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20. Resolve
The fist coming at his face almost clipped him, but Tyler hinged backwards and dodged it. And then the shooting pain from his fractured ribs brought him to the floor. A combat boot stepped down on him, and as he shielded himself with his hands, the boot stopped mere centimeters from his face.

"Good. That was good," Hunter said, helping Tyler carefully off the floor.

"At a slight disadvantage at the moment."

"Yeah, but if anyone tries to fuck with you again, they won't care. Gotta be ready for anything."

Tyler brushed himself off. "Let's go again."

"Easy dude, this isn't a game. Your HP isn't going to magically restore and there's no turbo mode. Next time it happens, it's just gonna be you and them."

Tyler swung at him and Hunter deftly ducked it. Demonstrating what Hunter had taught him yesterday, Tyler quickly pivoted his body, breathing through the pain, and round-house kicked to Hunter's face. He held his foot there for a moment, then put it down.

"Grasshopper learns quick."

"That would've taken you down SO fast." Tyler took off his t-shirt and wiped the sweat off his brow with it. Hunter did the same, then threw his shirt at Tyler's face. Distracted, Tyler never saw Hunter coming. One moment he's taking Hunter's shirt off his face, the next he's tackled to the couch, Hunter straddling him.

"Dude, you gotta be ready for anything." Hunter said, sweat dripping off of his nose and onto Tyler's bare chest. Tyler lay panting for air, breathing through the pain. Charlie came in from the kitchen and paused at the sight of his sweaty, shirtless roommates on top of each other on the couch. He wanted to comment on this tableau's striking resemblance to a Corbin Fisher video, but he opted for the Mrs. Garrett response.

"Hunter get off of him! His ribs aren't healed yet!"

"Uh oh," Hunter smirked at Tyler, "Mom's mad." A pillow thrown to his head was Hunter's response from Charlie. Hunter chuckled it off, wiped the sweat off his brow, and helped Tyler off the couch.

"Come on dude," Hunter said as he and Tyler brushed past Charlie. "Let's hit the showers."

"What?!" Charlie's voice cracked like a hormonal freshman in high school.

"Don't worry Charlie, I'll let him go first. God, why are you so jumpy?"

*

Edward Curtis greeted Charlie and Tyler as they arrived at Haven.

"Steve said his boys were coming to volunteer! I had to meet you and thank you personally. So many people are quick to criticize yet so few actually offer to help. Volunteering can make the hugest impact on the lives of our youth."

"How do you know Steve?" Charlie asked politely.

"Well, we're... from the neighborhood mostly. Let me show you around the facility." The front reception area had the dull beige walls and florescent light hum of a clinic. As they walked through the main office, Charlie noticed the attempt at organization surrounded by disarray. "Our resources are a bit... stretched thin. The downside of being underfunded."

They passed through a cramped room that doubled as a dining hall and a make-shift study hall. Shelves of tattered books lined the walls and long tables that doubled as desks filled the center of the room. Through an open doorway, Tyler could see a larger room filled to the ceiling with beds. If he hadn't stumbled onto his current situation, he could've ended up here. Or a lot worse.

"Some of the youth help around the shelter to stay out of trouble during the day. The majority of them come closer to dinnertime and we like to keep them here for the rest of the night. They're free to come and go as they please, but if they're not signed in by curfew, they're on the streets unfortunately." They arrived at a table where one of the youth was studying with a tutor.

"Travell, this is Tyler, one of our new volunteers. Would you show him to the kitchen? There's still a lot to do and the dinner crowd's gonna be here soon." Tyler looked a little nervous to go, but Charlie gave him a reassuring nod. Travell and Tyler walked to the kitchen as the tutor turned to greet Edward and Charlie.

"Charlie, Steve tells me you're a teacher and we can definitely use more tutors. This is Josh, our education coordinator."

"Hi," said Josh, smiling at seeing Charlie again.

"Hi," said Charlie, a little breathlessly. There it was again: the same spark he felt that random night he met Josh at Roscoe's. When Josh's bitchy boyfriend dragged him away. The night Josh came back to look for Charlie. The spark... was still there.

"I'll leave you two to get acquainted, go over the programming." Edward said, heading back towards the office. "Thanks again for coming, Charlie, I know you'll make the biggest difference in these kids lives." There was a moment of awkward silence.

"So," said Charlie. "Most of the kids trying to finish up their GED's?"

"You never called," said Josh, unable to hide his disappointment.

"Yeah, I um... life got a little busy. Tyler got attacked... "

"Oh. Is Tyler... is he your boyfriend?"

"What? No. And anyway, what does it matter? Don't you have one?"

Josh was quiet for a moment. "I didn't mean it quite... I was just curious, is all. So what do you teach?"

"English. And you?"

"History. At Whitney Young."

"That's great. Well, I guess it's a good way to test out my curriculum for the school year. How many... ?" Some of the youth began to arrive, their loud shouts and laughs announcing their presence before they even arrived at the dining hall.

"Wanna get out of here? It's gonna get pretty crazy with the kids arriving. We can grab a cup of coffee and go over schedules and curriculum."

Charlie wasn't sure whether to be excited or wary, so he just said, "Sure."

*

Tyler's phone vibrated with a text from Hunter: "Gotta be ready for anything."

"I wouldn't pull that phone out in front of the other kids," warned Travell. "I mean, most of us, we're just trying to get by, but we don't hurt nobody. A few of ‘em though... let's just say I sleep holding my bag every night."

The hungry youth were already lining up with trays in hand as Tyler, Travell, and the kitchen manager D'orothea manned the line. As he scooped instant mashed potatoes onto their trays, Tyler really hoped that this was the start of him making a difference. It was easy to be mad, it was easy to be scared, but people are people and you gotta help them out. As they all passed by, Tyler knew that they each had a story, some that would probably stop his heart. He had it rough, sure, but there was no way it even compared to what some of these kids must've gone through. Maybe if they could see that people cared about them, it would affect how they saw the world. You never know what will make a difference. He made a point to look every single one of them in the eye and smile as he gave them their food. And as the line neared its end, he was happy knowing that maybe somehow he had been a positive part of someone's day. He was going to love volunteering here. The last person in line got extra mashed potatoes.

"Thank you," she said timidly, looking down.

"You're welcome," smiled Tyler, maintaining eye contact. The timid trans girl with braids looked up and smiled back. And then they both recognized each other immediately: she was one of the people who attacked Tyler that night.

###

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Very good stories, a lot of characters to keep track of, bear in mind that some readers have a "senior moment" now and again and may need a little memory aid LOL.
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thanks so much for reading jim! there are definitely a lot of characters to keep track of and a lot of the fun is keeping my readers on their toes ;-) i'll try to help the "connect" process along in the future. who are you liking so far?
Yikes. Simple plot twist, or no good deed goes unpunished?

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24. Another Pint

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23. No Big

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22. Waiting

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21. Rage and Love

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20. Here Again

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