I leaned over the toilet, stomach heaving. Shit. I didn’t even have to stick my finger down my throat anymore. After years of abuse, my body was to the point where I could throw up just by thinking about it.
Flushing the disgusting mess away, I moved to the sink. There I rinsed my mouth and splashed cold water on my face. Looking up revealed my own face in the mirror. It was not a pretty picture. Bad enough the water dripping off my chin and the flushed skin. My cheeks were so hollow I could see the clear outline of my own skull. My shoulder bones jutted up beneath my shirt. Beneath it was even worse. I knew my ribs were clearly visible. My hips were sharp and protruding. My arms and legs were like twigs. Except for my full head of hair, I looked like a cancer patient.
Maybe I was, in a way. I was dying from a cancer of my own creation. And here I’d been doing so well. I’d honestly believed I was in recovery. But now, the first major stressor had triggered a massive relapse. Now I was almost back to where I’d been when I’d been hospitalized.
“You threw up again.”
I grimaced and clutched at the sink. “Yes, yes I did. Thank you so much for pointing that out.”
“You’re still mad at me.”
He was coming into the bathroom, stepping just inside the door. Normally he’d be running around in sweats. He didn’t have to get into his police uniform until after noon, and generally didn’t take the time to get dressed just for a few hours in the morning. But today was different. He was wearing a carefully ironed shirt and pants with a belt. He looked like he was going on a job interview. The only thing that was missing was a tie. And here I was, in my best tee-shirt and jeans. Of course, I was expected to go out into the field, while he’d be primarily indoors.
“I’m not mad at you,” I said. I mopped my face with a towel. “You’re right. You’re all right. This is important. It’s something I have to do. I only wish you’d discussed it with me first.”
I was staring into the sink now, but I could hear him. His footsteps came closer until he was right behind me. Then a pair of strong arms went around my waist. He held me close, resting his head against the back of my bony shoulder. “I love you,” he said simply. “I hate seeing you like this. And I hate that there’s this tension between us. I know it’s not helping you now, but I really believe, in my heart, that it’s for the best. You’re sick because you’re trapped in the past. Until you face it? You can’t ever go forward. And you’ll be back here again and again until…”
“Until it finally kills me,” I whispered. “I know.”
The arms tightened around me. “The day they had to take you to the hospital? When I saw you there and the doctors told us about your heart?” He took a deep breath. “I knew this could kill you. I knew the danger was there. But that brought it all home. You passed out! No one could wake you up. You could have died, and I can’t let that happen.”
“Why is it up to you to save me?” I snapped, showing a flash of temper. “You know the therapist says that the trigger for me is a loss of control. So your big solution is to put me into a situation where I have no control at all?!”
“You need this.”
“Do I, Dr. Phil?” Irritated, I squirmed out of his grip and turned to face him. “Ok, maybe I am still mad. I wasn’t given any choice in this or any warning. You just sprang it on me! Now what the hell am I supposed to say to them, huh? After the shit I pulled, I’m amazed they even want to talk to me!”
“Well, they do.” That stubborn set was back in his jaw. “They want to talk to you, and you need to hear whatever they have to say. You owe them that much. But no matter what happens today, you need to use it as a starting point to move forward.”
I didn’t respond. He came forward again and pulled me into a hug. “I love you. You know that.”
“I love you, too,” I told him, hugging him back. “And you’re right. You were right all along. And I want you to know, I’m glad you’ll be here with me for this.”
He smiled at me as though I’d just said something stupid. But I kind of had. Of course he’d be there with me. He’d always been there for me when I needed him most.
I thought about what he said. I was sick because I was trapped in the past. I’d never be able to go forward until I faced it. I wiped at my mouth, ashamed at my own weakness. I’d been doing so well, but the first major stressor sent me right back to old habits. This couldn’t continue.
I followed him outside, climbed into the car. I knew where we’d be meeting them. Already my heart was pounding. Relax. Breathe. Whatever was coming, I wasn’t alone. I reached over and gave his arm a squeeze as he drove. He made a small sound of approval. I let my hands fall into my lap, and my mind wandered back into the past.
Ch 1 First Day of School
Sophomore year. Helluva time. One year better than being a freshman, but still on the receiving end of all the high school bullshit. Sam was very much aware of this as he ducked and weaved his way through the hallowed halls. He realized with dismay that pretty much every other guy towered over him now. Shit.
“What’s up, Sammy?”
“Sammy, you cheering Friday?”
“Hey, hi, not much, and yes,” Sam called, finally finding his locker and frowning at the combination of his new lock.
“You didn’t learn a damned thing, did you?” It was his friend Inias, who fortunately had the locker next to his. “Seriously, Sammy, it’s like you’re asking to get your ass kicked!”
“Really?” Sam asked, irritated. “This, from the guy who, when I told him I was going to try out last year, said he wanted to join the cheerleading squad with me?”
“I didn’t actually want to join. I just thought you were making a statement about gender inequality!”
“God, you’re a nerd.” He managed to get his locker open and started arranging his things. “I went and tried out and was the only guy who did. Might be why they took me.”
“That, or you can dance your ass off.”
“Or that. At any rate, I’m on the squad.”
Inias leaned against his locker to inspect his friend. “Do you get to wear the sweater and the mini skirt?”
“The sweater, yes. The mini skirt? I’m reasonably certain they have one in my size, but don’t be a dumbass.” Sam got his belongings arranged to his liking and picked up his backpack. “Most of the time, I’ll be wearing the dog anyway. I’m the mascot, remember?”
Inias moved closer and lowered his voice. “Do you get to change with the rest of the squad?”
“I change in the male locker room with the teams, you pervert!” Sam shook his head, disgusted. “You’re as bad as Lisa Braeden.”
“Whoa, Lisa Braeden wanted you to change in the women’s locker room?!”
“No, she threatened to pick me up and snap me over her knee if I so much as peeked in there.”
Inias considered this, his eyes moving over the other boy’s slight frame. “She probably could. Did you stop eating over the summer, Sam? I think you actually shrank a bit!”
“Eat me.” Sam slammed his locker shut.
He’d barely turned to head to his first class when a pair of arms wrapped around him, lifting him off of his feet. He sighed. “Hello, Dean,” he told his brother.
“Sammy!” Dean hefted Sam up like a sack of potatoes and turned, bringing the smaller boy with him to look down the hall. “Did you see the new kid?”
“Hmm?” Sam looked, spotting a head of dark, somewhat messy hair bent down as its owner walked, eyes fixed on the floor. “Oh, yeah, what was his name? Castiel? That’s it, Castiel Novak. Seems nice enough, pretty shy.”
“He’s the hottest piece of ass this school has ever seen,” Dean announced. “I’m tapping that before I graduate, I swear it!”
Sam groaned. “Dean, what the hell makes you think he’s gay?”
“I can tell. It’s like a sixth sense.”
Another groan, louder this time. “Not your gaydar again!”
“When have I ever been wrong?”
“Last summer when we went to Disneyland and that Goth kid punched you?”
Dean shrugged, undeterred. “His makeup threw me off.”
“How about the time you tried to kiss Uriel at the homecoming game?”
“Uriel’s a closet case. He doesn’t count. Besides, I was drunk.” Dean still hadn’t made any move towards putting Sam down, ignoring the way the smaller boy was squirming and looking pointedly towards the floor. “Ok, I need my wingman.”
“He’s new, and... How do you know his name anyway?”
“We were in homeroom together.”
“Come on, Dean! The guy’s new, at least give him a chance to get his bearings before you go putting the moves on him?”
“An ass that fine is too good to wait. Ok, make friends with him, get to know him, find out what he likes. Tell me everything when I get home after school.”
“You have to drive me home. I have cheer practice after school today.”
“You spent half the summer at cheer camp! What the hell else do you need to practice?”
“Do you practice for football, Dean? Cheerleading is a sport, too!”
Dean looked unconvinced. “Fine, call me.”
“Whatever, put me down.”
Dean carefully set Sam back on his feet. “Remember, details! I want details!”
“I know the routine, Dean. This is not the first time I have played wingman for you, against my better judgement.”
Dean looked fondly at him. “You’re sooooo good at it!”
Sam glared at him. “Don’t you have some poor new teacher to terrorize?”
Dean made kissy faces at him. Then he jogged off, ignoring the rules about no running in the hall.
Inias dared to approach. “Are you sure one of you isn’t adopted?”
“Mom and dad swear we’re both natural children,” Sam sighed.
“Maybe there was a mix-up in the hospital?” Inias suggested hopefully.
“I could only wish. See you at lunch?”
“You got it!”
Castiel had made a long study of floor tiles. The ones he was currently watching were largely unremarkable. He watched them as he walked, keeping aware enough through his peripheral vision to avoid running into people, but making certain not to make eye contact with anyone.
Unfortunately, this kid’s height put him precisely at eye level when he stepped into Castiel’s path. “Hi!” he called cheerfully. “I’m Sam Winchester. You’re Castiel, right?”
Castiel looked around, making sure the kid wasn’t talking to anyone else. Then he looked back at the other boy. “Yes, that’s right. I’m Castiel Novak.”
“Yeah, I saw you in homeroom. Welcome to Lawrence High!” Sam was pumping his hand.
“Pleased to meet you, Sam.”
“Likewise. Ok if I call you Cas?”
Castiel blinked. “Um, I suppose so?”
“Great! So Cas, where’s your next class?”
Castiel’s class schedule vanished from his hand. Sam was narrowing his eyes at it, his lips moving slightly as he read. The other boy was short, but handsome, with hazel eyes, short brown hair, and apparently limitless energy. No, Castiel told himself. Don’t even think that way. This school was going to be different.
Sam had apparently seen what he’d wanted to see and was handing the schedule back. “You got Spitzler for algebra, too! Great, we’re together. C’mon, let’s head over. Spitzler’s boring as hell, but she grades easy. Let’s get in there quick, get seats together so we can at least talk to each other.”
Castiel had no idea what to say to Sam, but the smaller boy had him by the arm and was basically dragging him forward now. Castiel stumbled after him.
Sam was apparently very popular. People were calling out greetings left and right as he moved through the hall, dodging other students until he reached a classroom. The only thing he stopped for was a couple of girls. Sam flirted with them brazenly. Castiel watched them giggle and bat their eyes at Sam, feeling the familiar twist in his gut. But even they didn’t hold Sam’s attention for long. Pulling Castiel into the classroom, he made a beeline for a couple of seats near the middle of the room. Surprised, Castiel took a seat, raising an eyebrow at Sam.
“Teacher psychology,” Sam explained. “If you sit in the front, you’re either a smartass with all the answers or a kiss-up looking for teacher’s pet. Either one gets you called on. If you sit in the back, you’re a screw-off trying to hide something, so you’ll get called on to make sure you’re actually paying attention. So we sit right in the middle, where we blend in and attract minimal attention to ourselves.”
“Does this actually work?” Castiel asked, confused.
“Got me through middle school and freshman year easy enough,” Sam boasted. “Do you have plans for Friday?”
Castiel blinked. “Excuse me?”
“Whatever you’re planning, cancel it,” Sam repeated. “The first football game of the season is Friday. You’re coming with. I’m cheering and my brother’s playing. He’s a tight end, in pretty much every sense of the word.”
Castiel shifted. Sam seemed to be watching him closely, waiting for a reaction. “I, um, don’t really know anything about football,” he admitted. “We didn’t really have sports teams at my old school.”
“Don’t tell me you’re from a Bible belt church school?”
Castiel went silent.
Sam gave him a look of pity. “Oh, dude! That sucks! Well, don’t worry, I’m here to help you.” He was watching Castiel again. “You got someone special, Cas?”
“Someone...? Oh! No, there’s no one.”
“Maybe we’ll change that, too.”
For one terrifying moment, Castiel froze, sure that Sam was hitting on him. But the other boy had already moved on. “Don’t worry about admission. My parents still haven’t figured out yet that cheerleaders get into the games for free. I’ll be in my outfit Friday, rousing the school spirit and all that. Mom will be at work so she’ll just leave me money in my lunch. Dad won’t be up until after I catch the bus. So I’ll have some extra money to buy you a ticket to the game.”
“Oh! You don’t have to do that.”
“Why not? I get in for free! She’ll leave me money for the dance, too. Do you think you can cover that, or do you need me to help?”
“Um, I have my own money,” Castiel managed. His mind was in a whirl. “Wait, dance? What dance? I’m not going to any dance!”
“Cas, it’s the after-game dance! You’ve got to go, especially if Dean’s team wins! I’ll introduce you to the big ape.”
“Dean is, um, your boyfriend?” Just saying it made Castiel feel dirty.
Sam made gagging noises. “I wouldn’t date that gorilla even if my life depended on it! Not only is he butt-ass fugly, but I don’t do incest.”
“Oh,” Castiel said, understanding. “Dean is your brother! The two of you don’t get along?”
“Nah, I love that overgrown idiot. I just think that eventually, an anthropologist will come out here to study him and learn about early human behavior.”
“Oh.” Castiel didn’t know what else to say.
Sam waved a hand. “Doesn’t matter. You’re coming to the game to watch me cheer and Dean be an alpha male. Then you’re coming to the dance. You don’t even have to dance if you’re not comfortable. I’ll dance my ass off for both of us. I’ll even teach you some moves if you want.”
“I, um, that is, I don’t know if...”
“Ok, here’s the plan.” Sam was turned in his seat to face Castiel, his expression serious. “On Friday, bring along whatever you want to wear to the dance, and wear what you’ll be wearing to the game. It’s pretty early in the season so it shouldn’t be too cold. I recommend a hoodie under a jacket just in case. It can get a little windy in the stands. Meet me after school. We’ll have Dean drive us to get something to eat. Don’t worry about money. He’ll cover it ‘cause it’s the first game of his senior year.”
“After we eat, we can all hang out for a little while,” Sam continued as though Castiel hadn’t interrupted. “Talk, tell each other about our boring lives, get to know each other. Then you can come with us to the game, stay for the dance, and we’ll take you home afterwards. Where do you live?”
Castiel found himself reciting his address.
“Dude, you’re only two blocks down from us!” Sam exclaimed happily. “Great, we can drop you off easily. We can even come visit you on the weekends or something! Our parents own an outdoor sporting goods store. My mom does some accounting on the side, she and dad work the store, and my brother and I work there sometimes. I’ve also got a job doing some light housework at the motel and Dean does odd jobs. So between work, school, and sporting events, our schedules can get a bit crowded. But we should still have some time. Let’s hang out! What time do your parents work?”
“Why are you doing this?!” Castiel exclaimed. “You seem popular. Why are you hanging out with me, trying to take me to a game and dances?”
“Why not?” Sam asked, looking somewhat confused. “I like you! Don’t you want to be friends?”
“I... I don’t...” Castiel swallowed his pride. “Yes! Yes, more than anything, I’d like a friend. I don’t know anyone here. My last school, things got kind of bad.”
Sam frowned. “You got bullied?”
“Mmm, it’s complicated,” Castiel replied carefully. “It doesn’t matter. I never had friends before. I’d really like to be friends with you.”
“Great!” Sam quickly turned in his seat. “Uh oh, here’s Spitzler. Act like you’re paying attention!”
Castiel tried, but failed miserably. His mind was filled with thoughts of his new friend. He had no idea what had just happened, why a popular cheerleader like Sam would possibly want to be friends with someone like him. But it didn’t matter. He had a friend now, possibly two if Sam’s brother Dean would be his friend as well. Friends were something that had always been in short supply. All he had to do was keep calm and not do anything that might give himself away.
Things would be different here. He just had to be careful.
Mrs. Spitzler was in the front of the room now. “Welcome back to your first day!” she began. “We have a new student here with us today, Castiel Novak. Why don’t...?”
“You’re not going to do that thing where you traumatize the poor guy by making him stand up and introduce himself, are you?” Sam called. “Hey, everyone, this is Cas! He’s here from a Bible school, so play nice or God will smite your ass!”
“Winchester!” Spitzler snapped amid the laughter. Castiel’s cheeks burned.
“Sorry. Seriously, he’s pretty cool, a little shy, but I like the guy. Everyone say, ‘Welcome, Cas!’”
A chorus of “Welcome, Cas!” rose, and Castiel smiled. Even Mrs. Spitzler seemed satisfied, turning away from him to start the lesson. He gave Sam a grateful look, received a smile and a nod in return. Yes, things would be different here. Maybe this move wouldn’t turn out to be the disaster it was supposed to be after all.