Ryan waited some distance both from the dugout and most of the rest of the team he’d been assigned to as they waited to bat. It should have been a pleasant morning—an enjoyable distraction out where a light breeze blew across the set of baseball diamonds that had been carved out of the extensive school grounds. Usually, he kept his eye on the ball in most sports, but just then his mind was elsewhere.
The last school day of the previous week had been a lot better than most of the rest, though he was as taken aback as the others at how quickly 'Scraped because we give a shit’ took hold. It was big news that Friday, and if any of them thought that it wouldn't make it past the weekend, they were wrong. Still, like most big ideas, he still reckoned this one would run out of steam soon enough. For the time being, however, it remained on everyone's lips.
It was on a lot of hands, too!
Not only did almost everyone in his class seem to be proudly displaying the hallmark that had become synonymous with the recently shaved, but on top, when they'd joined the rest of the sophomores that Monday morning, it was the talk of the locker room. As they'd all changed into softball gear, the chatter revolved around the showing of a discreet S, often with a cheeky display of smooth skin as proof. There were even a handful of trimmers going around to help make the point, and Todd, along with others, wasn't holding back in preaching why they should be used. It was having an impact, though much of Ryan still wanted it all to go away.
He didn't really know what to think of it. Looking around as they'd changed, he had no doubt that many were dead serious. On the other hand, for others it was just another game as they went along with the pack yet again.
And maybe you're just being judgmental!
Judgmental or not, what really pissed him off was seeing Mitchell brazenly showing off his own mark as if it were all about him. Fucking asshole!
In other circumstances and on another issue, maybe he would have been as evangelistic as Todd if it was something he felt strongly about. But for this, he didn't have the strength. It was bad enough that, too many times for his comfort, guys had got in his face, pumped with the idea that he might be the last person ever to get Hung at the Academy. He put on a show and said the right things like he'd been doing since the previous Thursday. It was all good, they said, but frankly, it still felt like crap.
On this occasion, once they got out to the multiple diamonds, the various classes had been mixed up for the late Monday morning, double-sports period. Glancing around, he wished Luke or Todd or even Kieran might have been drafted onto his team, but they were a long throw away. He felt a lot more fragile amongst those he didn’t know as well.
Still, all in all, it had been a better ending to the week than he could have hoped for, and he'd done his best to put it all behind him. Saturday, especially dinner out with his grandparents and Luke, had been a blast, though Sunday, his actual birthday, had been a bit more....well, not crap, but certainly less appealing. After being passed over for promotion in the past, his father had heard rumor he was on the cards to make major sometime after the summer. The bastard seemed under the impression the party was more about him than a sixteenth birthday for his son!
Whatever. It wasn't anything he was excited enough about to go around telling his friends.
Still, he now had his own truck on the driveway, and maybe he should have been more pumped, but he just couldn't stir up the enthusiasm. Sure, he was going to go take his test later that afternoon, but something still lingered that had taken the shine off it all.
The truth was, whatever he looked like on the outside, it was hard to shake, even though it seemed everyone else had moved on.
From across the multiple games being played out around him, he was surrounded by the hard wooden clunks of bats connecting with balls, and the cheers of teammates rooting for those running the bases. Not far away, in another game altogether, Luke was on third, and his friend waved cheerily as he glanced his direction. He raised an arm in return.
He returned his attention to his own game.
Fastpitch softball. It wasn't baseball, but they didn't play it like Little League either. On the opposing team, Ethan was pitching. A southpaw. He threw a pretty mean pitch, but it wasn't something Ryan usually had much problem with. Now, when it had come his turn up at the plate, he had felt that everyone was watching him, studying him, talking about him. Feeling the pressure, he'd struck out.
While he waited to bat again, he spotted Joe Wong, also on his team for that game, coming around the back of the dugout and stepping towards him. He tried to sound upbeat as he turned to greet the guy. Anything was better than looking weak.
“Hi Joe! Nice swing last time up!”
“Yeah…thanks.” Joe shrugged, scrunched up his face and returned a wry grin. He had the honesty to admit, “It was more luck than anything else.” Ryan’s teammate turned to watch the game for a few moments and then came out with what was on his mind. “I just wanted to say sorry.”
Ryan found himself clenching his jaw as Joe continued, “Last week. You know…” He studied the grass in front of them, unable to look Ryan in the eye. ”I shouldn’t have said what I did. It was mean.”
Ryan cringed. Why the hell did they even have to talk about it?
This was the kind of thing that he really didn’t need just then and he hung his head as the memories drifted uncomfortably near - 'I think I’d give him a three! When you're shaved, I heard it goes a lot faster! By the time I get back here, he's going to be all done!' It played in his head and he flushed as the sense of shame reasserted itself.
...he's going to be all done...
Joe seemed far too consumed by his own awkwardness to notice. Instead he murmured, "I thought it would help." He continued to look across to where the pitcher was limbering up, and Ryan could see a flush creeping up his neck. "That maybe, if it was someone else," continued Joe, "it would go away." He turned and Ryan found himself gazing into a troubled face as Joe added, "I was just trying to sound big."
"It wasn't your fault," Ryan said—an anodyne for a pain he too felt acutely. "Don't sweat it." He wanted to add, hopefully I'll be the last, but it was easier just to say nothing.
Joe shrugged and dropped his eyes. Maybe he knew it wasn't really an answer, either. He looked back towards the pitchers mound to where Ethan threw a fastball, low and outside. It turned out to be a wide.
Despite the evenly matched game, Joe’s head seemed elsewhere. "When they did me like that in front of everyone," he continued, his voice careful as if he hardly trusted himself, "I felt so..."
"Dirty?" Ryan finished it for him. It wasn't hard and it came out before he could stop it. Shit!
Joe nodded. It didn't need words to show that he got it. After a few moments, he went on. "It was like being...well... raped..." It was a sickening word and his voice was low and strained and meant only for them. Ryan knew the truth of it. Maybe everyone did?
"But I could not tell anyone. I felt bad. I even thought about..." Joe trailed off. "Since then, it's been hard to..." He broke off and didn't spell out what had been hard, but Ryan could make a few stabs. Conversation, friends, groups of people, staying on focus. Fuck, it had even taken the pleasure out of jerking off, and he hadn't ejaculated since that previous Monday! Every time he touched himself, all he could think about was how it had been ripped from him, and he felt nauseous.
Joe turned and blinked with wet, dark colored, wide set eyes. "After all that, I stay and watch you." His accent was retreating to its Asian roots and he shook his head. "So wrong."
Ryan could identify with every single emotion. And it wasn't just for anything that Joe, rightly or wrongly, felt responsible for. He'd been there in the locker room that day before Christmas, when Joe had been lifted too. Ryan reckoned he was just as bad as the rest of them.
"I'm sorry too," he muttered. It was complicated, and perhaps he could have spelled out in length some of the detail, but it wasn't necessary. The look they exchanged was packed with it all. Joe nodded and went back to watching the game for a moment or two before asking, "So, do you think 'Scraped' is good?" He sounded a bit more upbeat.
Ryan chuckled. "I think it might be." He felt the sun and breeze and actually felt better, too. In fact, he suddenly wondered why he wasn't standing up to be counted and marking his hand too. Wasn't it the least he should be doing, in spite of the circumstances?
Joe's features lit up into a bright smile. "I think so, too." He grinned, and his face transformed. He'd never much seen the guy smile before, and Ryan also realized how little he knew about Joe. It wasn't the circumstances he would have chosen for a 'get to know you', but the world was strange at the best of times.
"You’d better go. You're up next." Joe pointed to the diminishing line of batters. The bases were loaded. The pair turned back to the dugout, and Joe said, “Sorry for dumping on you. I just needed to someone to talk to…" He trailed off. "Anyway, thanks.”
Three minutes later, Ethan hung a curve over the heart of the plate and Ryan crushed it over the right fielder's head.
And that one is for you, Joe Wong, Ryan crowed silently as, under the glare of Parker, he flew around the bases.
Back in the locker room a while later, having helped his team snatch an unexpected victory, he caught up with Luke who seemed to have been watching his game from a distance.
His friend looked up from where he was sorting through his backpack and grinned. “That was quite a crack, Ry!”
Crack? Luke could be such a Brit at times! He grinned, exuding satisfaction. “You saw that?” For once he hadn’t cared if anyone had been watching. He'd hit it on the sweet spot of the bat and it had felt fucking great!
The conversation continued to rattle around about him as he sat on a bench and pushed off his baseball pants. He’d run up a sweat but still wasn’t planning on getting a shower. It didn't look like Luke was either, as he reached for his clothes and began to strip.
From the drift of the chatter, it could have any of a hundred similar days in the locker rooms. Nobody was actually paying any particular attention to him, and he allowed himself to finally accept that he didn't have to believe life wasn't worth it. It was like a weight lifting off him. Maybe this was what it felt like for people who were waiting for some diagnosis on a lump and then heard good news. Life could restart. It wasn't that he wasn't still affected by it all. He was. But maybe he was becoming a bit more aware of others. A bit more compassionate.
He grinned to himself. Keep on like this and he'd end up a priest like old Kenny!
From where he was sitting, he looked through the busy space where dozens of others were changing, and could see Todd talking to Dave Hawthorn. Todd had his shaver in his hand and it didn't take much to guess what the conversation was about. Others were standing close, listening. He couldn't see who, but the trimmer got taken by a hand that reached in.
Todd! He shook his head and smiled to himself. Quite a guy really, and he would never give up! He was lucky to have friends like him. And Luke, too. Nearby, Luke stepped out of his gym shorts as he chatted with Chris. The boxers underneath were one of the new pairs. Pissed or not when they got them, from where he was sitting, Ryan thought they were a great choice!
He looked down on his own. Those too had been a choice, a colorful one that had been a surprisingly time consuming decision that morning. A part of him erred towards taking a pair from the standard 'safe' black pile that he kept for the locker room, though why he did that when so many more were beginning to sport wild colors, he wasn’t sure anymore. It certainly didn’t make them gay! Instead, he'd reached for something with a lot more color and style; a statement that declared, ‘so, I’m not just black and boring, and fuck you if you saw my burning red, low rise trunks and thought they looked indecent stuck up my ass!’
He stood and reached for his clothes as Todd returned.
Todd looked determined. “We must have more than three quarters of our guys who've buzzed now!” he said, speaking to both him and Luke. There was a glint in his eye and it was obvious that he was talking about the uptake of ‘Scraped’ in their year. “And from what Nate was saying this morning, he’s heard that a lot of the seniors have taken it up, too.” His eyes flickered with enthusiasm. “Mase tells me their guys are all over it as well."
"Do you think it'll last?"
Ryan was surprised at how skeptical Luke sounded, though he wasn't sure on that score either. Not in the long run. Even if it wasn't a Hang, it would be something else. Still, maybe that was enough.
He grinned at Todd. "Don't listen to this old woman. Hell, I think we might have actually done something good!”
They all turned at the soft Asian accent.
In front of them, carrying a bottle of body wash and a towel that only partially covered him, Joe Wong waited awkwardly nearby; he was stripped bare, allowing his own personal statement to peek through. By the very nature of their separate classes and friendship groups, Joe was rarely spotted at their end of the extensive changing rooms. Surrounded by those studying him in bemusement, he looked apprehensive, though determined.
“I just did it,” he said, looking down on himself. He moved the towel completely, appearing abashed as if suddenly realizing what he’d done. His face carried a self-conscious grin.
“Hell—so you did!” Todd beamed at him. “Good for you, bud!”
Ryan grinned too and gave him a thumbs up. None of the others knew anything about what had passed between him and Joe earlier, and credit where credit was due, it had probably been quite a thing for the shy and troubled guy to turn out like this.
He addressed them all, but Ryan had no doubt as Joe’s eyes flicked over to him, who it was meant for, as he asked, “Are you guys coming for a shower?”
Ryan sighed. He hadn’t been planning it, but how could he not? The eroded self worth was still a feature of Joe’s dark eyes. And after what Joe had spoken about earlier, who could blame him? Everyone needed friends, especially when it got bad. He had Luke and Todd, but on top of that, Joe had taken a risk coming over like this. Ryan wasn't going to let him down.
“I sure am,” he replied. Slipping out of his boxer briefs, he hefted up his towel. Alongside him, he was relieved to see Luke and Todd pick up on it too. He waited for them to strip, and together the four of them ambled to the showerheads.
Down the three separate lanes it was busy, but there was still plenty of space under the sprays where the water soaked faces brimmed with hilarity. Pointing and wise cracks were as frequent as the bare groins, and not far away, one of the other trimmers was in action as a few more buzzed away their curls. It wasn't hard to get the idea that it was fast becoming a game and was losing the powerful sense of purpose that had struck their class the previous week.
As the three newcomers were greeted, Joe seemed hesitant. Whether it was at being found shaved smooth in the showers, or because he was apparently now hanging out with Ryan Alexis and his friends was unclear.
Ryan caught Luke scratching himself and smothered a grin. At least he'd passed that stage! His friend's newly cut wanger hung loose, but he'd have to say, the shaved look didn't really suit him. And as for Todd? He barely restrained a snigger. It really was totally freaking bizarre!
"Do you get back to Taiwan much, Joe?" Height wise they stood head to head, and he tried to make conversation as he studied him. Joe had lost weight that was for sure—it was either a growth spurt or the result of stress; who knew? Not that he'd been fat when Ryan last saw him undressed—a little chubby maybe. He’d never taken much notice of the guy before, but, like all of them, Joe had changed quite a bit over the last year.
Perhaps life could do that to you.
In fact, Joe was turning into a good-looking guy; the more so because there was something about him that was…maybe it was humility.
Getting hurt did that to you.
Hurt and failure. He’d had his fill of people who were so full of their own self-righteous crap that they truly believed they were God’s gift to the world! Joe on the other hand wasn’t becoming that kind of guy. Ryan hoped he himself wasn’t either. His eyes crossed to where a bunch were still larking around under the showers, trimmer in hand and laughing themselves silly. He turned away. Life would probably give the goof-offs a chance to step up to that particular plate in time.
"Every summer we go home." Joe frowned and then qualified that as he rubbed shower gel over his yellow-tinged skin. "Well, every summer except this one. This year we'll go at Christmas for my grandmother's ninetieth."
Home? Ryan remembered the times when Luke used to talk about his home across the water. In fact there were more than a few guys like him at The Academy. Luke was European, Joe Asian, others too came from around the globe; they were here because this was where their parents currently worked, and they had money. Some stayed, some left.
"Ninety?" At Ryan's shoulder, Todd whistled and broke into the conversation. "That's a good inning!"
"Innings," Joe corrected. "It's a cricket term."
Todd pulled a face. "No it's not."
"Nope, Joe's right," interrupted Luke. "Innings is originally a cricket term. You guys just nicked it and turned cricket into baseball! You did the same with rugby and that wuss of a game—American Football!"
Ryan grinned. This was old ground with Luke, though he was in the wrong place to get any support on that one! He joined the fray. "And I bet the Brits probably stole both from the Chinese, hey Joe?"
"No, actually I think cricket was an early Anglo Saxon game," replied Joe, frowning. He seemed perfectly serious and Ryan smirked as the guy couldn't help slipping into nerd world. Joe might look quite cute, but it just proved that there was a lot more to a person than what was on the outside. And Joes was definitely not his type!
"Tell you what, Joe," said Todd unexpectedly. "I'm planning a cookout and pool party at our place during the summer. If you're stuck here instead of going back to Taiwan, and you've not got any other plans, then come along!"
"What pool party?" said Ryan at once. He could see from Luke's face that he knew nothing about it either.
Todd shrugged. "I haven't invited you two yet. It depends how well you do in the finals!" He flashed an evil grin. "Who knows? You might be in summer school!"
Yeah - right!
“Hell—don’t say that,” Luke grimaced. “I’m really behind.”
“Don’t sweat it. We’ve still got a week, haven’t we?” said Ryan. Though he too realized that even he was going to have to put his foot down if he wanted to do more than just scrape through.
And talking of scraped.
"Hey guys!" Todd greeted three cautious faces that had peered around the corner of their lane. The three looked skittish as they made a beeline towards them. Brad Powell was from Joe’s class, and with him were David Jennings and Will Prentice, both from the same year group. What the three had in common was a tendency to geekiness, plus, Ryan could see, a distinct lack of bush! Prentice was a small, weedy guy, whereas the other two were both a bit chubby. The layers of puppy fat didn’t particularly enhance the smooth look below! All four, including Joe, belonged to that slightly dorky world of chess and gaming cards.
In his hand, Brad held what appeared to be Todd’s Norelco shaver. “Hi Todd,” he said approaching cautiously, as if unsure of their reception. “I think this is yours.” He sounded sheepish, though despite looking as awkward as hell, he and the other two appeared determined to brazen it out. “We decided..." Brad gave a slight grimace as he studied himself, and then he turned his attention to Joe. It was soon clear he was the real reason they were there. “Well..," he began again, "we decided it was the right thing to do.”
“And we were wondering if you would come back to the chess club,” piped up the diminutive Prentice, looking directly at Joe as Todd took back the trimmer. After a pause, Prentice dropped his eyes. “We need you…and I guess we kinda missed you these last few months. We’re meeting this lunch break. Normal place…”
Ryan pursed his lips. Joe had given up chess? Yet more fallout for the fucked up guy? He waited to see what Joe would do, and saw the conflict in the guy’s eyes.
Maybe it was the talk they'd had earlier and the opportunity to name and shed some of the demons that had haunted him? Or maybe it was being faced by three friends who'd risked looking like dickheads for his sake, but Joe's face cleared. "I've not played for a while," he said at last and those conflicts were countered with a steely determination. "But sure, I'll try a game or two."
Joe's friends beamed and he flicked a glance towards Ryan. With it came a smile that was touched with relief. "I'll see you guys later," he said. He took his body wash and followed the other three out.
Ryan kept his satisfaction to himself. It looked like Joe had good friends after all.
His gaze strayed again to where Todd had at least made an attempt to tidy up after his show-stopping carving the previous week. Sadly, the guy didn't wear it anywhere near as well as Kieran! Luke on the other hand...hell, he didn't care what his cautious persona was warning him. It could go take a fucking leap off a cliff that day for all he cared. He was gay and, pubes or not, Luke was hot!
"Did you notice what he said about home?" murmured Luke as Joe and his friends turned the corner and went out of sight. He was staring after him, looking thoughtful.
Ryan dragged himself back to reality. He’d asked Joe about going home merely for something to say to him. Now, Luke was talking about home as well. Maybe it was because they were both expatriates? Ryan just shrugged. “Yeah, I heard him.” He didn't really get it though.
"I've a friend like that," Luke continued, beginning to wash his hair. "A Welsh guy—our age. He goes to Creek." He pulled a face. "He hates it here. Talks about going home all the time."
"Owen?" Todd seemed to know him.
"That's right," Luke replied, nodding. "You met him at Stacey's, didn't you?"
"Really?" Todd's eyebrows knit together. "He seemed to be having a pretty good time to me."
Luke shrugged. "Yeah—maybe."
"You don't feel like that, do you?" Ryan probed. "About wanting to go back to the UK?" It was something the two of them hardly talked about these days.
"Me?" Luke chuckled and shook his head firmly. "Oh my God—hardly!"
"You forget, Padawan learner," quipped Todd. He liked to think of himself as a Jedi master. "Luke is now a true American, with the scars to show it!"
Ryan smirked as, once more, they both studied the outcome of Luke's circumcision. God, he was beautiful. It had only been a couple of weeks since he first had the op, but even now the scar was so much better than the previous Monday when the two of them had dismantled the SmartKlamp. It felt like a lifetime ago!
"Give me a break guys!" Luke shook his head wearily as he continued to wash himself. "I still have a UK passport you know."
Still more focused on what was below Luke's belly button, and not really paying much attention to the rest, all at once Ryan felt uneasy. He could feel an all too familiar sensation beginning to happen.
Oh fucking hell, he was getting a hardon! Of all the places to suddenly decide that his lack of interest in sexual gratification was passing, this had to be where it was least welcome!
"Okay guys, I'm done." Rapidly, before anything sprang too much, he exited the showers and got a towel around himself. Surrounded by too much skin, he was getting as horny as hell! Shortly, Luke and Todd joined him back on the benches. Thankfully, there was nothing on their faces that indicated suspicion.
Luke started rubbing his hair dry. "So what do you think of your grandparents idea?"
"You mean a trip to London?"
In the middle of rubbing his legs dry, Todd looked up immediately. "You guys are going to London? On holiday? When?"
Ryan shrugged. Todd was great, but if they ever did take a trip like that, he didn't want him or any other of their friends tagging along! "No plans, really," he replied airily. "Just some ideas—for before college, maybe."
"Here's an idea," said Luke, also changing the subject slightly. "Have you two ever considered going to the UK for college?"
"Really?" Ryan raised more than one eyebrow. "You'd do that?"
Luke shrugged. "I dunno. Maybe. It would be a hell of a lot cheaper, for one thing!"
Todd shook his head. "Not me." He patted his ample belly. "Too far from momma's cooking!"
They laughed and dressed, and on the way over to the cafeteria for lunch, Ryan continued to consider the idea. Even without Luke, it might be worth checking out. Its most attractive feature was that he would be thousands of miles away from anyone who knew him—and especially his father!
Lunch was uneventful until the kid in Mason's class they called The Elf, the cheeky Danny Gillespie, pounced on them. With a rueful grin, he showed a mark on his hand and complained, "I so fucking hate you! I only just got pubes, and now I've had to get rid of the damn things!"
Todd grinned. "All in a good cause, Danny, all in a good cause!"
Ryan said nothing as he scrunched his face into a consolatory grimace. However, it wasn't really Danny that had his attention. In the background was Jacko Jackson. Their eyes locked and Jacko visibly flinched. The kid spun away and walked quickly out of the cafeteria.
Shit! It still wasn't over.
"I'll see you later guys," he muttered as he stood. "I just need to check something with Jacko." He grabbed his backpack and hurried out.
"Jacko! Wait up!" He put on speed as Jacko tried to motor away from him. They couldn't go on like this. If Jacko couldn't even face him, then he would most likely drop from the tennis squad. The kid was all over the place and nothing would get put right by throwing away all he’d worked for.
Like on the court, Jacko could move like the wind, and he covered ground away from Ryan without making it look like he was running. Ryan broke out into a run, however, and rapidly overhauled the younger teen that he'd mentored over the last year. He reached for his shoulder and grunted, "Just stop!" Jacko tried to pull away, but Ryan kept his grip. "We need to talk."
Finally, Jacko stopped. "Talk?" Out in the middle of the field, his eyes flicked around uncomfortably. "About what? If it's about the tennis camp, actually I don't think I can go anymore."
Ryan pursed his lips. Jacko had been looking forward to the camp they were both booked at for months. The sudden change of heart confirmed his fears. He shook his head. "No, its not about the camp." Though what might happen with that would probably depend on the next few minutes.
"What then?" Jacko looked edgy and took a step backwards. "Can we do this later? I just gotta be..."
"Look, I'm sorry, okay..." Ryan interrupted and then stumbled, trying to find the right words. "On Monday..."
It was like a pointed gun and immediately Jacko flushed a deep red. "That wasn't my fault," he muttered. "They shouldn't have done that to you!"
"Nobody said it was your fault."
"I didn't even stay," rushed Jacko. "I..." He stopped and dropped his eyes.
"I know you didn't." Ryan paused. Maybe it was enough to just simply clear the air? Keep the status quo and leave it at that? Then he recalled the terrible look for fear and guilt that had consumed the kid. It wasn't just going to go away. He had to press on. "But I think you know that's not what I mean."
"I really don't know what you're talking about!" Jacko made to pull away again. "Look—I'm sorry about the camp, but I have to get to something right now."
Ryan reached out and grabbed his arm again. He lowered the tone of his voice for them alone. "I was there, remember. I think you do."
"What the hell are you talking about? I never even stayed!"
"I saw what you were doing while you were watching." He hated having to spell it out, but there was no other way. "I wish I hadn't, but I couldn't exactly help it."
Jacko burned a deeper red, and Ryan could see that they both knew what he was referring to. The younger tennis player glared. "You think I'm gay?" He tried to make his tone robust and convincing, but Ryan got the impression he immediately regretted bringing up the term.
"I think you're scared."
"Scared? Of what?" Jacko's eyes flashed with renewed anger. And fear. "You?" he hissed. "Just fuck off, and leave me alone!" He wrenched his arm and Ryan let go. He couldn't stop the kid from running, even if he wanted to. Perhaps not expecting to be released Jacko lurched away and nearly stumbled. Getting his balance, he looked like he was ready to hightail it out of more than just a spat on the school field.
Ryan ignored the swearing. Would he really be any different if the tables were turned? "I'm not trying to have a go at you," he said. "And you're right—it's none of my business. But at least hear me out."
Jacko paused and he took it as a good sign; he pressed on. But to what? All that was left was to be honest. "Look, this has probably been the worst fucking week of my whole life. After what they did, there were a couple of times when I could easily have taken my father's gun and blown my brains out."
It was frank enough to hold the kid in place for a few more moments. He kept going, hoping for the best.
"But it's probably no worse than what's been going through your head," he said. "And why you run a mile every time you see me."
Maybe it was only the honesty that managed to keep Jacko still talking. He muttered defensivly, "You don't know anything about me!" He began swallowing hard and Ryan could see he was becoming unglued.
"I think I do." He didn't even have to try to sound compassionate. He knew exactly where Jacko was. It was so difficult and he still had to tread carefully. "You hate yourself and you feel sick because you know what would happen if anyone found out."
Jacko hung his head and had no answer.
And now you're actually wondering if it would be easier just to kill yourself rather than be a disappointment.
It took a Ryan a moment to realize that Jacko had started crying. In retrospect, he wasn't surprised. The kid wore his emotions on his sleeve, even on the tennis court. Some said it was a weakness, but he wished there were more like him. Still, it was awkward as Jacko began to shake, and he looked around quickly, relieved there was no one near enough to ask difficult questions. Even so, he kept a discreet distance.
"Look, secrets are crap. If you can't talk to anyone about this kind of thing, it's going to fuck you up and destroy you. You're going to have to trust me on that."
"That's easy for you to say?" Jacko couldn't even look up, but his voice was full of the kind of emotion Ryan had been familiar with in his time: self loathing, failure, anger, hopelessness. "What would you know about it?"
"Have I ever wronged you," he shot back. There was no reply.
"Jacko, I think—at least I hope—you know you can trust me." If honesty was ever the best policy, he hoped to God he wasn't making a mistake. "I need to know I can trust you, too?"
"With what?" Jacko sounded dead, out of time and energy, defeated by something that was now going to destroy him.
Ryan glanced around. There was still nobody even close, but that might not last much longer. He decided just to say it. "For God's sake," he murmured. "What do you think? I know what I'm talking about because I've been exactly where you are."
In front of him, defeat was replaced by suspicion as though this was just another way of deepening the humiliation. Ryan knew he needed to be crystal clear and took the bit between his teeth. "I'm not like other guys either..." It had to have been the hardest thing he’d ever said, so much more agonizingly dangerous than even when he'd told Mel Piper. “I'm gay, okay...”
There was a long uncomfortable pause, and his words seemed to hang awkwardly, dangerously even, between them. Then Jacko's mouth literally fell open. "Shit? Really? You? No—" his face was all over the place, bouncing between confusion, disbelief and shock as his eyes narrowed "—I don't believe you..."
Oh for fuck’s sake!
Even then, Ryan couldn't be sure that Jacko still wasn't going to hightail it across the grass and start screaming what he'd just learned, but he'd started now, so he might as well keep going.
"Yes...me." He took a deep breath. "I'm just attracted to guys more than girls." He shrugged, trying to make it sound like it was a conversation he had all the time. "I always have been. I just wanted to tell you that if you are, too, it's really okay, and you have nothing to worry about from me."
Jacko's demeanor became a complicated mess. Unexpectedly, he sat down on the grass, buried his face in his arms and started sobbing.
Checking again that they weren't in any danger of being disturbed anytime soon, Ryan settled near, but not too near. He waited until Jacko got past it.
"Sorry about that..." Jacko finally wiped his eyes and smiled weakly. "I thought there was—" He paused.
"—something wrong with you?" Ryan completed. Been there, done that!
A tenuous smile crept onto Jacko's face. "Something like that." He reached into his pocket, found a tissue and blew a bunch of wet snot out of his nose. "Did you mean it?" he asked. His face was still flushed with doubt. "Are you really?"
"Yes and yes." Ryan grinned. "And you?" He really wanted Jacko to say it. Maybe for both of their sakes.
"Me?" Jacko nodded. "Yep..." He lowered his eyes again, reverting to the well-trodden path of self-reproach. "I can't seem to help it, either."
Fault? Ryan’s head filled with many things he wanted to say to that, but now wasn't the time, and he could see Luke in the distance, wandering in their direction. "All I know is that it really helps to be able to tell someone, and it's safe with me." He nodded across the grass. "Luke's coming. Why don't we talk later sometime?"
"Oh...right…” Jacko blinked and seemed taken aback as if he was being rejected.
“Look, why don’t you give me a call later this afternoon. After school,” Ryan suggested. “We can talk then.”
At that, Jacko cheered up considerably and nodded. “I can do that,” he said. "I’ve already got a bunch of questions!”
“Hey, you two.” Sounding amiable, Luke approached. “What’s up?”
“Nothing.” Ryan shrugged. “We were just talking about the summer tennis camp.”
“Okay...I’d better go,” said Jacko, blinking. Ryan could see his eyes were still a little bloodshot as he scrambled up. “See you later.”
“Yep.” Ryan climbed to his feet as he watched the younger teen scurry away. He smiled as Jacko turned his head and looked back. It was a real pleasure to see that familiar grin back on his face, and his whole body language was a million miles from what it had been a few minutes earlier.
Luke gazed after Jacko, too. “What the hell was all that about?” It sounded like he hadn’t bought the tennis camp story.
Ryan brushed himself off. “Don’t worry about it,” he said, lifting his backpack. “Just some problems at home, that’s all. He’ll be fine.”
Together, they began to make their way towards the main buildings. He felt good. He'd taken a risk, but for the kid's sake it looked like it had been worth it. Having someone you could be real with was a lifesaver. He only had to remember Mel to know how true that was.
"Come on, tell me more about colleges in England," he said at last, changing the subject. "I know there's Oxford and Cambridge. Is that it?"
"Oh bloody hell, Ry!" Luke stopped in his tracks and looked scandalized. "What planet are you from? Of course that’s not it! Almost every city has a uni. Some really good ones, too!"
"So what are you planning to study?" He leered a little wickedly. "Urology?"
"Medicine?" Ryan's eyes widened and then he smirked. "Hell, we'd better get to Advisory then. You need help!"