society member, and general popular girl around school. "Aren't you dating Bobby Phillips?"
"Officially, yes," she said dryly.
"No." She shot me a grin. Good enough. Anything that gave Bobby a hard time was fine with me.
"I like you," I said.
"I'm so glad."
Through all this Rick was just looking back and forth between us, obviously at a loss. He looked more than a little scared.
"Look, Justin, you won't say anything to anyone, right? I mean, if anyone knew..."
"Relax, Rick. I won't say anything, and you can stay safely in the closet."
Melanie laughed at that. She had a nice laugh, light and musical, without the hard edges or hints of malice you hear around school.
"I like you, too, Justin," she said.
"Just like, I hope," I replied. "For you, I'm not available."
"That's fine," she said, her hand on Rick's shoulder. "I'm already taken."
"Right, then, kids," I said, as the two of them started to tongue wrestle again, "I'll be off. Be good, and I'll catch you at my car after school." Rick gave a vague wave in my direction, but it was pretty obvious his mind was elsewhere.
* * *
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