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No Big Deal: An Angus and Tyler prequel (The #lovehim Series Book 2) by S. M. James (1)

 

January 14th

 

I notice him before he notices me, walking from the academic wing to the upper school dorms. He’s tall and lanky, probably a senior, and his light brown hair catches the sun in a way that sends out sparks of gold and draws my eye.

“Angus, head’s up!”

I turn at the voice and throw my hands up in time to catch the football as it shoots toward me. It’s instinctual by now.

“Not cool,” I yell back. For some reason Adrian seems to think randomly throwing things at people’s heads is an okay thing to do. Instead of passing the ball back, I purposely place it on the ground at my feet.

“What gives?” Adrian grumbles as he jogs over and scoops it back up.

“Did you see the new guy?” I nod in the direction of the dorms.

Adrian’s tan face is taken over by a cheeky smirk. “Think you’re his type?”

I shake my head and give his shoulder a shove. “Like I could be so lucky.”

“Pity. Maybe if you got some you’d loosen up a little.” He laughs, and I know he means it as a joke but I can’t join in.

Because honestly, I’d love to be getting some.

You’d think going to boarding school and lodging with a group of guys would be a wet dream, but it’s actual torture. My teammates and I have an unspoken rule that they’re cool with the gay thing so long as I don’t come on to any of them. Which means no joking around and no getting too personal.

Being so careful all the time is mentally draining.

Since football season has just ended, I head to basketball practice, where we go over drills and jump shots. When we head to the showers, I stare at the wall the whole time while the guys laugh and joke around behind me, only adding to their conversations when strictly necessary. No eye contact. First in, first out. The routine is familiar, if nothing else.

I pull on my shorts, flinging my towel around my neck and head back to the dorm.

Being Pinebrook Private’s resident gay kid has its perks too, though.

First, my teammates have a fondness for wet whipping each other with their towels after practice and I seem to be the only one who doesn’t end up covered in welts. Second, my teachers are oddly parental and the few times I’ve needed homework extensions they’ve granted them with no questions. Third, I’m the only guy in my junior year who doesn’t have a dorm mate. I have no idea if that’s actually linked, or a huge coincidence, either way it’s pretty great.

But throw in being brown on top of being gay and the world is just full of social grenades.

I quickly towel off my hair and pull on a shirt, wondering if I have time to catch up with my best friend, Anah, during dinner. Since the girl’s residences are all the way across campus it’s hard for us to hang out through the week. The only time I see her is in class.

I fling my towel toward the closet door but just as I’m about to head out, a knock echoes through the room.

That’s … odd.

My gaze immediately darts to the mirror and I scrub a hand over my damp, black hair, trying to get it to sit right. The worry lines around my dark eyes disappear as I force an easy going, half smile onto my face, then I reach for the door.

It opens from the other side and I jump back before it can slam into me.

“Oh, Angus,” Pauly the dorm supervisor says. “I didn’t think you were in.”

“Yeah, just got back from practice.”

“Even better then.” Pauly steps to the side revealing another guy standing in the hall. My stomach flips a little as I recognize him as the one from earlier. He’s even cuter than I thought.

He gives me a tentative, not exactly hopeful smile, and I return it with a nod.

“What’s up, Pauly?” I ask.

“Angus, meet Tyler. Your new dorm mate.”

Dorm mate? I slowly pull my gaze back to Pauly and raise my eyebrows a little.

He just shrugs, like there’s nothing he can do. “Yours is the last room, man.”

Tyler is standing back a bit, watching us with the kind of expression that comes from not knowing what’s going on. So he’s a junior? He does not look like a junior.

I nod and step to the side, the sensation of being completely displaced settles over me. Tyler passes Pauly and as we all kind of hover in the middle of the room it’s abundantly obvious it wasn’t built to be so occupied.

“Okay, Angus, take the night off study period. Show Tyler around, make him feel welcome. Maybe even take a walk down to where you guys play?”

I promise Pauly I will because it’s the polite thing to do, and he leaves, completely abandoning me with a total stranger.

“This one?” Tyler asks, pointing to the spare bed.

I’m about to ask him which other one it could be but I rein it in. It’s not Tyler’s fault he’s here, and there’s a chance he won’t even care about the gay thing. Maybe.

“Yeah,” I start to gather up the schoolbooks that have spilled from my desk onto his bed, and then grab the pile of clothes at the foot.

To be honest, I’ve always been a little envious of how close the other guys were with their dorm mates.

Maybe this is my chance to have that too.

He unzips the duffel bag he’s dropped on the bed, his broad shoulders hunched over as he searches. He seems a little taller than me and his hair is a tad longer than Pinebrook regulation. He’s not muscly—pretty lean, actually—but seems big anyway. Like he’s taking up more of the room than he should.

I do a mental check of my feelings and even though he’s cute, there’s no real attraction there.

That would have been awkward.

He finally comes up with a pair of glasses. They’re black with square frames and my first thought is he’s some kind of hipster, but as the lenses catch the light it’s obvious they’re not just for show. He squeezes his eyes shut and shoves them on, blinking a little as his eyes adjust.

“You okay, there?”

“Ah, hey.” He turns back to me, that tentative close-mouthed smile back in place. “I’m Tyler. Patterson.” He holds out a hand and it takes me a second to realize I’m meant to shake it.

I smother back my laugh and slide my palm against his, before tapping his knuckles with my own. “Angus. Reid.”

He swallows awkwardly and makes a show of looking around the room, but there’s not a whole lot to see. Two beds, two closets, two desks. Fun times.

“So, Angus. That’s, a ah, different name.”

My jaw twitches like it usually does when someone brings up my name. “Yeah.”

“Family name?”

“No. My mom just liked it, I guess.”

“Oh that’s cool, that’s …” He lets out a huge gust of air. “Sorry, I’m really nervous.” Tyler laughs and for a fraction of a second there’s real humor on his face. His lips pull back to show off straight white teeth, and his eyes squint right up. “I swear the more people I meet, the worse I get at it. Like, my anxiety just ratchets up to that next level.”

And as anxious as he might be, he radiates confidence in the way he over pronounces his words.

What the hell am I supposed to say to that? “Well here at Pinebrook, we’re all pretty easy to get along with.” And oh man, I sound like a douche. I will myself to stop talking and Tyler raises his eyebrows at me like he wasn’t the one to say something weird first.

“Okay. Let’s go on that tour.”

Getting out of the room seems like the best option, especially with Tyler’s strange ability to fill a space. The grounds are clearing out, but some groups hang about trying to use up every available minute before study period. I glance around, on the off chance I might see Anah, though knowing her she’s already in her commons, nose shoved in a textbook.

I start pointing out buildings and it doesn’t take long to notice Tyler’s eyes have glazed over. He’s clearly not listening—why am I wasting my time?

“Anyway, I mean, I guess Pinebrook is just like any other school.”

“Except it’s a boarding school.”

“Well, there’s that. But otherwise. Totally normal.”

“How long have you been here?”

“Since the start of middle school.”

His lips seem to quirk at the corners and its kind of amazing how quickly the guy’s expressions flits from one to the next. “Then trust me, this place is far from normal.”

“Yo, Reid!”

I’m saved from having to reply when Adrian Carter waves me over. He’s still in his Pinebrook school sweatshirt, and he’s chatting to two of our reserves.

“Who’s this?” he asks as we approach.

I nod back toward Tyler. “New kid.”

Tyler introduces himself, holding his hand out again and Adrian shakes it. It’s these moments that highlight the difference between our upbringings. Tyler and Adrian make formal small talk, Adrian drawing up to try and match Tyler in height, and it’s like this division in the world of money and no money—them and me—reminding me I don’t belong.

Usually I can avoid it, the games are all strategy talk—definitely no hand shakes—and at parties everyone is tipsy and the formality is long forgotten. Tyler and Adrian look like they’re in some kind of business meeting.

“You play?” Adrian asks, holding up the football he tried to hit me with earlier. Because if he puts it down for one second people might forget he’s a shoo-in for captain or something. But at least he’s speaking my language again.

“Definitely not,” Tyler replies.

“Pity. You have the size for it.”

“Unfortunately not the skill.”

Adrian’s gaze drops and I can pinpoint the exact moment he loses interest. His eyes flick to me and there’s this spark in them I know means trouble.

“So, Reid, they finally give you a roommate, huh?” His eyebrows jump up suggestively.

“Shut up, Carter.”

He laughs off my tone. “Nah, man, it’s cool. Just teasing.”

I crack a grin because I’m supposed to and give him a playful shove. Thankfully, I don’t have to deal with the ribbing very often, and I know they think they’re screwing around, but it’s just another reminder. I’m different. They’re not.

“Shouldn’t you be getting to study hall?” I ask, desperate to change the topic.

“Yeah, eventually.”

Eventually. Being a rich football player also has its perks.

Adrian and the two sophomores wander off, and I’m so lost in my own head that Tyler pokes me to get my attention. Two fingers. Left bicep.

I automatically shrug away and try to play it cool. “So, ah, that’s the—”

“Athletics department,” he cuts in as I point to a building.

I quirk an eyebrow. “I thought you hadn’t been here before.”

“I haven’t.”

Right. “So how did you—”

“I saw the map.”

“Huh. So do I actually need to give you this tour, or …?”
“It’s cool.” He waves a hand and I’m not sure how to take this guy.

On one hand, Tyler’s glasses and squinty smile, and slightly too large teeth give him an almost dorky feel. But he speaks so confidently, occasionally over pronouncing his words. He seems like the kind of guy who owns who he is. It’s … interesting.

“I’ve never had a roommate,” I blurt out.

“Yeah I got the feeling. Why is that, exactly?”

Yikes, okay. I know I shouldn’t be so nervous, but it’s been a while since I had to say the specific words, and the fear of rejection is still real.

I finally make myself look at him. His eyebrows are tilted curiously and the way he holds eye contact with me is unnerving.

“I’m gay.”

He blinks and slowly his eyebrows pull up toward his hairline. “Okay … makes sense.”

Has his voice gone all strangled? Is he freaking out?

“I’m not going to hit on you or anything like that, don’t worry.” My words come out so fast I’m not sure if he caught them.

Tyler finally looks away, gaze drifting back to the academic buildings. When he makes eye contact again it’s so sudden I almost step back. “You won’t hit on me? What, am I not attractive enough for you?”

“What do you—”

“I mean I could brush my hair.” He shrugs like it’s a legitimate offer and I’m so confused. “Maybe I could do something about my skin? Or wear contacts?”

I’m so busy trying to sort through his words that I’m struggling to answer. Is he … could he be …?

“Are you …” is all I can get out.

Some of the laughter melts away from Tyler’s eyes as he catches on to where my thoughts have gone. “Teasing,” he finishes, gently. “I’m just teasing, Angus.”

Visions of long nights making out in our dorm vanish and I’m kind of relieved. “You know, I didn’t want to say anything before, but you really could use some tighter shirts.”

“I’ll write home at once.”

It’s kind of amazing how cool he’s being about it, but most people usually are when they first find out. It’s the subtle things they do and say that gives away their subconscious thoughts.

“So,” Tyler says. “You’ve told me a random fact about yourself, now it’s my turn.” He points back toward the residency halls. “Roger C. Cavanagh residency hall. Houses over seven hundred students from freshman year and above. Our wing is Torrick, named after Joseph Torrick who donated his estate to Pinebrook Private when he passed in nineteen seventy-four. He was a nineteen thirty alumni and captain of the Pinebrook Panthers. Want me to go on?”

I cross my arms. “Your random fact is boring trivia?”

He taps the side of his head. “I have an ‘advanced memory’. I don’t talk about it much because it leads to all kinds of questions, but when I read something, it sticks. Sometimes only for a few days, sometimes for years.”

“So you have a photographic memory?”

For some reason that makes him laugh, all squinty eyes and teeth. “No. Photographic memories are a myth. I’ve done some preliminary testing which showed I wasn’t at all average. But I didn’t want to go any further with it. I don’t want to be that kid, you know?”

I did know. I knew all about being pigeon-holed because of one tiny part of me. “Most people would claim that. Doesn’t it make you feel special or something?”

He looks up like he’s searching the sky for answers. The lenses on his glasses catch the sun and cut off my view of his eyes. When he finally comes back to earth that hesitant smile is back. “I’d rather just stay under the radar. It’s easier that way.”

“Do you really believe that? I mean, I knew it would be hard when I came out, but it was never an option to keep it to myself. And yeah, they’re two different things, but it’s who we are. How can you hide that?”

“You know, Angus,” Tyler says as he starts walking again. “There’s this crazy philosophical theory that no two people are the same.”

“Ha.” Point taken. “Next you’ll be telling me the earth is round, and star signs don’t really predict the future.”

“Right on both counts. Sorry, man.”

I groan and place a hand on my chest. “My life has been a lie.”

Tyler smirks and it makes his top lip look bigger than his bottom. “Don’t worry, Angus, I’m here now. I’ll keep you honest.”

His words send warmth through me but I don’t want to get too excited. It seems too good to be true that a half way decent guy who doesn’t give a damn I’m gay would fall into my life just when I was giving up hope.

“Okay, sorry if this sounds needy but I really have to ask. Are you sure me being gay doesn’t bother you? Because if it does, I get it. We’ll see if they can find you another room somewhere, or maybe they’ll move me. I don’t know. I just don’t want you to feel uncomfortable.”

Tyler stops, opens his mouth then closes it again. He’s still looking the way we were headed and his eyebrows are pulled to his hairline. He doesn’t answer right away and I take it as a bad sign. Normally people rush in and reassure me, whether they mean it or not, so this long awkward silence is definitely not what I was expecting. But I want him to be honest so I keep my mouth shut, even as my stomach twists uncomfortably.

“Oh, I get it,” he finally says. “You don’t want a roommate. You’ve been by yourself so long I’ll just be cramping your style. Is that it?”

“Wha—no.”

“Then you’re into me.” He shrugs. “I can’t say I’m surprised, I’m irresistible.” He grabs both of my shoulders and ducks down a little so we’re eye level. “I just want you to know, it’s not your fault.”

I don’t know what kind of look I’m wearing but I’m sure it shouts you’re a crazy person and I’m hella confused. “So … you’re really okay with it?”

Tyler lets go of me and drops the humor. “It’s not up to me to be okay with it. It’s not up to anyone. As long as you’re a good person, I don’t give a shit about the rest.”

The anxiety and tension seep out of my shoulders. “So maybe we’ll be friends then?”

He nods. “Maybe we will. Ha. Friends with a jock. Never thought I’d see the day.”

“I’m not a jock.”

“Aren’t you?” He looks pointedly back to where Adrian was.

I shake my head. “I don’t like labels.”

“Really? You mean you haven’t labeled me yet?”

“What do you mean?”

“I wear thick glasses, take all AP classes, and can’t kick a ball to save myself. Still not labeling me a nerd?”

“I’d never call you that.”

His eyes narrow slightly like he’s not sure if he believes me, but one side of his mouth pulls up. “No labels? I can live with that.”

 

February 7th

 

Having a roommate is strange new territory. I had one in middle school, but before that I was an only child so I’d never had to share.

And Tyler always seems to be there. We walk to breakfast together, and then split for our separate classes. He’s usually back before I’m done with training, stretched out on his bed reading something or other. He never studies during study period, and then falls asleep watching a movie on his laptop. When the room is dark and still, his deep breaths fill the silence.

It’s kind of comforting.

It takes weeks before I’ve settled into this new world where I don’t have my own privacy.

I wake, one morning early-February, to the sound of Tyler moving about the room.

“Hey, Angus?”

It’s freezing, and the last thing I want to do is acknowledge him, but I peek out from under my duvet and grunt so he knows I’m awake. He’s wearing a robe and sweatpants and his bare feet are bouncing up and down as he ducks to look out the window.

“White everywhere.”

“What … snow?”

“Yup.” He makes for the radiator and fumbles around until the telltale gurgling comes alive. “Thank the heavens for no classes today.”

“It truly is a blessing,” I moan, forcing myself to a sitting position. I hug the duvet tight around me in a hopeless attempt to keep out the cold. Craning my head to see through a gap in the blinds reveals little flecks of white snow thrashing past the window. “I guess we have a whole day of nothing ahead.”

Tyler hums and leans against the side of his bed, one hand absentmindedly rubbing the other arm.

This strange sort of awkwardness sets in, and I have no idea if he feels it too or not. I mean, we’re friendly, but I don’t know if we specially classify as friends and spending a whole day together, trapped in this room …

I don’t know what to say to him and he clearly doesn’t know what to say to me. But spending the whole day ignoring each other just seems weird.

“Sometimes, I wish I was a kid again,” he says, randomly. “So we could build a blanket fort and it wouldn’t be weird, or we’d just pull out a bunch of toys and start making up a game and there would be no forethought, just action.”

“Can’t say I have any toys.” I reply.

“Or anything required for propping up a blanket fort.”

We lapse into silence again and it feels like my turn to contribute. “Maybe we should go grab a bunch of food for the day?”

“You really want to go out there?”

“Ha. No.” I slowly crawl out of my duvet and make my way over to the closet. “But if we quickly get food now, we won’t have to go out again later.”

“You are a very smart person, Angus Reid.”

Tyler makes for his closet too, and thankfully the room has started to heat enough that it’s not completely unbearable to get changed. I keep my back turned because the last thing I want is for him to think I’m checking him out—no matter how much I might want to.

Tyler is tall and broad and slim and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t curious. My teammates all have some form of muscle or solid weight and I can honestly say I’m not attracted to any of them.

But there’s something about the way Tyler’s shirt pulls across his shoulders that gets my attention.

“You ready?” he asks in that strangely deep voice of his.

I curse myself for getting distracted and pull a jacket on. “Yep. Let’s go hunt and gather.”

The halls have no heating so we jog the whole way down to the commons and dining area. Every window we pass is frosted over and being blasted by the unrelenting wind. Tyler fills the thermos he’s brought with hot water as I stuff as much food into my pockets as I can. I go for anything that will keep and hope that by tomorrow, the snow will have stopped enough for life to return to normal.

There are a few other people around from the years below us but we don’t run into any of our friends, and I’m a bit grateful. They tease me enough about Tyler, and even though they think they’re joking, there’s that tiny part of them that probably imagines we’re getting it on.

If only.

I’m at the point where I’d gladly get it on with just about anyone.

Our room is a blast of warm air when we get back and after dumping the fruit and pastries I’ve grabbed, I strip off my jacket and flop back on my bed. I grab the football from my bedside and throw it up in the air before catching it again.

“So which do you prefer? Football or basketball?” Tyler asks after a while.

“Football.” There’s no hesitation. “I’m more of a backup with basketball. It’s something to keep me fit during the off-season.”

“Well, I don’t know too much about it but I came to the last game. You’re really good.”

“For the whole ten minutes I played?” I stop throwing the ball and turn my head to smirk at him. “Thanks. But I don’t have the height to make it seriously.”

“But you have what it takes for football?”

I’d shrug if it wasn’t lying down. “Coach says I do. So we’ll see.”

The silence barely has a second to form around us when Tyler stands and grabs his laptop. “Okay, scoot over. As fun as it would be to watch you throw that ball around all morning, snow days have always meant movie days.” He drags my nightstand over with one hand and starts setting up his laptop. “Any requests?”

I shake my head as I sit up, moving robotically. The way he’s angled the screen makes me think he’s planning on joining me on my bed and I’m not really sure how I feel about that. Do I move into the corner to give him space? Stay where I am?

Tyler doesn’t seem to pick up on my confusion as he grabs the pillows from his bed and props them up against the wall. He crouches down to scroll through the movie selection and his shirt pulls across his shoulders and I’m suddenly really sure I don’t want to do this. There’s no way to voice it without it being weird though.

My arms aren’t working properly as I set my pillows up like his, keeping far enough away that he won’t think I’m purposely trying to get close to him. I don’t lean back into them though, I don’t get comfortable, I just sit up, ankles crossed as I hug my knees to my chest.

Tyler finally choses one and climbs up beside me. “You cool with Eurotrip?”

“Ahh … I guess?”

“You haven’t seen it before?”

“I don’t really watch movies.”

“Damn that’s weird.” Tyler suddenly seems to realize how I’m sitting. “You okay over there?”

“Yeah, fine.” It’s my default.

He pushes up onto his elbow, eyebrows drawn in concern. “Is this too weird for you?”

“For me? No. I just … didn’t think you’d want me too close.” My answer is more candid than I had planned and Tyler’s expression doesn’t change.

“Why? Are you sick?”

I can tell he’s joking and he knows exactly what I mean. Part of me loves that Tyler doesn’t make a big deal out of it but the other part of me hates it. “Some people think so.”

“Angus, no. Stop. Look, I don’t know how your other friends are, but you can relax around me. And I mean it. I’m not just telling you what you want to hear, I really don’t care.”

I nod and move a bit closer, trying to look like I’m relaxed even though I’m far from it. I’ve been the gay guy for so long I’ve built up ways to protect myself and those are hard to just let go. Besides, if Tyler knew the occasional thoughts that slipped into my mind would he still think the same thing?

I really do try to concentrate on the movie, especially when Tyler points out certain shots of Europe or injects cool pieces of trivia, but I’m so hyperaware of him it’s hard to focus. It’s so weird. I’m not keen on him but there’s something about the dim lighting, and sharing a bed—even just to watch a movie—and the raging storm outside and the way his knee is approximately half an inch from my own that has forced by heartbeat up into my ears.

“This Bratislava part is funny,” he says. His eyes are on the screen but he tilts his head so close when I turn to him our foreheads nearly touch. I have no idea when the space between us disappeared but when his eyes flick up to meet mine for the briefest of moments my breath hitches. It’s loud enough that I notice but thankfully he keeps watching like nothing happened. Like this intense spark of chemistry didn’t just shoot fear through me.

I close my eyes, willing myself to calm down and get some freaking perspective. Tyler is straight, and I’ve never been stupid enough to fall for a straight guy. Then again, no straight guy has ever been this comfortable around me before.

“Not a fan of boobs?”

My eyes snap open and there he is looking at me again, face too close, lips pressed tight in an attempt to hold back his real smile.

“Umm …” My gaze flicks to the screen where two topless girls are trying to sell juice or something. He’s still waiting for an answer, like being close enough to kiss is no big deal. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. They’re basically my favorite things ever.”

“Want me to turn it off?” He’s really struggling to hold back from laughing at me.

“No it’s okay.”

He squints like he’s concerned but that suppressed laugh is still there. “Need a barf bucket?”

I groan and give him a playful shove, not able to resist touching him, but it just makes the urge to do it again worse. “I think I’ll manage.”

I’ll manage because I don’t even watch the end. I watch Tyler from the corner of my eye. The way his chest expands with each breath, the way he scratches his nose, or rubs his arm. I catch everything.

I really need to get out of here, to put some distance between us, but I can’t. I don’t want to, which is the really messed up part.

The movie ends with that same song that’s played through the whole thing and instead of choosing another, or returning to his own side of the room, Tyler rolls onto his side, legs hanging off the bed, and tucks a pillow up under his arm.

“Okay, if you could go anywhere in the world right now, where would it be?”

I shift around so I’m facing him and try to be subtle about putting distance between us again. I lean back on my hands, my knees filling the void between us. “Tokyo.”

“Huh. I didn’t picture you for a big city guy.”

I shrug and nod at him. “Same question.”

“The Central Library in Vancouver. Reason one.” He holds up his thumb. “I get to visit another country without having to fly, reason two.” He holds up his forefinger. “I could spend my life there and never read all the books they have. Plus it looks like the Colosseum. Which I’ll never see. Because I hate planes.”

“You’re afraid of flying?” It’s my turn to try and hold back a laugh.

“I happen to have a healthy appreciation for how much it would hurt to plummet to my death.”

“Okay so what do you like?”

He considers the question for a moment. “Quesadillas, marine life, old school computer games … and you.” He shrugs like what he said was no big deal. Just a random list.

I try not to hide how awkwardly I swallow. “I guess you’re pretty cool too.”

He lets my lame reciprocation go. “So football ... do you actually love it? Or is it one of those things where you tried it, you were good, and Mom and Dad were so proud you couldn’t give it up for fear of disappointing them?”

“Wow. That was oddly specific. Umm ... no. It’s one of the ‘I’m an only child and my mom’s dead so Dad is proud of anything I do’ things.”

“Oh.” Tyler’s eyebrows jump up and it’s weird to see him caught by surprise. “I shouldn’t have pried.”

“Don’t worry about it. I was young, I barely remember her.”

“Do you want to talk about it?”

“No. Trust me, if I do, I won’t be much fun for the rest of the day. I mean … it’s hard to miss something you never had. And, well, it makes me feel a bit guilty.”

Tyler’s looking at me with so much sympathy it’s kind of hard to look away from. He reaches out and gives the spot just above my knee a squeeze. I feel it all the way up my leg.

“Okay, how many guys have you hooked up with?” He’s trying to take my mind off it and I’m so grateful.

“Umm … two. The first was the summer before I came out. It was kind of a confirmation, I guess. Sloppy and rushed. The second ...” I rub at my mouth to try and hide the smile. “The second was last Christmas break. Dad and I went to a Christmas party with some of his work friends. I didn’t know the guy, and I know I’ll never see him again, and I think that’s what made it so hot.” I nod at him again. “Same question.”

“How many guys have I hooked up with? I can honestly say zero.” He catches my eye with a grin. “Sorry, Angus.”

He gets a laugh from me. “If you ever want to try it, you know where to find me.” I don’t know what makes me say the words but I immediately regret it. Maybe repressing my sexuality for so long isn’t the best idea.

“Noted.”

“Obviously I meant girls, you idiot.”

“In that case.” He frowns as he thinks. “Also zero.”

“No way.”

“I know. I struggle to believe it myself.”

“Do you ever get lonely?” I’m not sure where the question comes from.

Tyler’s serious when he answers. “Only all of the time. Mom and Dad are super busy, and I don’t really have any friends.”

“Except me.”

He lets loose his smile, all teeth and squinty eyes. “Except you.”

“It’s very possible you’re my only actual guy friend too. At least, the only one who doesn’t see me as the gay kid.”

“What do you mean?”

“I just have so be so careful around people. Honestly, it gets pretty exhausting, but it’s safer. Like, I can’t joke around with my teammates in case they think I’m coming on to them or something. I mean, I’m not an idiot, I wouldn’t set myself up to fail by falling for a straight guy.”

“Yet you just offered to hook up with me.”

My stomach clenches and he starts to laugh but I’m kind of uneasy about it. I’d meant it as a joke—obviously—but it had been too easy to say to him. “Sorry, it kind of slipped out. I’m not used to being myself when I have to be so careful all the time. The guys are okay with me so long as I’m not throwing my queerness in their faces.”

“Do you think maybe you’re the one who thinks that way?”

It’s not what I expect him to say. “No. Of course not. I like who I am.”

“Then why don’t you ever say something when those guys give you shit?” He pushes up to sitting, one leg tucked beneath him, the other hanging over the side of the bed.

“Like what? The guys are mostly great about it. When I first came out, just before freshmen year, I dreaded coming back to school. But it wasn’t a big thing. I don’t think you realize how lucky I am.”

“I realize. My old school was a horrible place. This one gay kid got given so much shit. Sometimes literally. It …” He trails off and scrubs his hands over his face. “It was sick. And it made me research a whole lot about the LGBT plus community. Sometimes ignorance isn’t so obvious.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Oh yeah? Do they talk about their love lives and conveniently leave yours out? Do they use the word gay in a derogatory way when they describe something? You clearly can’t talk freely about that part of you.”

“They’re guys. It’s just how it is.”

“That’s a cop out.”

“Because I don’t care.”

“Well you should.”

“Well I don’t.”

Tyler’s shakes his head slowly from one side to the other. “When you don’t care, when you don’t speak out, ignorance wins.”

I clench my jaw because I’m done with this conversation. Tyler is straight and white and well off. He’s probably never been on the receiving end of ignorance in his life so what gives him the right to tell me how I should feel?

“Maybe we should watch another movie,” I manage to get out, sounding relatively normal.

“Why doesn’t this school have a GSA, Angus?”

“Oh my god.” How did our conversation go downhill so quickly? “It literally has nothing to do with you. Maybe I don’t want to start some stupid solo group where I’ll sit around with a bunch of straight people who can pat themselves on the back for doing something when it actually means less than zero.”

His eyes widen and he lets out a huge exhale. “You seriously think you’re the only queer kid in this school?”

I go to argue and stop, because I hadn’t given it much thought before. “There’s no one else out.”

“Okay, so that’s an assumption. There are over a thousand kids at this school, and you’re telling me there’s not a single other LGBT plus kid? Look at the stats. One in ten means there’s about a hundred people who identify as LGBT plus.” Tyler leans forward. “You’re not the only one, Angus.”

I don’t know why, but that just pisses me off more. “I. Don’t. Care. I’m happy, life is sweet. Why are we even talking about this?”

“Angus, I—”

“Just stop. Seriously, stop.”

A long pause follows my words and I’m not sure if I’ve pissed him off or not. I’m also too much of a chicken to look and see. The silence stretches on, Tyler still sitting across from me. He’s the first to break it.

“Sometimes I try and use a word I’ve never used before,” he says. And at his careful, balanced words, the tension in the room drains away.

I finally turn my attention back to him and I’m so relieved to see his expression has softened. “Like ... tenuous? I don’t think I’ve ever described something that way.”

“Good word. Our friendship was somewhat tenuous moments ago.”

“Really?” I don’t mean to sound so vulnerable.

“Nah.” He grins. “It’d take a fair bit more than that to get rid of me.”

“Okay, so what’s your word then?”

Tyler’s attention drifts to the ceiling as he thinks it over. “Quagmire.”

I snort. “That is a random word. And one I’m pretty sure I’ve never used either. Are you going to elaborate?”

He locks eyes with me and just when it looks like he’s going to answer, he shakes his head. “I think I’ll leave it at that.”

“Mysterious,” I joke, but he still hasn’t dropped eye contact. And I know I should look away because this is feeling way too intimate on my end.

But I can’t.

And he doesn’t.

“Now I know you’ve used that word before.” It could be my imagination but his words sound softer than before. He suddenly narrows his eyes. “You want to make out, don’t you?”

My heart stops. What? I don’t know what look I’m wearing but Tyler starts to laugh. “I’m joking, you idiot.”

I let out a shaky laugh of my own, but now it’s like my heart is making up for the beat it missed, hammering rapidly against my ribcage. “See how desperate I am?” I flop back against my bed, hoping to show just how dramatic my life is. “I’m just so lonely, Tyler.”

“I thought we just agreed we have each other.”

I raise an amused eyebrow. “You can’t exactly give me the companionship I’m after.”

He hums. “Well maybe not. But I’m down for camaraderie any day.”

“Thanks.” Pause. “That actually means a lot.”

“Nothing to thank me for.”

We fall into the comfortable kind of silence that makes me appreciate Tyler even more. If only he was gay, we’d make a killer couple.

“Have you tried online?” he finally asks.

I smirk at the ceiling. “Like a dating site?”

“I don’t know, Angus. I’m not well versed on how to hook up with gay guys.”

The idea has merit. “I think at this point I’m willing to try anything.”

We spend the next hour searching the internet for anything we can find. At some point we start on our pile of food, faces in our laptop screens, and all I can think about is how good he smells.

“This one seems promising,” he suddenly says. “‘Link up with fellow LGBTQI plus teens and be part of the community’. It’s called ‘Common Connections’.” He turns his laptop so I can scroll through the forum of people recommending the site. It has a lot of good reviews, ranging from people feeling involved, to making friendships, to meeting their partners.

I’m nervous as I consider actually putting myself out there. I swallow back my worries. “Okay.” It’s embarrassing that I can pinpoint the exact reason I’m so nervous: I really want this to work.

I pull the page up on my own screen and hover the mouse over the ‘Sign Up’ button. I concentrate on letting out a long breath, purposely not looking at Tyler. One word at a time. I fill in my basic details then stop.

About Me. Urg. I rub a hand over my face. “This is painful.”

“Here.” Tyler shifts my laptop around, half leaning across me. His shoulder is pressed against mine and his arm rubs my arm with every word he types. I’m so focused on not focusing on him, that I don’t realize what he’s written until he’s done.

I’m a junior navigating the stresses that come from being an openly gay football player in a hetero-normative world. My roommate thinks I’m endearing, my best friend thinks I’m funny, and my school thinks I’m a jock with skills, but I’m so much more than all those things. And I still have a lot to learn about the LGBT+ community. Go easy on me. I’m here to hopefully make friends.

“Aww you think I’m endearing,” I tease, keeping my eyes on the screen so I don’t give anything away.

Tyler helps me choose a picture and a display name and once it’s done, I close my laptop and put it on the floor. “Now you have to stop me from checking my notifications twenty times a day. Oh man, I feel sick.”

“Relax, Angus. It seems like a safe space. You’ll be okay.”

I reach for his hand, real quick, and give it a soft squeeze before retreating. I never initiate contact. “Thanks. You really are a good friend.”

He smiles and it sets off a flare in my chest. “I know. You really are lucky to have me.”

Tyler retreats back to his bed, and I wish he could stay, just a little longer, but I know how dangerous that is.

How dangerous it would be if I didn’t stay in control.

How easily I would lose him.

Tyler is gone before I wake the next morning and it takes me just a second to remember the night before. I barely have a chance to think before I’m scrambling for my laptop. I flip open the screen, refresh the WiFi, and …

There’s a private message.

My heart is pounding in my throat as I flex my fingers, trying to push my hopes back down.

Screw it.

And there it is. Just one word, thrown out into the world, so unassuming and innocent. So full of hope.

Hey.

I lick my lips and hit reply.

 

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