The Rundown: Nicolas Cruz is an eighteen year-old boy who plans on becoming a seminarian the following school year. He hopes to someday become the first Hispanic Archbishop in his city, although he's made many mistakes in his young life. His plans are put on hold, though, when a dying gang member is left on the front steps of St. Peter's, his parish. This story looks at gay and hetero relationships in Catholicism and how romantic relationships affect the priesthood.

Once Nicolas had fetched another shirt to wear, he did fix Sister Catherine a cup of coffee to help her settle her nerves. Her reaction hadn't been that surprising, really; the sister was prone to dramatic reactions. She handled stress horribly. Several times she had been offered transfers to small parishes on the outskirts of the city, where the work would be more relaxing, but she had always refused. St. Peter's was her home, she'd say. Nicolas thought that secretly she enjoyed the excitement that surrounded the downtown church.

He then left her in the parish office and fetched his cleaning tools. By the time the first visitor had arrived, all that was left of the altercation was a stubborn stain by the front gate where the blood had pooled. Nicolas had rolled up his sleeves and gotten down on his hands and knees, attacking the dried blood with a bristle brush, soap and water.

The first visitor of the day was Monsignor Flores, who worked down at the Chancery as some sort of administrator. Nicolas had never actually seen the Monsignor do any sort of job; in fact, he seemed to spend most of his time wandering around, messing with other people's work. Sort of like what he was doing now.

"What are you up to, Nico?" He stepped directly in front of Nicolas, right on to the spot being cleaned, so Nicolas was forced to lean back and look up at him.

"Just cleaning, sir. Are you looking for Father Thomas?" Nicolas smiled up at the priest. Monsignor Flores may be annoying at times, but he was still a very important man. It wouldn't do for Nicolas to be short-tempered with him.

The Monsignor sighed and gave no indication that he would be moving out of Nicolas' way anytime soon. Running his hands through his thick, steel-grey hair, he finally deigned to answer Nicolas' question. "Actually, yes, I was looking for him. Hoping that we might take in breakfast down at Lupita's this morning," he said, naming a small Mexican restaurant that was extremely popular with the Chancery officials.

Nicolas nodded sympathetically, even though he was becoming more annoyed by the minute as the Monsignor continued to stand in his way from finishing his chores. "Father Thomas isn't here right now. He left earlier this morning to see to someone in the hospital."

"Really? Still making personal visits to his parishioners? I've found that I'm simply too busy for that sort of thing anymore. One of the reasons I gave up my position at St. Luke's, you know," commented the Monsignor. Then dropping his voice to a more conspiratorial whisper, "But Father Thomas was always more old-fashioned. I suppose if that sort of thing works with his parish. How is youth attendance lately?"

"The same as always," responded Nicolas, refusing to play the Monsignor's game.

"Still dismally low, then," muttered Monsignor Flores.

Nicolas silently fumed at this and didn't dare respond. He lowered his eyes back to the cobblestones he was supposed to be scrubbing so Chancery official wouldn't see the anger and insolence burning in his eyes. All the inner-city parishes had poor attendance from young adults and high schoolers, not just St. Peter's. It wasn't Father Thomas' fault that the youth distrusted anything run by authority figures. And since when was Monsignor Flores 'too busy'? All he ever did was come by St. Peter's to hit Father Thomas up for lunch and find new ways to annoy Nicolas….

"So, boy, how are your lessons going? Keeping your grades up, I hope?"

Nicolas still didn't dare to lift his eyes. "Yes sir, they're going very well. Top marks."

"Really? That's good, I suppose," said the Monsignor, sounding fairly put-out by this good news. He had never been very keen on Nicolas taking his required high school classes at the University, mixing with the seminarians. "What's your best subject?"

Nicolas smiled and locked up. He received a great deal of pleasure from being able to say, "Theology, of course. Father Thomas is a wonderful influence, you know, it's no wonder I'm doing so well in class. I did exceptionally well in this past semester when we covered Canon Law."

"Really? That's interesting," sighed Monsignor Flores, sounding more annoyed by the minute. He quickly changed the subject. "Say, what's that you're cleaning? Some sort of stain?" He started to bend down to get a closer look at what was underneath the soapy water that he was standing in. Nicolas froze, desperately wishing for any sort of distraction. The Monsignor would not be happy to find out that Nicolas had been cleaning up puddles of blood, or that Father Thomas had accompanied a gang member to the hospital—if there was one thing Monsignor Flores couldn't stand were the 'hooligans' who 'polluted' their beautiful 'Christian city'. So praying to his Lord and Savior, Nicolas swore that God would just get him out of this one, he'd never complain about scrubbing the steps of St. Peter's again…

God was apparently pleased with the bargain, because Sister Catherine suddenly appeared at the doors of the sanctuary. "Oh, Father Flores!" She called out delightedly, pointedly leaving off the 'Monsignor' title from his name. "I'm so glad you're here. Would you like to come in for a cup of coffee?" She smiled sweetly, but there was something strangely wicked gleaming in her eyes.

Monsignor quickly straightened, forgetting his interrogation of Nicolas. "Uh, no thank you, Sister. I was actually just on my way out. I was just looking for Father Thomas," he sputtered, glancing around to see how fast he could make his escape.

"Oh? Let me guess—another visit to Lupita's?" There was a definite edge in her voice as she walked down the steps to meet them.

"Uh, yes, actually. Uh," he fumbled his words for a moment before finally giving in to what he knew she wanted, "Would you like to come along?"

Sister Catherine was actually the same age as Monsignor Flores. In fact, they had grown up together since they were kids, being in the same classes from elementary through high school. Of course, after high school Flores had gone to the University to become a priest, and Catherine attended an Ursaline school with the intention of becoming a nun. They met again several years after their schooling was finished, and from what Nicolas had gathered, Sister Catherine succeeded in thoroughly embarrassing the Monsignor. Ever since then, the only person who seemed to be able to humble Monsignor Flores was Sister Catherine—and the Monsignor thoroughly hated it. Every time he saw the nun, he did his best to escape; but he was never quite fast enough to avoid the eagle-eyed sister.

"Come along?" repeated the sister. "Why, that sounds wonderful. I think I will; thank you. But oh dear—I have no money. Vow of poverty and all that," She lowered her eyes, looking very downcast.

"Really?" The Monsignor narrowed his eyes suspiciously and then shrugged. "Uh, I suppose I could treat you…"

"Thank you very much for your kind offer! I think I'll take you up on that. Well then," she said, linking her arm in his, "we best be off then. Nico, if Father Thomas comes back soon, tell him where I've gone, won't you?"

"Of course, Sister." Nicolas bowed his head respectfully to the sister. He was grinning like mad, though, happy that trouble with the Monsignor had been avoided. Once they had walked through the gate, Nico finished his scrubbing and threw a bucket of water on the soapy mess to wash it away. It was eight-thirty and the sun was already beginning to burn harshly across his back, searing through his thin black shirt and pants.

Picking up his bucket and scrub brushes, he retreated into the cool sanctuary of the cathedral. By the time that Nicolas had put up his cleaning equipment back into the janitor's closet, a few parishioners had already entered the cathedral and were quietly praying. Outside he could hear distant shouts and laughs, signaling that the seminary students were all awake, had finished their prayers, and ready to start a new day. He thought about abandoning his chores and heading out to the back courtyard to go hang out with the older students, but quickly dismissed the idea. He would probably see the guys around lunch time anyway, and besides, Father Thomas was already doing him a favor by attending to the blonde traitor.

Nicolas frowned. All morning his thoughts had been looping around back to the fight. Or not the fight, really, but the traitor himself. It would be understandable if he couldn't get the fight out of his mind—Raul had been rather vicious. But he kept thinking of how his hands pressed against the taut muscles of the teen's stomach, blood seeping through his fingers. Of looking up as the dying gringo's eyes fluttered open and staring into blue, blue, blue. It wasn't normal for someone to have eyes that color, Nicolas decided. Those eyes had practically glowed in darkness of early morning—the neon blue of the clubs only a stone's throw from the seminary dorms. The acolyte growled in frustration as he stomped to the back of the church and through the doors that lead to the parish office. WHY couldn't he get that DAMN boy's eyes out of his mind? Didn't he have better things to think of? Or chores to do?

Deciding that his work would be a welcome distraction from the confusing thoughts he was having regarding the traitor, he fetched the broom, dustpan, wood polish and an old rag. As the morning's minutes ticked slowly by, Nicolas polished every single empty pew, making sure to note the ones that held parishioners so he could finish those later. Next, he stepped back outside. By this time, the sun was blazing in the sky, causing heat waves to ripple the air. It was like stepping inside a furnace, and instantly sweat began to bead across his forehead. Quickly removing his shirt once more (this time he had an undershirt on) he finished sweeping the steps of St. Peter's. After that was done, he set to polishing the huge, intricately carved wood doors of St. Peter's. It took the use of a step ladder to finish, but they looked magnificent when he was done.

By the time Nicolas was finished, there was V of sweat down the front of his shirt and his face felt slick to touch, his dark curls plastered to his forehead. Sighing, his picked up his cleaning his tools and walked around the side of the cathedral, picking up the occasional piece of litter as he made his way around towards the back of the church. He didn't want the people to see him in such a state of untidiness; Father Thomas didn't like him to make the wrong sort of impression on the parishioners.

Once through the back door, he dropped the cleaning supplies haphazardly into the janitor's closet. He'd deal them later. Right now, though, he desperately needed a shower. Nicolas' bedroom was down the hall from the parish office, across from Father Thomas' living space. Sister Catherine stayed in the caretaker's house that was snuggled up against the limestone wall that surrounded the church grounds. Her little house bordered the courtyard the same as the seminarians' dorms did. There were actually three more priests that also worked at St. Peter's, but one was away on missionary work (Nico was living in his room) and the other two lived in the seminary dorms as dorm monitors. Father Thomas was the head priest at St. Peter's, and it was he who had made the decision to keep Nicolas on as help.

Nicolas hurriedly undressed and stepped under the cool stream of water, washing away the heat and dust. The cold shower, unfortunately, gave him time alone with his thoughts. Only, he was doing his best not to think of the blue-eyed gringo, which left him will all his other thoughts surrounding the incident. Raul's dark eyes staring at him, challenging him to make his move until the day Nicolas would finally snap. Pushing Nicolas to the edge, pushing him, pushing him… God, damn him to hell! He thought, swinging his fist into the wall. Of course, he instantly regretted it as his knuckles seared with pain and the tile developed a thin crack from the force of the blow. Cradling his injured hand, the freezing water still streaming down around him, his thoughts began to drift.

The traitor. There had been something disturbingly beautiful about seeing him lying in a pool of his own blood. Sort of like—well, he passed a comic book store everyday on his way to the University. The pictures on display in their windows were wild, showing worlds he didn't know and didn't want to be a part of. Women dressed like harlots, men full of violence and hatred for the world. These things were part of his old world, before he came to live with Father Thomas. Before he 'saw the light,' so to speak. But last week, one of the posters had caught his eye. At first it had looked normal, like a print of some renaissance painting, full of angels and the Lord looking down on his sad world. But on closer inspection, it revealed to be something much odder and definitely not a re-print of any masterpiece he knew.

The Lord suffered from his crucifixion wounds of course, but the blood dripped off of him and spilled across the clouds that surrounded him. And the angels, oh the angels—their wings had been torn from them, and they clutched at the feathery sangre-stained messes, even as their beautiful, youthful faces screwed up in the throes of torment. The poster had made quite the impression on Nicolas. So much so, that he found a new route to walk to the University, just so he wouldn't have to stare at the angel's faces and into the eyes of his mourning Lord.

But the point of this all was that the poster was indeed beautiful. The painting itself must be something to behold, with all those rich colors and flowing, powerful lines that the renaissance paintings was so well known for. But despite its beauty, it was also very, very disturbing. It made Nicolas think of all sorts of horrid things, brought to mind terrible thoughts. And so it was with the blue-eyed traitor. Beautiful and angelic, but hideous and horrible at the same time.

Oh my Lord, what am I doing to myself? My thoughts are turning into bad poetry, worried Nicolas. He shivered and realized he had been under the cold water a bit too long. Goosebumps prickled across his brown skin, making him think of what his dark hands had looked like against the other boy's pale complexion…argh, I'm going crazy. I need to get out of here, he thought, but whether he meant out of the shower or out of the church, he wasn't sure. What time is it? He reached blindly out of the shower, groping along a shelf for his watch.

"Twelve-oh-four? Oh man, I'm late!" Nicolas exclaimed out loud, jumping out of he shower onto the tile floor, slipping on the slick floor. Catching himself, he hurriedly dried off and threw his clothes on. He was halfway out the bathroom door, before he realized he was forgetting something. Backtracking, he quickly grabbed his crucifix and chain, quickly fastening it around his neck as we walked back towards the office. At first glance, it looked like the silver replica of the golden cross that all the seminarians attending the University wore. But on the back was etched the Latin motto of Father Thomas' Order. It had been Nicolas' Christmas gift from the priest this year; along with a promise that Nicolas would be a seminarian within the year, with Father Thomas as his benefactor.

Nicolas hurried through the office and out towards the back courtyard, careful to stay within the cool shade of the huge pecan trees and mimosas that towered overhead. He made his way along the path until reaching the porch at the soon-to-be-priests dorm. Ceiling fans spun in lazy circles overhead, doing little to cool the dead heat of the air. By the time he had crossed the courtyard to the cafeteria entrance, the heat had almost completely dried his hair. All his chores had worked up his appetite (and in the hustle and bustle of this morning, he had missed breakfast) so he threw open the doors of the cafeteria and hurried in. The cafeteria was bustling with seminarians, although not as busy as it was on the weekdays. As he headed towards the lunch line, two seminarians waved over towards him. They were dressed in shorts, flip-flops, and their crosses were tucked into their blue t-shirts, so they looked like the average college student.

"Hey, Nico! Why don't you come and join us? We're headed down to the arcade," called out one of guys. His green eyes twinkled under a shag of red hair, while the second seminarian stared glumly at the door.

Nicolas gestured towards the red-head's companion at the table. "Phil, you know Juan doesn't like to go to the arcade. All those goth and punk kids from that club next door scare him."

Juan bristled somewhat about being called 'scared' but he didn't bother to say anything otherwise. After all, it was true. Juan found the pale, spiked and studded, neon-haired teens unnatural, and believed they could quite possibly be emissaries of the devil. Phillip found the whole situation extremely amusing, and would have dragged Juan straight into the mouth of The Cavern, as the club was called, except it was strictly off limits to all the seminary students. So he did the next best thing and often visited the arcade that was next door, where the club kids tended to hang out during the day.

Phillip shrugged at Juan's discomfort. "He needs to get used to these things if he's going to minister to the people. I'm starting to think that the village idiot here should have become a monk, instead."

"Para la millionth time, Philipe, I was not the village idioto," Juan grumbled in his heavy-accented English. "Just because you haven't ever heard of my town—"

Phillip waved his hand dismissively. "Juan, people who live in your village have trouble remembering its name, it's so insignificant."

Nicolas shook his head at the two, smiling. They two seminarians had been best friends since they became roommates, but they couldn't have been more different. Juan was quiet, reserved, and often timid, but was an excellent student and top of his class. He had been in training since he was fourteen, and was originally from a small farming village in Mexico, located close to the border with Guatemala. With dark skin and dark, curly hair, he could have passed off as Nicolas' brother. He was of a thicker build than Nicolas, though, and was actually much older then he looked. His 28th birthday would be in a month, even though he looked younger than Phillip, who was only 20.

Phillip himself was an Irish-American who looked the part with his green eyes, freckles and red-gold hair. Always the goof-off, he was in constant trouble because of his habit of pushing the limits. If there was a rule, Phillip saw nothing wrong with seeing how far he could bend it before he actually broke it.

"Uh, not to bust on your plans, Phil, but isn't Joanna swinging by today?" said Nicolas as he sat down, pulling both Phillip's and Juan's lunch in front of him and starting to dig in.

"Hey, that's my lunch!" The two seminarians called out at the same time.

"No, it's not. Remember? Joanna is coming to visit you two today, and when has she ever not brought food? So there's no reason to let this go to waste."

"Joanna?" muttered Phillip. "Yeah, you're right; she's supposed to hang out with us all day because she's leaving for that vacation."

If possible, Juan looked even glummer. "Dos semanas en Italia, with that guy."

Phillip promptly smacked Juan on the head. "How many times have I told you to not mix languages? It gives me a headache. You don't hear me spouting off every other word in Gaelic."

"That's because you don't speak Gaelic," reminded Nicolas.

"Well, all the same, it's annoying. And yeah, I'm kinda pissed off about her going away, too. I don't trust that guy of hers at all. 'Traveling partners' my ass. You know he's going to try something with her," grumbled Phillip.

Nicolas rolled his eyes. "Yeah, and ya'lls intentions are perfectly innocent."

"We're priests! It's different with us!"

"You're not priests for at least another two years, and if she wasn't so easy on the eyes, would you have kept her around this long?"

The redhead beamed proudly. "Of course I would! I don't keep her around for her looks!"

"Just her food and money, right?" continued Nicolas.

Phillip blinked. "Er, well…"

Juan offered a weak smile. "I think she's funny."

"Well, I suppose it's good that one of you likes her for her personality. But who am I to criticize you? As long as you keep to the rules and don't break the poor girl's heart, I don't see the problem."

That comment seemed to remind Phillip of something. "Speaking of breaking girls' hearts, have you met any prospective dates lately? There must be someone who you've felt a connection with, good-looking boy like you, young, smart—"

For an instant, piercing blue eyes came to his mind, their color made more acute with pain…but this thought was violently shoved away, leaving as quickly as it came.

"Nah. What's the point of dating anyway? I'm going to be a seminarian next school year, anyway."

Juan looked worried. "You really shouldn't dismiss your options like that. The process of discernment—"

"Is one that must be taken seriously? I know, I know. Look, speak of the devil and up she pops."

Sure enough, a young woman carrying a large picnic basket was headed towards them. All three of the young men hurried to their feet as she approached, Nicolas taking the heavy basket for her and Phillip pulling out a chair for her to sit down on.

Joanna Lopez laughed at their fuss and removed her floppy straw hat. Her long auburn hair tumbled down the back her white sundress, which was short enough to show off her long, tanned legs. There was no denying it—Joanna was beautiful, and was a breath of fresh air among the stale countenances of the over-worked seminarians.

"Hello, boys," she greeted them with her melodic voice. "I brought lunch. Oh, Nico, if I'd know you were going to be around, I would have brought you lunch also! As it is, you're welcome to come to our picnic."

Nicolas smiled in return, almost drowning in her warm brown eyes. Madre de Dios, she was beautiful. "You know that I would follow you to the ends of the earth, right, Joanna? I don't think there's another girl as pretty as you in this entire city. But I do have chores."

"Oh, Nico, you're so cute!" She squealed, springing up from her seat to throw her arms around him. "C'mon, mi amor, what do you say we run off together and leave these poor white collars behind? I cook and you can clean," she said teasingly and batted her eyes at him. It was moments like these that he felt acutely uncomfortable with having Joanna as a friend. As it was, her slim but curvy body was pressed up against his, and he could feel her breasts pushing up against his chest. Oh my sweet Lord, her perfume…it's like mangoes and oranges…maybe some jasmine? It's heavenly…He could feel his face begin to burn from embarrassment as other parts of his body started to become more aware…suddenly coming to his senses, he pushed her away.

Phillip grinned and glanced towards Juan. "I dunno. How long'd ya think it took that time?"

Juan shrugged and managed to pull the corners of his mouth up into a lopsided smile. "Eh, thirty seconds, mas o menos."

"More mas than menos, I figure." Commented Phil as he ruffled Nico's hair. Joanna smiled blithely, ignoring the boy's conversation in favor of piling back up her hair and re-attaching her straw hat to her head with some spare bobby pins. "What are you boys yammering about now?" she asked off-hand, not really planning on listening to the answer.

"Just that maybe Nico here isn't cut out for priesthood. He has a hard time letting go of pretty girls."

Nicolas felt his face heat up even more, and was thankful that his dark skin hid his blushes well. Joanna caught on to his embarrassment, though, and giggled. "Oh, you boys stop picking on poor Nico. Everyone has a hard time letting go of me, including you two, it seems. My traveling partner recently told me had been receiving threatening messages on his cell…reportedly from two guys, one with a heavy Spanish accent…I wonder who that could have been."

Phillip and Juan had the decency to look ashamed, although Juan more than Phillip. Well, really, Phillip didn't look ashamed at all, but really more bothered about being caught.

Nicolas looked wide-eyed at the older boys. "You didn't! You guys should know better than to pull something like that! What if the number was traced?!"

Joanna rolled her eyes. "And here I was thinking that honorable little Nicolas was going to bring up that it's a sin to threaten others, or something like that."

Phillip grinned. "We used a public phone at the Mall. It was Juan's idea, actually."

Nicolas nodded. "Juan always was the smarter one."

Joanna playfully smacked him. "That's enough! Don't encourage them! C'mon, boys, let's go have our picnic. There's an outdoor art exhibit at the city park that I want to see. We'll eat under the trees, by the fountain. Juan, carry the basket, will you? Phillip will only complain and sneak food out on the walk there." Joanna paused in her orders to glance back at Nicolas, who had sat down to finish his cafeteria meal. "Nico, are you sure you don't want to come along?"

He shook his head, his messy curls flopping into his face. "Nah, I'm good. I have to be around for when Father Thomas gets back."

She nodded and started to turn around, but suddenly changed her mind and hurried over to his side. Phillip and Juan had already exited the cafeteria. "I'm going to be gone all summer—you'll make sure to look after the boys for me, won't you? Phillip is such a troublemaker, and, and poor Juan—" her normally melodic voice pitched high with straining emotion.

"They'll be fine, Joanna. Juan's a full-grown man, and Phil can take care of himself and then some."

"Yes…I suppose you're right. Well then, take care of yourself, Nico. She started to turn, but once again stopped herself. "And Nico?"

"Huh?" He asked, swallowing down a mouthful of kool-aide.

"The boys might be right, you know. About the priesthood. Really, it's bad enough that two good-looking guys like them are going into it. We don't need a great guy like you to get taken off the market as well."

And with that, she swooped down and kissed him, right on the mouth. He could feel her soft, sweet lips on his; feel her thin fingers weaving through his hair, and OHMYGOD that's her tongue in my mouth!

Nicolas' thoughts came to an abrupt halt at that, complete and total meltdown. It was pure instinct that even allowed him to kiss her back, because by that point his cognitive abilities had ceased. The back of his mind registered that she tasted like cinnamon and sugar, but other than that—nada. When she pulled away, he remembered to breathe, and all the air in his lungs escaped in one giant whoosh. Slowly, his mind's gears began to creak back into action, but a stunned "Joanna," was all he could say.

Joanna shook her head. "I just thought—well, I just though you should now. Goodbye, Nicolas."

What? She never calls me Nicolas…what's going on here? But once again, he only managed to stutter out, "Goo—good—goodbye, Joanna," and stare as she walked out of the cafeteria.

Imposiblé! I totally though she had a crush on Phillip! What was that all about? Nicolas looked around, only to find the eyes of the entire cafeteria on him. Shock, anger, annoyance—all sorts of emotions were written on the other guys' faces and none of them were good. Suddenly not hungry, Nicolas pushed his tray away from him, and sunk his head into his hands. Los angeles de cielo, Father Thomas is going to KILL me!

Thanks to:

ChrstnWrtr, thank you for reading my story! I hope you like this chapter.

Kage Chikara, I totally love your writing (Trickster's Honor kicks ass!) and am soooo happy you've reviewed me. It's awesome that you live in Corpus, I have family over there…I happen to be from San Antonio and you'll find a lot of SA influence in this story.