Stewart thought life was one big ball of foreshadowing and irony, and that God was a bully. He wasn't the smartest nor the most handsome guy in town, much less the world. His eyes were average brown, he didn't have a muscular or toned frame, and his hair was a curly mess he gave up on. He had a slouch to his stance due to lack of confidence and anxiety. Even when he tried his best, the slouch was always there.
He worked in his town's local pet store and oversaw the aquatics section. That is where he stood when an angry mother and an upset child came to him with a one-year-old betta. Unlike the previous customer, however, this young betta was alive.
"I cannot give you your money back, Ma'am."
"I purchased a baby betta for my daughter expecting it to grow a long tail like the others, not a female. I want my money back."
"I apologize Ma'am, but this is a male betta," he reasoned for what felt like the hundredth time. He was amazed his voice was still gentle when his eyes were throwing daggers. "It's a plakat," he continued, "They do not grow long tails, and are actually often confused for females."
"Why breed such an ugly fish? I want to speak to your manager."
Stewart wanted the ground to swallow him or the ceiling to fall on the woman–whichever came first and got him out of the situation. Just in time, his manager, Jenny, appeared from behind one of the aisles. Stewart believed the woman wearing the Tails Pet Store uniform couldn't have missed a syllable from how loud the angry mother was.
"I'll take it from here Stewart, please take the betta to the aquatics."
Thankful, the teen did as he was told and left the purple-haired woman to deal with the suburban mom, and now crying daughter.
With the fish in hand, he walked to the back of the store where the aquarium was.
An ugly fish, he thought as he stared at the red and blue plakat. He felt so much like it. And just like that, he felt the irony hit him hard. An average plakat, the least-wanted type of betta because of its boring and typical appearance.
He grabbed a net, scooping the betta out of the bowl and into the tank where they had the water plants for sale. After its first panic, the betta swam about and returned to the new face. It's glassy eyes were staring at the teen, the one who felt like the most average looking: Stewart Plakat.
Don't worry little guy, I think you're cool. He winked at the fish and when he heard a cough beside him his ears turned red.
He jolted up from his crouch and looked at the newcomers, Dean Montaña and Kai Costa. He sighed with relief at the sight of his two friends. A smile tugged at his lips, but the red of his cheeks remained. In fact, he could feel the color deepening because of the crush that stood before him.
"Hey, Plakat." Dean chuckled softly, but to Stewart, it sounded like the ground was shaking, and suddenly he was trying to recall what to do during earthquakes.
The thoughts were dispelled when Kai crouched down in front of the tank, "Aww, it's so young."
Dean joined their friend and stared at the tank, and so Stewart forced himself to do the same. "What is this, like the third that's been returned this week?"
The curly-haired male nodded, "Yeah, but at least he's alive." He inspected the fish, "He also doesn't have fin rot, and seems pretty lively."
Even after being friends since pre-school, Stewart couldn't believe the two-month crush he had developed for Dean was making him nervous. Perhaps it was because of how his mom had been mentioning lately how much the other teen had grown. Or perhaps it was how defined his jaw looked now, or the way his smokey eyes seemed to fog everything around them these days. Either way, Dean went from skinny pale skater dude to broad-shouldered, sun-kissed, nicely built swimmer.
Kai interrupted his thoughts once again, "Can I have him?"
Stewart arched a brow at his friend, "Didn't you kill your last freshwater fish?"
Kai wasn't too far from Dean in looks, his hair wasn't as dark but still brown to match his eyes. He had the swimmer shoulders from being a surfer.
The teen turned to Stewart with his lower lip puckered, "He was my first, you can't judge me like that."
This made the working teen laugh, "Poor Black Beard landed in the wrong hands."
"Jokes on you, I have another freshwater fish at home."
"What did you name this one, Kraken?"
The teen blinked, "Yeah, how'd you guess?" Stewart and Dean laughed.
Soon enough Stewart was helping them with what they came for, which was a new air pump tubing for Kai's tank. Kai and Dean continued to speak to Stewart, but as the three teens walked to the front of the store, the curly-haired boy found himself daydreaming more about his crush standing not too far from him.
He had made peace with the fact he and Dean would never be an item, but just as much as he accepted, the wishful thinking would never stop. There was a two-thousand-kilometer line between reality and imagination, and to remind himself of that Stewart recalled that he and Dean hadn't been hanging out as much as they used to.
Back in their skinny jeans and pale skin skater days, they were hard to split, but once sophomore year of high school came in, they had decreased their bonding time. To say swimming was Stewart's most hated sport was an understatement. If he could be jealous of it, he would be.
Once again, Kai's voice hooked Stewart and reeled him out of his ocean of thoughts. He hadn't even noticed he had checked the two boys out already. He handed Kai his receipt, confused. "Sorry, what did you say?"
"You okay?" Dean questioned, smoke-filled eyes swimming with worry.
Stewart smiled at the two, "Yeah, autopilot, sorry." He turned to Kai, "What were you saying, though?"
"La Sirena, it's back for the last few weeks of summer, you going?"
Stewart fought the urge of catapulting down into memory lane once more. But even as he willed himself, his heart somersaulted headfirst, his mind bringing back a photo of him and Dean sharing cotton candy.
"I don't know yet, what are you guys planning?" He asked both of them, but his intentions were aimed for one.
"Swim practice starts tomorrow. Coach is going to be drilling us since we all went on vacation. I can't go." Stewart scolded his heart, for he had warned it, so instead of wincing, he burned the image he had recreated moments ago.
"Dude, you're going to die of chlorine poisoning."
"And you're gonna get your cells shriveled from all the saltwater."
Kai smirked, "Sure." He turned to Stewart, "Next Year I guess, even though we're missing the best traveling fair that comes to town?"
Stewart smiled, "You'll live."
He waved goodbye to his friends and the slow day at work continued. Stewart was thankful that the only eventful customer was the mother with the betta. When his shift came to an end, he picked up his belongings and exited the store. Slipping his earbuds in, he walked over to his bike and did what he did best: swim in his thoughts as he daydreamed about his Adonis of a friend.