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"Eric, he's doing it again," Aubrey Guillina whined, her tone bored.
"Don't worry about it," Eric Holden replied, leaning back against the tree they were sitting under in the Las Juntas College's main quad. He flipped his blond hair out his eyes, and shot a grin at Aubrey. "He's probably getting pics for the newspaper."
Aubrey scoffed and shook her head. Abel Epstein wasn't shooting photographs for the student paper—he was taking them only of Eric, and he was taking them for himself.
Abel was hidden slightly by a tree as he snapped away on his small digital camera. There wasn't much to hide—Abel had a small frame and was shorter than most of the girls he came into contact with. Although he did work for the school paper as the photographer, the assignment only called for him to take pictures at the games.
Spinning away when Eric stared at him, he blushed and quickly crouched behind the tree.
"What are you doing?" Pacer-John Daringer looked down at Abel with a dubious expression, arms crossed.
Standing at six foot five, Pacer-John had a light brown complexion and close-shaven hair. He usually walked around with an easy smile, but if an observer looked more closely, they would see how strained his nonchalance was, how stiff he held his shoulders, and the slight flickers of dissatisfaction in his eyes.
Pacer might not have been a member of the football team—he had dropped out the year before—but he was still one of the most popular students on the campus.
Girls thought he was 'deep' and 'mysterious,' and professors regularly tried to get him to explore his intellectual side. He spent most of his time between classes rolling around town in his Mustang or watching as the football team played pickup games on the quad. He rarely touched the ball himself.
"Oh, hey … Pace," Abel said, looking down to tinker with his camera. "I'm just taking some stock photos for the paper."
Throughout his lifetime, Pacer-John had been called PJ, Pac-J, P-John, PJ Danger, and Pajamas. He hated all of them. He watched Abel continue to fiddle with the camera, a smile slowly winding itself across Pacer's face. He had never spoken to Abel before, but like Aubrey and Eric, he was well aware of him. When Abel looked up at him, twitching slightly, Pacer grinned. "Pace?"
"Pacer-John," Abel corrected with a shrug. "Sorry." He stood up, his over-sized hoodie falling almost to his knees, and quickly stuffed his camera into his pocket with nimble fingers. His eyes widened when he looked past Pacer. Pacer glanced over his shoulder to see Eric walking toward them.
"I have to go," Abel said.
Looking back around, Pacer grabbed Abel's jacket before he could scamper off. "We're supposed to meet up for that presentation," Pacer said flatly. "It's due in a week."
Placing his hand over Pacer's, Abel tried to wrench himself free. "Okay, but I can't right now, I have to leave!"
"Don't you want to meet him in person?"
"Pacer-John!" Abel shouted, his voice raising an octave. Digging his fingernails into Pacer's hand, he stumbled backward when Pacer finally let him go.
Scoffing, Pacer turned to look at Eric again. "Call me Pacer," he said. He looked over his shoulder, only to find that Abel had already disappeared.
"P-Dog!" Eric nodded in greeting as he walked toward Pacer. They did a subtle fist bump, and started off toward the gym, several girls trailing in their wake. Aubrey, the alpha girl of the group, jumped ahead and squeezed between the two.
"Hey, PJ," she said in a saccharine tone. "What were you and the psycho talking about?"
Pacer shrugged, the corner on his mouth curling with disdain. "We have a history presentation together."
"Oh. God," Aubrey said with an exaggerated drawl. "I hope he doesn't drag your grade down. Can he even, like, speak in front of a class?"
"Is he that socially awkward?" Pacer asked with a chuckle, looking down at Aubrey.
Ego puffing up at being directly spoken to by Pacer, Aubrey smirked. "How do you not know, PJ?" She shook her head, letting her sleek brown hair swirl around her shoulders. "He doesn't have any friends, and he spends his whole time following Eric around."
"Hey, now," Eric cut in, "he doesn't follow me everywhere."
"He does!" Aubrey exclaimed. "There's this rumor that he has an entire shrine dedicated to you."
"A shrine?" Pacer repeated. "Like … with candles and shit?"
Both Eric and Aubrey stared at him with dubious expressions, waiting for him to crack a smile.
"What?" he asked, glancing back and forth at their quizzical looks. "Does he?" When he imagined a shrine, he saw a dark room with candles blazing along the edges and a statue residing at the base of a wall cluttered with pictures of the shrine's subject.
"But where could he get a statue of you?" Pacer muttered, trying to imagine a fully formed picture of what an Eric Holden shrine would look like.
"Are you serious?" Aubrey laughed.
Pacer looked at her. "Yeah? Aren't you a little curious?"
She shook her head, and looked over at Eric. Pacer could see why someone would make a shrine of Eric, he was ripped and had blue eyes, but most of all he was a star player on Las Juntas' football team. In college, where people weren't really popular anymore, not like they were in high school, Eric was one of the most well-known guys on campus.
Grinning, Eric shrugged. "Just as long as he isn't planning on adding my rotting corpse to that shrine, you know?"
Pacer laughed, glancing back over to where Abel had scampered off. "Still," he said. "A shrine … that's dedication."
The dean's office was pretty sad, but Pacer tried to ignore the water damage on the ceiling and the wobbly chair as he dropped his backpack on the ground. There was a faint stench of leftover pizza and burnt popcorn, probably wafting from a rundown microwave sitting in the corner.
"Pacer," the dean said, looking through several papers on his desk. "I'm sure you have an idea as to why you're here."
"My scholarship." Pacer tilted his head, challenging the dean with his gaze. "You want to take it away, right?"
After quitting football, Pacer had gotten … slightly lackadaisical with his academic studies—not that he'd been much of a rigorous studier to begin with. Not that it mattered. He could have been an A-student, and Las Juntas would still rescind his scholarship, which was given to him on the grounds that he would play for the football team. He set a foot on the dean's desk and started to chew on his thumbnail.
"Mr. Daringer," the dean said, his tone quickly losing what little empathy it had been carrying, "please remove your foot." He shoved at Pacer's shoe with a pencil, who dropped his foot to the ground with a loud thud. "You are correct," the dean continued. "I'm afraid that you have broken your agreement with the school … "
"Call my dad," Pacer replied, leaning forward. "He'll send you a nice fat check."
Letting out a long-winded sigh, the dean reached into the drawer of his desk and pulled out a slip of paper. "If you plan to pay tuition yourself, please send this form to your father, which he must fill out." He slid the paper over to Pacer. "I would do this sooner rather than later, as the semester will be ending before you know it."
Pacer slapped his hand down on the paper, crumpling it slightly when he stuffed it into his bag. "Fine," he said. "Is that it?"
"I would hope you would reconsider your decision to leave the team." The dean stared at Pacer from over his thick glasses, his mouth set in a frown. Standing up, Pacer slipped his backpack over his shoulder and bowed slightly to the dean.
"Sorry to disappoint you," he said with his signature grin.
Outside of the office, Pacer found the usual hubbub of the college's main office. Several students were crowding around the receptionist's counter, demanding an audience with the dean. Over by the professors' mailboxes, a student was talking animatedly with one of the teaching staff. Pacer let out a snort when he recognized the over-sized hoodie.
Walking closer to Abel, Pacer loitered several feet away, waiting for the conversation to end. However, his attention was caught when he heard Eric's name.
"I'm sorry, Abel," the professor said, "but I don't think the newspaper needs another retrospective on Eric Holden's football career."
"He's the team's key player," Abel said. Pacer shook his head at Abel's desperate tone. What a fucking weirdo. "He needs a lot of press, so the NFL will notice him!"
"Do you know anything about how professional football works?" the professor replied, not unkindly. "I doubt they read the Las Juntas Claw."
Abel breathed out a huff of annoyance. "This is where my creative process is taking me." He stiffened visibly when the professor patted him on the shoulder with a friendly hand, appearing as if he wanted to skitter away like a flighty animal.
"I know, Abel," the professor said, "but like we talked about, I think it's time you found a new muse. Perhaps something that isn't a student at our school."
"You don't understand," Abel replied, stuffing his hands into his hoodie and speeding past the professor. Pacer watched him walk by with raised eyebrows and turned to see the professor looking at him. With a nod, he winked at the man and turned to chase down Abel down.
"Hey!" he shouted, jogging up to Abel. Almost losing his step, he laughed when he saw Abel start running away from him.
Abel made it several yards, all the while hearing the stomping feet of someone following him. Well, not someone—he had immediately recognized the voice of Pacer. He picked up his speed when he heard the steps getting closer.
"Abel!" Pace shouted again.
Breaking out into a sprint, Abel figured he had enough headway to make it to his dorm. Hoping that his key card was still there, he fumbled in his pocket as he ran, but just as his fingers touched the hard plastic of the card, he felt a hand grip his arm, jerking him to a violent stop.
"Hey!" Pacer said from behind him. "Did you not hear me—whoa, shit!"
Abel had twisted around, causing Pacer to drop his arm in surprise, and punched Pacer in the stomach. Taking off again, Abel felt a slight smile worm its way across his face. That would show Pacer not to abandon his best friend, the great Eric Holden, alone on the field.
He spotted the entrance to his dorm, Cougar Hall, only a few yards away. All he had to do was make it across the lawn—
"Gotcha!" Suddenly, the grass at his feet introduced itself to his face. Squirming out of Pacer's grip, Abel started to crawl toward the entrance.
"Come here, you little worm!" Pacer shouted, grabbing on to Abel's shoe and dragging him backward.
Falling onto his stomach, Abel clawed at the ground, causing tufts of grass to gather in his hands. He let out an oomph when Pacer leapfrogged over his legs and landed on him.
Leaning over, Pacer pressed his arm down on Abel's back. "Why are you running?"
"Why did you tackle me?" Abel bit back, trying to elbow Pacer in the stomach. "Are you a fucking bloodhound?"
Before Pacer could answer, a pair of shoes walked into their field of vision.
Kneeling down, Eric stared curiously at them struggling in the grass. "What are you doing?"
After an awkwardly long pause, Pacer coughed. "Practicing," he said. "Just practicing."
Eric looked down at Abel, who was still being crushed under Pacer's body while hiding his face in the grass. "Practicing what, P-Dog?"
"For our presentation," Pacer replied, sitting up so that he was straddling Abel's waist.
"Your … history presentation?"
"Yeah, it's about … um." Pacer paused. "Like, how cavemen hunt for their mates and drag them in to caves and stuff."
Abel scrunched his eyes shut, letting out a frustrated squeak. He could hear the smile in Pacer's voice.
"It's like a huge part of evolution, you know?"
"Oh ... sure. So, I guess I'll see you later?"
Abel heard Eric walk away and Pacer sigh. "Cavemen?" he demanded, frustrated yell muffled by the grass. He immediately started wiggling out from under Pacer, but Pacer grabbed his arms with a quick intake of breath.
"Quit it," Pacer said. "You're giving me a woody."
Abel twisted his face around to stare at Pacer from the corner of one tearing eye, before suddenly bucking and shoving his elbow into Pacer's crotch.
Pacer gasped, his eyes going wide, and fell to the side. Abel wriggled out from under him and took off like a ferret with its tail on fire. He figured he had a few seconds before Pacer rallied, but cringed when he heard Pacer running after him.
"Come back here, you fag!" Pacer yelled.
Abel had already made it to the dorm, but cursed when he heard Pacer slam through the entrance before the door had a chance to close and lock. Shoving past several students heading to class, Abel sprinted to the elevator, holding up his middle finger when Pacer appeared just as the doors were closing.
Reaching his floor, his eyes widened when the elevator doors opened to reveal a huffing, but smirking Pacer outside. "I win," he said, hands on his knees as he leaned over to catch his breath. "Now, can you stay still for one sec—" He cursed when Abel ducked past him, slamming into the wall of the hallway as he ran.
Abel nearly flew past his door from inertia, but skidded to a halt just in time. Jamming his key card through the slot, he edged the door open and ran inside. Just as he was about to slam the door shut, however, a foot appeared, blocking it. He slammed the door anyway.
"Fuck!" Pacer shouted. "What the fuck?"
"Move your foot," Abel replied, "or I'll do it again."
The corner of Pacer's mouth tilted upward as he slipped a hand through the crack and started shoving the door open. "Really?" he said. "You think those little arms of yours can do shit against me?" He slammed the door open and burst into Abel's room, still breathing heavily.
Abel stared at Pacer with wide eyes, the color draining from his face.
"Jesus," Pacer said. "It's not like I'm going to hurt you—"
He paused, and Abel watched Pacer look past him, recognition slowly dawning on his face. Taking a step backward, Pacer raised a hand to his forehead. "Holy shit."
Every square inch of the wall, top to bottom, was covered in pictures of Eric Holden.