Chapter One

The heat was oppressive.

Cain Winchester constantly had to pause and wipe the sweat off his face to keep it from falling into his eyes at the Red Horsemen's last football practice before classes started for the year. They were having an Indian summer in Virginia, which seemed like a mixed blessing to Cain. On the one hand, it didn't seem likely that they'd be playing in snow any time soon. On the other, there was a daily risk of passing out from dehydration and sun poisoning – that had happened to a number of people at camp over the summer. Unfortunately for them Coach Alderman hadn't let any of them come back to play for the team. Cain was one of only two freshmen who'd made it through the summer camp and onto the team. That was supposed to mean he was one of the lucky ones . . . but at the moment he didn't feel so lucky.

Just fifteen more minutes, he reminded himself, trying to shrug his negative thoughts aside. He was lucky to be at Aiming Academy and he knew it. Aiming had the best high school sports program in the nation – not to mention one of the coolest mascots. Playing for the Red Horsemen practically guaranteed him a football scholarship to the college of his choice after graduation.

Cain wiped the sweat off his brow again and glanced across the field just in time to see his roommate, Cassidy – the only other freshman on the football team – get creamed in a drill. Not for the first time, Cain thanked God that he was a quarterback and exempt from many of the more painful exercises. He ached enough after practices were over as it was.

Cassidy picked himself up off the ground quickly and rubbed the back of his wrist across his face, clearing the sweat away as well. It was no surprise that he had made it onto the team – he was very resilient, tenacious, strong, and, as some rival football players from the local public high school's team found out the night before, he could be extremely brutal when he had a mind to.

Cain couldn't help but smirk, remembering the previous night's excursion that had nearly turned into a fiasco. Several of the local high schoolers invited Cain, Cassidy, and some of their dorm mates at Weaver House to a party. Cassidy sensed something was off by the invitation and advised the others not to go, but several of the girls had been dead set on going. Cain had gone along, partly because he didn't feel right letting the girls go alone after Cassidy's warning and partly . . . partly because the party sounded like fun.

He felt like an idiot about it now – there had been definite signs from the beginning that something was fishy about Greg and Justin, the guys who'd invited them. Almost immediately after Cain and his friends arrived a fight broke out. It had been the locals' plan to lure them there and jump them from the beginning. Things could have – hell, things would have gone very badly for the Weaver House kids had Cassidy not decided to follow them against his better judgment. With him he brought Trent, a violently inclined enforcer on Aiming's hockey team, and Axel, a swimmer whose entire body mass seemed to be muscle.

Their timing had been impeccable. Cassidy arrived on the scene right in time to keep Cain from getting a beer bottle shattered over his head and Trent hotwired a car so that they could get away. While that seemed like a good idea at the time, in hindsight Cain wasn't so thrilled about it. They'd ended up flipping the jeep over in a ditch and had to run like hell – after several complications – to get away. The morning paper had a short write up on the incident, but the police were under the impression that the local high schoolers got drunk, wrecked the car themselves, and made up the story about Aiming students being involved to save their own necks. It looked like the Weaver House kids who were involved would get off Scott free, but still . . . Cain wasn't proud of the choices he'd made.

At least no one got hurt, Cain told himself. Almost as soon this thought crossed his mind Cain realized that he was wrong. His eyes focused on a red smear on the back of Cassidy's wrist as his roommate jogged to the back of the line. At first he thought that it was a trick of light, making him see colors that weren't there, but as he squinted through the sun he noticed a trickle of blood framing Cassidy's face. More than a trickle, actually . . .

Cain frowned, remembering how Cassidy had had two run ins with breaking glass the previous night – once when he got in the way of Greg's attempt at smashing a bottle over Cain's head and once when Trent drove the jeep into the ditch and one of the windows shattered. Cain saw the cut last night, but hadn't gotten a good look at it. It must have been deeper than he'd thought . . .

"Alright ladies, bring it in!" Coach Alderman's booming voice interrupted Cain's thoughts. "I said bring it in, goddamn it! What are you, deaf? What the hell are you pansies taking so long for? Maybe you are deaf! You look like a bunch of goddam old grannies! Bring it in!"

Even as he ranted, the football players hastened to obey. Cain hurried over to stand beside Cassidy, who gave a slight jerk of his head to acknowledge his roommate's presence.

"Cassidy?"

Cassidy looked at him impatiently, even though he'd only spoken one word. "What?"

"You're bleeding," Cain told him.

A sardonic expression crossed Cassidy's face as he lifted his left arm to show Cain his wrist band. It was liberally smeared with blood almost all the way around. "Ya don't say?"

Cain was spared having to reply to his roommate's biting sarcasm by Alderman's bellowing.

"Alright, ladies! It has come to the attention of the athletic director that last night several of our students had some problems with the local high school punks!"

Cain jerked self-consciously and shot a worried glance at Cassidy. Cassidy, however, just looked tired and unconcerned. Maybe it was just Cain's imagination, but he could have sworn that Alderman was looking right at him and that upperclassmen on the team were shooting glances at them as well.

"Beings that two of you are freshmen and a number of you just transfered," Alderman continued, "it's likely that you have yet not heard – the local punks are a bunch of goddamn dicks! They're nothing but trouble so you stay the hell away from them! They're weak! They're pathetic! And they're not as good as you, and they know it! Whenever they have a chance to start trouble, they do, because they're a bunch of goddamn pansies who are going nowhere and figure they better take their fun where they find it because after they graduate they'll be flipping burgers for the rest of their lives!"

A sophomore named Jameson standing on Cain's right gave a chuckle. Everyone else seemed to exhausted to have much of a reaction.

"You are here," Alderman thundered on, "because you're special! You are here because you're going somewhere and they hate you for it!"

Why does this sound familiar? Cain wondered vaguely.

Alderman continued his tirade. "But while I fully approve of you stealing their goddamn cars, driving them into ditches, and beating the living shit out of their inbred asses, the school is not supposed to condone that sort of behavior."

Apparently that statement merited a reaction. Even as exhausted as most of the other football players were, most of them started. In fact the only one who seemed to have absolutely no reaction to Alderman's words was Cassidy. Alderman could have just as easily been talking about the weather for all Cassidy's expression gave away. Cain knew this time when he felt the stares on him and his roommate that he wasn't imagining it.

His own expression probably wasn't helping anything – Cain never did have a good poker face. And he'd never been more conspicuous of anything as he was of the fist sized bruise on the underside of his jaw bone at that moment. The cut on Cassidy's face was pretty incriminating too . . .

"None of the alleged instigators of last night's problems were caught. The ugly little mothers couldn't even give the police the names of our students who handed them their own asses, and as there was alcohol and driving involved, the police think it's more likely they invented to story of our students' involvement as an excuse for having wrecked their own goddamn car. The local punks were adamant, however, that several of our football players were involved, and so I tell you now," Alderman was definitely looking straight at them. "Stay away from those ugly little ass-wipes! They are not your friends! They are not worthy to be your friends! Do not get involved with a local girl! She is not worthy to be your hooker, goddamn it! Weakness is an STD! A socially transmitted disease! Do not associate with the locals! You will catch it from them! I don't want any weaklings on my goddamn team! Do you understand me?!"

"Yes sir!" the football players all answered in unison, finally breaking their gazes away from the two freshmen.

"What's that? You got frogs in your throats?! I CAN'T HEAR YOU!!!"

"YES SIR!!!"

"And by God," Alderman concluded, "if you do get in a fight with those ugly mothers, you sure as hell better win, because if you don't, whatever wussy beating they give you will be nothing, and I mean NOTHING compared to what you'll get the next time you show your sorry, weak-assed face on my field again! CASSIDY?!"

Cassidy was caught off guard and started slightly. He recovered quickly.

"Coach?"

"Get your ass up here, freshman!" Alderman snapped.

Cassidy hurried to the front of the group to stand before his coach.

"What in the blue hell is this?!" Alderman demanded, swiping three fingers across the blood dripping from Cassidy's cut, then shoved them in his face.

To his credit, Cassidy didn't recoil or even take a step back. "Blood, sir," he responded, keeping his voice neutral.

"WHAT'S THAT?!"

"Blood, sir!" Cassidy repeated, louder.

"Who's blood?!" Alderman shouted.

"My blood, Coach!"

Alderman whacked Cassidy upside his head with his clipboard.

"What goddamn business do you got bleeding on my uniform?!" he demanded.

Cassidy's face was finally starting to show signs of strain. Cain felt a stab of sympathy for his roommate and a sharper stab of guilt. He was partially to blame for Cassidy being in this mess.

"None, Coach!" Cassidy answered, not meeting his coach's eyes.

"Then why, in God's name, are you doing it?!"

Cassidy looked uncertain now, probably wondering if that was a rhetorical question.

"How long have you been bleeding on my uniform?!" Alderman wanted to know.

"I don't know, Coach. Maybe . . . an hour . . ."

"Then you owe me a push up for every goddamn minute you've been bleeding!" Alderman roared. "Drop and give 'em to me! NOW!!!"

Cassidy immediately obeyed. Alderman continued to rant.

"Bleeding is a sign of weakness! I don't ever want to see none of you little bastards bleeding out here on my field again! WINCHESTER?!"

Cain resisted the urge to cringe.

"Sir?"

"Do you know why your friend Cassidy is bleeding?!"

Cain hesitated before answering.

"No sir," he lied. Well . . . it wasn't exactly a lie . . . he wasn't sure if Cassidy had gotten cut keeping Greg from busting a bottle over his head or if that had happened when the car window shattered . . .

Either way, Alderman had an answer of his own.

"Because he's weak!" Alderman shouted. "He's weak and he's slow, and he doesn't know how to cover his own ass! Wouldn't you agree?!"

Cain hesitated again.

"I said wouldn't you agree?!"

"No sir!" Cain answered.

"And why the hell not?!" Alderman wanted to know. "He's bleeding! Do you not see that he's bleeding?!" He stooped down to where Cassidy was doing pushups at his feet, grabbed a handful of the boy's sweat-darkened hair, and used it to pull him back to his feet. "See that?!" Alderman pointed. "That's blood! That's weakness! You! Get back down on the ground and finish your goddamn pushups!" Alderman snapped at Cassidy. "I didn't tell you you could take a break!"

Cassidy probably would have fallen on his own, but the shove Alderman gave him helped out a good deal in hastening his descent.

"Now, Winchester, why the hell do you think Cassidy isn't weak?!"

"Because I saw the other guy, Coach," Cain answered honestly this time, "and he was bleeding worse!"

"How do you know it's not that they're both just weak, Winchester?" Alderman wanted to know. "If Cassidy wasn't weak, he wouldn't be bleeding, now, would he?!"

Once again, Cain hesitated. Movement from the ground caught his eye. Cassidy had finished his push ups. He tried to hide the fact that he was panting as he caught Cain's eye, rolled both his own, then looked at Alderman and gave a one shouldered shrug. His intent was clear, to Cain at least. He didn't want Cain trying to save face for him right now. He just wanted practice to be over.

"No sir," Cain answered reluctantly.

"WHAT DID YOU SAY?!"

Cain drew a deep breath.

"No sir!" he repeated.

Alderman nodded. "That's what I thought!"

Cassidy chose that moment to shakily get back to his feet, breathing heavily. Alderman turned and glared at him.

"Boy! What the hell are you doing up?!" he demanded. "I thought I told you to give me sixty!"

"I did, Coach," Cassidy told him.

"I didn't see no sixty push ups!" shouted Alderman. "Drop and do 'em again! And the rest of you! Take it in! And by God, tomorrow you better show me the football players that I bloody recruited! Any of you come here and play like senior citizens and you'll be out on your assses so fast you won't know what hit you, goddamn it!"

Cassidy dropped back to the ground and began doing push ups again, much slower this time with shaking arms. The rest of the football players began to head toward the locker room, except for Cain. He hung back, intending to wait for his roommate, feeling slightly guilty. Despite their differences, Cassidy had been there for his housemates when they needed him. Cain couldn't help feeling a little guilty.

Movement from the sidelines of the field caught Cain's eye. It took him a moment to recognize Tamara waving to him. After casting one last glance at Cassidy, who was still in the middle of doing his push ups, Cain jogged slowly over to Tamara.

"What's up?" he asked.

Tamara smiled brightly. "Not much. Just got out of practice. Looks like yours is over too?"

"Yeah," Cain said, unable to think of anything more eloquent to say. It was entirely too hot and he'd been out in the sun too long.

Tamara glanced past Cain for a moment then looked back at him. "Is Cassidy in trouble?" she inquired.

"For bleeding on his uniform," Cain told her. "I think that cut he got last night needs stitches."

Tamara made a wringing motion with her hands. "Ugh."

"Yeah . . . Did you need something?" he asked.

"I was just wondering if you got read the riot act about the incident last night?"

Cain shrugged, not sure if he had been read the riot act or just yelled at for not beating the locals up better. "Coach mentioned it. We didn't get in trouble if that's what you're worried about. Well, Cassidy's in trouble 'cause Coach isn't happy those bastards made him bleed," he amended, "but Coach isn't mad that we were involved. And he knows it was us. We're the only freshmen on the team."

Tamara looked confused. "How's that possible? I mean, there's like fifty of you guys . . . they can't keep a full roster if they only get two new people every year."

"Most of the other new guys are sophomore and junior transfers," Cain explained. "They got noticed on their old high school teams. Aiming's scouts caught Cassidy and I early. There were actually about a dozen people from our year at football camp over the summer, but they didn't make the cut."

"Wow." Tamara looked impressed. "So you and Cassidy must both be really good."

Cain laughed sheepishly. "Cassidy's pretty damn good. I'm not bad."

"Being modest, Cain?" Tamara asked.

Cain was too tired to make his brain come up with a response. Tamara glanced back behind him at Cassidy.

"I feel kind of bad. It's our fault he got his face cut," she said.

"Yeah . . ." Cain knew exactly how she felt.

"I'm surprised he followed us to help out."

"Likewise," Cain said. "I really didn't take him as the helpful sort."

"Well, people can surprise you."

"Yeah, I guess so," Cain conceded.

"You know," Tamara mused, "I bet underneath his cynical façade, Cassidy's actually a really nice guy."

Cain shrugged, not really liking the way this conversation was going, but not quite sure why. "Hey, I should go shower and get changed."

"Oh, of course. Sorry for keeping you –"

"No, it was no bother," Cain told her quickly. "See you back at Weaver House."

X

X

X

Hey everyone. Thanks for reading the first chapter of my second story! And thanks again to everyone who read my first one, especially hmmm.hmmm.good, Showers' Inc, midnightunicorn12, and vandanar for your reviews.

This story is a sequel to Aiming High but my intent is for it to be a stand alone piece with its own self contained plot. If anyone who hasn't read my first story had any problems understanding what was happening in this chapter – or any future chapters if you continue reading – please let me know so I can figure out a way to fix it. Thanks again for reading! I hope you enjoyed it.

- H