Cocking my arm back, I let the ball fly from my fingers, sending it way down field and right into the arms of my receiver. He jogs the rest of the way into the endzone and Coach Bless blows his whistle. “Huddle up, boys!”
We all jog over to him and I peel off my helmet, sweat dripping from my hair the second it’s released. “Good practice today,” Bless says. “Same time tomorrow and by the time we’re finished, we’ll be ready to take down Virginia Tech. Dismissed!”
Thank God. We all start heading for the locker room. But I only get about halfway there. “Wilson! My office for a few minutes! Just strip off your padding!”
Ugh. I just want to shower. Is that too much to ask? Taking off my shoulder pads, I set them on the bench in front of my locker and head for Coach’s office. Rapping my knuckles on the door, I step inside and shut the door behind me. “We need to have a talk,” Coach says, placing his hands in front of him.
Coach reaches for his laptop and turns it toward me. Looking at the screen, I find an email inbox filled with messages. The first thing that grabs my attention is the number of emails from my father. “Seriously?” I ask.
“He’s really getting on my nerves, your dad. I don’t even answer his emails anymore, but he’s resorted to trying to call me.”
“Shit. I’m really sorry, sir. It’s just…he means well, I think. But I can’t convince him to try and stop.”
“I know it is, son. Hell, I’ve asked you to try to get him to stop before. But all you came back with was an earful and a note from your dad like you were some fucking elementary school kid.” I honestly don’t know how to respond. “Have you tried talking to your mom?”
I scoff. “Yeah, right. She’s off somewhere with her high society friends, trying to spend as little time with my father as possible. Last time I saw her in person was at the beginning of summer.”
“Wow. Two months ago?” I shrug and Coach lets out a breath. “So an over-involved father who sets way too high expectations for you and a mother who would rather be out having fun than spending time with her family.”
He sadly shakes his head. “I know a son shouldn’t pay for the sins of his father, seeing as you’ve tried to get him to stop with his constant messages before. And your mother doesn’t seem to be involved at all, so she can’t help with this either. Most I can really do about this is ignore him.”
“I’m really sorry about this, sir.”
He waves a hand. “Not your fault in the least, Wilson. All I know is that your dad is a giant pain in my ass. He may be a graduate of Duke, but he has zero connection to me. So I don’t have to promise or give him anything.”
I nod a bit. “Um…is that everything, sir?”
“You can go, Wilson. I’ll see you tomorrow.” I turn for the door. “Wilson.” Looking back, Coach stands up and walks over to me. “You came into this school an already damn good football player. There’s a reason I made you backup quarterback in your sophomore year and starting quarterback last season. It’s because you’re one of the best in the country.
“Even if your father keeps telling you that you aren’t good enough, your numbers don’t lie. Don’t let what he says stop you from believing in yourself. Remember that.”
Heat fills my face and a small laugh escapes me. “Thanks, Coach.”
“Now get the hell out of my office. You’re making it smell like a nasty ass gym sock.”
Laughing again, I step out and head back to the lockers, quickly undressing and heading for the showers. “Nah, man. You should’ve seen the ass on his girl I banged last week. Almost made me cry.”
“A hot ass is nothing compared to an awesome set of tits. Got some of that a few days ago.”
Yup. Nothing different here. Just a bunch of naked college guys in a large communal shower talking about girls they’ve had sex with. Stepping under a showerhead, I turn it on and quickly wet myself down. “What about you, Wilson?” Devon, my starting center, asks from his shower me.
“What about me?”
“Fucking, dude,” Trent, one of my receivers, follows up. “Get any lately?”
“Nope. And even if I did, it wouldn’t be any of your dumbasses business.”
“Seriously?” David, a linebacker, asks. “What about that girl we’ve seen you around campus with?”
“Kat? She’s just a friend from back home. She comes to visit often because Greensboro isn’t too far from here.”
“She’s pretty hot,” Kyle, my backup, quips. “Do you know if she’s single?”
“She has a boyfriend at her own school. And even if she didn’t, she wouldn’t be interested in your ugly mug, Forrester. She likes her guys with less caveman in them.”
The shower walls echo with laughter while Kyle just rolls his eyes. “And wouldn’t be like you could please her with that baby dick you got there, Forrester!” Devon says.
Kyle grabs his junk and waves it in Devon’s direction. “Why don’t you get on your knees and get a taste of this baby dick, cocksucker? Then you’ll see how big it really is!”
The showers laugh again. It’s a running joke we have on the team. Kyle’s a grower, not a shower. Scared the crap out of the guys when we convinced him to get hard to see how big he really was. When he passed the ten-inch mark, the guys all shut up, but never passed up an opportunity to make the same joke.
I shut off my showerhead and head back to the lockers. Getting my clothes back on, I pack up my stuff and sling it over my shoulder. “Later, guys!”
I get a chorus of goodbyes in return along with a couple more jokes. My team is full of assholes. But I love each and every one of them. I glance down at my watch and find I have a while until my next class. Thank God. I can get lunch. I head to one of the food places on campus and grab myself a sandwich and salad.
Finding a table to myself, I pull out my phone and look at my messages. It took a while, but Dad finally gave it back to me a while ago. Hell, I almost went out and bought my own phone just so I could have a way to talk to my friends. Looking at the call log, I still don’t see any numbers I don’t recognize.
Even after all this time, I’m keeping an eye out for that one phone call from Declan. I wonder if he’s doing okay. I just wish I had some way to contact him. Sighing to myself, I put my phone away and quickly eat my food. When that’s done, I throw everything out and had for my one class for the day.
I get to the English building and quickly find my classroom for my Contemporary Language class. I take a seat just as Elizabeth, the professor, walks in. “Okay, who’s ready for a new day of learning?” she excitedly asks.
Crickets. The class laughs as one student plays a cricket sound app on his phone. Elizabeth rolls her eyes. “Very funny. As I mentioned last class, you all have your responses due this Friday for your outside class observation assignment.”
Crap! I knew I was forgetting something! “Now before you clench yourself so tight your underwear won’t be able to escape you, there’s still one more opportunity on Thursday to complete the assignment. If you need more information, please see me after class. Now, continuing our lesson from last week…”
While I do pay attention for most of the class period, I’m still wondering what it is this thing I’m going to even is. I just hope it isn’t something too boring. “Remember, those who still need a presentation for their assignment, come and see me,” Elizabeth says at the end of class.
I grab my stuff and walk to the front of the class. “Hey, Lizzie.”
“Ash, I thought I told you I don’t like it when you use that name.”
“I know. But it’s fun to push your buttons.”
She rolls her eyes. “So you still haven’t finished the paper?”
“Sorry. Football has been keeping me pretty busy.”
“Yes, yes, yes, free throw and homerun and all that jazz.” I bite my lip to keep myself from laughing. “Well, seeing as there’s only one presentation left for you to see, you have no choice but to see it if you want to get credit for the assignment.”
“I’ll take it.”
She pulls a piece of paper and pen out of her bag and quickly writes over it. “It’s in the Page Auditorium this Thursday at 6:00. Clear up your schedule because it’s about an hour and a half long.”
“That’s fine.” I take the paper from her and stick it in my pocket. “So what even is this presentation and how does it relate to language?”
“I’ll leave what the presentation is a secret so it’s a surprise. And it’s relates to language, not so much through words, but through motions. You’ll see what it is when you get there. And get there early. It’s expected to be very popular.” Hmmm. “See you next week.”
She leaves and I’m not far behind her. Whatever this thing is, I just hope it doesn’t put me to sleep.
My breath heaves in and out of me and drops of sweat hit the hardwood floor. Grabbing my water, I chug some of it down and take a seat on the floor. “Pushing yourself today?” Taylor, one of the other dancers in the room, asks.
“You know I push myself every day.”
“Yeah, but you’re going harder than normal. Is it because of the competition?”
I’m a terrible liar. Taylor laughs and nudges my shoulder with her foot. “You’re like an open book. It’s hilarious.” I roll my eyes and take another drink from my water. “Seriously, it’s going to go great. You know the routines like the back of your hand. You’ll wow the crowd.”
Or get pelted by rotten tomatoes. It’s one or the other. A sudden clap gets all of our attention. “Circle!” Ms. Buchan says. We all gather around her. “You’ve all done wonderfully to get ready for the competition this week. We’ll leave on Wednesday morning and we should get there by the middle of the afternoon.
“I want you all well rested and ready for the competition. I expect nothing less than first from my best dancers.” No pressure. “You’re all dismissed. Be here tomorrow morning at 9:00!” We all start to gather our stuff. “Oh! I almost forgot! I have a little surprise for all of you!”
Every dancer in the room bristles at the mention of a surprise. Ms. Buchan may be a very petite woman with a warm, round face, but there’s a devil hidden behind that face. “We’re going to have a little detour while we’re down Raleigh to my alma mater!”
“What’s the catch?” Rick, another dancer, questions.
“What makes you think there’s a catch?”
“We’ve worked with you for years now. Whenever there’s a surprise, there’s always a catch that goes with it.”
Ms. Buchan’s face quickly cracks and she lets out a giggle. “You caught me there. I may have arranged it so you all would put on a performance for some of the student body.”
There are a lot of groans. “You couldn’t have let us prepare a bit for this?” Taylor asks.
“Sorry! It slipped my mind! But come on! It’ll be fun!”
“You lost a bet a while ago and owe someone a favor, don’t you?” I ask.
“Shush, you.” Well, that wasn’t a no. “So anyway, we’ll be doing that the night before the competition so you all can have a bit of practice with free form, and so you can show off for a bunch of college students.”
“Couldn’t you have just bet money instead of a favor?” Rick asks.
Ms. Buchan rolls her eyes. “We’re driving down early tomorrow morning. Be sure to pack everything you need for both our stay and the bus ride. It’s a long drive to North Carolina!”
“Can you give us any information with what this performance?” I question. “Like what is it we’re supposed to convey with free form?”
“I’m glad you asked, Declan! It’s entirely up to you what you all want to do, so long as it conveys some sort of message to the audience. The message can be anything you want. Let me know what your message is and I’ll send it to my friend. Okay?” We all nod. “Perfect! See you tomorrow!”
I have a feeling this won’t end in a way I want it to.
“Dad, you left another wrench in the fridge!”
“Sorry, Dec! I was in a rush this morning!”
Pulling out the wrench in question, I hand it to Dad as he walks into the kitchen. “Why can’t you leave it in the bathroom like everyone else does?”
“Because then one of your brother’s will steal it. And you know how much I hate it when they use my tools without my permission.”
He’s got me there. Brock one time used Dad’s good Phillips head screwdriver without asking and ruined it when he accidently got it caught in the hydraulic press. Dad was pissed as hell but at least he got a good flat head screwdriver out of it. Dad takes his wrench and heads back to his room.
Going back to the fridge, I pull out a package of shredded cheese and sprinkle it on top of the lasagna. With the bread baked and the salad tossed (hehe), I prepare for the stampede. “Dinner’s ready!”
I grab a wooden spoon and hear the rumble of four grown men running through the house to get to the kitchen. They turn a corner, all climbing over one another, as they rush toward the food. Taking my spoon, I smack each of their outstretched hands, stopping them in their tracks.
Emmett shakes his hand out, his teeth gritting together. “Jesus Christ, Dec! Could you stop doing that?”
“Can you four stop trying to charge the food?” A moment of silence. “Then the spoon stays until you guys learn to control yourselves. Take a seat, I’ll serve you all.”
They all sit at the table and I scoop a few spoonfuls of lasagna onto their plates. “Smells great, son,” Dad says.
“Thanks. I was in a bit of a rush because I got home late tonight, but it looks like it turned out well. Go ahead and dig in.”
Brock takes his fork and piles a good bit of lasagna into his cheeks. “Damn, Dec,” he says, his mouth full. “Why don’t you cook every night?”
“Because I’m not your damn maid. Say it again and I’ll give you a good serving of rat poison with dinner.” He chuckles and goes back to his food while I join them. “How’s the Charger coming along?”
“It’s being a bitch,” Dad says, biting his bread. “The damn fuel pump is shot to hell, not to mention most of the metal under the hood is rusted.”
“Not to mention the transmission is giving me a hard time,” Emmett says.
“Anything that’ll be a problem?” Dad asks.
“Nah, it’s just a pain. It’ll take me about two days to fix, though.”
“Take your time with it. We want Desmond to be happy with what we give him.”
Emmett nods and Colby grunts. “The Viper has issues too?” I ask.
Colby nods and grabs an imaginary gear gift, trying to shift it but not having any luck. “Shit, transmission,” Brock says. “Hammond isn’t going to be happy about that.”
“Well when was the last time he actually got his car checked?” Dad asks.
“Like seven years ago.”
“Then it’s his own damn fault. He’s the one who has to pay the bill, which he can afford. We’re the ones who have to work our asses off to give him his car back in working order.”
“Amen,” Emmett says.
Colby nudges my shoulder with his, raising an eyebrow. “I have my competition in North Carolina this weekend.”
“Shit, was that this week?” Dad asks. “I thought it was the next. Sorry, Dec.”
“Nah, it’s cool. You have projects in the shop to work on. Plus it’s not an important competition.”
“Well, if you’re competition, then it is important.”
A small warmth fills my stomach. “Seriously, it’s only one competition. There will be another in a month’s time. We do have some presentation at my instructor’s college, though. Not sure what the deal with that is.”
“Bring back souvenirs,” Brock says.
Dad smacks him on the back of the head, getting laughter from all of us. We eat the rest of our dinner and Emmett clears the table while Brock gets started on the dishes. I head to my bedroom to stretch out my legs before a shower. Can’t get stiff before the competition.
Standing back up, I reach into my pocket and pull out my phone. Other than a couple notifications, there isn’t a single message. I tried reaching out to him a long time ago, left a lot of voicemails and sent text messages. All of them went unanswered. After a while, I just stopped trying.
But for some reason, I keep keeping an eye out for any sign of him. Tossing my phone onto my bed, I head for the shower, wanting to drown away my thoughts. Like a popular jock like Ash would want to be associated with a guy like me.
Looking up from my laptop, I find Kyle and Lance, one of the team’s receivers, standing in my doorway. “What’s up?” I ask.
“We were thinking about heading out to the bar tonight. You know, get a couple beers, watch the Panthers kick some ass. You in?”
“Hell yeah I’m…” A ding pops up from my phone and I find a reminder for that presentation Elizabeth told me about. “Shit, I can’t guys. I have to go to some presentation for my class.”
“Damn, really?” Kyle asks.
“Yeah, part of my grade. Need to keep up my GPA so I can keep playing.”
They both nod in understanding and wish me luck before heading out. Grabbing my keys, I head out myself. I’m really not looking forward to this. I mean, sure. It could be interesting. But at the same time, there are so many other things I’d rather be doing. Like…performing surgery on myself.
It’s not long before I finally get to Page Auditorium. Man, whatever this thing is, it’s really attracted a crowd. The parking lot is packed to the gills and I can already see a line of people out the door. Well, better get on line. The line slowly inches forward, me getting less and less interested in this thing with every step.
By the time I have my ticket, I just want to go home and bury my head in my pillow. Oh well. Finding a decent seat, I wait for the show to start. “Hi, Ash!”
Looking over, I see a small group of cheerleaders sitting not too far from me. I give them a wave and see them all giggle. I suppress a sigh before I unfold the pamphlet I was given for the show. Hmmm. Language Through Dance: A Telling of Past Experiences. A dance thing? Jesus Christ, I should have gone to the bar.
The lights flicker and everyone settles into their seats. A spotlight centers on the stage and a woman in her early forties with an updo haircut and chopsticks through her hair walks into the light. “Hello, everyone!” she says in a singsong voice. “Thank you all for coming tonight!”
Yeah, glad to be here. Not. “My name is Ms. Buchan and I’m the head of the Buchan Performing Arts Company. We’re an internationally renowned school for the performing arts and we’re here tonight to give you all a showcase from our best dancers! Each dancer has a story to tell, and they’ll tell you their stories through their dances.”
I pull my phone out of my pocket, checking the score of the Panthers game. “We hope you all enjoy tonight! Here’s our first dancer, Taylor Hawkins!”
The audience applauds as the woman leaves the stage and the curtain rises. A very attractive woman who looks to be around my age struts onto the stage wearing a violet dancer’s dress. A slow melody begins to play and she moves to the sound of it. The way she moves, how every movement of her body is precise and methodical, it’s almost…hypnotizing.
The more she dances, the more I begin to understand what she’s saying to the audience. Her gestures of punching herself in the stomach, the violent jerking of her upper body, the way her hand rakes over her skin, it shows a girl who has dealt with body image issues and bulimia. The dance is short, but it’s incredibly powerful with her movements.
She wraps up her dance and the audience applauds before she walks off stage. Hmmm. Maybe this show won’t be so bad after all.
Taylor returns from the stage and we all give her a round of applause. “Thank you, thank you,” she says, bowing to all of us. “I know I’m amazing.”
She rolls her eyes and takes a seat. “I can’t believe the place sold out,” she says. “I didn’t think college students would be so interested in a dance show.”
“I bet a lot of them are here because they need to be for a class or something,” Rick says, slicking back his hair with gel. “And from what I saw, a lot of them look to be older than their early 20’s.”
Shrugging it off, I look in the mirror and get back to applying my eyeliner. Hey, sometimes you just need some stuff to pop a little more. “Nervous?” Taylor asks me.
“Only a little. This dance is something I’ve been working on for a little while now. I just hope the audience likes it.”
“I know they’ll love it. You’re one of the, if not the, best dancer in our company. Well, minus me, but that’s beside the point.” Yup. Modest. “They’ll love anything you show them.”
“Rick!” Ms. Buchan calls out. “You’re up next!”
Giving his hair one final check, Rick pulls off his tank top, revealing his lean torso. “Wish me luck,” he says, following Ms. Buchan out.
“Ms. Buchan always saves the best for last,” Taylor says. “You’re going to kill it.”
I feel my face redden a bit. “Thanks.”
“Here.” She takes the brush from my hand and starts attacking my face with it. “It always helps having someone else do your makeup for you. Looks like the gay bug didn’t bite you in the ass hard enough.”
“I may be gay, but makeup is a foreign concept to me. If I didn’t need it for performances, I would never wear it.”
“Not like you need it anyway.” She makes her wrist limp. “Ya look gorgeous already.” I chuckle as she finishes up. “Can we still not get even a hint of your performance?”
“Yeah, c’mon Dec!” Jonathan calls out. “Some kind of a hint would be great!”
“Sorry, guys. You’ll just have to wait and see.”
They all playfully boo me, which I laugh off. As I wait on standby, I watch all the other performances on a television screen in the dressing room. The audience really seems to be into it, which is always a good thing to see. “Declan!” Ms. Buchan calls out. “It’s time for the grand finale!”
Cracking my neck, I rise up from my chair and follow her, my friends all patting me on the back as I leave. “Ready?” she asks.
“Pretty much. I just hope I don’t mess up and fall flat on my face on the stage.”
“Oh, hush now. You and I both know you never mess up. And even if you did, none of us would notice. You’re too good.” I laugh off the compliment. “So what kind of message are you going to deliver to the audience?”
We get to the side of the stage, where Jess is finishing up her routine. “Something personal,” I tell her. “I was planning on using this in the men’s contemporary solo tomorrow.”
“Then it must be good. I can’t wait to see it.” Jess finishes her routine and the audience applauds. She struts off stage, right over to me and Ms. Buchan. “Fantastic routine, Jess! It was a beautiful sight to see!”
She gives Jess a hug. “We both know Dec is going to make the rest of us look like amateurs,” Jess jokes.
“Hey, don’t sell yourself short,” I say. “That was an awesome performance and everyone in this building knows it.”
She beams at me and gives me a hug before heading back to the dressing room. “Get ready,” Ms. Buchan tells me. “You’re going to kill it.”
Well, let’s hope so.
That last performance with the redheaded girl was really nice. Something methodical and peaceful. Ms. Buchan walks back on stage, a bright smile on her face. “Okay! We have one final performance for the night!”
Finally. Not that this isn’t interesting. But I just want to go home. “Our final dancer is the best dancer in my school and one of the best dancers I’ve ever taught in my twenty year career,” she continues. “He’s definitely going places in the future and you’ll all see that when you see him dance.”
The lights on stage dim to a hazy blue. “We hope you enjoy our final performance for the night. Please, give a warm welcome, to Declan Roth!”
My head jerks up at the name. Declan? Did…did I hear that right? Is that even the Declan I know? Ms. Buchan leaves the edge of the stage and a shadowy figure walks to the middle of it. He stands stock still in a pose, one arm raised high above his head as his body leans. With no shirt on, I can see the shadow of muscles and a few tattoos across his torso. A quiet piano melody flows through the speakers. Evanescence “My Immortal.”
As the lyrics echo through the auditorium, Declan’s body moves to the sound of the music. And as soon as he does move, I’m captivated. Every movement of his lithe body is precise and absolutely beautiful. And even through the dim light, I can see the anguish coming through his face. Pain. That’s all I feel through him. Raw pain.
His powerful legs propel him through the air and across the stage, spinning and leaping as if wings are on his back. His arm reaching out for someone to grasp it, I find myself wanting to run up onto that stage and take his hand. Not a single bit of his energy is wasted, every moment as beautiful as the last.
As the bridge hits, Declan suddenly stops. He walks over to a large wooden box that is now on the stage and climbs on top of it. Standing on the edge of the box, he holds his arms out to his side. My mind immediately flashes back to the night on the bridge, where I first saw the Declan I know. How his arms were out at his side like this Declan’s are right now.
I push myself out of my seat, not even caring who wonders what I’m doing. Declan starts to lean forward, when his body is suddenly jerked back, as if…grabbed by an unseen force. Powerful drum beats and cymbals crash through the room as Declan’s body violently trashes about, like he’s trying to fight off whoever grabbed him.
The pain is even greater in his face now, every movement now violent as he tries to fight. The chorus ends quietly and Declan’s body falls to the ground. His body shakes with silent sobs as he slowly sits up, staring into the distance. He reaches his arms out, as if to touch somebody, to grab them for support.
But his arms fall forward, grabbing nothing. He sits up once again and slowly wraps his arms around himself, his body racking with sobs, as the room fades to black. Everything is completely silent before the room completely erupts. People jump to their feet as the lights come back on, cheering at the top of their lungs.
Declan rises back to his feet, a small smile on his face, as he bows to the crowd. He holds his hands out to his sides as the rest of the dancers rush onto the stage. They all hold hands as they bow together, getting even more cheers from the crowd. Ms. Buchan walks onto the stage, hugging each and every one of the dancers.
Everyone on stage bows once more before the curtain falls. As people begin to leave the auditorium, I’m left rooted where I stand. That…that really was him. More than three years later and I finally get to see him again. Only this time, I’ll make sure I’m able to talk with him again.
I fall into a chair as I get back to the dressing room, exhausted both physically and mentally. Grabbing a towel, I wipe away the makeup from my face and take a drink of water. “Declan!” Mrs. Buchan says, rushing at me and pulling me out of my chair. “That was absolutely beautiful!”
She lifts me high off the ground, which isn’t very high considering she’s a foot shorter than me, and spins me around. The woman has a hell of a lot of strength. “Thanks, Mrs. Buchan,” I say as she sets me down.
“If you bring that performance to the competition tomorrow, you’ll be a shoe in for first!”
She rushes around the room squealing at every person she can find. I pull my tank top over my head and finish getting the makeup off my face. “Seems like you were trying to say something pretty deep with that performance,” Rick says, taking a seat next to me.
I shrug a bit. “Just something I wanted to say to someone I used to know.”
“He and I lost touch years ago. I tried reaching out to him, but I wasn’t able to.”
Rick raises a suggestive eyebrow. “Someone special?”
I roll my eyes and kick his ankle. “No, you ass. A guy who…did something amazing for me. Without him, I wouldn’t be here today. That dance is a thank you to him for what he did.”
“Well, based on what I saw, it looked like you had a lot more to say than thank you.”
You have absolutely no idea. Rising out of my chair, I stretch my arms over my head. “I’m going to take a quick walk. Be right back.”
I slip past Mrs. Buchan, who is animatedly shaking Taylor as she tries to escape with Jonathan’s help. Walking down the hallway, I think back over my dance. Was it too much? I know Rick was right saying the dance was more than a simple thank you. I mean, Ash saved my life. Who wouldn’t be grateful to someone who did that?
As I’m lost in thought, I hear a scuffle from around the corner. “Sir, I can’t let you back here.”
“Come on, man. There’s a guy back there that I really need to talk to!”
My heart stops for a few solid seconds. That voice… There’s no fucking way. Quickly walking to the source of the sound, I see two security guards standing in the middle of the hallway and a tall and broad shouldered guy standing in front of them. “We’re under orders to not let anyone back here,” one of the guards says.
“I just need to see if there’s someone I know!”
The guy tries to step past the guards, but they quickly grab him. As he struggles with him, I finally get a good look at him. The dark blonde hair, the flawless skin, those bright blue eyes, it…it really is him. “Ash!”
Everything in the hallway freezes as the three men turn to look at him. “You know this man?” a guard asks me.
“He…he’s a friend. He’s okay…”
The guards glance at one another and release Ash. He slowly walks over to him, stopping a few feet away. He’s gotten a couple inches taller the last three years. He’s also really filled out, his arms filling out the sleeves of his shirt (and then some), his chest straining the front of his shirt, his jeans clinging to his firm legs, he’s become even more attractive than I remember.
I swallow self-consciously, unsure of what to do. “Um…hi, Declan,” he quietly says.
I nod once in response. A few moments of awkward silence pass before he does something I don’t expect. His large arms wrap around me and he presses me against him in a tight hug. “I’m so glad you’re okay…”
It takes me a second to recover from the surprise of the hug, but I welcome it with a hug of my own. I rest my head on his shoulder and breathe in, taking in his spicy scent and holding back the shiver it gives me. Being held by Ash like this, it just feels so…right. Is that weird? This guy who I haven’t seen or heard from in more than three years, and here I am putty in his hands.
After a minute, we pull apart slowly. That hug lasted maybe a bit longer than it should have, but I don’t care. “Um…how’ve you been?” he asks me.
“A lot better, thanks for asking. I…I told my family I was gay the night we met.”
“Oh really? How did that go? I-If you don’t mind me asking, that is.”
I think back to that night and I feel myself smiling. “It was great. My dad and brothers were really supportive of me. They still are too.”
He returns my smile and nods. “That’s fantastic to hear. I’m really happy for you, Declan.” He rubs the back of his neck and glances at the ground self-consciously. “And…I’m really sorry for never reaching out to you. My Dad went all Nazi on me and pretty much took every source of communication I had.”
“You didn’t have anything?”
He shakes his head. “You don’t know my dad. When he tries to do something, he does everything he can to make sure he gets the job done.”
“Jesus. My dad just grounds me whenever my brothers or I step out of line.”
“Well, it’s my dad’s way or the highway. I don’t like it, but I put up with it.” We both stand in silence for a moment. “Um…do you…want to stop by a coffee shop or something? Grab something to eat?”
My heart skips a beat. Is he asking…for a date? I immediately dismiss the thought. It’s not a date. He’s just asking if I want to grab some food with him. “Um…I’ll need to check with my instructor,” I say. “But yeah. I’d really like that. If you can wait outside, I can go ask her.”
He smiles at me. “I’ll be waiting. It’s…really good to see you again, Declan.”
He grabs me and pulls me into another hug and I feel my chest swell at the feeling of being held so close to him. He lets me go and gives me another smile before walking away. I stand stock still for a moment before there’s a sudden loud thud behind me.
Turning around, I find all of my friends and Ms. Buchan piled on the floor. “Were you all eavesdropping on me?” I ask.
“No!” Taylor says. “We were just…all grouped together around the corner!”
I roll my eyes as they all get back to their feet. “Ms. Buchan, do you think I could…?”
“If you skip out on a date with that hunk of a man I will smack the gay right out of you!” he says, beaming at me. “Go! Have fun! Be sure to use protection though!”
I bury my face in my hands as all my friends snicker. “Sex isn’t even on my mind, first of all. Second, he’s straight. He’s a friend that I haven’t seen in a very long time. We’re just catching up.”
“Either way, you have my permission to go out for tonight.”
“Can we go out too?” Jonathan asks.
“Now the last time I let you and Rick out together, I had to pick you both up from jail.”
“It wasn’t our fault…” Rick says.
“You dented a cop car by throwing a bottle of water into the street and cracking his windshield.”
“I was aiming for a trash can across the street!” Jonathan defends.
Ms. Buchan rolls her eyes and looks back at me. “Go change. But be back at the hotel no later than midnight. The competition is still tomorrow.”
Nodding, I go to change into some normal clothes, trying to will my racing heart to slow down.
I stand outside of the auditorium, feeling a tightness in my chest that I’ve never felt before. Taking some deep breaths to try and calm myself, I try to figure out why I’m feeling like this. I mean I haven’t seen Declan in years. Maybe I’m excited to be able to catch up with him?
But I find that the tightness isn’t something bad. I…actually kind of like the feeling of it. Pulling out my phone, I try to distract myself, even if it is only a temporary fix. “Hey.”
Looking over, I find Declan standing next to me, wearing a form-fitting t-shirt and some very tight jeans. “Um…everything good?” I ask, putting my phone back into my pocket.
“Yup. Ms. Buchan said I could go out for a few hours. But nothing crazy because I have a competition tomorrow.”
“Are you still up for going to a café or something like that?”
“That’s perfect. I’m pretty hungry after my dance.”
I feel myself smile and give his shoulder a smack. “Well then it’s my treat tonight. C’mon. There’s an awesome shop just a couple blocks away.”
“Lead the way, Mr. Muscles.”
Laughing, I lead Declan in the direction of the café, him falling in step next to me. As we walk, I see myself glancing over at him every once in a while. He’s…really matured since I last saw him. His face is even sharper than before, accented by a ghost of a five o’clock shadow, and his bright green eyes are filled with even more life than I remember.
His clothes fit him really well. Nothing fancy, but he wears them well. I see a couple lines of a tattoo poking out the base of his shirt and a few different ones spiral down with the corded veins of his arms. He’s…become a really handsome man. “Everything okay?” he asks, suddenly turning to look at me.
I snap back to looking in front of me. “Y-Yeah, all good. Just thought I saw a bug on your shirt or something.”
He nods once and we walk in comfortable silence toward the café, my heart beating at a mile a minute.