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The Locker Room [MultiFormat]
eBook by Amy Lane

eBook Category: Erotica/Gay-Lesbian Erotica/Romance
eBook Description: Xander Karcek has only wanted two things in his life: Christian Edwards and basketball--the man he loves and the game that let him escape a childhood he'd rather forget. His two obsessions have served him well. He and Chris beat the odds and stayed together through high school, college, and right on to the NBA. But life under fame's microscope isn't easy, especially when two men are pretending to be frat-buddies so the world doesn't know they're the next best thing to married. Their relationship survives the sacrifices they make and the lies they tell to stay together, but when their secret is exposed, the fallout might destroy them when nothing else could. Chris and basketball are the two things holding Xander together. Now the world is asking Xander to make a choice. Is there an option that includes a future with the man he loves?

eBook Publisher: Dreamspinner Press/Dreamspinner Press, Published: 2011, 2011
Fictionwise Release Date: June 2011

52 Reader Ratings:
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Playing the Moment

Arco Arena, Sacramento, California. Home of the Kings.

Xander Karcek pounded down the glossy wood of the court, thigh muscles straining, huge biceps pumping, and sweat dripping into his eyes from his black bangs. The ball sang against the boards in front of him and popped back into the palm of his wide-fingered hand as he dribbled furiously, strides ahead of the enemy, in perfect position to score.

He didn't.

Instead, he popped the ball behind him with the next dribble, and Christian Edwards caught it one-handed and continued the dribble down the center of the court. He didn't have to look behind him to know Chris was right on his heels--he never had to look behind him. Chris would be there. Chris didn't know how to fail. And this way, when the opposition came up behind Xander, arms spread, legs wide, ready to block the shot, Xander was there with surprisingly wide shoulders for a guy who stood six feet, nine inches tall in his size eighteen bare feet.

And Chris, the center, leapt into the air, twisted his body, and made the shot with a chest-high dunk, and the fifteen thousand fierce voices, echoing around their bodies until the sound was so thick you could cut it with the slice of a sweating hand, exploded into shrieks of unholy, furious joy, singing Chris's praises.

Just the way it should be. The whole world should sing Chris's praises.

Xander and Chris passed each other as Chris recovered his running stride from the dunk, and as they got into position to intercept the other team, they faced the opposite direction. That's when their arms swung down from the elbows in a smooth low five, and they snarled at each other in triumph.

God, they loved this fucking game. Xander would live for it, Chris would die for it, and together, they would never stop creating spectacular feats of magic on the court. It was who they were, dammit, and not a soul on the planet could take it from them.

Oh, please, God. Don't let anyone take this from them. Please.

Chris's hand slapped Xander lightly on the hip, and Xander's eyes slid down, a moment of softness in this hard-edged, bright-lit world, the hot and shiny sunshine center of the magnifying glass.

Xander had learned a long time ago that it was so easy for the world to take things away. Chris had been Xander's only reason to believe that sometimes, God gave them back.

* * * *

Home Cooking

Fifteen Years Earlier

It was cold, and the light was fading, but Xander was damned if he was going home. His mother would be home, with her crack-smoking boyfriend du jour, and they'd been inhaling and fighting and exhaling and fucking, and the apartment would stink and there would be no food, and if either one of them heard Xander hanging around, someone would try to kick the crap out of him.

Xander was tall--six-foot, one inch, even at fourteen--but sometimes he could swear the bones at his wrists were wider than his biceps, and it didn't help that there was never any food in the house, and he didn't feel like smoking crack to stop the hunger, like his mother kept telling him to do.

So, it was late, and cold, but out here at the basketball court in the community park, there was just him, and a street lamp, and his smoking breath. It didn't matter that he didn't have a sweatshirt, or that he hadn't eaten since yesterday morning. All that mattered was that the ball--his only possession, stolen from Walmart in a moment of desperation--felt right in the palm of his hand, and that he could pound it rhythmically across the cracked blacktop and hear the regular jangle-swish as it blew through the chains of the basket.

But it was hard to focus when you were that hungry, and when a voice tried to get his attention, Xander had to squint and concentrate on where it came from.

"Oh, come on! Aren't you going to throw it to me?"

Xander was so surprised that he did.

The boy was shorter than him by a good six inches, but was still his age. His hair was dark blond and wavy, and he wore trendy jeans and a blue sweatshirt with a print on the front. His eyes were so brown that from across the court, they looked black. He had a pointed chin with a cleft in it, and a pouty mouth, and a smile of such cheerful goodwill that Xander almost felt like he owed it to the kid to give him the ball. Who could resist that bouncy humor, or that amazing happiness, even as the sky darkened to twilight?

The kid caught the ball easily, and dribbled with a natural grace toward the basket. He shot and missed, and then shot and scored, and then looked up with a grin on his wide, smiling mouth. "Well, aren't we going to play?"

Why not?

Xander's hunger was forgotten, and he started to guard the basket.

The kid was good. Not as good as Xander, maybe because he hadn't been forced to use a basketball hoop in a park's vacant lot as refuge from too many things to count, but he was quick and agile and he kept up a steady stream of banter that eluded Xander as they played.

"What, you think I didn't see that? That was a feint, I got it... no! You blew right by me! That's okay, I'll getcha... no no no no no, he shoots, it swishes, he scores!

Xander was up on him by five shots out of twenty, and having the time of his life, when there was a sudden smell of food and a voice across the court.

"Chris? Chris, honey, I'm so sorry I'm late!"

Chris (apparently) slowed down as he was approaching the basket and turned toward the voice, and Xander took that opportunity to steal the ball and score. Chris turned to him with a sheepish grin and an "Oh! Man, that's no fair!" and Xander blushed.

"Sorry," he said softly. The smell of food hit him again, and his vision went a little black. He missed catching the ball on the dribble and tried to keep his knees steady as he turned to say goodbye to the boy who had been, for an hour at least, his friend, his family, and his entertainment, all in one.

But the boy wasn't going.

"Hey, Mom! Can that kid come home and eat with us? He's an amazing player, Mom, you've got to see him shoot!"

Xander blushed to the roots of his straight, dark hair, and looked at his companion with a little bit of awe. He sounded like... like... like a little kid, the kind who expected someone to answer him when he spoke, and in Xander's neighborhood, you didn't talk to a parent like that, because it never happened. Ever.

"I don't know, Christian--it's late. Maybe someone expects him home?" The woman had phrased the question like she was expecting Xander to answer, and Xander fumbled for a moment. He was never good at words, mostly because he was never expected to use them.

"No one cares," he said, and then he felt stupid. There had to be a better way to say that, but he couldn't think. And then, in the middle of the almost shocked silence, his stomach grumbled. Loudly.

The woman looked at him with a half smile on her face, like she understood what it was like to be young and growing, and then something in his own expression made hers change.

"He's welcome, Chris. But we need a name first, okay?"

"Xander," he mumbled, so desperate for whatever that smell was that he probably would have done any matter of terrible, illegal, disgusting things, just to have a bite. The sweat and adrenaline and joy of the game had faded, and all that was left was pewter-gray nausea and dancing spots in his vision that came from being young, growing, and literally starving to death.

"Xander," the woman said softly, "I'm Christian's mom, Andi. C'mon with us, and we'll feed you, okay?"

Xander nodded, and lured by the smell of chicken and by Chris's triumphant smile, tucked his basketball under his arm and followed the two of them as they walked home.

The suburb where Xander lived was a curious mix of older houses and apartment buildings, the kind where you moved in without having to give first and last month's rent. Xander lived in an apartment house about a block away from the high school, which was mainly why he went to school--it was close, and he got a free lunch, because he had filled out the paperwork and forged his mother's signature at the beginning of the year.

Chris lived in one of the older houses, the kind with the two stories and the big yard with, from the sound of it, a dog in the back. As Xander followed Chris and Andi through the door (and even now, Xander was getting the habit of ducking a little at doorways) Xander saw that the inside of the house was even better than the outside.

It was cluttered--there were books all over the coffee table and end table and whole shelves for them in the living room--and the couches were worn and a little threadbare on the arms. There was a girl who looked just like Christian lying on her stomach with her feet in the air, poring over a history book, and a grown man doing the dishes over by the kitchen, which opened into the living room on the far side of the house from the entryway.

"Jeez, Andi, I thought we were eating out because it was quicker than cooking!" the man called, and Chris's mom walked up to the guy--he was about Xander's height, with brown hair and glasses and a small, "pretty" face--and kissed him on the cheek with only a little reach. In the light, she had blond, curly hair, and slightly wide hips and a blowzy chest under jeans and a hooded sweatshirt, and she laughed at her husband (Xander assumed) and set the food down on the (crowded) kitchen table so she could give him a hug.

"You would not believe the line at the KFC, seriously. Just miserable. And Chris went to the park while I was there, and we brought home a stray."

Xander felt himself the victim of a cheerful once-over.

"Holy God. Feeding you must be a full-time job."

Xander smiled greenly and wondered if the light really was that dim or if it was the whole "haven't eaten" thing. "Yeah," he said quietly. "I'd like it to be."

That earned him a laugh, and his next smile had a little more strength behind it. Then Chris said, "C'mon, let's clear off the table, Xander, and we can eat."

"Never mind that," Chris's (Step-dad? Mother's boyfriend? What was the guy?) said. "We'll eat in the living room. It's getting late, and we need to wrap dinner up and get to homework."

"Aces." Chris grimaced, all sarcasm. "Way to suck the joy out of dinner, Dad."

"Just doing my part," said Chris's "Dad," and Xander tried not to boggle. He'd thought those were an urban legend.

It didn't take long before Xander was seated quietly, balancing a plate of chicken with fixins on his lap, and listening to the family banter back and forth. By the time dinner was over, he'd learned that Penny, Chris's sister, was in all of the advanced classes, Chris was struggling with Algebra, Andi was a lawyer from the teacher's union, who couldn't talk about her work but made a lot of eye rolls when certain subjects from school were brought up, and Jed was Chris's father, and he taught Junior High math in another district.

He could sit there and listen to them talk for hours.

He didn't say anything himself, of course, but he did look up gratefully when Andi put two more pieces of chicken on his plate after he finished off the two he started with. When those were gone, he found that Jed had given him the last of the potatoes and gravy, and he ate that gratefully too. And then, like there always is, he found that there was a price for the good, because he was the center of attention when Jed asked him how he was doing in school.

He actually felt the sweat break out under his loose T-shirt collar.

"I sleep a lot," he mumbled. Well, school was clean, it was safe, no loud noises, no one having sex or getting high--how was he not supposed to sleep?

"You can't sleep through your classes!" Chris said, with so much suppressed passion that Xander blushed more and wished for a quick death under the beat-up, comfortable couch. "If you sleep through your classes, how are you going to try out for the team?"

"The team?" Xander said blankly.

"Yeah! The basketball team! They start playing in a month. You can still try out, but you have to get your grades up!"

Xander looked at him helplessly. "You think I could make the team?" Oh God. He loved basketball--he did. He would sneak into the local sports bars or restaurants, just to watch the games on television. He would walk three miles and hover in the shadows of the Arco Arena on game day, just to watch Vlade Divac and Peja Stojakovic walk in the back for practice. But staying awake for class? Christ....

He looked at Chris's face then, expectant, anticipating, excited.

No, not Christ. Christian. He'd do it for Christian.

"I'll talk to my teachers," he said through a dry mouth, although he wasn't sure if he remembered their names. "I'll talk to them tomorrow. Maybe I can fix it." Maybe I can move mountains, change the color of the sky and tilt the center of the world, just to play basketball, just to see you look at me like I can do anything, just so I don't let you down.

Eventually dinner was over, and he'd helped clean up, and even he could see that this nice family would be wrapping it up. Eventually he told his first lie, one about going home to sleep, and he left. Before he went, tucking his basketball under his arm securely, he told Chris that he'd meet him at the cross street so they could walk to school together.

He did go home. His mother and whoever were both sprawled on the couch, stoned and out of it, and he had time to look at her through eyes that had just seen a functional little family, and he felt a surge of anger. Goddammit, all he'd ever asked for was some food and a little attention, but even before the drugs, that hadn't really been in the cards, had it? But he didn't stay long, not this time. Instead, he took a quick shower and changed his clothes, then got a blanket and a pillow and snuck out to the stairwell behind the laundry room. The dryer usually ran all night, and this way, he could stay warm.

* * * *

Later on, he figured out that his teachers had been rooting for him all along. They had let him sleep because he needed it, and when he asked for his work, they gave it to him. His English teacher gave him notebooks for free, and had a bucket of pens for the taking. His math teacher let him clean desks during lunch for extra credit. His French teacher told him that there were usually leftovers from the Asian club meetings after lunch, and made sure to have some wrapped in foil for him after he got his free lunch at the kiosk. His basketball coach tutored him in history, because that was the subject he taught when he wasn't coaching.

Chris gave him an "old" backpack--the same "old" backpack that Xander would forever remember him having as they walked to school that first day after he'd dined on KFC and mashed potatoes.

That started a tradition of the two of them walking to school. It gave them time to talk about their classes, about basketball tryouts (both of them were shoo-ins from the start), about pretty much anything they wanted to talk about, and the tradition continued until they were sophomores, the next year.

They'd spent the summer practicing, because they loved it, and getting Xander a job, because he needed one, and he was tired of not eating. His plan was to spend his late evenings loading boxes at Walmart, pretending he was sixteen, his early mornings doing homework, sitting on the bus bench waiting for Chris, his days in school, and his afternoons in basketball practice, where he felt he belonged.

He told Chris he needed the job but not why, exactly, and until that day in late September, Chris never realized how bad that need truly was.

"What's with the shades?" Chris had grown four inches during his freshman year in high school, but Xander had grown four as well. Together they still managed to walk comfortably, and Xander never felt like he towered over his friend, which was nice, since he towered over nearly everyone else.

"S'bright," Xander mumbled, and Chris stopped and looked at him, square and irritated.

"It's the same bright every other day. And those look... Jesus, Xan, you've still got the tag on the front of them, and they're hella expensive...." Chris's eyes narrowed, and he tilted his head dangerously, looking both betrayed and furious at the same time.

"Xander, did you steal those?"

Behind the sunglasses, one of Xander's eyes went wide. The other one was swollen shut.

"I had to," he rasped. "I'm... I'm sorry, Chris. I... I just fucking needed them, okay!" He tried to make his voice angry, but Chris looked so hurt. His own voice ended up breaking, and he turned his face away, so he could run away from it, all of it, but before he could take his first step, Chris's hand came up and snatched the shades away.


"Your mother know you talk like that?" Xander snapped, taking the shades back and shoving them down on his face. His eye was swollen shut and his nose was just swollen, and now that Chris could see his whole face, he could probably see that what looked like a chapped lip was really a split lip.

"Xan... Xander! Wait! Goddammit, wait!" Chris broke into a run next to him, and the cool fall morning was clouded by the spatter of his feet on the green-shaded sidewalk. Chris's hand came down on his shoulder and whirled him around, and Xander, who could face an opponent on the court without flinching, cringed from that touch on his arm like a child would cringe from a smacked bottom.

Xander found himself hunched and backing up toward the hedge that separated the residences from the thoroughfare, and trying to escape his best friend like a shy field spider would escape a screaming girl.

But Christian didn't scream.

"What happened?" he asked quietly.

Xander shrugged. "Don't want to talk about it," he muttered.

"Too goddamned bad. You tell me, and tell me now, or I turn around and go home and phone my dad, and he has to report abuse, it's the goddamned law, and that'll be a big fucking mess. Talk to me, Xander." Chris had fair skin--beautiful, star-pale skin that set off his night-dark eyes--and now it was blotchy and red, and his chin was quivering and his eyes were too bright and rimmed with pink. Xander had an urge to just hold that quivering chin and smooth his thumb over Chris's plump lower lip, and tell him not to cry.

Don't cry, Christian. I'm okay. I'm here with you.

"Mom's boyfriend." Xander didn't even know this one's name. "He wanted my uniform money for basketball. I told him no."

Chris's eyes got really big then, and he looked around wildly. "Where is he? Jesus, did he get that money? Xander, we're playing varsity this year. You can't not sign up for ball!" Sophomores in varsity, it had been a big furry deal the year before and it loomed no less glorious now. Varsity. Harder games, harder players--a chance for Xander to run and run and run and pound out the pain of the everyday on the court with more fierceness than ever. Varsity. It even sounded sexy.

And then it hit Christian. Xander could see the moment that it hit him, and he almost felt bad for his friend. "Omigod!" He sounded like a little kid. "Xander, I don't even know where you live!"

Xander's bruised lip quirked up, and the entire swollen side of his face gave an enthusiastic throb of pain.

"You think there might be a reason for that?" he asked simply, and Chris clapped his hand over his mouth.

"You never said," he muttered, devastated. "It was so bad, and you just showed up at my door, and you never said--"

Xander yanked his shoulder around protectively and shoved his stolen glasses up on his face. "You've got a good life, Christian. You've got a good family. Didn't want them to think I was too much trouble, 'kay?"

"No!" Christian was honestly in pain, and Xander didn't know what to do. His hands actually fluttered, until they ended up on his friend's shoulders, and he looked around anxiously. He and Chris always went early, but there was always the chance that someone would catch them acting like fags on the street corner, and there would go... well, basketball. He couldn't imagine playing basketball and having that sort of thing bouncing around. There would go his teachers' respect and all of the shit he'd worked for so hard the year before. No. No. He would just calm Chris down, and they could go back to walking, side by side, on the way to school.

"Look, man," he whispered, furiously. "Just calm down! Calm down! Usually I'm smarter, okay? But I got home late, and he spotted the money in my backpack, 'cause I got paid last night, and, well, I don't know what the fuck to say! I was stupid! I got caught! It won't happen again!"

But somehow, that just made Chris cry more. "You weren't stupid," he muttered, his voice clogged, and Xander looked around frantically.

"What?" he asked, distracted. Damn, Chris and his happy family. If he'd ever had to hide anything about himself at all, he'd know better than to fall apart on a street corner where anyone might see.

"I said you weren't stupid!" Chris all but yelled, and Xander would have smacked his hand against his forehead, but his whole face still hurt.

"Well, we're being stupid right now!" he hissed, and Chris, being open, easy, trusting Chris snapped back, "Well someone needs to stand up for you!" And Xander saw some more students coming up the walk, far enough away not to see them, but coming their way.

Dammit! He knew they couldn't see him, but that didn't stop him from turning around and grabbing Chris's hand, hauling him up around the hedge and dragging him to the little hollow between house and hedge and the gate to some poor slob's backyard. They were probably trespassing, but Xander didn't give a shit. They were hidden from view, behind a bus stop bench and behind a hedge. They were safe.

They stood there for a moment, panting, glaring at each other, while Chris wiped his pretty face with his sleeve and tried to pull himself together.

"You don't deserve this," he said after a moment. He was looking at the ground, and perversely, Xander missed that moment when they were glaring at each other.

"It's not about deserving it," Xander told him fatalistically. "It's about getting it. My mom's a drug whore, Christian. I don't know what else to tell you. My apartment's a pit. I have to sleep under the stairs by the dryer if I want some goddamned peace. My best meals are at school and--" His voice caught, because he couldn't be defiant and defensive when he was talking about Christian's family. "And at your house," he finished, embarrassed. "What do you want me to say? I still gotta go to school. I still gotta play."

Chris looked at him, outrage sparking those night-dark eyes. "Play? Play? Goddammit, Xander! Shouldn't you be worried about something else? A place to sleep? A foster family? Jesus, how you let me just run you around this last year, dragging you into the fucking team and nagging at you about your fucking homework! Fuck the game!"

"Don't you say that!" Xander was horrified.

"I mean it!"

"Don't you say it!"

"Fuck the motherfucking game!"

"Shut up! Shut up! SHUT THE FUCK UP!" Xander realized that he was shouting, but he couldn't seem to help it. Xander never shouted. He never shouted, and he never got angry, and he never let shit bother him. He just did what the teachers asked and did what Coach told him and followed Christian blindly into the lunchroom and onto the court and into hell if he asked him, because Christian and basketball were the two things Xander had locked into the laser scope of his brain that he would never change up for another target. Ever. And Chris was just going to smear those images, throw them away, take away the only two things that had ever meant a fucking thing, because Xander hadn't been able to sneak quieter or duck quicker, and it wasn't any fucking fair.

"Shhh!" Chris said frantically, looking up at the small window above their heads. With any luck, Mr. and Mrs. Side-yard had already gone for work, but you could never tell.

"You can't take it from me!" Xander half-gibbered. "Dammit, Chris... you... the game... it's all I got!" He meant "You and the game" but he was never sure if Chris heard that part.

"But... your face, Xander! Dammit, your face, man! Have you even seen it?"

Xander shrugged, trying to ignore the tears pooling in his glasses. "Wasn't that pretty anyway," he muttered.

"Shut up," Chris snapped, and his complexion grew even blotchier. Xander watched in wonder as, in the midst of everything else they were doing in this stranger's side yard, Christian Edwards blushed.

There was an awkward, flustered, and blushing silence between the two of them, and Xander looked away. He was surprised when Chris reached out with two fingers and pulled his chin back, forcing Xander to look at him.

"Now take off your glasses," Chris commanded, and Xander sighed and did it, because he really would follow Chris into hell. Chris's thumb came up, gently grazing Xander's ravaged cheek, and Xander, about to snap "Get off me!" or something equally macho, brought up his hand to yank Chris away.

That's not what happened, though. What happened was that he trapped Chris there, and then his hand started trembling, and then... then... his eyes locked with Chris and they were frozen, Chris's hand against his bruised face, his own hand keeping it there.

"I'm not pretty," Xander whispered, unable to let go. He knew he wasn't. He had high, Slavic cheekbones, an overly long jaw, and a broad forehead. At fifteen, he had to shave every morning, or he'd be shadowed by the afternoon, and his chest already had a patch of hair in the middle, between his nipples and running from his belly button down under his jeans. He often thought he would look good as one of those cavemen in a comic strip; all he had to do was bend his back and carry a club. But that's not how Chris was looking at him now. Not even a little.

"You're my friend," Chris whispered back, and his other hand came up so he could rub Xander's lower lip with his thumb. "That makes you beautiful."

They stood there, transfixed by each other, until they heard the voices coming up the walk. The kids that had sent Xander running for this private spot in the first place had finally wandered down, desultorily, and were passing their spot, chatting loudly.

Xander and Christian froze, staring at each other in fear of discovery and wonder at what it was they were doing that would be discovered. It was Chris who made the first move; maybe he knew that Xander wouldn't put up a fight when they were so close to other people. Maybe it was the way Xander was staring into his eyes with wonder and hope and terror all mixed in. Xander had never asked him, not even in all the years that followed, what made him do it, for fear that his answer would be that it had been a whim, or a game, or for the hell of it. It would have been just too cruel if the most magical moment of Xander's life had happened for the hell of it.

Slowly, Chris raised himself on his toes and pulled Xander's head down for a kiss.

It was nothing, at first. Just a bare brush of lips to lips. Xander had never kissed a girl, and to his knowledge, neither had Chris, so at first just the taste of the other's breath as they rubbed lips was enough. And then Chris pressed a little harder, and Xander's lips parted, and Chris's tongue slipped in, gently, licking at the inside of Xander's mouth until Xander had no choice. He opened his mouth fully, and welcomed Chris in.

And Chris, for all he was six inches shorter than Xander, groaned, pushing at Xander until his back was pushed up against the gold stucco of the house. (Xander would be wiping pale yellow stucco dust off the back of his gray sweatshirt all day.) The inside of Xander's mouth was tender and sore, and Chris was inexperienced. A clumsy foray by an enthusiastic tongue made Xander whimper and had Chris pulling back, looking both exhilarated and frightened.

"You... you don't want?"

Xander's chest was heaving and his hands were shaking, and without meaning to, he clenched his fingers even tighter over Chris's hand. "I want," he muttered, shocked. His life had been... running. Running, finding shelter, finding food. Brushing his teeth had been a challenge. Clean laundry had been a difficult priority. Taking a shower was a matter of stealth and strategy.

In all of this, he'd not been listening to his body's other priorities. He'd followed Chris because he had to, because Chris was all that was light and kindness, and Xander craved him. He'd never thought that Chris's body--his male body--was something else to crave.

Chris's smile was blinding then. "You want? Me? It's--" He flushed. "I mean, you know, that means we're... you know--"

Yeah, Xander knew. He knew the regular word and the street words. He knew the word the teachers would use and the word the students would use. But none of those words mattered, not the politician word and not the taunts that would be leveled at them if anyone found out. All that mattered was Chris.

"Chris," he said, marshalling his thoughts, his runaway heartbeat, the aching surge in his groin. "You understand, right? A foster home would mean I'd leave."

Chris brought his shaking hand, the one that had been cupping Xander's chin, to his own mouth, and he shook his head. "Aww... Xander. Christ. You... you can't stay... not if--" His eyes started to water, and Xander finally dropped their clenched hands to his side and brought his other hand up to wipe away Chris's tears with his thumb.

"I can do anything if it means I don't have to leave you," he said honestly. "If I can play basketball, it will all be okay."

Christian leveled him a mutinous, angry look, and Xander recognized it. He'd shown it to his parents when they told him that if he didn't bring up his math grades he'd have to quit the team. He'd shown it to their dumbfuck World History teacher (soooo much less cooler than Coach had been the year before) when she'd commented on Xander's torn and oft-worn jeans. He'd shown it to kids at lunch when they suggested (none too subtly) that maybe he'd want to stop tagging along with the poor kid, when they had better parties to go to.

"You can't live there, either," he said with determination, and Xander looked at him helplessly. Chris's parents probably would let Xander sleep on their couch for forever, but Xander didn't want that. Chris... Chris sort of respected him. Xander didn't want to be some useless thing, just leeching off of Chris's family. Xander's sense of these things was hazy--he only had two reference points. There was the filth and spareness of his own home, and the sweetness and comfort of Christian's. The adults in that home worked in partnership. The adults there provided. Xander didn't recognize that he was barely fifteen. He just recognized that if he was ever going to... to be with Chris, then he didn't want to be a leech, or a burden, or a charity case.

He wanted to be a partner.

"An apartment," he said brightly. "I'll... we can fake an ID or something. I can get an apartment. She... she won't know where I am. She won't care. I... I just--" Chris was looking at him with big, bright eyes, as though he were making sense, as though he really could change the axis of the earth with a few wishes.

"I just need to be able to play," he said helplessly, and Chris's look... dimmed a little, became fond, and Xander knew it had been the wrong thing to say, but he couldn't seem to find the right one.

"We can do that," Chris said, and he nodded, and Xander became acutely aware that they were up against a stranger's house, their bodies plastered together, their hands clenched like lovers.

"Can we--" Oh, God, he hated to ask. "We have to go, but can we--" He needed it. Chris's lips were swollen, and he'd tasted so... so golden. So warm and sunshiney. Xander wanted to taste him again, to make sure it hadn't been a fever dream, a mirage, hatched in desperation as he huddled under the stairwell by the dryer.

Chris's mouth was on his again, and he let go of Chris's hand and wrapped his arms around that smaller, more slender body and pulled his friend, his savior, deep into whatever haven he could give. Don't leave me, Chris. Don't let me leave you. I need this. I need you. I'll do anything, move the world, move out of my mom's place, get an apartment, pass all my classes, anything, just stay here, right here, forever.

God... oh God... oh God... he tasted so sweet.

They pulled back, panting, and suddenly Chris's hands were smoothing his shirt and wiping the corners of his mouth, and Xander found himself doing the same to Chris. They needed to straighten up, he thought giddily. Couldn't have the student body knowing that their two basketball stars were swapping spit with each other, now could they? Oh, Jesus. No one could know.

Chris was staring at him, backing away, looking a little embarrassed and a little mischievous and a little wonderful, and Xander wanted to tell the world.

"Don't leave me, okay?" he said before he could stop himself.

Christian look puzzled. "Okay, big guy. I thought the point was that you wouldn't leave me, right?"

Xander shrugged, and shivered, and gave Chris's lips one last brush with his thumb. "Either way, it would be bad."

Chris nodded, caught his hand and released it. "Gotcha, okay? We're together. It's good. We're gonna be late, though, okay? We need to make up that quiz in Algebra this morning."

Xander nodded, and they both listened carefully, and then walked to the edge of the divide between the hedge and the road. Xander came out first, looking around, and then said, "C'mon. We're clear."

Chris rounded the corner, too, and then they both shouldered their backpacks and broke into a trot, trying to get to school before the masses.

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