Chapter Three

Cassidy pushed a stray hair from her eyes only to have it fall right back where it came from. A light breeze ruffled her pleated skirt and she shifted to pull her sock back up to her knee with an irritated sigh.

Around the corner, a young man adjusted the volume on his ipod, pretending not to notice. He was tall and thin with long bangs tumbling recklessly across his forehead. 'What are you up to, Miss Cassidy?' he wondered. 'Don't you know it isn't safe for a girl to be out alone at night?'

The 7:15 bus pulled to a stop four minutes late. A young blond girl got off, carrying a military-issue duffel bag. She turned back to the bus driver with a smile and asked a question. Yes, the next bus would be here in about ten minutes. Jess couldn't really hear the conversation, but from her body language he guessed it had to be something like that.

"I come bearing gifts!" Georgie announced proudly, depositing the duffel bag on the bench with a persistent heave. It was almost comical—the bag was nearly as tall as she was. Cassidy relented, shoving it up the least little bit before the smaller girl could throw her back out.

"You shouldn't have bothered," she replied. "I can't stay here."

Georgie heaved a considerable sigh, her entire torso moving to enunciate her point. "You're being really difficult," she complained. "Didn't I already tell you we've already worked out all the details?"

"You haven't worked anything out!" Cassidy demanded.

Georgie startled; it wasn't like Cassidy to yell, but she figured that was progress in its way. Rather than sustaining the argument and forcing Cassidy into some kind of nervous breakdown, she changed the subject, digging a slightly crumpled envelope out of her jacket pocket. "Oh, hey, you're mom told me to give you this." She handed it over, adding, "she's a nice lady, your mom."

"I already know that," Cassidy answered flatly, pulling back the strip of black electrical tape her mother had used to seal it. There was a letter and a decorative barette inside—the kind of formal thing you only ever get to wear to a wedding, probably your own, so it didn't really match the current circumstances.

"Oh! That's pretty!" Georgie declared. "But hey, what's she giving you such a fancy hair clip for? It doesn't really go with cleats."

"It's a good luck charm," Cassidy answered quietly. Her fingers quivered a bit as they traced over the peony design. She was obviously disturbed by something, but for once Georgie was tactful enough not to ask. She knew the taller girl would only blame it on the chill air, even if that barette had some sort of very personal meaning. There was an extended silence while Cassidy read the letter—two handwritten pages. In this email age, it seemed somehow more priceless, like the scratchy blue ink somehow gave her a glimpse of her mother' soul. At least, Georgie figured Cassidy must be thinking something poetic like that when she pursed her lips into such a thoughtful frown. Cassidy really didn't hold her weight in a conversation, so Georgie figured she was that type of person.

'I'm giving you my good luck charm on loan,' the letter began. 'So don't you dare break it. I won't say something as silly as my Juliet's haircomb can really make dreams come true, but a little luck never hurts. Besides, you know I think rabbits' feet are tacky.' Cassidy almost rolled her eyes. 'I'm so glad you've decided to take up soccer again! You really haven't been yourself without it. Kiki and I will manage alright while you're away, so don't worry about us so much (I know you are!). I'll hire a part-time nanny. She's a good girl, your sister, and much more agreeable than SOME PEOPLE. I guess I'm pretty lucky when it comes to kids. It's the barette, I tell you! Well, that and maybe the power of true love! Haha.

In any case, try to relax and enjoy yourself! You're only fifteen, you know, so it's okay to act your age once in a while. I'm sure your father would say the same thing if he was writing you this letter—well, he'd probably say it better. He's always been better with words than me.

Love,

Mom.

P.S.: Don't lose! We'll be cheering for you!

'Mom,' Cassidy couldn't even really form the words in her mind to express what she was feeling. There are just some things that are better explained with silence.

"Hey Cassidy."

Cassidy startled. "Sorry. What?" she asked, all the anger drained completely out of her features.

Georgie smirked. "Where did you go?"

"Come again?" Cassidy asked.

Georgie rolled her eyes. "Nevermind. The bus is coming, so I've gotta go for now," the smaller girl replied, rather suddenly hugging the taller girl. "So keep us up to date, okay?"

"...Yeah...sure..." Cassidy answered absently. Form where he was standing, even Jess could tell she hadn't really heard the question.

The diminutive blond waved cheerfully and climbed onto the bus. Once it disappeared around the corner, Cassidy slumped on the bench. She read the letter again before carefully folding the barette and paper away into the envelope. Jess couldn't help a mild curiosity as the dark-haired teenager pulled her knees to her chest and buried her face against them. Her slim figure quivered. Was she crying? Or was she just cold? 'I should leave well enough alone,' he thought. 'None of this is any of my business.' Maybe Alex's goody-good attitude was contagious. He removed his ipod after about twenty minutes longer and stuffed it into his pocket. His hair was pulled back into an awkward ponytail and it was dark enough that he doubted she'd recognize him, especially being so out of it. 'Man, what a pain,' he thought. 'I hope this shit isn't habit forming.'

He stuffed his hands in his pockets and strolled over. "Hey, you asleep?" he asked in what he hoped was a gruff tone of voice.

Cassidy jumped enough to nearly fall off the bench. "Uhm..."

"Girls shouldn't be hanging out alone at the bus stop at this hour, you know," Jess continued. "Last bus already left."

"...I know," Cassidy frowned. Why was this guy giving her such a hard time?

"That's the St. Teresa uniform, right? It's past curfew. I'll help you sneak back in."

"What's in it for you?" she asked.

'Jaded much?' Jess thought. "A warm, tingly, did-a-good-deed feeling," he answered flatly. "Don't look too deeply into it. Sometimes people just do things for no reason."

"What are you, a disney movie?" Cassidy replied.

"Hey, beggars can't be choosers," Jess answered. "I just happen to be going that way, if you must know."

Cassidy caved in. She was sure Georgie would give her an earful about walking around with strange boys when she inevitably found out, but she was too emotionally exhausted to care right now. She reached for her duffel bag, but Jess had already slung it over his shoulder.

"Hey!" she protested, "I can..."

"Just shut up and let me be chivalrous. Honestly, girls these days are way too manly."

"It's not our fault if guys are basically useless," Cassidy defended. She didn't really know if she believed that or not, but Tamara was always saying so, and it was the first defense that came to mind.

Jess grouchily dropped the duffel. "Fine. If I'm useless, then go ahead and carry your own damn bag," he huffed. "Brat."

Cassidy rolled her eyes and heaved the heavy bag onto her shoulder. 'Geez. What the hell did mom pack in here, a small elephant?'

Jess found himself gloating a bit in sinister satisfaction that she was having a bit of trouble.

"...idiot," Cassidy replied. It was her stockpile insult for when she couldn't come up with anything better.

They didn't say much of anything to one another for the duration of the walk. He led her around the west side of the institution, pulling back the wire fence. "after you," he said genially.

"What?! Why are you coming in too?" Cassidy demanded.

"I told you I was coming this way," Jess answered.

She looked at him suspiciously.

"My girl goes here," Jess covered with an impish grin. Well, his girl persona, anyway. It didn't even really count as a lie, if you thought about it.

"...I know you were a deviant," Cassidy complained. She shifted a bit uncomfortably and adjusted the duffel bag. "Well...thanks, I guess," she said.

He knew she didn't really want to thank him, but he waved her off cheerfully anyway. The moment she turned the corner he took off at a sprint in the other direction. He'd have to get around the building and through the window and changed before Cassidy got there. He was glad the duffel bag was slowing her down. It was going to be a close call anyway. 'Damn. I really shouldn't have interfered. Why did I follow her in the first place? It's not like me. Hanging around with all these girls day in and day out is making me way too nosy.' He sighed and heaved himself over a brick half-wall that cordoned off a small garden, careless of the impatients he crumpled underfoot, cut through the eastern courtyard and leapt for the clattering fire escape that led to the bathroom window.

When he climbed into the tub he could already hear Cassidy fiddling at the door. 'Thank god that lock sticks,' he thought, yanking out his hair tie and quickly stripping down before he realized the bathroom door was open. 'Shit!' he used his foot to slam it shut just as Cassidy entered the room and heaved a sigh of relief before quickly fumbling through the laundry basket for something to wear. 'Man, this was really poorly executed,' he thought. 'I'd make a horrible secret agent.' He bumped his knee on the sink and the back of his head on the open medicine cabinet in his hurry, and apparently was making so much noise even the dazed Cassidy noticed. "...are you alright in there?" she asked.

"Er....yeah...ow...I'm fine. I just tripped." He blinked back the minor aches and stumbled to his feet, righting himself as best he could and adjusting his fake breasts before pulling on boxer shorts and a kitten night shirt. He brushed out his hair and quickly put on some lip gloss. 'Geez. Having a roommate really complicates things.'

He stepped out of the bathroom with his best sheepish expression. "I'm good. I'm good," he waved it off. I turn back into a field mouse at seven, and a clumsy one at that." He wasn't sure the girl would get the obscure reference, but everyone knows disney, right? "Oh! You were getting your luggage, huh? Everyone was wondering where you disappeared to after dinner." Probably. When he noticed her sneaking off he'd excused himself with a lame comment about homework and went to spy on her. Crap! Homework! 'Looks like detention again tomorrow,' he thought with a sigh.

"Yeah...a...friend brought it for me."

Actually, now that he thought of it, that was a little weird. Why hadn't Cassidy's parents brought her things? Curiosity got the better of him. "your mom and dad didn't come?"

Cassidy tensed a bit. "There's no reason to bother her over something like this." It was a slip. 'Her' instead of 'them'. Jess filed the information in the back of his mind, mentally placed it in a little manila folder called 'Jamie Cassidy's Baggage'.

"I guess," he answered, flopping back onto his bed. "It seems like everyone's family is like that anymore." His was the same. No matter how he struggled he couldn't form a single coherent memory of his mother. As for his father, well, living with that man usually felt like living with a stranger. Alex was the only person he'd ever met that seemed to have a completely normal family. He was kind of relieved that Cassidy wasn't 'one of those people'. 'Maybe if your family is pretty well-off, being a little dysfunctional goes without saying,' he thought. 'That's why everyone is always harping on where you're going with your life, because they all know where you came from isn't worth shit.'

"...workbook?"

"Sorry, what?" Jess blinked out of his reverie.

"Is this your chemistry workbook?" Cassidy repeated with a sigh. "Half of my textbooks are missing." She frowned at the sprawl of books on the floor, which had collided with Jess's clutter, making an even bigger mess. "I'm supposed to make a list of what supplies I need, but I can't tell what's your and what's mine in this disaster area," she complained in annoyance, kicking one of Jess's heels out of her way.

"I'm a freshman, so I'm taking bio this year. Must be yours," Jess answered, sitting up.

"I forgot," Cassidy admitted. Jess was just so huge it was hard enough to think of her as a high-schooler, let alone a freshman—until she opened her big, sarcastic mouth.

"You're not winning any points with the height jokes," Jess stated flatly, sighing and moving to help her with her things. 'I'm such a nice guy,' he thought irritably. 'I've got to cut that shit out.'

Cassidy looked up with a bland expression. "Who's joking?" she answered. "If you're that sensitive about your height, don't wear heels."

"Touche," Jess answered. "They still haven't given you all of your supplies?" he asked.

"...they did," Cassidy answered, but her tone was abrupt—he knew he wasn't supposed to ask what happened to them.

But Jess wasn't the type of person to be intimidated by ominous silences. "What happened to them?"

Cassidy sighed in a bit of annoyance. "Bratty princesses with too much time on their hands, probably. I don't have many fans, in case you haven't noticed."

***

When Cassidy awoke the next morning it was to the smell of lysol and dirty laundry. She grunted, rolled over, and buried her face into the pillow. The alarm six inches from her head immediately blared. She jumped, nearly falling out of bed, blinked at her surroundings, and groaned. 'Someone please tell me this is a nightmare,' she thought. Somewhere in the middle of third period she finally accepted that she was, rather unfortunately, quite awake. Out the window she could see the freshman gym class running around the soccer field laughing...and felt more than a little jealous; she'd give her right arm to be out in the open air about now.

Alex noticed her watching their game, paused, smiled, waved...and got hit in the back of the head with a soccer ball. His hands came to the quickly bruising flesh and he squatted down, eyes tearing up. Cassidy couldn't help a slight chuckle—which got her scolded—AGAIN--by her favorite nun. Wonderful.

At lunch time he sat down next to her with that same ridiculously enthusiastic expression. She felt tired just watching him. "Hey!" he greeted.

Cassidy sighed. "Cut it out," she complained.

"Cut what out?" Alex asked, blinking in confusion as the dark haired girl bit into and swallowed a bite of her apple.

"Being so friendly and goofy," Cassidy answered. 'You got me in trouble during math class."

"How'd I do that?" Alex questioned. How could he get the girl into trouble in a class he wasn't even in?

"You injured yourself stupidly and I got yelled at for laughing at you."

Alex laughed. "Isn't that your fault for staring out the window so longingly?" he teased.

"It wasn't something you needed to be worrying about," Cassidy griped.

Alex pursed his lips pensively, leaned back, and crossed his arms over his chest. When he sat normally again he gave her another goofy grin and said, "You know, Cassidy, you're pretty weird, but that's fine. Being like everyone else is over-rated."

"I'm not sure how to take that coming from you."

"Hey, there's no practice today because the seniors are busy preparing for a dance with one of the local boys' schools, so meet me at the soccer field after last period, okay?"

"For what?"

"Practice, of course!"

Cassidy blinked at Alex, then answered flatly, "Are you sure you're not in special ed? You're a little slow."

"Am not!" Alex answered. "The substitute tryouts are next Tuesday. We've got a lot of work to do if you're going to make it this time!"

Cassidy blinked. It had been bothering her a bit, but she had just realized who Alex reminded her of: Georgie Clark—they had almost the same exact personality! And they were both short. "Who says I have any intention of trying out again?"

"I do, of course," Alex answered. "Since you obviously want to, and just haven't realized it yet."

"Apparently," Cassidy dead-panned.

"See? I knew you agreed with me! Great, I'll meet you at three! Now, love to stay and chat, but I've gotta make a run for it. If I don't get this assignment to Sister Mary Luisa before fifth period, she'll frown at me."

"Ah, hey! Wait a... second..." Too late, Cassidy, your new best friend just took off. Cassidy sighed. "Here we go again," she muttered to herself, realizing that bell she just heard was the warning bell. There was no way she could make it to class in the next 30 seconds. It was on the other side of campus. Great. Another night of 'I will not be late to class' neatly written, five hundred times. She glared at the steeple across the courtyard as she started on her way. "What did I ever do to you, huh?" she complained. It wasn't like she really believed in that sort of thing, but she needed someone to complain at lately, and she figured an invisible deity that may or may not exist, at least, didn't talk back.

***

At three p.m. She found herself trudging towards the soccer field. 'I might as well have DOORMAT tattooed to my forehead,' she thought, 'It would save everyone the guesswork of where to wipe their feet.'

"You came!" Alex declared. "Awesome!"

'Does she ever run out of energy,' Cassidy wondered. "...I came," the tall girl confirmed.

"Great!" Alex declared with a bit too much pep. "Come on. Let's do five laps around the field to warm up."

'How do I get myself into these messes?' Cassidy wondered as she picked up her legs and began to move, but the movement triggered old memories:

'One foot in front of the other. That a girl! When you're running, just run; when you're kicking, just kick. There's no reason to think about anything else. Soccer is kind of like meditating, really. You just, you know, live for the moment.'

'So making a goal is like enlightenment then, Dad?'

'I guess that's true too, in its way,' Cassidy's father laughed, ruffling the young girl's hair. 'I guess it doesn't matter how you look at it, as long as you're having fun.'

Alex noticed that Cassidy seemed to be lost in her own little world again. She did that a lot, but he didn't think he was really someone who could tease other people for spacing out.

The old memories of her father teaching her how to play soccer long before Kiki was born hadn't visited Cassidy in a long time. She wasn't sure why they'd resurfaced now, but it was a tender reprieve from the usual nonsense. These old memories are really how she'd prefer to remember her father anyway.

Before she realized it, her light jog had become an all-out sprint. When her mind snapped back to the present Alex seemed to be making great efforts to pass her. He was grinning widely, laughing as he went. Cassidy felt really stupid to not notice she'd accidentally challenged the shorter girl to a race; she supposed she had no choice but to see it through. Running like this seemed to have a wayof cleansing the soul anyway, so it worked out in the end. She'd forgotten how good it could feel just to run.

By the time the race was over, they were both so worn out they collapsed breathless in the grass. Cassidy had out-run Alex by about two paces, but her legs were much longer, so that said more about the smaller girl than her—that's what she thought, anyway.

"Man, you're really fast," Alex declared, chest heaving.

"I just have longer legs," Cassidy answered, watching the clouds roll by overhead.

"I think we warmed up a little TOO much though," Alex said with a soft laugh. "I'm too tired to practice now."

Cassidy didn't reply.

"Let's meet up again tomorrow," Alex continued.

"...whatever," Cassidy answered, resigning herself to the insanity her life had become.

Leaning back against a nearby shade tree, Jess rolled his eyes. 'Those idiots,' he thought, 'might just be more alike than any of us would like to admit.'

***

After that day, Alex dragged her off every day after dinner. They practiced free kicks, passes, and even tested out a few complicated maneuvers they'd seen on tv and in sports magazines. It was becoming fun again, but when it came time to try out and participate in a real game, Cassidy still froze. Alex frowned. "This is so stupid!" he declared stubbornly, watching the match from the sidelines. "She's way better than this. Hey! Stop goofing off and play seriously Cassidy!"

"Give it up, Alex. That girl's just the type who can't handle pressure," Mel said with a sigh. "Even as a sub, there's just no point."

"Don't be so arrogant." Jess yawned from his seat on the nearby bench, stretching his long legs out in front of him. "Weren't you the same way just a few months ago? Girls are really unforgiving." He slipped like that a lot--'girls this', and 'girls that'—but everyone just figured it was a quirk of his, like he was saying 'I'm not like the rest of you.' "Totally heartless."

Mel frowned at him. "You really have a rotten habit of pointing out other people's flaws while completely ignoring your own."

"I'm not ignoring them," Jess answered. "They just don't have anything to do with what we're talking about."

"Which would be your weird roommate."

"She's not the weird one," Jess defended casually. "The weird one is the girl with not even half of her natural talent telling everyone that she's worthless, don't you think?"

Mel's brow twitched a bit in anger. "One game," she stated tersely. "We have a practice game against St. Cecilia's on Saturday afternoon. She can try to prove me wrong then. She'll play your position, Jess."

"What?! You're benching me the whole game? We don't even play the same position!" he sprung to his feet, outraged. Not only was he getting benched for calling the team captain a hypocrite when she was acting like one, but Mel was purposely making it harder on Cassidy by making her play a completely different position than the one she was used to.

"Next time, maybe you'll watch who you're mouthing off to," Mel said.

"Vindictive bitch," Jess muttered under his breath.

"What's that? You want to run twenty laps?"

Jess had to bite the inside of his cheek hard enough to bruise it just to keep from taking a swing at her, girl or not. "Yeah. Whatever," he answered. If he started now he might actually be done running laps by the time practice was over.

"Ah, Jess..." Alex started to say as the much taller boy stretched his legs. Rivals or not, Jess should be thanked for standing up for Cassidy like that. Alex would never have been able to say anything so brazen.

"Save it, runt," Jess answered in low tones. "She'd just damn well better be ready by Saturday."

"I'll make sure of it," Alex smiled. Maybe, deep down, under layers and layers of aggression and a whole bunch of being an asshole, Jess was an almost decent human being. Maybe.

"Yeah, well, if you don't, you're paying for my dinner for the next month."

...or maybe he was just a jerk. Either way, Alex only had three days to make a miracle.

~End Chapter~

A/N: Due to the insanity my life becomes between October and December, Chapter 4's expected release date is February 2008. I MAY be able to finish it by January, but I'm not at all confident in that deadline, so February it is, and we can all be pleasantly surprised if I make my usual schedule.