3.

Jason was not especially fond of peas. Or any vegetables of any kind, come to think of it. Unfortunately, it was all his mom had packed for his lunch.

Having finished off his snow pea salad, Jason took his time licking the peanut butter off a celery stick. He looked around at the rest of his friends. He tried to remember what they were all supposed to be doing aside from eating his lunch. Most of them were squeezed onto the black futon, playing Halo on the X-Box and munching on his carrot sticks. Kevin was the only one not, but was instead sitting cross-legged on top of the pool table and studying a celery stick in the romantic lighting. Jason's gaze lingered on Kevin.

"What are you thinking?"

Kevin slid him a sleepy grin. "Me?" he asked. His blood-shot black eyes continued their lazy trail to the group on the futon behind the dark green recliner the Spanish-Filipino mutt was curled up in. "Oh, right. I'm the only one in here besides you whose brain hasn't been sucked out by that game." He looked back to Jason. "I hate that question, you know. 'What're you thinking?' You gonna be my therapist now, Dr. Jase? How much you gonna charge me?"

Only experience kept Jason from flinching at the acid in his friend's voice.

"Same as you charge your clients," he answered. His tongue darted out to slowly lick his smiling lips.

His friend watched his tongue with measured disgust, but then both guys started laughing. "Touché, Jase," Kevin said. Then, "I'm fucking high. My head's pretty empty." He stuck the celery in his mouth and sucked on the tip. "Celery's way underrated," he added as an afterthought.

Repulsed, Jason spat, "No. It's really not."

"What are you thinking, Dr. Jase?"

The disgust drained out of his expression at the new nickname. "Just now?" Jason said as his lips twitched. "I was thinking you're spewing bull, Kev. When I smoke, I think of all sorts of crazy stuff. Like how airplanes stay up in the air or how dogs can't speak but we still understand 'em."

He watched his friend expectantly.

"Fine," Kevin spat. "You really want to know? I was thinking about shooting your sister."

Suddenly Jason felt like he was supposed to be somewhere. Besides school. Didn't he have a dentist appointment? Yeah, that was probably it. He began to slide out of the cushy green recliner, saying, "Hey, I forgot that I have to—"

"I second that," came Eric's suave voice. Jason jumped when he realized Eric was just above him.

Dang. He should've known this was all a trap. They were going to beat him up for whatever Jay did to them in the bathroom at the movie theatre. Jason had known better than to go anywhere alone with Eric or Kevin so soon after that episode. They weren't past holding grudges, or maiming the totally innocent proverbial messenger. His eyes half-closed as he tensed in wait for Eric to grab him and Kevin to hit him.

Instead Eric dipped his head over the top of the recliner, resting his chin on Jason's black hair.

"How'd you get stuck with a stupid bitch like that for a sister, Jase?" Eric asked.

"Don't call her that," Jason muttered inaudibly.

"Seriously, though," Kevin said, and Jason was startled to see he had slipped off the pool table and rematerialized beside his chair. He was kneeling so as to rest his chin on Jason's knee, his elbows perched on his thighs and his head resting lightly atop his palms. "You know we have to get her back, right? Don't look at me like that, we're not going to hurt you. You're our friend. We're buddies for better or worse."

Jason felt it, then, what he'd been waiting for all this time. Eric's hands closed around his arms. Kevin's face lifted to be level with his.

Their eyes met. Kevin looked pissed.

"But when the time comes, don't fucking get in our way."

And then Eric's restraining grip was gone and Kevin was wandering back toward the pool table, lifting himself onto it and lying down on his stomach across it. He plaid with the balls, throwing four against each other just to hear the responding click!

Jason melted out of the chair and took a second to solidify before wandering toward the basement's patio doors. He reached for the handle to pull the sliding glass aside.

"Oh, and Jase?" He froze at hearing Eric directly behind him, and then felt hot breath against his ear. "Maybe you could relay a message to your sister for me? Tell her not to be such a bitch next time."

The next sound he heard was the door sliding shut behind him and then the gurgling of the hot tub on the raised platform to his right.

Jason felt cold. He shrugged on his fur-lined hoodie and zipped it up to his chin, stuck his hands in his pockets. It was only September 2nd. It shouldn't be this cold already.

The trials began with, "My name is Jay Reyes. Unless one of you can beat my time on a mile – five minutes, twelve seconds – I'll be your captain this season. If any of you can outlast me in a no-limits race, for the better of the team I'll gladly hand over my little patch." Jay patted the coveted black 'C' patch ironed onto her wintergreen jersey. "For now, you listen to Coach Jennings or me. But I'll listen to you too. If you're better at short distances, or long, please let me know. If you don't make the team today but you honestly want to be on it, come see me afterward and we'll figure something out. Outside of practices and meets, we usually run together every Saturday morning and Sunday afternoon. You can still join that group even if you don't make the team. So can your friends. On that note, it's a good way to make new friends if you're new to the school, or just to stay fit. Okay, with all the preamble out of the way, let's start group stretches and then head out for a two-mile warm-up. Partner up!"

The rest of the cross-country team looked at each other. There were ten freshman trying out and only two sophomores. No juniors, since they already had two years to try out for the team and were either already present or hadn't made the cut. Surveying the newbies, Jay felt old, and she was only sixteen. She glanced at Coach, who was pushing sixty, and felt a lot better.

The poor old woman was in-shape and had most likely run track back in her high school days; but probably more than forty-five years later was currently sitting on a green bench on the sidelines sipping from a pink water bottle. When she saw Jay looking, she smiled and gave a thumbs-up. Jay smiled briefly and turned back to her recruits, a few of whom were already groaning as they began stretching with partners. Unless any of them ended up having times like Usafa Powell, they definitely wouldn't be making the team.

"Partner?"

Jay nodded to the slender brunette, murmuring, "Sure, Kate." Both sat on the grass, their splayed legs creating a diamond shape between the them with their cleats touching. They grasped hands and began to pull one another, one leaning all the way forward and the other leaning the entire way back.

"So what do you think?" Kate asked as she leaned back.

Leaning forward until her nose touched the grass, Jay strained to speak as her calves, thighs, butt, and back muscles burned. "About what?"'

"You don't… know?" The words came out with a bit more effort as their positions reversed.

"Just spit it out already, Kate."

Smirking as they sat upright for a few seconds, Kate said, "That freshman over there, the little Chinese girl." She subtly inclined her head to her left, and Jay glanced in the direction without turning her head. She saw a girl about her same height wearing black Spandex shorts and a black microfiber sweatshirt, currently partnered with another freshman doing exaggerated lunges. Kate's volume had considerably lowered, "That's Dilan Fan. She was the fastest cross-country runner in the middle school district."

A calculating look came into Jay's dark eyes. "Really?" she asked. "How'd you know that?"

"Our moms are really active in our neighborhood's Crime Watch thing. It's stupid because, duh, it's the suburbs, but we have block parties. I met her there and when my mom mentioned that I run, her mom started off with the bragging. Her mom's uber annoying, but Dilan's a quiet kid. What'll you do if she takes your place?"

Jay shrugged before she leaned in for another stretch, muttering, "It'd be for the best for the team if she was Captain then."

"Dudette, you're so dense sometimes," Kate countered as if she had been waiting for her friend to say this. "Just because someone's faster than you doesn't make them a good leader. And you are a good leader."

Jay smiled. "Oh, I know that," she said.

The girls laughed. They went through a few more stretches. Then they stood simultaneously and Jay called the team to attention. In single-file they began to jog, Jay at the back of the group.

Her gaze tracked the Chinese girl. Dilan Fan, fastest middle schooler. Maybe that was where she had heard that name before?

Then she blushed as they ran past the soccer fields and her gaze strayed to the guys' team running laps around them. Or more importantly, her eyes focused on the one Asian player on the team, the goalie for the Seahawks.

But how could she have forgotten? Of course. They were both stars in their own right: Dilan and Jonathan Fan. She must be his little sister.

Jay's dark stare refocused on the younger star runner's back. Dilan had a good four meter lead on the rest of them. Jay momentarily considered speeding up and surpassing her just to show-off in case Jon was looking, but refrained. She wasn't above showing-off were appropriate, but she also wasn't petty.

Suddenly she tripped and went face-first into Kate, who had been jogging just ahead of her. Kate ran into the girl in front of her and the whole girls' cross country track team went down like dominos. Jay remained with her face buried in her friend's back for some time. She didn't need to look up in order to see the Seahawks laughing at them. She could hear them just fine.