I was right.
Not that I'm surprised at all, because I'm not, but I was right. The PE corridor isn't a place I could possibly enter, despite the extenuating circumstances. There are still people in the corridor, even though classes haven't started yet, and most people aren't supposed to be here, and I'm standing just on the boundary between normality and hell.
Alistair is waiting at the first door down, silently laughing at me and simultaneously trying to keep a straight face while talking to the 7 foot PE teacher that probably doesn't even play sport.
I catch words that sound like 'beginner' and 'amateur' and 'tries hard', and inwardly, I beat the shit out of myself for agreeing to this idea. It is both embarrassing and probably not even going to work, which means the embarrassment is for no reason, and it is also stupid (like Alistair).
One boy leans against the wall next to me, and he's sweating a bit, beads forming on his neck and cheekbones. Somehow, he is wearing shorts and a loose t-shirt in this weather, and somehow, he looks indescribably happy.
"Hey," he says, looking me up and down like he's never seen someone like me before - an entirely different species.
"Don't talk to me," I say, because that is usually particularly rude enough to be effective.
A flicker of shock shadows over his broad features, and then he laughs. "You're the really smart one, right?"
"Alistair said you were really modest too. You want to play basketball, right? Alistair said you were pretty good already."
I close my eyes slowly and deliberately. A river washes over my head and sinks into my ears, blocking out the tyrant screams of children, and older children, as they let out the weekend's homework stress with noise and punches to their best friend's stomachs. I let the lights above me flicker like broken bulbs, and the corridor is now a blur - a hole gauged in the side of the building.
"Hey? Are you okay?"
I open my eyes even slower. "Please, please, please don't talk to me."
The boy doesn't understand. I can tell, because one side of his dumb mouth tilts downwards in what I think, at first, is a grimace, but is actually a lopsided smirk. Even worse. He has annoyingly shiny eyes and an even shinier forehead, and his hair is soft and messy, kind of curly, but more wavy. He looks about twelve, with the height of an adult.
"See you at practice," he says, and before I can hiss at him that I won't actually be playing, he gives me a hard slap on the back and disappears. I almost cough up breakfast, and stumble forward a step. He reminds me - whoever he is - of Alistair.
Speaking of, Alistair is now walking towards me, with a slip of white paper flying from his fist.
"You're getting out of three lessons, Hira!" he grins, half laughing at the same time. "I had to tell a few small lies, though. Sorry." The last sentence is more like an afterthought, even though it is incredibly important.
"Like I'm good at basketball?"
"You know the name of the sport? Well done-"
"Shut up," I grasp the side of his shirt. "Tell me I won't have to play." I pull him close to me, and I was right about something else too. He isn't quite as tall as me.
"Hopefully not, Hira. Don't worry."
"I'm not worrying."
Alistair whips another fast grin onto his gold face. "And you're already mastering a basketballer's violent side, aren't you? That was great practice." He slaps me on the back just like his friend did, but this time I make sure not to stumble forward and look weak.
"Don't touch me, Alistair."
He just shoves a pile of something into my hand, and then gives me a slap on the cheek that is probably supposed to look affectionate to any onlooker, but is just unbelievably painful. "You know what these are?"
I pull the first thing off the top, and grimace darkly. It is navy blue, deep like the ocean, but is surrounded by the heavy stench of sweat and sun. A darker thing underneath, shorts (I haven't worn shorts since I was eight), and a pair of unbelievably grubby trainers that smell worse than the whole corridor put together.
"I will wear my own trainers."
"Good idea. Those things could probably give you a disease," Alistair tosses the shoes into the corridor, and I vaguely wonder whether or not I should pick them up and chastise him for it. But I don't want to touch the shoes one bit.
"I will not wear shorts," I state decisively, squaring my shoulders and darkening my eyes, keeping them pinned against Alistair's face so he knows exactly what I'm thinking. "Do you understand? I will not wear shorts."
"Just wear something underneath, we all do, if it is too cold." Alistair pulls my arm, and drags me away from the corridor as we were blocking the entire doorway.
I force us to stop walking. "No. I will not wear shorts."
"Why are you so difficult?" Alistair snaps, pulling the shorts out of the pile. "Fine, fine. Whatever. Get your school trousers dirty and have nothing to change into."
"Fine!" I reply, as quickly as I can without talking over him. I like hearing his voice too much for that. "But I never get my clothes dirty." Never. Ever.
"You will, when we get on the field. It's covered in dirt."
I snatch back the shorts. "I need something to wear underneath."
Alistair gives a flat smile. "Finally, you're talking sense. You can borrow something off me."
"Thank you," I say, because even though I'm so annoyed at Alistair for being right and for me giving in, I won't stoop to his level and forget my manners. That would be stupid.
I fold up the shorts neatly and place them at the top of the pile. I should put them in my locker, or else I will be walking around all day stinking of sweat - which is exactly what I don't want to be doing, because 'sporty idiot' isn't really the title I was going for.
Everyone is only just starting to file into the school doors now, a frenzied ocean of indigo blazers and multi-coloured hair bobbing up and down like confused waves, some tall, some small, some bigger than others and some very slight. I like the idea of uniforms - it's a connection that brings a multitude together, and although I dislike the idea of being associated with others of my age and half my brain, it still makes me feel - almost - happy. Content, to be part of a large number and not one on my own.
"What're you thinking?"
"I'm hungry," I lie.
I exhale, and begin walking in the opposite direction to Alistair.
"I'll see you at the beginning of lunch, okay? Meet me at the cafeteria?"
The corridors are all pale, mint blue, with spatterings of white for lockers and the occasional sheet of dark glass - usually glistening pale, except for the fact it is almost like night outside. Although the glass is partly opaque, I can almost feel the rain knifing the ground, coming down in sheets of silk and sheets of iron. The sound reverberates across the roof, the kind of noise you hear from the inside of a tent late at night - cosy, and calm, but with the slight fear of a leak.
No-one is walking through the corridors, because I made sure to leave History five minutes early so I would avoid the rush of bodies.
Apparently, the basketball team (and me) will be getting onto a coach an driving to another high school further into the city - apparently just as big and twice as prestigious. Alistair seemed pretty excited, but I'm sure I couldn't be closer to tears. Sport. People. City. Bad weather. Nightmare.
Most of my top set history class nearly had a heart attack when I stated (as quietly as possible, to avoid unwanted attention) , that I would need to be excused so I could join a sporting event outside school. To be honest, I wasn't sure Mr Isaacs was going to make it.
I realy hope Alistair will be waiting for me.
If he is even he slightest second late, absolutely anything could go wrong. Sweaty guy (or other sweaty guys) might talk to me, or possibly give me a concussion. The PE Teacher might address me. I might have to sit on the coach by myself (which, I guess, would be pretty good, until we arrived), where I would then be standing in the rain by myself and possibly be forced to play basketball.
I shiver inwardly.
Nothing could be worse. Nothing.
Alistair is both popular and sporty, but not too sweaty and annoying, compared to some of the other dorks milling around. I need him to stay beside me, or else I'm not quite sure how else I'm going to survive. I narrow my eyes and feel a sneer brush over my face. Jokes on him, if he doesn't turn up soon. He does want me to be here, after all. I'm saving him.
I tighten the strap of my rucksack absently, slightly confused because, for once, my bad isn't just filled with textbooks, spare water bottles and three perfect copies of the same pencil case: there's a whole sports kit inside, which is something I haven't carried around school for at least three years. Sport, generally, is something that hasn't even crossed my mind since the muddy lessons when I was eleven and we were force to run around in mucky shorts and odd socks. I vaguely wonder if I've forgotten how to run too, because unlike other people, I never run up the stairs or around the house or even jog if I'm five minutes late for school. Not ever.
Other boys around my age have started milling around the corridor - about ten of them - lugging dark bags over their shoulders. One has a basketball slung underneath his arm, and another is wearing full school uniform and unsightly trainers, even though shoes in any colour other than black are strictly prohibited. He looks like the sort of boy I'd rather sew my mouth closed for instead of talk to.
I heave a deep breathe. Hurry up, Alistair. Please.
"Hey? You're the guy who wants to learn basketball, right?"
For the first time in my life, I consider breaking down in tears. I face the person talking to me, and decide to meet his gaze straight on and show him just how little I care for the likes of sportiness. "I'm considering learning more," I say tightly. "But I'm not playing."
"Sure," he smiles, and it isn't quite as annoying as I thought it would be. "But we're short of people on the team anyway, so I just want to thank you. It can really motivate the team when we get a new player."
My jaw goes slack. "No. I think you're misunderstanding. I'm only considering learning the sport."
"Okay, cool," he smiles again. "I'm Raf - Team Captain."
I nod, and give a ghost of a smile - I neither want to be rude to the Captain of the basketball team, nor give him a wrong idea of my nonexistent enthusiasm.
Before he can leave, I say, "Raf?"
"Promise me you will not make me play today."
Raf raises an eyebrow, and smiles innocently. "Don't worry, Hira. We won't make you do anything that isn't necessary." His unbelievably cool eyes don't even flicker with emotion, and the smooth flow of his words never pause to falter or fault. Very dark brown hair shades almost the entirety of his right eye, and his curved face is tan from playing outside, nose dusted with pale freckles. "Alistair will be here soon. I don't think you'll have to sit on the bus alone."
I don't know why, but a pale blush spreads over my cheeks, and I beg to God it isn't noticeable. Why does he think I would sit by myself? Is it so obvious I have so few friends? Did I say something- is he pissed off because I don't want to play-?
Before Raf leaves, he twists to look over his shoulder at me. "The best advice in basketball is this. Don't overthink it. You'll only confuse yourself."
I open my mouth to give a painfully sincere Thank you, Captain! , when Raf is instead replied by a monotone. "Yeah, yeah. We all know you're very wise." Alistair has a mischievous grin pulling at the corner of his lips, and his silvery gold hair is matted from doing heaven knows what. He turns to me. "So you're already getting to know the team, Hira? That's good. You know, I think you're actually a pretty reasonable guy-"
I swat him across the head. "You should show respect for your team captain."
Alistair explodes into laughter, and I watch as Raf smothers one of his own chuckles. "Thank you, Hira. You should try telling all these idiots that." He moves away, now, and I'm not surprised at how he doesn't look back at either of us once - just sort of moves on, like a rolling tide, and forgets. Or perhaps not forgets: he's too clever to forget.
"You're such a suck-up, Hira."
I sigh. "I'm going to start making a tally, Alistair. Twenty strikes and I'm telling your secret to Raf first. Fifty, and I'm telling the person himself."
"You wouldn't. Because if you do, Hira, I will make sure you play basketball every day until your high school days end."
"You wouldn't do that because if you did, I'd get so good I'd beat you at basketball and then you'd feel so worthless you'd quit and be good at nothing."
"You'd still have to play basketball."
"And they'd still know."
Alistair looks at me side-long. "We both have too much to lose, so I'll stop at nineteen strikes."
I roll my eyes. "You have way more to lose."