A/N: There were a few minds collaborating to help with this one, and I want to thank them for all the time and energy they poured into this story. I appreciate it more than words can say.
As for the story itself, it builds for three chapters, so stick with me - I'll get to the point eventually.
Disclaimer: I own nothing.
War is a strange game, the only winning move is not to play -- War Games
"Big bags under the bus. C'mon, guys, let's get a move on!" the coach clapped in encouragement.
Ryan shuffled to the side of the chrome-clad chartered bus, tossing his modest luggage into the first of three lower compartments, his backpack lost amongst the abundance of oversized duffel bags. He stared in pensive consideration for several seconds, wondering why all of the other guys seemed to have packed three times what he, himself, had brought along. Quickly, he sorted through a mental checklist to ensure that he hadn't forgotten any necessities, shrugging absently when no answer to this inequity could be found.
Ryan turned his head to see Luke approaching - tossing his own excessively large duffel bag directly on top of Ryan's backpack.
"Hey," Ryan replied with a half smile, still a little unnerved around Luke since the whole Julie Cooper ordeal. The guy seemed sincerely sorry, and Ryan had seen Luke's remorse through his blood-shot, puffy eyes, often in the week following the revelation. So, when he had called Ryan four days ago, suggesting that they be roommates for the weekend, he didn't have the heart to turn him down.
"Get outta my way, fag." Luke was thrown a step forward, his arms raising just in time to prevent him from crashing face first into the shiny bus. Ryan watched as Luke's jaw clenched in obvious fury while shooting the perpetrator a warning glare, which was immediately shrugged off with an arrogant laugh by the receiver.
Ryan tapped Luke on the shoulder with the back of his hand, in an attempt to distract him from attacking his tormenter. "Let's go."
Luke gradually tore away from his death stare and followed Ryan onto the bus, sliding in beside him into one of the front rows of seats. Ryan noticed that the plush loungers were nicer than any piece of furniture he had ever had back in Chino. 'Even their buses are luxurious,' he thought to himself as he fiddled with a control that caused his seat to vibrate in mock massage. Luke chuckled softly at Ryan's shocked expression to the unexpected animation of his seat, and Ryan let himself join in while struggling to find the 'stop' button.
As the bus filled up, the boisterous sounds of adolescent condescension floated towards the front where the younger and quieter players were situated. Ryan ignored the arrogant bragging competition and fixed his stare out the window as the vehicle slowly inched forward, picking up speed to compete with traffic.
Johnny Prusek, the smallest - albeit fastest - guy who had been a teammate to Ryan and Luke on the Harbor School team, was hunched over in one of the seats closest to the front, his head undetectable above the headrest from behind. Most of the front riders were glued to the windows to avoid the crossfire of supercilious words that were being exchanged between the Abercrombie and Fitch representatives. Not long ago, Ryan would have labeled Luke with that same description, but an ousted father and an affair-gone-wrong later, he was just as insecure as poor little Johnny.
Ryan wasn't even sure why he had agreed to sign up for the 'Elite Summer Soccer League' in the first place. The only reason he played soccer in the fall was so that he could have an extracurricular activity on his transcript. However, he, along with several of his Harbor teammates, was approached after the Private School Athletic League's season had finished, and he had given in.
He had been told it was a good opportunity, and apparently an honor to be selected. The league was renowned for housing the most talented players in the west, where only the best of the best from all the private schools in the western states were brought together to form a super-league of sorts. It seemed like a good idea at the time. At the very least, it would be motivation to stay fit over the summer and improve his game for the when the fall season resumed. He had since regretted the impulsive decision.
The prestigious 'Elite Summer Soccer League' was more a battle between the richest communities than a compilation of athletic ability. That wasn't to say that the team wasn't superior in athleticism, because it was, but there were other, hidden motivations. Though it consisted of a lot of the same old kids from High Schools in and around the general vicinity of Orange County, there were several older, more accomplished members on the team that were the epitome of jock - most of whom were in their senior year or had already graduated and were just prepping their games to compete against the ranks of their college affiliates - where they would attend with their hefty athletic scholarships.
Ryan was somewhat nervous about the first tournament of the year. The team had just begun practicing as a complete group over a week ago, and he hadn't been able to attend because of a brutal cold that had been relentlessly plaguing him - forcing him to miss almost a full week of school. Despite his general uneasiness associated with not knowing half the team or any of the set plays, he had insisted - against Kirsten's will - that he was well enough to make the tournament.
He claimed he'd done it because if he missed the first of many summer competitions, he wouldn't want to go to any of the following games - but the main, underlying reason was that he had promised Luke he would make the trip. Luke was the best player in the league at their shared position, and Ryan took comfort in knowing that he was second in line to the PSAL's leading scorer. Chances were good that he wouldn't even see the field anyway.
"I hate that prick, Johnson," Luke spoke quietly, leaning closer to Ryan to ensure that their conversation could not be overheard. "You should have seen him in practice this week, he wouldn't give me the damn ball once. But I swear, If he calls me 'fag' one more time, I'm going to kick his prissy, college-bound ass."
"You might want to avoid beating up your own teammates," Ryan replied quickly, trying to deter Luke from even considering turning the immature rivalry into a scene on the field. "He's just an ass."
"I know, but do you have any idea what it's like to…" Luke stopped when Ryan's eyebrows raised. "Sorry, I guess you do know what it's like."
"Yeeeeah," Ryan's face showed traces of a smile as he subtly rolled his eyes.
Luke smiled slightly, nodding while sighing, "Yeah, well unlike the past three practices, at least now someone's got my back."
"Are you referring to me?" Ryan questioned. "Because I can't afford to get into anymore fights," he half-joked.
"Well," Luke jumped in, "you can at least stop me from starting them."
"That," Ryan started, clearing his throat to regain his fleeting voice, "That I can do… or at least try."
The remains of the short journey were spent in silence. Ryan wondered why they needed to stay in a hotel for a tournament that was taking place less than an hour from Newport. Apparently, the coach figured that the group of athletes needed to get away for a weekend to 'bond' as a team. Ryan couldn't think of anything he would like to do less.
"Which bed do you want, man?"
Ryan placed his bag by the dresser and shook his head in confusion, "I don't care. Does it matter?"
"I don't know," Luke started, flopping face first on the bed closest to the door, "I'll have to check them first."
Ryan watched in amusement as Luke flopped around on the bed before getting up and proceeding to go through the same process on the other.
"Yeah, this one's definitely better."
Luke turned around when there was no verbal response, and was greeted by a questioning, sideways glare.
"I think I'm going to ask for a room transfer," Ryan stated quietly, as he unsuccessfully tried not to smile.
He was simply relieved that Luke wasn't sulking. Ever since he had been on the wrong end of Marissa's flailing hand a couple of weeks ago, he had been walking around like a stray puppy caught in the rain. Ryan couldn't even remember the last time he had seen him smile - let alone, joke around. 'It's amazing what can happen when you leave Newport,' he thought to himself.
"So, my Dad called yesterday," Luke stated while fiddling with the air conditioning unit by the window. "He's coming to watch me play tomorrow."
"Yeah? That's good. Right?" Ryan questioned, not completely sure why Luke revealed the small piece of information.
"Yeah, I mean… Yeah, it's good. He didn't come to any of the school games last semester because… you know, it was still fresh on everyone's minds. But, with this tournament being out of Newport, and seeing as how things have settled down, I think it'll be good."
"Yeah, that sounds good," Ryan tried to sound genuinely happy for his friend, but it was obvious to him that Luke was still extremely awkward around his dad - even after all this time.
"Are the Cohens coming?"
Ryan looked down at his hands and smiled, speaking quietly, "Sandy wouldn't shut up about it this morning. He sounded like a kid going to Disneyland."
"So he's coming?"
"Yeah," Ryan looked up, making eye contact with Luke for a split second, "he's coming."
"That's cool, man. I mean, you said that no one really ever came to your games before… so…"
"Yeah," Ryan interrupted, swallowing and nodding, "It's good."
"What about Cohen?"
Ryan scoffed at the mere idea of Seth attending a sporting event, "I don't think he'd enjoy himself."
Luke shrugged, leaning back against the pillows on the bed which he had acclaimed superior.
"Besides, he's meeting Summer's family tonight," Ryan finished.
Ryan let the question hang for several seconds as he tried to wrap his brain around how exactly he should approach a subject that included anyone whose last name was 'Cooper'.
"No," he shook his head, looking at Luke before turning his eyes to the draped window, "she's not coming."
Out of the corner of his eye, Ryan saw Luke's hands clench tightly in his lap, an apprehensive reaction to the tense topic that had arisen.
"She won't talk to me…" Luke's voice trailed off.
Ryan leaned back on the bed and fixed his eyes on the ceiling as he mentally fought with how to talk to Luke about the delicate subject of his fling with Julie Cooper, and how it ultimately affected Marissa.
In fact, Ryan had only spoken to Marissa a few times since the immoral affair had come to an end. She had stopped by after school a couple times in the past week, but Ryan had asked Seth to tell her he was asleep. He just didn't have the energy or to console her anymore than he already had. Besides, she needed an unbiased confidant, and he knew that if she started voicing her displeasure with her mother, his own opinions on the matter would emerge and only serve to add fuel to her fire of hate towards the woman she called 'Mom'. She needed to forgive. They were family, after all.
"I think that she's more mad at her mom than at you, if it makes you feel any better," Ryan tried putting a light spin on things, but immediately upon uttering the words, he questioned whether or not Luke was ready for the conversation they were leading into.
"It's not just Julie's fault. I mean, we both made the decision to do it."
Ryan cringed, trying to force out the sordid mental pictures that Luke's words had imposed on his head. "She's an adult. She knows better. Well, she should know better," he paused as he searched for the words that could effectively sum up his anger without sounding like he was on the attack. "It was wrong. It shouldn't have happened."
"You know, that's easy for you to say. It's so easy for everyone to say how wrong it was. But you don't know, alright?! No one knows!"
Ryan recoiled at the sudden outburst, surprised that Luke would take such offense to something that he had openly admitted was wrong not too long ago.
"I'm sorry… I'm sorry," Luke's voice was uneven and tired, indicating that he had struggled with those exact emotions continually over the past couple of weeks.
"It's alright," Ryan replied quietly, keeping his eyes fixed on the ceiling as Luke fumbled through a makeshift apology.
"No," he leaned forward, looking over at Ryan as he spoke, his eyes showing his regret at jumping down the throat of the only friend that hadn't completely abandoned him. "You're the only one who's stuck with me through… everything that's happened… You weren't even going to come to this stupid tournament until I begged you to… I shouldn't have yelled at you like that."
Ryan turned his head towards Luke, whose face and eyes conveyed the sincerity of his apology for what Ryan had considered a mild outburst. He couldn't help but think that the guy must be sick and tired of being sorry all the time. "It's alright. Really, man, forget about it…"
A sharp sound interrupted their conversation and both boys spun around to see their door being kicked open - slamming loudly against the wall.
"Oh, this can't be good!" Terry Johnson sauntered brashly into their room, followed by two other guys that Ryan had never had the displeasure of meeting. "Two queers sharing a room! We can help you guys put the beds together if you want!" He glanced over his shoulder and was rewarded by laughter coming from his followers.
"Fuck you, Johnson," Luke made a move to stand, but Ryan held a hand up in front of him, preventing him from pursuing the matter any further.
"C'mon, Luke, they're just being assholes," Ryan muttered, but his quiet reassurance was picked up by the three swaggering antagonists.
"Who the hell's this guy?" Johnson jeered, directing the question behind him - only to be answered by empty shrugs.
"I wasn't allowed to bring my girlfriend but Ward can bring his boyfriend? No fucking fair!"
Again, his comments were met with riotous laughter.
Ryan forced himself not to overreact. He knew they weren't worth it, and though he - and Luke - had been at the receiving end of far more insulting comments, there was something about that asshole that rubbed him the wrong way.
A quick glance over at Luke made Ryan that much more uneasy. He knew that his friend was only a few words away from snapping, and if Luke got it in his head that he was going to kill, there was - physically - very little he could do to prevent such actions.
"Let's leave these two fairies to their honeymoon suite," Johnson mocked while kicking the door for emphasis.
The laughter slowly dissipated down the hall as the threesome made their way to their respective rooms.
Ryan sighed and tentatively turned towards Luke, offering a supportive half-smile.
"I was ready to kill that guy," Luke shook his head in frustration. "See why I wanted you here?"
Ryan nodded and sighed again, "Yeah."
"Let's go! McGregor, Johnson, move!"
The coach's whistle pierced through the air after screaming each of the names. He shook his head in exasperation when both players casually strolled onto the field. He always had problems with the older guys, and from experience, it was usually their cockiness and overconfidence that lost him games.
After careful observation of all the players on his new team during the past week's practices, he had obtained a general idea of who was friends with whom, and which players did not get along. In all of his years coaching, he couldn't ever recall having a team that was completely congenial. There was always that one rivalry that required at least one intervention from himself or his fellow coaches. Though he encouraged spirited competition between his players, he despised personal, inter-team rivalry. On this particular team, he was sure that if there were going to be any issues, Johnson would be at the root of the problem.
"Ward, Johnson, McGregor, Prusek, McCauley and Atwood, take the front line," he bellowed, and watched as the names he had called separated themselves from the crowd and into their assigned positions for the commonly used drill.
His brow furrowed when he saw Johnson subtly shove Ward from behind, saying something that he couldn't determine over the wind, but noticed that it spurred an outburst of laughter from some members of the team.
He sighed shook his head. Ward had taken more than his fair share of abuse already from a guy that was essentially his teammate - someone that was ultimately supposed to have his back. It made him wish the team selections were based as much on attitude as they were on athletic ability.
He blew his whistle to start the drill and watched intently as two of the smaller players got the early lead, sprinting laps around McGregor, the most powerful - but by far the slowest - player on the team. The six players didn't let up as they all raced to the opposite end of the field, egos perhaps as much motivation as general competitive spirit.
Johnny Prusek came out victorious in the race for the eagerly, sought-after ball, immediately dishing off to Ward, who proceeded to slam the ball into the top corner with incredible force - channeling his negative energy in a useful way. The coach nodded in approval. He had been impressed with Ward's composure, but he internally worried that it was only a matter of time before the kid was pushed too far.
All six players broke into a less eager pace, their energy tapering off after the long sprint. Ward subtly slammed fists with Prusek and received a pat on the back from Atwood - who was nearly doubled over and seemed to be having a hard time catching his breath.
The coach watched Atwood carefully, since he had no idea what the kid was capable of besides the general impression provided through the scouting report. He didn't look like he was in game-shape, but he decided not to rag on the kid since he had apparently been under the weather for the past week. At least, that was the given reason behind his absence from the practices.
He had been provided with an additional back-up report from each of the kids' school coaches, and Atwood had been described as 'the guy you want on the field when protecting a lead - defensively responsible'. Ward was his offense and Atwood was supposedly his insurance - when healthy. The team looked good on paper, but he was skeptical. There was very little about the collection of egos that would signify that they were, in fact, 'a team'.
McGregor, Johnson and McCauley were pushing each other and laughing as they made their way back to the start position at the near end of the field. Prusek was kicking the ball back as he jogged past the threesome, who together, probably outweighed him five to one. The coach mentally laughed when he realized that little Johnny's speed was probably the only thing that had saved him from being repetitively pummeled over the years. They couldn't catch him if they tried.
He turned his head further to the right where Ward and Atwood were trailing the rest of the pack significantly, walking at a snail's pace because Atwood still appeared considerably out of breath. He couldn't hear what they were talking about, and he supposed it didn't really matter; he was just relieved that Ward finally had some back-up. At least someone was truly on the kid's team.
"Johnny made a nice pass," Luke replied to Ryan's compliment on his shot.
"Yeah… He's faster than I remember," Ryan coughed.
"You gonna make it?" Luke joked, smiling as they slowly wandered their way back to the crowd.
"We'll see. I definitely don't have my legs… You better not get hurt," Ryan teased back, serious in his concern of being forced to play in his less than adequate condition.
"What makes you think I'm getting the nod ahead of you?"
Ryan shot Luke a look that he immediately shrugged off. He knew that Ryan wasn't as offensive a player as himself, but he was reliable and stable when the game was on the line, and Luke had often found himself riding the bench late in games when the score was tight.
"Yeah well, you and Johnny are our speed. McGregor drags the whole team down about ten notches."
Ryan laughed lightly, relieved to find that he was finally regaining his breath. "Yeah, he's… slow."
"Understatement of the year, Ryan," Luke interrupted, his voice louder than before - his statement not going unnoticed by their teammates.
Again, Ryan smiled, realizing that the other players couldn't have possibly known what they were talking about.
"Alright, everyone grab a ball, let's put a few on net." The coach's voice was followed by a shrill whistle that would indicate that he was in no mood for slackers.
Ryan and Luke both snagged a ball and got in line for the goalie massacre.
"Take it easy on him, we need him tomorrow!" the coach called out, his tone half-joking, but a hint of a warning dangled in his voice, as if daring his players to disobey him.
"So I guess I shouldn't creatively visualize?" Luke quietly whispered to Ryan.
"As long as you miss, I don't see the problem," Ryan replied slyly, aimlessly kicking his ball from one foot to the other.
Luke nodded, a determined look crossing his face as he took a few steps back and waited for his turn.
Ryan watched as Luke pounded his shot just above the crossbar - the ball bouncing high in the air behind the net and rolling quite a distance as a result of the force.
"Ward! Don't push it!"
Luke almost looked guilty as he shot the coach an apologetic glance and jogged away to retrieve his ball.
Ryan prepared for his own shot, stepping forward quickly, his foot connecting hard into his ball while mumbling, "Julie Cooper," under his breath. The ball whizzed rapidly through the air and found the far corner - the goalie sprawling out in an exaggerated attempt to make the save.
"What did I just say?! Don't push it or you'll all be running laps!"
Ryan dipped his head and nodded, unaware that his kick was going to be as powerful as it had turned out. Luke - returning with his long lost ball - smiled at Ryan when he heard the coach's threatening words.
"Who'd you picture?" he whispered.
Ryan just shot him a look that spoke volumes, forcing Luke to immediately break eye contact. "Yeah, that's what I thought," he mumbled, disheartened, his body language suddenly awkward.
The rest of the players cautiously left the edge off their own kicks, taking the coach's words to heart and avoiding the ever-dreaded laps.
As the last player put his ball on net, the skies opened up, dropping what seemed like a year's worth of rain in a matter of seconds.
Ryan watched in shock as McGregor let out what he could only describe as a girlish scream while running for shelter. 'What? Does he think he's gonna melt?' he thought to himself, fascinated and entertained by the dramatics of his teammate.
The majority of the team followed, grabbing their respective coats off the bench before bolting towards the indoor coliseum. Puddles formed almost instantly - the water pooling into the otherwise unnoticed nooks of the well-groomed field. Ryan's eyes were drawn away from the wonders of the rainfall when he felt a pat on his back.
He turned to see Luke, who was already beginning to follow the masses indoors.
Ryan nodded, but first went to corral some of the balls that were left stranded in the middle of the sopping field before making his way to the bench, where the coach was grudgingly piling the balls into the large mesh sack.
The coach appeared pleasantly surprised when he caught sight of Ryan approaching with the rest of the balls in hand and at foot.
"Atwood, is it?" he asked when Ryan had come close enough to hear his voice over the sound of the pelting rain.
Ryan nodded, brushing his soaking hair off his forehead before bending down to help pile the remaining balls into the bag.
"Thanks," the coach's face showed traces of a smile - an expression that Ryan hadn't witnessed in the few hours that he had known the man.
Again, Ryan nodded, making a conscious effort to keep his head down to prevent the rain from splashing into his eyes.
"A man of few words. I like that," he stated, gathering his saturated book of plays from the bench and starting to make his way to the coliseum. "You can neutralize the loudmouths," he cracked quietly, once his back was turned.
Ryan laughed lightly to himself while launching the full bag over his shoulder, following the coach to join his teammates in the appealing warmth of shelter.