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It starts when that fucking freakshow shows up at their school.

Sal draws Travis's attention immediately. That's nothing unique; he catches everyone's attention. He wears a mask that's freaky as Hell, and he keeps his pale blue hair in a pair of girlish pigtails.

Travis hates him immediately. He's everything a boy isn't supposed to be; he doesn't just wear his hair in pigtails or paint his nails or wear earrings, but he's calm, gentle, and compassionate.

Travis hates those almost more than his effeminate appearance. Specifically the calmness; when Travis goes to tell him just how little he cares for him, he doesn't seem rattled.

He supposes he could just let it go. His father always says that it's the just thing to do; turn the other cheek, like Jesus said. Admittedly, it's not bad advice; Travis always lets it go when his father loses his temper, after all. He let it go when his mother left them. There's no use in being angry about it.

But whenever he lays eyes on that Sally Face, he can't help himself; all those feelings of anger come bubbling up to the surface.

After a time, Travis realizes that he doesn’t know why.

 ---

The freak's friends are almost as freaky as he is. There's that dark-skinned goth girl who's way too quiet for anyone's comfort, the fat kid with the green hair, that nerd Todd, and that stoner with the long hair. Ashley Campbell is probably the one who looks the most normal out of all of them, but Todd knows better; she used to date that weird goth girl, and the paintings she makes in art class get everyone whispering.

They're all so un-Christian. That's why Travis hates them so much, he tells himself. It certainly has nothing to do with the weird, confusing thoughts and feelings he's been having towards that freak lately, or the fact that his friends all seem to love him so much. Especially Larry and Ashley. Travis is fairly certain that there’s something going on between the three of them.

The thought makes Travis angrier than it should. It's not natural; that's what he tells himself. Sal and Larry are both boys, so that's wrong; Ashley dated a girl once, and has an interest in a boy who presents himself like a girl. There are so many things that God would hate, Travis loses count.

They're a lost cause. Travis knows it; there's really nothing that he can do for them. He knows he needs to let it go.

He finds that he can't, though. They're like magnets. Especially Sal. Travis doesn't really know what it is about him, in particular, but any time he's near, he can't help but look.

Travis wonders why; thinks over it and over it. He soon realizes that there's not a single answer to that question that he likes.

 ---

 

It’s already a shitty day. Everyone stares at his black eye as he steps onto the bus, and won’t stop staring. The only one who actually asks about it, though, is Sal.

Of fucking course.

"What happened?" he asks. The fact that there's genuine concern in Sal's voice when he asks just makes it that much worse.

"None of your fucking business!” Travis snaps.

"If you say so," says Sal. "If someone's doing this to you, though, you should go to the police."

As if other people haven't tried that for him, already. "Fuck off," Travis grumbles. It's not exactly a clever response, but it does the job. Sal gazes at him for a while before heading to his own locker.

Then there's that math quiz that Travis forgot to study for last night. He glares down at the problems, all looking like Latin or Greek, and half-asses every single one. His father won’t be happy about the grade; it might mean another black eye for Travis.

Sal, naturally, aces the test. He finishes it early and takes a little catnap on his desk, even.

Fucking show-off.

Travis tries to ignore the strange feelings at the pit of his stomach when he sees that sleepy Sal Fisher. What does it mean, that he actually kind of likes the sight?

It comes to a head after class. Cussing out Sal and punching him satisfies him a lot less than he’d been hoping.

The entire rest of the day, he can’t stop thinking about something that Sal said. "You kiss your daddy with that tongue?"

Why had he used Travis's father instead of his mother? Does Sal know? Is that why he said that?

That night, Travis writes. He writes and writes and writes, revises and revises and revises, to no avail. Nothing comes out the way he wants it to.  

Even the fact that the next day is Bologna Sandwich Day at school doesn’t make him feel better.

His father never apologizes for hitting him, but he’ll do other things that are almost as good. He hands Travis a stack of pamphlets, all but saying that he can make it up to him by getting more people to come to their church. Unsurprisingly, only a handful of people take any.

Sal coming up to make conversation with him is what puts him over the edge. He finishes his sandwich quickly, not even letting himself savor it, before heading to the bathroom.

He gazes at the stupid note. Once his eyes start burning and his vision becomes blurry, he crumples the stupid thing up and lobs it at the trash can. It misses, but Travis can't bring himself to care. He locks himself in the bathroom stall and lets himself cry into his hands.

The sound of the door opening is enough to make him quiet his sobs.  Travis thinks nothing of it, until he sees a familiar pair of blue high tops under the stall door.

"Anyone in there?"

Son of a bitch... It’s the absolute last person Travis wants to see right now. "No, duh, Fuckwad. Buzz off!" His words lack their usual venom; he's painfully aware of this.

 "Travis? Were you just...crying a second ago?"

As if this shitty day couldn't get any shittier.

"Sally Face? I--no! Can't a guy get some privacy?"

He expects his social life, or what remains of it, to be ruined right at this moment in time. Instead, Sal says something that Travis doesn’t expect.

"...Why do you hate me so much?"

Travis would have thought the answer was obvious. "Because you and your dumb friends are a bunch of homos! It's sick! It's not right! God will never love you; why should I?" Those words are just as much for Travis as they are for Sal and his freaky posse. Maybe even more so. 

"You know we all aren't actually gay, right?" retorts Sal. "I mean, besides for Todd. Todd is super gay."

Huh. Travis had not known that. It had just made sense for all of them to be gay…

"But that's a part of who he is and I think it's wonderful. He's one of the kindest people I know! How could anyone hate Todd?"

Travis shakes his head. "Ugh!" he spits. He doesn’t have a better answer...the truth is, even now that he knows this, he can’t bring himself to hate Todd. It doesn’t matter what verbal vitriol Travis throws at him; Todd is always cool and calm.

He’s almost as hard to bully as Sal is.

"Is your father pushing these beliefs on you?"

That catches Travis a bit off guard.  “Just because my dad is a preacher doesn't mean he owns me! I'm my own person!" He’s aware of how defensive he sounds.

"Yeah, but..." Travis hears shuffling from the other side of the door. Sal is probably fidgeting with his hands, in that stupidly, annoyingly adorable way of his. "Well, you seem so unhappy, Man."

Travis has no idea how to respond to that.

"Are you sure your dad isn't putting too much pressure on you? I bet it's tough, being the son of such an intense man."

"You have no idea what it's like..." Travis whispers the words as he gingerly touches his black eye.

"I'm sorry, Man."

The sadness and helplessness dissipate for a moment, leaving insult and anger. "Don't feel sorry for me, Sally Face," he spat. "I don't need your pity!"

"We don't have to be enemies; you know that, right?"

Travis has no idea what to say to that.

"I think, under all that anger, there's a good dude who's afraid to be himself. If you ever need someone to talk to, or if you need to get away from your dad for a while, you can hang out with me."

The pure kindness in Sal's voice almost makes Travis start crying all over again. When’s the last time someone spoke to him so gently? It must have been his mother, years ago. "Why--" Travis chokes on the word. "Why are you being so nice to me?"

"I don't think you're a bad person, Travis." Sal says that, as if it’s the most obvious answer in the world.

Travis wishes he could agree with that.

"You know, I don't really hate you..." admits Travis. "Or your friends," he quickly adds.

"I didn't really think so."

Fucking shit, what had Travis done to deserve this?  "I-I guess..." Travis clears his throat again. Things are okay now; why are tears still sliding down his cheeks? "Well, I'm sorry I've been such an asshole. You didn't deserve that." Humbleness and owning up to your mistakes are good Christian values.  It isn’t Sal's fault that Travis has a stupid crush on him. Well, it is, but it isn’t like he meant to do that.

"That means a lot to me. It really does. Thank you. And what I said, about being here for you if you ever decide you want a friend...I meant that." Of course, Sal is really not helping by being so gracious about this.

"Don't push your luck, Sally Face!" says Travis. He feels much better than he did minutes ago, though, so the statement doesn’t have its usual heat to it. A thought occurs to Travis. "Oh, here; I was gonna flush this down the toilet, but I guess you can have it. I found it on your desk. "

He shoves the weird paper under the stall door and watches Sal pick it up with his dainty, painted nails. He hears him mutter something under his breath before he thanks him. Why does Travis find it so cute that he talks to himself?

"Okay; now scram so I can have my alone time," he gruffly says. "And, uh..."

"What?" asks Sal.

"Don't tell anyone about this or you’re dead!" Travis realizes what he’s just said. Sal literally just reached out to him with kindness, despite everything Travis had put him through. He deserves no more cruelty from him. "Er...I mean, just…don't tell anyone about this, okay?"

"I won't." Travis sighs with relief.

As Sal leaves him, he realizes that he has a lot more thinking to do.

---

It takes Travis five months, several trips to the school counselor, and one very emotional phone call to his mother to work up the courage to talk to Sal again. He waits until he finds him alone; even if Sal is cool with him, he's pretty sure his other friends won't be.

"Hey, Sally Face."

Sal looks up from the book he’s reading. It figures that Sal likes the library. Maybe he isn't as big of a nerd as his friend Todd, but he’s definitely still pretty damn nerdy. "Hey, Travis."

"Yeah. Hey." Travis scratches the back of his neck. Why is he so hot all of a sudden?  "Um...what are you reading?" That’s a good conversation starter, right?  That’s how this whole 'talking' thing works, right?

"It's about a girl named Nell," says Sal. "It's a sci-fi thing; it's got nanotechnology in it. Todd recommended it to me."

"Sounds..." Nerdy, thinks Travis. What actually comes out of his mouth is "...interesting."

"It is, so far! I like it; I can't wait to see what else this author will write!" Sal sounds like he genuinely enjoys the book, and reading.

Travis has to wonder what it’s like, actually enjoying something.

"Cool...cool." Travis rubs his upper arm, growing more and more self-conscious by the minute. "So, uh...I've been thinking..."

Sal looks up at him, mismatched eyes full of curiosity. Travis has to look away. "Yeah?" Sal asks.

Travis takes a deep breath. "You, uh...remember how you told me I could hang out with you?"

Sal nods.  His pigtails shake in a ridiculously cute way. Travis kind of wants to punch someone, right now.

He won’t, though. He’s trying to get better; that's why he's here right now. "Well...I was wondering...could I come over this weekend?"

Sal's going to say 'no,' Travis just knows it. No one is actually that nice, especially not after you're such an asshole to them.

"Sure!"

Travis blinks. "Really?" he asks.

Sal nods again. "You could get off the bus with me. Would that be okay?"

"Uh...yeah. Yeah, that could work." Travis clears his throat. "See you Friday, then?"

"See you Friday!" Sal says cheerfully before going back to his book.

It can't be this easy, Travis thinks to himself. There's no way it's this easy... Nothing in life comes this easily.

He keeps waiting for the other shoe to drop, but it never does.

---

"Is that a suitcase?"

Travis blinks at Sal. "Yeah?" he says, raising an eyebrow. "My backpack’s full of books; I can't fit my clothes in there, can I?"

Sal's eyes widen. "Oh! You want to sleep over?" he asks.

Travis doesn't say anything; he just looks down at his shoes, as he feels his cheeks redden. "Er..." he says, rather dumbly.

"'Cause that's okay," says Sal. "You can, if you want."

"Oh." What could easily have been an incredibly embarrassing misunderstanding turns out for the better.

It's a feeling Travis isn't used to, quite yet.

Sal takes the window seat, which Travis is grateful for; he tends to feel claustrophobic, when sitting in such a cramped space. Not that that happens often; people usually don't sit with him on the bus.

It's not like Travis doesn't understand why; though he'd be lying if he said this wasn't a pleasant change of pace.

"What do you feel like doing, when we get there?" Sal's talking.

Travis shrugs. "I don't know," he admits. "What's there to do?"

"I have plenty of movies," he says. "Oh, and video sets of TV shows. Have you ever seen Twine Parks?"

Travis shakes his head. "No. I, uh...don't really watch much TV," he admits.

"There's something we can do, then!" said Sal. "I have to warn you, it ends on a frustrating cliffhanger, but the show is still pretty great."

Travis nods. "Okay. Sounds...cool." He isn’t lying. When’s the last time he'd just sat down and watched TV with a friend?

The last time he can remember is Eloise del Rio, from his youth group, when he was ten. His mother had still been with his father, then.

Sometimes Travis wonders...what would have happened if he'd gone with her, instead of staying with his father? At the time, he'd been so sure that she was making a big mistake; divorce is a sin in God's eyes, after all. It had made sense at the time, staying with the man who threw himself into his priestly duties after she left. But now...

Of course, if he had, he wouldn't have gone to this high school. He wouldn't be here with Sal, now.

"We can play video games, too," Sal says. "Bound for Earth is amazing; don't let the weird commercials for it fool you. It's...something special."

"’Something special?’" repeats Travis. If anyone would know what that’s like, it would be Sal; Travis has never met anyone like him, before.

"It's...I don't know, it's hard to describe. You'll have to see it for yourself," said Sal. "It's not a two-player game, but that's okay; you can play. I'll watch, and give tips here and there."

Travis raised an eyebrow at him. "Won't that be boring, though? Just watching someone else play a video game?"

"You'd think so, but I dunno; I think it's fun." Sal shrugged. "Is that weird?"

Travis laughs. Not a snicker or a mean-spirited chuckle, but an actual, legitimate laugh. "Kinda, yeah!"

Sal laughs, too. "Yeah, well, it's not the weirdest thing about me."

Travis's first instinct is to agree with him, but he quells the urge. He's working on not being an asshole, especially now that Sal is letting him stay at his apartment. It's one night away from his dad...Sal has no idea how much this means to Travis.  "You're...definitely something," is what he manages. You're amazing, is what he really wants to tell him. You're strong, you're kind...I've never felt this way about anyone before.

They're still working on being friends right now, though. Travis's weird, gross crush can wait, for now.

 ---

"Holy mother," Travis whispers under his breath when they approach Addison Apartments.

The building looks completely normal on the outside, but the minute he steps foot in the building, something feels off. It's all Travis can do, not to make the sign of the cross against his chest or whisper ten Hail Marys. Hell, he expects that not even a hundred Hail Marys can cancel out the bad feeling he has about this place.

"Feels weird, right?" Sal shuffles through the mailbox he shares with his father. Travis is curious about Mr. Fisher; what kind of man could have fathered a child like Sally Face?

"You live here? How?" asks Travis.

"It's like anything, really; you get used to it, after a while.” Sal opens up an envelope that had his name on it. It looks like junk mail, to Travis. "It's actually kinda cool, once you get used to it."

"How, exactly?"

Sal looks like he’s about to say something, but thinks better of it. "It's...well, maybe I'll explain a bit later. Or maybe I'll just show you."

"I'd rather you didn't," says Travis. He doesn't care if it makes him look like a pussy; whatever weirdness is providing such bad mojo, Travis wants nothing to do with it.

Sal shrugs. "Suit yourself." With that, they make their way to the elevator.  The thing protests loudly on the ride up to Sal's floor.

"Lisa keeps saying that she means to fix this thing, but it's really not a big deal," Sal is saying. “She works so hard all the time…she really needs to take it easy, sometimes.”

"'Lisa?" asks Travis.

"Oh, uh...Larry's mom."

"Oh, right," says Travis. "I almost forgot; you guys both live here." Has Travis ever been close enough to a friend to be comfortable calling their parent by their first name? He can't remember; he doesn't think so.

"So do Chug and Todd," says Sal. "Sometimes I wonder if we're all friends because we live at Addison Apartments, or if we would've been friends, even if we didn't."

"I don't know," says Travis. "Maybe not? But then again, I think there are some things that are just meant to be."

Sal looked up at him. "You believe in destiny?" he asks.

Travis blinks back at him. "You don't?" If Travis is being honest with himself, destiny, or fate, or whatever the fuck people want to call it, as is as real as God is. Maybe more so. That other people might not believe in it...he genuinely has trouble wrapping his mind around it.

"I believe in something," says Sal. "I don't know...maybe that's the coward's way out of answering that question."

Travis is about to say that he doesn't know about that, when the elevator stops. "Here we are," says Sal. Travis follows him, unsure of what else to say.

The apartment isn't empty, as it turns out. Sal's father is nowhere to be seen, but a brown cat with a partially white face comes running to greet them.

"Hey, Gizmo," Sal coos. He reaches down, letting the creature sniff his fingers. The cat then rubs, rather insistently, against Sal's hand. He's begun purring.

"I didn't know you had a cat," says Travis.

"We got him when I was a kid," says Sal. "After, uh..." Sal indicates his prosthetic with the hand that isn't giving Gizmo cheek scratches.

"Oh." What the fuck is Travis supposed to say to that?

"He's a part of my family." Gizmo's moved onto rubbing against the worn fabric of Sal's red jeans.

Travis smiles, despite himself. "He seems to feel the same way. Look how much he loves you!"

Sal laughs. "Oh, yeah; he especially loves me when it's his dinner time."

Travis laughs. "Isn't that just like a cat?" he says. "Getting cute and cuddly when they want something from you."

"Well hey, it works, doesn't it?" Sal heads to the kitchen. Travis sets his bags down on the couch, content to watch Sal feed Gizmo from there.

"So, you're a cat person?" calls Travis.

"I'm an animal person, in general. But yeah; I love cats."

"I grew up with dogs," says Travis. "I guess I'm a bit more of a dog person. Cats are still pretty cool, though." Travis almost wants to tell Sal about the time he'd started crying when his parents had found a mother cat with a litter of new kittens in the basement of their church.

He decides against it, though. Even if Sal's already walked in on him crying before, he feels like they're not quite at that point of their relationship.

Yet.

Sal walks back to the living room, once the tin of cat food is opened and on the kitchen floor. "It was because of a dog that I have to wear this.”

Everything freezes, right then. Chills run down Travis’s spine; the hair on the back of his neck stands up. “Jesus…” he breathes. He’d been surrounded by dogs his whole life, of all shapes and sizes, not all well-trained, but all friendly and sweet. But if any dog, especially a big one, really wanted to cause damage to someone…

He doesn’t want to think about it.

Sal laughs a little. “You know…I haven’t told anyone about that, in years. You’re the first.”

Travis gulps and nods. “So…you’re afraid of dogs?” He actually is glad to know that; if he returns the favor and invites Sal over to his place next, he now knows to keep Benji somewhere Sal won’t be able to see him.

“You’d think so, but I’m actually not.” Sal takes his hair out of its usual pigtails. Travis realizes that he’s never seen him with his hair down before. “I told you; I’m an animal person.”

"Huh," says Travis. "Okay, then." He's even more glad to hear that.

With that, Sal switches on the television. They don’t wind up watching Twine Parks that night; instead, they settle on a Z-Files marathon. Travis's father had always said that such a television program was demonic; if he knew that Travis was watching it, he'd probably die from anger.

Naturally, Travis enjoys every single minute of it.

"So hey," he says at some point. "Where's your dad?"

"Still at work," Sal says. "It's just gonna be us and Gizmo tonight."

Travis had actually been looking forward to meeting Sal's dad, but at the same time, he's relieved. "He didn't know I'd be sleeping over, right?" he asks. "Is…he gonna be okay with this?" Travis's own father hates it whenever something doesn’t go according to plan. Despite the otherwise relaxed atmosphere of the quiet apartment room, anxiety spikes up in Travis's heart.

"No; he won't mind," said Sal. "He's kind of used to it, by now; Larry comes over unannounced all the time. Todd and Chug do, too, though not as often."

"Oh." Travis doesn't have anything to add to that. He thinks of a way to change the subject; for whatever reason, whenever the topic of Larry comes up, Travis's mood goes south. Ashley, too, now that he thinks about it.

"So, um...You and Larry…"

"What about me and Larry?" asks Sal.

"You guys are...close, right?" Travis isn't sure what this line of questioning is going to do...he isn't actually sure he wants to know the answer.

"Yeah; we're best friends," says Sal.

"Okay...what about you and Ashley?" Travis really hopes that Sal isn't picking up on what he's trying to get at.

"Oh. Um..." Sal sighs. "She's another one of my best friends. You can have more than one best friend, after all."

Travis wouldn't know what that’s like.  "Are you sure? There's...nothing else going on between you?"

Sal shakes his head. Travis's heart flutters a bit at the sight of his hair swaying over his shoulders. “No, of course not."

Travis frowns. "You seem awfully sure of that."

"Think about it, Travis. Who the Hell would ever be interested in someone with a face like mine?”

Travis had not been expecting that answer. It makes him feel some way, hearing something so self-deprecating come out of the mouth of someone he'd always thought was so positive.  "You don't actually think that, do you?"

Sal shrugs. It honestly kind of hurts, seeing the object of his affections look so sure about this. So sure that no one would ever be romantically interested in him because of how he looks.

"Well, for the record, I'm pretty sure you're wrong."

Sal peers at him, wide-eyed.

Travis realizes what he’s just opened himself up to. He looks away from his new friend. "I mean...I don't think you're horrible. For what it's worth."

"Oh. Well, thanks! That's so nice!"

Travis snorts. "Yeah, well. Don't get used to it."

“I won't." The tone of voice Sal uses makes it clear that he's going to, but he lets the subject drop. "You getting hungry? I'll throw in a pizza."

He backtracks when he sees the look on Travis's face. "Oh, sorry; I forgot. You don't like pizza."

Travis shrugs. "I know it's weird. It's...” he sighs. "There was an incident, when I was a kid, and--"

"Say no more." Sal puts up a hand. "I know all about childhood incidents you don’t want to talk about. I'll make sandwiches, instead. We don't have bologna, though...is that okay?"

Travis can't hold back his smile. "Yeah. Sounds good."

Sal winds up falling asleep shortly after their dinner, curled up on one end of the couch with Gizmo in his lap.  Travis looks at him far longer than he should.

It’s been quite some time since Travis gave this whole 'friendship' thing a try.

He thinks he could get used to it.