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"Hey, Coach! Where are the basketballs?"
Jake Campbell looked up from his clipboard and narrowed his eyes at Jeremy: junior, running back. He took a moment to find it amusing that he categorized the kids he knew on sight by first name, class, and position if they played one of the sports that he coached.
"We're not playing basketball today," he answered as he checked Jeremy off his attendance sheet.
"Aww, man! We're running?"
"You betcha," Jake drawled with a pleased grin. "Outside," he added with relish. "In the coooold."
The kid's shoulders slumped, and he turned to head for the gym exits that led out to the football field and the track that circled it. Jake chuckled and shook his head, checking off more kids as they straggled out of the locker rooms.
Jake enjoyed his job at Parkview High. The kids liked him, and he liked them, for the most part. He coached year-round: football, wrestling, and baseball. And he won. Here in Georgia, winning was a big deal.
P.E. classes were just the five or so hours of warm up before he got to do his real job. That hadn't changed at all since he'd walked these very halls as a student himself years ago, and no one cared enough about high school phys ed to try and change it. Jake huffed and ticked off the last name on his list. Baseball tryouts started today. Just two more hours of this mind-numbing repetition, and he'd be able to get to the good stuff.
"No, Carolyn, you can't petition PETA to get a waiver from dissecting the frog. The frog's already dead. It donated itself to science. Don't let its sacrifice be in vain," Brandon Bartlett said, shaking his head as hewalked toward the front of the lab, watching the students pull on their latex gloves and cloth masks.
"Jimmy, no fire today. Off with the Bunsen," he said distractedly, hearing a huff from his side, and the slight whoosh of gas-fed flame shut off. He pointed out the correct instrument for Callie to use and moved to the whiteboard.
Brandon pulled his glasses from his shirt pocket and slid them on as he looked at the teaching materials. "You all have the directions for the dissection, and trust me, they haven't changed from yesterday when we went over them. Yes, Kelly?"
"Mr. Bartlett? What if I get guts on my uniform?" the cheerleader asked.
"There are aprons in the closet. That would be an intelligent security measure," Brandon answered. "Drake?"
"Can I cut off its head first?"
"Is cutting its head off first in the directions?"
"No, Mr. Bartlett."
"Are we going to tempt fate by not following the directions?"
"Scrubbing out the dissection pans every afternoon for a week."
"Sir! No cutting off the head, sir!"
Brandon rolled his eyes. Sophomores. No longer wide-eyed and scared, not yet mature enough to be trusted to their own good sense. "Good choice."
As the students got to work, Brandon notated their presence in his attendance book and also marked who had been given what equipment on the two-person teams. He glanced up, a half-smile on his face. This was his lab. After almost ten years of teaching, twenty-five grant applications and a good wrangling with the principal and the school board, they'd agreed to build the large facility.
He was proud of his work at Parkview High. Even more so because it was his high school--he'd walked these same halls for four years--and he felt quite at home, although the students looked younger and younger each year. He frowned, glancing over at the gaggle of cheerleaders. He didn't feel that old, but...
Checking his schedule, Brandon remembered he had planning period during his next block, before the last class. He'd skipped lunch and left his meal in the fridge in the lounge, so he'd escape there to stop the drain of his mental faculties. He glanced up to see Drake and Aaron flinging frog guts at each other and sighed. Some days he could just feel his brain dribbling out of his ears.
An hour before his last class of the day, Jake sat in the corner table of the teachers' lounge, sipping his water and eating his sandwich as he read. He had camouflaged a paperback in the Sports page of the morning paper, and whenever someone came in, he would curl the newsprint around the book protectively and follow the person with hard black eyes. It wasn't worth the jokes from these prisses about his reading ability to do otherwise.
He sat with his back to the wall, feet up on the table, waiting for one of the other coaches to come in and hoping no one else made the effort to try and talk to him. In high school, a lifetime ago, he'd been the leader of the pack; popular, athletic, good-looking. Now, as a coach in the same high school years later, he was dealing with a herd of teachers who had all been nerds in school and resented him on principle. Jake had quickly learned how the outcasts felt. The only difference, he mused with a small smile, was that now he didn't give a flying fuck what the others thought of him.
Having met Rhonda in the hall, Brandon walked with her, talking shop. As the chemistry teacher, she'd petitioned the administration to get an Advanced Placement class, and Brandon had asked for one, too, so they were discussing plans for the next nine weeks. They talked all the way to the lounge, where Brandon glanced around and saw Jake Campbell sitting by himself, reading.
They were and always had been complete and total opposites. Jake had been the Homecoming King their senior year--and the Prom King, too. Mr. Popular. Brandon had been Valedictorian and the captain of the Academic Team. A nerd--and even amongst the nerds, not so popular because he hadn't come through the same system of schools they did. Still musing while grabbing his lunch, he sat at a round table in the middle of the room where he could keep talking with Rhonda.
Jake slowly slid lower in his chair and lifted the paper higher, his eyes at a level where he could still see the room but quickly divert them before contact was made.
Brandon tried to make eye contact, to at least give Jake a nod, but the other man deliberately wouldn't look at him. The science teacher sighed. He'd tried to be friendly to Jake, and to Misty and Troy as well--other students from their class who had come back to teach--but none of the three would even acknowledge him. They obviously held their high-school opinions close to their hearts. He wondered why he tried. Shaking his head to something Rhonda asked, Brandon started on his lunch.
Some people Jake could just feel in a room. Brandon Bartlett was one of them. Jake didn't know why. He supposed it was because he remembered the guy from high school, and the memory weighed heavily on him. No matter how old you got, high school was always yesterday. Jake had never been the type of guy who'd gotten his rocks off on making other people miserable, but some of his teammates and 'friends' had, and he remembered the way they'd treated Brandon and his type. It was a painful memory for Jake; he had never joined in, but he had never tried to step up and stop it, either.
Jake shifted in his seat and sniffed as he read the same line over again in his book. The door to the lounge opened again, and Jake looked up to see Gerald and Lena walk in together. He almost sighed in relief--his fellow outcast phys ed teachers to the rescue. They were a dying breed--the real coaches. The other coaches in the school were either decent part-timers, like Troy; off-campus hires; or teachers who had once touched a piece of sporting equipment, like Misty. Those were worse than the people who only taught; they thought they were at the top of the food chain, straddling the academic and athletic worlds. But only a precious few did either job well, and those were the ones smart enough to disregard the invisible class barriers.
"Well, hello, beautiful," Jake drawled in greeting as he folded over the newspaper. His eyes purposefully went from Gerald's hulking form and his perfectly shaved mocha-colored head to the athletic blonde beside him. "And hello to you, too, Lena," he added with a smirk.
Brandon's eyes shifted up to see the newcomers, but he carried on his conversation as the two made a beeline to Jake, not even a smile or a glance in his and Rhonda's direction. Resigned, he popped open his Gladware bowl of grapes and nudged it toward the other teacher so she could share.
"You're such a pervert," Lena laughed softly as she headed for the fridge.
"'sup, Coach?" Gerald asked in his deep bass voice as he sat down. "Who won last night?" he gestured to the paper Jake was holding. "Or can you even tell when you hold the paper upside down?" he asked pointedly as he flicked the corner of the page with a laugh.
Jake cleared his throat and blushed a little, smiling sheepishly as he slowly put his book in his lap and turned the paper right side up.
Rhonda snickered in the middle of a sentence, and Brandon frowned, turning to look over his shoulder at Jake and Gerald, one of the other football coaches. It looked like Gerald was teasing Jake about something. Brandon looked back to Rhonda. "What?" he asked.
She leaned forward to whisper. "Jake was holding the paper upside down. You know, the one he was reading so intently that he couldn't even acknowledge our presence?"
Brandon's brows flew up, and he grinned widely. "Really?" he said in a hushed voice, barely resisting the urge to turn around and look again. "That's pretty funny that Gerald caught him."
Jake kicked Gerald's shin under the table and blushed harder, sliding down further in his seat as Lena tossed Gerald a bottle of water and giggled. "I hate you both," he declared with a small smile, tossing his book onto the table and laughing along with them.
Snickering again, Rhonda leaned forward. "Don't you think he's handsome? I think he's really handsome."
Brandon boggled. "Gerald?"
"No, silly. Jake!" she whispered excitedly.
Brandon wondered where the cool and collected chemistry teacher had gone. She had to be ten years older than he was. "Ah ... I went to school with Jake," he said uncomfortably.
"You didn't tell me you were friends! Maybe you could tell him a little about me," Rhonda wheedled quietly, smoothing her red hair behind her ear.
Now Brandon was really getting wigged. "I said I went to school with him. Not that we were friends. And, Rhonda, if you want to approach him, I'm thinking that's something you should do yourself. He never really liked me then. Doesn't now, for that matter," he added quietly as Rhonda tossed flirting looks over his shoulder.
"How's the team looking this year?" Lena asked as she sat down. She coached fast-pitch softball, and they always had a little bit of a competition between the two teams.
Jake shrugged and sat up straighter. "Couldn't really say," he answered ambiguously, smirking at the woman as Gerald gave a booming laugh. Jake caught snatches of conversation from the other table and glanced over there. The chemistry teacher peered at him, batting her eyelashes in an alarming manner, and Jake's eyes widened. He automatically looked over at Brandon questioningly, trying to gauge whether he should retreat or if this was something he could throw Gerald in front of and be safe.
Brandon chanced a glance over his shoulder and saw Jake looking at him, query written on his face. Brandon couldn't help but wince a little and shrug, trying to convey an apology with a tiny shift of his head toward Rhonda.
"I think ... I think I left the showers running," Jake blurted suddenly as Gerald laughed harder and slapped his thigh. Lena watched him stand up with a slightly outraged look on her face, obviously thinking that he was making a teasing attempt to bypass their annual teams discussion. The head coach waved at them as he gathered up his stuff and glanced up at Brandon again distractedly.
Not sure why he was even trying--other than simply feeling bad for his fellow man--Brandon met Jake's eyes again and subtly turned his head and eyes to the door, indicating he should make his escape while he could. Then he turned back to Rhonda, cleared his throat and spoke a little more loudly. "So, Rhonda, you were going to tell me how the application process for your A.P. class went. What did you tell the school board, exactly?"
"You can't hide from me for long, Campbell!" Lena called as Jake slunk toward the door. He turned around and gave her an irritatingly impish grin and then looked back to the table where Brandon sat, apparently distracting the chemistry teacher. He gave the man a little smile and a nod of thanks as he made a hasty exit.
Watching Jake escape from the corner of his eye, Brandon turned all his attention on Rhonda, who was now waxing rhapsodic over paperwork. He figured he'd done his good deed for the day. Possibly the week.
"Health? You want me to teach freshman health?" Brandon asked for the third time, utterly stunned. He stood in Mr. Berry's office--the same Mr. Berry who had been his geometry teacher--and just shook his head. "I've got honors biology, a sophomore and a junior biology class each and freshman quantitative physical science. I don't have a block for a health class," he pointed out triumphantly.
"But you have a block for the A.P. biology class you applied for," Tom reminded with a small smile as he rocked back in his chair. With a roll of his eyes and a sigh he shook his head. "Look, I know this isn't your cup of tea. But we have no one else even remotely able to teach the course, and we can't get rid of it because it's required. You remember health, Brandon," he went on in his gravelly voice. "You put in a videotape of Rescue 911, and you sit and do your planning while the kids sleep."
"You're cutting the A.P. bio class? Tom," Brandon pleaded. "Can't you hire a sub? A temp to work an hour and a half a day? I do remember health class, that's what scares the hell outta me. CPR dummies and lurid descriptions of diseases and putting condoms on bananas!"
"They got rid of the condoms," Tom retorted with a wry smile. "Parents made a fuss."
"Aw hell," Brandon muttered, sitting down hard in the chair and slumping. "Great. Just great. Freshman health. Jesus, Tom. Fine. I'll do it. It's not like I have much choice, do I." It wasn't even a question.
"Well, I suppose technically you could quit," Tom offered with a shrug. "Unfortunately, health is already scheduled during the last block, so you'll have to shift your planning to second since the A.P. class isn't happening." He pursed his lips in disapproval. It was obvious he wasn't happy about asking Brandon to do this. He just didn't have a choice. "We've lost some staff over the Christmas break, you know that. A few maternity leaves, a few unexpected retirements ... We were also short a baseball coach until someone volunteered," he went on with narrowed eyes. Brandon just grunted noncommittally, already working out the changes he'd have to make in his planning to allow for the change of classes. He wasn't really interested in staff turnover. "Thanks for volunteering, Brandon," Tom went on pointedly, smiling slightly as his eyes danced with affectionate amusement.
Freezing in place, Brandon blinked and looked up slowly at the man who had shepherded his teaching career along for years while becoming a good friend. "What?" he drew out slowly and balefully.
"Don't worry," Tom was quick to go on. "That varsity team is a well-oiled machine, so I hear. They just need an extra set of arms, you won't be doing much. Hell, I don't even know what you'll be doing, but it won't be hard. And since you've got the background to be the team trainer as well, you're the best qualified person on staff. Actually, you're the only qualified person on staff."
Brandon looked at him incredulously. "How in the hell do you figure that? What background?" he asked, his voice higher than usual.
"You're male and big enough to keep the boys in check," Tom said before hurrying on. "And you did study anatomy and physiology, did you not? Trainer."
Finally becoming aware that his jaw was hanging open, Brandon snapped it shut. He stared blankly at Tom a bit longer and then rubbed both hands over his face. "Anything else, Tom?" he asked, his voice dangerously quiet.
"Brandon," Tom said softly. "I know this isn't your thing, and I am truly sorry. But I know you understand that the school needs you to be a team player. It's all for the kids."
The science teacher sighed, and his shoulders relaxed. It was the one thing that was unshakable in him and dammit, Tom knew it. Brandon would do anything for the kids. It was why he got up at 4:45 a.m. and drove 40 minutes to come in at six o'clock to tutor, a task almost all other teachers avoided like the plague. "All right, Tom," he agreed wearily.
"Thank you, Brandon," Tom responded sincerely as he stood and extended his hand over the desk. "And unlike the tutoring, you do get paid extra for the coaching," he added optimistically.
Brandon chuckled and stood to shake Tom's hand. "Well, that's something. I'm guessing the health class is already in session with a sub?"
"Jake Campbell has been doing double duty on the health class and senior phys ed until we could find someone permanent. And he's the man you need to talk to about baseball," Tom answered. "Hey, didn't you two graduate close together?"
"Yeah, same year." Brandon said with a small nod. "You still taught geometry then," he added with a smirk.
"I still had all my hair then, too," Tom shot back with a quick grin. "You want me to have someone track Jake down after the class is over?" he offered with a gesture to the public announcement system in the outer office.
Brandon grimaced. "No. I'll wander out to the gym. I think I know where his office is," he said, squinting a little at the school map on the wall.
"If you find him in his office then good on ya," Tom laughed with a dismissive wave. "Kid never could stay in one spot even when he was younger. Thanks again, Brandon. I won't forget it."
Nodding, Brandon headed out and turned toward the athletic complex, walking through the empty halls, his rubber-soled loafers not making much sound. He found the hallway of offices and checked the doors until he found one with a "Coach Campbell" sign tacked up in the window, but the office was closed and dark inside. The science teacher turned around and headed to the gym itself. There were older kids sitting in the bleachers and some shooting baskets, but no teacher in sight. Brandon frowned in consternation before belatedly recalling what Tom had said about health taking his planning period and moving planning to the hoped-for A.P. class slot in second block. Jake was pulling double duty with the health class. Brandon figured this must be the coach's senior P.E. class, left unsupervised as he watched over the freshmen. So the science teacher made his way to the health class and checked his watch. Five minutes until afternoon announcements.
Inside the classroom located just off the gymnasium complex, Jake watched a ball of wadded up paper fly through the air and hit the rim of the wastebasket. It teetered there, seeming to almost cling to the plastic trash bag. Jerome--freshman, wrestler--leaned sideways from the table seven feet away and blew on it frantically as Jake chuckled quietly. The wad of paper wavered some more and then fell with an anti-climactic plop onto the ground just beside the trash can.
"Oh ho!" Jake shouted with glee. "And it's a dollar to teacher for the brick shot." He laughed as he held his hand out and made the universal gesture of 'gimme my money.'
"Man," Jerome whined as he dug into his pocket and pulled out four quarters. He got up and trudged over to slap them into Jake's palm with a sheepish smile. "I got it next time," he said confidently with an inclination of his head before tossing the paper in the can and heading back to his seat. Jake had told the perpetually lazy freshmen that if they shot a trash basket and made it, he'd acknowledge their brilliance in an appropriate manner according to the difficulty of the shot. But if they missed, it was a dollar fine for being too lazy to get up and walk the ten feet to the can.
Brandon stood in the doorway, leaning against the frame, watching the little scene, hard pressed to keep a smile off his face. He wondered what Jake had offered to do if they made the can shot. Then a couple of girls started whispering loudly and looking his way. He blinked, wondering if he had something on his shirt or tie. Glancing down, he remembered he'd taken off his tie and rolled up his sleeves after his last class, and unbuttoned the top two buttons on his shirt in agitation as he'd dropped his glasses on the desk before going to see Tom. He'd even dragged his fingers through his hair enough times while talking to the principal to pull it out of the tie that usually held the shoulder-length dark hair neatly at his nape. Christ. He must look like hell.
When Brandon looked up again, three girls were whispering and pointing and blushing. He raised an eyebrow in surprise and glanced to the teacher at the front of the room. Jake followed the whispering and turned to look at the open doorway with a raised eyebrow. "Mr. Bartlett," he said, covering his surprise and confusion with his usual friendly, somewhat cheeky style of greeting. "What can we do you for?"
The girls squealed quietly, and a few of the boys snickered, while Brandon just shook his head. "I'm the new health teacher," he answered, which caused even more of an uproar amongst the girls. God! Why were they doing that?
Jake frowned at the squeaky little freshmen girls and looked back at Brandon with a slightly confused smile. "My apologies," he offered wryly with a smirk, earning him a few playful boos as he stood up and strolled to the doorway. "Oh boo hoo, go practice your bank shots," Jake drawled to the class. "They're all yours," he said to Brandon softly as he stepped out into the hallway. He stopped and leaned against the wall by the door, peering back inside. "They're a generally good group," he murmured to Brandon softly. "You shouldn't have much trouble." He paused, looking the man over. Something was different about him, but he couldn't figure out what it was, besides looking a little rumpled. It wasn't the glasses. The missing tie maybe? The slightly annoyed glint in his eyes? Jake gave a mental shrug and pushed off the wall. "Want me to stick around through announcements?"
The P.A. crackled to life, and Brandon smiled a little. "If you don't mind hanging around, Tom said I should talk to you," he said below the front office secretary's voice blaring out of the speakers. When the bell rang, the kids were off like a shot, walking between them, though several of the girls walked more slowly. "Bye, Mr. Bartlett." "See you tomorrow, Mr. Bartlett." "I'm looking forward to health class, Mr. Bartlett." Brandon's face got more and more mystified as the classroom emptied out.
Jake grinned as the last of the class trailed off down the hallway. "You certainly wowed them, Stud," he laughed. "What did you need from me?"
Brandon's brows shot up. Stud? He'd certainly missed that message. "Ah, Tom Berry dropped this class on me like a ton of bricks about half an hour ago--and then he steamrollered me with another small tidbit. I'm supposed to be a coach, too."
"A coach?" Jake asked with a frown. Was his leg being pulled here? "For what team?" he asked suspiciously.
"Your team," Brandon said, a little annoyance creeping into his voice. "He said you were short a baseball coach. And pretty much that I'm the bottom of the barrel." He muttered that last.
Jake blinked. And blinked again as his mouth fell open slightly. They were short a coach? Who? "Do you know anything about baseball?" he asked incredulously.
"I do watch the game. I happen to be a Braves fan, thank you very much."
"Good for you, Sport," Jake responded in slight irritation. "Do you know enough to coach it, though?"
"I would say no. Which is what I tried to tell Tom, only his cheeks and nose were already turning red, and you know what that means." Brandon crossed his arms. "He said something about me being 'male and big enough to keep the boys in check', so I guess that has to count for something," he said, eyes downcast. The comment had stung, actually, intimating that he couldn't coach--never mind that he was an excellent teacher. "So. Since it's that bad an idea, you can tell Tom no way, and that'll be it," he proposed shortly.
Jake frowned at the man. "I didn't mean to insult you," he said with a sigh. "It's just that we're looking at state this year, and I didn't even know I was a coach short. I'm sorry," he offered, his tone slightly frustrated and huffy. "God, who did we lose?" he muttered almost to himself.
Brandon looked up at him and saw the truth of his words, and he again shrugged. "Guess I'm the bearer of bad news. Don't kill the messenger?" he asked, a tinge of humor creeping into his voice. "Surely there's something I can do to help. I do happen to be an above average teacher. It can't be that far off to coach, at least small things," he offered seriously. "A shot at State is nothing to sneeze at."
"It's certainly not," Jake responded in a hard voice. "This ain't just a sport here. We've got eight kids who should be scouted this year. We're talking their futures at stake."
"Then don't throw away my offer," Brandon said just as firmly, face set.
Jake met the man's eyes and nodded finally with small sigh. "Just remember to at least act like you know what you're doing. Since you just got this dumped on you, you'll need clothes, won't you?" he asked with a wave of his hand at the man's attire. He was a step away from wearing tweed. Christ, he could almost see the lab safety goggles on the guy.
Brandon blinked at the about face. "Clothes? I've got running shorts, T-shirt and shoes in the car."
"Nah, not workout clothes," Jake huffed. "The coaches dress out every day just like the players do. I'm talking cleats, baseball pants, Under Armour, jersey. You got a number you want?" he asked as an afterthought as he gestured for Brandon to start walking with him.
Baseball pants? "No preference," the science teacher answered. "You know, the whole 'act like you know what you're doing' thing probably isn't a great idea. The kids, especially yours, being so good, will see right through it. It might be better to say I'm observing or something."
"Nope. Then you'll get plowed over," Jake countered. "They have to respect you or else you're just wasting your time. We'll figure something out. Third base coach, maybe, all you'll need to learn are the signs and know the basics of base running," he mused as they entered the gym to head for his office. A few kids were loitering amidst the bleachers, and Jake narrowed his eyes. His class should have cleared out by now. "Where are you supposed to be!?" he bellowed suddenly, his voice echoing around the gym and causing the kids to jump and scatter.
Brandon pulled back a little at the resounding shout, but he had to smile as he followed Jake back to his office. He remembered that bellow from the football field--Jake had been the star quarterback, of course. "You don't sound much different, you know that?" he said before thinking about it.
"Different?" Jake asked in confusion as he went to the free-standing aluminum locker in the corner of his tiny cinderblock office. "Different than what?"
"You used to yell like that on the football field. I remember. I could even hear you from the far end of the bleachers," Brandon said, hands in his pockets as he watched Jake rifle through the locker.
Jake looked over his shoulder as he pulled out a spare pair of pristine white baseball pants. "Oh," he responded with a slight blush. "I didn't know you ever went to any games," he went on uncomfortably, uncertain of how else to respond.
"A few," Brandon admitted. "Wanted to see what all the hubbub was about when you won regionals," he said. He still didn't know much about football, but it had been an experience.
"Did you?" Jake asked curiously. He remembered the 'hubbub.' The crowd roaring in excitement, the marching band blaring music from the stands, the crunch of pads and the grunts of tackles, the cold, the bright lights and the smells of sweat and grass and perfect fall nights. God, he had loved it. Lived for it.
"Yeah," Brandon said quietly. "It was a world I didn't have any part in. It was exciting to watch." He saw the faraway look in Jake's eyes, so he just stayed quiet until the other man was done reminiscing. He wished he had memories like that. The best he had was the blank calm he'd get when running miles and miles cross country, over flowing fields and through leafy forests. He knew he'd been in the zone then.
Jake looked at the man strangely and nodded. Brandon was an unusual one in that he'd always had the physique to be an athlete, but Jake had never seen him play anything. They'd not even been in freshman gym together because Brandon didn't get to Parkview until their sophomore year. Even back then, Brandon had been one of the larger kids, nearly as tall as Jake himself and filled out through the shoulders, though lanky. He had just never had the desire to use it, losing himself in his intellectual side instead, Jake supposed.
"Well," Jake huffed. "These should fit you," he said as he handed over pants, a shiny blue long-sleeved Under Armour shirt, and a loose-fitting jersey of the same color. "What size shoe are you?" he asked as he lifted his own foot and looked down at his trainers with a distracted frown. "Eh, first day you'll be fine with tennis shoes," he amended. "Hey, thanks for running interference earlier, by the way."
Brandon stuck the clothes under one arm, confused until he remembered Rhonda. "Ah, yeah. No problem. I've seen Rhonda when she's really fixated on something. Granted, it's always been projects or grants or something. But she was getting this scary look in her eyes." He paused. "And size 12."
"You can borrow my spares," Jake nodded. "They're twelve and a half cause I have to wear this lift thing in one of them for my ankle," he rambled as he picked up one of the cleats and poked inside it. It was battered and scuffed, but had a well-loved look to it as he held it in his big hands. "The lift is still in here, actually," he muttered, poking at the thick pad. "They've got stickers on them, I never try to pull them out," he muttered distractedly, "and I sort of walk on the outsides of my feet so the soles wear down funny, but they should do you okay if you don't want to buy a new pair. They run about fifty bucks, I think."
"Thanks, I'll see how they fit," Brandon said. "I'll just change. The locker room's across the hall, right?"
"Yeah, but," Jake cleared his throat and flushed a little. With a little huff and a smile he bit the bullet and asked, "Boxers or briefs, man?"
Brandon held up the pants, looking at them appraisingly before looking back to Jake. "You're not telling me I'm supposed to wear something under these, are you?" His voice reflected his real amusement. There was no way he'd be able to get these pants on with underwear.
"You're supposed to wear sliding pants under them, but since we're not playing you'd look a little funny. White briefs are best," Jake answered as seriously as possible. He'd gotten a sudden image of the man standing before him going commando, and he'd rather liked the idea quite a bit.
"Okay, you would know," Brandon said, looking uncertainly at the pants. "I'll be right back." He left the office and crossed the hall, dropping the clothes on the bench in between the rows of lockers and starting to strip down. Maybe it was fate, he thought wryly. He'd worn white spandex shorts instead of briefs today, planning to go running in the park once he got home. At least he wouldn't look like a total nerd with red or black showing through the white pants.
He pulled on the Under Armour shirt, surprised that it was so stretchy and comfortable. Stepping into the pants, he blinked in surprise when they got really close-fitting, really fast. He had to shimmy several times to pull the damn things up, and for a moment he was sure he wouldn't get them over his hips without baby powder or something. Finally they were on, and he looked in the mirror, almost horrified. Second skin had nothing on these pants. He tucked in the shirt (as best he could) and slung the jersey over one arm, walking back out to Jake's office barefooted.
"If you're ordering pants for me, I'm thinking these are maybe a size or two small," Brandon said as he re-entered the office.
Jake looked up from his book and blinked at the man. He looked him over appraisingly, noticing for perhaps the first time just exactly how fit Brandon really was. The Under Armour stuck to him like wet paper, outlining muscles Jake had never thought to see on a biology teacher, and the pants were in fact a perfect fit; just loose enough to allow for the usual protective gear but not so loose as to impede movement on the field. Jesus. "No," he murmured as he cocked his head and raised an eyebrow. "No, they look perfect to me," he answered distractedly.
Brandon looked down at himself and then shrugged, combing his hair back behind his ears with his fingers. "If you say so. They're going to take some getting used to," he commented, sitting in the other chair and pulling on the blue socks Jake had set out.
Jake watched him with a series of stupid blinks before pulling his eyes back down to the Sudoku puzzles on his desk. Another hobby he hid while at school. Slowly he moved his clipboard over to cover them up and then glanced back up at Brandon from under lowered brows. With his stuffy dress shirt and tie replaced by the tight blue shirt and the clean white pants, he actually looked like an athlete. He looked like someone Jake would try to pick up in a bar. Looking away again, Jake slowly reached for his paperback to put it out of sight as well. When you were a P.E. coach in any high school, no one gave you credit for having actual brains. If you were caught doing something that could be considered intelligent, like reading a book, you were prodded at for trying to 'look smart'. It was more the 'that one doesn't have illustrations, dimwit' kind of thing that he usually got, instead of someone asking if it was a good book. He didn't want to hear any jokes from Brandon.
Jake cleared his throat again and nodded. "Trust me, you'll be glad to have them. We practice from 3:30, when the kids get out there, to anywhere from 5:30 to 7 at night. It'll be cold when the sun goes down. It'll be wet sometimes. Only time we don't practice is when there's lightning, and then we're in the weight room." He picked up a pencil and began to tap it on his desk thoughtfully. "What else..." he murmured to himself as he looked around for guidance. "We do a good bit of traveling, have a few overnight stays, so might want to prepare your girlfriend or wife or whatever," he went on as he dug out a schedule and glanced over it. "We got some Friday and Saturday games," he muttered. "We have a tourney in Florida over spring break, and usually during that first week of May we take the kids to Turner Field for a game or two, that's an overnight thing as well," he went on as he handed the schedule over to Brandon.
"Coaching is a full-time job," Jake murmured softly. That was one of the things most regular teachers never understood. They had the kids from 7:30 in the morning to 2:30 in the afternoon. Most left it at that. Some sponsored clubs or did tutoring, but then they wiped the school smell from their shoes and headed home. The coaches spent nights, weekends, and summers with their kids. They helped them shop colleges. They fielded phone calls from drunken parties and gave advice on love lives. They kept in touch with kids long after they walked and got their diplomas. When Jake had been in college and come to the realization that he might be bisexual, his football coach from high school had been the first person he had called.
"Not married," was Brandon's only quiet comment as he considered the practice time, the weekend games and tournament trips. He'd already committed himself, he knew, so there was nothing to do but give his best. He quickly calculated the amount of sleep he'd be getting and inwardly winced though outwardly he looked calm. Long days. Even longer days. He started each weekday at 4:45 a.m., tutored from 6 to 7 and carried a full class load from 7:30 to 2:30 p.m. Now, instead of working on his doctorate research in the late afternoons, he'd have baseball practice and games, and another skim of the schedule convinced him that his personal classwork would have to shift to after 9 p.m.--after daily planning, grading papers, writing up tests--and with several Saturdays gone, his only free day, Sunday, would be taken up as well. Exercise, he had no idea when he'd fir that in. Maybe after the doctorate planning, late. He could run around the lake at home.
"Where do you want me to start?" he asked the coach.
"You look a little green," Jake observed without answering. "Practice is actually fun after you weed out the whiners," he said, trying to offer some condolences as he leaned back in his chair and propped his feet up on the desk.
Brandon had to chuckle, and he relaxed a little. "Whiners, huh? Whining about what? Taking ground balls in the groin?"
"That's what cups are for," Jake answered instantly, his standard retort to any complaints about impact pain in that particular area. "And if they get knocked in the nuts it's 'cause they didn't have their glove down and they deserved it. We don't baby these guys," he insisted vehemently. "I know you academics think we treat them with kid gloves, but if they don't pull their weight on a report card they're off the team. If they get hurt, they play through it. If they get sick, they show up anyway. I guarantee you my boys are some of your only students with perfect attendance. And I guarantee you any day of the week you have at least one kid in at least one of your classes with taped fingers, ankle brace, knee brace, or some sort of hellacious bruise they're trying to cover up."
He was bristling protectively now. He knew what student athletes went through. They got labeled with the 'jock' title, put in the easy classes even if they should have been honors students, and when they did do something spectacular academically it got chalked up to luck. Not to mention the injuries, grueling practice schedules, and heartbreaks that could only come with loving a sport. Jake snorted noisily through his nose to calm himself and rocked back in his chair, rolling his sore neck and closing his eyes.
Brows rising as Jake seriously soap-boxed, Brandon knew he'd hit a sore spot, one possibly dating back to their own time in school. And the more Jake talked, the more he made sense. The biology teacher nodded slowly. The coach was right. As much as the nerds had felt put down and razzed for not being athletic or good looking--the jocks had been razzed about grades and attendance. He thought maybe both groups had gotten the short end of the stick. "I'm sorry," he said quietly.
Jake stared at the man for a moment and then broke into a disarming smile. It was another thing he was good at, glazing over bursts of emotion and pushing it back until it was quickly forgotten. He was also good at playing up the dumb brute image when he needed to. The everyday game face. "I get carried away," he offered, his usual wry smirk back in place and his eyes warm brown again. "It usually happens when they don't give me my juice at lunch," he joked with a sheepish grin, reaching behind himself to rub the back of his neck and roll his head, forcing his spine to crack loudly.
The phone on his desk began to ring demandingly, and Jake glared at it. He held up his hand, indicating for Brandon to wait, and removed his feet from the desk to reach for the speaker button. "This is the Literacy Self Test Hotline," he drawled in a deep, businesslike voice. "After the tone, leave your name and number and recite a sentence using today's vocabulary word. Today's word is supercilious."
"Is there a student sitting with you?" Troy Peterson's voice asked warily over the phone.
"No," Jake laughed with a wink at Brandon.
"Go fuck yourself then," Troy muttered. "Did you send in this announcement to be read with the morning report tomorrow?"
"What announcement?" Jake asked in an attempt to sound innocent, barely able to keep his voice from wavering in amusement. Brandon tilted his head and smiled at the change in the other man. How bizarre that he could switch so quickly from one mood to the other.
"I quote," the speech teacher and fellow coach responded, obviously reading from something, "At precisely 11:42 this morning, maintenance will be blowing the dust out of the phone lines. All teachers should cover the earpiece of their classroom phones with a bag to catch the dust."
Both Brandon's brows rose, and he stifled a snort. Jake was laughing quietly as he listened, shoulders shaking and hand covering his mouth, hissing a little as he tried not to laugh out loud. "Wasn't me," he managed finally.
"I'm running with this," Troy said accusingly. "All blame will be placed squarely on your impressively built shoulders, darling," he warned before hanging up.
Jake practically guffawed. Brandon joined in with a chuckle. "That was funny," he commented, eyes dancing. He was quickly discovering there was a lot more to Jake Campbell than the jock stereotype.
"Hey, I've got to entertain myself somehow." Jake snickered as he grabbed his clipboard and stood. "Now the real fun will come when we see how many people actually do it," he practically giggled as several sheets of Sudoku puzzles fluttered to the floor.
Brandon leaned over to gather up the papers, looking at the filled-out puzzles. "God, I hate these things! I have the worst time figuring them out," he said as he offered them back to Jake. "You must have more patience than I do. I get frustrated with them. Give me a crossword instead."
Jake laughed a little uncomfortably and nodded as he took the papers back. "Crosswords require a bit more knowledge than one through nine," he murmured as the bell rang for last bus--that meant it was 3:10. "Shit, I gotta get dressed," he huffed, putting his clipboard back down and moving around Brandon in the small space to grab his bag.
Frowning slightly at Jake's awkward and self-deprecating reply, Brandon stood up. "I'll wait outside at the main diamond." The school complex had three fields, two baseball and one softball, as well as the football field and track, two soccer fields and six tennis courts.
"Yeah, yeah, we're all meeting there this week. Then the teams get split," Jake answered distractedly as he stripped off his shirt and tossed it into his chair. "Hey," he said quickly. "Thanks," he added softly as he looked up at Brandon and began to undo his shorts.
Brandon stopped, surprised--not to mention blindsided by the ripped chest suddenly bared to his eyes--but he managed to give Jake an honest, open smile. "Sure thing," he said. He closed the door behind him and moved outside, a little bemused on how seeing that chest had surprised him so much ... and why he was still enjoying it now. Oh man.
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I read my fair share of books ranging in themes, and I have to say that out of all the novels that I have ever read this is probably my favorite! It was very enjoyable and I found it to be highly relatable which I greatly appreciated! Would Highly recommend!
*Just a note, this book is very descriptive when it comes to adult content and could be considered inappropriate for younger readers.
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