Was he really here? Was he really living a dream that he had been having since he was just a kid watching the Super Bowl on his mother’s thrift store TV, the one where all of the colors weren’t quite right, the kind with the big back that could only now be found in second-hand stores?
This didn’t happen for kids like that boy who had stared, absolutely rapt, as the tiny men on the screen hiked and kicked and ran and tackled. All the while thinking, he could do that, he was sure of it, and as he’d grown, he had found that to be true.
More than that, he had found that he had a real skill for it. Enough skill that he had managed to scrape together this partial scholarship, which led him to where he was now. Standing on the huge, green expanse of the UCLA— the University of California at Los Angeles—football field, surrounded by other people who loved football as much as he did.
Of course, he wasn’t going to be on the field much. He had been told that many times, by all sorts of people. Freshmen didn’t play, not often, but if he paid his dues this year, and managed to keep his grades up so that he didn’t get kicked off …
“He’s good, isn’t he?”
Grant blinked, deeply startled. For a moment, it was like he had forgotten that he wasn’t watching the rest of these men on a television, nothing more than an observer. But someone, at least, had noticed him, and he turned to face a tall man built quite a bit like a brick wall. Heavy, not fat, but thick with muscle, with a broad, pleasant face and black eyes that crinkled at the corners when he smiled.
His face seemed to be accustomed to smiling, and Grant liked him right away.
“Who’s good?” Grant responded, just a bit awkward but honestly, this guy seemed to have a way of putting him at ease.
“You were looking at Warren. He’s our QB,” the man replied, and Grant shrugged and had to admit that he probably had been looking at the tall, blond man with the broad shoulders, narrow hips, and arrogant smirk seemingly plastered right on his lips.
Warren wasn’t even paying attention to the rest of the team, and that didn’t sit quite right with Grant. He had seen a lot of that sort of thing on his football team back in high school, people not paying a ton of attention to the game, but he had been sure that he had gone away from that sort of thing when he’d come to college. Well, it was probably too soon to judge, but this Warren seemed to be far more occupied showing off for the few people who had come to see the first practice of the season.
Especially the pretty girls. And that, too, wasn’t the first time Grant had experienced that phenomenon. It seemed like he hadn’t gotten quite as far away from it as he would have liked. As he watched, Warren reached around and patted a girl familiarly right on her ass, and Grant’s eyes narrowed as she sidled away from the quarterback, her eyes, even across the field, suddenly wary.
“Is he always so …” Grant trailed his words off because really, he barely knew this guy. And he probably shouldn’t go getting the superstar of the team pissed off at him. So he just shrugged instead. “I feel like I should go help her.”
“Yeah, he’s always so …” the smiling man gave a rueful little laugh, and in that laugh, Grant thought that he heard quite a bit that wasn’t being said out loud about Warren’s character. “That girl must be a freshman, though. She hasn’t learned to stay away from him yet.”
Disgusting. Some people seemed to see football solely as a way to get into people’s pants. Grant sighed and turned his gaze from Warren, who was glancing around, smugness written all over his face as though he wanted people to see him. But he didn’t go after the girl as she backed away, and Grant knew quite a few people who would have. It could be worse, he supposed.
“But he’s a damn good player. Our win record is what it is because of him,” the other guy continued, and then he glanced up at Grant and gave him an even wider grin. “Hey. I’m Manny. Manuel Perez.”
Grant reached out and took Manny’s hand in a firm grasp, pleased when he felt Manny grip him back but not try to squeeze the hell out of his fingers.
“Grant Stephens,” he introduced, and they shook hands. “It’s good to meet you.”
And it was. No one else from Grant’s high school had made it to this level, so he was a complete stranger here. The thought that he might not make any friends had definitely occurred to him, but it seemed like all people weren’t like this Warren, who was now chattering casually with some of the other guys on the team, all of whom seemed to be deferring to him.
“You’re a freshman, right?” Manny asked, and Grant gave a rueful little smile and a shrug.
“It’s that obvious?” he replied, and Manny laughed, a cheerful, infectious sound that immediately somehow made everything seem less challenging. Some people just had an inherent way about them of making other people feel good, and this Manny was one of them.
“Sort of. Looking at you, I’m going to say you play center,” Manny guessed, and Grant shook his head.
He almost didn’t want to admit it. In his experience, people tended to shut up a little bit when he said that. Either that or they started to act strange, fawning over him and trying to get his attention in a way that made him deeply uncomfortable. He didn’t want people flirting with him because of what he played in a game. He wanted someone who was interested in him, but it seemed like that was almost too much to ask.
“Oh, shit. Watch your back, man,” Manny cautioned, and the smile had left his eyes, even as it lingered on the corners of his mouth. “Last year there was another kid brought in as backup QB. He got in Warren’s face, and then he wasn’t around anymore. He’s got a lot of sway here, you know?”
Great. Politics already. Grant fought back a sigh and gave a tiny shrug. He couldn’t really help how Warren would feel, but he would take that warning to heart.
“I’ll be careful. I just want to be here,” he said, and Manny’s smile reappeared.
“Okay. Well, he probably won’t like you anyway. He doesn’t like people he thinks might take attention away from him. If I were you, I’d think about joining a frat. Make some connections, you know? Just in case.”
A fraternity? From what Grant had heard, that wasn’t always the best idea. He’d heard stories of drugs, drinking, sex, people getting lost and getting thrown out of school. He couldn’t afford that sort of distraction, not if he was going to be able to keep himself afloat here long enough to get his education.
“Are you sure that’s necessary?” he asked, and his distaste must have shown in his face or been in his voice because Manny laughed and nudged at him lightly with his shoulder, a friendly gesture that made him immediately feel more at ease.
“I mean it’s not, like, a literal requirement,” Manny informed him. “But it could help you out. I’m in Sigma Pi Theta, so are most of the guys on the team. So, you know, at least you’d know someone. It’s good to have connections, right?”
Just then, they were called by the coach onto the field, and Warren trotted over. He did move with a sort of grace, and Grant found himself willing to believe that this man could play some football.
He just seemed sort of like a jerk. But first impressions could be deceptive. Grant had to keep that in mind.
The first thing that the coach did was introduce him around, as well as the rest of the freshmen who were joining the team, and most of the guys were pretty friendly. Grant saw many smiles, some nods, but he also saw pity. Like these men didn’t expect him to be able to make it.
With what Manny had said about Warren, though, maybe that wasn’t that much of a surprise.
And Warren himself didn’t smile. He just looked right into Grant’s eyes and glared, as though silently telling him not to get any ideas. Grant looked back, trying to stay calm, but all of a sudden he had to admit that Manny’s idea about joining a frat seemed to make a lot more sense.
At the very least, it couldn’t hurt to check it out, right?
* * *
It was the middle of rush week before Grant managed to make it to any of the events. His work schedule was erratic, and they were already upset with him for going back to school. He couldn’t afford to get fired from his job, which might just be a crappy position flinging burgers but it was all that was making it possible for him to be at school at all.
So he’d missed at least half of the events, but finally, he got around to checking it out. And what he learned seemed to him like it might just have the quality of fate about it, because the one and only event taking place that night was a frat house party at Sigma Pi Theta, the very fraternity that Manny had told him he should check out.
With a sigh, he bowed to the inevitable. He had already seen, just with the handful of practices that the football team had had, how Manny was right. The rest of the guys, the top tier ones, anyway, didn’t really interact with anyone much who wasn’t in the same frat as them. It was immature, Grant thought, but it was what it was.
Not that he liked it, but he could bow to the inevitable, which led to him showering off the scent of fries which seemed to cling to him like a second skin after work, dressing as nicely as he could, and heading out to his first ever fraternity party.
He could tell where the party was from two blocks away. The music utterly drowned out all other sounds, even from this distance, and as he got closer, he felt the music actually vibrating inside of him, resonating in his organs and bones. Did he really want to do this? If they had parties like this all the time, would he even be able to stay in school, considering that he needed time to study?
Pausing outside of the house, all decorated and lit up with streams of people entering and leaving continually, Grant paused and just looked. Could he even make himself do this? Manny’s words made sense, but surely there would be some other way to stay on the team without playing these petty games?
Some people came to college just for these sorts of experiences, but those people, Grant figured, hadn’t had to work for everything that they’d ever gotten. They hadn’t scratched and clawed and climbed their way here, or they wouldn’t be so willing to throw it all away.
Another man was standing just outside of the walkway which led up to the frat house. The man seemed to be frozen in place, with an expression of distaste on his face that Grant could tell was echoed on his own.
This man, something about him seemed to call to Grant, drew Grant’s gaze away from the house. He was a smaller man, slender and dark, and Grant caught a glimpse of restless dark eyes as the guy looked over at him. The light coming from the house seemed to catch in those eyes, and for some reason, Grant felt his heart clench in a way that had nothing to do with the driving bass of the song that was playing inside.
Those glimmering eyes seemed to size Grant up, and there was something derisive about it, maybe. It was hard to tell. It was night, and expressions were hard to read in the low light which blazed around the house but was diffused here. All he knew was that he felt disappointed when that gaze left him, but that he was able to breathe again.
That had been intense, just being looked at by that man. It wasn’t that Grant hadn’t found anyone attractive before, because he most certainly had. He had realized pretty quickly that men, far more than women, interested him, though he had always kept that to himself. It wasn’t a secret. It was just that people made their own assumptions, he supposed.
But this was a first for him. The first time that his gaze lingered on the guy, the first time that he found himself tracing the full length of the guy’s body, lingering on the sweet, round curve of his ass. The first time that he found himself unable to draw his gaze away, no matter how hard he tried.
The other man was moving, and there was something restless in the way he paced up the short flight of stairs and toward the front door. He moved like a captive predator, Grant thought. He had once been to the zoo, and he had seen a caged black panther who moved just like that.
Then the man was gone, and his grip over Grant seemed to relax a little bit. He was able to breathe again, to move. And he had to wonder, was that man, the beautiful one, in this fraternity as well? Manny had said that most of the football players were, but that didn’t mean that the only people in this fraternity would be football players.
Somehow, it gave him the courage, or the drive, to walk up that flight of stairs himself. To walk right through that open door, although he had been thinking that he should probably just call it a failed attempt and go home to his dorm. His room was small, and his roommate was a pig who had already taken up his half of the room with his junk, but it wasn’t so bad, right?
Only he still had all the same reasons as ever for wanting to join. And somehow, the sight of that lovely young man had made him remember that. Or maybe he just wanted to see him again, as ridiculous as that was for someone in Grant’s position. Even assuming the guy was interested, and he really didn’t seem like he particularly had been, Grant had no time for that sort of thing.
“Bro, you made it!” Manny sounded genuinely happy to see him, thrusting a red plastic cup into his hand that Grant realized contained beer. Making a bit of a face, Grant handed it back.
“Sorry. I’m not twenty-one yet,” Grant told him, though he wasn’t sure how it was that Manny hadn’t known that, considering Grant was just a freshman. But he had probably just forgotten.
“You’re a weird guy, Stephens,” Manny informed him, which just made Grant give him a baffled shrug. How was it weird to follow the law?
“So how does this work?” Grant asked, changing the subject. Honestly, he just wanted to get this over with. “Do I just put my name down and go or what?” He had never looked into what it would take to join a fraternity, to be honest, and he was sort of lost.
“No, man, you gotta get accepted,” Manny told him, giving him another one of those good-natured smiles. Grant had the distinct idea that he was amusing the other football player, but somehow, he didn’t mind that. Manny was just so cheerful about it.
“Okay. So can I just …” Grant started, but then someone grabbed Manny and tugged him away, and Manny gave him an apologetic little smile and a wave as if to say that Grant would somehow be okay. Grant actually doubted that, since he’d just lost his only lifeline into this unfamiliar world.
Almost desperately, he glanced around. He needed to find someone else to help him, because it seemed like this process was a little bit more complicated than he might have wanted. He knew some of the people here, football players, and some of them he would have gone up to if they hadn’t all seemed so busy.
His questing gaze fell on someone else familiar, someone who had managed to find a place to stand alone, even in all of the hubbub of the party raging around him. The same careless black hair, the same restless dark eyes, the same handsome face, but now even more clear in the bright light.
He could go talk to that guy. He even had an excuse. But the more he looked at him, the more his stomach clenched and churned and the more positive he was that he would make a complete idiot of himself. The guy was so handsome, so very beautiful, that it was intimidating.
Just a short ways away from that man, there was another familiar face. Warren. Pretty much the last person that Grant would want to talk to, but Grant had to admit that Warren would know. Warren was the sort of person who would make it his business to know. And it hadn’t escaped Grant how the other guys on the team looked up to Warren, he might even be some sort of fraternity leader, or however that worked.
Maybe he should have spent some time researching this before he came, but he hadn’t thought it would be that difficult, and it was too late now.
It was Warren or the handsome stranger, and he found that he couldn’t quite make himself go to the stranger. Warren was familiar, and not so damn attractive, not to Grant, anyway. The choice was easy, so Grant squared his shoulders and walked up to Warren.
“I want in,” he told him, polite but firm, seeking out and holding Warren’s gaze. “What do I do to make that happen?”