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  1. TheZot

    Chapter 16

    Nah, it’s been done and posted since 2006. I think at some point in one of the GA site makeovers the last few chapters went missing here and I didn’t notice. The ending certainly isn’t to everyone’s liking, but it ended the way I wanted it to, and the way that worked out for the characters. Unfortunately not every conclusion is completely happy.
  2. TheZot

    Chapter 16

    So here I was, sitting in Mrs. Greene's kitchen, drinking tea and feeling uncomfortable. She'd sent a text message to me in the middle of second period asking if I'd come over today, so I had. It'd been a while since I'd been there -- I hadn't really felt comfortable at the house since I'd started dating Dan -- but I didn't figure this was a catch-up session. "I'm worried about him, Justin," she said. There was only one ÒhimÓ I figured she could be talking about. "Yeah, I am, too." I was. Damn me if I didn't actually care for Rob, despite how we started out, all the crap we put each other through, and his tendencies towards multiple personalities. He was a friend, albeit a weird one, and I was finding that having friends meant being in distress when they weren't doing well. Rob was definitely not doing well. That was clear from just seeing him around school. He looked like hell the few times I'd seen him, all rumpled and looking like a zombie. We were only a few days away from exams, but I wasn't sure he was actually going to make it. "I don't think it's drugs, but he won't tell me what's going on." I had a pretty good idea exactly what was going on, but I was hoping I was wrong. "This all started back in April?" "The whole school year has been one long series of mood swings, but this latest one started then, yes. Why, do you know something that might have happened?" She looked at me, and I winced. From the first time I met Mrs. Greene I liked her, but I've never, ever been able to lie to her, or slip anything past her. She was the sharpest person I've ever met, and I sometimes wondered what she was doing living here in the back woods of Georgia with a magna cum laude law degree from NYU. "Okay," I began, really hesitantly. "You know how Rob's been crushing on me this year, right?" She looked at me with surprise. "Ah, crap." I just let my head drop to the kitchen table with a thump. She didn't know. There was no way I was getting out of this one. "From the beginning, Justin," she said, her voice harsh. "What's been going on?" What could I do? I told her everything, from my first interaction with Rob that first day through to our collaboration on the wall scrolls. She listened quietly, not saying a word through the whole thing. "That gets us to April," I finished. "And then..." I really didn't want to go on. "Then what, Justin? What did you do?" That stung. I didn't do anything, dammit. Getting mad wouldn't get me anywhere, not with her. I couldn't keep the annoyance out of my voice, though. "Dan Baker asked me out." She raised an eyebrow at me. "And Rob knew?" "Knew?" I snorted. "I came over and gave him an out if he wanted it. Told him if he wanted to ask then it was time or he was out of luck. He passed." "Oh." "I know. What was I supposed to do? Someone I kinda liked was asking me out and comfortable enough with it to just be normal about it. Someone vaguely unsettling and desperately uncomfortable with himself wasn't going to ask. What would you do? "I mean, I knew it was going to hurt Rob. I didn't like that, but he's a big boy and he can make his own decisions. I'm living my life, not his. Dammit, he couldn't even work up the guts to ask me," I said, slamming my hand on the table. "He didn't have any right to expect me to wait for him. Hell, I don't even know if I like him or not." She smiled at me and gently patted my hand. "You do like him, Justin. You wouldn't feel guilty about it if you didn't." "Do I? I don't know. I thought that's why people date." If I sounded frustrated it was because I was. "People date to know each other better, to find out if they can be a couple. That's different. It's important, but different. For all his faults, you like Rob as a friend." "Yeah, but does he like me? He's obsessed over me, crushed on me, I'm sure he's beat off thinking of me, but does he like me? Okay, you're right, he's my friend. But am I his? Can I be his? Hell, do I want to be his?" I slumped down in my chair, tired from having to deal with it. I think I may have said something I shouldn't have, too, but Mrs. Greene wanted the truth, and I couldn't not say things around her. "Some times," she said sagely, "it doesn't matter. Friendship is a form of love. You don't always have a choice." Feh. "Love hurts." "It does. Sometimes that's how you know." "Great. One more thing I don't know how to deal with. Life was easier living under a rock." I let out a frustrated breath. "So, what do I do now?" "Now," she said, "you go talk to Rob." * * * Friends. Dammit. Mrs. Greene was right, and that obligated me whether I liked it or not. A friend of mine was hurting, and while I was the last person who should be trying to make it better, I was probably the only one who could. That left me standing at the bottom of the stairs, looking up. Yeah, it was the middle of the afternoon, and the lights were on, but it still seemed... dark. And foreboding. The dull thumps echoing out from the walls wasn't helping either. I didn't know what sort of music Rob was playing, but it had an awful lot of bass, and didn't sound anywhere near happy. Still, I had something to do, so I walked up the stairs and down the hall. The music got louder as I got closer to Rob's room. I could hear a good mix of horns in with the thumping bass. Couldn't tell what he was listening to, but it wasn't happy music, that's for sure. So. I took a sip of water, a deep breath, and knocked on Rob's bedroom door. "G'way." I frowned. Not good. I knocked again. "Just... leave me alone, Mama." "Rob? It's not your mother. It's Justin." There was silence. Well, too bad. I tried the door, and it was unlocked, so I went in. It was late afternoon, but the room was dark and somber, the shades were drawn, and the stereo was rumbling some classical piece, a really good ÒWrath of GodÓ symphony. I'm not sure what it was, but it had lots of bass horn and kettle drums. Music for the dumped. I hoped he hadn't been playing this stuff since I'd started dating Dan -- that'd make anyone miserable. Heck, in the few seconds I heard it, the stuff was making me miserable. From what I could see in the darkness, Rob's room was an absolute mess. The place was reasonably big, with a closet and desk on the left wall, a window directly across from the door, and a big bed to the right, with a nightstand next to it. It looked like a hurricane had hit. There were clothes strewn all over, the desk was littered with oversized books, and on top of everything were scattered pages from a sketchbook, covering the debris like paper snow. Rob was on the bed, wrapped up in a blanket. The bed was covered in sketchbooks and pencils, a small lamp on the nightstand throwing a dim pool of light onto the bed. It didn't so much illuminate as define the deep shadows. Rob looked awful. His hair was a mess, his eyes were red with dark circles under them, he had those nasty looking pillow crease lines along the side of his face, and his clothes looked like he hadn't changed in a couple of days. From the smell, he probably hadn't showered for a while either. I didn't know what the pictures he'd drawn looked like -- I figured I really, really didn't want to know. "Well, you look like hell," I said. While this was a time for subtlety, I wasn't a person for subtlety. I figured this was a play to your strengths moment. I hoped. Rob, for his part, just shot me an evil look. "What are you doing here?" "I just came by..." Rob didn't give me a chance to finish. "Came by to rub it in? Is that it? Lord it over me?" "What?" Great. Two sentences in and I'd already lost any shred of control over the conversation. "You know, you bastard. You know exactly what I'm talking about. You happy, Justin? Got your own little rubber ducky? Fucking swim toy?" "Rob..." "What, wasn't I good enough for you? How could you, Justin. How could you do that to me? Go out with someone else? What about me, damn you!" He'd jumped off the bed and was shaking his fist at me. I was tempted to just haul off and belt him, but that wouldn't solve anything, so I did the next best thing -- I dumped the glass of water I was holding over top of his head. "What the fuck was that for?" he sputtered. The water was running down his face. "It was either that or lay you out," I observed. While it cooled him down a little he was still looking ready to go on strong. I grabbed him by the front of his shirt and threw him back onto his bed before he could say anything. "Now you listen to me," I said. I was getting pissed at him and I just let fly. The part of my brain that held the social skills Melanie and Trevor had taken so much time to beat into me protested, but it was a small part, and I ignored it. "I am not your goddamn property. I am not your boyfriend, I am not yours to control, and I do not have to listen to you. Right now you have no say over where I go, what I do, or who I date. "Someone asked me out, and that someone was not you. You had your chance. You had a lot of chances, and you chose not to. That was your choice. Fine. Don't like it? Too bad, don't yell at me. You made it. "Was I supposed to ask? Was that the plan? That way it was me making the moves? I get to sweep you off your feet, fulfill your fantasies, and spare you from having to admit you like guys? Was that it? 'Gee, shucks, he seduced me so it's not my fault I pop a boner over him? I'm not really gay!' Bah!" I started pacing around "I like you, you stupid shit. You're my friend whether you want to be or not. As a friend, I'm telling you -- get your act together. Why the hell would I go out with you? I mean, jesus, Rob, you haven't even told your mother yet. Not that it matters." He looked at me with terror in his eyes. "You didn't tell her..." "Tell her? Rob, the first time I was over she asked point blank if you'd asked me out yet. Not if I'd asked you, if you'd asked me." "Oh, god..." His voice was quiet, then he curled up into a ball and started to cry. "Ahhh, dammit!" I looked around. I really, really wanted to break something then. A lot. Just my luck there wasn't anything but the walls, and I didn't relish the thought of slamming my fist into plaster covered lathing. Instead I grabbed Rob by the shirt, hauled him to his feet, and dragged him downstairs. Mrs. Greene was still sitting at the table in the kitchen. She'd been crying quietly, and I'm sure she'd heard at least part of our argument. Hell, the neighbors probably heard it. I threw Rob, still sobbing, into one of the chairs. "You," I barked. "Talk to your mom. Now." "Mrs. Greene," I said, turning to her. "It's been a pleasure, as always. Call me later if you want." And with that, I left. What else could I do? * * * Three days later there was no sign of Rob at school. That worried me a lot. We were getting into finals time, and nobody had heard from him -- not Coach Wilson, not Melanie, not any of his football cronies. That kind of left me at a loss, since I knew it was really my fault he wasn't there. I should've gone to his house to see how he was doing, but I was feeling way too guilty and couldn't bring myself to do that. Instead I tried the one teacher I knew that Rob had. "Um, Mr. B?" I'd poked my head into the art classroom, and I had gotten lucky -- the teacher I was looking for was there. Unfortunately I didn't remember what his name was, which would've made things a little difficult if I hadn't remembered that everyone called him "Mr. B". The room was pretty much the same as it was the last time I'd been here, way back in December. The cloth and stool stage setup I'd sat on was gone, but the rest of the mess was there. Easels all over, paints everywhere, and art stuff just scattered. It looked different from the last time I'd been here, but I wasn't sure anything had actually changed. "Justin! What brings you here?" "I was wondering if you'd seen Rob around anywhere," I asked. "It's been a few days since I've seen him, and with exams and all I was kind of worried, y'know?" Something flashed across Mr. B's face, though I wasn't sure what. "Oh," he said, "you didn't know? There's been a family emergency, and he had to leave. I've been told he won't be back before school's done for the year." I couldn't imagine what sort of family emergency could pull Rob away so close to the end of the school year that Melanie wouldn't have heard about. That had me more than a little worried. "Uh," I started, "is he OK? He's not going to fail out or anything, is he?" "No, there's no worry about that, Justin," Mr. B said. "The school's got policies in place for that sort of thing. His grades are more than good enough to warrant an exemption from finals. He'll be fine." I don't know why that made me feel better, but it did. Unfortunately, it also meant that if I wanted to know what was going on, I'd have to see if anyone was still at Rob's house. I wasn't looking forward to talking with his mom, but I knew I couldn't not. * * * After school, I drove straight over to Rob's house. Mrs. Greene was there, which surprised me. It was early on a weekday for her to be home, and when she answered the door she just looked... old. Tired and old, and very sad. "Justin," she said, sounding a little surprised. "What brings you here?" "I heard something had happened to Rob. I thought I'd come over and see if he was OK." She sighed. "Why don't you come in, Justin?" she said. She led me back to the kitchen. The table in the center was covered with books and papers, and there was a cordless phone sitting on top of the tallest stack. A framed picture of Rob was on the table too. There were fingerprints all over the glass. "Tea?" Mrs. Greene was at the refrigerator, pulling out a pitcher filled with lemon slices and brown liquid. "Yeah, thanks," I replied, then downed half the glass she handed me. In the back of my head, I realized I must be nervous -- it was sweetened tea, and I hate sweetened tea. I finished the glass off anyway. "Um... so where's Rob? Is he around?" Mrs. Greene gave me an odd, sad look. "No, he's not here," she said. "Oh," I said. "Where is he? He's OK?" She sat down before she said anything. "No, I don't think he's OK, Justin. I hope he will be, though." That didn't sound at all good. Actually, it sounded really bad. "Um... he's not hurt or anything, is he?" "Well, he's..." She stopped and smiled a little. "No, Justin, he's not hurt." "So that's it, then? He just... left?" Mrs. Greene sighed. "It's not quite that simple, Justin." "I dunno, maybe not." I shrugged. "He's not here, though." "No." "And he's not coming back?" "Not for a while. He just needs some time." "Oh." I sat and thought. "So where did he go?" "He went to visit some friends. He has a lot of issues he needs to work out, and I'm afraid he can't do that here." "Um... this wasn't my fault, was it?" Mrs. Greene laughed a little. "No, Justin, this wasn't your fault. If... when it works out, I'll have to thank you for bringing my son back." "But until then?" "Until then he needs some time and space, Justin. Be patient. He'll be back." * * * "Y'know," I told Trevor, "I think I really fucked up." "You too, huh?" We were sitting at a picnic table, enjoying the sun, eating our lunch, and trying to figure out what exactly had gone wrong this year. "Yeah," I said. "What happened to you?" "Steph," he said. "It... didn't work out. You?" I hesitated for a second. I wasn't sure I wanted to talk about this, and I didn't know what exactly to say. Still... Trevor knew. He'd not said a word since that night in Atlanta when I'd kissed Rob, but still, he knew, and I think maybe he'd understand, too. "Rob. He, um... he ran away." Trevor looked at me with shock. "From home?" "No, not exactly..." Trevor just looked at me for a moment, sizing me up. He must've been putting the pieces together. "He ran from you, didn't he?" I sighed. It had taken me nearly two days to figure out what Trevor managed in thirty seconds. I suck sometimes. "Yeah. I think so." "Any idea why?" That question hurt because I didn't know why, though I knew it was my fault somehow. I told Trevor everything, from the beginning to the last time I saw Rob, slumped at his kitchen table and crying in front of his mom. The telling hurt, too. I knew I'd done some things I shouldn't have. I told it all to Trevor anyway. "God," Trevor said when I finished. "I mean, I really hated the guy, but still... nobody deserves that, Justin." "I just... I don't understand," I wailed. "What did I do?" "What didn't you do? You played him, Justin. You grabbed him, and teased him, and strung him along, and fucked him over. " "I didn't mean to." "Doesn't matter," Trevor said, brushing off my denial. "You did. And I think... maybe you broke his heart too." That was like a dagger in the chest. I could feel my eyes watering, and I think a tear started down my face. "Aw, fuck." I'd known I'd hurt him. I didn't realize I'd been so... cruel. I really didn't like the feeling, knowing I could do something like that to someone. "Jesus, Justin, it's not your fault." I looked up. "Then why does it hurt so much?" Trevor looked me up and down. He had this sad little smile on his face too. "I think maybe you were in love with him, too." "What? No! Yes. I don't know!" I threw up my hands and started pacing. "Maybe. Maybe... I was with the person he could've been." Trevor sighed. "Yeah. He used to be OK, you know. Bobby, I mean. We were even friends, sort of, when we were kids, back before it all really mattered. We did cub scouts together. His daddy took us all camping too, sometimes." Trevor looked a little sad. "He drew me a picture of a squirrel once. I still have it." Hearing that made it all that much worse. "So what do I do?" "Do?" Trevor laughed, though I didn't think he was amused. "There's nothing you can do. It's all done, Justin. And if he's left..." Trevor shrugged. "Can't even make it up to him." "This is all my fault," I said. It was, I knew it. "Because I didn't know. I should've known." "Justin," he said, "I don't think you're responsible. It's not like you're any good understanding people. Bobby started it. It was a fight, and you fought to win. You just... didn't know. I don't think he did either." "That doesn't make me feel any better," I said. "Maybe not," Trevor replied. "Maybe it shouldn't. I don't know. I mean, yeah, you really fucked up. So did Bobby. That's life, I guess. At least he can come back. That's something. You didn't ruin his life. You could have, you know," he said. "That kiss made it really clear." I'd thought about that some. "You guys are my friends. I knew you wouldn't say anything." "He didn't know that, though. We could've made his life hell, Justin. Got him hurt, maybe even got him killed, you know?" I shivered. I hadn't considered that. Around here people were a lot less tolerant of people who were different, or at least it seemed that way to me. Maybe it was because I was really different, maybe it just seemed that way because I grew up someplace at least a little more forgiving. Maybe people just suck. The thought that I could've gotten Rob hurt just by kissing him wasn't one I liked. "Do you have any idea what it's like to be gay, Justin?" That question brought me back to reality, and made me boggle. "Um, hello? Guy who likes dick here? That's about as gay as it gets." "No, it..." Trevor let out an exasperated sigh. He stood up with his legs spread, put one hand on his waist and cocked his hips. "Honey, do you have any idea what iths like being tho faaaabulous?" Trevor had put on the thickest, over the top lisp I'd ever heard, and the hand he was waving around looked like he had no bones below his elbow. "Jeez, Trevor," I said, annoyed, "you know better than that. That's not gay, it's just..." I searched around for a word. "Faggy." "No, Justin," he replied, dropping the lisp and sounding normal again, "around here, that is gay. You," he said, pointing at me, "just like guys." "So does he," I replied. I knew Trevor was getting at something, but I didn't know what. "So what? I mean, all that crap, it doesn't mean anything." "But it does, Justin," Trevor said. "That's what you were asking him to be." "No I wasn't!" I was feeling defensive, and I know it must've been clear in my voice. "He was fine the way he was." "You don't get it," Trevor said, sounding profoundly frustrated. He looked like he was about ready to start pounding the table with his fists. "Look, Justin, around here I am gay." "But you aren't! And he didn't have to be like anyone but him. I liked him as him." "I am. It doesn't matter if I like girls. Where we live, being gay means acting like me, or worse. It doesn't matter what you have to be. It's what you think you have to be, and what everyone expects you to be. Don't you get it? It's all a big play. He fell in love with you, Justin, and then you made him want you so bad he couldn't stand it. Then in the third act you told him that he had give up the Football Player part and take on the Fag part if he wanted to keep you." It had taken me forever, but I think I finally got it. "But I didn't... that's not... it isn't fair," I said, finally understanding. "No shit," Trevor said. "I didn't ask for that. I..." Trevor put his hand over my mouth to shut me up. "It doesn't matter what you asked, or who he could be. What matters is what he thought you asked and what he thought he could be. I think he thought you asked him to be something he couldn't. So he ran. What else could he do?" That was the sad part. There was so much else he could've done, but instead he ran. And I didn't have the sense to see it, or do anything about it, until it was too late. God, it hurt. * * * Author's afterword Well, it's been quite a while, but we're finally done. Sorry it didn't turn out quite the way everyone might've wanted, but life's like that sometimes, both real life and fake life. A big thanks to Kitty, who stayed with Justin and friends through thick and thin (and hurricanes, and moves). Thanks too to all the kind folks who've followed Justin along and written to say how they felt about the story. I appreciate that, even if I've not been nearly as good with my correspondence as I ought to be.
  3. TheZot

    Chapter 15

    There are 16 parts total. The last one will drop in a bit.
  4. TheZot

    Chapter 15

    "Hey, Justin!" I was digging out my bag from the back of my car, getting ready for yet another swell day of school. It was Monday, so all the books I'd hauled home for homework over the weekend were getting hauled back, along with a week's worth of gym clothes and assorted school crap. The voice startled me enough that I jerked up and smacked the back of my head on the doorframe. "Ow! What?" I said, looking for whoever it was that'd called out. I suppose it wasn't their fault I smacked my head, but that didn't make it hurt any less. "Oh, uh... sorry." Behind me was Rob. That kind of figured. Seemed like every time I turned around and got smacked by something, he was involved. "It's OK, Rob," I said. Mostly OK, at least, since my head was throbbing. "No blood, I'm fine. What do you want?" "I was wondering if maybe... y'know, after school, if you could come over. I've been thinking about the stuff you wrote last weekend and thought maybe we could, um... do some more?" Through that whole speech Rob didn't look at me once. I understand the whole 'no eye contact' thing better than I want, but it sort of surprised me that Rob couldn't look at me. I wasn't sure what he was thinking about, so I did my best to memorize what he was doing so I could try and figure it out later. He had his head down, hands in his pants pockets, and scuffing the dirt on the parking lot pavement with a toe. Huh. Still, it sounded like it could be fun, and Rob'd been sort of avoiding me since we'd gotten back from Atlanta. "Yeah, sure," I said. "I can come over after track practice this afternoon, OK?" Rob looked up at me for the first time since this conversation started, with a big smile on his face. "That'd be great. Thanks, Justin." I spent the rest of the day thinking on and off about clever things to say in Japanese. It's a great language for puns -- it's loaded with homonyms, and it's not tough to find a word that has three or four completely different meanings, and to have a single character have two or three different pronunciations. Well, it's a great language if you're clever about that sort of thing, which I wasn't, really. I knew some of the standard tongue twisters and a few dirty jokes, but nothing clever. I'd managed to come up with a half dozen or so that weren't too lame, and I swung by my house to pick up some books before I went over to Rob's place. Most of the books were reference things, school books I shouldn't have taken home last year but did anyway, my good kanji dictionary, and a couple of 'culture of Japan' things I'd harassed my parents into buying for me when I was trying to get ready to be an exchange student. I grabbed a couple of volumes of gag manga too. I figured that if my puns weren't good enough then we could maybe steal someone else's. It was weird -- this was, I think, the first time I was going over Rob's house to visit Rob, knowing exactly what I was doing. Other than the first time, when I didn't know who lived there, and the times I went over pissed at Rob for hiding from me when I posed for his art class, all my trips had been to see his mother. Honestly, I don't think I'd spent more than twenty minutes at Rob's house actually dealing with Rob the past six months. That I actually wanted to do this was rattling around my brain and leaving me a little confused as I rang the bell. Rob opened the door before the chime had finished. That was pretty fast -- he must've been in the kitchen or something. "Hey, Justin, you made it!" He made it sound like I was going to forget. Go figure, he'd only asked this morning. "Yep, I'm here. Sorry I was late. Had to stop at home to pick up some reference books." Now, I wasn't actually late, since we'd not set up a time or anything like that. The apology'd just slipped out. That was one downside to digging back into my Japanese stuff. I apologized for more things. "It's no problem, Justin," Rob said, moving out of the way so I could enter. "I'm glad you could make it." "Where are we set up?" I asked. "The living room," Rob said from behind me. I heard him shut the door as I headed into the living room. Rob had pulled out a whole bunch of stuff for this. The living room had this huge window looking out into the back yard, and even in the winter it let in a lot more light than I expected it would. There was an easel set up in front of the window, placed so that when you sat at the thing your back was to the window. I guess it got better light that way or something. The coffee table had a few spiral-bound pads of drawing paper scattered around it, and there were colored pencils everywhere. "Looks like you're ready to go," I said, looking at the mess. It was an artistic mess, I guess. For a second I had this wild idea that maybe the room was performance art, and I ought to spell out dirty haiku in colored pencils on the rug, in Japanese. Probably not, though. "I was just sketching. It's not working too well, though," he said. The pads had pictures of geisha girls, that tsunami wave thing that everyone puts on Japanese postcards, and Mt. Fuji. At least I think it was Mt. Fuji -- the Godzilla head poking out of the top was kind of a giveaway, even if the shape didn't match what I remembered it looking like. "I dunno. These don't look too bad," I said, dropping my books and plopping myself onto the couch. "Anyway, so you're looking for some sayings, right? You want the gag stuff like in the restaurant, or something real?" Rob was quiet for a few minutes, looking out the window onto the back yard. I couldn't tell what he was thinking, but the funny thing was it didn't bug me. I mean, up until now I'd not really spent any time alone with Rob, and what time I did spend mostly just with him all had some reason, something I could concentrate on. This time... this time it didn't. I was just really hanging out with Rob. I'd never done that before. What was weird was that I wasn't bothered. Honestly, I was actually kind of comfortable, just lounging on his couch as he stood there, the same way that I was when we were walking in Atlanta last week. That sort of surprised me. "Maybe..." he started, then fell silent again. "I think I'd like to do something real. Not a joke, you know? Something that means something." "Oh, OK," I said. That definitely left me at a loss. I'd spent most of my free time in class today coming up with silly stuff, and while I hadn't managed much that didn't suck, I at least had some things. Meaningful, though ... that I didn't have. What I did have with me, though, were some of my textbooks. While a lot of them were 'see Dick run' sort of stuff, I did have a couple of books with chunks of what someone considered classic literature. I flipped through one of them and got lucky -- it had a collection of haiku by Basho, who'd apparently been a famous poet for the past three hundred years. Poetry had never been my thing ... it was something I just didn't get. Still, it was arty, and these were well-regarded. Doubly lucky for me there were English translations for at least some of them, so Rob wouldn't have to try and make sense of my translating art I didn't understand from one language to another. "Are these what you're looking for?" I asked, as I showed him the page I'd opened to. "There's an English translation for some of them. I'm not sure how good it is." Rob looked at me with a puzzled expression. "It's poetry," I said, feeling a little embarrassed. "I don't get it. They're supposed to be kind of good, though." Rob read them. I could tell he was concentrating, from watching his face, but I couldn't tell how he felt about them. Still, it didn't matter. If he liked 'em that was great, and if not, we could find something else. We had a few hundred years of modern literature to dig through and I was pretty sure we could come up with something. "Mmmm," Rob said, breaking the silence, "I like these four." He pointed at the ones he had in mind. I grabbed a pen out of my pocket and marked them off so I wouldn't forget. There were rabbits and flowers involved, and I had no idea what they were really about, but rabbits and flowers probably made for good art, so that was OK. "Huh, no problem," I said, looking at them. The kanji weren't that difficult, and they looked pretty good, at least in their typeset forms. I tried to figure out what they'd look like when handwritten, but I couldn't quite wrap my head around that. "Could I grab some paper? I want to see how these look when they're written out." "Sure," Rob said. He grabbed a drawing pad from off an end table and handed it to me with a pen. I studied the first poem for a bit, trying to wrap my brain around the rhythm of the thing, and sketched out the first few characters of it onto the pad. Rob was staring over my shoulder at it, and when I looked up he was giving me a look I couldn't make out. "What?" I asked. "They don't look the same," he said. "What you wrote and what's in the book. They aren't the same thing." "Huh? Oh, right," I said, looking down at the pad. I'd read the poem and then just wrote it out the way I would've if someone had been reading the poem and I was copying it down. "They don't. That's kind of the way it is. Some of the characters look almost identical when you write them out, and some look completely different. Handwritten versions are usually sort of simpler -- some of the characters are pretty complex. This one here," I pointed at one of the characters, "has thirteen different pen strokes in it. Nobody writes it that way, it'd take too long." "Oh," said Rob. He sounded... disappointed? Maybe a little sad, I wasn't sure. He definitely didn't look happy, though, and looking down at what I'd written I couldn't really blame him. My handwriting's just fine, but it was just that -- handwriting. It wasn't anything like the neat printed characters, or the formal flowing stuff you get with calligraphy. "Um, if you want I can do it both ways. Y'know, once the way I'd just write it, and once the way someone would do it if they were doing formal calligraphy. You can decide which you like better..." I just let that trail off. The comfort I'd felt earlier was gone, and I suddenly felt guilty, like I'd let him down. "It's OK," he said. I cut him off. "No, no, that's fine. You want something like this, right?" This time I took more time and more care, and painted the character with the pen, rather than drawing it. The more formal version was obviously better looking, even to my eye, and while I certainly wasn't going to win any calligraphy prizes, I could tell by the way Rob's face lit up that this was what he wanted. "Yeeaah," he said. He drew the word out, more breathing it than saying it. Rob just stared at the paper, his face a mask of concentration. "You can probably do them better," I said. "You're the artist and all." "Can you... show me?" he asked quietly. I wasn't sure what he was talking about, exactly, since I'd just written the first poem and he'd been watching. I figured it had to be something else. I just couldn't figure out what exactly it was. "Um, sure," I said. "What do you need?" "Just..." he trailed off. "I need to know how it feels, Justin." That, unfortunately, wasn't much of an explanation. Must be some sort of art thing or something. "How what feels?" I asked. "The... movement," he replied with a little hesitation. I'm sure I gave him a big puzzled look before it hit me what he was talking about. "Oh, right, I get it. Never done any Japanese calligraphy? It's pretty easy," I said. I grabbed a long pencil off the table. It wasn't exactly a brush, but then I wasn't a calligrapher either, so it was probably fine. "Here," I said, patting the couch cushion next to me. "Sit, and grab this." I waggled the pencil at him. Rob sat down and put his hand over mine. He was shaking a little, which I thought was weird. That's got to make it tough to draw straight lines. With Rob holding on, I sketched out some of the simpler characters two or three times each, letting him feel how the pen moved. He was a quick study, and by the eighth character his hand had stopped shaking and he was doing just fine. "Good," I said when we finished. "You've got the hang of it. They're all pretty much the same. Just draw the lines in the right order and it should look fine." Rob went over to his easel, and while he sketched, I took a lot of paper and very carefully started drawing all the characters stroke by stroke. I used one of his markers with a huge tip, one that left lines that had to be an inch wide, and tried my best to make everything as big and clear as possible. Each character took a single page of paper, and after I drew it I took another pen and marked off the starting and ending points, labeling each line with the order in which it was supposed to be drawn. My dictionary had a little diagram for each character showing it being drawn line by line, and for good measure I copied that onto the bottom of each page. That took a while -- a thirteen stroke character had thirteen little pictures at the bottom. I had to redo things more than once as my hand got away from me and kept on going when it should've stopped. It took a couple of hours, and by the time I was done it was dark out. The clock on the mantel said it was past seven, and I was a little surprised that Mrs. Greene hadn't come in to say hello. With nothing left for me to do, all I had was to watch Rob at the easel, drawing away. I wanted to go and look at what he was doing, but I wasn't sure if I should or not. I remembered some of the people in the art class getting pissed at me for trying to look at the pictures they'd drawn because they weren't done, and I wasn't sure if Rob would be like that. That left me at sort of a loss. I found I did like just sitting there and watching Rob work, but it wasn't really comfortable. I admit, I didn't want to bring it up, but it had been a week since we'd gone for sushi, and Rob hadn't said a word about the kiss IÕd laid on him. I had been feeling a little guilty about it, too -- I knew nobody would say anything about it, but I hadn't exactly asked him if he wanted to go kissing in public. He didn't seem bothered by it now, and that made me kind of happy. Coach made it clear Rob'd dropped football, my friends all didn't care, and his mom seemed fine with Rob being gay, so I didn't see any big reason for him not to be out, and if he was, well... I still wasn't going to be the one to ask, not until I knew he was out. That'd mean hiding, and I just don't do that well. I wasn't going to drag him out of the closet either. That was his decision to make. Still, I was hoping he'd ask. Since he wasn't saying anything, I figured I'd better say something. "Uh, Rob, about last week..." He looked up. "Yeah," he said. "That was fun. We should do it again some time." Right, so that wasn't what I was expecting. I needed to start again. Maybe bluntness would be better. "Rob, I was talking about the kiss. I kissed you. You kissed back.Ó Maybe it wouldn't be better. Rob looked totally panicked, to the point where he dumped himself off his stool and knocked over his easel. "It's not... I mean, I don't... I didn't mean... I'm not, um..." "Oh, god," I said, groaning. I should've known, I really should have. Fuck, anyone with half a brain would've known. Pity I didn't have that half. "Never mind. I get the message, Rob." I stood up and collected my books, and looked at him a little sadly. "I should go. I think it's best. You've got what you need to do your project. If you want me for anything else... just ask." I left. Rob didn't stop me. I was half-hoping he would. * * * "Hey, wait up a second!" I was walking out to my car after track practice when the voice called out. I looked around and saw a familiar face heading my way. "Hi, Dan," I said. "What's up?" "Not much," he said, catching his breath. Kinda strange -- I'd have figured someone who swam competitively would've had better endurance. "Hey, I meant to thank you. Working out with Rick and all. It's made a big difference for him." And it had. Puberty had hit Rick with a vengeance, and he'd put on nearly five inches since New Year's. There were days I swear he was noticeably taller in the afternoon. If it wasn't for the workouts he'd been doing, he'd have been bean-pole skinny. He still wasn't built like his brother, and probably never would be, but he was moving well and looking pretty good. Melanie certainly wasn't complaining. "I'm glad to do it. Rick's turned out to be a good friend." Social practice or not, I'd run out of things to say, and I still hadn't gotten the hang of small talk. Dan was just standing in front of me, fidgeting. It was kind of cute, really, though I didn't know why. He looked good. Nervous, but good. I debated just begging off and leaving, but Dan was just standing there and squirming. He wasn't showing any signs of actually leaving, and he hadn't said anything worth actually running after me. I went through the list of things Melanie and Trevor had talked to me about. The way Dan was acting, he either had to go to the bathroom, or had something to say he wasn't comfortable with. Rural Georgia or not, we were in the middle of a parking lot, so I figured he didn't have to pee, which left having something to say that he couldn't. Dan seemed like a nice enough guy, so I figured I'd push a little, just to make sure. "And you were going to say...?" I let it trail off and hoped he'd fill in the blank. "What?" Or maybe not, and maybe he did need a bathroom. Melanie'd told me people often don't take a hint, though, so maybe not. Well, OK, she told me I wouldn't recognize a hint if someone hit me with it, but she said I wasn't that much more clueless than most guys. I wasn't sure if that was supposed to be a good thing or not. Anyway, I knew I needed to push if he was going to say whatever it was he wanted me to know but didn't want to say. "You're standing there fidgeting. There's something you want to say or ask, but you're uncomfortable or don't know how, right?" I decided to leave off the bathroom option, just in case. He gaped at me. Bingo. "I've had advanced social training," I said wryly, thinking of the times Melanie and Trevor had play-acted common high school conversations with me. "I'm impossible to offend, so spill it. What's up?" He fidgeted a little more, so lightly I poked him in the stomach. He suppressed a laugh. He was ticklish. I'd have to remember that. "I could tickle it out of you," I threatened. "Okay, I give," he said, throwing his arms up in the air in surrender. "I was talking with Rick, and he said you were...um..." Dan trailed off. I knew exactly where this was going, remembering Dan's reactions that first day we met in the weight room. This was even one of the conversations Melanie'd run me through. Having scripts to work with definitely helped. "Yes," I said firmly. "He's right. I'm a Yankee." Dan's head shot up and he stared at me in shock. "What?" "And gay too, if you were curious about that." I grinned at him. He blushed, but didn't say anything. I gave it another minute or so, since I figured he had something else to say, but I wasn't sure what, and at this point he needed to be the one saying it anyway. "So," I said, breaking the silence, "need a ride home or anything?" Not the most sparkling conversation, but I'd been told not to try sparkling ... for me, that just came across as silly. "Sure, thanks." Now, I figured he probably didn't need a ride. It was well past the end of school, so either he lived within walking distance or he had a car, but it was a good excuse to give things a little more time. I was sort of glad he took me up on it. His shyness was... endearing, I guess. Besides, I figured from his question and the way he'd looked at me that he was gay too, and it was nice to spend a little time with someone who wasn't a mass of messed-up insecurities. Or at least if he had any, I didn't know about them, and that was good enough for now. I pulled out, and Dan gave me directions. As I figured, his house was within walking distance if you pushed it. The drive was quiet. I kept looking over at Dan, but he had his eyes down and was still fidgeting. I resisted the urge to pat him on the shoulder. We got to his house in a few minutes, and still no conversation. I parked in the driveway and saw there weren't any other cars, so we were alone, or good as. This, I figured, was going to be it -- if he couldn't work up the nerve to say whatever he had to say now, he probably never would. I was curious. Time to push a little. "You look like you've got something to say," I started, "and if you don't say it now, you're never going to work up the nerve to say it again. So... what? It's OK, I don't bite, really." I smiled at him, though with his eyes fixed on his shoes he probably didn't see it. No luck. Plan B. Plan B, in this case, was evil and nasty. I started tickling him. Dan broke out laughing and squirming, trying in vain to stop me. I was persistent, we were in close quarters, and he still had his seatbelt on. He didn't have a chance. "Okay, okay, stop! I'll say it," he finally got out between laughs and wheezes. "Justin," he said, looking me straight in the eyes, "would you go out with me Saturday?" It's a testament to all the work Melanie'd put into me that this was one of the things I actually expected might happen. I even had an answer for it, which was good. If this had blindsided me, I'd have gaped a bit and said something stupid. "Maybe," I said. Dan's face fell at that, but I put my hand on his. "No, it's not bad, really. There are just two conditions, and a question. "First, you've got to be OK with being out. I'm not saying I'll be all over you at school or anything, but I bet Rick's told you about my... sub-standard social skills. I don't want you going into this thinking we can keep it secret, since I really can't promise that. "Second, your parents have to be OK with this. Same reason -- we'll be out, and they'll find out if they don't know already. They've got to know before we go out." Dan looked at me for a second. "I can do that. My mom already knows, and everyone thinks all the guys on the swim team are gay anyway, so it's not like I'll catch any more shit because of it. Besides," he said, looking at me with a grin, "nobody at school wants to mess with the guy I'd be going out with." We both chuckled at that. My reputation at school was a standing joke with my friends. I'd even mostly gotten comfortable with it, since the people who mattered to me didn't care. "What's the question?" Dan asked. I gave a sigh at that. "It's a question I have to ask someone else," I replied. He cocked an eyebrow at me. "I promised someone else I'd date them if they asked, same conditions. They haven't, but I don't go back on my word, so I have to give them one last chance." Dan looked a little sad at that. "It's OK," he said, "I think I understand." "I want to go out with you. Really. But I did promise," I explained. "It's been ages, and nothing so far. I don't think another day will matter, but I have to ask. Here," I said, handing him a piece of paper, "give me your phone number. I'll call you tonight and let you know. I promise." "And you always keep your promises, right?" Dan had a grin. "Always," I said. * * * And now, for the uncomfortable part, talking with Rob. Yeah, I should've just blown him off, after what happened the last time I was over, but I really couldn't. I'd promised him, way back when he did that stupid make-up fight, that if he asked me out I'd go. I wasn't going to cheat on anyone, though, so if he wanted to go out this was going to be his last shot for a while. It was just my luck; Rob answered the door when I rang the bell. He looked at me with some surprise. While I'd been over a few times a month, I had never dropped in unannounced just to visit him, and I'm sure he wasn't expecting me, especially given how IÕd left the last time. "Hi, Rob. Can I come in? We need to talk." As soon as the words left my mouth I knew they were a mistake. The last thing you should ever say when you need to talk to someone is 'we need to talk.' I saw from his face this wasn't a good thing. "Sure," he said uncertainly, opening the door for me. I walked in and headed into the living room. I should've sat down, but I was fidgety, so I started pacing instead. Rob looked at me uncertainly. "What's going on Justin? You look nervous. I didn't think you could be nervous." "Funny, isn't it? One of the downsides of joining the human race, I guess." I probably shouldnÕt have said that, but I did. It's true, though. The past months had been really good for me, but with the good comes the bad. Time to just spit it out. "Rob," I said, a little hesitantly, "you remember what I said a few months ago in the nurse's office, after the fight?" "You said a lot of things," he said, his tone guarded. "About dating." "Yeah. I remember that." I could tell he was still uncomfortable with it. "I've got to ask, Rob. Are you going to ask me out on a date?" He looked shocked, and surprised, and a little panicked. "I'm not asking you," I said. "I told you, if you wanted to you'd have to ask. What I need to know is... are you going to ask?" He was quiet for a bit. "Why?" he asked softly, not looking at me. "Because someone else has asked me," I replied. "I haven't said yes to him yet. And I won't, if you ask. I told you my conditions then. They haven't changed, and I haven't withdrawn the offer, so if you ask I will go out with you. But if you don't ask, then I'm telling someone else yes." I could see the struggle in Rob. I knew he wanted to, but I knew he was afraid as well, and it was tearing at him. If I dated Dan it'd hurt Rob badly, and I really did hate that thought, but it was my life, and I had to live it for me, not anyone else. "Who?" "I'm not saying, Rob. Once we start dating he's out, and I'll say then. But until we make it official I'm not going to out him, the same way I won't out you. I'm sorry, but I can't." "Justin, I... I can't," he whispered. "I can't do it." I didn't think so. I did like Rob, and I'd hoped he could do it, I really had, for his sake. It wasn't the same, what he and I had gone through, but I knew what it felt like to throw off the masks and just live. It's a good feeling, but you can't take someone else's mask off for them, not without hurting them very badly. "I'm sorry, Rob, I really am. We can still be friends," I offered, though I knew we really couldn't, not now at least. "Thanks," he said, a little bitterly. There wasn't anything to be said after that, so I didn't. * * * While I'd like to say that Dan was the love of my life and we lived happily ever after, that's not the way it turned out. Not a big surprise; it wasnÕt what either of us expected, which was fine. I was Dan's first boyfriend, and he was barely my second. He was also a senior, and off to college in the fall, so we both knew going in that this'd only last a few months. Still, it was a great few months. We got along pretty well and had a good time doing it. The fact that we knew it was going to end actually helped, since it didn't take too long to find out that we really weren't cut out for a long term relationship together. While we didn't really grate on each other, neither did we truly click. We used the time to figure out how to figure out what the other wanted, and what we wanted. Learning about sex was fun too, but we won't go there, even though Dan and I did, as often as possible. Dating someone who can hold his breath for five minutes is an experience I can definitely recommend. And hot tubs. Definitely hot tubs. We ended up parting as friends mid-May, and despite myconditions, I don't think more than a couple of dozen people ever knew we were dating. That surprised me, since I expected the news to rip through the school within a day of our first date. Guess you can't believe everything you read on the Internet. Most of the drama folks knew we were going out, as well as some of the other guys who swam with Dan. Rick and Melanie knew, of course, as did Rob. Rob was the one downside to it all. I knew when I started that I wasn't going to not date because of him, and I tried not to feel guilty knowing how he felt, but... I did anyway. Not all the time, not even most of the time, but when we saw each other in school it was really clear that he was miserable. I felt bad because I knew I was partially the cause of that unhappiness. I wasn't the only one who'd noticed, either. He'd stopped hanging out with most of his football cronies before the play, and by now, in late spring, he wasn't talking with any of them. He'd mostly withdrawn from everyone, really, even Melanie -- they'd officially broken up in late April, two weeks before her birthday, as a sort of present to her, and she only saw him in the halls between classes. In a way it was sort of strange; Rob'd started out the year popular, athletic, and social, while I was lonely and withdrawn. Now that the year was nearly over we'd changed places. I felt kind of bad about that, but I wasn't sure why. Or what to do about it.
  5. TheZot

    Chapter 14

    Everything I’ve written is up here, I think. (With the exception of Busted, which got serialized at Less Than Three press then sold as an ebook, though it’s out of circulation at this point)
  6. TheZot

    Chapter 14

    Oh, it's done, and has been for ages. All the chapters are on nifty, and I thought they were all up here but clearly I was wrong about that. Or they got eaten by a grue, as sometimes happens. Anyway, they're all in and set to auto-release so should show up over the next few days.
  7. TheZot

    Chapter 14

    Eight thirty rolled around, and I arrived at Rob's place with Melanie and Rick. Steph and Trevor were already there, chatting out front with Mrs. Greene. They seemed pretty chipper, given how early it was, how late they'd probably been up the night before, and the presence of Rob. Mrs. Greene probably had a lot to do with that. She was really tough to be grumpy around, something I knew from personal experience. Rob, on the other hand, was looking profoundly uncomfortable. Not too surprising, I guess. While he may have come to some reconciliation with Trevor last night, three years of hard feelings don't just go away, and I knew Steph didn't much like him either. I didn't think she'd say anything with Rob's mom around but, then, I wasn't sure she wouldn't either. When I got out of my car, everyone swung around to look at me. "So, what's the plan?" asked Trevor. "First, we stop in at a bookstore that's on the way to lunch and I pick up a few things. Then it's on to lunch, then to downtown for a run through the stores, and finally we catch the 7:30 showing of either the original Godzilla or Shichinin no Samurai." Everyone was looking at me blankly. "The Seven Samurai?" More blank looks. "Famous Kurosawa flick? One of the best films of all time?" Still the blank looks. "It's a Japanese version of The Magnificent Seven," I said with a sigh. That, at least, got a look of recognition. Philistines. "Are you going to hang around with all of us all day?" I asked Mrs. Greene. "I think I can stuff everyone into my car if they don't mind getting friendly on the way back." "I may. We'll see if an old lady like me can keep up with all of you," she said with a grin. Personally I think she could run us all into the ground, but who was I to argue if she wanted to give us a way out? "We can trade cars if that happens, Justin. I think my car will hold everyone more comfortably." Given that she was driving one of those big suburban assault vehicles, she was definitely right. We'd all fit in her car with room to spare if we had to. "Great. Here, I got directions to the place we're going first," I said, handing Mrs. Greene the MapQuest map I'd printed out that morning. "You know where the restaurant is?" "Yes, I've got directions." "Great. We'll meet you at the store." Rick and Melanie rode with me, together in the back seat, while Steph, Trev, and Rob rode with Mrs. Greene. I expect things might've been tense in their car, but we chatted and had a good time in mine. The first stop was a Japanese bookstore I'd found on the Web. I'd stocked up there with reading material over the Christmas break, and I could've kept up by ordering books online, but... it's just not the same. I like browsing, and in three months it's not like there were likely to be any new volumes of the series I follow, and you really can't browse right on the Internet anyway. Like all the other Japanese bookstores I've been in, there was a collection of 'cultural' merchandise, something to drag in the otaku and gaijin, I guess. Steph and Melanie were digging through the Hello Kitty stuff, Trevor was standing by a Sailor Moon display with a very disturbing look on his face, and Rob was over in the corner looking at the imported art supplies. Rick just sort of hovered and looked uncomfortable. "Hey, what's up?" I asked as I went past Rick. "Nothing, it's just..." He trailed off and looked around. It was pretty obvious something was bothering him. "It's something. C'mon, spill it," I said as I led us over to the back shelves. "I just feel really uncomfortable," he said hesitantly. "I mean, I really like bookstores, but I can't even read the titles here. It's just kinda... alien." "Yeah, I know what you mean," I said, as I started pulling volumes out and loading Rick up. "I felt like that all last September. Just hang with me a second and we'll go, OK? I've got a hundred dollar limit today." Didn't take long to reach it either, even with the favorable exchange rate that a lot of the books were marked with. I wasn't the only one to load up and hit the registers. I had books, Rob had pens, brushes, and ink, and Melanie and Steph each had an armload of Batz Maru stuff. Trev was still at the Sailor Moon display, but I was trying really hard to not think about that. Really hard. If my stay in Tokyo taught me nothing else, it taught me that no good can come of Sailor Moon, though Trevor would look really good in a tux and top hat. I was half-tempted to say something to Steph about that. We finished up pretty quickly. Steph had to drag Trevor out of the store, but luckily he came out empty handed. I'm not sure what she'd said to get him moving, but he was blushing furiously when he got into the car. It only took twenty minutes or so to get to the restaurant, and we ended up there a few minutes early. The place was an upscale sushi joint, all done in rice paper screens and light colored wood. The guy working the door wasn't too much older than me, maybe twenty, and definitely Asian, done up in a suit and tie. I felt positively underdressed, though a quick glance around the restaurant showed pretty much everyone else there was in casual clothes or jeans. "Good afternoon," he said. His speech was easy enough to understand, but it was clearly Tokyo-accented English, though he wasn't the guy I'd spoken to on the phone last night. That actually made me kind of happy -- most of the sushi places back home were run by folks from China, and the sauces were always a little off. With two Tokyo accents I figured this place must be run by an expat family, so we had a good chance that things were going to be good. "Good afternoon," I said, switching into Japanese. Last night had reminded me how nice it was to speak the language again. "Payne Justin. Reservation for seven. I'm afraid we're early." The maitre d' gave me a grin and matched my Japanese with his own. "No problem, sir," he said. "Your party has seats at a table in back. It will be a few minutes before we can seat you." "Thank you very much," I replied, and gave him a bow that was probably deeper than it should've been. I'd never quite gotten the hang of where adults stood relative to me socially, so I always acted like everyone was a step above me. It wasn't always right, but the worst thing that happens is you get tagged as a polite kid. There are worse fates than that. He gave me a grin and matched my bow. "Guys," I said, as I turned back to everyone. They were all giving me a weird look, all except Mrs. Greene, who looked like she thought it was all a little funny. "Should be a couple of minutes." "Damn," said Rick, with some admiration in his voice. "You're good at that, aren't you?" "Yes, your Japanese is quite good for a foreigner," the maitre d' threw in. This, I admit, pissed me off more than a little. I had gotten that a lot last year. The first dozen or two times it was OK, but after that it got a little tiresome, especially after I realized how condescending it was. What was worse was that I only realized people were patronizing me by overhearing some of my classmates laughing about it. Besides, my Japanese accent was better than his English one. On the phone nobody could tell I wasn't a native, but he'd never pass. "Thanks so very much," I said, so politely that it should've been obvious that I was going over the top. "Your English is quite good for a foreigner." I phrased it exactly the same way he did. If he was going to be condescending, I could be too. "Thanks. It was such a change when we moved here from Marietta," he said, grinning like a fiend, with an accent that was close to Mrs. Greene's. Marietta was one of the Atlanta suburbs, maybe twenty miles from where we were right now. I was pretty sure I'd just been had, and when Mrs. Greene started laughing I knew for sure I had been. "Sorry," I mumbled. I was kind of embarrassed. "Ah, don't sweat it," he said, laughing a little. "And your accent really is good. You sure confused Jimmy last night when you made reservations." "Jimmy?" "Yeah, my brother. Phil Nakamura," he said, holding out his hand. I shook it. "Pleased ta meetcha." "Justin Payne," I replied. "Embarrassed as hell." "Don't sweat it," he said, switching back to Japanese. "It's nice to talk to someone who's not family and not sixty and on vacation." "I understand. I was getting rusty." He laughed. "Yeah, right. You're better than Jimmy, and he did his undergrad work at Todai. Granted, he only learned enough to pass his classes and pick up girls. You spend time in Tokyo?" "Exchange student last year." "That must've been fun." I snorted. "Hated it." "I bet. Pet gaijin on display?" I nodded. "Welcome to my world," he said with a little smile. "Yeah, that's got to suck," I said. "So why the accent?" He shrugged. "It's what people expect. Who wants to eat redneck Japanese?" It took me a second to work that one out, but it was pretty obvious once I did. The table opened up right then, and a waiter brought us over to our seats -- he looked like he was probably Phil's brother or something. I didn't even bother taking the menu when he handed it to me. "This one's on me, guys," I said. "So, you're the guy who called in last night," the waiter said. "Yes. Almost everyone's new at this. Could we just have a good assortment? With lots of tuna, please." "No problem," he said. "You won me ten bucks. Jimmy didn't think you could be from around here." "I'm not. I'm from Massachusetts." The waiter just laughed as he took everyone's drink orders and headed off to the sushi bar to get things going. "It's kind of... strange to hear you talk like that," Rob said softly to me. He was on my right and had near-whispered that into my ear. "Yeah, well, no surprise. I'm probably the only person in town who speaks Japanese," I replied. I kept my own voice low, for some reason. Looking around, everyone else had sort of paired up and was speaking softly, looking around the place. It certainly wasn't anything like any of the other restaurants in town, so I guess that made sense. I remembered my first time in a Japanese restaurant. I'd stolen one of the menus and spent the next week with my dictionary trying to translate the thing, only to find out later that the typesetter had made a mistake somewhere and it didn't actually make any sense. "It's not that, Justin. It's... never mind." Rob looked away. I sighed. He was so damn frustrating some times, and I had no idea what he was thinking. The drinks came right out, with the sushi a minute or so behind. It was the fastest I'd ever been served in one of these places -- I guess chatting with the waiter's good for something besides practice. The guys at the bar had gone all-out for us, too. Sushi for seven does take up some space, but we'd gotten a good display put together for us. The main platter was this huge wooden boat made of some light-colored wood, with a raised deck in the back complete with a little steering wheel, a tall mast, two smaller platters attached to the mast, one on top of the other, and some fake rigging strung from the mast to the sides of the platters and the ship. The main deck of the boat was covered with sushi, little wads of rice with slices of raw fish on top, held together with little green bands of nori. There were twelve pieces on each side of the mast, eel in back, tuna in the middle, and salmon in front. The lower of the two platters attached to the mast were covered with slices of tuna, and the top platter had slices of yellowtail. The little back deck had three bunches of pickled ginger done up in the shapes of roses, and someone had made a little green sailor out of wasabi paste. In addition to that we got two smaller wooden platters with the maki. Maki are great -- they're made by laying out a flat sheet of nori, covering it with rice, and putting in some sort of filling. Then it's all rolled up tight and cut into six pieces, each about an inch long. We'd gotten a couple of sets of tuna, some whitefish, and some cucumber rolls. The chef had even cut the rolls up fancy, arranging the roll pieces in a circle and setting things up so there was a tiered effect, with grated daikon radish, wasabi paste, and pickled ginger in the center. Most of the rolls had been done traditionally, with the nori on the outside giving the rolls a green shiny outer layer. Some of them had been done inside-out, with the rice on the outside and the nori on the inside. Those had been covered in either sesame seeds or sea urchin eggs. Mrs. Greene and I grabbed chopsticks and started in on the platters in front of us -- beautiful presentation or not, it was food, and well-prepared food at that. The rest of the group looked a little uncertain. Rob picked up one of the sticks and poked at the sushi in front of him. "Uh... Justin?" "Yeah?" I half-mumbled that, my mouth full of food. "This fish... it isn't cooked." I swallowed. "It's sushi," I said. "It's raw." "Rob, it's supposed to be raw. It's sushi." He looked very uncertain. "It's good, really." He wasn't buying that. I sighed and shook my head. Melanie, Steph and Rick were equally uncertain. "Okay, look," I said, "give it a try. The green rolls are called maki, and they've all got different things inside. Dip 'em in soy sauce first. They're good, but you might not like the seaweed wrap, which is OK. The pieces of fish just sitting out are sashimi -- they're just pieces of fish, nothing else. We've got tuna and..." I took a close look at it. "Yellowtail. The things on rice? That's sushi. Just pop 'em in your mouth, that's fine." I demonstrated, and it was a little bit of heaven. It'd been too long since I'd had good tuna. "The green paste is wasabi. It's good, but a little spicy..." I trailed off as I watched Steph find out first-hand exactly how spicy it was. Her eyes bugged out and I could see the sweat. Mrs. Greene handed her a cup of tea. "Don't eat it by itself." "What's this stuff?" Rick asked hesitantly, looking at one of the rolls that'd been rolled in sea urchin roe, looking like it was covered in little orange candy balls. "That's garnish," I said, deciding to skip the truth. "Just for looks." After a few minutes it was pretty clear that while Steph and Rick were developing a taste for sushi, Rob, Melanie and Trevor were going to go hungry unless we did something else. I waved our waiter over. "Can we get a few more things?" "Certainly." He handed me a menu, and I scanned it as I ordered. "Two yakitori assortments, beef negimaki, some gyoza and..." Oh, my god. My eyes bugged out as I read the specials. "Two orders of... Connecticut rolls." I winced. "With tartar sauce and ketchup, if you have any." The second round came quickly, and the fact that it was cooked made a big difference. The rolls were a hit, though I couldn't bring myself to try one. "This stuff's actually good," said Rob, his mouth full. "I like these. What are they?" "The menu said Connecticut roll. White fish maki dipped in tempura batter and deep fried." He looked a little puzzled. "It's fish-stick sushi, Rob. It's gross. I really don't wanna talk about it." Mrs. Greene was laughing at me, but I didn't care. I had tuna, I was happy. While we were eating, Rob was looking around the restaurant. It was done up in traditional American Sushi bar style, with lots of light colored wood and wall hangings that were a combination of poetry and oriental art. They were obligatory, I guess, in case the plates of raw fish weren't a clue you were in a sushi bar. "Can you read that stuff?" "What, the wall hangings? Sure," I said. "I passed the JLPT 1 before I went to Tokyo for school last year." He looked blankly at that. "I'm officially literate, Rob. Why?" "Can you write that stuff too?" "Yeah, no problem. Ask Rick, all my physics notes are in Japanese. Drives him nuts." And it did. We didn't have class the same period, but we both had it, and we studied together. I'd had physics last year but didn't manage to get credit for it, so I was essentially retaking it. I thought about physics in Japanese. Made exams tricky, but Dr. Smith thought it was funny that my test papers were covered with Japanese scrawl. Rob looked thoughtful. "Can you write me something?" "Like... what?" "I don't know," he said. "I want to try doing something like that." He was waving at the wall hangings with his fork. I had an evil idea. "Sure," I said. "You want something real, or something funny?" "Funny how?" "Funny like..." The waiter I'd chatted with when we came in was half-hovering behind us. I caught his eye. "Can I get a couple of pieces of paper, please?" He brought them, I took out a pen, and sketched out four different things. "You want things to put up on wall scrolls with asian-style art, right?" I held out the paper to Rob. When the waiter glanced at them his eyes went wide and he started to laugh. "What's so funny?" Rob sounded suspicious. I pointed at each of the four things in turn. "'Ignorant foreigner.' 'I have no idea what this says.' 'Pretentious and ignorant.' 'Confucius says never display sayings one does not understand.'" Rob laughed at that one. "Hey, it could be worse," I said. "I saw someone with a rip-off Dragonball Z shirt that had 'asshole' written all over it." There was more talk with lunch, but to be honest I wasn't paying attention. It had been way too long since I'd had good sushi and I wasn't going to miss a second of it. After lunch we wandered downtown over by the university. I thought I could get really used to hanging around places like this. Yeah, sure, it was March and cold, but there were lots of little shops all over the place, and it was nice to just be out and around. I was surprised how fast we burned five hours doing nothing of consequence, and how nice it was to do it. The funny thing was that Rob actually knew more about the area than anyone else did. I'd sort of figured that Steph would be the one leading us around, since she'd seemed to know where she was going when she dragged me to the city for my makeover, but we were in a different part of the city today. It was all galleries, bookstores, dopey new age stores, and little restaurants and cafes, and Rob seemed like he knew them all. Hell, he fit in with all the college guys wandering around better than the rest of us did. It was cool, and almost like he was another person or something. It was kind of nice, actually. No asshole Bobby, or meek, cowering Rob, just a guy out enjoying himself with friends. I think Trevor and Steph even sort of forgot they didn't like him for a while. While I held out as long as I could for Shichinin no Samurai, I was soundly outvoted, and we ended up watching Godzilla instead. Mrs. Greene'd bailed on us, claiming she had court stuff to do in the morning, so it was just the six of us. I'd only ever seen the U.S. version before, as had Rick, nobody else having seen it at all. The original Japanese version was definitely different, and a lot better. Oddly enough I found the subtitles downright distracting -- my brain kept getting yanked back and forth between reading English and listening to the Japanese dialog. The one upside was that Godzilla was a short movie and let out at about quarter after nine, so there was still stuff open and we could kill a little time and have some late-ish fun. We ended up at a little coffee shop not too far from the theatre, smack in the middle of a mass of university-influenced stores. The crowd was mostly college kids. We didn't stick out too badly, though. It took a couple of minutes to get us to get our drinks, find a table with some comfy chairs around it, and sit down. Rick, Trevor, Melanie, and Steph were all bouncing back and forth about the movie -- costumes, sets, and stuff like that. The thing was old enough that it was almost as much a play as it was a movie, and apparently there were deep metaphors in it disguised as a guy in a rubber giant monster costume, so the four of them were just going at it. Seemed a bit deep for me, I just enjoy movies with stuff blowing up in them Not that it really mattered. They had all had a good time today, that was obvious even to me, and I liked that -- something I'd done had made other people happy. It was a nice thing, really. I don't think it'd ever really happened before. I was content to sit in a comfy chair, sip my tea, and know that my friends were enjoying themselves. The place was about half full, and some college guy and his girlfriend walked past our table. "The freshmen are getting younger and younger," said the guy. "Be nice," his girlfriend said, slapping him on the arm. "Besides, don't they make cute couples?" I hadn't noticed, but we sort of had split into pairs. Rick and Melanie were sitting knee to knee, Trevor had his arm around Steph, and Rob and I were sitting pretty close, giving the other four some space. Rick and Melanie gave each other a look, and just started making out at the table. Trevor and Steph looked amused, I was happy, and Rob looked... well, he looked uncomfortable. Not so much the 'my ex-not-really-girlfriend is making out with someone else' uncomfortable, but something a lot deeper. Maybe he was seeing something he thought he couldn't do, or something like that. I wasn't sure, and the only person around I could ask about it was busy playing Alien Face-hugger with Rick. I saw Trevor look at Rob, nudge Steph, and then the two of them locked lips and went at it. At this point poor Rob was looking downright despondent, and I was feeling bad for him. I didn't think Melanie and Rick were making him uncomfortable on purpose, but I was pretty sure Trevor was. Not exactly nice, though given their history I couldn't really take much offense. Still, I figured I'd try and take his mind off things. "Hey," I said quietly to Rob, "you OK?" "Yeah," he replied, equally quietly. A second later he changed his mind. "No. I'm not." He looked sad and sort of haunted. "What's up?" I think I knew, but I didn't want to presume. Didn't seem a prudent thing to guess at, especially given my social skills. "That," he said, nodding at the pair of kissing couples. "They can do that. I... can't." The word came with a look I remembered, a look he'd had when we buried his dog. "Why not?" "Because I'm..." he caught himself, though I knew what he was going to say. I felt bad for him that he couldn't say it. "I just can't." "Oh yeah?" And I grabbed the back of his head with my hand, pulled him in, and laid a long kiss on him. It was almost funny how the kiss progressed. There was a second or two of closed-lipped shock, then he opened his mouth, wrapped his arms around me, and we kissed. No stars, choruses of angels, or thunderbolts of true love, mind, but still, there's nothing like kissing a willing guy. The kiss was long, slow, hot, and very, very nice. If Rob wasn't so screwed up in the head I'd have popped the boyfriend question on him there and then. He was as into it as I was, judging by his hands and tongue. Certainly didn't take him long to move from self-pity to shock to near-mauling. Mmmm, mauling. Alas, all good things come to an end, this one when I heard Trevor say "Holy shit... ." Rob broke the kiss and pushed away from me. If I hadn't been holding on to him, I'm pretty sure he would've bolted out of the cafÂŽ. I looked over at Trevor as I hung onto Rob. I'm not sure who was more shocked, Rob or Trevor. It would've been funny in other circumstances. Melanie was amused, and Rick had this combination of shock and confusion on his face. I was only glad Steph didn't say anything, but I could tell from the expression on her face and the little bit of drool that she thought the kiss was kind of hot. "You kissed him," Trevor exclaimed. "Yeah," I said. I had. Hadn't planned on it, but I had. It had been nice, too. "You're gay," he said. "Well, duh. Old news." "He kissed you back." "Yup," I replied. No real point in denying that, given he had one of his hands in my back pocket before he'd pulled away. "So that means he's..." Trevor trailed off. He'd apparently connected the dots. There was a parade of emotions across Trevor's face, and once again I cursed the feeble part of my brain that just couldn't pick them out. I'd bet on shock, realization, and something a little bit nasty, but I couldn't be sure. I'd have to talk to Trevor about it later. I wasn't going to actually answer the question, but Rob was so obviously into the kiss, and so obviously desperate to bolt, that I didn't think it mattered if I said anything "You do realize," I said to Trevor, "that if you say anything about this I will have to kill you, right?" "But..." "But nothing. The past is past. Be nice," I said, waggling a finger at him. Trevor made a strangled sound and obviously struggled with something for a second. "You suck," he finally said, pouting. "I think," I replied, "that we've already established that, yes. Your point?" "Dammit..." "I know, years of abuse, yadda yadda yadda. Over and done with, right?" I asked Rob pointedly. He nodded, eyes downcast. "Good. Then we're fine, right?" Trevor and Rob both nodded, though Trevor did with obvious reluctance. He knew the sort of crap that could come back to Rob, and I knew he wouldn't say anything. Neither would any of the others -- I trusted my friends. "Justin," said Melanie, breaking into the conversation, "I think it's time we should head home." I looked at my watch. It was already ten thirty, and we had at least another hour before we got back home, and there was school in the morning. "Yeah, good point," I said. "You remember where we parked?" "Yeah," said Rick. "No problem." "Great, then. Why don't you guys head out? I want to grab another tea for the road. I'll catch you in a couple of minutes." I walked up to the counter as everyone else made their way to the door. Well, everyone but Rob, who stayed. He kind of hovered behind me. I got a large green tea, and a hot chocolate with extra whipped cream. This place did real whipped cream, too, I noticed, complete with a shot of vanilla. "Here," I said to Rob as I handed him the cocoa. "Something warm for the road." He took it, though with a little hesitation. "Um... thanks," he said. "No problem," I replied, as we left the shop and started down the street to where the SUV was parked. We walked in silence for a couple of minutes. I felt like I ought to say something, but I wasn't sure what. The funny thing was that I wasn't feeling uncomfortable or anything -- just walking with Rob was nice. He was the one that ultimately broke the silence, though. "Why did you kiss me?" he asked. Just blurted it out as we were two blocks from the car. "Because you were looking miserable, pitiful, and were feeling sorry for yourself for no reason. We're an hour away from home, nobody here knows us, and we're in the middle of a university. Nobody cares, Rob." Nobody did, either. A couple of people in the shop had grinned at us, but most everyone paid us no attention. "You're gay, Rob. No big deal," I said with a shrug. "I won't do it again, though. Not unless you want me to." I was hoping he'd want me to, but he didn't say anything. Not then, not during the drive home, and not when I drove him to his house and picked up my car. Dammit.
  8. TheZot

    Chapter 13

    Dammit, I didn't realize I'd never posted the whole thing up here. I'll queue up the remaining chapters to release over the next week or so.
  9. Between arrogant classmates, an obnoxious roommate, and horribly bland food, Jae Park is finding Harvard isn't all it's cracked up to be. Luckily for him an odd YouTube video provides a welcome change.
  10. “Surfing porn on Tumblr again?” Jae Park didn’t jump, though it was a near thing. “And I only found pictures of your mom,” he replied. Which was, after all, the only appropriate thing to say to your roommate when he almost caught you avoiding your International Governance project and instead surfing for porn on tumblr “Yeah, yeah, slapped down, Parkland. Park street. Park slope. Car Parker.” Paul Whitman, Jae’s roommate, gave a little victory dance in the doorway of their suite. “What does that even mean?” Jae asked, not for the first, or even tenth, time. It was a reflex he couldn’t stop, since he didn’t want to know and always regretted getting an answer to. “It means… that I win!” “Yay. Douchebag point goes to you this conversation. Go you,” Jae said, in the driest tone of voice he could manage. Paul smirked at him. “You know you’ll miss me when I’m gone, Park Ranger!” “Will I? Let’s try and see.” “Hah! The Parkour tries for a point. Woohoo! Cultural assimilation’s almost here!” Jae closed his eyes and briefly ran through the Massachusetts homicide statutes in his head. He was reasonably sure he could get acquitted if it came to it. “I’m off, time to go trolling for pussy,” Paul proclaimed. “Did the animal shelter’s restraining order finally lapse?” Jae shot back. He was proud of that one. It had taken him a couple of days to work up after Paul’s last laughably unsuccessful attempt at to find someone for sex. “Yuk it up, Jae, but I’m off to find me some love!” “Don’t forget your penicillin.” “The burn’s how you learn, Jaywalker!” With a jaunty wave, Paul left their room, thankfully shutting the door behind him. Jae let his head thump back against the wall. He wanted to be a diplomat, but couldn’t manage to deal with his own deeply irritating roommate. “One more year,” he muttered to himself. “Get the BA, get an apartment. No privileged assholes in grad school.” He’d said that to himself so many times he almost believed it, or at least could mutter it with a mostly-straight face. Jae went back to his laptop where he had, indeed, been surfing for porn on tumblr. It wasn’t, he reflected as he clicked through, particularly hard to find. Unfortunately what it was starting to be was boring. He really, really needed to find a nice guy and get laid. If he could only bring himself to do it. *** Jae was sitting outside the math department building enjoying the late fall weather and watching KPop videos when he got the weirdest recommendation. The still shot was a close-up of someone’s eye. Normally that wouldn’t be that interesting, except in this case the iris was silver. Real silver, with a vertically split pupil. Not much of the skin around it showed, but what did show was an azure blue. The picture was a little blurry, but it looked like a real eye, not some photoshop image. Probably with contacts and makeup, but it was still an impressive bit of cosplay. Just because, Jae played the video. The eye blinked and the camera pulled back enough to show most of the face. It was a handsome face, one attached to someone clearly dedicated to their role, as every bit of skin was the same blue. It was nicely done, with no streaks, smears, or pink showing. There were even a few freckles scattered across the cheeks in a darker blue. The face broke into a full grin, showing a mouthful of pearly white, very pointed teeth. Jae was impressed with the dental work. Until his mouth opened there wasn’t any sign of the bulging you usually got with appliances. Not that Jae stared at guys’ mouths a lot or anything. Of course. “Awesome,” it said, in a bro-dude voice with just the faintest hint of sibilance on the ‘s’. Then the video ended. Jae sat for a moment and just looked at the end frame. The grinning blue face and pointed teeth just looked so happy, something that he very much wasn’t. “Fine,” he said, and hit the subscribe button. He could use some more videos of cute guys, even if they were weird. The accent was a little odd, probably because of the teeth. He swiped back to replay the video, and his phone crashed. Biting back a curse, he restarted his phone. He wanted to try the video again, but he had class and couldn’t wait, so he grabbed his stuff and set off across campus. He could always go back and watch it later. *** It was Thursday, and Jae was sitting in the back corner of the dining hall, hiding from the rest of his study group from his Cold War Treaties class. He was eating a boring sandwich, one of a thousand boring, tasteless sandwiches he’d eaten since he’d started school, when his phone buzzed with a YouTube notification: ‘You have a new video!’ The notification was useless, as they almost always were. Still, anything to distract him from the monotonous travesty of his sandwich was worth it. Damned Americans and their mayonnaise. Jae was pretty sure half his classmates would have their heads explode if they were served food with actual flavor. The video had a normal enough thumbnail. There was a clear view of a dorm room, pretty much like every other dorm room he’d seen. A few ragged posters were on the wall, off to the right there was the end of a loft bed, and there was a chair right in the center of the camera’s view. Most of the background was pretty blurry; whoever was filming this didn’t have a very good camera, and most of it was badly pixelated. He clicked play. He wasn’t expecting a whole lot, honestly. It was YouTube, so probably not porn. That was a shame, since he could do with some porn. Maybe not in the dining hall, but whatever, it wouldn’t be like anyone would care that much. Or, since he was wearing headphones, even notice. “Wait, wait, I got this!” The voice that came out of his earbuds was a mild tenor, with a vague accent that sounded like the Boston locals. The view shook a little, part of it obscured briefly by someone’s fingers. “Awesome, it worked! Hey, Torgin! It worked!” It was the same voice he’d heard on the video a few days ago, all happy bro-dude, with a little sibilance and a trace of Boston in it. When the hand moved he saw… a guy. A weird guy. On the one hand, he wasn’t all that much different than many of the people he saw every single day. Young, maybe twenty, with a mustard yellow t-shirt, bright red baseball hat on backwards, and what looked like cargo shorts. He was also, purely objectively, kind of hot. Nice arms, the t-shirt was snug enough to make it clear that the body it covered was toned, and the hands had long thin fingers. They were really nice fingers. Really nice. Jae would’ve done him in a hot second, if he wasn’t on the other side of the video. And blue. Bright, cerulean blue. With ram horns curling up around the side of the hat. There were limits, and Jae drew them at cosplayers. Even hot, fit cosplayers, who pretty clearly were dedicated to their craft. Seriously. He figured the makeup would smear all over. That Jae would have to admit he wanted a guy was maybe an issue too. “Hello there, members of the inner tubes! Welcome to our first video! I’m Drang! And this is Torgin! He’s working the main spells. Say hi, Torgin!” A crimson face, with long dark red hair and three small horns across his forehead ducked into the frame for a second. “Hi!” he said, before pulling back. “I think the spell’s stable,” Torgin continued from off-camera. “Awesome!” Drang said again, throwing a weird fist bump. He liked that word. Jae thought it suited him. “So we’re crossing the Great Void to bring you our awesome selves!” “Your awesome self,” came Torgin’s voice. “I’m just weaving the spells. You know I don’t like to be imaged.” “Fine,” Drang said, looking exasperated. “My truly awesome self. Moving image logging across the Great Void. Woo! Go us!” Jae stifled a laugh. These two, whoever they were, definitely had their characters down. ‘Great Void’. Jae could almost hear the capital letters. “So we’re doing this project for extra credit, since Torgin’s teleweaving prof said there was no way to tie into remote nodes asymptotically—” “—Asymmetrically!” “Whatever! But dude’s a complete stub-tailed slime dripper, so we’re doing it just because we can.” “We can’t!” “Except we are! Because we’re awesome like that.” “The charge has just about run out, Drang.” “Anyway, this is Drang and Torgin, saying ‘hi’ to the webbing tubes and we’ll be back next alignment!” Weirdly, once the video was done it stayed finished and didn’t start playing anything else. Maybe there just wasn’t anything like it. He tried replaying the video but just got an error. Retrying didn’t help; the third time he refreshed the YouTube app didn’t even try showing an error, just a black square where the video ought to be. Annoying, but better than having his phone crash. He wasn’t sure how many people had seen it, since play count wasn’t showing for some reason. Nobody had commented on the video yet, so he decided he’d be first. You guys are pretty amusing, Jae wrote into the comment box. It was this first time he’d commented on a video, and seeing the “JaeDancer” account name out there on screen made him a little nervous. I’d like to see more. *** It was only two o’clock on Saturday afternoon, and Jae was already regretting his decision to become a diplomat. That was a record for this semester — usually he didn’t regret the decision for most of the weekend, and not until three-ish on weekdays. Once again he thought it was really unfortunate that he couldn’t stomach the sight of blood. It’d be so much easier to make his parents happy if he’d gone to med school instead. “Lazy, whining, useless—” His impending rant about the other members of his study group was cut off by a ping from his phone. He took a deep breath and hoped YouTube wasn’t trying to show him Neverland again. He was already depressed enough as it was, thank you very much. The notification was blank, so he just tapped on it and hoped for the best. His phone was filled with a still image of an oddly purplish cloth, with flecks of white. After a moment of buffering the video started. “So thank you comment webber, for your request. You wanted more, so here we are to oblige!” From the voice it could only be ‘Drang’, his oddly endearing cosplayer. Jae wondered how long he’d keep going with these videos before he got bored and stopped. “You wanted it, so…” And with that the camera moved back a bit. The white flecks resolved into the remains of a logo of some sort, though from the shadows it had left behind he couldn’t tell what it was a logo for. “It’s time for the big reveal! Ta-dah!” With that the shirt was whipped all the way off. What was revealed were a set of nicely cut abs with some shadowed cobbling, as well as a pair of square, nicely muscled pecs. The nipples were small with silver bars through them. Jae had no idea, until right that moment, that he had a thing for pierced nipples. A big thing, if the pain from his near-instant erection was anything to judge by. All the skin was that same azure blue as he’d seen in the previous videos. Drang’s dedication to his role clearly hadn’t wavered — there were no signs of makeup, no streaks or spots of pink showing in the blue. Even the t-shirt had been clean. Well, OK, it wasn’t clean, but it didn’t have any streaks of blue makeup on it. He was, Jae noted somewhat vacantly, an innie. More importantly he was about as perfect a fit for Jae’s tastes as anyone he’d seen, and not even the cosplay kink did anything to counter that. Made it even more perfect, if Jae was honest about it. As he reached down to adjust himself, Drang’s voice said “Nice, huh?” on the video, as a hand with thick, black, almost claw-like fingernails traced up the left side of the abs. Jae came right there in his shorts. And he didn’t even care. He left a two-word comment on the video. Very nice. Yeah, Jae thought to himself as he sagged to the ground. That’s a diplomatic way to put it. *** Jae was about a hundred and fifty Smoots across the Charles River, on his way back to campus at the end of his usual five mile run. The arc of the bridge made it seem like the buildings on the far side were slowly rising out of the ground. It was a kind of magic, and one he enjoyed. At least until his phone chimed with an incoming text: Project time, Linkin Park! Jae shuddered to a stop. Just the idea of getting back to his dorm room to spend the rest of the afternoon with his extraordinarily annoying roommate killed the good feelings from the run dead. He couldn’t even lie to himself and think that partnering with Paul for a project in his Lit class had seemed like a good idea at the time. It had been an awful idea, and he knew it. He just hadn’t been able to say no before it had been too late. “Never take the same class as a roommate ever again,” he muttered to himself. That got him a weird stare from one of the other joggers going by. Not for long, since she kept on running. Jae didn’t recognize her, and for once he realized the opinion of someone he’d never see again didn’t actually matter much. Besides, everyone talked to themselves once in a while, right? He also had a notification from YouTube that he had a new video to watch. He’d seen that earlier, while he was running past the boat house, but he’d ignored it then. Jae decided not to ignore it now — standing on the sidewalk watching a video on his phone wasn’t a great idea, but anything to delay the inevitable seemed worth it. The thumbnail image was Drang’s messy dorm room. Messier dorm room, rather. It had acquired a new pile of books and a bowl with a half dozen apple cores. “We won!” On screen Drang threw himself into his chair, making it slide to the right with the sound of wood scraping on tiles. He was wearing a baseball hat, of course, still backwards. This one was white with streaks of ochre on it, like some kind of alien grass stains. They matched the streaks on his face. His t-shirt was covered in smears of brown and ochre as well. “We played the Delt Eps and beat ‘em eight to six! I got three half-tags and two assists. Pretty cool. We figured we’d get our tails handed to us, since the Eps have a couple of flyers, but luckily they suck.” “Bet it was awesome,” Jae said with a smile. Drang’s enthusiasm was contagious. “It was,” Drang said into the camera, “totally awesome!” “Thought so,” said Jae. He didn’t even care that he was talking to a video on his phone while he stood on the side of a bridge in broad daylight. “Even better, Torgin scored! Which was cool, because he almost never plays any more. Which he really should, because it was only one broken horn and they grow back after a while. It’s not like he got his tail dislocated or anything.” Drang winced. “Now that really hurts. But doesn’t matter, nothing broken and we won!” That’s when Drang deflated. “Unfortunately now I’ve gotta work on my midterm project because someonementioned that maybe we were working on interweb node interdiction—” “Interfacing,” murmured Jae. “And we got told that we definitely weren’t working on that, because undergrads didn’t do that kind of thing without supervision, which means we can’t present it as our project. Which sucks, and not in a good way. “Still! They can’t tell us to stop if they don’t know we started. And this is fun, so what the heck, right? And it’s a lot more fun than this.” Drang waved a thick hardcover book at the camera. The cover art was some kind of eye-twisting pattern that the camera Moire’d out on as it moved. “Three hundred and eighty-six shards. For this! It’s nuts! And they don’t even sell them used because this term there’s a new edition. Just like last term.” Drang looked to the side for a moment. “Ah, rips, the charge is—” And with that the video ended. Jae leaned against the bridge railing for a moment, basking in the late fall sun and laughing at the video. Congrats on the win! he commented. Glad Torgin survived unscathed. And I sympathize on the books. I paid 1200 this term myself. If Drang, or whoever he was, could keep it in character the least Jae could do was play along. *** It was sometime past nine when Jae’s phone told him there was another video up. He was in the lounge working on his Modern Asian History homework and avoiding his roommate’s newly discovered and disconcertingly enthusiastic love life as best he could manage. Jae still was trying to forget what he’d he’d walked in on the previous evening. There were some things he just didn’t want to know could be done with scotch tape and coffee mugs. He was so, so glad he didn’t drink coffee. Videos were a whole lot better than homework and hadn’t, to date, been mentally scarring so he started it up. “I hate this stuff,” Drang said into the camera. “Node balancing. What do I need node balancing for? I want to build flutterways, not do dimensional engineering.” Jae watched him pout a little. “Well, I really want to do the dunesurfing circuit, but that’s not going to happen. Anyway, that’s the project they handed out today. Do a fully balanced cross-resonant sky weave, except we can’t use one of the DeLanier sequences. Which isn’t fair, since that’s what we spent the first half of the semester on.” Drang threw himself back into his chair and almost tipped over. Jae watched him flail around wildly, almost knocking off his ever-present backwards baseball hat. That was a little disappointing. Jae was hoping in one of these videos that the hat would come off. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to see the fake horns came with it, finally breaking the cosplay illusion, or if he wanted to see that Torgin was dedicated enough to keep them on anyway. “Pfft,” Drang said, after he caught his balance. “Guess Da was right, if I can’t even sit right there’s no way I could do pro sports.” Jae’s heart broke at the sad tone in Drang’s voice. It didn’t last, though. Drang was just… happy. Nothing bad stuck for very long. “Time to work, though! Torgin’s roommate Krift is always saying node balancing is easy, it’s just like disc shifting, only in six dimensions. I’m the best three dimensional ‘shifter in the frat, so it’s gotta only be twice as hard, right? ‘S just math!” Jae laughed at that. He had no idea what node balancing was, and the explanations that Drang had given for disc shifting sounded nuts. He was also pretty sure that math really didn’t work like that. Not in the real world, at least. In Drang’s world it probably didn’t either. It was still an awesome performance. Jae hoped that whoever was making these videos was getting a good grade, or at least having a good laugh, out of all of them. I’m sure you’ll do fine, he typed into the comment box. Remember to double-check your work! And don’t take the short cuts, you know that always gets you in trouble. “There,” he whispered to himself. “I can play along too.” He was just helping someone out on what was, he was sure, a project for a film class. Really. *** “…And make sure you finish chapters eighteen through twenty for Monday. I expect six pages contrasting the effects of imposing the EU legislative frameworks on two late-entry member nations of your choice.” Jae winced at that. It was only Wednesday, but getting that paper done was going to eat up at least eight hours in research alone. Just like three of his other classes that week. He didn’t even want to think about the group project he had. Or the group he was stuck doing it in. It’d be worth it when he had his degree. That’s what he kept telling himself. His phone had sat in his messenger bag during class, the distraction tucked safely away. When he pulled it out to check he saw he missed two calls from his mother, a dozen Tumblr updates, and a new video on YouTube. That last one, at least, was worth checking on. So far ‘Drang’ had done a dozen videos and hadn’t broken character once. Jae was also the only person commenting on them so far. On the one hand he felt kind of bad for Drang and Torgin, since they were putting so much work into these. On the other it felt like they were kind of a secret, something just for him that was separate from his outside life. He kind of liked that. His outside life, frankly, made him miserable. The thumbnail was a big still of Drang’s face, mouth half open. He still wore that backwards baseball hat, yellow this time, with a few tufts of dark navy blue hair sticking out the closure of the hat. Jae slipped in his earbuds, looked around to make sure there wasn’t anyone nearby, and hit play. “Hey, Jade! I saw your comment! Torgin says hi, and thanks. Also, books are expensive. Which sucks, ‘cause they’re pretty useless after the class is over.” Drang looked grumpy. “And my traffic management class really sucks, Beener is really twisting my tail, y’know? This latest project is stupid. I mean, yeah, we have to manage traffic, ‘cause that’s kind of the point. This time he’s got us mixing peds, slithers, and floats. On the same filmy? Who does that?” Drang was clearly getting worked up over… whatever he was talking about. Jae wasn’t sure, but it was consistent and realistic, and the guy playing Drang in these videos was really into his cosplay. Drang held up a piece of notebook paper with a really crude sketch of two towers. There was a line connecting their tops, what looked like a ribbon across the middle, and under that a playground slide. He’d drawn crude stick figures on the ribbon, had some people with wings grabbing the line, and a few scrambled blobs on the slides. “Seriously, it’s stupid. It never happens. I mean, when would it? Floats always take the lines and slithers go for the slides. There’s never enough mixed traffic on the filmys to make a difference!” Jae watched Drang pout over his homework assignment. It was kind of cute, really — a jock cosplaying some kind of blue demon-creature-thing making sad puppy faces like an offended toddler about pedestrian traffic problems. The video had no comments yet, of course. What if the lines break? Not that Jae had any idea what he was talking about here, but lines were a kind of rope, right? Ropes broke sometimes. There were a lot of ways things could fail. Or maintenance. Something might be closed to be fixed. And fire — might not be able to get to one of the exits. *** The biggest upside to eating in the dining halls, Jae had thought when he was a freshman, was that you got to see lots of your classmates in a social setting. The biggest downside to eating in the dining halls, he thought now that he was a junior, was that you got to see lots of your classmates in a social setting. Like, for example, Trevor Kennedy. Seeing Trevor at his table definitely didn’t make lunch better. “Jesus, Jae, how can you eat that?” Trevor said. He had a grilled chicken breast and something green that had been steamed into unrecognizability. Jae looked down at the plate of noodle goo and overcooked, unidentifiable bird he’d gotten on his way over to his study table. They kept on serving it, and while it was mostly tasteless with a nasty texture, Jae’d found that if you put enough Sriracha on it the stuff was tolerable. He’d done that, and the goo was… orange. At least it had some flavor. “I make do,” he said. “Man, you guys gotta make everything look like kimchi, don’tcha?” He sighed. “I’d kill for some kimchi right now,” he said. “Dude, gross. It’s like, hot rotting cabbage.” “Tasty, well-aged cabbage,” Jae corrected. “Whatever,” Trevor said. “Catch you at three at the Kennedy? We have that project and the others are getting antsy to get it done.” Jae suspected they were waiting for someone else to actually do the project, given how far they’d gotten on it. “Sure,” he replied. Part of diplomacy was not saying things. Jae had gotten extremely good at that this semester. Trevor left, and in a moment of weakness and relief Jae slumped back into his chair. He took a few deep breaths, but his attempt at meditation was interrupted by a new-video notification from his phone. The thumbnail was a typewritten page in an alphabet Jae didn’t recognize. From the formatting it looked like the title page of a paper, and across the top was what looked like a grade, in bright red ink. He slipped on his headphones and hit play. “A-minus. Woohoo, an A-minus! Thanks to the awesome Jade Ancer!” Jae smiled at how Drang decided to pronounce his username. It was kind of cool how Drang kept in character through all the videos. “You were right, it was all about emergencies, not that the soft-scaled jerk actually said that. ‘The purpose of the assignment was to teach you to explore the full problem space before deciding on a course of action,’” Drang said with a ridiculously snobby accent. Then he snorted. “And half the class completely missed it. I would’ve too if you hadn’t said something. Thanks, Jade!” Jae knew the warm, happy feeling he had wasn’t real, since Drang was just someone playing a part. That didn’t matter, because he still did. Cool, he commented. Glad it helped. A second later his phone pinged and the chat window opened up. Hey, ur here! On! Smthing like that. Jae smiled at the text in the chat window. Apparently in cosplay-land they didn’t have autocorrect. That was… charming, somehow, and very in-character. dnt no the spiders did chats! Everything does chats these days, Jae wrote back. Kul! On ltr? Gotta go sun, got a hot dat! The idea of Drang on a date was surprisingly painful. That was kind of stupid, Jae knew. Drang was no doubt straight, and dated sorority girls. Or he would if he were real. The cosplayer probably did. No amount of makeup would give you the abs and arms that Drang had. Sure, Jae replied. I’ll check back before bed. Awsm! Kach you l8r! It would’ve been ridiculous, and a little stupid, to get really cheered up by someone playing a character on the internet. That’s why Jae didn’t think about it at all while he put his stuff away and gathered up the remains of his mediocre lunch. *** “Jaeson, Jaymaster, Jaybird! I’m borrowing your body wash! Got a hot date with Tiffany!” “Please don’t,” Jae said. It was 6AM, and too early to be dealing with idiots. Not that it mattered, nor would it change anything, but he felt obliged to protest. “And it’s not even breakfast yet.” “Uh huh,” Paul replied, sticking his head out from behind the bathroom door. “And three guesses what I’m eating this morning!” He leered and waggled his tongue in a truly disconcerting way. “Crab?” Jae guessed. “Hah! Nothing but top quality fish for me!” The bathroom door shut, and Jae pulled the blanket up over his head. He knew hiding wouldn’t help anything, but it helped muffle the noise. Though the one upside to Paul getting laid regularly was Jae didn’t have to hear him beating off in the shower. Or see the remnants on the tiles afterward. While he was hiding he could catch up with the video that was waiting for him. It had been put up the previous evening, but the project group hadn’t broken up until 1 and he’d just wanted to get some sleep. “I can’t believe that fucker!” Drang started yelling at the video before he even sat down. He was so angry that Jae could swear his eyes were glowing red. He paused the video and looked closer — they actually were glowing. There was a little smoke coming out of his nose, too. Jae was seriously impressed at the work Drang was putting into these videos. “Total bigoted slime dripping skeezeweasel. I mean, dude, I hardly sat down before he was all ‘oh, you’re a Tharg.’ only snobby like he had his own tail stuck up his ass.” ‘He’. That one pronoun shot through Jae like lightning. Drang dated guys. He was gay. “Fuck, of course I’m a gods-damned Tharg. How stupid was he that he couldn’t figure that out? Oozing hells, didn’t he think to ask Torgin? Or even ask my name? Asshole. “No,” he said, cutting himself off. “I like assholes. He was just a flame brained, no class, judgemental cack-head.” Drang put on another one of those pouts that Jae found so adorable. “I swear, I’m never letting Torgin set me up blind again. Worst. Date. Ever.” No, thought Jae. Maybe the best. Drang sank back into his chair. “I know it’s late, and you’re probably asleep, Jade. Maybe we can chat later.” Jae thought for a moment. Sorry it was such a disaster, he typed into the comment box. Then, before he could think twice about it and get in his own way he added If it had been me we would’ve had a good time. Promise. A whole lot better time than he was having with his own hand, that’s for sure. *** “You don’t want to fail! They’ll throw you out and no good school will take you. Your grandfather would be ashamed!” “Yes, mother,” Jae replied. Calls from his mother were the only time he got actually speak with someone in Korean but he was finding, after three years of nearly failing with a 4.02 GPA, that it was less appealing than it was when he’d first started school. His phone pinged with a new video alert, and he gave a silent prayer of thanks for the excuse. “I have to go, mother,” Jae lied. “I have a meeting I should not miss.” He shouldn’t have enjoyed hanging up on her, but he did anyway. Thirty videos and six impromptu text chats, and he was totally infatuated with his blue cosplayer. He was adult enough to admit it. Maybe not to another human being, or even out loud. But those were just details. “Hey, look what happened today! I got my midterm spell circle project back!” Drang held up a white sheet of paper that had to be half a meter square. On it there was a complex diagram that looked like some kind of elaborate, decorated pentagram with extra flourishes. He’d been watching so many of these videos that Drang’s cosplay-blue fingers holding the paper didn’t even register any more “I totally thought I was going to fail, but nope! Because of you-know-who,” and Jae did, because it was him. “I got an A! Awesome!” “Told you,” Jae said to the screen. It didn’t matter that he wasn’t recording, and that nobody could actually hear him. He was proud that his friend had done well, even if it was in one of his fake classes. The enthusiasm was real and he was happy to be swept along into something he hadn’t felt for himself in longer than he could remember. “The prof especially liked these bits,” Drang continued, as he held the paper up closer to the camera. The image went all pixelated as the sharp lines, drawn in some kind of sparkly green ink, filled the screen. As the image stabilized Jae could see the diagram in its entirety, done up in an elaborate Art Nouveau style, the five-sided star bordered with swooping vine-like flourishes. The diagram was as much art as diagram, and pretty. Jae reached out to touch the picture on his phone screen, tracing the edge of one of the star’s legs. That’s when the world flashed white. Then he blacked out. The blackout only lasted a second before reality reasserted itself. It did so along with gravity, which was somewhat unfortunate since Jae was now about two feet above the surface of a desk. He squawked, dropped, and rolled off all in one move, then fell a few feet face-first to the ground. All the stuff on the desk — a collection of books, papers, pencils, a pair of boxer shorts, a saucer full of dirt, and what felt like a large rock — fell with him. “Ouch?” He sat up and rubbed his head, just in time for a glass of something foully peppermint-scented to tip over and splash right on top of his head. “Of course,” Jae grumbled. He stood up and stripped off his shirt. Half of it was covered in the nasty milkshake he was wearing, but half was dry and he tried his best to wipe the worst of it out if his hair. “Aah! Holy shit, what are you?” Jae spun and almost fell again at the exclamation from behind him. In the doorway to the room stood something, or someone, big, blue, and very surprised. He recognized the voice, though. “Drang?” he asked. “You… know me?” “You really take this cosplay thing seriously,” Jae said. His head was still a little fuzzy. “Also how did I get here? This doesn’t look like my dorm room.” “It worked. It worked! Awesome!” Drang jumped and punched the air. “I summoned a real demon! Woohoo! Wait,” he said suddenly. “You’re not going to eat my soul or anything, right? I mean, that wouldn’t be cool.” “No, of course not,” Jae said. He wasn’t sure what Drang was talking about, and he still wasn’t thinking clearly. “Why would I do that?” “It’s what demons do,” Drang said solemnly. “That’s what they tell us in class. You summon them and if you’re not careful they’ll suck your soul. “Your soul isn’t what I want to suck,” Jae blurted out. He flushed a deep red, matched a moment later by Drang’s dark blue flush. “Sorry, I don’t know what I’m saying.” “Uh. Yeah, um,” Drang stammered. “Probably the crossing. The books say it can, um, confuse things.” “I’m certainly confused. What’s going on, and how did I get here?” “You’re a demon,” Drang said slowly. “I summoned you.” “You said that already,” Jae said, hands on his hips and irritation clear in his voice. “Repeating it doesn’t mean it makes any more sense.” Drang started to say something, then stopped. He did this twice more, though Jae saw that Drang was staring him straight in the nipples. A quick glance at the slowly growing bulge in Drang’s dirt-stained cargo shorts gave him a good idea exactly why he was distracted too. “Drang, it’s Jae. I’ve been commenting on the videos you’ve been making. We’ve been chatting for the past couple of months. Remember? JaeDancer?” “Jade? That’s you?” “Jae, yes, it’s me. You sound surprised, I thought from the way you talked you knew what I looked like.” “I just assumed,” Drang mumbled. “I didn’t know you really smoked.” Jae decided to take that as a complement. “How did I get here? I was watching your last video, with your spell circle homework.” “Yeah, I aced that! Hey, thanks,” Drang said. “You helped a bunch!” “Anyway,” Jae continued, pushing through Drang’s relentless enthusiasm, “I was watching and touched the image and then… I was here.” Drang looked horrified. “You touched the spell circle? You don’t ever touch circles, that’s not safe!” “I’ll remember that for next time,” Jae said. “Can I, uh, get cleaned up somewhere?” In his head he was kicking himself. He was supposed to be more clever than this — that was what he was training for, and what kind of diplomat stammered and said stupid things? One standing in front of a dead-sexy tall blue guy with curly ram horns, an innocent blush, and a couple of inches of gorgeous abs showing as he scratched behind his head. That kind, apparently. “Sure,” Drang said. He sniffed. “Uh, sorry about the kaffir, I meant to clean the desk off last week but, well…” “Midterms, right,” Jae said. He remembered how haggard Drang had looked in the videos the previous week. Not that it made the sticky, stinking mess matted in his hair any more pleasant. “The shower’s in there?” Drang pointed at the door While it was phrased as a question, the bathroom was, indeed, right there. It was a mostly normal bathroom, luckily for Jae. There was a half empty jar of horn polish by the sink, and the bathtub needed a good scrubbing. It was cleaner than he was, and that was the important thing. It took Jae a minute to get the unfamiliar plumbing working and the water to a temperature he liked, but when he did he stripped down and enjoyed the shower more than any he’d had in years. The quiet gave Jae a chance to think, too. “He wasn’t cosplaying,” he murmured to himself. “And he thinks I’m a demon. I am, a demon, I guess. To Drang, at least.” A very real, very attractive Drang. One who, as far as Jae could tell, kind of liked him. Almost as important, one that found Jae hot. That thought brought on the expected reaction, but rather than being annoyed, or embarrassed, Jae almost… reveled in it. In this moment of quiet, he realized he was in some other dimension where nobody knew him and nobody had any expectations of him. Also? Extremely horny. Jae gave himself a shake. He was training to be a diplomat, right? Negotiate for what you wanted, make all sides happy? He could do that. Stepping out of the shower he dried himself off, then positioned the towel just right; low slung, just the tiniest bit of hair peeking over the edge, opening set so his right leg was bare and threatened to show more as he walked. He took a deep breath to steady himself and pushed open the bathroom door. “Thanks,” Jae said as he walked into the dorm room. He put the tiniest bit of a sway in his hips. “That stuff was really gross.” “No problem,” Drang said. He was kneeling in front of his desk picking up the last of the stuff that had fallen on Jae. “It was kind of my hnnnng—” Drang cut off abruptly as he turned and looked at Jae. “What, is there something wrong?” Jae asked, pretending alarm. He spun around to look back into the bathroom and ‘accidentally’ let the towel almost slip off. “No, no, it’s uh, nothing. Nothing, really,” Drang stammered. As Jae turned back around he saw Drang pull a book into his lap. The move wasn’t at all subtle, but, then, the huge tent he was pitching wasn’t subtle either. Or completely hidden by the book. “Drang,” Jae said as he slunk over. “Are you feeling all right?” As he knelt down the knot on the towel slipped away, the only thing keeping it from falling off completely was Jae’s burgeoning erection. “I’m… I’m fine.” “Oh, you really are,” Jae breathed, then he lunged in with a fierce kiss. Drang tasted of orange and chocolate, and after a moment’s stunned hesitation enthusiastically kissed Jae back. They fell together and half rolled on the floor, Jae ending up on top, Drang’s hands tangled in Jae’s hair, Jae’s grabbing Drang’s horns and pulling their faces closer together. The kiss was hot, and the hardness Jae felt pressing into his groin drove him into a frenzy. Drang’s teeth were as sharp as they looked, the points drawing blood as their mouths mashed together. “You’re an incubus, I know it,” Drang breathed when they finally broke the kiss. “They warned us about you in class.” “Did they?” asked Jae. He was feeling bolder by far than he’d ever felt in his life. “What did they say?” “They said you were crafty,” Drang stammered. “Oh?” Jae said. He slipped a hand under the hem of Drang’s shirt, teaching his fingers along his side as his hand moved up, pushing the loose fabric up as he went. “What else did they say?” “They said said you were sexy. And—” His sentence was cut off with a shudder as Jae ran his tongue lightly around the edge of Drang’s hard, square pec. “And?” Jae asked. “And you might suck—” Drang cut off as Jae did indeed suck, right on Drang’s nipple. Bit, too, though gently, taking the nub and the bar in it between his front teeth. Under him Drang bucked and gibbered incoherently. Jae slid his hand down Drang’s side and under the waistband of his shorts, closing his fingers around the long hard penis beneath them. It felt odd, tapered without a blunt tip. It was covered with loose skin, subtly ridged. Definitely not human and Jae knew it was going to feel very, very good inside him. He stroked twice, very slowly, then let his hand go still. Drang twitched once, panting heavily. “Drang?” Jae said. “Buh? Yeah?” Jae stood up. He was nude, erect, unashamed, and felt very powerful. That was something he hadn’t felt in… ever. “Want to fuck?” Drang went from dazed to alert in an instant, his eyes blown out and the faint smell of burnt cedar drifting in the air around him. “Oh, goddess, yes,” he breathed. Jae grinned and reached a hand down. Drang grabbed it and pulled himself upright, his t-shirt falling back into place as he stood. Jae thought that was a shame, really. He was a few inches taller than Jae, and broad where Jae was slender. He was also fully clothed to Jae’s casual nudity. Jae hadn’t thought he could get any harder, but that turned out not to be the case. Jae reached up and pushed Drang’s ever-present baseball hat off his head. Underneath it was short, dark navy hair, now sticking up in all directions. The horns, as he hoped, were real, and kind of cute as they curled around the sides of his head. “Drang? You’re really wearing too much.” Jae had never seen anyone try so hard to get naked and still fail. Drang tried to strip off his t-shirt, undo his shorts, and toe out of his sneakers all at the same time. It didn’t work and he fell onto the bed all tangled up in his clothes. His tail, which Jae found oddly endearing, was pinned to the bed, the blunt tip twitching with Drang’s frustration. Jae laughed as he watched. Drang was like an over-eager puppy in a way, almost desperate to please. Or get laid. Could be either, and Jae was good with it. “It’s OK, you don’t have to strangle yourself,” Jae said. As Drang sat up and worked the shirt over his head Jae knelt down and grabbed the waistband of the shorts. The top button was undone and they slipped off easily enough. They had a hole in the back big enough for Drang’s tail to slip through. The boxers he was wearing underneath them were a dark, almost brown, orange silk. “Oh, sexy,” Jae teased Drang blushed. “I, uh, kind of like how they feel,” he mumbled. Jae ran his fingertips along the silky covered length and felt Drang’s dick jump. “I do too,” he said. He slid them down and over Drang’s oddly shaped feet. They appeared to only have two toes, and another time Jae would find them fascinating, but right then he really didn’t care. Drang was leaning back on the bed, elbows to the side and behind, legs spread. He was tensing up, making his abs clear. His tail quivered a little with the effort. Jae let his hands stroke Drang’s legs as he looked at his body. He was that sexy dark blue all over, a little lighter between waist and mid-thigh. His sparse pubic fur was a midnight blue, and from what Jae could feel under his hands Drang had no hair on his legs. Drang’s upper body was amazingly cut. Like he’d briefly showed off in his video, he had visible abs and an innie navel. His pecs were square and nicely built without bulging with small nipples, both of which had silver bars through them. Drang’s shoulders were wide and his arms were muscled. “You’re gorgeous, you know?” Jae asked. Drang’s twitching stopped all at once, and Jae realized he wasn’t showing off so much as really nervous. “You think so? I’m not anything special,” he said. “Just a Tharg, y’know?” There was a little bitterness in his voice. “You’re the pretty one.” “Not ‘just’ anything,” Jae said. He gave a small, real smile. “Well, maybe just awesome.” Drang paused for half a second, then gave a huge grin. “Yeah, maybe that.” Jae leaned forward a little and took a good look at the cock sticking up in front of him. Like he’d felt, it was maybe eight inches long, an inch or so wide at the base, and tapered to nearly a point. It was covered in loose skin, and had a half dozen ridges along its length. It also curved slightly in, like it was pointing at Drang’s navel. He apparently had no external testicles. Drang’s excitement was obvious, both in how hard it was and how much it was leaking. The shaft was wet and shiny, and small amounts of fluid bubbled out of the skin around the tip, pulsing out in time with Drang’s breathing. It smelled faintly of strawberry. “This,” Jae said, “looks… tasty.” “Whoa, whoa, whoa, ow, teeth, no!” Drang squawked as Jae leaned down to take him into his mouth. “Drang,” Jae said softly, his breath blowing across the wilting cock he held just in front of his mouth, “my teeth aren’t pointed.” “Wait, but,” Drang protested. “I don’t—wah! Goddess, goddess, goddess!” he chanted as Jae sucked him down to the root before taking the next ten minutes to demonstrate the advantages of being a member of a species that didn’t have needle sharp fangs. The power Jae felt, as he brought Drang to the edge of orgasm and held him there, was heady. Drang’s precum flowed freely and tasted of strawberries. It was the most amazing thing Jae had tasted, and he wanted more. He had to force himself to stop and pull back. He was about to come just from blowing Drang and that wasn’t what he wanted for his first time. “I’m almost there, goddess, don’t stop!” Drang whimpered. Jae straddled Drang’s prone body, his hard cock pointing straight at Drang’s face. “Next time,” Jae said, “you can fuck me with your tail while I suck you off. But right now…” He shifted forward and up a little bit. One of his hands was next to Drang’s head, the other reaching behind him and grabbing Drang’s erection. “Right now I want you to fuck me.” With that he sat back, Drang’s hard, slick, and pointed cock sliding almost perfectly inside him. It ran right along his prostate and he had one long, glorious, eternal moment of bliss before Drang grabbed his hips, thrust upwards, and made his his head explode. *** Jae finally collapsed to the bed a couple of hours later, covered in sweat and come, exhausted and totally, amazingly satisfied. “That,” he said, as he snuggled into the crook of Drang’s arm, “was an excellent example of cross-cultural exchange.” “Mmmm,” Drang agreed. “It definitely was.” “So tell me,” Jae asked. “How exactly do I get home?” Drang froze. “Uh, well… about that….”
  11. Welcome Back.

  12. "It was great once," said the sorcerer, pacing wildly and wringing his hands. His voice had a sing-song quality to it, and William was pretty sure that the man had finally gone completely mad. Or had been taken over by one of the spirits he had been speaking to. Either way, he was unpredictable, and dangerous. "This was a great city. Magnificent, a city for the ages, all great and powerful. There was a flaw, though," the sorcerer said, turning his gaze to William. His eyes were green and brown, the same green as the city's magic. Green, brown, and insane. "Contamination. A source of power, yes, but contamination, ruining the city. It was cleansed, oh, yes, it was cleansed. We cleansed it!" The sorcerer's tone was one of triumph as he shook his balled fists at the air. "But…" William prompted. The sorcerer spun, a wild expression on his face. A little bit of spittle running down the corner of his mouth, and droplets of it were flung around with his sudden movement. "But there was damage! Damage and we were without power. We languished for so very long, broken, and without a focus to fix ourselves." He seemed to draw into himself as he said this, then exploded outward. "Now, we live again, we can work again. We shall be great again!" He gave a mad laugh and it echoed weirdly down the hall, sounding as if there were two voices instead of one. William had a good idea where the power was coming from, and he seriously doubted that the life energy of a half dozen people would be enough to fix the city. He certainly didn't want to be one of the ones used in the failed attempt, and wasn't sure if success might be even worse than failure. The spirit of the city that the sorcerer had tapped into was obviously insane, as was the sorcerer itself, and from the condition of the women here they clearly had no regard for the people they used. It was time to put a stop to this madman and his wild scheme, and for that William needed Ben. Hoping Ben was near, and knowing he had to be quick in case he was overheard, William reached out and nearly shouted with his mind. Ben. Madman in the central tower, possessed by the city. Uses people for power, he's looking to... William was cut off mid-thought by the sorcerer. "Silence!" he shouted.Yellow and gold pinwheels flared at each of his shoulders as the sorcerer called two of his spirits to action. They darted out, spinning madly and throwing off fat white sparks as they flew at William. He dove aside and tried to deflect them, raising his hand in an attempt to weave a half-remembered spirit guard spell, but William's memory was incomplete and his hands too slow – the spirits slammed into him, one into his outstretched arm, the other into his head. A massive jolt of electricity flowed between them as his body crashed to the ground, jerking spasmodically; the pain of the impact dwarfed by that of the fire that danced in his veins. Then darkness, blissful darkness, fell. * * * "So I should go kill this controller and all will be well? What's to stop someone else from coming in and starting all over?" "Because the city is a self-contained pocket realm with gateways only open when the city is active, of course," Drosnen said, again sounding contemptuous. "That means, barbarian," he said, speaking slowly and enunciating clearly in the way people do when speaking to small children and idiots, "that if you take the people out it will be hidden again." "Can we get out?" Ben hardly relished the idea of being trapped inside the realm when its gates closed. "Yes, of course, don't be stupid. Out is easy," Drosnen said, waving away the objection. "Fine," Ben said. "Still, why should I help you? If the controller has the city behind him we're better off ignoring him, grabbing the girl, and leaving." "Because, barbarian," Drosnan said, a nasty smile on his face, "the controller has your partner." Ben scowled, not quite willing to believe Drosnen, yet more than willing to believe that William had gotten himself into deep trouble. William's message reached him then, and Ben stiffened as a small part of the shock that fell William was transmitted across their link and ran through his body. William lived, Ben could tell, but nothing past that; no idea how badly injured he might be. A fury swept over Ben, driving away his caution and his curiosity, leaving only a burning need to find William and rescue him. "You," he spat at Drosnen, "where is he?" "I hardly think you're in any position to make demands," the construct said with a contemptuous sneer. Ben touched the symbol-inscribed band around his left bicep and spoke a single, harsh syllable. His left hand glowed a pale gold as it shot out and grabbed Drosnan by the throat. Much to the construct's surprise, Ben could touch him. Touch him and squeeze, quite uncomfortably. "Positions change, construct," Ben said, the tip of his sword touching Drosnen's chest. Like Ben's hand, the sword made contact as well, cutting through the fabric of Drosnen's shirt. A tiny amount of blood appeared around the sword's point and trickled down the blade. The drip fell off the edge, turning into a tangle of wispy threads and disappearing a few inches before the floor. Ben paid it no mind. "He's in the central control room with the controller and five other people and the city's central consciousness and the city is preparing to power up," Drosnen babbled, afraid for the first time since his imprinting millennia ago that he might be hurt. "Access. Where?" Each word was emphasized with a squeeze. "Out the door on the other side of the room, down the corridor, third on the left!" Ben released Drosnen and sprinted across the room, fear and worry building with each step. The door Drosnen had mentioned was wide open, and the lights in the hallway beyond were lit just far enough to make it clear which door Ben should take. The stairs flew past as Ben ran to the top, slowing just before crossing the threshold, taking one last breath. He knew that as soon as he set foot off the stairs the city proper would know where he was. "Barbarian!" The voice boomed out across the hall as Ben exited the stairwell. He'd emerged at the midpoint of the great hall and turned to his right to look down to the end. "I have your friend, barbarian! I could kill him if I chose!" The words were accompanied by a tittering laughter, making it clear the speaker was dancing on the knife-edge of insanity. The speaker, the hooded sorcerer that William had earlier encountered, was sitting in the large central chair in the middle of the dais. In one hand he held a blade, bigger than a knife but smaller than a sword, and in the other he held... William. Ben could see him, white hair and bangles distinctive even at this distance, slumped and unconscious. The seats on either side of him, and their occupants, barely registered. This man had roused an insane, murderous city, kidnapped an innocent girl, and now threatened William. Fury rose in Ben, fury and fire and rage. He moved, slowly approaching, sword in hand. It hung low, near to dragging on the ground, but clearly ready, only a flick of the wrist away from dealing death. Runes, writ in black and gold, twined up the blade and pale flames danced along its edge. With each step the wind around him grew in strength, whipping around him as he approached, dust and grass circling him, outlining the cyclone. The flames spread, moving up his arm and around his body, the wind making them flicker and dance, tongues of yellow and orange, seemingly innocent, consuming nothing but somehow promising pain. His gaze was fixed on the sorcerer in front of him. A faint glow could be seen from deep inside Ben's eyes, visible if you could meet his gaze, tolerate the cold hatred that dwelt within it. The sorcerer couldn't, the laughter dying in his throat. Behind the sorcerer one of the gemstones inset in the wall, on the edge of the pattern, twinkled. A construct of dirt and grass leapt at Ben from behind a broken slab of rock. Ben's sword flashed out once, cleaving it in half, the twin pieces falling to the ground, burning. His head never moved, his pace never faltered. Behind him his footsteps were obvious, blackened prints in the dried grass set farther apart than they should have been. Ben was covering ground though his stride was slow and even. "Let him go." The words were said quietly, but they carried on the wind. The sorcerer heard them clearly, heard the menace the wind carried with them. "N…no," the sorcerer replied. He cursed the quaver in his voice and the shaking in his hand. The knifepoint he held at William's throat moved in a nervous dance, the long blade amplifying the twitching of his hand. The voices around him were whispering, urging him to hold fast, to take action. The wall panel behind the sorcerer started to glow again. A pair of stones glimmered, the scrollwork connecting them pulsed with a deep green light. Two more constructs leapt out. They fell to the ground in burning heaps before they got near. Ben hadn't bothered with the sword. The vortex around him grew larger, pushing outward, carrying the flames with it. "Let. Him. Go." The words were spoken softly, but the sorcerer flinched with each like they were blows. His face broke out in a sweat, his tunic showing ragged smoldering tears, as if struck by a beast with burning claws. The whirlwind licked at the edge of the dais, stopping at the edge. Something glimmered there, a curtain of force only visible where it stopped the whirlwind, the swirling grass beating against it, the flames licking along its surface. No further, barbarian," said the sorcerer. Any strength had fled from his voice, leaving it thin and reedy. The implied threat was almost laughable, save for the point of the knife so close to William's exposed neck. The entire wall behind him was active now. Gemstones glittered and flashed all across it, while green and brown pulses of light raced around the intricate tracery of lines that connected them. From all around the dais they arose, a score or more, twisted reptilian creatures, borne of magic, built from stone and grass. It didn't matter. Even before they fully formed the constructs exploded, fist-sized stones and burning grass flying everywhere. Nothing reached Ben, the wall of wind surrounding him deflecting everything, sending the pieces flying to smash against the fallen columns and distant walls. Ben reached the foot of the dais, the wall of wind and force in front of him making the air shimmer and dance. The sword flicked out, once, twice, slicing through the barrier as if it were nothing but air, the sparkling trails it left the only sign there had been anything there. He never stopped, never slowed, always moving forward like a force of nature. "No! NO!" The sorcerer screamed as Ben mounted the stairs. He waved the knife at Ben, the voices and his fear eating away at his sanity like an acid on marble. William slumped to the ground as the arm supporting him instead waved at Ben, tracing a rune of summoning into the air. Behind him the gemstones in the mosaic wall all glowed, pulsing green and white. The ground shook, knocking down the few columns that had survived upright. The burning constructs all flared at once, burning away every last flammable bit, the hot stones shattering with the sudden heat. From far behind Ben, at the other end of the massive hall, came a deep rumble. The ground shook, and a massive construct, taller than the ceiling and hunched over to fit, rose from the floor of the hall. Its thunderous footfalls causing the entire building to shake as it came. Ben ignored it as he reached the top of the stairs and stalked towards the sorcerer. The rumbling of the hall as it shook, the crash of the columns as they fell, the roar of the creature as it approached, they were all ignored as Ben moved. The expression on the sorcerer's face was one of sheer terror, his eyes so wide they seemed to bulge, his body shaking so much he could barely hold onto his dagger. "I'll kill him," shrieked the sorcerer. He raised his dagger to strike, ready to plunge it into William's unconscious body, sealing his fate. Ben leapt forward, crossing the distance between them in a heartbeat. The gem in the pendant around the sorcerer's neck flared briefly, but fell dark as Ben's sword thrust through it and deep into the sorcerer's body. The sword hilt slammed into the pendant and shattered it, the sorcerer shuddered, and rumbling in the hall subsided as the life fled the body impaled on the sword. Ben relaxed his arm the lifeless body slid off the sword and slump on the ground. Ben knelt down and checked William. He knew William was still alive, knew the link they shared was still intact, but worried William had been injured by the shock that had rendered him unconscious. He had nothing that would help here, the healing salves and poultices he carried good for cuts and burns, potions that would help speed the knitting of broken bones or curse diseases, but nothing that would help this. For the first time in years he cursed the accident that robbed him of his Sight, that stole the ability to cast spells. He knew a dozen ways to heal William and could use none of them. In desperation he put his hand on William's forehead and relaxed, trying to let the mana he still had flow across the link they shared and into William, hoping that would be enough. "Hey," William said weakly, his eyelids fluttering as he woke, "fancy meeting you here." "You alright?" Ben asked, his normally gruff voice gentle. "Yeah," William said, sitting up slowly. "Everything tingles." He winced and rubbed the back of his head. "Tingles and aches. The sorcerer?" "Dead," Ben replied, his glance flicking to the corpse to make sure. "The other girls?" Ben looked around. In a seat to his left he saw a woman, slumped down, though still breathing. There was no one else in the room. "Only one here," Ben said. "Ah, damn," William said, trying to stand. His legs were wobbly and he didn't quite make it. Ben had to catch him, holding him upright as William leaned into him. "There were four others, though they really didn't look good." "Are you in a state for a healing spell?" Ben asked, looking at William. William's eyes were a little glazed and Ben could feel him shaking a little. "Gimme a second," William said. Ben could feel him relax, could feel the connection between them open, could feel the thudding in William's head subside a little. William muttered a few words of power and Ben felt the familiar tingle of magic as the simple spell cleared away the fog from William's brain and the numbness from his body. "That'll do until I can get someplace I'm not thinking will try and kill me," William said. Ben released him and was glad to see William capable of standing on his own. "We need to get the girl and get out of here," Ben said. "Right. And these damn pendants have got to go," William said, stripping his off and tossing it away before moving over to the girl and removing hers. He was happy to see the gem in the center was still dark. "No souvenirs?" Ben's voice had an amused chuckle to it. William shivered. "No. Not a chance. Not from here, not ever." Despite that, Ben slipped the sorcerer's broken pendant into a pocket inside his cloak. Harmless, he hoped, with the gemstone destroyed, but perhaps it would be enough to allow them to return later. Despite its dangers the city had secrets that Ben found nearly irresistible. William frowned and looked up. His skin was prickling with the feeling of a chill breeze, that deep uneasy feeling again troubling him. Wind was something that shouldn't be happening inside a building, even one as big as this one. He risked letting his Sight shift over, wincing with pain as his head throbbed. The threads were thick and trembling as if they were being buffeted by a gale, streaming towards the far end of the hall. At the end, in the distance William could see a maelstrom, a swirling storm of magic, growing larger by the second. It was dark and menacing, and William could hear a quiet roar, like a distant hurricane. "Ben," William said, turning to him. "We need to go. Now." Wasting no time with questions, Ben turned, grabbed the girl, and threw her limp body over his shoulder. Together they ran to the stairs that led up to the central tower, Ben in the lead, William following close behind, shouting the words of the impromptu shielding spell he had made earlier. He drew as much power as he could, as much as he dared, from himself and Ben, hoping it would be enough to protect them from the storm he knew would soon come. The building shuddered as they ran, both of them feeling the phantom wind, now coming from behind them. They felt it blow, felt the chill, felt it picking at them, though it made no trace in the dust of the room, had no effect on their clothing. There was no doubt a storm was raging, and gaining fast. The twin doors in the great central chamber were still open, though they felt the wind. Their movement was irregular but they were swinging shut, caught in the same wind whipping around Ben and William. Ben slowed for a moment, risking the delay, and grabbed a small flask from a pocket in the lining of his cloak. With a word he threw it ahead of them, between the doors. It exploded with a loud bang, the concussion enough to bounce the doors back momentarily, the doorway obscured with acrid smoke which rose lazily towards the ceiling, unaffected by the winds attacking Ben and William. Ben and William ran through it just as the storm overtook them. It was unreal but no less dangerous for that, the mystic fury sweeping past them, the wind pushing them out while unseen hands tried to drag them back. The raw hate burned like cold flame, the madness cut like razors, the fury choked them, and all around was the screaming of a half a million souls, the last shreds of every person the city had consumed. They wailed and shouted, spitting curses and bellowing warnings, trying to help and hinder in a schizophrenic cacophony of the damned. Ben was spared the worst of the attack, his magical blindness for once a useful thing, but even he staggered under the onslaught. William was not so lucky, the storm's mad blast all too clear, and in his weakened state it was nearly too much, the power of the storm nearly knocking him off his feet. Ben grabbed William as he was hit, scant feet from the edge of the stairs. Ben ran, one arm holding the girl on his shoulder, the other holding William, dragging him as much as supporting him as he sprinted down the stairs. He felt the storm weaken as they descended and, on a hunch, dropped to the ground, pulling William down and shielding both he and the girl with his body. The storm raged overhead for a moment, spewing out from the tower, but its power had been spent in the initial blast, and it lasted only a minute longer. It faded away, leaving nothing but a ringing in their ears and a crawly, shuddering feeling at the backs of their necks. Ben shifted a little and sat, looking down the stairs and out across the central road they opened onto. A dozen of the stone constructs stood before them, but they were motionless and dead, even the grass growing on them had turned brown and withered. Ben let out a breath, finally feeling safe. William's daze had passed with the storm and he was up himself, tending to the innkeeper's daughter they'd rescued. She was unconscious still, but unharmed. The city hadn't drawn enough of her life to harm her, and William muttered a healing spell, hoping to rouse her from her stupor. He was leaning over her as he cast the spell, and as her eyes opened his face was the first thing she saw, tanned and noble, flush with power, the sun over his shoulder making his hair glow. "My hero," she said, planting a passionate kiss on William. "Wonderful," Ben said dryly as he watched. "I save the day, and you get the girl."
  13. TheZot

    Intro

    Huh. Looks like part of the story got cut off for some reason when it got transitioned from the old GA site to here. Weird. I'll see if I can't dig out the whole thing and get it fixed.
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