The room was empty and silent, a silence that was quickly broken by the telltale creek of the metal door announcing someone's entrance. Slowly and hesitantly, a head full of golden curls peeked inside to make sure the room was as vacant as the absence of sound indicated. His sapphire orbs observed every inch, and as soon as he was certain no one else was inside, he gently closed the door behind him, mindful of the sign on the wall that read 'DOOR BROKEN. NO SLAMMING IT. ONLY UNLOCKS FROM OUTSIDE.', and made his way to his usual locker to retrieve his clothes.
Herbert Swampcastle always made sure he was the first one to arrive at the locker room after gym class. There were a large number of personal reasons to support his choice, but mostly he just wanted to enjoy some peace and quiet as he changed before every other male student came in and flooded the room with their loud talking and cliché teenage antics.
The blond sighed contently, basking in the blissful tranquility around him as he opened his locker and took out his pastel-blue sweater and white skinny jeans. He had reached down to grasp the hem of the white jumper required to be worn by every student at Camelot High School during gym class, when the door abruptly opened, and the roar of male voices broke the silence he had been enjoying so much. Herbert froze, having pulled the sweater up his flat stomach by just half an inch, and watched as the locker room was suddenly invaded not only by the students who had just had gym class with him, but also by a group of teenagers dressed in white and gold uniforms, some donning helmets and shoulder pads.
The Camelot Knights.
The sight of the entire football team inside the locker room made Herbert's heart involuntarily pick up speed and his palms grow sweaty. He hated changing in front of his fellow classmates, but even more in front of this particular group.
Not them. Never them.
I wasn't that he hated the team; quite the contrary. He would often be seen at their games cheering them on, joining in the overall joy of the rest of the school as they routed for their team. He even knew some of the members in a more personal level.
That was the problem.
When he shared the locker room with other students that he just knew from some of his classes or that he passed in the hallways and never really talked to, he could easily avoid them without feeling bad about it. But these were people he interacted with on a daily basis, which made him feel even more self-conscious.
The quarterback, Arthur Pendragon, was his friend Gwen's boyfriend. He didn't really talk to him that much, but he would some times meet her at the end of Glee Club practice, which Herbert also attended. All he knew about him was what everybody else knew: student body president, football team quarterback, dating the most popular girl in school, and always followed around by that scrawny Jewish kid who did his homework for him. Not quite the best reputation, but still better than that of the team's two defensive backs.
Dennis Galahad, the cornerback, was one of the most conceited guys Herbert had ever met. He would often be flirting with the cheerleaders, particularly with Gwen, instead of actually playing the game. He had only joined the team for the popularity, having chosen one of the safest positions in order to protect his 'greatest asset', which basically meant his entire body. Then there was the safety, Steve Bedevere, who spent more time on the bench than on the field. The only reason he was accepted into the team was because Arthur had put in a good word with the coach, but the truth was that he was a bad player. Really bad. Even Bradley Bors played better than him, and he had cervical degenerative disc disease. Fortunately for him, Bedevere didn't really mind sitting through most games. It just gave him time to update his conspiracy theory blog.
Out of all the team members, there was only one who Herbert actually interacted with: Robin Ferguson, the running back. He was president of the Drama Club, which Herbert was also a part of. Robin's passion for the theatrics was so intense that it made him not care about any other aspect of his life, which was why Herbert was surprised when he found out that he had joined the football team. But when he first saw him play, he immediately understood why: it turned out Robin ran really, really fast. He was so afraid of getting tackled by the members of the opposite team that he was able to bolt across the field at lighting speed, so it only made sense for him to be the running back.
Robin had just made it to his locker when he noticed Herbert. The blond waved awkwardly at him as the Drama Club president smiled at him and pulled off his shoulder pads. Robin had just opened his mouth, apparently to speak to his fellow theater colleague, when he was suddenly towel-whipped from behind, a high-pitched yelp involuntarily escaping his lips. He immediately turned around to playfully shove his 'attacker', who just snickered at the strawberry-blond and knelt down to untie his dirty cleats.
If Herbert's heart had been beating fast before, now it was beating at full speed. The guy who had whipped Robin was the one who Herbert always felt the most nervous around; the one who he wanted to be with but at the same time not; the one who made him question everything he knew and believed in.
Lance DuLac, offensive tackle.
Lance was Robin's best friend, so they often hung out together. His big and strong build made him the perfect offensive tackle, especially because he always seemed to enjoy attacking the team's opponents a lot more than any other player. He was known as the local bad boy, so Herbert assumed he was just a bit sadistic.
Robin had tried to get Lance to join the Drama Club, to which he strongly objected every time, but Herbert would sometimes see him watching their rehearsals. Whenever he saw the bulky brunet at the auditorium's sitting area, usually with his feet propped up on the back of the seat in front of him, Herbert would suddenly feel very self-conscious about his acting, sometimes even forgetting his lines.
The sight of the offensive tackle changing out of his sweaty football uniform right in front of him made Herbert's face feel incredibly warm. Before he lost his composure any further, the blond quickly fished his clothes out of the locker and made a beeline into the nearest empty stall. He sighed as soon the door locked being him, wiping his sweat-drenched forehead with the back of his hand before resuming what he had begun just before the locker room had been invaded that rampant wave of testosterone.
"Hey, is anyone going to Tim's party on Saturday?" Dennis asked excitedly, running a hand through his immense auburn locks. "I hear it's gonna be off the hook!"
"'Off the hook'? What're we, back in the 90s?" Robin mocked.
"I wish I could, but the Glee Club is performing one town over and I promised Gwen I'd be there to cheer her on." Arthur stated as he pulled his jersey over his head.
"The Glee Club's having an away performance?" Dennis inquired, suddenly adopting a serious demeanor. "Why didn't you tell me? I want to support them, too!"
"Except, in this context, 'support them' is Galahadian for 'gawking at the lead singer'". Robin teased as he pulled on his jeans.
Lance had to suppress a chuckle as he put on his red flannel shirt. It always amused him to hear about the love triangle that existed between Arthur, Gwen and Dennis, especially because the latter knew perfectly well that he didn't stand a chance, yet continued to pine over her. He was glad the other members of the team and the gym class students that had entered the locker room with them had already left, so they wouldn't have to deal with Dennis' idiocy when it came to Arthur's girlfriend.
"I won't be able to make it to the party, either." Robin declared, smoothing out the creases from his green Camelot High Drama Club hoodie. "I need to brainstorm ideas for this semester's Drama Club production. I'm considering something about lumberjacks, but I'm not sure…"
"You know what you should put on? Magic Mike." Dennis wiggled his eyebrows. "If you did, I would totally audition for the lead part."
"I am not putting on Magic Mike just so you'll have an excuse to take your shirt off in public." Robin deadpanned.
"Whatever play you choose, just don't let it be Shakespeare." Bedevere stated, his gaze never leaving his phone screen. "That man was a fraud and a hack."
"Yes, Steve, you've made that perfectly clear in the past." Robin rolled his eyes at his friend's insistence on one of the most absurd conspiracy theories he had ever heard.
"Don't be too quick to discard my idea!" Dennis insisted. "Are you aware of the kind of audience that would attract?"
"He's right, Rob." Arthur concurred, playfully nudging the confused strawberry-blond. "If you starred Dennis in your next production, you could probably get a very special guest in the audience."
"I would?" Robin cocked a brow, to which the quarterback nodded.
Dennis' eyes widened as he stared at his grinning colleagues. Even Bedevere had looked up from his phone and exhibited a knowing smirk. Lance just laughed as he knelt down to tie his sneakers.
"Oh, yeah!" Robin chuckled. "I haven't seen sweet old Mrs. Galahad since the last time Dennis entered a talent show."
"She always adds a special something to the performance, don't you think?" Arthur teased the now flushed cornerback.
"Stop it, you guys." Dennis grumbled.
"She always loves to cheer her little Dennis on in her own special way." Bedevere joined the mocking, positioning himself right next to the other two between Dennis and the main door.
"Guys…" Dennis hissed through his gritted teeth.
"You guys remember when she dropped him off on the first day of Middle School?" said Arthur, smirking at Dennis' hopeless face.
"How could I forget!" Bedevere laughed.
"Robin, you're the acting expert." Arthur stated as he leaned against the Drama Club president. "Do you happen to remember what she said and how she said it?"
"Like it was yesterday." Robin replied, a devious grin spreading across his face.
"Robin, I swear to God…" Dennis threatened.
"Oh, Dennis…" Robin began, replicating Mrs. Galahad shrill tone almost perfectly. "I can't believe you're all grown up and going to big boy school!"
"Robin…" Dennis took a step forward, which the others mirrored by taking a step back towards the door.
"It seems like only yesterday I was changing your dirty diapies!"
"Don't you dare…"
"You be a good boy now, y'hear?"
"And make sure you don't soil yourself like on your first day of preschool!"
A rage-filled Dennis chased his three friends out the locker room as they laughed their heads off, the door slamming shut behind them in the process.
When he heard the sound of the door banging against the frame echo through the now empty room, Lance was filled with a sudden feeling of dread. He pushed himself up and headed towards the door to give it a strong push, but the metal panel didn't budge. He tried banging against with his shoulder and his fists, but it still didn't move. That's when his gaze drifted to sign on the wall on his right:
DOOR BROKEN. NO SLAMMING IT. ONLY UNLOCKS FROM OUTSIDE.
"DENNIS, YOU IDIOT!" he shouted at the top of his lungs, punching the door in hope that someone would hear him. "WHEN I GET MY HANDS ON YOU, I'LL MAKE SWALLOW THAT SORRY EXCUSE OF A HORSE MANE YOU CALL YOUR HAIR!"
"What's going on?"
Lance's anger simmered down just enough to look back at the source of that question. It was that fragile-looking kid with golden curls from Robin's Drama Club. He couldn't remember his name, but he did remember that he always looked really nervous whenever he watched his rehearsals.
"We're locked in." he huffed, crossing his arms and leaning his back against the door. "Guess we'll have to wait for someone come open the door."
"Can't you call for help?" the blond asked with a tinge of panic in his voice, anxiously rubbing his hands together.
"I left my phone in my other locker, outside."
Lance observed as his pale cheeks began to flush and he rubbed his hands more vigorously.
"You OK there… uh…" he trailed off, a bit embarrassed for not knowing his name.
"Herbert." The blond replied, shooting him a tiny smile. "I'm just not very comfortable being locked in confined spaces."
"Well, you might as well get used to it, 'cause I think we're gonna be here a while." Lance declared as took a seat at one of the locker room's benches.
Herbert's heart began beating rapidly as he shily took a few steps forward and sat next to the brunet, leaving an appropriate amount of space between them. He stared at his pink Converse sneakers for a while, trying to figure out his next move. The uncomfortable silence around him was making him feel even more uneasy than he already did, but he just couldn't find it in himself to utter any words. And even if he could, he had no idea what to say. Such was the effect Lance DuLac had on him; rendering him completely helpless.
He was awoken from his thoughtful state when he heard Lance release what sounded like a moan. Glancing at the brunet, Herbert saw that he had his eyes closed shut and his arms wrapped tightly around himself.
"Are you OK?" Herbert asked as delicate as he could.
Lance opened his eyes and looked over at the blond, who seemed genuinely concerned. He sighed through his nose and tightened his grasp around himself.
"Sure." He grumbled. "Just cold."
"It's 82 degrees in here." Herbert stated confusedly.
"What's it to you?" Lance snapped, causing Herbert to instinctively inch away. The brunet sighed, rubbing a hand on his forehead. "Sorry. I haven't had a smoke in a while and my body is really craving it. I left my cigarettes in my other locker, out in the hallway."
"You smoke?" Herbert inquired, genuinely surprised. "That's a terrible habit."
"Yeah, so?" Lance retorted impatiently.
"So, you're an athlete. You should know better. Plus, tobacco shortens your lifespan and causes irreversible damage to your –"
"Well, maybe I want to die, alright?!" Lance exclaimed, his expression one of pure anger. "Maybe I have nothing worth living for in this effed-up world and am just taking up space! So just let me do whatever the hell I want and shut up!"
Herbert felt his heart sink upon hearing those words, but Lance didn't seem the least bit sorry this time. He shut his eyes again and resumed rubbing his arms, shivering visibly despite the high temperature of the room. Herbert watched him, a wave of sympathy for the morose offensive tackle washing over him. He couldn't bear to see him like that, but he was too scared to say anything that could anger any further. If he really was cold, the best he could was offer an extra layer. After taking a deep breath in a vain attempt to steady his rapidly-beating heart, Herbert grabbed the hem of his sweater and pulled it over his head.
Lance opened his eyes to see a large pastel-blue sweater being offered to him. He turned to Herbert, ready to lash out at him again, but upon the sight of the shirtless blond with his back turned to him, his anger quickly turned to shock.
Herbert's fair skin was covered in nasty-looking bruises and scars, some of which seemed recent. He refused to turn around, no doubt ashamed of the state of his body, but Lance could tell he felt very uncomfortable.
"Oh my God…" Lance gasped, barely believing his eyes. "Who did this to you?"
"Nobody." Herbert's voice faltered. "I… fell."
"Herbert." He insisted, moving to sit on the spot right in front of him. "Herbert, look at me."
The blond slowly raised his head to look into Lance's eyes, the brunet's expression one of genuine concern. He was almost touched.
"Who did this to you?" Lance asked again, this time slower.
He could see tears welling up in Herbert's eyes as his bottom lip trembled. He quickly dried his eyes with his fist, taking another deep breath to steady his nerves before speaking.
"My father." He whimpered, looking down at his hands in shame.
Lance felt like something broke down inside of him as soon as he heard those words come out of Herbert's mouth. It took him a moment to process that information as he examined the blond's blemished torso, his mouth hanging open in disbelief all throughout.
"What?!" he exhaled, taking another moment to gather his thoughts. "How long has this been going on?"
"As long as I can remember." Herbert sniffled, refusing to meet the brunet's gaze.
"I can't believe this… Does your mother know?"
Herbert looked up at Lance just as tears began to run down his cheeks. Lance's heart sunk; he hoped he hadn't touched a sensitive subject.
"My mother passed away giving birth to me." He declared sorrowfully, rubbing his nose with the back of his hand.
"I'm so sorry." Lance replied, feeling genuinely bad for the blond.
"It's OK. That's part of the reason this happens. My father still blames me for her death." He looked down and started rubbing his hands together again, something which Lance now realized was a nervous tic. "It gets worse when he drinks."
Herbert looked up at the brunet, whose expression was now a mix of shock and worry. He looked back down embarrassedly as he felt his cheeks burn up.
"Don't worry, I don't expect you to understand…"
"Actually… I do."
Now it was Herbert's turn to be shocked. His eyes widened as he looked back up at Lance, who was smiling despite the clear sadness in his eyes. His coffee-brown irises looked down at his lap as he sighed through his nose.
"My dad used to get really drunk and… beat up my mom." He started, clearly uncomfortable about talking about that subject. "He would always apologize the next day, blaming it on his 'European temper'. He never laid a hand on me, but sometimes I would wonder if he ever wanted to."
He ran a hand over his face as he took a deep breath. Herbert could tell it wasn't easy for him to be talking about that matter.
"I was eleven when my mom finally figured that she had had enough and went to the police. He was in jail for a year, during which my mom filed for a divorce. It had become official by the time he was released, so he decided to move back to France. Needless to say that neither one of us misses him."
"Do you still see him?" Herbert asked carefully.
"Sometimes. I'm required to see him at least once a year. He usually has me fly over to spend some time with him during the summer break, but he mostly just does that to look good for his agent de libération conditionnelle. I mean, his parole officer."
Herbert couldn't help but giggle at Lance's little faux pas. He didn't know about that side of him. The fact that he knew how to speak French was charming, but speaking it so fluently that he forgot how to say some words in English was adorable.
Lance laughed at himself for a bit, and Herbert could see a very faint blush spreading across his tanned cheeks. They fell silent for a moment, both smiling feebly at each other.
"How do you do it, Herbert?" Lance broke the silence after a few seconds.
"How do you manage to smile, and laugh, and be so upbeat every day, when you have no reasons to be happy?"
"I have plenty of reasons to be happy." He replied with a shrug. "Soon I'll graduate and go off to college, starting a brand-new chapter of my life in which I will be able to completely reinvent myself. That on its own is enough to give me strength to make it through the day."
"Yeah, but doesn't it bum you out that everyday you have to go home to someone who treats you so badly?"
Herbert lowered his gaze again, seemingly taking in that question. Lance gulped, worried that he might've taken it too far.
"I'm not gonna lie… it's not easy." The blond sighed, his gaze fixed on his lap. "But I tend to focus on the bright side. There're so many great things in life to be happy about. Plus I believe that I was put on this Earth for a reason." He looked back up at the brunet, showing him his most hopeful smile. "So, if I'm here, I might as well make the best of it."
Lance stared perplexedly at that brave and optimistic creature before him. He still couldn't believe Herbert was able to remain so joyful despite how horrible his life was. It made him question why he was always so unhappy with his own life. The blond had it so much worse than him, so what was his excuse?
He kept looking into Herbert's sapphire irises, gleaming with fresh tears and hope. He hadn't noticed before, but now he could see that, not only was he able to stay positive, he also managed to look his best. His blond curls, which framed his face in the most perfect way, gave him an almost angelic appearance. His pale skin was flawless, the small mole under his right eye – or should he call that a beauty mark? – making him look somewhat aristocratic. His cheeks were slightly flushed, a shade of pink only rivaled by the one of his lips. A pair of rosy, plump lips that suddenly seemed… so inviting.
Lance had just begun to feel his body being pulled towards the blond by some strange force that he couldn't understand when he heard what sounded like a key being inserted into the door's keyhole from the outside of the locker room. The two teenager's heads perked up and turned to the door just in time to see it be unlocked and opened by the janitor, who frowned upon the sight of the two boys, especially the one nude from the waist up. Herbert instinctively covered his chest and blushed profusely.
"What the hell is going on in here?" the janitor grumbled.
"Nothing!" Herbert and Lance immediately exclaimed in unison.
"There better not be. Now scat, I need to clean up the mess you kids made. And next time read the sign!" he barked, slapping a hand over the sign by the door before entering the locker room, dragging a mop and a bucket behind him.
Herbert quickly put his sweater back on as he and Lance stood up to leave. They rushed out the door but came to a halt right as they reached the hallway. They looked at each other, suddenly feeling a wave of awkwardness wash over them.
"So, I guess I'll… see you around?" said Lance as he scratched the back of his head.
"Yeah… sure." Herbert replied, his face still beat-red.
They waved goodbye at each other as they walked down the hallway in opposite directions. Lance nearly ran to his locker, fumbling with the combination lock as his fingers trembled in anticipation. As soon as he managed to unlock it, he swung open the door and dug through his belongings, sighing contently as when he finally got a hold of his beloved pack of cigarettes.
He closed the locker door and turned around, intending to go outside for a well-deserved smoke, when his gaze fell upon Herbert at the far end of the hallway, giggling happily with a group of girls he seemed to know. His smile disappeared as he remembered the things Herbert had told him, and how much sense they made all of a sudden. Why was he doing that to himself? Why did he even begin in the first place? If Herbert, who had it so much worse, managed to find the strength and the courage to make it through the day with a smile on his face, why couldn't he?
Suddenly, he didn't feel the need to act self-destructive.
Suddenly, he didn't feel the need to smoke anymore.