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Jared’s first memory is saying the Our Father. Bent over the side of his race car bed with his mama on his left and his papa on his right, their voices worked through the prayer while Jared was straggling behind as he did his best to remember every word. It took a few years until he could whip through the messages on his own, and by the time he was seven, his parents watched from the doorway. They mouthed along and offered him God bless you before they turned off the light and left him to sleep.

Prayer was common at every function with the family, especially at dinner time when all five gathered at the dining room table together and bowed their heads over fresh plates of food that his mama cooked up every night. They were all expected to be present – in body and in mind – so when Jared is 17 with a leg bouncing under the table and his stomach swirling with nerves, neither of his parents are patient.

“JT, dear, why don’t you lead us through it again,” Mama asks, voice tight yet leading him to say yes without a second thought.

It’s Jared, he thinks, hating the nickname he’s been tagged with since childhood. Instead, he says “Yes, ma’am … Bless us, O Lord, and these, Thy gifts, which we are about to receive from Thy bounty …”

The words fall out of his mouth from years of memories buried deep inside, all while he feels a fire burn down to his toes knowing he’s damned for all the other thoughts gathering inside.

If he wasn’t so beautiful, Jared would blame Jensen Ackles for his downfall.

His parents surely will.

In the end, Jared smiles at the anticipation of seeing Jensen later tonight, for hearing his voice, and standing near enough to feel heat come off in waves.

Mama thinks he is just glad to say grace. It is more like he is glad to be done with the prayer so he can dig into his meal and get this Saturday night going.

Jared tags along with Danneel and Aldis out to the Kane Farm, like most Saturday nights. This one is different because he knows that their bonfire crowd has been growing, knows that Christian Kane has managed to befriend the Ackles boys on the next plot of land over. Jensen and Josh showed up the last few weekends with a small group of their own friends.

The new guests aren’t ones Jared knows well. Josh and his friends are a few years older. The others, he has never spoken a word to at school, but he knows them all the same. Felicia Day has shortly cropped hair, parted on the side with a long sweep of teased up orange hair, and leads the A/V Club with Mr. Omundson. Rob uses his rough, wailing voice to head up a garage band that always aggressively plays tailgating parties before big football games without a single invitation, taking the brunt of sports fans tossing soda cans and sandwiches at them. And Genevieve Cortese hides her pale face and dark eye make-up with equally dark, long hair cascading over one eye.

They represent the core tenants of Austin South High School, where the athletes skate through four years of education and the outcasts keep everything running behind the scenes. Rounding out the group is Jensen Ackles with his faux-hawk, skinny jeans, ruffed-up Converse, and graphic tees that make everyone stop and read his chest before turning away.

Jensen runs the art club, and everyone knows it, even when they don’t give him an ounce of credit. His block handwriting is obvious in every banner and flier hanging throughout the school, splashed with edgy strikes of color to mess up the perfection in his letters.

Aside from his bold shirts, Jensen stays back in the shadows, unlike Jared with his face displayed in the athletics hall as the current leading basketball scorer in Travis County’s history. Jared smiles and laughs loudly with any and everyone while Jensen keeps to himself in the hallways and during class. Jensen scribbles over tests and notes, dresses up every piece of paper with his sketches and dreamy lines, while Jared stacks books with perfectly-folded covers and finishes tests halfway through the period to do more homework until the bell.

Jared is welcome nearly everywhere he goes, while Jensen is closed off and uptight, or so says the rest of the school. Jensen strays from human touch from those he isn’t close to, and Jared will offer hugs and handshakes to everyone he meets. After all, the church taught him good manners and his parents encouraged love and care in everything he does.

There is no person more opposite to Jared, at least none that he has met. And Jared can’t stop thinking of Jensen, can’t stop watching the way Jensen’s lips slowly open and close mere centimeters as he talks to his friends, how his eyes narrow with tiny lines when he smiles, or how his voice is low and soothing as he sings along to the radio when he thinks no one is watching.

Jared doesn’t quite understand his need to watch every move Jensen makes at these bonfires, or to know everything about the guy. But here he is, cataloging fact after fact as his friends talk around them and Jensen stays in a tiny circle with Christian, Felicia, and Genevieve.

Jensen’s fingers dance on his hips when he likes a song but doesn’t want to show it. And his bottom lip continually shines in the firelight as he gets nervous and keeps licking it. And his shoulders hunch in when he catches Jared watching him.

They are polar opposites to the nth degree in a high school full of judgment and cliques, and Jared still wants to understand every thought raging through his brain.

Like how he knows that Jensen is gay, and Jared, according to the Bible, the church, and his parents, absolutely, positively, cannot be.

Bright and early Sunday morning, Jared rises to the sun spilling into his room and cascading over his face. His skin feels warm and sticky, and he has to blink against the brightness until he realizes he should just get up, no matter how late he snuck back in the night before.

No matter that he stayed up for most of the night watching TV and pretending to not recreate the entire evening at the farm while his eyes glazed over to a late night showing of Poltergeist.

When the scenes replay in his head again, over and over, he rolls and buries his face in the pillow. He releases a long, rough shout into the billowy cotton, then sucks in a deep breath to steady himself against the tension tightening his muscles.

Just as he glances at his alarm clock to see it is now 8:38 am, his mother knocks and calls at his bedroom door. “Sunday church,” she reminds him, as if he has to be told twice.

Every Sunday, the whole Padalecki family files into the car for the 10-minute ride across their side of town to attend mass led by Father Thomas. The community adores the pastor’s bright smile and the charm of his lessons. Jared doesn’t care either way, but he knows it is his duty to attend, folding hands and kneeling through all the appropriate parts.

Church lasts for 50 minutes and he spends half of it searching the crowd for people he knows, or new attendees he has never seen before. Sometimes, he stares at the statue of Mary on the left side of the pulpit and considers the softness of her face, the thin Mona Lisa smile, and the long drape of her blue gown. His focus goes to the center of the chancel, where the large imposing crucifix hangs as the not-so-subtle reminder of Jesus’s dedication to humanity and his sacrifice for every man, woman, and child.

Jared takes in the face of the sculpture and he thinks of the Bible chapters he had to read through catechism classes. There are more than enough stories of Jesus’s compassion for others, his teachings to lead a good life and accept all people for all needs. Jared believes in that message and knows that he tries to lead a good life, be a good person, and share a smile as often as possible. He also knows there are expectations hanging over his head with every step he takes.

Not that they’re vocalized every day, but they are there all the same. Quick glances from his parents when he tests the boundaries of good, public behavior. Hugs and kisses from extended family when they acknowledge he’s growing into a fine, handsome man. Tests and papers that tell all just how smart Jared really is, beyond the mystique of being a jock. Game scores that impress upon all that he is a hard-working, highly-efficient athlete that wins games and energizes crowds.

Every day, Jared faces metrics that tell him he’s a good person, that he is becoming exactly who they all expect him to be. When he really thinks about it – really takes a good hard look at the whole picture – it scares him down to the core to know that he is doing exactly what everyone else wants and expects of him, yet maybe he’s not accomplishing all that he aspires for.

Before he can think too long on that dilemma, all the joined parishioners stand to sing the final song and watch the procession of the pastor and altar boy and girl exit the church with music still playing. As he turns towards the small contemporary choir at the front right of the chapel, he catches Stephen Amell staring back and rolling his eyes with a good-natured shrug. The song ends and parishioners file out to the open, sunny air, and Jared lags in the aisle to catch up with his friend.

“Another Sunday in the books,” Stephen jokes while wringing an arm around Jared’s neck.

Jared smiles as he realizes Stephen has to stretch a little now; Jared’s latest growth spurt has him edging out his friend. “How long until we’re gone to college?”

Stephen widens his eyes in surprise. “You dying to leave us all behind?”

“No, just to sleep in on Sundays.” Jared smiles and nudges Stephen off his shoulders once they’re out in the bright sunshine. “My parents don’t make Jeff go when he’s home on the weekend.”

“How’d he get so lucky?”

“He claims he goes to a service on Sunday nights when he’s back on campus.”

Stephen scoffs, “Yeah, right.”

“Right? What a lucky asshole.” Jared laughs until he realizes they’re standing just a few feet from his parents, who have heard every word he’s just said. Including the curse word.

“JT,” his father says tightly. “We’re still on the church grounds, you know?”

“Yes, sir,” Jared answers quickly then shoves at Stephen to leave him alone.

“Later, nerd!” Stephen yells over his shoulder and then he’s gone and Jared is left staring at the space in the crowd Stephen slipped through to find his family.

He doesn’t want to turn to face his family, doesn’t want to hear how he should never use language like that, especially not on the lawn of the Lord, Our Father.

All he receives are quick looks from his parents before they suggest going out for brunch with the Harrises, and Jared can’t argue that when he can sit at the end of the table with Danneel, leaving Megan to cater to Danneel’s annoying younger brother.

At the restaurant, Jared leads the group to the table with Danneel coming up behind him so they can quickly pick their seats. Megan grimaces at him then smirks while being far too obvious with her loud whispering.

“You just wanna sit with your girlfriend.”

Jared glares at her as he takes his seat and wants to snap back at his sister. Danneel isn’t his girlfriend, just a close friend, and he hasn’t thought of her as anything else in at least a few years. Sure, when they were young and going through catechism together, Danneel was the cutest girl in class and it was all just a junior high crush, like most boys had on Danneel. But nothing ever came of it, and Jared never cared to make something happen. With Danneel or anyone else, really. No one has caught his eye in a long time, and he figures he has enough on his plate between school and basketball and college shopping.

“How’s school going for you?” Jared’s mom asks of Danneel as she leans against the table to watch them both. Maybe a bit too carefully – Megan isn’t the only one insistent that Jared and Danneel must be a secret couple.

“It’s going really good,” Danneel responds with a bright smile. “Cheerleading for football is dying down and now we’re ramping up for basketball.” She winks at Jared and lightly elbows him, which makes him smile back at her. “It’s going to be a good year for everyone!”

“And how about Homecoming? Did you find yourself a special date yet?” Now Jared’s mom is the one winking, which brings out a groan from Jared.

“Mom, could you not?” Jared whines.

“I’m asking a very innocent question, JT.”

“Jared,” he corrects her.

His mom waves him off and focuses back on Danneel. “So, Homecoming … got a dress yet?” In seconds, Danneel and his mom are verbally shopping for everything needed at the dance, and Jared rolls his eyes while turning away from the conversation.

Sure, he’ll go to the dance, and yeah, he’ll enjoy being out with his friends, all gussied up and in the mood for celebration. But he’s not about to go into it with his mom, who has her own set of memories for traditional Homecomings back in her day. He knows he’ll ask Danneel eventually … she’s still getting over her breakup with Ryan Hansen, who dropped her once he got to college and found a pool of new hook-ups. Jared knows it’ll be easier for the both of them to go with a friend than battle any romantic attachments when there are none on his radar.

In the fall, Jared is focused on training for basketball tryouts, even when he’s a shoe-in to start at forward, just as he has since he was a sophomore. Book-ended by Stephen and Aldis, Austin South High School has skated through the conference and regional play-offs, with runs at the state championship that have yet to pay off.

Everyone says this is the year – the players, coaches, teachers, district administration, neighbors, the papers, and on and on and on. Jared ignores the pressure and figures it’ll be another two wins and out like last year. Still, he hits the pavement at Singer Park every day after school. He aims for hitting three pointers and layups, tests his hops on a dozen or so dunks, and attempts to nail one from the half-court line. The latter is a lost hope, but the others he nails without fail.

He starts up another circuit of shots and layups and dunks, but he’s interrupted half an hour later by his phone’s alarm reminding him he can’t be late for dinner. The or else is loosely defined, as his parents have never done more than slant a terse look his way the few times he has stumbled in a few minutes past grace, but he doesn’t bother testing their patience anymore.

It’s just easier to follow the road map in front of him … get straight As, win basketball games, be popular and well liked everywhere, all so he can get into a good school, go to college, graduate, and get a good job before hitting the next list of standards that tell the world, and his parents, that Jared Padalecki is a good person.

Jared gathers his backpack, basketball, phone, and clothes from school. It’s a precarious task to leave the park with everything on his arms, barely in his hold, but he does his best while letting the ball bounce a few times as he gets things better situated. All the while, he glances around and catches the free-spirited Felicia Day pedaling fast as she can on an old-school bike with winged handlebars and giant, thick tires spinning over the roadway when she passes.

“Come on, ya dumb turkey!” she calls over her shoulder, and that’s when Jared hears the heavy pounding of feet coming after her.

“I ain’t fucking dumb!” Jensen Ackles yells as he dares catching up to her with his faded-red Chuck Taylors slapping on the pavement.

“You ain’t, huh?” she laughs back.

Jensen laughs as well and slows his run when Felicia turns at the nearby intersection, looping back towards him. “I am a turkey all the way!” He runs his hand over one pink cheek then the other before dragging it through his hair. It sticks out in every direction, adding to the disheveled t-shirt that is partly tucked in at one corner of his hip.

Jared’s breath catches and he stares, finds himself void of any thoughts other than how quickly his heart beats. Probably just as fast as Jensen’s is, but not quite in tune. It thumps harshly in his chest, and he prays it’s not obvious, but he thinks he’s caught to some degree when he realizes Jensen’s bright, clear green eyes are focused right on him.

“Hey,” Jensen offers quietly.

“Hi, hey,” Jared responds quicker than anything, smile creasing the corner of his mouth. It’s the very first words he’s ever spoken to Jensen Ackles, and he quickly realizes he needs more to fill the silence. His mouth opens a few times, but nothing comes out. Feelings burn within as he experiences wave after wave of embarrassment, elation, shame, and desire.

He wants to move forward and touch that fussed-up hair, longs to smell the salty tang of sweat, anything more than just standing still and wondering what it’s like to be in Jensen Ackles’ shoes. Or heck, even to stand right beside them.

Only, Jensen takes a few steps to meet up with Felicia, who rides random circles in the street and watches the encounter with a sideways glance. “See ya.”

Jared smiles then tampers it down, despite how hot his cheeks suddenly become. “Yeah, sure. See ya later.”

Stupidly, he watches Jensen and Felicia leave, doesn’t move until they’re far off in the distance and his phone chirps with a new text. To check the message, he has to rearrange everything in his arms, and he curses himself out for looking so foolish on the sidewalk with a huge haul as he stared at Jensen Ackles doing nothing more than pass by.

He winces when he finally gets to read the text from his little sister.

Mama says you have five minutes before she locks the screen door and you can eat on the porch

Everything shifts in his arms and hands, but he finally gets a decent pile together and he jogs home, kicking the basketball ahead of him the whole time.

It takes a little over four minutes to hit the front porch and swing open the unlocked screen door. He dumps all of his things in the foyer then marches into the dining room where his mom, dad, and sister are seated. The table is set as formally as always, and everyone is perfectly perched in their seats when he pulls his out to sit. It’s unnerving to see from this angle, to know they’re all waiting on him, and won’t move an inch until all five are seated together.

Just before he sets his butt in the chair, he’s stopped by his mom tsking with a tip of her head. “You know the rules, JT. Wash up before you eat up.”

In quick succession, his sister snickers and his brother rolls his eyes. “Yes, ma’am,” he answers on instinct. “Apologies.”

A minute later, he’s back with damp hands that he didn’t bother drying all the way just so he could join them immediately. As Jared tugs the navy cloth napkin into place, the others bow their heads and he’s quick to catch up.

“Who would like to lead grace tonight?” his father asks the group, yet he glances at Jared, keeping Jared’s gaze throughout the awkward silence.

Jared knows this rule: Last one at the table is the first one to speak. And so he rattles off grace, feeling more than a few ounces of guilt that he was late for dinner. Especially when the conversation starts with Megan talking about an upcoming band concert and trails into Jeff talking about the classes he attends when he’s not at home. When that line of storytelling dries up, Megan teases Jeff about his latest girlfriend … Ann or Audrey or something … and the way Jeff blushes makes Jared chew slower and listen very carefully as Jeff insists she’s just a really cool girl, someone different than anyone he’s known before, and he really digs her.

Jared turns his attention to his plate, eating spoonfuls of mashed potatoes that feel like cement in his mouth with how slowly he’s chewing and swallowing it all. His brain turns over and over, and he thinks about Jensen Ackles, and how Jared likes looking at someone so different from all the others in school. There’s something highly admirable in a guy who’s willing to traverse the expectations of the south, where children grow up to be the best picture of masculinity and athleticism imaginable. That Jensen portrays calm, collected confidence without speaking a word, and yet a simple hey had captured Jared’s mind in that very second … and for quite a few to follow.

He tampers it down with a hard swallow, blinking quickly as if that will clear his head of these wayward thoughts. It seems to do the trick for a few minutes, but he’s completely at a loss for words when his father next opens his mouth.

“So, Jared, you got plans for Homecoming?”

Jared goes to Homecoming with Danneel Harris, three-time Homecoming court member and this year’s front-runner for queen. Aldis and Stephen laugh over Jared’s increased chances to wear a crown himself, since history denotes that the King and Queen have typically attended the dance together. After all, only the best for the Queen … and many think Jared is just that.

He shakes off the jokes, shrugs away any other mentions of the possibility, plays it subtle and unaffected, because that’s what he does. He will graciously accept the crown if and when his name is announced, but in all the time before that, he just wants to enjoy hanging with his friends with only a few adult chaperones to keep an eye on them.

Throughout the night, he admires the party’s décor, with the gymnasium decked out in black and gold. A number of signs declare tonight as one of their many GOLDEN MEMORIES, and Jared smirks as he imagines Jensen making each discrete line for those letters and struggling to not hide some sarcastic remark. Dances have never been Jensen’s scene, or for his friends. So Jared is surprised, mightily, when a handful of those friends show up at the door with tickets in hand. Jensen straggles behind them, and Jared can’t see much, but it’s obvious he isn’t dressed for the occasion and is quickly escorted to the hallway by a teacher for further discussions.

Jared stands on his tip toes in hopes for a better view before Danneel grabs his elbow and spins him around for another dance.

Jared and Danneel join their friends out on the Kane Farm, crowns properly atop their heads and smiles firmly in place. Danneel kisses him on the cheek whenever she refers to him as her king, and he does his best to beam proudly as the crowd watches what they think is a friendship finally shifting into something else.

The only shifting Jared is doing is directed towards Jensen, who mills on the edge of the shadows, picking at hay and tossing it at the fire. Felicia, Genevieve, and Alona are near him, but not exactly connected as they’re in colorful, funky cocktail dresses with interesting fabric cuts or big poofy skirts, and Jensen wears a faded plaid flannel over a t-shirt that declares Oh whale! with a drawing of the giant aquatic mammal. His jeans and red Chucks make it obvious he wasn’t welcome at the dance; more telling is Christian and Tahmoh reliving pranks they pulled while there, including predictably spiking the punch in addition to syncing Bump and Grind to the DJ table and causing the faculty to have a complete coronary until they could finally shut it off.

When the artsy girls shuffle their way over to the barrel filled with dark beer bottles, Jared tucks his hands into his suit pockets and dares to step towards Jensen. The movement seems to startle Jensen, and Jared immediately stops and bites his tongue.

Jared admires the coppery glow on Jensen’s cheeks, how his eyes shine brighter with the fire blazing before him. And now Jared can perfectly feel each muscle in his face crease with nerves, fear, confusion. He knows he wants to talk to Jensen, but isn’t quite sure why. Knows he rather enjoys watching Jensen, just looking at him, and yet doesn’t want to think about it.

Of course, his mind rattles on anyway and suddenly he is bombarded with a number of images that make him uncomfortable in all the wrong places. Especially while in public.

He doesn’t want to think on that, and yet he finds himself still staring at Jensen, who shrugs as Jared steps a bit closer. “Not much of a drinker? Just one of the good kids?”

Jared swallows, hard, and takes a quick breath to steady himself. “Not really either. Just like hanging out.” Jensen nods and Jared searches for something to say. Anything. “Kind of sucks you couldn’t stay at the dance,” he says then mentally kicks himself for bothering to bring that up.

“Kind of?” Jensen asks with a chuckle. Jared enjoys the tiny scrape in the sound. “The only thing that really sucks was bothering to go there then turn my ass right around. Should’ve just stayed home the whole time.”

“Yeah, that’s gotta suck.” He rocks back on his heels and tucks his hands deeper into his pants pockets, then pulls them out when he feels like he’s drawing attention to the sleek fabric and hard crease that his mama put into them with her iron just an hour before the dance. “Could be worse though ...”

“What? Like being stuck there all night?” Jensen chuckles again, and Jared likes the sound the second time around, so he smiles with him even when the question seems harsh and bitter.

It’s oddly silent, even as conversations build around them with random outbursts of laughter or chiding remarks. Jared looks beyond the fire to Danneel, Aldis, and Matt racing one another to down a blue Solo cup of vodka and soda, then turns to Jensen again. He watches Jensen’s fingers split a few more pieces of hay before flicking them at the flames.

“You don’t like dances?” Jared tries.

“Not really.”

“Why not?” he asks quickly, and the way Jensen narrows his eyes makes Jared backtrack. “I mean, maybe they’re not the best thing, but everyone goes and you get to dress up and hang out with friends and dance.”

Jensen’s eyebrows rise, along with the corner of his mouth for a brief moment. “You really like dances, huh?”

“It’s just … what everyone does.”

“So it’s expected of you?” he asks while watching Jared for any reaction. “You don’t always have to follow the rules and shit, tie guy.”

Jared automatically reaches for his tie, straightening it out between his thumb and fingers. “Tie guy?”

“Last year, you were always in ties, it seems.”

He clears his throat to respond and has to do it again when he feels a solid lump blocking him from talking without squeaking. “We have to wear ‘em on game day.”

“Oh, right,” he says with a quick snap of his fingers, spraying pieces of hay into the air, “basketball player.”

Jared nods and licks his lips with a brewing excitement that they’re talking about something more interesting than Jensen’s dislike for dances. “Forward.”

Jensen crumbles the last few pieces of withered hay between his thumb and forefinger. Jared watches intently as Jensen brings his hand up and reaches towards the fire, yet never releases them. Jensen slowly rolls his fingers over the straw then examines how they float towards the ground and settle among tattered grass.

“If dances are so terrible, why did you try to show up?”

Jensen lets out a short, harsh laugh with his head bouncing back for a brief moment. “It was all petty shit anyway.”

“It wasn’t that stupid.”

“You had fun with the ceremony of slow songs and stilted dancing with dates all the assholes think you should be with?”

Jared lightly sighs and catches Danneel’s eye. She waves towards him and he offers his hand up in a quick returning gesture. “Yeah, it was good.”

“You sure?” Jensen looks over and smirks like he’s waiting for Jared to give in and admit it was the worst evening of his life. It wasn’t, so all he can do is shrug. Jensen does, too, as if waving off the point. “Some people love ‘em, I just don’t get the pomp and circumstance of it all. If I want to dress up and hang out with my friends, I just will. I don’t need a damn marketing spiel to tell me I should do it.”

Jared bites his lip from picking apart Jensen’s reasoning, because all he can think about is Jensen’s handwriting all over the banners marketing the dance to the students. Every piece of literature across the school and handed out in homeroom declaring it a ‘must-attend!’ event ‘no one should miss!’

One of Jensen’s shoulders lifts with a lack of confidence rarely shown. “If it’s something you’re into, fine. But don’t expect me to be there.”

“Not even for senior year?” he asks softly.

“Not even on my last day on earth.”

Jensen smiles with his declaration, overriding the derision in his statement. More like his promise, that he would never be caught dead at such an occasion. Jared chews on the thought while watching Jensen’s profile, because there’s a new conversation happening off to the side and Jared knows theirs is now over.

With a deep breath, Jared subtly kicks the grass and stews over the fact that his first real conversation with Jensen went this way, that he couldn’t avoid asking more and more questions even when he didn’t like the answers.

Everyone eats lunch together. They sit at their regular table near the front aisle, where most every student has to pass. Jared, Aldis, Danneel, and Katie, accompanied by a handful of other friends. It’s not unusual to see cheerleader uniforms or letter-men jackets at their table each week. They all sit close, unafraid of being right on top of one another, reaching across each other to talk and share lunches.

Jared notices Jensen’s table, with Felicia, Sophia, Jason, and Richard. The five take up nearly as much room as Jared and his friends do, but they’re all spaced out with work pieces on the tabletop to show off. Jensen glances around the lunchroom then scribbles in his brown leather bound sketchbook. He does it nearly every day, until he finds a subject, apparently, and then he gets to drawing. Jared can’t tell what goes into the book from across the cafeteria, but he wonders about what fills all those pages.

“Why’re you watching the gay table?” Matt asks, reaching across the table and flicking Jared on the nose before his full attention returns to his friends again.

“I’m not … what? Why do you call it that?”

“Because they’re all gay.”

Danneel rises from her seat to lean over and smack Matt on the side of the head. “Don’t say that, dumbass.”

“What?” he harps, holding his ear. “Since when is gay bad?”

“Since the bible told me so,” Aldis replies before biting into his apple. “Right, Jay?”

Surely, he’s read passages in the Good Book, but he has considered it more of a guide than a rule book. He knows that people shouldn’t be stoned, nor should there be servitude or lashings for behavior that is perfectly acceptable in this day and age. And he knows that there are plenty of homosexuals in the world, understands that Jensen is one as well, and Jared still wants to get to know the free spirit, has wondered a bit about why … but it doesn’t mean he’s really considered the repercussions.

“Yeah, the Bible totally says gay is bad,” Matt argues.

Danneel throws her banana peel at Matt, nailing him in the cheek and making him screech. “Stop saying gay is bad, you moron!”

“You could all just stop saying it,” Jared suggests.

“Why? Are you gay?” Aldis asks … surely teasing.

Except, the table goes mostly quiet as they watch Jared, anticipate his response. First, he smirks, then he cocks his head to the side. “And what if I was?”

Aldis watches Jared, thinking through his answer, then shrugs nonchalantly. “Your prerogative, I guess. Just don’t bring your gay into the locker room.”

Jared tips his head further in judgment. “I won’t.”

“Good.” Aldis looks at the rest of their friends. “Anyone got leftovers?”

“God, you’re like a garbage disposal,” Katie sighs, and the rest carry on new conversations like the disruption and tension had never stalled them.

When the basketball season opens, hundreds of students fill the stadium to witness the brand new uniforms. Bright blue and gold dress the squads, with SOUTH in bold, white block letters on the front. A decorative 15 stitched just above the numbers on their backs are courtesy of Aldis’s mom … a small nod to the senior class who are ready to make this their season.

Jared has held onto number 17 since junior high when he led varsity from sixth through eighth grade. Putting it on in the locker room just before the game speaks to him, about the seventeen years he’s been on this planet, of the seventeen games they’ll play this season before the playoffs determine his future. He’s on the brink of something new, exciting, life changing, and he’s wearing that very number.

“You think scouts are out there yet?” Matt asks from his locker a few slots down from Jared.

“It’s too early,” Stephen insists.

“It’s never too early,” Tahmoh adds with a cocky grin. “I’ll be all dressed up and ready to go for ‘Bama State.”

Matt throws a towel at Tahmoh’s head. “As if they’d let you past the border.”

The conversation grabs Jared’s attention, to think that even the first game of the season will draw attention from college recruiters. He’s been planning on Texas A&M for months … for the academic scholarship he’s already been offered. Sure, basketball was part of the deal, too, but Mama and Papa had insisted he go somewhere better known for engineering, a career he could really make money in.

Not to say Jared has been daydreaming about playing basketball professionally. When he was first starting out and watching some of the greats on TV … just starting grammar school and seeing the tail end of Michael Jordan’s career, or the start of Kobe’s. He’s thought about it a thousand times in his life, and then his parents stressed school over and over and over.

“Hey, Jare!” Tahmoh yells. “You gonna go to ‘Bama?”

“I wish,” he jokes, but the laughter dies before it reaches his ears. It wasn’t on the list he showed his parents … but it did make an appearance on his first draft.

He wanted to keep playing in college, never thought much about giving it up, though he can admit to himself that there are days that it’s just another obligation to add to the calendar. He doesn’t know what it’s like to not commit half the school year to the sport. Can’t imagine going home right after school from October through March, and even after that, he’s typically training or playing pick-up games with the guys to keep in shape.

Coach enters the locker room, slapping his open palm against his dry erase clip board to get their attention.

“Alright, ladies! You ready to put on your big-kid pants and play some ball?”

“Hell yeah!”