“…and we’ll be there in time for the celebration, if not much before,” Mark Tavery wound down after five minutes’ exuberant bragging.
James knew this label wasn’t fair, that his brother had reason to be proud. He also knew that if Mark stopped celebrating for two minutes, he might actually hear the misery James wasn’t quite able to keep from his tone. And leery as James was of talking about Henry to anyone, he felt he could be helped at least a little by confiding in Mark.
“So are you going to bring anyone to the award ceremony?” Mark asked.
“No.” Twin desires for Mark to get to the heart of his problem and simultaneously gloss over it vied for supremacy behind James’s forehead.
“What about Chen?”
James blanched. His roommate was not the sort of dragon you brought to a formal affair, at least not if you wanted to remain quietly in the background. Chen, a Chinese land dragon of no more than eighteen, was raucous, rude, and virile. James had particular experience with that last quality and had no interest in repeating the experiment. It wasn’t that Chen had been harsh or abusive in their sexual encounter. He’d just been too much to handle. For James, fully grown dragons were too powerful for him to want to tame.
Maybe that was why he’d fallen so hopelessly in love with Henry. Five-four, lean to the point of skinniness, and living largely inside his own head, Henry possessed everything other dragons lacked. Well, except for the short and fierce temper. He’d always had that.
“He’s not on your list of takers?” Mark asked, and he sounded sympathetic.
“He’s not my type,” James defended himself. “I pushed him away, not the other way around.”
Mark was silent for a few moments. Then: “Tell me what’s on your mind, James.”
Damn it. And yet… “I ran into someone from high school.”
“From Brockport? Of course from there. Stupid question. Did you meet him outside the academy or in it?”
“Who is he? Or she?”
“It’s a he. It’s…” Had he ever told Mark about Henry? James didn’t think so. “We used to date.”
“Good dating or bad dating?” Mark whipped back, and James knew it was Mark’s former lover, Reese, the older dragon was thinking of.
“Good dating. We were only sixteen when we got together. And we dated for two years. Which in high school time is forever.”
“Did he recognize you?”
“Do you miss him?”
“Yes.” Mark chuckled. “Be honest with yourself, James. It’s easier.”
“Says the dragon who didn’t shed until he was damn good and ready. At thirty-two.”
“Thirty-three.” Mark still sounded amused. “But this isn’t about me. Tell me his name.”
“Hank Tripi.” The nickname, used only alone together because Henry was stubborn like that, had slipped out. “Henry, I mean. I doubt he goes by Hank anymore. He’s changed.”
“Of course human. How many magical creatures do you think were running around Brockport High School?”
“He could be a partial. Or even a halfie.”
James made a face at that term. “Next you’ll be calling them half-and-halfs, like creamer.”
Mark sounded contrite. “Luke’s gotten on to me about that sort of language. I’m sorry.”
Luke, Mark’s husband, was obviously good for him if the genie could make Mark apologize about anything.
Then James remembered Henry’s apology and spluttered, “H-he apologized for calling me names. Just because his lover told him to. The Hank I knew—the Henry, I mean—would never do something just because someone told him to.”
“It’s been five years since you saw him? He’s probably changed. What about you? Have you changed, James?”
“You know I have.”
“Then do him the courtesy of remembering that he’s done the same.”
Feeling rebuked, James answered, “Okay. And give him the space I want?”
“Give him space for your own sanity, if that’s what’s really in your heart.” Mark paused. “Or don’t if you want to see him again.”
“I have to figure that out.”
“Good luck. In my experience, love happens whether you want it to or not.”
* * * *
There were three parties on campus and two off on Saturday night. Having spent the whole day studying—and writing a little story to get himself out of the world for a few minutes—Henry decided to attend one. Three of the five were by invitation only, but the other two were all welcome.
He decided not to invite Ted this time, or allow himself to be invited anywhere.
Choosing the school-run masked shindig, Henry hoped to go unnoticed. He’d dance a little, laugh a little, maybe even get a little drunk if circumstances allowed. (They probably wouldn’t.) And when he came back to his dorm room tonight, he’d be even a little more out of his head.
He wanted so badly to stop thinking about James that it was a physical ache in his chest. Yes, all right, and in his balls as well. Who’d have thought blue balls could outlast twenty or more boyfriends and flings?
Donning a white turtleneck sweater and his only pair of dress pants—also white—Henry scrounged around in his closet until he found the box of holiday stuff he’d packed. It was a small box, full of mostly Christmas-type stuff and a few Halloween decorations. At last he found the white mask whose twin he’d given to James as a gag gift one year. Putting this over his face, he surveyed the result in his roommate’s mirror. He looked like a ghost. Except for his black hair. Creepy enough to pass as one of the three ghosts of Charles Dickens’s Christmas novel if anyone asked him what he was supposed to be.
“Going out again?” asked his roommate, also named Charles, although he went by Chuck. “You’re doing what all the first years do. Right before they’re kicked out.” He turned a page of his book.
“All except you,” Henry answered. “And I did study. Earlier.”
“You’ll be one of the third that washes out in the spring,” Chuck predicted.
“And you’ll get that bootlicking degree yet,” Henry snapped before heading out the door.
“It’s not bootlicking if it gets me a degree!” his roommate called after him.