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A Little Less Sixteen Candles

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At half past one in the morning, Marcus staggered up the stairs to his room, bleary-eyed and battling a headache that had been clawing at the back of his eyes since noon. He’d spent the last five hours at the library cramming for his Latin mid-term, and even though he knew he wasn’t going to blow anyone’s mind with his eventual grade, he felt confident enough to not completely fuck it up.

But right now all he wanted in the world was to fall into bed and sleep for a thousand years. He didn’t have class until ten the next morning, and Marcus planned on spending every spare moment until then unconscious.

He didn’t, however, plan on finding the door to his room unlocked.

“What the fuck,” he muttered, hoping for a split second that he’d just been forgetful earlier in the day. He nudged the door open with his foot and held his breath. The lights were off, yet the moon shining through the opposite window showed everything in its place; his bed still neatly made, a random gym socks still strewn across the floor, the latest Sports Illustrated splayed face down on his desk.

Marcus set his backpack down by the doorway and took a closer look.

The second drawer of his dresser was open, just a crack. He yanked it back and found his jeans—all of them—were gone. The top drawer was empty as well, which meant all of his clean boxers were gone.

Taped to the back of the dresser was a folded note. Marcus didn’t need to read it, but he did anyway, teeth clenched so hard his jaw ached.

Enjoy free-balling this week, said the spiky, smirking handwriting.

Marcus glanced down at the threadbare sweatpants he wore, the ones he’d had since his junior year of high school, the ones that had started to form a hole in the crotch. The boxers he had on were green with Oscar the Grouch faces all over them.

He waded the note up and threw it across the room.

”Fucking Deltas!” he yelled, knowing somewhere, not far from there, a familiar evil face was grinning his goddamn ass off.

~

Marcus had never really thought about going Greek when he came to Calleva University. His dad had gone Theta Sigma Rho back in the day and was an infamous legend in the chapter, but Marcus hadn’t come to Calleva to live in his father’s shadow. He was making a new name for himself...even if it did involve going to a school that looked upon his family’s name with more than a bit of trepidation.

Unfortunately, rushing a frat was all the guys on Calleva’s football team talked about, and by the end of the first day of practice, Marcus had been repeatedly asked, “So you’re rushing, right, Aquila?” He’d never been good at refusing peer pressure.

The night before rush started, Marcus had been too anxious to sleep, worried that his family’s reputation—or, more accurately, his dad’s—would somehow keep all seven frats on campus from wanting him. He didn’t know if he’d be able to show his face at practice if he ended up rejected from every Greek house at Calleva.

So he’d taken his laptop and walked downtown to a local hipster coffee shop that was open twenty-four hours and served homemade cookies. Marcus bought a snickerdoodle and a small latte and turned to find a spot to soak up the free wi-fi and surf Reddit into the wee hours of the morning.

The place had been fairly crowded for it being nearly midnight, and the only free electrical plug was next to an over-stuffed armchair that also happened to be situated across from another over-stuffed armchair that was occupied by a serious-looking high school kid. The guy couldn’t have been older than seventeen.

“D’you mind if I share?” Marcus asked politely, waving to the outlet. “I’m at ten percent juice right now.”

The kid glanced up from the giant book in his lap, thick black-rimmed glasses sitting low on his nose. He blinked slowly, tilted his head to one side, and Marcus was suddenly hit with the realization that he was stunningly attractive. His face was all angles and graceful, sloping nose and burnt-blond scruff scattered across his cheeks.

Marcus swallowed, embarrassed to be staring. This kid was jailbait, anyway.

“You’re welcome to it,” the kid said, although his voice wasn’t a kid’s at all. It was low and melodic, words coasting over a lilting British accent.

“Thanks,” Marcus said roughly. Jesus, he needed to get a grip. He forced a laugh as he plugged his laptop into the wall. “Little late for a school night, don’t you think?”

The kid wrinkled his nose at Marcus like he’d smelled something foul. “What?”

“I mean, your parents let you stay out late, I’m assuming.”

“What the fuck are you talking about?”

Fuck, that accent. Marcus bit the inside of his cheek. “I—”

“Are you asking if I’m in grade school?” The kid leveled a look at Marcus like he’d sprouted a third eye.

Marcus was beginning to think he’d made a terrible mistake. “I...guess?”

The kid narrowed his eyes into a fairly intimidating glare, only to dissolve into snorts of laughter a second later. “That’s a good one, mate. Do you greet everyone you meet by insinuating that they’re children?” A dimple popped out on one cheek, and his smile was beautiful, dangerous, intoxicating.

“Sorry,” Marcus said, because it was all he could think to say. His brain was confused, and his body was awkwardly aroused.

The kid—guy—rolled his eyes and held out his hand. “Let’s start over. I’m Esca, and I am, in fact, a Calleva University student, and no one gives a flying fuck that I’m out late. You?”

Marcus almost didn’t shake his hand; he was afraid if he touched him he’d ignite into flames. “I’m, ah, Marcus. I go to Calleva, too. Freshman.”

“I gathered as much. D’you play American football?”

For some reason, Marcus blushed at that. “Yeah. I’m a running back.”

“I have no idea what that means, but congratulations.” Esca’s smile felt secretive, like he didn’t dole it out to many people. Marcus wanted to believe he was flirting.

“What about you?” Marcus blurted out. “You’re, like, English, right? From England?” Fuck, why couldn’t he just talk like a human being?

Esca rolled his lower lip between his teeth and cleared his throat. “Britain, yes; England, no, but close enough, I suppose.” His eyes flashed brightly, and yes, yes, surely they were flirting, surely he felt the tug Marcus felt.

He wanted to stay there all night, listening to Esca’s gorgeous voice roll over him and maybe at some point ask him out on a real date with dinner and a movie and naked times in a dark room—Marcus’ room, Esca’s room, he didn’t care, he was practically drooling over the thought of feeling Esca’s skin—only Esca’s phone buzzed with a text.

Marcus watched as Esca read it, and maybe he was just seeing what he wanted to see, but he swore Esca’s face fell as he sighed and said, “My roommate, sorry. He’s having a crisis.” Esca typed back a quick response, then started to pack up his things.

“Oh.” Marcus tried to open his mouth and say the words—Want to go out tomorrow night? Want to hang out and watch movies and maybe make out a whole lot?—but he could only smile weakly.

Esca paused right as he slung his messenger bag over his shoulder, chewed the corner of his thumb. His gaze flicked to Marcus. “Are you in Psych 1000? On Tuesdays and Thursdays?”

Marcus nodded.

“Good. Maybe we’ll see each other ‘round, then.” He gave Marcus another tiny, lopsided grin, and Marcus’ chest tightened almost painfully.

“Yeah. Cool,” he croaked.

Esca jerked his chin. “Cheers,” he said, and left Marcus with his laptop and sexual frustration.

He eventually went back to his room and beat off harder than he had in months to images of soft bronze stubble and gray-blue eyes smiling secrets for him alone.

~

A week later, Marcus officially rushed Theta Sigma Rho, along with every other Calleva freshman football player. On the afternoon of Bid Day, he stood in the front yard of the Theta house, enjoying the handshakes and fist bumps of congratulations from his new frat brothers.

Across the street was the Delta Omicron house. No one was in their front yard celebrating.

“Why aren’t they outside?” Marcus asked Placidus, one of his freshman teammates.

Placidus snorted. “What, the Deltas? They’re probably in their basement having a D&D tournament or some shit. And even if they were out here, they’d just be fucking dickheads to us, anyway.”

Marcus frowned. He didn’t remember much from the one Delta party he’d gone to, only that the guys seemed to immediately ignore him once they found out he was a jock. “They don’t like Thetas?”

“Dude, how do you not know this? Thetas and Deltas are, like, the biggest rivalry on campus! They’ve hated us for years. My brother told me Calleva tried to move them to another part of campus, but the Deltas took them to court and won. They’re pretentious douches, man. Stay away from ‘em.”

Marcus glanced back across at the Delta house, wondering what could possibly make another group of guys so terrible.

~

The following Tuesday, he saw Esca in his psychology class.

He was wearing a Delta Omicron shirt.

Marcus rubbed a hand over the front of his own Theta hoodie and felt his heart drop into his feet. Maybe he wouldn’t notice. Maybe he wouldn’t care.

Esca met his eyes across the auditorium. He started to smile just before his gaze flicked down to the letters across Marcus’ chest.

The smile faded. He immediately turned and took a seat closest to the door—which also happened to be the seat furthest away from Marcus.

Marcus dropped his head into his hands and swore.

~

The rivalry between the Theta Sigma Rhos and the Delta Omicrons had begun so long ago, no one really knew the exact date. Some said it started during WWII when Calleva—then an all-boys school—was so low on students due to the draft that the fraternities ran unchecked and uncensored. Others said it was much older than that, going back to Civil War days when (according to legend) the Thetas were Confederates and the Deltas were Union.

The dates didn’t matter, and any legitimate reasons for the hatred had been lost years ago. The truth now was that the Thetas were jocks and the Deltas were elite scholarship nerds who couldn’t get into Harvard.

The last part Placidus had made up. Marcus was pretty sure if Esca had wanted to go to Harvard, he would have.

Marcus was fully prepared to ignore said rivalry and try to get Esca’s attention again. They’d had a connection, damn it, and their respective frats shouldn’t have anything to do with it.

Unfortunately, Marcus was wrong. The very first weekend after he’d pledged Theta, he found himself shitfaced and stumbling into the Deltas’ back yard with the rest of his pledge class, singing the Theta anthem and pissing into the Deltas’ prized rose garden. He wasn’t thinking of Esca at all, just blissfully happy to feel like he belonged somewhere, when he heard someone say behind him, “How many IQ points did you just piss away?”

Marcus spun around, dick still in his right hand, and faced a tall slim guy wearing a green flannel shirt and skinny jeans.

Behind him stood about a dozen other guys, all whom Marcus assumed were Deltas.

And, of course, Esca.

“Uh.” Marcus was too drunk to process everything quickly. He heard Placidus yell, “Aquila, put your dick away and get the fuck back to the house!”

The skinny guy smiled. “Yes, Aquila, it’s getting cold outside, wouldn’t you say?”

Marcus, against his will, looked at Esca. The smirk he got was downright nasty, like Marcus was something disgusting, but amusing. Fuck.

He fumbled with his jeans and said, “I’m, uh, I’ll just—go, and—”

“How you Thetas survive on a third grade level reading vocabulary, I’ll never know.” The guy lazily pulled his iPhone from his back pocket and flicked his finger a few times over the screen. “Now, you have ten seconds to get the fuck off our property, or I’m posting this to the Calleva Twitter account.” He held the screen out to Marcus. It was a video of Marcus singing off key and pissing happily.

Marcus took off for the Theta house, nearly tripping over his feet. Behind him, he heard a chorus of smug laughter, and someone said, “Post it anyway, Liathan. Fuck him.”

The Vine never made it to Twitter, but Marcus knew it was out there, a silent threat.

He decided then that maybe hating Deltas wasn’t such a bad idea.

~

At Halloween, several Deltas dressed in Theta hoodies and went through the neighborhood trick-or-treating and pretending to be drunk. Families called the school and complained that the Theta fraternity was harassing them. Calleva issued them a warning, even though the Theta president had pleaded their innocence repeatedly.

At Christmas, Marcus’ pledge class—along with several upperclassmen—spent a long, frigid night in the Deltas’ parking lot systematically pouring water over cars until nearly all were coated in a solid layer of ice. The next day was the start of Christmas break; everyone would be heading out of town. Marcus took great satisfaction in driving by to watch a red-faced Esca chip away at his ice block of a Toyota. When Marcus honked, Esca flipped him the bird.

And so it went for the rest of freshman year. Pranks were pulled left and right, and when Marcus moved into the Theta house in the spring, he was careful to always lock his door when he went to bed. He’d heard stories of guys getting their underwear stolen, or worse, their entire wardrobe.

He didn’t have another class with Esca. They’d only spoken to each other one other time, when Marcus had accidentally run into him at one of the local diners.

“Sorry, my bad,” Marcus said automatically before he recognized the storm-gray eyes. Esca hadn’t been wearing his glasses that night.

“Your parents let you stay out this late?” Esca replied, smooth and full of contempt. Marcus felt his stomach flip over.

“I’m not out to fuck with you tonight, Macs, so just—”

Esca jammed his finger hard into Marcus’ chest. “Don’t you call me that,” he hissed.

Marcus hadn’t meant to use Esca’s nickname. He hadn’t even realized he’d remembered it. Months ago he’d heard a couple of Deltas yell it across the quad at Esca, who’d beamed and waved. The name was special, private. Like Esca’s smiles.

“You’re not better than me,” Marcus said in a low voice, suddenly angry at himself for thinking about that night in the coffee shop, which felt like a century ago. He’d been a fucking idiot back then. “Get off your Delta high horse and stop being a dick.”

Esca did smile then, but it was sharp, meant to draw blood. “I’m sorry, what brought you to Calleva? I’m here on a full scholarship even though I was offered the same at Cambridge. They wanted my brains because I give the admissions office something to brag about. What are you here for, again?”

Marcus’ jaw clenched as a helpless flush crawled up the back of his neck.

“Oh, that’s right, you’re here to throw a ball around. And for a team that can barely win three games a season. Did you even take your finals yourself?”

That was the last straw. “I work my ass of for my grades, so fuck off, you Delta prick,” Marcus said, and shoved at Esca’s shoulders. He couldn’t win a battle of words, but he’d be damned if he let Esca think he faked his way through school. It was bad enough that Esca made Marcus feel like a big, dumb jock and nothing more, nothing of value or importance. All of Marcus’ secret fears rolled into one.

They didn’t speak again for the next two years. Marcus made himself forget there had ever been a time he’d wanted Esca for himself.

~

When Marcus’ accident initially happened, no one seemed too worked up about it. His coach told him he’d be out for a couple weeks, three at the most, and the rest of the guys on the team told him it didn’t look bad. A bad tackle happened to everyone, they said.

Then the doctors came back and said Marcus’ ankle was fractured in four different places. He’d need reconstructive surgery, they said. He’d be in physical therapy for months, they said.

They also said his football career was more or less over.

Marcus spent that night huddled in the downstairs guest room of the Theta house—because of course getting upstairs to his third floor room without an elevator was next to impossible now that he could barely walk. He locked the door and stared into the darkness for what felt like hours, refusing to cry. He was a senior with less than a year left to graduate. He could get over this. He wasn’t betting on a pro career, anyway.

But his stuff would have to be moved downstairs, or out of the house completely. He was going to lose the rest of his athletic scholarship money. He didn’t have the best grades to get into grad school. He’d barely thought about internships.

Marcus didn’t cry that night, but the next morning his throat felt as if it had been scraped raw.

~

His uncle called him a few weeks later, optimistic as always.

“You should come with me to the Shining Star fundraiser tonight,” he said. “I haven’t seen you in forever, and I feel as if I need to do so immediately or I’ll forget your face.”

“You saw me over fall break,” Marcus said with great affection. He winced as he limped across his room—first-floor room now, right off the kitchen, which meant everything was loud as shit. He flipped open his Macbook to his calendar. “What night are we talking?”

“This Saturday evening. I’ll have a car come pick you up.”

“I can drive myself,” Marcus said. He couldn’t hide a loud hiss as he eased into his desk chair.

Uncle Aquila clucked his tongue. “You’re not driving anywhere, and I know for a fact those are doctor’s orders. Stephanos will be happy to come get you.”

The last thing Marcus needed was his uncle’s personal assistant treating him like an invalid. “I’ll get a ride. Don’t worry about it. Is it at the Founder’s Club?”

“Yes, at seven. Also, you might have some friends there—one of Calleva’s fraternities is co-sponsoring the event as part of their charity work. They’re hosting an auction.”

Marcus went very still. “Do you remember which frat?”

His uncle laughed. “I don’t keep track of these things, Marcus.”

Something told him he was going to regret accepting his uncle’s invitation. But it was for an organization Marcus cared deeply about, one his uncle donated considerable time and money toward. If the Deltas were somehow involved, fuck it.

Very little shit could get to Marcus these days.

~

His left foot was the one that was injured, which for Marcus meant he could easily drive and the doctors could fuck off. He ignored the fact that his goddamned leg boot took up too much space and his leg began to cramp after twenty minutes sitting in one position.

The Founder’s Club was home to his uncle’s social group, located out in the countryside nearly an hour away from Calleva. Marcus remembered being a kid and riding out with his father to various events, feeling like they were venturing out to some far away castle. The building was an old renovated plantation home that had been expanded into a stunning display of modern architecture draped over antebellum opulence.

Marcus’ father had loved the place. Now, it just made Marcus feel lonely.

He parked his Nissan in the gravel lot, refusing to let a valet do it for him. His leg was screaming, but he made his way into the main lobby with his cane and a minimal amount of limping, even though the boot was glaringly obvious over his gray slacks. The place was buzzing with people, a huge glittering Shining Star Annual Fundraising Gala banner hanging overhead. Marcus scanned the crowd in search of the bar. Naturally, it was in another room entirely, on the other side of the building. Marcus was nearly sweating by the time he leaned against the granite counter and said, “Whiskey on the rocks, please.”

He turned his back for a moment, taking a deep breath, and heard a lilting British voice say, “Vodka tonic—Grey Goose, if you’ve got it.”

Marcus’ heart nearly stopped. He froze for a moment, wondering if he should turn around and lay eyes on Esca. He hadn’t heard him speak in months; they’d kept their distances over the past year, and Marcus liked to lie to himself that he didn’t secretly pick Esca out in the crowded student union now and then. He hadn’t experienced any animosity from Esca since the run-in at the diner ages ago; now it was simply indifference, as if Marcus didn’t exist.

“Whiskey for you, sir.”

Marcus slowly pivoted back toward the bar, his elbow brushing against Esca’s. “Thanks,” he replied smoothly, handing the bartender a couple dollars for his trouble. He could feel Esca’s eyes burning into the side of his neck. He didn’t look.

He did, however, hear Esca clear his throat. “Aquila,” he said, low and flat.

Marcus finally let his eyes flick over. He wished he hadn’t. Esca was dressed in a charcoal gray suit with a light blue shirt and a tie that looked slightly crooked. His hair had that artfully mussed look, and his cheeks had about a couple days’ worth of dirty blond scruff.

He was a goddamn sight to behold, and Marcus kind of hated him for it. “MacCunoval,” he replied, and tipped his glass toward him.

“What the bloody hell are you doing here?” Esca kept his voice low, but there was a distinct tic in his jaw. A jaw Marcus wanted to lick.

No. He was fucking way past that, had been for years. So what if Esca’d gotten a little taller and a little wider in the shoulders since freshman year? He was a dick who belonged to a dickbag frat.

Marcus took a healthy pull on his drink. “My uncle is on the board of directors for the Shining Star Foundation. I come to this thing every year.”

“Your—” Esca blinked, frowning. “I...didn’t know that.”

“Why the fuck would you?”

“Shining Star is the Deltas’ charity. I would’ve thought…” He trailed off and glared down at the tumbler in his hand.

Marcus snorted. “What, that your douchebag brothers would’ve outed me as a poor orphan who lived in foster care?”

If Esca were the sort who blushed, Marcus would swear the pink flaring subtly over the bridge of his nose was just that. “That’s not what I meant. I would’ve thought I’d known you were involved.”

“I’m not. My uncle just invites me. Sometimes I give testimonials. Whatever.” He didn’t like Esca staring at him like that, like he was a new breed of insect he’d never seen before. “Why are you here?”

“As I said, Delta charity. We’re doing an auction.”

“Like gift certificates and stuff?”

Esca glanced away. “Not really.” He didn’t give any more details, but his gaze did eventually land on Marcus’ boot, and the cane he clutched in his left hand. “I heard about your injury.”

“I bet you did. D’you and your posse have a celebration?”

“Will you play again?” Esca asked instead of an answer.

“No. I’m officially as useless as you said I was. Congratulations.” He drained the rest of his glass and slammed it on the bar, doing his best to walk away without limping too much. He was done faking small talk with the guy who hated him.

He weaved his way through the crowded main ballroom and found his uncle’s VIP table near the stage. Uncle Aquila beamed as Marcus took a seat beside him.

“Marcus, you made it!” He clasped Marcus’ shoulder, then frowned. “What is it? You look distressed.”

“Just my leg,” Marcus said with a forced grin. “Don’t worry about it.”

Uncle Aquila sighed. “Well, maybe some champagne will help.” He motioned for one of the servers to bring Marcus a glass.

He didn’t have the heart to tell his uncle that all the champagne in the world wouldn’t keep Esca MacCunoval out of his head. Hell, he barely had the balls to admit it to himself.

~

Shining Star dealt primarily with helping orphans find loving foster care that eventually lead to permanent homes. When Marcus’ parents had died in a car crash, he’d had no other known family to take him in. He’d ended up with a couple of kind families who took good care of him. But a few years later, when Marcus was fifteen, it was discovered that he had an uncle in California who’d lost touch with Marcus’ family years before. Marcus was taken in and given every luxury, but neither he nor Uncle Aquila forgot the services of Shining Star.

And now, watching the annual slide show of newly placed children and their new families, Marcus remembered those years with the Daltons and the Meskers and how they’d helped him feel a little less alone in the world. Marcus knew, deep down, that he’d always feel that loneliness deep in his bones, but having a stand-in family—and later, a real family in Uncle Aquila—went a long way toward keeping that looming darkness at bay.

Maybe that’s what I’ll do, Marcus thought as the slide show came to a close. Maybe after graduation I’ll go work for the foundation, be a fundraiser. Make a difference. It made him smile a little, thinking about helping all those lost kids without a place in the world.

He was still smiling when Mrs. Rampart, president of Shining Star and the evening’s host, took the stage again and announced, “This year we’re thrilled to announce our official partnership with the Delta Omicron fraternity. For many years now these gentlemen have given hundreds of hours of service and raised thousands of dollars for the foundation, and tonight we are proud to present the first annual Delta Omicron Service Auction.”

Marcus watched as a dozen Deltas came onto the stage and formed a line. They were mostly underclassmen, guys Marcus barely recognized, but at the very end of the line, looking extremely uncomfortable, stood Esca. He fidgeted with his tie, and at the last second his eyes met Marcus’. His throat bobbed as he swallowed before ducking his head.

Perfect, deadly, eternally cool Esca was nervous.

“Is that one of your friends up there, Marcus?” Uncle Aquila leaned over and asked in a stage whisper everyone at the table could hear. “He seems to know you.”

Marcus felt an annoying flush crawl up the back of his neck. “We both go to Calleva. That’s all.”

On stage, Mrs. Rampart continued cheerfully. “Each Delta Omicron will be ‘auctioned’ for services of the winning bidders choosing for one week. Within reason, of course!” she laughed.

The row of Deltas laughed awkwardly. Esca looked slightly green.

Services. Jesus, if the rest of Marcus’ frat were here, they’d have a goddamn field day.

“You know,” Uncle Aquila said, “perhaps you should consider bidding on your friend there. He could drive you around town, or help you get to class.”

“I don’t need a servant,” Marcus mumbled, but he couldn’t take his eyes off Esca as he twitched under the stage lightning, his cheeks flushed and a fine sheen of sweat glinting along his hairline. His shoulders were hunched.

The first few Deltas went for modest amounts, and the winning bidders announced they didn’t need their services as long as the boys promised to continue volunteering for Shining Star. One sophomore went for a hundred dollars because the winning bidder—one of Uncle Aquila’s cronies and a board member—said he wanted a week’s worth of lawn care and car detailing. The whole room laughed.

Esca’s gaze slid to Marcus. Again. Almost as if…

What, did he honestly think Marcus would use his uncle’s charity to fuck him over?

Marcus grit his teeth and glared back at him. I’m not a shithead, he tried to telepathically beam into Esca’s brain. I’m a nice guy—not that you’d ever know.

He was so caught up in his angry frustration that he didn’t realize Esca was the last Delta on stage. Mrs. Rampart said, “And finally we have Delta Omicron’s philanthropy chair, Esca MacCunoval. Esca hails from Scotland and is currently in his senior year studying psychology. He plans to one day become a child psychologist and work with homeless and orphaned children.”

Marcus nearly choked on a mouthful of champagne. Steely-eyed, heartless Esca wanted to work with kids?

“I’ll open the bidding up at ten dollars.”

It seemed Esca’s biography had appealed to several people in the room. Bids started flying, and within minutes Esca’s price was at a hundred and fifty, the highest of the night. Esca stood stoically on stage, but his shoulders were squared and no longer hunched. He kept his chin up, striking a regal pose—except for the way he kept flexing his right hand behind his back.

He was so fucking beautiful when he wanted to be.

“Two hundred!” The bid came from Marcus’ table. From Uncle Aquila.

Marcus gaped at him. “Uncle, no,” he hissed, not daring to look back at the stage.

“It’s for a good cause, dear boy,” his uncle replied with a wide grin. “Two twenty!”

It went back and forth for a few minutes until the amount hit three hundred. Mrs. Rampart declared his uncle the winner.

Marcus inhaled the rest of his champagne and immediately left to find the restroom. He considered leaving altogether.

Uncle Aquila had bought him Esca MacCunoval.

Marcus wanted to die.

~

Esca found him outside, smoking a cigarette. Marcus had slowly tried to kick the habit over the last year, but the injury had shot all that to shit.

He’d been outside since the winning bid happened. Marcus had no idea what to do otherwise.

“If we’re on a truce, can I bum a smoke?” Esca asked in a quiet voice Marcus had never heard before.

Marcus shrugged, not looking up. He kept his eyes focused on Esca’s polished shoes. “Are we on a truce?”

“I’m technically yours now, bought and paid for. That deserves something, yeah?”

I’m technically yours now. Marcus hated the little shiver that curled through him. “You don’t have to honor anything. No one would know if you cut out.”

“Your uncle paid three hundred dollars for me. I’d know. I’m the philanthropy chair, I have to set an example.”

“I didn’t want him to do that,” Marcus said, flicking his spent cigarette into the bushes. He dug out another one, then after a long pause, held the pack out to Esca.

“I figured.” Esca pulled a lighter out of his pocket and cupped long, elegant fingers around the flame. Smoke swirled around his face, making him look ethereal, like something out of a dark dream. Marcus’ dark dreams. “But you have me now, so. What shall you do with me, Marcus Aquila?”

Fuck it all if Marcus didn’t go just a tiny bit hard. He wanted to punch Esca in the face, then shove him up against the side of the old glamorous house and make him moan. “I don’t want to do anything with you.”

Esca took a long drag and blew out the smoke in a slow, delicate tendril. “Look, you should know that Shining Star is important to me, just like it is to you. I don’t have your history, but I support the cause. Very much so. Which means I’m taking this seriously. Whatever bullshit exists between us, I’m willing to put it aside. At least for a week.”

“You don’t know anything about me, so don’t pretend to,” Marcus said. He felt angry. Confused. Aroused. Hungry. This wasn’t going to work at all.

“No, I don’t, and it doesn’t matter. What matters is we have an agreement. Your uncle gave a substantial amount of money to the foundation in exchange for my services. To you. And I intend to honor that agreement. Because contrary to what you may think of me, I’m a fucking honorable man and I keep my word.” Esca’s voice wavered near the end, full of some sort of emotion Marcus couldn’t read. It didn’t help that he was looking up at Marcus with those damn storm-gray eyes that could rip the skin off a guy if he wasn’t careful.

Marcus swallowed, ran the tip of his tongue over his lips. “I’m honorable, too,” he said a little too roughly.

“Then prove it. Man up and take the agreement. Pretend I’m just some bloke off the street who’s going to do your laundry for a week.”

Marcus thought of his stolen underwear from sophomore year. “You’re not getting within ten feet of my laundry.”

Esca rolled his eyes. “Whatever, are you going to be the bigger man here?”

“I already am,” Marcus drawled, letting his full height loom over Esca.

“Hilarious. Theta’s resident comedian, you are. Fucking hysterical.”

“Maybe you should think I’m funny as part of your slave duties.”

First of all, I’m not your bloody slave. I’m providing services for charity, and they are within reason.

“Uh-huh.” Marcus took one last drag and let the smoke blow right in Esca’s face. “Let’s see how honorable you really are. Be at the Theta house at five o’clock Monday afternoon. Don’t be late.”

Esca didn’t flinch at the smoke. He didn’t say anything as Marcus turned and started the long, winding, painful walk back to his Nissan.

He did, however, eventually yell, “Within reason, Aquila!”

~

Marcus didn’t actually expect Esca to show up. If the challenge had been the other way around, Marcus sure as shit wouldn’t have shown his face at the Delta house. It was a dare he’d made deliberately, knowing Esca wouldn’t come through and they could put this stupid auction thing behind them.

Except at 5:05 one of the underclassmen pounded on Marcus’ door and yelled, “Yo, Aquila, there’s a fucking Delta asking for you outside. Want me to tell him to fuck off?”

Marcus blinked at the door, momentarily speechless. “Uh. No. Wait.” He scrambled off the bed, wincing as his ankle protested at the sudden movement. He wasn’t even dressed, just in his ratty sweatpants and Calleva football t-shirt. Not that it mattered at all to Esca, but Marcus could feel himself blushing as he limped to the door, ignoring the bewildered looks he got from the other guys standing around the foyer.

He yanked the front door open to find Esca standing there, tucked into a leather jacket that fit him like a glove and looking like he had every right to be there. He raised an eyebrow at Marcus.

“Well?” he asked and held his arms out. “I’m here.”

“You’re late,” Marcus said.

“Your hospitable brothers kept me waiting.”

“That’s because I—” didn’t think you’d show was on the tip of his tongue, but Marcus shut his mouth.

Esca sighed. “Are you going to invite me in like a vampire or what?”

Marcus had no contingency plan for this. He glanced over his shoulder, where a half-dozen guys were giving him odd looks. He sighed. “Fine. Whatever.” He held the door open and motioned Esca in. “My room’s the one on the right.”

“Much obliged,” Esca drawled as he stepped into the foyer. He smiled serenely at the group. “Good evening, boys. Lovely house indeed.”

“Is this some kind of joke?” Placidus called, pushing to the front of the group. He glared at Esca. “He can’t be in here.”

Esca held up both hands. “I come in peace, I swear.”

“Bullshit. You’re a fucking Trojan horse or something.”

“He’s not,” Marcus said, hating the way his blush intensified. “He’s, um...helping me. With. Stuff.”

Placidus gaped at him. “What the hell could a Delta possibly help you with?”

“Physics,” Esca replied smoothly. “I’m tutoring him. He’s about to fail out of the course, or hadn’t you heard?”

Marcus wasn’t in a physics course and never had been. But no one really kept track of his schedule. Placidus gave him a questioning look, to which he nodded dumbly and replied, “Yeah, that. My, uh, advisor insisted.”

Placidus didn’t look convinced, but he jabbed a finger into Esca’s chest and said, “You fuck with him, you fuck with all of us. Is that clear, you scrawny Delta shitbrick?”

Esca’s smirk was toxic. “Crystal,” he said, and even had the balls to bow deeply to Placidus. “I am but a humble slave in this house.”

Marcus hauled him into his room before Esca could run his mouth further and get his ass kicked. “Jesus, do you ever shut up?” he said, slamming the door.

Esca didn’t reply. He was looking around the room, arms folded over his chest. “This isn’t what I imagined,” he said.

“What, you thought my place would be a dump?”

“No.” He jerked his head toward the large poster of the Colosseum hanging over Marcus’ bed. “I didn’t expect Roman architecture.”

“My family’s Italian,” Marcus mumbled. “Uncle took me to Rome when I was in high school.” He didn’t talk about his family much, because it always led to his parents.

“I’ve never been.” Esca continued his slow appraisal of Marcus’ things, eyes narrowing on his collection of graphic novels, his art history books, his stupid collection of superhero figurines that Placidus always made fun of him for. After a few more silent moments, Esca finally turned to him and said, “So. What now?”

Marcus collapsed on his bed. “Fuck if I know.”

“Do you actually need tutoring in something?”

“If I did, I wouldn’t tell you.” He didn’t mean for it to come out so bitchy. It was just...having Esca in his room, in his space, made Marcus’ skin feel too tight, his heart run too fast.

Esca pursed his lips. Carefully, he pulled out Marcus’ desk chair and straddled it backwards, draping his arms elegantly along the back. “I suppose I deserve that,” he said quietly.

“Yeah, you do.”

“But need I remind you that you’re not exactly a crying victim in this little drama between us.”

Marcus glanced away. “I wouldn’t call it a...drama.” Fuck, why couldn’t he stop blushing?

“All right, a clash. Strife. Duel. Fight.”

“It’s not between us.”

Esca smirked. “Of course not. Thetas versus Deltas, the battle for the ages.”

“What do you even want from me, MacCunoval?” Marcus blurted. “You ignore my very existence for two years and then act like I’m the asshole in this scenario.” He wanted to bite his tongue off. Way to admit that he’d been paying attention to Esca’s non-attention.

That steel gaze honed right in on Marcus, intense and unnerving. “I told you. I made an agreement with your uncle.”

“So buy me a week’s worth of Starbucks and call it a day.”

“It doesn’t work that way.”

“It does if I say so.”

“Or,” Esca said, “We can be friends. For a week. And then we’ll never speak of this again. We both graduate in May; it’s not as if we’ll be around each other for an eternity.”

Friends. Marcus didn’t think it was possible. “I don’t trust you,” he said.

“The feeling’s mutual. But I did walk into the lion’s den at your request, and I’m not texting my mates about the fact that you have an entire boxed set of Gilmore Girls DVDs.”

Marcus grit his teeth. “Fuck you, it’s a good show.”

“As I said, truce. For the time being, we’re not enemies. I’m not a Delta out to get you. I’m Esca the Scottish psychology major and you’re Marcus the lumbering bear.”

“I’m not a bear.” Fuck all if that didn’t make something shimmer deep in his stomach.

Something that hinted at a smile tugged at the corner of Esca’s mouth. “You’re massive. Surely you’re aware of this fact.”

“I’ve always been, um. Big. Biggest kid in my class until ninth grade.”

“Yes, I’m sure you were,” Esca said. His eyes drifted over Marcus, a weird tone in his voice.

Marcus cleared his throat. This was all a huge mistake, but he found himself saying, “Fine, we’re friends. D’you play any Call of Duty?”

Esca’s mouth twitched again. “I was the Delta house tournament winner last spring.”

“Kids’ stuff. I play for blood.” He tossed Esca his extra XBox controller. “Put your money where your mouth is.”

And somehow, they ended up playing for four hours, until Marcus was starving and Esca suggested pizza. Marcus told him to go pick it up—“As a service and all,” he said with a smirk.

Esca flipped him the bird, but left and came back thirty minutes later with not only pizza, but two six packs of a local craft beer.

“Hope you like IPAs,” Esca said.

Marcus did, in fact, love IPAs.

Esca stayed until nearly one in the morning that night. When he got up to leave, he was more than a little drunk, and he smiled a real smile at Marcus.

“You gonna be okay getting home?” Marcus asked, even though he knew Esca was right across the street.

The smile broadened. “You really are some kind of big, chivalrous puppy, aren’t you? Always looking out for people.”

Esca wasn’t the only one drunk. Marcus couldn’t stop staring at the way Esca’s jeans molded to his hips, the way his leather jacket hugged the broad lines of his shoulders. He was the opposite of scrawny. “Why would you say that?”

“‘Cause you worried I was some kid out too late. That first time.” Esca shoved a hand through his hair. “Well, cheers. I’ll see you tomorrow, yeah?” He stumbled into the door a little on his way out.

Marcus just sat on his bed, blinking at the spot where Esca had stood.

That first time.

Esca remembered when they’d met.

~

The next evening Esca arrived back at the house at five o’clock again. Marcus was waiting for him.

“So, I...have a favor,” Marcus said, biting out each word. He’d tried to talk himself out of asking Esca all day, but the better part of his brain finally convinced him it was part of Esca’s agreement.

Esca tilted his head to one side. “You want me to drive you somewhere.”

Marcus stared at him. “How did you—”

“Because you’re favoring your good leg rather intensely, and I think you’ve made it pretty clear how much you loathe asking for help.”

It was all true. Marcus hated that Esca could read him so easily. “I need to go to the library, but I...the walk over there is too...I should’ve fucking gone over after my last class, but I forgot—”

“Enough. My car’s parked on the street.”

Marcus’ whole face felt hot with shame. “You don’t have to.”

Esca grabbed him by the elbow and pulled him gently toward the door. “You’re not asking for a bloody kidney transplant, so stop looking at me like that.”

“Would you donate a kidney to me?” Marcus couldn’t help asking, just to be a dick. “As part of services rendered—”

“Shut the fuck up and get in the car, Aquila.”

~

They formed a system without really discussing it. Marcus would text Esca when he got out of class and Esca would be waiting for him in his car on the edge of the quad to drive him back to the house. Without the fifteen minute walk back home, Marcus realized his leg didn’t ache nearly as bad in the evenings. He could go to sleep without downing a cocktail of pain meds.

He didn’t tell Esca any of this, but he had a feeling Esca just knew. Because Esca always seemed to know what Marcus was thinking.

By Friday afternoon, Marcus started to realize that after that day, Esca wouldn’t be picking him up anymore. The week would be almost up. He’d go back to hobbling his way back to the house, alone.

The thought sat like a stone in his stomach as Esca drove along the side streets, some weird electronic music playing through the car speakers.

“Is this, like, that EDM stuff everyone talks about?” Marcus asked.

Esca burst out laughing. “Oh my god, Aquila, seriously? Are you secretly a monk?”

Marcus glowered at him. “I don’t listen to the radio a lot, asshole.”

“I get that. It’s just not every day I get a question from a twenty-one-year-old bloke that’s more appropriate for my mum.” His grin turned less sharp. “What do you listen to?”

Marcus shrugged and looked out the window. “Forget about it.”

“No, tell me. I’m dying of curiosity now.”

“It’s stupid, something my dad got me into.”

“Which is?”

“Bluegrass.”

Esca’s eyes widened. “Well, fuck me,” he murmured.

Marcus huffed, “Never mind, I knew you’d—”

“No, no, I didn’t mean—” He grabbed his phone and unplugged the USB cord, which he then held out to Marcus when they came to a stop light. “Show me?”

Placidus had always joked it was Marcus’ “old man music.” It was private, a memento of his father.

Against his better judgment, Marcus plugged in his phone and opened Spotify, selecting his favorite playlist. He didn’t look at Esca as he played a song that was fiddle-heavy, fast and sharp with no lyrics.

The song played until they got to the house. Esca put the car in park, but didn’t turn the engine off, letting the radio play until the song ended.

Marcus quickly unplugged his phone. “So. That’s what I like.”

Esca didn’t say anything right away. He worried his bottom lip for a long moment, staring straight ahead as he slid his hands over the steering wheel.

“You truly are a conundrum, Aquila,” he finally said softly.

“What does that even mean?”

“It means…” Esca took a deep breath. “It means I’m a piece of shit.” He grabbed his messenger bag and slammed out of the car, leaving Marcus to watch him storm into the Delta house without looking back.

~

A few hours later, Marcus got a text from Esca.

Sorry to run off on you. Come over to mine?

Marcus had never been inside the Delta house before. But then, Esca had shown his face in the Theta house, and turnabout was fair play…

Okay, be there in five. Where is your room?

I’ll be at the door. Don’t come in alone.

It sounded ominous, but Marcus would’ve issued the same warning, had he cared enough to do so back when they started all this.

God, had it really only been six days?

Marcus changed his shirt before he left—not because he wanted to impress Esca, but because his other shirt was kind of gross and he needed to freshen up. He didn’t want to look like a homeless guy walking into the Delta house; he’d be getting enough shit as it was.

He knocked on the imposing black lacquered door, using the pretentious-looking brass knocker. A guy dressed like something out of a J.Crew catalog answered the door, and he took one look at Marcus and grimaced.

“Get lost, Theta meathead,” he said, “Whatever it is, we didn’t do it.” He started to slam the door in Marcus’ face, only Esca appeared at the last minute.

“He’s with me, Simpson,” he said, pushing past the guy to usher Marcus in.

The guy looked at Esca as if he’d just taken a shit all over the front lawn. “Oh God, don’t tell me you’re fucking Thetas now.”

Esca whirled on him so fast Marcus barely saw it happen until the guy was shoved against the wall and Esca’s hand was gripping the front of his nicely pressed shirt.

“That’s none of your bloody business, so piss off before I fucking make you,” Esca hissed.

The guy went slightly pale. “S-sorry, Macs. Won’t happen again.” Esca let him go and he scurried off, mumbling an apology to Marcus.

“My room’s this way, third floor,” Esca said a bit too calmly, nodding toward the wide, sprawling staircase. “Are you up for that?”

Marcus’ brain was still stuck on don’t tell me you’re fucking Thetas now. “Yeah, I think so.” He started slowly up the stairs, noticing the way Esca stayed a step behind him, watchful.

Esca’s room was at the end of a long, quiet hall. Marcus barely heard a peep out of the rooms they passed. “Does anyone besides you actually live up here?” Marcus asked.

“It’s the senior floor. We’re a quiet bunch.” Esca unlocked his bedroom door and held it open. “Half my pledge class is pre-med. They have to study their balls off or they die, basically.”

Marcus couldn’t imagine living in a frat house as a pre-med student. Most guys in his pledge class barely passed biology. The brainiacs against the jocks, he thought ruefully as he took in Esca’s room.

For a house room, it was huge; once upon a time it could have served as an attic of some kind with its vaulted eaves and slightly sloping floor. A circular window with no blinds or curtains let in the fading dusk light over Esca’s bed, which was unmade. Books were scattered everywhere, paperbacks and academic texts alike, along with random DVD cases. A pair of track pants was thrown over the back of a desk chair, and a couple of Chinese food boxes sat on the dresser.

Marcus grinned.

“What?” Esca asked, although his tone suggested he knew exactly what Marcus was smiling about.

“You’re a slob,” Marcus said like it was the best thing ever.

“Sorry the maid called in sick today,” Esca mumbled, tossing the track pants in a corner on top of a pile of laundry.

“No, it’s great. I like seeing proof that you’re a real human being.”

“Why wouldn’t I be?”

“Because you’re—” Marcus flailed his hand, “—you. Perfect and British and smart. Next to you I’m all—” He stopped and ducked his head.

Esca took a step closer. “You’re all what?”

Marcus shook his head. “Was there something specific you wanted to talk about?”

Esca sighed and scrubbed both hands over his face. For the first time, Marcus noticed he was wearing a thin t-shirt and a pair of pajama pants that were too long for him. He’d never seen Esca in anything that didn’t look meticulously coordinated.

“I owe you an apology,” Esca said slowly. “I left you rather abruptly this afternoon and I’m sorry.”

“It’s no big deal. Bluegrass isn’t for everyone,” Marcus joked.

“But that’s just it! It’s not for everyone, and you’re—I can’t—” Esca dropped down on his bed with a loud huff. He glared at the floor for a moment, then looked up at Marcus and said, “Let’s get drunk. Right here. I’ve got a couple bottles of shit, but it’ll do.”

Marcus blinked. “Um, all right. What kind of ‘shit’?”

Esca reached under his bed and pawed around until he produced a giant bottle of Wild Turkey and an equally large plastic bottle of Smirnoff. “And I’ve got a twelve pack of Mountain Dew.”

“I’ve had worse,” Marcus said, and reached for the whiskey.

~

He waited for Esca to put on a movie, or break out his XBox or PS4.

But instead, after a few drinks, Esca started talking.

“D’you know why I came to study at Calleva instead of Cambridge?” he asked.

Marcus shrugged. He was sprawled on Esca’s bed with his back against the wall, legs dangling over the edge. Somehow one of Esca’s pillows had ended up sort of cuddled in his arms. It smelled like Esca. “Figured you got some big fancy scholarship,” he said.

Esca was seated on the floor, and he shifted to tuck his legs underneath him. “Well, I did, but it wasn’t that. My father died during my final year of schooling in Edinburgh. Heart attack, very sudden. He was on his way home from work, and he just…” Esca gestured vaguely with his red Solo cup.

“I’m sorry,” Marcus whispered, and he was. He knew exactly what it felt like to have that kind of loss.

“It was...strange at first. It didn’t feel real. I kept thinking he was off on some business trip in Tokyo or Johannesburg and would be home soon, no worries. Even at the funeral it felt like it was all happening for someone else. But my mother always reminded me, said she’d never realized how much I resembled him until he was gone.”

“Do you have any siblings?”

“A sister. She’s older, lives in Manchester. She didn’t make it to the funeral.”

Marcus sat up a little, pillow still against his chest. “So it was just you and your mom?”

“For a while. She didn’t handle Dad’s passing well, to say the least.” Esca tipped his head back and drained the rest of his cup. “By the time I took my final exams, she’d checked herself into a clinic. I never caught her doing anything to herself, thank God.”

“Jesus, Esca.” Marcus finished off his drink as well and held out the cup for Esca to refill.

“I kept telling myself it was for the best, and I know, in the end, it was. But she kept calling me in the middle of the night, off her medication and crying about Dad. How I needed to get him back for her. And I couldn’t....I didn’t want to stay close to her anymore. It wasn’t helping. So I took the scholarship from Calleva and got a student visa and here I am.” He spread his arms out and gave Marcus the saddest smile he’d ever seen.

“You’re brave,” Marcus said.

“I’m a selfish prick, but everything’s relative.”

“Is that why you want to help homeless kids? Because you were basically homeless for a while?”

“I wasn’t exactly homeless.” Esca traced one long, graceful finger along the edge of his cup. “But I know there are children out there who are much younger than I was and have had much worse happen to them. They need someone to turn to, someone who listens and understands. It’s why I support Shining Star so wholeheartedly.”

“It does help, having someone to listen.” Marcus didn’t mean to say the words out loud. He’d probably had too much whiskey already.

Esca looked at him with those eyes that made Marcus feel exposed, stripped bare, like he could see straight through to the core of Marcus’ soul. “You were one of those kids,” he said.

Marcus took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Yeah, I was. My parents died in a car crash when I was eleven. I didn’t have any other family, not until my uncle found me four years later.”

“And you lived in foster care during that time.”

“It wasn’t all bad. Shining Star found me good families. I was way better off than a lot of kids.” Marcus took another long drink, relishing the burn in his throat. “So just go ahead and say it.”

“Say what?”

“That you’ve heard all about my dad and the shit he supposedly did while he was at Calleva. Everyone knows about it, and I’m sure your Delta bros filled you in a long time ago.”

Esca shook his head. “No. I’ve never heard anything.”

Marcus snorted. “Oh, it’s only one of the biggest scandals in Calleva’s history. John Flavius Aquila managing to bribe his and a dozen other guys’ way through an entire year by paying a bunch of sophomores to go to class for them and take their exams. They were all Thetas, too, y’know. Nearly ended the chapter.”

Esca’s cheeks went slightly pink. “I...may have heard something to that effect.”

“I almost didn’t come to Calleva because of it.” Marcus sagged back against the wall. “My dad always denied it, though. Said it was all a lie, that the proof was planted. He’d always told me he’d loved his years here, and as a Theta. When he talked about this school and his frat, he made everything sound so...perfect. And I wanted that. I wanted to feel what he felt when he was here. But being here also means I’m constantly thinking someone’s gonna judge me, think I’m a fake just like my dad. That I’m not...not worth anything.” He swallowed as his hand trailed absently over the edge of his boot. “And now my football career’s over, so. I’ll probably leave Calleva a failure, too.”

“Stop it.” Esca shot to his knees and pointed his cup at Marcus. “Shut the fuck up, Aquila, you’re not a failure.”

“Like you said, my grades didn’t get me here, running a ball did. I don’t even know what I’m gonna do after graduation. I can’t live with my uncle forever.”

“When I said those things, I was…” Esca’s mouth twisted to one side and he glanced away.

“It’s okay, everyone thinks it.”

“Then everyone can sod off,” Esca growled, and suddenly he was between Marcus’ spread legs, hands on Marcus’ knees.

Marcus went hard so quickly he was dizzy with it. It was the worst timing; Esca was glaring at him like he’d said something terrible and all Marcus could think about was the fact that Esca was about two feet away from his cock.

He’d definitely had too much whiskey.

“Do you not see the way people look at you?” Esca asked. His voice dropped into a strange combination of anger and gentleness that Marcus couldn’t quite comprehend. “Your frat brothers adore you. Everyone adores you because you’re kind and noble and voluntarily spend your bloody Sunday evenings at charity events for orphanage foundations. You listen to fucking bluegrass music and own an entire book on the life of Edgar Degas. You’re insufferable.” Esca shook his head, like he was helpless to understand it all.

Marcus licked his lips. “...Sorry?”

Esca growled again, only this time it was also partly a moan, and the next thing Marcus knew Esca was on the bed and shoving Marcus flat onto the mattress as he straddled his lap.

“You should apologize for making me want you all these years and hating myself for it, only to learn that I had nothing to be ashamed of,” Esca said, voice scraped raw, his face close enough to Marcus’ that he could feel the hot puff of breath from each word.

Marcus opened his mouth, shut it, then opened it again. “But you hate me,” he whispered. “You always have.”

God, you fucking giant oblivious oaf.”

And then Marcus was being kissed within an inch of his life, deep and wet and everything he’d never had from a kiss. Esca’s hands were in his hair, skimming over his cheeks, tracing the edges of his ears like Marcus was something precious even as Esca’s tongue slid into his mouth, sleek and probing and possessive.

“You are so lovely,” Esca gasped between kisses. “The first time I saw you I nearly came out of my skin.”

Marcus’ brain was finally beginning to catch up to the current events. Slowly, he let his hands circle around Esca’s waist, fingertips dipping beneath the edges of his soft, worn t-shirt. The instant he touched bare skin, Esca shivered beautifully and moaned.

“I wanted to ask you out that night,” Marcus whispered, splaying his hand over the smooth valley of Esca’s spine.

“I wish you had. Then I wouldn’t have hated the letters you wore after Bid Day.”

“You wouldn’t talk to me after that.”

“I…” Esca shivered again as Marcus’ other hand drifted down over the front of his pajama pants. “When you become a Delta, they warn you: stay away from Thetas, they all hate you. Those jocks’ll beat you up, humiliate you. So you humiliate them first.” His words dissolved into a loud gasp as Marcus cupped him through the material, rubbed his palm over the wet tip of Esca’s cock.

“If you hadn’t listened to them, we could’ve done this a long time ago.” Marcus pushed Esca’s pants down over his ass and thank God he was going commando because Marcus did not have the fine motor skills at the moment to handle underwear. He palmed one cheek and squeezed, hard, then let his index finger trail lazily over the seam. He suddenly wanted nothing more in the world than to fuck Esca through his bed until he screamed.

He didn’t realize he’d said the words out loud until Esca groaned and gave a shaky laugh. “That, um, can be arranged.” He scrambled off Marcus’ lap for a second, a tangle of uncoordinated limbs as he awkwardly kicked off his pants and flung his t-shirt aside. Marcus leaned up on his elbows to watch while Esca tore through one of his dresser drawers, bits of clothing flying everywhere. Stark naked, Esca was breathtaking: all lean, solid muscle beneath pale skin, a deliciously high, tight ass, and a dick that made Marcus’ mouth water. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d desperately longed to suck a guy.

“Goddamn it, I know I had some lube around here,” he heard Esca mumble.

“Don’t you bring guys up here all the time?” Marcus asked innocently.

Esca shot him a nasty glare. “Simpson’s a prat. He’s bitter because he tried to get me to fuck him once and I turned him down.”

“Did you want to fuck him?”

Esca started digging around in a random plastic tub. “Lord, no. I’m more for the big, tall brawny Roman types who watch too much Gilmore Girls. Oh, thank fuck.” He held up a little bottle of K-Y and a condom packet. “I hope this fits.”

Marcus flushed all the way to his collarbone. “I’m not that big.”

“Noble and modest. I should start calling you Captain bloody America.”

“Does that make you Tony Stark?” Fuck it, Esca had been in his room enough to know Marcus was a Marvel nerd who may or may not have secret crushes on super heroes.

Esca blinked for a second, then burst out laughing, just like he had earlier that day in the car. He had such a warm, effervescent laugh that it made Marcus want to curl up in it and never leave.

I want to hear you laugh like that all the time.

“Who knew Thetas could be funny?” Esca said softly, almost as if to himself as he crawled back onto the bed with lube and condom in hand. He set them on the table beside the bed and slid neatly into Marcus’ lap, tugging Marcus up by the neck of his shirt.

“Let’s get this off you, shall we,” he said with a wicked smile, and Marcus shivered at the possession there, the way those gray eyes had gone all dark and feral. He reminded himself that he was the one about to do the fucking, although...next time. Next time they’d change things up.

If there was a next time.

Once his shirt was gone, Esca pushed him back onto the mattress, his hands sliding everywhere over Marcus’ chest and stomach. His touch was whisper-soft, almost delicate, and he tracked the movement of his fingers like he was memorizing every inch of Marcus’ body. Marcus had been with plenty of guys, but none of them had ever looked at him like he was some kind of rare artwork. It made him squirm a little in equal parts embarrassed flattery and burning want.

“You could take a picture, y’know,” he said to break the tension a bit, blushing at the way he arched under Esca’s hands like a cat.

“No one should get to see this but me,” Esca all but growled, then leaned down to bite at Marcus’ nipples.

Marcus moaned, loudly—and he’d never been one to make noise. Esca grinned and bit him again, over and over, teeth and tongue and suction while his hands made quick work of the fly of Marcus’ jeans. Marcus was ridiculously hard, enough so that he prayed his dick wouldn’t just leap out in excited joy the second Esca got his hands on him. He knew he was leaking everywhere—it didn’t take much to get him wet, and with Esca he’d pretty much soaked through his boxer briefs. His breath caught when he felt air hit his bare cock, and Esca hummed appreciatively.

“You certainly don’t disappoint, Aquila.”

“That’s a relief,” Marcus gasped. He tried to wiggle the rest of the way out of his jeans, until he hissed as he accidentally hit the top of his damn boot. “Fuck.”

“Here.” Esca swung off Marcus and knelt beside him on the bed to help him slide his jeans over the boot, his movements gentle but efficient. Marcus wanted to feel stupid that he needed help in the middle of sex, but the truth was that his heart constricted a little at the way Esca didn’t need to ask—he was just there, knowing exactly what Marcus needed.

When Marcus was naked except for the boot, Esca whispered, “Are you all right on your back? Should we do this in a chair, or—”

“I’m fine,” Marcus said, and let himself give in to the sappy desire to touch Esca’s cheek, run his fingers over the line of his jaw. “You seemed to have a plan, anyway. I’m just here for the ride.”

Something flickered in Esca’s dark eyes, and after a moment he leaned slightly into Marcus’ hand. “I don’t have a plan, but I’ve got some ideas.”

“Yeah?”

“I could show you, if you’d like.”

Marcus grinned. It was the first time he’d felt truly happy in a long while. He pulled Esca closer, until he could drag his teeth along the soft dirty blond stubble dusting Esca’s cheek. “Yes, please,” he breathed as he wrapped his hand around Esca’s cock.

Esca swore a string of expletives that sounded downright elegant; his accent apparently got thicker as he got hornier. He grabbed Marcus’ hand by the wrist. “I’ve had too much vodka for that just now, if you want anything to last.”

“So you only get to touch me?” Marcus asked. He stretched his arms above his head, enjoying the way Esca’s gaze went lust-hazy and his mouth went a little slack.

“I suppose I could just toss off right here, all over your obscene chest,” Esca said. His voice was about an octave below its normal register.

“You can. Just do it while I’m inside you.”

Esca’s eyes flared. “Oh, Jesus fuck,” he gasped, scrambling for the lube and condom. It took him two tries to get the packet open, and even then his hands were shaking as he fumbled it onto Marcus’ dick.

Which, yes, it was a really tight fit. Marcus would deal.

“Christ,” Esca said as he slicked lube over his fingers, “I’m gonna tell you something right now that you cannot repeat to your Theta hooligans.”

Marcus’ brain momentarily shorted out at the sight of Esca reaching back and sliding two of those slick fingers into his own ass. “I, uh...okay?”

“You’re...fucking huge and it’s been a while for me,” Esca said in a breathless rush, eyes screwed shut and head tipped back as he stretched himself.

It’s been a while. “I haven’t been with a guy since way before my injury,” Marcus said.

“What’s ‘way before’?” Esca asked, then winced as if he hadn’t meant to say it.

Marcus skimmed his thumb up the underside of Esca’s cock. “At least six months. I kind of lost track.”

“Too many forgettable hook-ups?”

He wrapped his hand around the shaft and gave it a light tug. Esca whimpered and bit his lip. “You could say that. And I think you know where I’m coming from.”

“Maybe. Maybe I don’t kiss and—oh, God, fuck, Marcus, I need to—”

“Yeah, c’mon.” Marcus put his hands on either side of Esca’s hips, and for a second the contrast of his wide palms fitted to the lean, solid curves of Esca’s body made his breath stutter. And Esca thought Marcus was lovely.

True to Esca’s word, he was incredibly tight, and Marcus had to take his time sliding home. He watched Esca’s expression as he sunk deeper, inch by inch, until the pinch between Esca’s eyes smoothed out and his mouth fell open on a sharp, “Fuck, right there.”

“Tell me when to m-move,” Marcus gasped. He concentrated on Esca’s cock, the way it was filling up again after wilting slightly at Marcus’ initial push. He hadn’t seen a lot of uncircumcised guys before, and the fat pink, shiny head peeking out from its sheath of skin made Marcus’ mouth run dry.

“Bloody hell, move, do whatever you want, fuck me, Marcus,” Esca all but whined as he rolled his hips down and took Marcus the rest of the way inside, his ass pressed against Marcus’ thighs.

Marcus only had so much self-control. They were both far from sober, and a tiny voice in the back of Marcus’ head told him that might become an issue later on, but none of that mattered right now. He was inside Esca MacCunoval, who was begging to be fucked.

It wasn’t Marcus’ finest performance by any means. His finesse was shot to shit due to too much whiskey, and he hadn’t jerked off since the night before. What’s more, he’d been half-hard since the moment he’d stepped into Esca’s room and smelled Esca over everything in sight.

But all that was okay considering Esca rode him hard and fast like he knew he didn’t have much time, either. He was all beautiful flushed skin and snarling swear words and helpless gasps. He seemed to be ignoring his cock, so Marcus helpfully said, “Touch yourself, Macs, I wanna see it.”

The nickname slipped out before Marcus could stop himself. Esca’s eyes flicked open, and he held Marcus’ gaze as a line of sweat ran down his forehead.

With a broken moan, he grabbed his cock. His eyes never left Marcus’.

Marcus came two seconds later, harder than he could ever remember in his whole damn life. His fingers dug into Esca’s hips too sharply, but he couldn’t help it. He hand to hold onto something.

He felt the hot spurt of Esca’s come land on his stomach, then his chest. A random weird thought floated through his head: I want to taste that.

“God, Marcus,” Esca whispered shakily.

He forced his eyes open. Esca’s blush was a dark pink, staining his cheeks and neck as it faded across his chest. He still held his cock in his hand, fingers covered in come. His shoulders were shaking.

“You gonna be okay?” Marcus asked.

Esca licked his lips and slowly let go of his dick. “I don’t know. My brains are all over your chest, I think.”

Marcus glanced down at the slick whiteness splattered over his skin. “I’m not apologizing for getting your brains all over me.”

“It was worth it.” He shifted his hips and hissed sharply. “Fuck, I’m not going to be able to sit on my arse for a week, am I?”

“You’re bad for my ego.” Marcus carefully lifted him up as he pulled out, and it was an awkward shuffle of limbs as he tried to maneuver both Esca and his stupid boot out of the way so he could tie off the condom. “Um—”

“Waste bin.” Esca grabbed a metal container and held it out. Marcus dumped the thing inside, which was gross, but not as gross as the come sliding slowly down his stomach.

“We’re kind of disgusting, dude.”

“And you’re a romantic,” Esca said, rooting around in another random drawer until he tossed a package of Wet Wipes at Marcus. He cleaned up in silence as Esca tugged his pajama pants back on and stood beside the bed, arms folded over his chest. There were faint, finger-shaped bruises peeking out over his waistband.

“So,” Esca said.

Marcus cleared his throat. “So.”

“You called me Macs.”

He tossed the used Wet Wipes into the waste basket. “I know.”

“Only my friends are allowed to call me that.”

He didn’t think it was possible for his stomach to drop so suddenly. A cold shiver slid over his spine. Of course. Sex didn’t change history. Marcus reached for his shirt, head bowed. “It won’t happen again,” he whispered, slowly getting to his feet. Fuck, he was such an idiot.

A hand landed flat against his chest, and Marcus found himself being pushed back down onto the bed. Esca stepped between his knees and cupped a hand over Marcus’ cheek, thumb pressed to his chin.

“It will happen again,” Esca said softly, “and I prefer you call me Esca next time.”

Marcus’ heart jerked. The about-face in emotions made him dizzy. “Esca,” he said, like it was the first time.

The most tentative, careful, brilliant smile spread across Esca’s face. It made him look younger, sweeter. Marcus wondered if he was finally, truly looking at the real Esca.

“Do you have plans tomorrow at all?” Esca asked.

Marcus shook his head.

“Well, since you’re already naked, you should probably sleep here. All things considered.”

Those cartoons where the character’s eyes turn into hearts suddenly felt all too real. Marcus slid his arms around Esca’s bare waist, hands splayed against his back as he tugged him close. He kissed the center of Esca’s chest and let his mouth trail lazy circles over his skin.

“Okay,” he murmured. “All things considered.” His head was getting all fuzzy and sleepy, and all he wanted to do was snuggle. He hadn’t snuggled anyone in ages.

Once again, his internal filter was switched to the off position. Esca’s fingers carded through Marcus’ hair as he chuckled and said, “You could probably convince a rabid wolf to snuggle, couldn’t you?”

“Mmm.” Marcus nuzzled his face over the dip between Esca’s pectorals. “You were kind of a wolf. Thought you’d eat me alive.”

“A wolf against a giant, overgrown Golden Retriever puppy. What a pair.” Marcus felt a kiss bussed over the top of his head. “C’mon, Aquila, get in bed. You drive a hard bargain.”

Marcus fell asleep not long after that, spooned against Esca’s chest. His leg didn’t wake him up once.

It was the best night’s sleep he’d had in months, if not years.

~

He woke the next morning to Esca watching him with one eye open, his face smushed into his pillow. His hair was a rumpled mess, and his stubble had gotten considerably more scruffy.

He was possibly the most gorgeous thing Marcus had ever seen.

“You talk in your sleep,” Esca said. The words were partially mumbled into the pillow.

Marcus rolled onto his side, let his feet slide against Esca’s until their legs were a lazy tangle. “What did I say?”

“I couldn’t quite make it out, but I think you were saying something about your mum.” Esca’s hand snaked out from under the pillow and pushed Marcus’ hair off his forehead. “But you sounded...content.”

“I don’t remember my dreams. I know I have them, but the details never stick.” Marcus wondered if it was too early in the morning to kiss. Some people were really sensitive about morning breath.

Esca solved that problem by thumbing Marcus’ mouth open and licking along Marcus’ lower lip and over his teeth in a drowsy mimic of a kiss. Marcus, who was already at his early morning default setting of two-thirds hard, went full-on boner in two seconds. He didn’t even notice the morning breath.

“I wish I didn’t remember my dreams,” Esca said, bumping his nose against Marcus’.

“The therapist my uncle sent me to when I was sixteen said it was a coping mechanism that never went away.”

“Yeah, that sounds about right.” Esca kissed him again, deeper this time, with more intent. Marcus whimpered into his mouth as their hips shifted together under the blankets.

“Can I ask you something?” Marcus whispered as Esca made his way down Marcus’ throat.

“I suppose.” He sounded amused. Affectionate.

Marcus sunk his fingers into the soft hair at the base of Esca’s skull. “Are we...is this...are you gonna go back to the way things were once the week is up?”

Esca leaned up on one elbow and regarded him with that long, piercing gaze. “Do you want me to?” he asked, so softly the words were just shy of breathless.

Marcus shook his head. “I want—this. To keep doing this. And let me take you out on a real date. Possibly lots of dates.”

The same shy, beautiful smile from the night before came back in full force. If Marcus hadn’t already been half in love, he’d be there now. “I wasn’t ready to give you up, anyway,” Esca said before his head disappeared beneath the comforter and he proceeded to give Marcus a truly spectacular morning blowjob.

I’ve got a Delta boyfriend, Marcus thought, dissolving into giggles as he came in long, easy, blissful waves.

 

[epilogue]

 

“Are you sure about this, Aquila? Sometimes I think you have a death wish.”

Marcus rolled his eyes and tugged a reluctant Esca into the house. “It’s a stupid Christmas party, there’s nothing deadly about that.”

“Correction, it’s the Theta Christmas Bash, which is the biggest bloody holiday party on campus, and one hundred percent off limits to Deltas.” For all the times Esca had been in the house over the last couple months, he still curled in on himself whenever he stood in the Theta foyer. Marcus hated how skittish he always looked before escaping to the safe haven of Marcus’ room.

Marcus didn’t mention the jokes he heard about Esca when the guys thought he couldn’t hear, or comments of Limey fuckhead Delta and Aquila’s fucktoy. He knew he was probably getting the same treatment over at the Delta house.

Two more weeks. That was all that stood between Marcus and his own apartment, a tiny first floor one bedroom downtown. He couldn’t wait to get out.

“Tonight you’re not a Delta,” Marcus said, leaning down to nuzzle at Esca’s ear. “You’re just mine. Got it?”

Esca sighed. “I’m not so sure your mates agree.” He jerked his head toward the stairs.

Placidus was glaring at them both, although it was hard to look imposing while wearing a crooked Santa hat. “What the actual fuck, Aquila? I get that you’re fucking, but there are rules.”

His words cut through the blaring chorus of Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You”, and all eyes were suddenly on Marcus and a very red Esca.

“I can invite who I want, and he’s with me,” Marcus said. Let them stare. He was fucking sick of conforming to arbitrary rules that did more harm than good.

“He’s a goddamn Delta,” Placidus yelled. He pointed his beer bottle at Esca. “You parade him around here like you think we don’t notice, but we do. It makes me sick.”

“It’s just a stupid rivalry! None of this shit matters!”

“Oh, so honoring and respecting the Theta code means nothing to you now?”

The music stopped. Everyone’s attention was now on Marcus’ stand-off with the Theta president, the guy who was once upon a time one of his best friends.

Marcus cast a quick glance at Esca. He stood at Marcus’ side, cheeks flushed but his chin tilted up defiantly, like he was ready for a fight. The tic in his jaw said otherwise, but no one would notice that—except Marcus.

And Marcus loved him for it.

“I respect this fraternity as much as every other guy here, but I know when something’s fucked up. Deltas treat us like shit because we treat them like shit. D’you ever stop to think about what it’d be like to be friends with them? They’re geniuses! We could get our house GPA over a 2.5 for the first time in, what, a decade?”

Placidus gaped. “Jesus, Aquila, just because you stick your dick into one of them doesn’t mean the rest of us have to.”

Marcus had a reply to that. It probably would have been scathing. But he never found out just how brutal a comeback he had in store for Placidus, because Esca suddenly launched himself across the floor, up the stairs, and threw his fist straight into Placidus’ face.

The whole house exploded into chaos. Marcus managed to grab Esca and haul him off Placidus before another punch could be thrown. A couple of guys held Placidus, whose nose was beginning to bleed, back as well.

“This is what happens when you bring shitheads into our house!” Palcidus cried.

“Oh, fuck off!” Esca yelled back. He attempted another lunge, but Marcus held him tight.

Lutorius, another senior who’d pledged with Marcus, pushed his way through the crowd and put a hand on Marcus’ shoulder. “Get him out of here,” he said sternly, nodding to Esca. “We keep this up and the cops’ll be here in no time. Placidus already has a DUI, you know that.”

Marcus shook him off. “That’s his problem, not mine. All I wanted to do was bring my fucking boyfriend to a goddamn Christmas party.”

“Your boyfriend punched our president in the nose.”

“Because he was being an asshole! We’re always assholes to them!”

“Marcus—”

“No, I’m so done.” He held up the hand not holding Esca back from a fight. “When the semester’s over, I’m gone. Consider this my notice of deactivation from Theta. Fuck this bullshit.”

“You can’t just quit, Aquila! Not over a Delta!” Placidus whined.

Marcus gave him a nasty smile. “Just watch me, shitbrick.” And with that, he stormed out of the Theta house dragging Esca behind him.

Once they made it to the sidewalk, Esca jerked his arm free and stared at him. “What...the fuck did you just do?”

Marcus hugged both arms to his chest. The gravity of his final declaration started to sink in. “I quit my frat,” he said.

“Yeah, I was there. I heard. Why?”

“Why do you think?”

“It doesn’t matter what I think, I want to hear you say it.”

Marcus barked out a thin, slightly hysterical laugh. “Because a stupid frat will never make me feel like I do when I’m with you.”

Esca didn’t say anything, and for several long moments they stood on the sidewalk in front of Theta house serenaded by muffled sounds of Christmas party music. Apparently life would go on without Marcus.

Finally, Esca took his hand and carefully slotted their fingers together. “Tomorrow morning, I’m telling our president that I’m no longer a Delta,” Esca said quietly as he traced his thumb over the back of Marcus’ knuckles.

“Esca—you don’t have to do that just for—”

“I’m not. It’s something I’ve thought about for a while now. I don’t belong there anymore.” He looked up at Marcus from under his eyelashes and smiled crookedly. “Maybe I never did.”

Marcus couldn’t think of anything to say to that, so he kissed him, a closed-mouth, simple kiss that he hoped said enough. When he pulled away, Esca tugged him back until their foreheads were pressed together, fog from the heat of their breaths swirling around them.

“Move in with me,” Marcus blurted out.

Esca laughed. “I can’t pay you rent.”

“My uncle’s covering my lease for six months until I graduate. And besides, I need someone to help me get around.”

“Your leg is mending just fine.”

He kissed Esca again, this time a little less chaste. “Then move in with me because you want to.”

“I’m a slob, remember?” Esca’s voice caught on the last word.

“We’ll get a maid.”

Esca groaned as his body sagged against Marcus. “Insufferable,” he sighed into Marcus’ neck. He nipped him there, gently, making Marcus shiver. “I’m not always going to do what you tell me to do, you know.”

Marcus grinned. “Is that a yes?”

“Can I at least introduce you to proper electronic music? Also, no bloody Gilmore Girls marathons on my watch unless I’m provided suitable alcohol.”

Marcus nearly tackled him onto the Theta house lawn.