Flat on his back—and not the way he wanted—Jeremy couldn’t breathe.
I’m going to die a virgin.
The campus pathway’s icy concrete was brutally unforgiving. Freezing-rain pellets peppered Jeremy’s face like Mother Nature opening fire with a machine gun. Falling had completely knocked the wind out of him, and he blinked up at the blur of a lamp post wound with holiday lights. Without his glasses, the starbursts of blue and white were massive in the darkness.
He could hear laughter and wondered if he’d said the virgin thing aloud. Male voices hooted and howled, and if Jeremy hadn’t managed to knock off his glasses when he’d flailed on the ice, he’d probably see the guys pointing at him too.
“Shit, bro, that was epic!”
“Too bad we didn’t record it.”
“Stop being dicks.” A baritone cut through the laughter, coming close to Jeremy, a shadowy figure blocking the blurry light as the person leaned over him. “You okay, man? You went down hard.”
Jeremy’s lungs still didn’t want to work, and when he tried to answer, it came out as a gasping squeak. More laughter echoed in the frosty night. He needed his glasses but couldn’t seem to make his arm move to feel around for them on the treacherous pavement. His body had seized up, pain radiating from his back. He probably wasn’t going to die, but it hurt like hell. His face stung as more freezing rain pelted down.
“Did you hit your head?” the husky, concerned voice asked before snapping, “Guys, shut up already! It wasn’t that funny!”
“Dude, come on. Holiday Hootenanny waits for no one. If we miss the Santa and his little helpers strip show, I’m gonna be pissed. He’s fine. Right, buddy?” Another figure bent over Jeremy, and a fist punched his shoulder in a way that was probably supposed to be encouraging but just added to the throbbing pain. “Like a hard tackle. Knocks the piss outta ya, but you’re okay.” Then the hand was hauling Jeremy to his feet.
The deeper voice protested. “Stop! Seriously, he might have hit his head.” This guy’s hands were gentle, taking hold of Jeremy’s shoulders with comforting strength. Without Jeremy’s glasses, his rescuer’s face was still a blur even at arm’s length.
Jeremy forced a breath, although the cold air didn’t help his seized lungs. He rasped, “I think my head’s fine. Thanks.”
“You sure?” His rescuer still held Jeremy’s shoulders, his breath clouding in the cold air. “What’s your name?”
“Me?” Jeremy asked, because he was never not awkward AF. He flushed, but at least his pale cheeks were probably already pink from the cold. Like most redheads, his blushes could be seen from space.
The guy chuckled with another puff of warm breath. “Yeah, you. I’m Max. What’s your name?”
“Oh. Uh, Jeremy?”
“You don’t sound very sure.”
Someone else said, “Come on, this weather sucks. The kid’s fine. He’s standing and talking.”
“Considering how many concussions you’ve probably had, you should know that doesn’t mean shit,” Max said, his tone sounding like an eye-roll.
“I’m definitely Jeremy. Jeremy Rourke.”
“Okay, Jeremy Rourke. I guess I have no way of verifying unless I check your wallet. So, what day is it?”
There was a frown in Max’s voice. “You don’t sound too sure about that either.”
“I’ve been studying for exams all week. It’s a blur. My last one’s on Wednesday. So yeah… It’s Friday.”
“Okay. What’s the date?”
“Uh…” Jeremy worked backward from the Wednesday exam date. “December thirteenth.” He groaned. “Friday the thirteenth—it figures. Really, I didn’t hit my head. I’m good. Thanks.” He shivered, his thin rain jacket not doing much to block the wind, jeans soaked from where he’d sprawled on the ground. The freezing rain whipped around them.
“Pimenta, let’s GO!” someone huffed. “Kid doesn’t need a babysitter.”
Ignoring his friends, Max prodded the back of Jeremy’s head. “Not tender at all?”
“Nope!” Oh lord, this Max guy was touching him. Jeremy kept his hair short and neat but barely resisted the urge to smooth it down on top in case it’d gotten messy in the fall. “I managed to keep my head up when I went down.”
Max leaned back, dropping his hands. “Okay, if you’re sure.”
There were five blurred figures around them on the pathway. “Can you just find my glasses?” Jeremy asked. “I can’t really see anything.”
“Totally,” Max said. “They must be—” The snap-crunch was sharp in the night, and everyone seemed to freeze. “Motherfucker,” Max breathed.
After a beat of silence, Max’s friends howled with laughter again, one of them wheezing and exclaiming, “Holy shit, dude. They are toast!”
Max barked at them to shut up as he crouched. He stood again. “Yeah, uh, I stepped on your glasses. The frame’s broken in half and the lenses are cracked. Well, one is cracked and the other is, like…”
“It’s trashed,” someone said.
Hot and cold all over, Jeremy ordered himself not to panic. How was he going to get across campus to his dorm room without his glasses? He blurted, “But I can’t see!” and cringed at the terror in his voice.
It hurt to breathe. Oh God, please let this be a bad dream. But he wasn’t waking up. He was out alone in the dark and might as well have been blindfolded. The U of T campus was huge, sprawling over dozens of blocks in downtown Toronto. The thought of trying to cross busy streets without being able to see made him sick to his stomach. Even in daylight, he would have felt horribly exposed and unsafe, but at night?
He reached blindly for Max’s arm, almost pleading, Don’t leave me! He managed to bite his tongue to keep from sounding even more pathetic.
Max seemed to hear the unspoken words. He took hold of Jeremy’s shoulders again. “It’s okay, Jeremy. I’ll help you get home.”
“Are we going to this party or what?” someone demanded. “This ice pellet bullshit is hurting my face.”
“I’ll meet you guys there,” Max said. “I broke his glasses. I’m not going to leave him out here alone.”
There was some grumbling, but also agreement. One voice said, “Hope your night gets way better, kid.”
“Hey, you should come to the party!” the guy who’d punched his shoulder said. “Get your contacts or whatever and come get hammered. I bet you could use a drink.”
Another added, “This is why you were captain of the team, Maxwell—taking the clueless little frosh under your wing. Always so responsible.”
Max huffed. “Whatever, Honey.”
Honey? Jeremy squinted, wishing he could see more of this other guy. Had he heard right? Had Max called him that? Maybe Jeremy had a concussion after all.
Another voice called as it got more distant, “We’ll chug a few beers for you, bro! Hurry up!”
Jeremy braced on the slippery sidewalk, his sneakers no match for the ice, the mix of snow and rain—practically hail now—not letting up. He said, “I’m sure I’ll be fine. You should go to your party,” although he desperately wanted this Max to stay with him.
“I’ll get you home first. Do you live in res?”
“Yeah, on St. George.” The adrenaline spike of losing his glasses seemed to be dulling the pain in his back, at least. “I’m really blind without my glasses. Sorry.”
“It’s cool. Honestly? I don’t really want to go to that party. My ex is going to be there. You okay to walk? This weather sucks ass. Guess they haven’t had a chance to salt the paths yet. Need to bust out my real winter boots.”
“Me too. Well, I need to buy some.”
“Yeah, those Chucks aren’t going to cut it.” With a gentle hand on Jeremy’s shoulder, Max guided him off the path. “Better to walk on the grass. More traction.”
It crunched under Jeremy’s sneakers, crusted with a thin layer of ice. Jeremy blinked at the old buildings rising around the grassy area. They were looming brown shapes, and the path’s streetlamps were big pinwheel sprays of light. The holiday decorations and lights just added to the confusion.
“Um, can you tell me when we get to a curb or anything?” Jeremy asked. “The world’s like the crappiest Monet painting ever without my glasses.”
Max laughed. “Gotcha. Blurry lily ponds and shit.”
“Yeah. I’m really near-sighted. My prescription’s minus-nine if that means anything to you.”
“Not really. What are most people?”
“Zero is good. Twenty-twenty, I guess. I read somewhere minus-three prescription is the average for people who wear glasses.”
“Whoa. You don’t wear contacts?”
“My eyes are too dry. Lucky me.”
“That sucks. You have a spare pair of glasses in your room, right?”
“My old ones. They’ll do for tonight.” He’d have to get the copy of his prescription and—
Jeremy tensed with the now familiar clench of hurt and dread. His mom had always handled that kind of stuff, but their most recent text exchange had been awkward at best, and his parents were the last people he wanted to deal with. That the feeling seemed to be mutual didn’t help. At all.
“You okay? You look like you’re gonna hurl. Shit, if you’ve got a concussion after all, we should get to the ER.” Max leaned closer, but he’d have to get six inches from Jeremy’s face for Jeremy to really see him, and he was still blurry.
“I’m good. Just thinking about my prescription. I’m not sure where it is. My mom’s probably got it.”
“Just tell her to take a pic with her phone.”
“Good idea.” Jeremy nodded, pushing away the thoughts of home and walking carefully on the crunchy grass that now looked faintly white. The wind gusted, the freezing rain morphing into snow.
“Why don’t you have boots? I’m assuming you’re a first-year. You’re not from here?”
“Oh, cool. I love BC. Vancouver Island is gorgeous.”
“Yeah, I guess so? We don’t get snow very often. Usually just rains. I had winter gear, but I outgrew it.”
“You definitely need boots in Toronto.” Max grasped Jeremy’s bare hand, the leather of his gloves cool and soft. “And you need gloves. Dude, you must be freezing!”
Jeremy’s heart went BOOM, and he hoped it was too dark to see his red face. Max had only held his hand for a second—and he hadn’t really held his hand—but it was a thrill. A sad, pathetic little thrill.
“Yeah, forgot to bring my gloves from home, and I’ve been meaning to go shopping. It was still mild and now all of a sudden winter’s here, I guess.”
“Take mine while we walk back.” Max pressed the leather into Jeremy’s hand.
“No, that’s not fair.”
“I’m used to the cold. Besides, I think you might be in shock a little, so put them on.” His tone was commanding but kind.
“Okay, but I’m fine.” Jeremy had to admit that it was a relief to slide his numb hands into the warm, fuzzy lining of the gloves. They were too big for him, so he clenched his fingers to stop them from falling off. “Thank you.” It was an even bigger relief to have someone taking charge. Taking care of him.
“No prob. Okay, we’re going to have to cross the street in a minute.”
The bursts of streetlights filled the dark sky as they came to the end of the grassy area. Cars zoomed by, headlights and red taillights huge, going fast despite the conditions. Jeremy stared down at the slick, blurry sidewalk, stepping gingerly. His sneakers didn’t grip the layer of ice at all, and he flailed and clutched at Max.
Max laughed good-naturedly. “I’ve got you.” He wrapped a big arm around Jeremy’s shoulders.
Jeremy’s breath stuttered, and not just because his ribs ached where he’d smacked the pavement. He was tucked against Max’s side, and Max was a good foot taller than him. And buff. And it was warm like a hug. Jeremy hadn’t been hugged in months, not since…
“Put your arm around my waist,” Max said.
“Okay.” Jeremy did, loving how that felt, to hold onto another guy like that. Like they were boyfriends or something. Another pathetic thrill ran down his bruised spine.
“We’ve got about ten feet, and then there’s a curb. I’ll tell you when.”
Max walked slowly, his steps careful. Jeremy couldn’t really see his feet but assumed Max was wearing something sturdier than sneakers since he seemed able to grip better than Jeremy could. They shuffled to the curb, where they stopped for the light.
“Thanks for this,” Jeremy said, blinking at the massive balls of light all around. He realized how much he took seeing the world in focus for granted. “It’s kind of scary when you can’t see.”
“Dude, I’d be shitting myself.” Max squeezed Jeremy’s shoulder where he held him securely. “Okay, we’re stepping down onto the road. It’s not salted yet either.”
They shuffled across, and Max guided him back up onto the curb on the other side. They continued along the sidewalk with arms around each other.
Do people think we’re boyfriends?
Despite everything, it was exciting. Which was cringey and probably why Jeremy had never actually had a boyfriend in real life. Because he was the biggest loser on campus.
“Do you know what your major’s going to be?” Max asked.
“Wow. You must be smart.”
“I guess?” He was, but he obviously wasn’t going to say that. “I’m really interested in gene expression and development.”
Max whistled. “That sounds very science-y.”
“That’s what they said in the brochure.” Jeremy was stupidly proud when Max chuckled at his weak joke. He asked, “What’s your major?”
“Sociology. I’ve always planned on law school. Assuming I didn’t blow the LSAT last month.”
Max’s voice had tightened, and Jeremy gave his waist an awkward pat. “I’m sure you did great.”
“Thanks. Still another few days for the results. Waiting’s the worst.”
“Totally. I—” Jeremy’s foot slipped, and he clung to Max, wheeling his left arm wildly. Max skidded, and they fought for balance.
“That was close,” Max said, a warm puff of his laughing breath brushing Jeremy’s cheek. “One more street to cross, right?”
Jeremy’s heart raced as he glanced around. “Um, I think so?” The precipitation was fully snow now, and the world was just shadowy buildings, blinding starburst lights, and white. He shuddered at the thought of navigating it alone. “Thanks for helping me.”
“It’s cool. There’s another curb coming up.”
They made it to the residence building, sudden wind slamming the outer door shut behind them, the glass rattling. They stamped their feet on the mat, and Jeremy tugged at Max’s gloves, which came off easily since they were so big.
He handed them back. “Thanks again. I’m sure I’ll be fine now.” He pulled out his wallet and held it close to his face, looking for his access card.
“Dude, you really can’t see, huh?”
He grimaced. “Nope. But I’m okay. I’ve taken up enough of your Friday night.”
“I’ve brought you this far. Don’t want you to take a header now that we’re in the home stretch. Besides, I’d rather wait until they salt before I go back out. If it’s cool to hang for a bit?”
Jeremy’s heart skipped. Hang? With him? “Of course.” He fished out the card, immediately dropped it, then finally buzzed them in. “I’m on the fourth floor.”
Max handled the elevator buttons. Under the glare of the fluorescent lights, Jeremy could see that he had medium brown skin and was indeed tall, which made sense the way he’d tucked Jeremy under his arm. The details of his features were still a blur under a blue and white hat—probably a U of T toque—and Jeremy was eager to see his rescuer in all his glory. When they reached his floor, he unlocked his door quickly, almost dropping the key card again.
Now he just needed to find his old glasses.
“Um, sorry for the mess.” His sheet and duvet were a rumpled pile on his bed, which he knew not because he could see them clearly, but because they always were. He’d never been one for making his bed, which his mom had always nagged him about.
The hurt was a swift throat punch, and he choked it down.
Max laughed. “Yeah, this isn’t a mess, trust me. Can I help find your glasses?”
“I just need to think about where I’d have put them.” He sighed. “I’m sure it was in a very logical, safe place.”
Max chuckled. “I’m sure. It’s not a big room. Do you even have a roommate? This side barely looks lived in.”
“Yeah, Doug. He’s from Hamilton and goes home every weekend to see his girlfriend. He’s only here Monday to Thursdays, and he’s gone already since his program doesn’t do December exams.”
Did Max mean having a girlfriend or not having exams? Jeremy just murmured in agreement. “Oh! I think I know where they are.”
He pulled a plastic storage container out from under his twin bed and fumbled with unsnapping the lid. Practically sticking his head in the box, he went through the random contents—health coverage paperwork, a spare power cable for his laptop, double-A batteries for his mouse, condoms—
Swallowing an embarrassed yelp, Jeremy thrust the Trojan box—unopened—back into the bottom of the container, hoping he was blocking Max’s view. The thin throw rug on the floor didn’t do much to cushion his knees, and he rooted around with increasing frustration.
“They have to be in here!”
“It’s okay. We’ll find them.” Max sounded completely confident, and somehow it helped, even though he had no way of knowing if it was true.
Jeremy’s fingers closed around the hard leather case, and he pulled it out with a triumphant cry. Max applauded, and Jeremy had to laugh. He quickly opened the case, hinges creaking, and put on the wire-framed glasses.
His prescription had gotten worse, so the periodic table poster he’d tacked up over his bed was a little fuzzy. But old lenses were still a heck of a lot better than nothing. He looked behind him at Max.
Max’s short, dark brown hair was wavy and a little longer on top, messy from wearing the woolen hat that sat beside him on Doug’s bed. He had rich brown eyes, full reddish lips, and a strong and stubbly jaw with a little cleft in the chin that Jeremy wanted to lick.
He’d taken off leather ankle boots and left them beside Jeremy’s sneakers, his coat hanging on the doorknob. There was a hole in the big toe of his red sock, and jeans clung to his muscular thighs, one knee up as he lounged on Doug’s bed, leaning back against the wall. The forest green of his thin sweater outlined trim arms and a narrow waist.
Max waved. “You can see me now?”
Could he ever. “Yep!” Jeremy shot to standing, stifling the burst of attraction before he humiliated himself with a boner. What was he going to do now? Max looked like he was staying for a bit—right, waiting out the weather.
Jeremy belatedly shrugged off his raincoat. His jeans were uncomfortably damp, but he wasn’t about to take them off in front of a guy he’d just met. Especially since the guy in question was all sprawled and threatening to make him hard. His socks squelched, so he peeled them off, dropping them with a wet slap by his shoes.
“Do you want a drink?” Jeremy opened the bar fridge in the corner. Doug had brought it and said Jeremy could use it as much as he wanted as long as there was always enough room for a six-pack.
Jeremy squatted and pushed up his old glasses on his nose. It felt strangely familiar and foreign to wear them again, like trying on old clothes that didn’t quite fit. “There’s water and Moosehead and…milk.”
Max laughed. “Hey, calcium’s important, right? But I’ll take a beer.”
When Jeremy stood, he tried to hide a wince. He gave a bottle to Max and kept one for himself, making a mental note to replace Doug’s stash. He walked gingerly to his own bed and perched on the side. His pasty feet were bare, and he scrunched the thin rug with his toes.
“You sure you don’t need a doctor?” Max frowned as he twisted the cap off his bottle. His extended leg was so long—and the space between the beds so narrow—that Jeremy could have leaned forward and touched that exposed toe without hardly moving at all.
“My lower back’s sore, but I’ll ice it. My butt took most of the fall.”
“Be careful with your tailbone, though. If your ass is sore tomorrow, get it checked out.”
“Yep. Right.” Just talking about sore asses, as you do. No big deal. “Um, I’m sure it’s fine.” Jeremy gulped from his bottle and stared at Max’s toe peeking out through the red sock. Otherwise, he’d stare at Max and probably look like a total creeper.
There was an electronic ping, and Max took his phone from his pocket and groaned. “I’m definitely not going to that party. My ex is asking where I am. Like I owe him anything after he dumped me.”
Jeremy almost choked. He? Max’s ex was a he?
Max scoffed, muttering more to himself than Jeremy. “We only went out for, like, a month in September. It wasn’t serious at all. I’m too young for serious. And I was already thinking about ending it when he did, so.” He shrugged. He paused and read another message. “Now he’s acting like we had plans. What the actual fuck? No. Hell no.”
“Right. So you’re…”
Max tapped his phone. “Gay. Uh-huh.”
“Oh.” Jeremy’s head spun at the casual way Max said that. Fearless, like it was nothing.
Now Max frowned at him, still holding his phone. “What?”
“Nothing! I’m not—it’s totally okay with me. I just didn’t expect someone like you to be…” Like me.
Max arched a thick brow. “Someone like me?”
Oh God, Jeremy was screwing this up epically. This is why I don’t talk to people! He waved his hand. “You look like you’re the stereotypical captain of the football team. Or maybe soccer? Baseball? Hockey? Lacrosse? But I’m guessing football because you’re so big.” His face went hot.
Thankfully, Max laughed. “Yep, football team. The season’s over, and it’s not like we’re in the States. Not a ton of people at U of T care about football. We were two and six, so can’t blame them.”
“Right. It’s not a big deal like being captain of the hockey team.” He quickly added, “Not that it isn’t impressive! I’m not captain of anything.” Please shut up now.
Max chuckled. “It’s cool.”
Sweat prickled the back of Jeremy’s neck, and instead of shutting up, he said, “And that’s good that you’re, um, gay.” He got up and went to his desk in his corner of the room, suddenly unable to sit still although he was aching. He put down his beer and gulped from the tepid glass of water on his desk from earlier. “I mean, not good. Not that it’s bad!”
“Dude, relax. I’m not going to jump you.”
“I know!” Ugh, he didn’t want Max to think he was a homophobe. “Was one of those guys your boyfriend now?”
“Huh?” Max lifted his hips and slid his phone into his pocket. “Why would you say that?”
Jeremy tore his gaze from Max’s crotch. “You called one sweetheart or something.”
“What? We need to revisit the concussion discussion, because—oh! You mean Honey. He’s my roommate—we’ve got a basement apartment in the Annex. His real name’s Cedric, but way back during frosh week, he won a wing-eating contest. Downed fifty wings in a few minutes.”
Jeremy winced. “I feel sick just thinking about that.”
“He felt sick doing it.” Max grinned. “Hurled before he even got his dollar-store trophy. The sauce was honey garlic, and that morphed into the nickname. It’s normal to us, so I forget what it sounds like to other people.”
“Is he a football player too?”
“Yep, he was our quarterback. We’re all pretty tight.”
“And they don’t mind that you’re…” Jeremy’s heart kicked up. It was surreal to talk about it. It was surreal that he was talking to anyone! That this guy was in his room. That this gorgeous guy was like him. Aside from being a billion times more confident and good-looking. He was surely smart too if he was applying to law school. Like everyone else at school, Max seemed to have his shit together.
“That I’m queer? No, man. It’s not an issue. I’m sure there are still some ignorant assholes around, but you usually don’t have to worry about them here on campus or downtown. I’ve never had a problem.” He paused and gave Jeremy a knowing look. “If you’re nervous or curious or anything…”
Now Jeremy’s heart was pounding so hard he could hear it. “I’m not. I mean, I know I’m gay. I’m definitely gay. I’ve known for as long as I can remember. That’s not the hard part.” He forced himself to keep looking at Max. He’d actually said it out loud for the first time in months. The words floated in the air. In the world.
Max nodded. “Cool.”
Jeremy drained the water glass and fidgeted. There—he’d told someone at school. It wasn’t so bad. Even though he might throw up, he’d done it.
“You dating anyone? Having fun?”
He shook his head rapidly and opened his desk drawer to rearrange the paper clips.
“Why not? You’re really cute.”
Jeremy scoffed. “You’re just being nice.” He pushed paper clips around, his ears going hot. He could imagine how stark the freckles across his cheeks looked as he blushed. How ugly.
“So this is the part that’s a struggle?”
“Part of it, I guess.”
“Dude, you’re totally cute. Everyone loves redheads. Did you join the queer club on campus? You’d meet a ton of people. Are you nineteen?” At Jeremy’s nod, he said, “Hit the Church Street bars and hang out in the Village. Or there are plenty other queer spaces in the city. You don’t have to be nervous.”
Barking out a laugh, Jeremy closed the drawer with a thud. “You don’t know who you’re dealing with. Being nervous is my usual state of being. I’ve only said it out loud twice now.”
Max’s brows drew together. “Wait, which part?”
“That I’m…you know. Gay.” He needed to get used to it already. He needed to stop cringing when he said it, waiting to be rejected. He needed to get his shit together like everyone else on campus. Everyone else in Toronto, it seemed like. The sidewalks and subways were crammed full of people rushing around, and they all seemed to know exactly where they were going.
Too restless to sit, he went to the window between the beds in the shoebox of a room and pulled back the curtain. “Still snowing.”
“I won’t stay too long, don’t worry.”
“No, I don’t mean that you should go!” Now he was being rude when Max had gone out of his way to help. When he’d been a hero. “Really.” Jeremy paced over to the desk to grab his beer before sitting on the side of his bed again, facing Max.
“Cool.” Max sipped his beer. “So you’re not out to many people yet?”
“Just my parents. I’m not allowed to tell my little brother yet, or anyone one else in the family. I think they’re hoping it’s a phase. Or they’re just completely ashamed of me. Or both.”
“Shit. That’s brutal. I’m sorry.”
Jeremy shrugged it off. “Anyway.” The last thing he wanted to do was burst into tears. “My roommate Doug knows. Although I never told him myself—we had to fill out these info forms with allergies and likes and dislikes. I wrote it on there.” He cleared his throat, putting on an announcer voice. ‘Hey, I’m Jeremy. I’m from the West Coast, I have a pineapple allergy, I always heat up cold pizza, and I’m really into dudes. Great to meet you.’ Maybe not those exact words.”
Max narrowed his gaze. “Wait, you heat up cold pizza? In the microwave or oven?”
Jeremy was relieved Max was letting the stuff about Jeremy’s parents drop. “Oven preferred, but microwave will do.”
“Whoa. I’m shook. Cold pizza left out all night in the box is basically a food group at my place. I don’t know if we can be friends.”
“Oh.” Friends? Was that on the table? Jeremy knew Max was joking, but the idea of becoming friends with this gorgeous, confident senior had apparently fried his brain. “Uh…”
Max shot him a wink, and Jesus, that cleft in his chin should be illegal. “I suppose I’ll allow the reheated pizza. So your roommate’s cool with you?”
“Yeah. He doesn’t seem to care. He’s chill. Comes in every week and goes to class and does his assignments. Then takes off home for three days. Perfect roommate, I guess.”
“Not so much when you’re trying to make friends.”
Jeremy shrugged. “That’s on me, though.”
“Hmm. And what’s the deal with your parents?”
He tried to shrug that off too. “It’s… It didn’t go great. Coming out, I mean.” Understatement of the year. The hurt swelled, so huge and terribly hollow at the same time. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Sorry. That’s rough.”
Nodding, Jeremy took another sip from the cold beer bottle. His fingers were wet with condensation, and he peeled at the green label.
“No high school friends out here?”
“Nope. Kara’s at McGill, and we said we’d totally get together since Montreal’s only a six-hour drive—not that I have a car, but there’s the train.” He sighed, trying for a careless smile. “We got busy, I guess. She has a new boyfriend. All my high school friends seem to be having an amazing time at university. Having a blast. Which is great! I’m really happy for them.”
“Sucks to lose touch though. Happened to me too. Is Kara your best friend?”
“Not really. I never had a best friend, even when I was little. The people I hung out with are scattered all over now and…moving on. I see them on Insta or wherever, but I have nothing to post myself.”
“You’ve got a whole city outside your door. I bet people would like to see your pics.”
“Maybe.” Jeremy groaned. “Talk about a pity party. I’ll shut up now.”
Max didn’t seem bothered. “Nah, it’s cool. So what’s the prob? You’re too nervous to make friends?”
“Dumb, I know. I’m living in downtown Toronto with a million people, and I can’t meet anyone.”
Max shifted on Doug’s bed, crossing his legs. His exposed toe still poked from its red sock. “I get it, man. The city can be really lonely. So many people around, but they’re strangers.”
“Yeah. But it’s not like I’ve never been to the city before. Victoria’s not huge, but I’ve taken the ferry over to Vancouver enough times. Toronto shouldn’t be so intimidating.”
“This place is a lot. University’s a lot. Leaving home’s a lot. Especially if it’s tense with your parents.”
Jeremy exhaled a long breath. He wasn’t sure how the captain of the football team could even begin to understand not fitting in, but somehow Max seemed to. “I got here just before frosh week, and I tried to have fun. Meet people and make friends. But after a couple of events, it was just…” He shook his head. “I kept thinking about home and my parents. My brother who I can’t even talk to besides emails to his monitored school account. He’s in grade seven, and our folks won’t let him have a cell yet. He actually sent me a postcard as part of a school project, but he’s busy being a kid.”
“Was the project on ancient communication?” Max nodded to the bulletin board nailed up over Jeremy’s desk. “Is that it?”
“Something like that, and yeah.” Jeremy went over and plucked the glossy postcard of the Rockies from the top corner. The only other thing he had tacked up was his class schedule, which was dumb because he’d memorized it by day two. He handed the postcard to Max.
“Wait, he calls you ‘Cherry’?” Max grinned. “And you thought ‘Honey’ was weird!”
“No, not weird!” I just thought he was your boyfriend, but apparently you don’t have one, which shouldn’t be as exciting as it is.
“Right. And yeah, Sean couldn’t say ‘Jeremy’ when he was little. Called me ‘Cherry,’ and with my hair, it stuck.”
Max smiled, reading the postcard, which was only a few lines saying that Sean missed him and would kick his butt at Super Mario when Jeremy came home. Jeremy had read the messy scrawl of words a hundred times. He wished he knew when exactly he would be going home. They hadn’t kicked him out, but…
“Must be fun to have a little brother.”
“Yeah.” Jeremy took the postcard and carefully tacked it back up before sitting across from Max again.
Max carefully said, “Must’ve been tough to leave him and come here and not know anyone and have drama with your folks on top of it.”
“Yeah,” Jeremy repeated. “Frosh Week was like torture trying to be social and smile when I just wanted to cry.”
Max’s brow creased, his mouth turning down in sympathy, and shit, Jeremy’s eyes burned. No. He would not cry now. He refused, forcing a laugh. “Man, this pity party is turning into a rager. You sure you wouldn’t rather brave icy sidewalks and your clingy ex?”
Max laughed softly. “I’m good. And I don’t blame you. That all sucks. Hard.”
The sympathy and kindness from this stranger made Jeremy’s throat tighten, but he breathed through it. No tears shed. “Thanks.”
“What about classes? There must be kids in your major you can get to know.”
“First year it’s all prereqs in these massive lecture halls. In September, I should have talked to people, but I was so…” He tore off a strip of wet beer label, not knowing the right word. Pathetic? Cowardly?
That felt too…real to say aloud. Instead, Jeremy said, “It seems so easy for everyone else. I just want to hide. Like… I don’t, but I do. You know?”
“Yeah. And don’t be too sure other people are doing so great. They might just be better at faking it.”
Jeremy smiled. “Maybe.”
“I’m telling you, all the confident people you see rushing around campus are probably just as fucked up as you are.”
“Not possible. I’ve made zero friends, I’m unloading all my trauma on a stranger who is being way too nice, I’m going to be alone for Christmas, and I’m definitely going to die a virgin.”
Oh fuck. That he’d said out loud. For sure this time. He flushed so hot his head spun and he tasted bile.
“Aww, buddy.” Max laughed, a deep, sexy rumble, but it wasn’t unkind. “You really are having a shit time of it.”
“I’m sorry. You’re not my therapist. I don’t even know you! I don’t know what I’m saying anymore. Ignore me.”
“And you’re not even drunk.” Max grinned—lord, the dimples. “At least, I don’t think so.”
“Definitely not. Can I blame this confessional on a concussion?”
“Absolutely.” But Max’s smile vanished, and he unfolded his big body, fluidly moving to kneel at Jeremy’s feet. He held up his index finger. “Follow this with your eyes.”
“I was kidding. I really didn’t hit my head.” Jeremy was very aware of Max’s other hand resting a few inches from his hip on the rumpled duvet. “I swear.”
“Humor me. Concussions are no joke. Honey kept playing once when he should have gone to the hospital.” He shuddered. “It was bad.”
So Jeremy submitted to Max’s experiments, finally standing and closing his eyes to test his balance. When he opened his eyes again, his gaze rested on Max’s Adam’s apple. A bristly five o’clock shadow was visible over his smooth brown skin, and Jeremy followed the shadow up over that chin cleft to Max’s full, smiling lips. Then he met brown eyes through lashes so thick that this close, Max looked like he was wearing eyeliner on his bottom lids.
Jeremy had never wanted to climb another person like a tree so much in his life.
“Did I pass?” he croaked.
Smiling, Max flopped back onto Doug’s bed and drained his beer. “You passed. Okay, what are you doing tomorrow?”
“Studying.” Jeremy perched on the side of his bed again, running through the periodic table in his head to avoid a humiliating erection.
“Study in the morning, and then we’ll knock out our to-do list.” Max ticked off items on his long fingers. “One: get your glasses replaced. Two: new boots. There’s a good place on Queen West that usually has a sale going. Three: get you a winter coat and gloves and all that. We can hit Winners.”
For a moment, Jeremy could only stare. “You—you don’t have to do that. I can figure it out on my own.”
Max ignored him, tapping another finger. “Four: get you laid. We’ll go to the Village.”
Excitement and fear jackknifed through Jeremy. “What? Me? Tomorrow? That’s… Tomorrow?”
“Why wait?” Max asked it like it was a genuine question, as though he just did things all the time without analyzing them for days first. Weeks. Months. Years.
Max stood, and he had to be six-two. Jeremy was only five-seven, and Max towered over him—which was oddly pleasing. He’d liked being tucked under Max’s arm. Max grabbed his coat off the doorknob and fished something out of the pocket.
“I guess these aren’t much use now, but it seemed wrong to leave them murdered there on the sidewalk.” He deposited the twisted metal remains of Jeremy’s glasses on the desk. “Sorry I smoked them.”
“It was an accident. You’ve already done way more than most people would.”
Max shrugged. “’Tis the season for giving, remember? Think of it as an early present. Besides, I need a distraction from waiting for my LSAT scores. It’ll be fun. I’ll be your fairy godfather.”
Jeremy probably should have protested more, but his chest was strangely warm and tight. Max’s friend had said something about him taking frosh under his wing, so apparently this was a thing he did? It didn’t mean Jeremy was special—just that Max was generous.
“I’ll get my glass slippers ready,” Jeremy joked, but his smile faded. “Thank you. Really.”
“Sure.” Max pulled out his phone. “Give me your number.” Jeremy did, and then Max was gone with a wave.
Jeremy honestly might have thought the whole thing had been a figment of his lonely mind, but the blue-and-white toque sat forgotten on Doug’s bed. Letting his dick get hard freely—which took about three seconds—Jeremy picked up the hat by its fluffy pom-pom. The wool had a soft fleece lining, and he buried his face inside, inhaling deeply.
It smelled like any hat would—stuffy fabric and dried sweat and a hint of coconut, maybe? Probably from Max’s shampoo. If Jeremy pressed his face to Max’s actual head, dipping his nose into that tousle of almost-curls, would the coconut fill his senses?
Jeremy carefully folded the hat into his coat pocket so he wouldn’t forget it tomorrow. Tomorrow, when he’d see Max again. When he actually had plans to hang with someone. And not just anyone. Max had spent time with him and listened to him and seemed like he really gave a shit.
Even if Max was just being nice to the pathetic frosh virgin, Jeremy couldn’t deny that it felt really, really good to have someone look after him. To have someone care enough to give up their Saturday to hang with him. It was the best Christmas present he could hope for, even if it was only for a day.
Copyright © Keira Andrews
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