Mason woke up with a dry mouth, an aching head, and a sense that something wasn’t quite right. When he opened his eyes, he realised he wasn’t in his hotel room.
“There’s a glass of water on the bedside table,” a voice next to him whispered.
Mason rolled his head to see Dexter propped up on one elbow and smiling at him from the other side of the queen-sized bed. “What…?”
“I’m sorry, but I let you drink too much last night.” Dexter shifted himself into a sitting position, revealing his bare chest and just a hint of something enticing beneath the sheet.
Mason wasn’t fully awake and was having trouble processing what was going on. He knew he was still wearing his boxer shorts, but it looked like the guy next to him was naked. Since that had been the plan when he’d entered the Sportsman Bar the previous night, Mason wasn’t upset, but he still felt somewhat disappointed. He wasn’t sure why.
“I tried to organise a taxi for you, but when I asked you where you were staying, you told me the Mary.” He chuckled. “That was after you told me you were staying with me. You eventually showed me your room card, so I knew it was the Marriott, but I didn’t know which room, and I wasn’t sure the hotel staff would give out that information. So, I gave in and brought you home.” The smile faltered. “Nothing happened, Mason. I don’t take advantage of drunk guys, even if they’re as sexy as you. The only reason you’re in my bed is because I don’t have anywhere else suitable in the apartment.”
“Did you want something to happen?” Mason cringed as soon as the words left his lips. He hadn’t intended to be so blunt.
Dexter laughed. “I know you did.” He put a hand on Mason’s bare shoulder. “I wouldn’t have minded, but you’d had too much to drink. If we’re going to fuck, I want it to be when we’re both sober.” His expression became more serious. “You weren’t in a fit state last night, Mason, and that wasn’t just the alcohol. I don’t mind having you in my bed—indeed, I’d love to spend the day in here with you—but I’m not a replacement for Robbie.”
“Do you have anywhere you need to be this morning?” Dexter asked. “You told me you’re looking for a place to stay—and no,” he grinned, “you can’t live here.”
Now wide awake, Mason glanced at the shabby walls and then at messy pile of clothes on a chair by the bed. Opened condom wrappers and an empty packet of corn chips were on the bedside table on Dexter’s side of the bed, and Mason suspected they’d been there for at least a couple of days. He didn’t think sex would be a satisfactory compensation for living in a pigsty, but he couldn’t tell Dexter that. Instead, he smiled. “I’ve got an appointment to see another set of units at ten. What time is it?”
“Quarter to nine.” He nudged Mason. “Why don’t you have a shower while I see what I’ve got to eat?”
Mason grinned. “Why don’t you join me for that shower, and then you take me back to the hotel and let me buy you breakfast?” He hesitated. “Assuming you’ve got time. Do you need to be anywhere?”
Dexter returned the grin “I’ve got time. I’m only working nights at the bar, so I get the days to enjoy summer. I was going to head to Bondi and perve on the guys at the beach, but I can do that later.”
Mason rolled out of bed and then made a show of stripping off his boxers. His throat was still dry, and his head still ached, but he was hoping some shower sex would fix that. Even if it didn’t, it would be fun trying.
* * *
Patrick O’Malley surrendered to his arthritis and old age and allowed the airline to provide a wheelchair to take him off the plane and into the Melbourne terminal. He had been in Brisbane visiting his grandson and his family for Christmas and then stayed on until his new great-granddaughter’s first birthday early in January. But it was time to return home and then get back to work.
“Paddy! Is something wrong?”
Patrick looked up at the unexpected voice and then smiled to reassure his young friend and temporary housemate. “Just old age, brat. You know I’m not as mobile as I used to be.”
Ty Flanders smiled, visibly relieved. “Yeah, I know what you mean. Dad here’s getting slow, too.”
“Brat…” Jim Henderson’s tone was laced with affection, something that Patrick understood. Jim and Ty had an unusual dynamic that fascinated the old Irishman. Despite his nickname, Jim was only three years older than Ty. Ty was the better football player of the two, but he still looked to Jim for advice and praise.
“What brings you two out here at this time of the day? Aren’t you supposed to be training?”
Ty grinned. “We told them that we’re picking you up from the airport, so they let us have some time off.”
“Which we have to make up when we get back,” Jim added. “So, we should head off.” He glanced over Patrick’s head to Andrew, the flight attendant pushing the wheelchair. “Is it okay if we take over from here? Just let us know where we have to leave the chair afterwards.”
“Be my guest. You can leave it at the service desk by the luggage carousels. But before you go…any chance of a photo?” Andrew smiled sheepishly. “Just to prove that I’ve met you.”
Patrick chuckled when Jim looked surprised. Ty grinned and pushed Jim forward. “Give me your phone, and I’ll take the picture,” Ty said. “Try to smile, Dad. Your fans need you.”
“Brat…” This time Jim’s tone was a mixture of annoyance and resignation. He then smiled at Andrew. “I’m no one special, so I don’t know why you want a photo.”
Patrick snorted. “Even I know better than that, Jim.” As Australia’s highest-profile gay footballer, and the only openly gay player in the AFL, Jim was a minor celebrity. Ty may have been the one who was selected in the first round of the AFL draft at the end of November, but Jim’s selection in the third round of the rookie draft in December had been much bigger news.
After the picture was taken and they found their way to the lift to the ground floor and the luggage-collection area, Patrick turned to Ty. “You didn’t have to come out here. I could’ve caught a cab.”
“Yeah, right.” Ty grinned down at the old Irishman. “If your arthritis is playing up enough to require a wheelchair, how were you going to manage getting your luggage from the taxi to the house?”
Patrick shrugged. “I’d find a way.” Ty’s comment had raised a sense of foreboding. His arthritis was usually worst during winter. For it to be playing up during the heart of summer implied he was going to be really crippled in a few months when the cold weather hit.
“You okay, Paddy?” Jim asked after Patrick had fallen uncharacteristically quiet.
“Just thinking of the future.” He roused himself enough to smile at the two footballers. “Which is what you and the brat should be doing. Have you found a new place to stay while I’ve been away?”
“Not yet.” Jim snorted as he smiled at Ty. “We still haven’t even settled on a suburb we want to live in.”
“Ringwood’s fine with me,” Ty said, “but Dad thinks it’s too far out.”
“Ah…” Patrick chuckled as he realised what was going through Ty’s head. “That’s where your lassie lives, isn’t it?”
“Yep!” Ty showed no signs of embarrassment. “That’s got to be an important consideration.”
“Brat…” Jim sighed and shook his head. “We’ve had a look at a couple of places out there, but nothing that was good enough.”
“You’re just too fussy, Dad.”
“I’d like somewhere liveable that doesn’t require travelling forever to get to training.”
Ty winked at Patrick as luggage started to appear on the carousel. “He’s been pushing for the Hawthorn area, since that’s where Tony lives, but I don’t want to be surrounded by Hawk supporters.”
“How many bags have you got?” a red-faced Jim asked.
“Just the one. A small, dark-blue suitcase with a white stripe.”
“Point it out if I miss it,” Jim said as he took a couple of steps towards the conveyor belt, only to be intercepted by a couple of young guys in boardshorts and T-shirts.
“Excuse me, but can we get a picture with you?” The shorter of the two smiled hopefully. “We were there at the VFL grand final last year to cheer for you and the other Leopards.”
Jim flicked Ty a look of discomfort before grinning at the two. “Sure.”
Ty chuckled quietly as he leant down to speak to Patrick. “He hates it, but he never says no. He just wants to play football.”
“Are you any different, brat?”
“I don’t have people asking for selfies with me.”
It was Patrick’s turn to chuckle. “You will, brat. You will.” The old Irishman didn’t know how long it would be before that happened, but he wouldn’t be surprised if it were later that same year.
* * *
“Mason! Welcome back.” Dexter reached over the bar to give Mason a quick hug and a peck on the lips. “How was the house hunting?”
“Thanks. I need a drink.” Mason dropped onto one of the stools with a loud sigh. It was still early in the evening, and the Sportsman Bar had only a handful of customers. Mason noticed in passing that two of those customers appeared to be a straight couple, but otherwise he ignored everyone in the room apart from his favourite barman.
“That bad?” Dexter moved to the side and started to pour a beer.
“I didn’t see anywhere I liked. I don’t know if my standards are too high or if I’m looking in the wrong places.” He gave Dexter a half-smile. “I would’ve been better off spending the day with you perving on guys at the beach.”
“You’re still looking around the university?”
“I’m guessing you’ve been using one of the websites that’s for student accommodation. Correct me if I’m wrong, but you’re not really looking for something like that. You’re looking for a home, right?” Dexter placed the beer in front of Mason. “You’re looking for a place long-term, not just for a semester or even a year.”
“It’s only been two days, so give yourself some time. You might find what you want within walking distance of the uni, but you may need to look further out. It’ll be more expensive than student accommodation, but maybe there’s a unit in the city you could rent.” Dexter winked. “Still relatively close to school, but also not far from here for night-time fun.”
Mason considered the suggestion and then nodded. “I’ll look into it.” He laughed at himself. “One of my problems is I still don’t know if I want to share a place or live by myself. Originally, I was going to share to make it closer to the college experience I would’ve had back home, but the idea of living with a stranger doesn’t sit right with me anymore. I definitely don’t want a lot of people around keeping track of who I invite back to my room, either, which is what turned me off in the first place I saw.”
“It sounds like a one-bedroom apartment that’s not in a block with lots of other students, then.”
“Yeah, but I don’t want to be alone, either.” Mason couldn’t stop the shudder that ran through him as he dropped his head and started at his beer. “I’m already over being alone.”
He was startled when Dexter put a hand on top of his and squeezed gently. “I’ve got to go serve some other people, but you’re not alone, Mason. You’ve got one friend already, me, and I’m sure you’ll have others soon, too.”
Mason sat and contemplated Dexter’s parting comment. He recognised the truth, but that made finding a place that much more complicated because he would want to live near friends, friends he would have to find first before deciding where he wanted to live.
After a few minutes, he had an idea. Pulling out his phone, he sent off a text message. Veronica had made a similar suggestion the previous day about looking further afield for a place to stay. Maybe she would be able to give him some advice.
* * *
Thursday morning, Liam wiped his hand on his pants before stepping forward to accept the proffered handshake. “It’s good to be here, sir.”
Mike Wilson laughed. “Please, call me Mike. If there’s one thing that’s not in oversupply here at Q FM, it’s formality.” He waved to the chairs in front of his desk. “Take a seat, and let’s talk.”
Liam took the closest seat and was then surprised when Mike took the other visitor chair rather than sitting behind his desk.
“Let’s get started.” Mike smiled in what Liam hoped was a reassuring way and not some prelude to malicious torture. While Liam had attended job interviews before, none of those had the importance of this one. Previously, a job was a ‘nice-to-have’ while he concentrated on school and football. Now, it was a necessity.
“The way I received your application is certainly unusual, but you’ve come with a couple of strong letters of recommendation from our sister station in Melbourne. I’m curious as to how that came about.”
“Did you say a couple of letters?” Liam knew that Keith from the Pride FM radio station had put in a good word for him, but he was at a loss as to who would’ve sent the other.
Mike raised his eyebrows. “You sound surprised. How many referrals did you think I’d have?”
“Just the one from Keith Sutherland. He told me and Neil he would email you.”
“Neil’s your boyfriend?” Mike asked.
Liam nodded. “Neil Rosewood. He was working part-time at Pride FM for the second half of last year. He introduced me to Keith. When Keith learnt I was going to need a job up here in Sydney, he offered to contact you.”
“I see,” Mike said as he nodded slowly to himself. “I believe you also did a bit of work at Pride FM.”
“Not very much, just a few weeks’ worth.” Liam smiled sheepishly. “Neil and I had finished our exams, so we wanted to work in preparation for our move up here to Sydney. We were lucky that Keith allowed us to work together.”
“Is Neil looking for work, too?”
“No. He’s got a place to stay with free room and board, so what he’s saved up will be enough for him to concentrate on his studies. I’m renting a place, so while my parents will be contributing some money, I need a job to help pay the bills.”
Mike seemed surprised. “You’re not living with your boyfriend?”
Liam shook his head. “No, for a number of reasons. One is that where he’s staying doesn’t have room for an extra person on a permanent basis, but the main reason is we both agree it’s too early. We’ve only been dating for six months, and while I think we’re solid as a couple, things can change. When we move in together, we want it to be when we’re sure it’s permanent.”
“I see.” Mike proceeded to question Liam closely on the work he’d done at Pride FM—mainly odd jobs, but including some time helping one of the sound technicians—and what types of roles he would be willing to undertake.
It was thirty minutes later, with the interview clearly winding down, when Mike cocked his head and smiled. “Keith’s recommendation seems to be well justified. Any guesses on who was the second person to send me a letter of recommendation?”
“No idea. I don’t really know that many people at Pride FM.”
Mike’s smile expanded into a broad grin. “But you know Jim Henderson.”
“Jim?” Liam gaped. “Jim recommended me?”
Mike laughed. “He obviously never told you.” He leant forward, though his amusement was still obvious. “As I said at the start, the way I received your job application was unusual. But you’ve come with recommendations from not only my old friend Keith, but also one of the most respected gay athletes in the country.
“We still need to talk details regarding hours and pay, but I can tell you’re looking for a genuine job and not a handout. We’ve got a position for you starting next week if you want it. It’ll be on probation for the first month, but given both Keith’s and Jim’s comments on your character and intelligence, I don’t expect there’ll be a problem lasting that long.”
Mike settled back in his chair and didn’t bother hiding a grin. “Are you interested?”
“Too bloody…er, I mean, definitely.” Liam knew he was going red from the slip of the tongue.
“I think you were going to say, ‘Too bloody right!’” Mike chuckled. “If you ever get behind a microphone, you’ll need to watch your language, but other than that, as long as it’s only occasionally, you don’t have to worry about what you say.”
“Thanks, sir…I mean, Mike.” Liam grinned at the amused older gentleman.
“Okay, now that’s out of the way and before we get into the details, I’ve got a couple of requests.” He held up a hand as if to stop a response, though Liam hadn’t intended to make one. “These are requests, not requirements. Your job offer is not dependent on them, okay?”
“Okay.” Liam was curious as to what Mike wanted but was also nervous in case it was something inappropriate.
“We’d like to have Jim in here for an interview when he’s in Sydney. We could do an interview over the phone, if needed, but we’d like to get him on one of our shows. You know Jim, so if you could pass on the request, it’d be greatly appreciated.”
Liam nodded. “I can do that. Knowing Jim, he won’t mind as long as there’s not too much of a fuss. He doesn’t like the focus being on him.” Liam was going more from Neil’s comments about Jim as conveyed by Jim’s boyfriend, Tony. Neil and Tony had been gym partners for much of the previous year.
“Thank you. The other request is a little more personal.” Mike looked sheepish. “We’d also like your boyfriend on some of our shows, hopefully on a semi-regular basis.”
Liam didn’t know what to say. He had tensed when Mike mentioned the request being more personal, thinking that it would be of a sexual nature, but he hadn’t expected what he heard. “Neil?”
“That’s right. Neil Rosewood, the gay teenager who was attacked by his father and ended up at a football club.” Mike leant forward, his face sombre. “There are a lot of teenagers out there who can relate to what Neil went through. He’s famous in his own way, and I know he’s gotten behind a microphone a few times at Pride FM. We’d like him to do the same here. He doesn’t have to, but if he’s willing, we’d like him to be an occasional voice on our radio station for gay teenagers throughout Sydney.”
* * *
“You’re awfully quiet, Neil.” Beth Bellweather flicked a concerned look to Liam before returning her attention to Liam’s boyfriend. Neil, Clarissa and the Bellweather family were having a final night out at a restaurant together before Liam’s parents and brother returned to Melbourne the next morning.
“Leave him alone, Mum. He’s got some things to think about, that’s all.” Liam glared at Clarissa, who was seated opposite him. “And you leave him alone, too.”
“Me?” Clarissa narrowed her eyes. “Okay, I’ll leave him alone, but I’m not making any promises about you. Start talking, mister. What’s going on?”
Liam checked with Neil and received a half-hearted nod in response. Taking that as an acceptance, Liam looked at his mother, his father, and then Clarissa. “Something cropped up at the radio station this morning, and Neil needs some time to think about it, that’s all.”
“Details, Liam, details.” Clarissa’s gaze softened as she glanced at Neil, then hardened again when she turned back to Liam. “Is this a good something, a bad something, or a Neil-and-Liam special something?”
“A what?” Neil broke his silence as he gaped at Clarissa.
“A Neil-and-Liam special something. You know, the sort of weird thing that always seems to involve you two that’s neither good nor bad, but somewhere in the middle.”
Liam chuckled as he took Neil’s hand under the table and squeezed some reassurance. “This is a Neil-and-Liam special something. When I was offered a job, Neil was offered one, too. He needs to think about whether to accept.”
“I didn’t think you were looking for a job,” Bruce, Liam’s father, said to Neil.
“I’m not. I wasn’t even there when it was suggested.”
“Would the extra money be helpful?”
“It would, but…” Neil dropped his head.
Liam let go of Neil’s hand so he could wrap that arm around Neil’s waist and pull him closer. “Leave him alone, Dad. He doesn’t need an interrogation.”
Clarissa stared at the two of them and then shook her head. “You’re hiding something. A job offer shouldn’t be generating this much stress. Neil’s worked at a radio station before, so what’s the problem? It’s either accept or turn it down.”
Liam checked with Neil again before responding. He took the head resting on his shoulder to mean Neil was leaving it to him as to what to say. “It’s the job itself. They want him speaking on air.”
“They want him to host a show?” Clarissa’s jaw dropped.
“No, not that, but they want him to be part of one of their shows from time to time. He’s not keen, but he’s done it back in Melbourne, and it might help someone who is going through what he experienced, so…” Liam did a one-shoulder shrug so Neil could continue to rest on the other.
“Whatever you decide is fine with us, Neil.” Liam’s mother caught Clarissa’s eye. “Isn’t that right?” she asked in a firmer tone.
Clarissa snorted before a soft smile appeared on her lips. “It’s your life, Neil, and I promise I won’t interfere unless it’s necessary.”
Neil chuckled as he raised his head. “And you decide when it’s necessary, right?” He didn’t wait for a response. “Now I know why you and Karen get along so well. You’re a female version of Ty.” He took a deep breath. “Sorry, everyone, but this is something I need to work out for myself. I don’t want to make a commitment I can’t meet.”
* * *
The next morning, Liam gave his mother a firm hug. He struggled to keep his eyes dry, though he knew he was losing that battle. “Safe trip home.”
“Thanks, dear.” Beth Bellweather hadn’t bothered to make a struggle. Despite her tears, she smiled warmly at her son when he released her. “Stay in touch, and we expect to see both of you during school breaks.”
Liam smiled back but couldn’t find the right words to say. He didn’t regret leaving home to be with Neil, but he did regret not being nearer to his family. Before he could come up with something that wasn’t completely trite, his younger brother grabbed him.
“Don’t stay! Come back with us!”
Liam wrapped his arms around Noel. “We’ll still be able to see each other online. I’m only a mouse click away.” Since his brother spent most of his spare time in the online world, Liam hoped that was the right track to take.
“It’s not the same!”
Beth adroitly extracted Liam from Noel’s grip. “Liam has to stay, dear. I know it’s tough, but he has his own life to live now.”
Noel glared across at where Neil was talking quietly with Liam’s father. “I hate you!”
“Noel! That’s unacceptable behaviour. Apologise!” Beth yanked at Noel’s arm, but the young teenager only moved a step before he dug in his heels. He jerked himself out of her grip and then ran down the carpark and away from the small gathering.
“Leave him to me, Mum.” Liam waved a hand to indicate he wanted to deal with this himself and then jogged after his brother. Having a sibling with mild autism could be a handful at times, but Liam wouldn’t trade Noel in for someone who was neurotypical. Noel was Noel, and having autism was part of who he was.
As he half-expected, he found Noel slumped down on the ground, his back against the motel wall, just around the corner. Knowing better than to touch his brother while he was in a mood, Liam sat down next to him. “Hey.”
Noel’s response was muffled by the knees being held up to his face. “Why do you have to stay here?”
“I love Neil, and I want to be with him. He has to be here, so that’s where I am, too.”
Noel looked up, his eyes red and his cheeks moist. “Don’t you love me?”
“I do, but you have Mum and Dad—and Doug,” Liam said, making a mental note to ask his best friend to drop in to see Noel once his family was back in Melbourne. Doug was one of the few people outside of the family who Noel would interact with. “Neil has me. That’s it.”
“He has that girl and the two old guys. He doesn’t need you!”
“Clarissa will be spending time with Deon, and Sam and Marcus will be working. Neil doesn’t have a lot of friends, and he needs someone with him.” Liam hesitated before continuing. He wasn’t sure what he was going to say was the right thing to do, but he wanted to be honest with his brother. “I need him, too. I don’t want to live my life without him.”
Noel opened up his mouth to make the obvious selfish retort, but to Liam’s surprise, Noel didn’t say anything. He turned and stared at the garden opposite them for several seconds. “You’ll still chat with me?”
“I will. I can’t promise it’ll be every day, but I’ll do my best to Skype you at least once or twice a week.”
Noel snorted and gave Liam an almost-smile. “Skype’s old. Google+ Hangouts is better. You can do group-video chats with it, you don’t need to download any software if you’re using Chrome, and it’s really neat. I read about it online.”
Liam laughed. He knew better than to argue with Noel on anything computer-based. “Okay, Google Hangouts, it is.”
“Google+ Hangouts! The plus is important.”
“Okay.” Liam rose and smiled down at his brother. “It’s time to get going. Your computer at home is getting lonely.”
It took a little more coaxing, but a few minutes later Noel was in the car with an iPad in his hand. Liam knew his brother well enough that Noel was still upset, but the distraction the iPad provided would keep him occupied until they were on their way back to Melbourne.
The remaining farewells with his parents were kept short. They all knew that if they took too long, there was the danger of another outburst from Noel. It therefore wasn’t long before Liam and Neil were waving farewell as the Bellweather family drove away.
Neil put an arm across Liam’s shoulders. “You okay?”
Liam sniffled. “I will be.” He took a deep breath. “How long before we’re supposed to be meeting up with Clarissa and Daphne?”
“We’ve got over an hour.” Neil paused for a moment. “It’ll take thirty to forty minutes to get to the university from here, so we’ve got at least twenty minutes to spare.” He smiled as he gave Liam’s shoulders a gentle squeeze. “Time for a coffee along the way, if that’s what you want.”
What Liam really wanted was to go back to the unit and spend some alone-time with Neil, but he knew that wasn’t an immediate option. He tried to smile back at Neil. “Sounds good to me.”
The two started the ten-minute walk to the train station. There were coffee shops in the area where Liam could recover his composure. He didn’t want to show up for Daphne’s tour of the university with red eyes. Liam was confident she wouldn’t say anything, but he wasn’t as sure about Clarissa. She had a soft heart, but it was usually hidden behind an abrasive cover, and even though he had dated her for almost two years before he came out of the closet, he was never sure what face she would show.
* * *
“Hello, sir. It’s nice to meet you.” Mason shook the university lecturer’s hand. “I’m sorry, but I don’t know your name. Veronica never told me.” He grinned. “I don’t even know her last name.”
“Alexander Fredrickson, but call me Al. I believe you’re Mason Rivers?” Alexander smiled at his wife before sitting down at the nearest café table. “Veronica didn’t tell me your name, either, but there are not many Americans enrolled in the Engineering Faculty so it wasn’t difficult to track down. I didn’t get any information other than your name,” he quickly added. “That wouldn’t have been ethical, but I didn’t see a problem with asking a colleague who you may be.”
Veronica was carrying her daughter. “You’re both intelligent people. You don’t need to be spoon-fed everything.” She chuckled as she sat down next to her husband. “Unlike Shelley here.”
Mason leant across the table to smile at the baby girl. He reached and let her grab his little finger. “Hello, Shelley. Do you remember me, or have you forgotten after two days?”
He received a happy gurgle of noise in reply. “I think she remembers,” Veronica said. “Would you like to hold her?”
“May I?” Mason quickly accepted the little girl and started making funny faces to try to make her laugh.
“I understand you’re trying to find a place to stay,” Alexander said. “Veronica said you’re not having much luck around here.”
“I’m not. Someone suggested I look further out, and since that’s what Veronica also suggested on Wednesday, I thought I’d ask for some advice.” He flicked the Fredricksons a quick smile before returning his attention to the girl in his arms. “I didn’t expect her to invite me for coffee and to meet you, though.”
Alexander chuckled. “I could do with the break. I’m supervising some post-grad students—one of the jobs they hand down to those of us who are relatively new—and one of them is giving me headaches. Between that and going through the curriculum changes I need to process before the semester starts, having coffee with my wife, daughter, and a friend of theirs is very welcome.” He put on a mock frown. “I do need to know what your intentions are towards my daughter, though. She’s a little young to be dating.”
Mason laughed and then quickly stopped as Shelley became startled. “I assure you, sir, that my intentions are strictly honourable.”
“Please, call me Al. My students call me ‘sir’, but I understand you’re not going to be one, so there’s no need to be formal.”
“Okay, Al.” Mason didn’t feel comfortable calling a lecturer by his first name, but as Alexander said, he wasn’t going to be taking business classes. “What subjects do you teach?”
After five minutes of getting to know Alexander better, during which time Veronica had ordered and collected their coffees along with a plate of macarons that didn’t last very long, the conversation shifted back to Mason and his hunt for a place to live.
“Would you be okay sharing with an older student?” Alexander asked.
Mason shrugged. “It depends on the student, but I’ve got no objection as long as it’s not short-term. I don’t want to move again if I can help it, so someone who’s in their last year isn’t ideal unless they’re going to keep renting once they’ve finished.”
“I can ask around, if you like. I think there’s one or two students who are about to start their post-graduate courses who are looking for flatmates.”
“That sounds great.” Mason took a deep breath and dropped his eyes to the now-sleeping baby in his arms. “As long as they’re happy sharing with a gay guy.” The topic hadn’t come up before with Veronica, but if her husband was going to help look for a place for him, they needed to know.
There was a short pause, but it wasn’t as long as Mason had feared. “I can only ask. Most people shouldn’t have a problem, but there will always be some who’ll feel uncomfortable in that situation.”
“To be honest, I’m still not sure if I want to share. It’ll be good to have company, but if they end up not being a friend, I’d prefer to be by myself.” He looked up to see both Alexander and Veronica staring at him, both with sympathetic smiles on their faces. “That’s what’s so confusing. I want company, but it has to be someone I can be friends with.”
“And so you should,” Veronica said in a firm tone.
“How long have you got?” Alexander asked.
Mason shrugged. “I have to check out of the hotel in just over a week, so I’m thinking I’ll find some short-term space and keep looking. It’ll mean moving twice, but that’s fine if the second move is where I end up for the rest of my college years.”
“I know some places that will take monthly leases,” Veronica said. “They’re not great, but you should be able to cope for at least a couple of months. I’ll get you the details when we finish up here.”
“Thanks. That’s probably my best option. I don’t think I’m going to find a good place and be able to move within a week.”
They finished up soon afterwards. Mason pushed Shelley’s stroller as he followed Veronica to the administration block, while Alexander headed back to his office. Before he left, Alexander had invited Mason for dinner at their home in the near future. Alexander then asked in a joking manner what rates Mason charged for babysitting.
After collecting the material on short-term rental properties from Veronica, Mason strolled outside and looked around. He knew he should start checking out places right away, but it was a hot summer’s day, and he wanted some time off. He hadn’t had a chance to wander around the university, and he decided he deserved an hour off before getting back to looking for a place to live.
He was wandering around, admiring the old sandstone buildings in that part of the university, when he noticed two guys and two girls around his own age nearby. The taller of the two girls was pointing out something, while the much-shorter girl had an arm around one of the guy’s waist. Mason guessed that they were two couples that were, like him, about to start at the university.
He turned away and continued his stroll around the campus when he caught something out of the corner of his eye. He looked back and stared at the four. The two guys were standing very close to each other, much closer than he would normally expect. But it was what he thought he saw that had Mason intrigued. Had he really seen the two guys exchange a quick kiss?
* * *
“Do you see that Jacaranda tree over there?” Daphne pointed to the only tree in that part of the quadrangle. “The stories are that if you still haven’t started studying by the time it starts to bloom in October, then you’re going to fail your exams.”
“Probably true,” Neil said. “That would mean you’ve probably got less than a month before your final exams, and cramming isn’t a good way to study.”
“You need to speak to your boyfriend, then.” Clarissa had her arm around Neil’s waist as they walked along while Liam kept pace with Daphne on the other side of Neil. “He’s notorious for leaving studying until the last minute.”
“Hey, I’m much better now! Neil and I did a lot of studying in the months leading up to our Year 12 exams. I didn’t leave everything until the end.”
“Yeah, but how much of that studying was for your Year 12 subjects, and how much was studying male anatomy?”
Liam grinned. “A bit of both.” He leant over and gave a red-faced Neil a quick kiss. “One lot was really enjoyable, and the rest was to try to make sure I would get good enough marks to come here, so that was for a good cause, too.”
“And this year, the studying will be to make sure you stay here.” Neil winked at Clarissa. “Don’t worry, I’ll keep him on track. This is where he wants to be.”
Clarissa snorted. “Actually, wherever you are is where he wants to be.” She looked past Neil to Liam who shrugged. “Don’t let him get too clingy, Neil. He’ll smother you if you let him.”
“I won’t!” Liam gave Clarissa a short scowl before grinning again. “Unless he wants me to.”
Clarissa rolled her eyes, but before she could comment they were interrupted by an American accent.
“Excuse me, are you guys freshmen, too?”
“Freshmen?” Clarissa asked, narrowing her eyes at the tall, dark-skinned stranger.
“Daphne is,” Liam said, ignoring Clarissa’s question. “The rest of us are hoping to be, but we won’t find out until next week. That’s when the offers come out.”
“I got accepted last month…” The faint frown was replaced with a smile, his white teeth shining in contrast to his dark face. “I’m Mason. I’m starting an engineering degree this year.”
“Engineering?” Neil grinned back. “That’s what I’m hoping to do. Maybe we’ll be in some of the same classes.”
“I’ve applied for engineering, too, but I don’t think my marks were good enough. I’ve got education and social work as my other preferences.” Liam shrugged. “To be honest, a Bachelor of Primary Education is probably my real preference, so I’ll be happy if that’s what I get into.” He smiled and stuck out his hand. “I’m Liam, this is my boyfriend, Neil, and our friends Daphne and Clarissa.”
“Yes!” Mason’s grin broadened as he and Liam shook. “I thought I saw you two kiss, but I wasn’t sure. I was hoping to meet some other gay guys here, but I didn’t expect it to be this soon.” He glanced across at the two girls. “Are you a couple, too?”
Daphne chuckled. “No, we both have boyfriends. They’re working today, which is why they’re not here.”
“Ah, sorry. I shouldn’t have jumped to conclusions.”
“Now that that’s out of the way, what was that comment about freshmen?” Clarissa asked, a scowl on her face as she stared at Liam.
“First-year students in America are known as freshmen.” Liam turned to Mason. “We don’t use that term here. Unlike the USA, we don’t have a standard, four-year undergraduate course. Some degrees are only three years, and a handful are five years, so the idea of freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors isn’t applicable.”
Clarissa’s eyebrows rose. “How do you know that?”
Liam shrugged as he slipped an arm across Neil’s shoulders. “Most online gay fiction is set in America. It doesn’t take long to get used to the terms they use.” He grinned at Mason. “Though it did take me some time to realise that you can have high-school freshmen and college freshmen, but they’re all called ‘freshmen’. I was confused for a while before I worked that one out.”
“I’ve heard the term ‘fresher’ used when referring to first year students, but not often.” Daphne smiled at Mason. “We’re just wandering around, having a good look at the university before we stop somewhere for lunch. Would you like to join us?”
“Sure.” He stepped up next to Neil. “So, you’re doing engineering. Which major?”
“I’ve applied for the flexible, first-year course. I’m leaning towards mechatronics, but I want to check out more on the other majors, first. Aeronautical and software engineering are the other two options I’m considering.”
“Sounds good. Hopefully, we’ll share some classes and can exchange notes. It’ll make things a lot easier if there’s a friend in the same class.” A flicker of some emotion crossed Mason’s face before he smiled again.
“What made you decide to study in Australia?” Liam asked as they passed through a passage into another part of the university.
Mason grimaced. “A long story that’s better off for another time. Let’s just say that the University of Sydney is one of the few places in the world where you can get a space-engineering degree.”
“Shit!” Neil stopped in his tracks and stared at the tall American. “Space engineering? You received an offer for space engineering?”
“Yeah, why?” Mason seemed nervous.
Neil grinned. “We really, really need to study together, if you don’t mind me taking advantage of you.”
Mason gave Liam a nervous glance.
“What’s going on, Neil?” Liam’s scowl told them all that he wasn’t happy about something.
“Mason’s doing space engineering. You know what that means, right?”
Clarissa interrupted. “Even if he does, the rest of us don’t, so spell it out, mister.” She crossed her arms and glared at Neil. “We’re waiting.”
“The ATAR score to get into space engineering is 99. If Mason’s already in…” Neil didn’t seem to think he needed to explain.
“What’s ATAR?” Mason asked.
“Australian Tertiary Admission Rank.” Clarissa continued to frown, but it was no longer directed at Neil. “An ATAR of 99 means you scored better than 99% of the other students in your year; you’re in the top 1%.”
“Which means you’re the perfect study partner for someone like me who only got a 92.” Neil grinned at Mason. “I’m not stupid, but you’re obviously brighter than me.”
A tentative smile appeared and then disappeared from Mason’s lips. He glanced at Liam and then back at Neil. “Bright enough to know when someone’s boyfriend is getting jealous.” He turned back to Liam. “If you guys are exclusive, I respect that. I won’t poach. Promise.”
Liam draped an arm across Neil’s shoulders. “You’d better not. And yes, we’re exclusive.”
“I…” Neil’s gaze flicked between the two guys before he dropped his head. “Sorry, I didn’t mean anything like that. I was just…”
“Excited because you met someone else doing engineering who you thought you could study with.” Clarissa poked a finger into Liam’s chest. “Stop being jealous, mister. I’ve invested too much effort in you two to allow you to fuck things up. You always did have a problem with other guys encroaching on your territory, and you need to fix that.” Not waiting for a response, she turned and scowled at Mason. “And if you mess with these two, expect to be castrated with a very dull knife.”
Mason held up both hands and started to back away. “I’ll go away and leave you all alone. Sorry to bother you.”
“Wait!” Neil pulled Liam to him and gave him a long kiss on the mouth. “You followed me to Sydney. I’m not going to abandon you just because I met someone smarter.” He reddened. “I didn’t mean it like that. You’re smart enough for me. I don’t need—”
Daphne interrupted. “Neil, Liam loves you, and you love him. Stop digging before you find yourself in a hole you can’t get out of.” She smiled at Mason. “Please don’t go. It’s all been a big misunderstanding.” She then turned to Clarissa. “While I love how you defend your friends, you didn’t need to threaten Mason with castration.”
Clarissa scowled and then laughed. “Sorry, Mason. She’s right. I’m a little overzealous at times.”
“At times?” Liam asked before dodging the swing that Clarissa took at him. “You’ve always been aggressive when you care about something. Remember what you threatened me with last year so I wouldn’t bully Neil?”
“And I still have that video, so watch it, buddy.” Clarissa smirked. “Maybe Neil would like to see it?”
Liam glanced at Mason and then back to Clarissa. “Let’s discuss this another time. We both owe Mason an apology.”
“Friends?” Mason asked as he took a half-step towards them. “If so, there’s no need to apologise.”
Liam and Clarissa exchanged looks and then glanced at Daphne and Neil. As one, they turned to Mason. “Friends.”
“And to make up for that unpleasantness, how would you like to go to a party with us next week?” Clarissa asked.
“A party? Sure!” Mason grinned. “Will there be any single guys there?”
“Lots, but they’re all straight. Sorry.”
Neil looked confused. “What party?”
“Our housewarming party. Remember, the one that Deon and Kev are organising?” Clarissa smiled at Mason. “Deon’s my boyfriend and Kev’s Daphne’s. Liam and I have just moved into a unit together, so they’re bringing a bunch of their friends from their footy clubs to celebrate.”
“Wait.” Mason waved a finger at Liam and Clarissa. “You’ve moved in together? What about you?” he asked, pointing at Neil.
“I’m living nearby with a gay couple. Liam and I haven’t been going out long enough to consider living together.”
Daphne laughed at Mason’s expression. “Yes, it’s a little complicated, and it’s worse than you think. Liam and Clarissa used to date, so Liam’s actually sharing an apartment with his ex, which is fine with her boyfriend. In the meantime, Neil’s living with Clarissa’s boyfriend’s father and his partner. I’m the only sane one, if you call living at home with my parents ‘sane’.”
Mason threw up both hands. “Enough!” He grinned. “I’ll work it out eventually. In the meantime, maybe I can return the favour. I’ve been invited to a gay bar tonight to be introduced to some more people who are students here. Anyone want to join me? Straights are welcome.”
Daphne pulled out her phone. “I’ll check with Kevin, but if he’s free, I’m sure he’ll be happy to.” She glanced at Clarissa. “Do you and Deon have plans?”
“We do, actually.” Clarissa grinned. “Deon’s heading back to Melbourne next week for a couple of days, so he’s trying to be nice to me until then. He’s taking me out to dinner, though he hasn’t told me where.”
Mason glanced at the group and then chuckled. “I can see I’ve got a bit of catching up to do before I figure out what the hell you’re all talking about. But that’s cool.” He smiled. “That’s very cool.”