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Nick found himself alone for the first time at 18, and almost immediately found himself swamped by loneliness rather than the freedom he had been expecting.

 

His mother, father, and younger brother had made the five-and-a-half-hour journey, cramped and overheated in a car loaded with boxes, down to Columbus from Buffalo. They had earnestly and excitedly taken in the glorified shoebox of a college dorm room; they spent the day helping him to unpack, made bad jokes about getting into the college lifestyle already when he suggested ordering some food before they began the journey home (dad); complained about the amount of onion on the pizza and then ducked away from Nick’s hugs (Marcus); and cried, a lot (mom).

 

Now Nick found himself perched on the high-raise bed, sneakers barely scuffing the floor. His parents had left a couple of empty boxes for him, ostensibly for storage purposes, and they were resting in the middle of the uncarpeted floor now. The rest had returned home with them. They were the only visible signs in the room that Nick had moved in, asides from his own presence. All of his things had been fastidiously folded and fitted into the standard college drawers and closet by his parents, leaving the desk bare. The sheets on the bed were crisp, white, crinkling under his jeans as he swung his legs back and forth.

 

It was a standard single bed dorm, devoid of any personality. Nick scanned the skirting board and carpet, searching for a sign of life: a chip or scratch to suggest an accident, maybe something dropped, or a faded blotch of spilt hair dye. Nothing.

 

His eyes travelled up to the alarm clock fixed onto the bedside table and he realized it was only 8pm, and that he felt lonely. He didn’t have the time for a nap. Not if he wanted to get to sleep at a decent time and sleep right through to the morning. It was only there was just no reason for him to be awake right now. At home he was never caught in a void like this. There was always mom, bustling around busily, and his elder sisters when they came home to visit, and Nick’s friends, and Marcus and his friends loping about like puppies.

 

Straightening up, he opened the wardrobe, grabbed a baseball cap, and stuck it on his head. Looking into the mirror, he removed it and rubbed one hand over his head, then changed his mind once more and put it back on.

 

Maybe he could explore the apartment for a little while. He had an hour before he had to go. And he hadn’t met his dormmates yet.

 

He poked his head into the corridor, then straightened up, thinking that if one of his dormmates saw him do that they might think he was an idiot. Luckily, the coast was clear.

 

There were six rooms to a corridor, with a shared bathroom down one end and a shared kitchen at the other. Nick made his way down to the kitchen slowly, listening for anybody who might be around but hearing nothing. The illusion of solitude was shattered, however, once he opened the door.

 

Two men. One seated on a barstool at the breakfast table, his hands folded in front of him, the other rifling through a small carrier bag and stuffing various items into a fridge and a cupboard, both of which stood open. He had a bread roll hanging out the side of his mouth.

 

‘Oh, hey’, the guy at the table spoke up and leaped to his feet, already half-raising one hand to shake. Nick liked that.

 

‘Hi, I’m Nick. Room 4.’

 

‘Nick, hi. I’m Matt Calvert, I’m in Room 1.’ As they shook, the other man shut the doors he had open, took a bite of the bread roll and turned to look at Nick with interest.

 

Nick met his gaze curiously.

 

‘This is Brandon Dubinsky. He’s in Room 3.’

 

‘Right across from me, right?’

 

‘Yeah.’ Brandon answered this time, and then he also shook Nick’s hand. He was a couple of inches taller than Nick, and Matt was a couple of inches shorter, he noticed.

 

‘So, where abouts are you guys from?’, Nick asked, taking the seat across from where Matt had sat back down. Brandon had turned back to his cupboard.

 

‘Oh, I’m Canadian’, Matt answered with a smile.

 

‘Nice, my dad’s from Canada. Ontario.’ Nick shrugged. ‘Well, he’s from Italy, sort of, but he lived in Ontario.’

 

‘Ah, I’m Manitoba. So you’re from near here or…?’

 

‘Buffalo.’

 

‘Ah, city boy.’

 

Nick heard a scoff. Looking up, Brandon was turning to face them. ‘City boy? Manitoba’s not the wild, Calvert.’ He waved what was left of his bread roll emphatically as he spoke.

 

If he was going to insist on using last names he and Nick were going to have a problem. Nicknames were cool, however the way Brandon spoke, with the douchey frat-boy tone, was not going to fly with him. He decided to turn it back on him.

 

‘Where are you from then, Dubinsky?’

 

He grinned. ‘Me? Alaska.’

 

‘Damn.’ Nick whistled. ‘Lots of snow up there, eh?’

 

‘Yep. Bears, too.’ There was a moment of silence and then he added, smiling; ‘Never saw any, though. I’m from Anchorage. And I actually lived down in New York the last couple of years.’

 

Nick chuckled. He was pretty sure he wouldn’t have the chance to feel lonely with this guy around.

 

The three of them sat in the kitchen for the next half an hour, trading stories about where they were coming from, what they were studying, and why they had chosen to come to Columbus.

 

‘To be honest, I knew nothing about this place before’, Matt laughed.

 

Brandon shook his head. He had joined them on the end of the table. ‘Fuck, me either. No idea why I came here.’

 

Nick hummed. ‘My dad was like… He was an alumni at Buffalo… He played a shit ton of sports there, got a really good degree. Like, real community guy. I think he wanted me to go there, but… I basically applied everywhere but there.’

 

‘Teen rebellion, huh?’

 

‘Something like that.’ Nick smirked. ‘Hey, anyway, I actually know a guy here; he’s a junior, but he’s like an old friend. Matt, you’ll like him, he’s Canadian. He’s throwing a party tonight, you guys wanna go?’

 

Brandon shrugged. ‘Not got much else to be doing.’ When Nick looked at him, however, he was grinning, seemingly pleased.

 

‘Should we maybe knock and see if anyone else wants to come?’, Matt asked.

 

Nick deliberated. ‘I mean… If there was anyone here and they wanted to see us, they probably would have come out already, right?’

 

‘Yeah, I guess. Okay. I’m down. Let’s go.’

 

*

 

It wasn’t really surprising how quickly Nick lost track of both of his dormmates, given the number of people cramped into the small student house just off-campus, combined with the fact that he had just met them and could only half-remember their faces with his alcohol-fuddled brain.

 

Scott Hartnell, his old friend, had met them at the door and steered them inside, hurling introductions at the group nearest the door, before heading for the kitchen. Nick hadn’t seen him since. He, Brandon and Matt had joined a small group to talk, but then Brandon had disappeared to play beer pong with someone, occasionally returning to press a couple of drinks into his and Matt’s hands. He wasn’t sure what was in them, yet he was fairly confident that the alcohol content was high enough to tranquilise a horse. He drank it anyway, and then drank Matt’s when Matt had walked away talking to a girl who had taken the same Biology elective as he was signed up for.

 

Now Nick was fading in and out of conversation with two guys. One was a Finnish guy who he was pretty sure Scott had introduced as one of his housemates. The other was small, with thick black hair and a soft voice. He had wide eyes which made him look younger- and cuter- than Nick thought he might have appeared otherwise.

 

‘So, Nick’, the sort of cute older guy was beginning, and Nick made an effort to focus his attention. It was tough.

 

‘Yeah?’ He would have said the guy’s name, though he had honestly forgotten what it was.

 

‘How are you finding it, here?’

 

‘Well, I arrived today, so…’ The guy smiled. ‘But from what I’ve seen it’s great.’

 

‘Yeah, it’s nice here. I’m actually from Philly, but I just came up for the weekend to see Hartsy.’

 

‘He knows people everywhere, huh?’ Nick laughed and shook his head, then abruptly stopped when that made the room do cartwheels.

 

‘Yeah. Hartsy’s a sociable guy.’

 

As the Finnish guy touched the other’s arm and began to say something, Nick surveyed the room, slowly stabilising, for Brandon or Matt. His eyebrows furrowed when he didn’t catch a glimpse of either one.

 

They shot right up his forehead, though, when he spotted the man sitting alone on a sofa in the corner.

 

He was tall and slim, wearing dark jeans and a t-shirt. He glanced about quickly, fiddling with his fingers and looking uncomfortable. He obviously didn’t know anyone else there. Just the kind of person who Nick knew he could enjoy a quiet conversation with as he sobered up and attempted to spot someone he knew.

 

Nick moved away, forgetting to excuse himself but not really caring because he would probably never see the other men again, until he was standing over the sofa.

 

The man started and blinked up at him with blue-grey eyes. ‘Hello.’

 

Oh god. He was cute, and he had an accent.

 

For the next hour, Nick sat and talked to the man who went by Sergei Bobrovsky.

 

Talked at him, rather. Bob, as Nick drunkenly referred to him after several attempts to say a name which alcohol had transformed into a tongue twister, didn’t seem to understand everything Nick was saying, listening mutely. Occasionally he would ask a question or nod. Sometimes he would giggle and look down. Nick liked that part best, and would laugh with him whenever he did it. He wasn’t even sure what he was saying, merely rambling about how cool Bob’s name was and how he was sorry he couldn’t really say it and how much he liked it here.

 

For the last five minutes he’d had his hand on Bob’s wrist. He was aware he was flirting, still Bob didn’t push him away at least, even if he was Russian, which Nick had always assumed was a huge red flag. At the same time, though, Bob did not even seem to be aware of Nick’s hand, merely watching him and giggling or glancing around the room as he had done before Nick’s hand was there.

 

Nick himself had completely forgotten he was supposed to be searching for his dormmates, and so it made him jump when Matt appeared and clutched his shoulder. He quickly let go of Bob’s wrist and shuffled back a little. He didn’t catch Bob’s reaction to that, whatever it was, instead listening to what Matt was saying.

 

‘Hey, Nick, me and Dubinsky and a few other guys are going to get McDonalds or something and then heading home. You want to come with?’

 

‘Yeah.’ Nick put his drink down and scrambled to his feet. ‘Yeah, I’d better… I’d better…’ Matt was already heading for the hallway.

 

Nick turned to follow, then quickly turned back to Bob. ‘Hey, man, do you have Facebook or something?’

 

Bob blinked at him, the same nervous look as before. ‘I… Sorry, I don’t…’

 

‘Okay.’ Nick smiled. ‘It’s okay. Well, nice talking to you, anyway.’

 

He hurried after Matt. He wasn’t sure if Bob had been politely trying to show he wasn’t interested or if he really didn’t have Facebook- or perhaps didn’t understand- however he didn’t have the time to stick around and find out.

 

It was the first day of college, and he had the chance to go hang out with his dormmates, who were nice enough to remember to fetch him. Surely that was more important than some Russian guy he’d met on a couch at a house party. He might not even go to their college, for all Nick knew. Probably from Philadelphia.

 

Either way, Nick went, and an hour later he was simultaneously shoving another Big Mac into his mouth and with his other hand pushing Brandon’s feet away where he tried to put them up on Nick’s lap. The others there- names and faces already forgotten when he woke up the next morning- laughed at them.

 

He did try to look up a couple of guys and girls whose names he only half-remembered on Facebook the next day. He also tried to look up Sergei Bobrovsky, whose name he had no chance of forgetting. On all counts he was unsuccessful.

 

Within a few days he had mostly forgotten about Sergei Bobrovsky, except for now and then to tell his friends the story of the coolest name he’d ever heard.

 

*

 

It takes four classes for Nick to meet his best friend at college. Most of his classes were bunched up together at the end of the week, so he only had one class each on Tuesday and Monday.

 

On Wednesday evening, in his final class, pre-Law- which he intended to major in, because Nick was a nerd and liked a challenge- he found himself sitting beside a short blond guy named Cam Atkinson. Cam may have been small but he could argue his way out of anything, which Nick discovered when they spent half the introductory lecture talking.

 

When Cam saved him a seat the next week, and cheerily suggested they work on their first year project together, Nick decided to invite him back for lunch.

 

After all, he needed a social life outside of Scott’s parties and his dormmates. Outside of class they were really the only things occupying his time thus far. Asides from Brandon and Matt, he’d met Jack in Room 2, who seemed a little quiet yet content to spend time with them; Artem from Room 6, another Russian, who took Brandon’s teasing about his mistakes with English in good nature; and Rick in Room 5, a senior who had taken a year abroad in Canada and had returned to stay in the campus accommodation again afterwards.

 

He and Cam were sitting in the kitchen, eating the noodles Nick had bought on his first foray into town, when Brandon strolled in. He was wearing just a vest and shorts and scratched idly at his chest. Tufts of brown hair fell in his eyes and stood straight up in alternate patches. He took a swig of juice- which Nick highly suspected of belonging to Rick- straight out of the carton in the fridge before appearing to notice he wasn’t alone.

 

Cam was watching with a bemused expression. Brandon took another drink. Cam threw a confused look at Nick, who just waited for Brandon to say something.

 

‘Who’s the little guy?’, he asked eventually.

 

Ignoring the beginnings of Cam’s protests, Nick got the introductions underway: ‘Cam, this is Brandon Dubinsky, my dormmate. Dubi, this is Cam. He’s in my pre-Law class.’

 

Brandon looked Cam up and down. ‘Huh. Wouldn’t put you down as a Law guy.’

 

‘It’s hell, trust me.’

 

‘Oh, Cam can argue your ear off’, Nick said truthfully. ‘Like, in a good way. When it comes to Law.’

 

‘Cool. See you guys around.’

 

Brandon waved a hand lazily and shuffled back out to his room, still holding the carton.

 

Nick turned to Cam, a laugh lurking behind his lips.

 

‘Do you think he knows it’s the afternoon?’

 

‘Do you think he knows he’s got a hole in his pants?’

 

They both doubled over, giggling quietly to avoid anyone else hearing, their laughter only exacerbated when Cam added; ‘I hardly know the guy and I’ve already seen more of him than I would ever want to.’

 

Once they had both calmed down a little, Nick suggested that they explore the city a little that weekend.

 

‘It’d be cool. You know, get to know the place. Scout out any good bars and shit to do. And hey, we can invite Dubi, too, if you want another look’, he laughed.

 

Cam’s shoulders shook. ‘Think I’ll pass. But I mean, yeah, if you want to invite you’re the other guys living here, they sound like fun.’

 

‘They’re not all like him, I swear. And he’s a lot better when he’s, you know, dressed and functionally aware.’

 

‘Sick. Let’s do it then.’

 

Oh, let’s.’ Nick scoffed, and Cam leaned over to punch his arm while trying to hold back another grin.

 

*

 

About a month later, Nick journeyed out to another one of Scott’s parties. It was the first time he had been there in a few weeks; the workload was really beginning to pick up.

 

He was joined by his dormmates- getting all five of them in one spot had been a nightmare but they had eventually been corralled and identified a day they would all be free. Also joining them were Matt’s friend from class, Ryan; Cam; and Cam’s best friend and roommate, Ryan Johansen, who had become a staple of their friend group and who, to save confusion, they referred to as Joey. Nick wasn’t sure whether he was glad or not that the day they had picked had been Halloween. His birthday. Although the only recognition of that he received was Cam and Joey telling him it was the perfect day for him, with that face, and Matt and Ryan delivering multiple shots into his waiting hands. While the costumes ranged from interesting to god awful, it also made it more difficult to recognize people. Also more difficult to potentially recognize Bob, who Nick thought of for the first time in weeks, out of nowhere. And he didn’t think he would ever get the image of Cam dressed as a minion out of his head.

 

Artem had told him a few guys he knew from the Russian society were coming. Artem didn’t strictly attend every meeting, however he’d told Nick that he did like being able to speak to the people there in his own language sometimes, which was completely understandable. The increased presence of Russians meant an increased chance of Bob. He felt a fizzle of excitement in his stomach. He had met a couple of guys since then, in bars and at house parties, nevertheless not the kind of guys he was really interested in holding a conversation with. Bob had been. And he had hoped that he had been interested and that he hadn’t drunkenly misunderstood the signs.

 

Still, when he didn’t see Bob at the party, and knew there was little chance of ever seeing him again, it was easy enough to dismiss ideas of the Russian from his mind once more and have fun with his friends anyway. Mingling with Scott’s friends was always interesting, too. They all came from different majors, years, and countries, and Nick had no idea how any of them knew each other at all. There were definitely more interesting people out there than Sergei Bobrovsky.

 

*

 

The approaching end of term brought with it a light pattering of snow and a sudden pang of homesickness upon the realisation that Nick would be seeing his family again soon. Between exams and having fun with his friends, getting to know his classmates better, he had completely forgotten the sense of isolation of his first few hours of college. Only as he began to think about them more and more- how they would greet him as he came in the door, if Marcus had touched anything in his room, if mom would do the nice roast potatoes again this year- his heart ached for them.

 

However, the period of yearning passed by swiftly. Before he knew it, Nick was heading down to the bus station with Cam and Joey, who were helping him with his bags. Not that he had all that much to take home for a week. He secretly suspected they had joined him just for the chance to see him off, which, if it was true, was pretty touching. Almost all of his dormmates had already left for home, except Artem, who was staying for the Christmas period, and had merely waved one hand from his bed, through the door which was propped open, as Nick left. He, Cam and Joey stopped for dinner on the way out to celebrate the good grades he and Cam had earned on their project. Then Nick was hugging them goodbye and hefting his bags aboard the bus, and then he was away.

 

*

 

It wasn’t until more than halfway through the final semester of first year that Nick set out, for the first time since first semester, to get laid. Scott’s house party probably wasn’t the best place to do that, especially since he had some of his dormmates with him and he wasn’t exactly sure how they would react if they saw him with a guy. Still, the level of stress he had built up over the past month demanded a release.

 

Rick had been too busy to join them, working hard in his final stretch of college life, whereas Cam and Joey were taking part in some society thing which they had kept trying to sell Nick on even though he wasn’t particularly interested. They all had been busy really, and this wasn’t an ideal place to pick up- especially with Jack, Brandon, Artem, Matt and Ryan in tow- but, really, Nick had felt guilty when Scott had messaged him to ask how he’d been doing and to let him know about the party, realising he had barely seen his friend since before Christmas. And Hartsy’s social group was mixed, for sure, however Nick trusted him enough to know that most of the guys there were likely decent people. More so than in a random bar, anyway.

 

Dubi and Artem had headed for the beer pong table as soon as they got inside, and then Jack recognized someone from his course and went to catch up with them. Nick, Matt and Ryan following, searched from room to room until he found Scott in the kitchen.

 

‘Hey, Nick! Glad you made it, buddy!’

 

‘Hey, Hartsy, good to see you, man.’ Nick let himself be enveloped in a hug for a long moment. Scott’s breath already smelt of beer. Although ‘already’ might be the wrong term given it had gone midnight. ‘You remember Calvy, my dormmate, right? And our friend, Ryan?’

 

‘Oh yeah, of course’, Scott said, not convincingly at all, giving them slightly confused smiles. ‘You guys want a drink? I’ll just- hold on- Kimmo, where’s the beer?’

 

He vanished into a crowd of people for a moment, before returning, struggling with a full case of beer. Nick quickly reached out to help him set it onto the counter.

 

Scott produced a pack of cigars. ‘You don’t smoke, do you, Nick?’

 

‘Not unless you light my shoes on fire.’

 

He laughed, then tossed the pack onto the counter besides the beer. ‘Me either. Nasty habit.’

 

The four of them cracked a beer open and made idle conversation for several minutes. Ryan was just telling the story of the crazy student in his hall who decided to shave his beard over the kitchen sink when Nick glanced through the door into the living room, and froze, trying to work out where he had seen the man talking to Artem before. He was tall and slim, with light hair, and…

 

‘…Bob?’, he mouthed to himself, wondering. At Matt’s curious look, he said; ‘’Scuse me, fellas, I’m just gonna go see how Art and Dubi are getting on with the beer pong.’

 

‘Bob?’, he asked, a little louder, as he approached. The cheers at the beer pong table- where it seemed Brandon was getting his ass kicked, from the furious look on his face- drowned his voice out and neither Artem or Bob looked round.

 

Nick swallowed, thinking for a moment, before deciding to pluck up the courage. Just play it cool.

 

‘Hey, Arty, how’s it going?’

 

‘Oh, hey, Nick. It’s good. How are you?’ Artem looked at him, a little confused but smiling.

 

‘Good, good. Just thought I’d come say hi.’ Smooth.

 

‘Nick, this is my friend, Sergei.’

 

Nick turned his head and couldn’t help the grin that sprung onto his face. It grew wider when he saw Bob was grinning straight back at him conspiratorially. It was as though they had a shared secret.

 

Still, they had to let Artem in on it at some point. ‘Yeah, I think we met, before.’

 

‘Yes, I remember you, Nick.’ Sergei’s smile softened somewhat, and he glanced down. Oh shit, he was smooth.

 

‘You met here?’, Artem asked curiously.

 

‘Yeah- well, not tonight, but here. I think it was-‘

 

‘The first night, yes’, Bob finished, nodding. His accent was still strong although his English had definitely improved from the broken phrases Nick remembered.

 

‘That couch right over there’, Nick indicated over his shoulder with one thumb, speaking louder over more yells from the beer pong table, and Bob laughed and nodded even more vigorously.

 

Suddenly the shouts from the group playing beer pong spiked to another level. Nick swung about to find out what was going on and was greeted with the sight of Brandon and another guy face to face, shouting. As Nick watched, Dubi shoved the other guy and he stumbled back, landing awkwardly on the table and bringing it and all the alcohol perched on it crashing to the floor. A girl screamed. One of the guy’s friends- a really tall, football-player type- surged toward Brandon with a yell. His fist flew out and Brandon’s nose exploded with blood.

 

At that point Nick rushed over to break it up, and realized Jack was right there besides him. Only Jack raced to the man lying half on the broken table, apparently unconscious- Nick hoped he was just unconscious- and left Nick to grab the huge man’s arm and shake him gently.

 

‘Hey, man, hey, let’s just calm it down a bit, yeah?’

 

The man swung to glare at him, though nevertheless lowered his fists.

 

‘Shit, fuck, shit, fuck.’ Brandon was gasping out again and again, doubled over with his hands cupped to catch the flow of blood.

 

‘Dubi, you okay?’

 

‘No, I’m fucking not, fucker broke my nose, shit!’

 

He was okay, Nick decided. He turned back to the other guy, who he was more worried about, but he was already sitting up. Jack knelt on one side of him and another student sat opposite, holding the formerly unconscious man’s arm gently. His face was hanging down, hidden beneath a crest of dark hair, and he shook his head slowly as Jack and the other guy asked him questions, before attempting to stagger to his feet and falling back down.

 

‘Shit, maybe we should take them to hospital’, Artem said, having appeared at Nick’s elbow.

 

‘Probably, yeah.’

 

‘I’ll do it, I got the car.’ Jack straightened up and looked about. ‘Hey, can you help me get Sid out the front? I think he’s messed up his head or something.’

 

‘Yeah, sure’, Nick said, and he and the mountain of man he had restrained before both moved forward to grab one of the guy’s arms.

 

‘Hope he’s okay’, he muttered as left the big guy to manhandle Sid into the back seat. They didn’t react. Jack shoved Brandon into the passenger seat, nose still bleeding and mouth still letting out a stream of curses, then, muttering angrily to himself, got in the driver’s seat and slammed the door.

 

Nick stood for a few minutes, watching as they drove away and wondering if they would be alright. It was thankfully warm outside, so he stayed there even as the other partygoers who had congregated to watch what was going on dispersed back into the house.

 

‘Well, there goes our ride home’, Nick joked to Artem, still standing just behind him. The walk wasn’t too far, but that was when they were sober. Taking the route drunk was another beast entirely. ‘And Dubi’s probably gonna have to pay for a new table for Hartsy.’

 

Artem snickered. ‘Good, it’s his own fault.’

 

‘Did you see what happened?’

 

‘No. Think it was just usual, drunk fight. Don’t think Jack’s friend did anything Dubi didn’t do.’

 

‘He was Jack’s friend?’ Nick raised his eyebrows. He hadn’t realized that. Looking back it made sense, he supposed.

 

‘Yeah, from one of his classes.’

 

‘If you need a ride, I can give you’, a quiet voice interrupted, and Nick jumped. He hadn’t spotted Bob there.

 

‘Really?’, he asked. ‘You don’t have to, Bob, we’ll be okay-‘

 

‘Is fine, you live on campus, yes? I live there too, I can take you.’

 

‘Yeah, I live with Art. That’s great, thanks.’ He paused, guilty. ‘We’ll probably have to get Calvy and Ryan too, though.’

 

‘Ah, well, then I say no’, Bob said, rolling his eyes, and it took Nick a second to get that he was joking.

 

‘We could just leave them, maybe? I’m sure they won’t somehow fall in the Scioto.’

 

‘I’m not that cruel, Nicky.’

 

The three of them made their way back inside.

 

True to his word, when Bob decided it was time to head home, he collected Nick and his friends. They didn’t even leave Calvy or Ryan. The whole car ride home Nick was mostly too tired to hold a conversation, having sobered up after Brandon’s fight. Instead he sat with his forehead pressed to the window, occasionally glancing into the front to catch a glimpse of Bob’s hands, the long slender fingers wrapped around the steering wheel. He had completely forgotten his reason for coming out tonight. And as much as he was enjoying the view, he was too wiped out to even think of anything like that.

 

When they got out, Nick only just remembered to wave and toss a grateful ‘thanks, Bob’ in the vague direction of the car before slogging up the stairs after his friends.

 

Once he got back to his room it dawned on him that he had forgotten to ask for Bob’s number or any kind of contact details, and cursed. What had been the chance of meeting the same guy again? And all for nothing, after so many months of wondering somewhere in the back of his mind, whether it might lead to something. He pulled his laptop out and began searching on social media, as he had done after meeting Bob the first time, even going so far as to use Google Translate to get up Cyrillic letters and searching with them, yet he found nothing. Sighing, he shut his laptop down and laid back on his bed, promising himself he would only close his eyes for five minutes before taking off his shoes and brushing his teeth.

 

Nick woke up to light streaming through the window and birds chirping.

 

*

 

Nick staggered home alone one night- or morning- at 3am to find Cam sitting in his kitchen.

 

He paused in the corridor, blinking to make sure he was seeing things right. Through the small window panel in the door, Cam met his eyes and fixed him with an expectant stare.

 

Nick swung the door open. ‘What the fuck are you doing here?’

 

Instead of answering, Cam slammed one palm down on the table. ‘You’ve been to two parties at Hartsy’s this week, Nick, and it’s Thursday.’ He paused to rub his palm with his other hand before continuing. ‘You’re tired as fuck in lectures and we have a presentation together in a week, which you’ve done shit all for. What’s going on?’

 

Nick frowned. ‘Nothing, I swear.’

 

‘Have you met a girl?’

 

Taking a deep breath, Nick took a step closer. ‘Well… I’m actually pretty gay, so…’ He had never actually said those words before. He hadn’t exactly been hiding it, still he was never sure who would be cool with it and who wouldn’t be, so he just never said it and let people assume.

 

Cam would be cool with it, though. Somehow he knew that.

 

Proving his hunch right, Cam continued with barely a pause. ‘It’s cool, I think I might be bi, so…’ He shrugged. ‘But wanting to get laid is not an excuse for being a dick.’

 

Which, okay, he was right, but Nick hadn’t even been getting laid.

 

‘You’re right, Cam’, he sighed, moving forward to sit opposite his classmate. ‘I’m sorry, man. I don’t know where my head’s been this week. I’ll stop it now.’ When Cam still looked at him dubiously, he added; ‘You can come over Saturday and we’ll do the presentation together, yeah?’

 

That did it. Cam grinned and nodded, standing up and heading for the hallway. ‘Great. That’s what I like to hear. I’m gonna sleep now, you kept me here waiting a long time, Fliggy.’

 

Nick rolled his eyes at the shortening of his surname. ‘How did you even get in here, anyway?’

 

‘Oh, Rick let me in. He left some food for you, too, but I ate it.’

 

Nick looked at the empty plate on the table that he hadn’t noticed before. ‘Fuck’s sake, Cam.’

 

He turned around to tell Cam that he’d better be planning on washing that up, however he had already gone.

 

*

 

Two weeks later, just before the end of the year, it hit him.

 

Nick had just come out of one of his final exams for the year, feeling ambivalently confident. He felt like it had gone pretty well, which of course meant it probably hadn’t. Still, there was no time for self-doubt, as he walked across campus to the dorms, taking in the glorious sunshine which bleached the sky above until it was a pale blue that trickled into cerulean around the perimeters of where it met the land.

 

He even considered taking his time and stretching out on the grass somewhere, only he had another exam tomorrow, and then a final one the day after, before he could relax for the summer. He just had to push through and study for a couple more days, and then there would be time for road hockey games with Marcus and meeting up with his old friends from school around a bonfire. The sting of the gravel and cloud of dust which flew up and choked him as he tripped over Marcus, the scarlet flames bringing warmth as they reached for the dark velvet sky; they already felt real to him.

 

So it was with them in mind that he trudged upstairs, stopping short as he passed Artem in the corridor. The dark-haired Russian was carrying an empty plate in one hand, messaging someone on his phone in the other, and heading for the kitchen. He paused as he caught sight of Nick.

 

‘Exam?’

 

‘Yeah. You?’

 

‘Just one more.’

 

‘Lucky. I have one tomorrow and then Friday, too.’

 

‘Good luck.’ Artem threw him a sympathetic smile and then continued on to the kitchen.

 

Nick walked to his room, threw his bag on the bed, and then threw himself down beside it, closing his eyes. Surely a power nap couldn’t hurt before he got something to eat and went back to studying.

 

Then his eyes flew open. Of course. Artem.

 

He probably should have thought of it earlier, he discerned as he made his way back down the hall, only he hadn’t seen Artem much in the last few weeks- at all, in the last week- due to different schedules and assignments.

 

‘Hey, Art?’ He swung round the door with one arm before straightening up and moving inside.

 

Artem looked over his shoulder from where he stood at the sink. ‘Yeah?’

 

‘I was just wondering… You know Bob? Your friend?’

 

‘Sergei?’ Artem turned back to scrub at a particularly stubborn spot, frowning distractedly.

 

‘Yeah.’

 

‘Yeah?’ Artem half-pivoted to face him again, bringing the dish up out of the sink and onto the drying rack.

 

‘Do you have his number, at all? I just wanted to message him about something. And I realized I don’t have it.’

 

‘Oh, sure.’ Artem dried his hands quickly and grabbed his cell off the breakfast table. ‘Here you go.’

 

Nick quickly fumbled his own phone out and entered in the digits as Artem read them, grateful that his dormmate didn’t seem particularly curious as to why he wanted the number, exactly.

 

‘Thanks, man. Good luck in the exam.’

 

Nick half-sprinted back to his own room and dived onto the bed, looking at the phone in his hand and the number. He should message Bob. Message him what? What if Artem mentioned something, asked Bob what was so important that Nick needed his number? No, he probably would forget. But what if he didn’t?

 

Nick stared at it for a long time, opening and closing the new message function, before locking his phone and flinging it to the end of the bed. Sleep, then study. He could message Bob after exams. It was just two days.

 

Except after his final exam he did end up lying in the sun, spending the afternoon sprawled out on the grass with Cam and Jack and sipping iced coffees. The next day he had to throw his things together in a hurry, having slept in until about twenty minutes before his dad was due to arrive. They loaded up the car together, checking and double checking that they had packed everything since Nick would be living off-campus the following year, and then there was saying goodbye to his friends and promising to stay in touch. There was the moment Nick took a final look back at his room, under encouragement from his dad, and smiled when he saw a small dent, barely noticeable, in the floor where Joey had fallen when they were mucking about wrestling one evening. There was the drive home and his mom hugging him and smothering him in kisses. There was Marcus and street hockey and getting his knee patched up after he tripped and his friends and bonfires at the end of one of a huge garden. Then there were the things he hadn’t really thought about, all the aunts and uncles and grandparents and cousins questioning him about college, and the journeys into the city and the sunburn he got on his nose when he and dad went fishing. And then there was the end of Summer vacation and he became aware of the fact that he had been so busy with everything else that messaging Bob just sort of slipped his mind.

 

*

 

The move into college went easier the second time around. For starters, he knew exactly what he needed to bring and what he would use, and what could be left for the spiders in the garage to weave their webs in at home. Also, this time, he knew the guys he was living with.

 

They had managed to find a six bed student house, pretty far from the college, though not too bad given the bus routes and the fact Jack had a car. The house itself wasn’t anything special, just a modest square block divvied up so that the majority of the ground floor was an open kitchen-lounge, the front door opening straight into it. Out back behind the kitchen was a small hallway with a washing machine at one end, along with doors leading to a small bathroom and a bedroom, belonging to Brandon. On the next level was another bathroom with a shower, and three rooms, claimed by Jack, Matt, and Nick himself. Joey and Cam completed the group, taking over from Rick, who had graduated, and Artem, living with a couple of Russian friends in an apartment a few blocks away. They were in the attic, which had been split into two cramped, sloped-ceilinged rooms.

 

Almost as soon as Nick’s parents left- Marcus hadn’t come along this time, claiming last time it was so boring that he didn’t want to go through that again, and he was old enough to be left alone for the day, god, mom- Scott was knocking his door.

 

‘Heya, buddy, what are you doing here?’, Nick asked as Scott pushed past him. His hair seemed even wilder than usual somehow, sticking out all over the place. He shot Nick a grin as he slumped onto the sofa.

 

‘Oooh, a TV, fancy.’

 

‘Yeah, it’s shit though, there’s like three channels that aren’t porn and one channel that is.’

 

‘Know what you’ll be watching, then.’

 

Nick laughed. ‘Don’t know if they’ll have my sort of thing.’

 

Scott shrugged. ‘Anyway, I just came to check you freshers didn’t get swindled by some piss poor landlord.’

 

‘Sophs now, Hartsy. And we’re doing well for ourselves, I reckon.’

 

‘Yeah, this place ain’t half bad, Fligs.’

 

‘So where are the rest of the guys living here?’

 

‘Well-‘

 

Right on cue, the front door opened, and Matt and his new girlfriend, whose name Nick probably should have known, walked in. They both smiled in greeting before heading straight up to the next floor.

 

‘Calvy was here first, I think he and his girlfriend did a lot to clean it up before the rest of us got here.’ Nick pointed about the house to the different bedrooms as he spoke, although the vague approximation at direction probably did nothing for Scott. ‘Dubi’s just out there, but I think he’s out. I’m not sure if Jack’s back yet, he said he was coming today too, but he might have meant tonight. And Cam and Joey are in, they’re on the top floor- the attic.’

 

‘Sweet.’ Scott grabbed the remote and began flicking through the channels before settling on the porn, watching with mild interest and making various criticisms every now and then.

 

‘You want to get anything to eat?’, Nick asked, picking up a takeaway menu. While he didn’t want to get back into the unhealthy lifestyle straight away, he had yet to go shopping.

 

‘Sure, why not? Nick, look, what the fuck is this girl doing? She sounds like she’s trying to unclog a drain.’

 

Nick joined him on the sofa, passing him the menu. Scott swiftly changed the channel when Matt and his girlfriend reappeared.

 

‘Hey, guys, what are we up to?’, she asked, an attempt to appear friendly that Nick appreciated. It must be tough meeting your boyfriend’s housemates for the first time.

 

‘Getting food. You guys want in?’

 

‘Sure’, Matt answered, smiling, and Nick shuffled up to make room for them.

 

The four of them spent the next couple of hours watching some dumb horror movie. Out the corner of his eye Nick could see Calvy and his girlfriend being cute, but he just ignored it. Unlike Brandon, who came in, looked at them and rolled his eyes before dragging a beanbag from his room to join them and stealing a slice of Scott’s pizza.

 

‘Fucking rude.’

 

Dubi just waved a hand at him.

 

Nick leaned over and whispered to Matt, voice low; ‘Look out, man, he’s here to load up on ammunition to chirp you with the next time you haven’t done the dishes.’

 

Matt snorted. ‘No way, dude: he chirps me about having a girlfriend, I chirp him for not having one. And his fucking stupid haircut.’

 

‘Hey, what are you two whispering about?’, Brandon demanded, arms crossed.

 

‘Your fucking stupid hair’, said Scott.

 

Five seconds later Nick found himself squashed under two large wrestling men.

 

‘Never a dull moment’, he heard Matt quip to his girlfriend as he struggled to free himself.

 

How could Nick have missed his family- not his family members in particular but the feeling of being surrounded by family- when that was what he had here, too?

 

*

 

He and Cam had picked a lot of the same classes that year, particularly the pre-Law ones. In the end it was hopeless: for half of them they were placed into different groups anyway.

 

Nick’s favorite class was Criminal Law, where he ended up partnered for a project with a guy named Boone Jenner. He immediately told Boone that he had the second coolest name he’d ever heard. It wasn’t until halfway through the semester that he discovered Boone was actually a freshman; Nick had assumed the guy was a soph, or maybe even a junior, with the way he carried himself. The revelation left Nick revaluating his whole world view.

 

*

 

Nick ended up being roped into visiting the gym with Scott, who went through phases of being a fitness freak, and Matt, who claimed he had a need to maintain the strong body he got from spending his time in the wilderness of Manitoba. Privately Nick thought that was bullshit, but whatever made Calvy- and his girlfriend- happy.

 

Less than ten minutes in and Nick and Matt had already lulled to a gentle pace on the rowing machines- barely even a paddle, really- in order to marvel at an older guy lifting weights across the room. He must have been in his 40s, yet he seemed to be having no trouble at all deadlifting the kind of weights that made Nick wince just thinking about.

 

‘Dude, check out how ripped that professor is’, Matt semi-whispered.

 

‘I know. That must be some serious dedication.’

 

‘Yeah.’

 

Hartsty’s snorting laughter had them both turning. He was slumped forward on an exercise bike, shoulders shaking and head in his arms. He glanced up at them, face red and eyes twinkling in amusement.

 

‘That’s no professor; that’s Jags.’

 

‘Who?’ Matt gaped.

 

‘He’s this mature student, who’s been here forever. Come on, I can’t believe you guys don’t know about him? He’s like a campus legend?’ When Nick and Calvy still looked blank, he continued. ‘There’s so many rumors about him. You know, I thought they were all bullshit when I first heard them, but now I’ve seen the guy do so much weird shit, I’m not even sure anymore?’

 

‘Weird shit how?’

 

‘Well apparently- this isn’t even one of the weirdest ones- but he goes jogging barefoot in the snow, does all these weird workouts, kinda like you see in those kung-fu movies where they have to train really hard and discover their inner peace and shit?’

 

Looking at the guy, Nick could almost believe that.

 

‘Yeah, and I’ve heard from my friends from other colleges, and they say this guy is all over. Like, he just travels around North America- some people say they’ve seen him in Europe too, but I don’t know how reliable those are- and he just works out and does weird stuff on all these different campuses.’

 

‘But why would he be allowed on all those different campuses?’, Nick asked.

 

‘He’s doing his PHD, apparently, so maybe attending conferences and stuff? No idea what his PHD is on, though. Or if that’s even actually a thing.’

 

After another five minutes of marvelling at ‘Jags’, who moved on to the bicycles with little sign of breaking a sweat, Scott pronounced their gym session officially dead, and told them they could try again when there wasn’t a distractingly interesting middle-aged man in their midst.

 

‘Won’t you be there, though, Hartsy?’, Nick had asked, and Scott grabbed him in a headlock.

 

‘I’m not that old yet, Fliggy.’

 

‘Not that interesting, either’, Matt commented.

 

As they made their way out of the building, swiping their gym passes to get through the doors, Nick caught sight of a familiar man with a gym bag walking by himself, with earphones in. Someone he should have messaged, however never got around to doing so.

 

‘Bob!’ He yelped, and then, noticing that Bob probably wouldn’t hear, proceeded to wave like a lunatic. ‘Hey!’

 

Bob carried on a few feet before spotting him and, after a second of puzzlement, waving back enthusiastically. He unhooked his earphones as Nick approached.

 

‘Hey, man, what’re you doing here?’

 

‘Going to the gym’, Bob answered, amused.

 

Nick couldn’t help grinning back. ‘Yeah, I see that. I mean, I don’t get why, you don’t really need to go to the gym, but…’

 

‘Oh, Bob, hey’, Scott said, also making his way over. ‘Long time no see, buddy.’ The fact that Scott also called him Bob wasn’t surprising, really, yet for some reason it really bothered Nick. He pushed the small twist of jealousy away, surprised. Sure, Bob was cute, and he’d been thinking of messaging him, but it wasn’t that deep.

 

‘Yes, hi, Hartsy. Hey, erm…’ He gestured awkwardly at Calvy.

 

‘Matt.’

 

‘Ah, yes, I know. I drove you home. I just forget, sorry.’

 

Matt laughed. ‘Don’t be. It was like last year. Wouldn’t have spotted you myself.’

Bob smiled openly now, relieved. Nick found it endearing that he had genuinely been worried about offending Matt by forgetting his name.

 

‘Anyway, we’ll let you get on, yeah? Party at mine this Friday, you’re always welcome.’

 

Bob shook his head at dejectedly. ‘Classes Saturday morning now. English classes. I struggle with my exams, so…’

 

‘I can’t imagine trying to come here and do exams in another language. They’re hard enough as they are’, Nick said encouragingly.

 

‘Yeah. I get better now, though. And sometimes to write is easier than to speak.’

 

Nick nodded, aware that Scott and Matt were shuffling their feet to get away. ‘Well, you know, if you ever need any help, or- if you just- wanted to? We could get coffee.’

 

Bob blinked at him in silence for such a long time that Nick was once again transported back to that first night, unsure if what he was doing was absolutely horrifying to the Russian, or if perhaps he hadn’t understood. He was about to open his mouth to say something, anything, to smooth things over, when Bob spoke.

 

‘I… Yes. I would like that.’ He spoke slowly, carefully.

 

‘Great! Great. So I, er, I’ll text you.’

 

‘Okay. My number is-‘

 

‘Oh. I already know.’

 

Bob looked at him quizzically. Scott and Matt had steadily inched away and were hovering by the glass doors. Nick was aware of their impatient gaze on him as much as Bob’s quizzical one. The sun was beginning to set outside, and it painted Bob’s face in a pleasant orange light, so that even in his confusion he looked like a benevolent mythical creature. The guardian of some sacred object, tall and imposing despite his slim build. Nick shook his head minutely to dispel those weird thoughts, and saw Bob was still waiting for him to explain himself.

 

‘I got your number from Artem, a while ago. I mean, after you drove us home. Just thought it could be useful.’

 

‘If you need a ride when you are drunk, you mean?’, Bob asked, tone teasing.

 

‘Yeah, exactly.’ They smiled at each other a moment longer.

 

‘I think your friends really want to go.’

 

Nick glanced round. Scott and Calvy were fully outside now, edging their way along the glass windows and out of sight. In their place were low, almost horizontally slanted, rays of light, casting a hazy dappled pattern of shadows from above the trees sheltering the path outside.

 

Nick turned back to Bob reluctantly. ‘Yeah. I should probably go with them.’

 

‘Probably.’

 

‘But I’ll message you about that coffee.’

 

‘Yeah. I’m counting on you, Nicky. I don’t have your number.’

 

‘I won’t let you down, Bob.’

 

Bob looked pleased as he put his earphones back in and carried on into the gym, and Nick forced himself to stop looking and sprint to catch up to his friends, which was realistically the most exercise he ended up doing that day.

 

*

 

‘Heeeeeeeere’s Bob!’, Cam roared as Nick and Bob made their way into the house, hanging their jackets on the pegs Nick had put up by the front door due to the number of visitors slinging their coats to the floor and then complaining when they got dirty.

 

Cam had never actually met Bob before, Nick thought, however he must have heard enough about the guy during the late night talks he and Nick had been having lately, since Joey had been busy spending time with his new girlfriend.

 

Cam scooted along the sofa, nudging Jack and Matt to make room. Bob joined them with a little difficulty, and Nick made his way across to the cheap lounge chair he’d bought in town and wedged in against the wall. Brandon was lounging on his beanbag as per usual, eating from a bowl of popcorn.

 

‘What’s going on, guys? Where’s Joey?’

 

‘With his girlfriend’, Matt shrugged.

 

‘Another man down’, Dubi sighed.

 

‘Why aren’t you with yours’, Calvy?’

 

‘I live here’, Matt shot back at Nick, leaning over for a handful of popcorn. Brandon held the bowl out of reach until relenting a heartbeat later.

 

Coffee had gone well. Coffee had gone really well. He and Bob had talked about their classes- Bob was majoring in Physics it turned out, and Nick had been careful to be suitably impressed- and their schedules. They discussed mutual friends; their homes and families; their weird habits and how coming to college had changed them. Yes, it had been a great conversation to have with a friend. That was all it had been. There had been no flirtatious touching of the hands. Bob’s smiles were contagious, and he was so open with his happiness when Nick made him laugh, but Nick knew now that was just the way Bob was. He would have acted like that with anyone. When Nick had mentioned that he was living with Calvy and Dubi- ‘yes, the guy who broke Hartsy’s table’- and the others, Bob had lit up with interest. So Nick had invited him over, ignoring the slight ache in his chest that he wasn’t inviting Bob out for dinner or something more along the lines of a date.

 

Looking at Bob on the sofa, smirking as he also reached for popcorn and Cam berated Brandon for hogging it all, he knew he had done the right thing. Bob was happy, and so was he. Just being friends was enough. More than enough; it was incredible. It meant giving and receiving the same amount of love, simply in a different form.

 

He sighed and leaned forward for his own handful of popcorn.

 

*

 

Nick was proud of his friends for skipping the college tradition of dressing up and getting drunk on Halloween to join him for his birthday dinner.

 

At least until he actually saw them at the restaurant.

 

‘What the hell are you guys doing?’, he laughed, praying the waiter currently giving him disparaging glances wasn’t about to kick them out. This place was fancy. Well, fancy for relatively-well-off-but-still-poor-in-the-grand-scheme-of-things college students.

 

‘It’s Halloween’, Scott snorted. He was seated about halfway down the table, on the same side as Nick’s housemates, and Matt’s and Joey’s respective girlfriends. On the other side were Bob, just to his left (which was probably Cam’s doing); Artem and one of the guys he was living with, Artemi, who Nick had met several times now and who seemed pretty nice; Boone; and a few other guys and girls from some of their classes.

 

And all of them were dressed as some kind of superhero.

 

Nick pulled out his chair to sit down, at the head of the table, only for Cam to lean over and put his hand on the seat, stopping him. ‘Oh no, you’re not getting away with it.’

 

On some unspoken cue, Joey, next to Cam, and Artem, just opposite, pulled out a cape and a pair of fake glasses from under the table.

 

‘What?’ Nick couldn’t stop laughing.

 

‘Come on, Superman, it’s your birthday.’ Joey passed them down to him.

 

‘Superman doesn’t wear glasses.’

 

‘Well he’s Clark Kent now, he’s having dinner in a restaurant.’

 

‘With a bunch of other heroes in costume’, Nick protested, yet resigned himself to his fate. There were multiple camera flashes as he tied the cape about his neck and put the glasses on, and then a few wolf whistles.

 

‘Nearly got you a wig too, figured you could have used it to cover that bald spot’, Brandon called down the table, and Nick stuck his middle finger up as Cam descended into a fit of laughter.

 

The dinner itself was excellent, as was the service, even if Nick suspected they were being served faster than everyone else in an effort to get them to leave. They were in no rush, however; relaxing and taking a couple of hours to eat and then talk before asking for the bill. Scott had a couple of drinks and laughed as the underage-in-the-US Canadians and Europeans at their table jokingly protested that they should be able to drink too.

 

Afterwards they had all stood on the pavement outside for twenty minutes, dragging out the goodbyes and wishing Nick a happy birthday in spite of the chilly weather, before heading their separate ways. Matt and Joey both headed back to their respective girlfriend’s places after Nick told them it was fine, he was probably just going to sleep anyway. He, Jack, Cam and Brandon walked together in relative silence. That wasn’t highly unusual for Jack or himself, but was more so for Cam and Brandon. They were still in the afterglow of the meal and conversation.

 

When they got in, Brandon dug out a bottle of wine as Jack told them he was heading for bed. After a couple of glasses of wine between the three remaining housemates to finish the bottle, Nick and Cam ended up collapsing on Cam’s bed in the attic, drifting in and out of sleep as they talked about life. Brandon had been with them a few minutes before, sat on the floor with his back against Cam’s drawers, but had headed back downstairs, muttering something about the kitchen. Nick could hear distant clattering sounds and prayed he wasn’t attempting drunk cookery again; surely he hadn’t even drunk enough for that.

 

‘I don’t know, wine can be a killer’, Cam muttered behind him, and he realized he had been speaking out loud.

 

They lay in silence for a long moment, the clattering sound stopped currently on hold, and Nick was just on the verge of sleep when Cam asked;

 

‘Nick, do you like Bob? I mean, do you like him?’

 

Ignoring the childish phrasing of the question, Nick turned his head to find Cam rolled on his side, watching intently with the hint of a smirk. God damnit. He had tried so hard to hide it this afternoon, doing his best to treat Bob the same as his other friends, which was pretty damn hard when he was right there and kept leaning in close to say things to Nick, like they were just for him to hear and no one else.

 

‘Yeah. Yeah, I do.’ It felt good to say it.

 

‘I figured.’ Cam smirked openly now.

 

There was another long silence. Nick must have fallen asleep, because when he opened his eyes the shadows in the room had grown much longer, the patch of sky visible through the skylight faded to a mottled navy-grey.

 

Cam’s face was half-hidden in the dark, but his eyes shone.

 

‘Nick.’ Nick realized Cam was shaking his shoulder gently with one hand.

 

‘Should I go?’, he asked, gathering his arms in preparation to sit up, but Cam mutely shook his head.

 

‘No, it’s not that. I- Nick.’

 

Nick remained silent, waiting for whatever was troubling his friend.

 

‘Nick, I think I really am bi.’

 

‘I already sort of knew that, Cammy, but you’re worrying me a little saying that again right now. You got something you wanna tell me?’

 

Cam scoffed and struck his fist against Nick’s shoulder. ‘Not- not you.’

 

‘Then who?’

 

Cam took a long time to reply. Nick didn’t think he was going to. However then he said, almost a whisper; ‘I sort of liked Joey in first year. I mean. Obviously nothing happened, and I’m pretty much over it now. But it’s still there, a little.’

 

Nick’s mind reeled. Cam was a better actor than him, that’s for sure. While, of course, him having a crush on Joey made sense, the two had been so close, always touching, always sitting together, Cam had never seemed especially bitter over Joey having a girlfriend. Nick felt the pain for his friend sharper than he had expected. He noticed Cam was still waiting for him to say something back, although he wasn’t sure what to say in this kind of situation. His life thus far had been relatively free of this sort of drama.

 

‘That sucks, bro.’

 

‘Yeah.’

 

Nick thought about a way to make the conversation more cheerful. ‘Him and Madison are super cute though, right?’

 

‘Yeah.’ Cam rolled over onto his back, and Nick suspected he might not be over it as much as he maybe thinks.

 

‘Hey’, Nick scooted forward until he could rest his chin on Cam’s shoulder. ‘Hey, Cam.’

 

Cam gave him a bewildered look from the corner of his eye. ‘What?’

 

‘Maybe…’ Nick did his best to put on a creepy tone of voice, breathing heavily and crossing his eyes. ‘Maybe we should hook up.’

 

Cam bit his lip to hide a laugh, then, stone-faced, looked Nick up and down speculatively. He still had the cape on, although the glasses had long since been lost. Cam’s eyes travelled back up to his. ‘Nah.’

 

They both burst out laughing and Nick slung his arm around Cam in a half-assed attempt at a hug.

 

‘What, you don’t want any of this gorgeous bod?’, Nick asked, still in his creepy voice.

 

Cam snickered. ‘Dad bod, more like.’ He poked Nick in the ribs and they laughed some more.

 

‘Oh’, Brandon said in the doorway, holding a cartoon of milk. He was shirtless, having taken off his red and green t-shirt, yet still had the green Robin tights and black eye mask on.

 

Cam and Nick stared at him, still pressed together, and he shrugged and turned away. A moment later the sounds of footsteps down the stairs reached their ears.

 

The two looked back at each other with expressions of mild horror and amusement.

 

‘Did he think we were….?’

 

They both howled with laughter.

 

Once they had calmed down, Nick wiped his eyes with his thumbs and settled down into the nest of blankets. ‘Night, Cameroon.’

 

‘Night, Flig.’

 

*

 

Dubi never mentioned anything. Yet sometimes in the next few weeks when the three of them were together, in the kitchen or talking in one of their rooms, he would look at Cam and Nick with a strange, almost confused, expression, and they would exchange a glance and try not to laugh.

 

*

 

At Christmas, back home with his family, Nick raised an idea that he had been toying with for a while, and one which he had really left to the last possible minute: that of taking a term abroad in Europe. His parents were encouraging, dad talking about his own plentiful travels, mom a little more apprehensive nonetheless excited for him. Even Marcus had taken an interest, asking him about the countries he could maybe go to. Nick hastily filled out an application form online on the final day it could be submitted, and sent it in, listing his top five choices. Just before he went back to college, in town with Marcus and his mom, he saw a shelf of books in a thrift store; travel guides, for various European countries. The UK, France, Norway, Portugal, the Czech Republic… He selected the ones which were relevant for him, ignoring those that hadn’t constituted one of his options, moving along the shelf, picking out one and then a second, and a third. He paused when he reached one on Russia. Russia wasn’t one of the options for exchange. He picked it out anyway.

 

*

 

After Christmas Marcus came back to the house with Nick for a week, meaning the whole house spent their first week back playing games, both on the Xbox Brandon had hooked up to the TV, and traditional card games. Bob had come around, often joined by Artem and Artemi, and taught the group a card game named Durak. The first few times that they played, on Marcus’s first night at the house, Nick was pretty sure that they were just making up new rules to mess with him, however his difficulty in grasping it may have been due to the amount of alcohol he had consumed. Marcus had also lost grasp of the game, as well as pretty much everything else, having drank about a quarter of the bottle of Jack Daniels that Jack had been given on his birthday. After he puked in the kitchen trash can, Nick limited him to pop for the rest of the week and swore him to secrecy. Marcus agreed with little resistance: mom and dad would kill both of them if they knew.

 

Throughout the rest of the week, in between attending classes, Nick and his housemates taught Marcus adapted- i.e. alcohol-free- versions of drinking games, the majority of which they themselves had learned from older siblings and friends.

 

On Marcus’s final day at the house, as Nick leaned back, laughing at Bob’s struggle to remember the sequence of actions he was meant to copy and Artem discreetly trying to signal to him that he had to clap twice and then spin around, not vice versa,  he became aware of just how full their house had become. It wasn’t necessarily to do with the size of the house. Even if their house was a fairly comfortable size for student housing, it was still a small student house, yet it wasn’t just that. It was the feeling of there always being someone around. Whether it was one of Nick’s housemates, a member of their family come to visit, one of the guy’s girlfriend’s, Scott, the Russians, or friends from their course, like Boone, who had integrated himself into their little family despite his project with Nick having ended the previous semester, there was always somebody to talk to. It was a nice feeling. At the same time, it brought a little anxiety: would things still be the same for him after his trip to France?

 

*

 

Late one night, as he and Cam sat in his room, working on a Law essay together, Cam sighed and put his pen down. His signal that he wanted to talk about something serious.

 

‘What’s up, Atko?’, Nick asked lightly, shuffling into a seating position from where he had been slumped over his laptop on the bed. His legs made pleasant swishing sounds over the duvet cover, and he continued to swing them until he saw Cam watching him with a straight face, and stopped.

 

‘You know, I’ve been thinking… I think half the reason I was struggling to get over Joey was only half because I liked him. And then the other part was because my best friend was suddenly spending all his time with someone else more than me.’

 

‘Yeah, I get you. You guys are still close, though, right?’ Nick knew they sometimes sat up in the attic together, just talking between the two of them, probably about things they might not even talk to Nick about. It hurt a little, since he would probably have considered Cam his best friend, but he didn’t take it too personally. He was pretty close with both of them, and he probably had secrets with each of them that they didn’t share with each other. Of course, Cam’s secret was probably a bigger deal than the time Nick had caught Joey eating the last of Cam’s cheesecake out of the fridge.

 

‘Yeah, man of course. I think I’m doing a lot better now, you know. Like, I’m over it. Realising that helped me get over it. And also getting to know his girlfriend, too. She’s… She’s the kind of girl I would have wanted him to be with, you know?’

 

‘Yeah, me too.’ They were silent for a moment, then Nick grabbed his half-empty coffee mug and raised it toward Cam. Cam did the same with his own, knocking their cups together. ‘Here’s to getting over people.’

 

*

 

That moment only reappeared in Nick’s memory as he squeezed past a group of students, tray in hand, and placed the coffee mugs on it in front of Bob before sliding into the seat opposite him. Having spent all morning at the library writing essays, Nick had cornered his friend the moment he was free to demand accompaniment on a coffee break.

 

Bob looked up from his phone, startled, and then grinned. ‘Thanks.’

 

‘Don’t mention it. How was your class today? What did you have, again?’

 

‘Just a Physics class.’ Bob shrugged and yawned, turning his head into the crook of his arm as he did so. He was slumping forward slightly, hair sticking out at odd angles. Nick smiled a little.

 

‘Rough night?’

 

‘Assignments.’ Bob echoed his expression.

 

Tearing open a sachet of sugar he’d picked up and stirring it into his coffee, Nick hummed to himself absentmindedly. He didn’t stop when he noticed Bob watching him, a little amused. He might have done for someone else. But not Bob. Instead, he grinned a little wider, hummed a little louder, and Bob put one hand over his mouth to stifle a chuckle. Nick set his spoon down and fell silent.

 

After a moment of quiet, with only the sound of the people seated around them talking in low voices to provide background noise, the Russian said; ‘You were talking before, about- France?’

 

Nick shifted in his seat. He’d forgotten about that. ‘Oh. Yeah. Marseilles.’ He tested the name on his tongue, though it didn’t call forth any particularly strong imagery. ‘Just for the term. Our law department has some partnership or… Exchange program or something with a university there.’

 

‘It’s a beautiful city. You’ll like it here.’

 

‘Oh, you’ve been?’

 

‘Once’, Bob said slowly, frowning down at his hands folded on the table as he seemed to struggle to dredge up the memories, ‘with my family, many years ago. I remember the sun, and how much fun we had.’ He turned his gaze to the window, staring vacantly, the corners of his lips tilted upwards.

 

‘Yeah, it sounds great, from what I’ve heard. I put it as my top choice, and they offered me a spot.’

 

‘You’re definitely taking it?’ Bob met his stare.

 

‘Probably.’

 

‘Well, that will be a lot of fun. Finally, you get to understand, how it is to struggle in another country, a strange language…’ Bob’s tone was light, eyes teasing.

 

‘Yeah. Your English is really good, though, Bob.’

 

He moved his shoulders slightly, looking down again. ‘Living here has really helped. Maybe you come back speaking French.’

 

Nick laughed. ‘I doubt it. My language skills have never been all that good. And I’m only going to be there for a term.’

 

‘I hope it is only a term.’ Bob took a sip of his coffee. ‘I will miss you.’

 

The way he said it; so casually. Something about that made Nick’s stomach twist. He was about to open his mouth to probe that further when someone slammed their hands down on either side of where Nick was sitting.

 

Tilting his head back, Nick met the unblinking gaze of Brandon Dubinsky. He cursed internally.

 

‘Saw you guys sitting by the window, you need a ride home?’ He waved his car keys with one hand as he smirked back down at his housemate.

 

Bob smiled. ‘That’s really nice of you.’

 

‘No’, Nick rolled his eyes and reached for his mug, intending to drain it of coffee as swiftly as possible, ‘He’s just showing off, now he’s got a car.’

 

Dubi ruffled his hair and kicked the back of his calf. ‘Hurry up and drink that or I’ll change my mind.’

 

Nick and Bob sat in the back together. Brandon looked at them strangely in the rear-view mirror as Nick belted himself in behind the driver’s seat.

 

‘What are you sitting in the back for? Is this like the opposite of calling shotgun, or something?’

 

Nick smirked. ‘I just want to cuddle Bob.’

 

Bob blushed and laughed, shaking his head, but accepted it when Nick slung an arm about his shoulders and stuck his middle finger up at Brandon, who answered in kind.

 

The two backseat travellers were still laughing over nothing, and Brandon was still berating them for laughing over nothing, when they entered the house.

 

Straight away, framed on the couch in front of them, they saw them. Jack, talking to a friend of his. He had dark hair and familiar features, and it only took Nick a moment to recognize why the features were familiar.

 

‘Oh… Hey’, Nick said, and Jack and Sid froze and looked at him awkwardly.

 

‘Hey’, Bob echoed slowly, not seeming to understand why there was a sudden chill in the air but sensing that there was one.

 

‘Hi, guys’, Jack said quietly, and Sid said; ‘Hey.’ He licked his lips.

 

Nick heard Brandon’s footsteps thumping along the drive after he’d finished checking his car over, voice booming; ‘Nick, if that thing on the side is a scratch from where you’ve hit the wall and not dirt I’ll-’

 

He broke off, stock still for a second. Then; ‘I’m going to my room.’

 

He stomped off up the stairs. Nick and Bob exchanged looks. Nick knew Brandon and Sid hadn’t parted on the best of terms after their visit to the hospital, Jack confessing to him that he had been terrified at the vitriol they had both displayed. ‘I’ve never seen Sid that mad before’, he had said, shuddering. ‘Dubi either; I’ve seen him angry, when we play games and stuff, but never like that.’ To the best of his knowledge, the two hadn’t seen each other again after that. Until now.

 

‘So, er, what have you guys been up to?’, Jack asked, face red. Sid’s face was also red, and he kept his head bowed slightly, eyes fixed firmly on the low TV screen.

 

‘Just hanging out on campus, got some coffee’, Nick waved his hand and made his way over to the kitchen counter, not wanting to be rude and head straight upstairs like Brandon. The only thing was that as soon as he got there it came to him that first of all, he had no idea what he was doing over there, and then that Bob had followed him, apparently for no reason, and was fixing him with panicked eyes.

 

‘Er…’ Nick stared at Bob until Bob looked away anxiously, and then his brain kicked into gear and he asked Jack and Sid what they had been up to, how they had been. He hadn’t actually seen Jack in a couple of days.

 

They made awkward small talk for a number of minutes, Nick pouring a glass of juice each for himself and one for Bob, and then heading up to Nick’s room.

 

As soon as Bob shut the door, the two looked at each other with wide eyes and huffed sighs of relief.

 

Without speaking, Nick turned round and put his glass on the desk before flopping onto his back on the bed. Bob put his own glass next to it and then slumped onto the deskchair, gaze wandering over the various utensils and papers scattered across the light oak surface, his fingers following.

 

He had long fingers, pianist’s fingers, Nick’s mom always said. They moved slowly over the piles of paper that constituted the hard copies of some of Nick’s old essays; traced the photo frames where Nick’s family smiled up at him; flicking idly against the pages of the travel books lying on their sides. He leaned down, sneezing at the dust- Nick grinned and muttered a ‘bless you’- and scanned the titles.

 

Nick watched from the bed, breaths coming long and steady. He had half-closed his eyes when Bob’s voice cut through the silence.

 

‘Russia.’ He didn’t look round. Nick could only see the profile of his face, calm and thoughtful. ‘You have a book on Russia?’

 

Nick pushed his elbows up underneath him so he could arch his body off the bed slightly. ‘I just wanted to read up on Europe a little. They had lots of different books, I just… Took the ones I was interested in.’

 

Bob moved across to sit next to him. ‘Maybe one day you will come to Russia?’ He didn’t look at Nick as he spoke, instead looking down at his hands.

 

‘I would love to, some day, absolutely. Maybe.’ He stopped, laying back down. ‘Where abouts are you from, actually?’

 

Bob leaned back beside him, and Nick shifted about on the bed so that there was room. Once they were comfortably lying face to face, Bob began to speak. He told Nick about his home town, the endless blocks of apartments emerging like giant tombstones from among the snow. He asked Nick if he had ever read Wuthering Heights, and when Nick shook his head no, explained that the end, with the description of the tombstones, one old and overgrown, one half-covered in moss, and the other fresh, always reminded him of home in a way, buildings in various stages of decay. He told Nick, heavy pauses in his speech, that often he found it difficult to find the exact right words to say, especially when he spoke impromptu, like this. He whispered to Nick the story of the time he and a couple of friends- Dima and Vladik- had gone down to the river when it was frozen over, and Vladik had sworn he saw an old ship frozen under the ice, and for the rest of his childhood whenever he saw a frozen lake or stream he would always picture the ghost ship suspended just below the surface, a relic stuck in time like insects in amber, and all the stones that lay on top of the ice where children had attempted to break it were from the families of the ghost sailors, trying to set them free.

 

He fell silent.

 

Nick realized that the two of them lay in almost the exact same position he and Cam had been in, during one of their many late-night talks. Only this felt so different. There was no way he could casually sling his arm around Bob the way he had done Cam, lying here face to face on his bed, no matter how badly his body yearned to touch, because it would mean so much more.

 

Instead he kept on watching Bob’s eyes. He heard Bob begin to speak again, only now it was in a voice so soft and a language so foreign to him that his brain took it as nothing beyond a soft humming noise, and his eyes were drifting closed.

 

After another minute Bob lapsed into silence again, and this time neither of them felt the need to break it.

 

*

 

Nick woke up and quickly grasped, upon stretching his right arm out, that the other side of the bed was cold and empty. He raised his head slowly.

 

Bob was gone. In his place was a small note. Written on it in sloping cursive was; ‘Sorry, Nicky!!! I want to wait but I am hungry and you are tired, so I am going home! See you soon!’

 

Nick sat up straight and shook his head, wondering how long he was out. A cursory glance at the clock, followed by a double take, revealed to him that it was gone 9pm.

 

Placing the note carefully on his desk, he shuffled down the hall to the kitchen, hoping he hadn’t completely fucked up his sleeping pattern with that extended nap.

 

While sipping a glass of milk and debating whether to try and sleep again and get up really early the next morning or to just power through until the next evening, Cam and Joey entered and sat at the breakfast table. For the late hour, both of them seemed pretty serious. Cam sat up straight, frowning intensely at his hands folded in front of him. Joey, back also ramrod, sighed, and got to the point only after a few seconds of silence.

 

‘Dubi’s not very happy with Jack.’

 

Nick put his half-empty glass down. ‘Yeah, I noticed.’ Joey blinked and gave him a half-smile, only he noticed Cam still frowning as he continued; ‘To be fair, Dubi was the one who started the fight that time, from what I’ve heard. And he knew Sid and Jack were friends when we all started living together, he can’t expect to never see the guy again.’

 

Cam sniffed. ‘Still, Jack could have asked before.’

 

Biting back his retort- whether they all needed to ask to bring someone round, just in case they were an old enemy of someone else living here- Nick said; ‘I’ll talk to them both, if you want.’

 

‘And say what?’ Cam eyed him suspiciously.

 

‘I don’t know, how about Dubi, get over it, and Jack, you can be friends with who you want but remember other people live here too?’

 

‘Exactly like that?’ The corners of Joey’s lips twitched upwards in a smirk.

 

Nick rolled his eyes. ‘Yeah, well, I’ll make Boone help me out maybe. He’s an English double-major, he’s good with words and shit like that.’

 

As he spoke he pulled out a couple more- hopefully clean- glasses and the carton of milk and gestured to offer them each a glass.

 

‘Yeah, thanks’, Joey consented, and Cam nodded quietly.

 

The three of them drank their milk in companionable silence before each returning to their own rooms. Nick couldn’t help noticing that Cam still seemed somewhat bristly. He wondered what that was all about. He would have to ask, at some point. He hoped it was nothing serious.

 

*

 

It took Nick another two days to catch up with Jack, and their conversation was mercifully short.

 

‘Sorry, Nick, I didn’t mean to make things awkward or anything. I should have thought first.’

 

‘No, Jack. It’s not your fault. Dubi’s just sensitive. But yeah, I guess maybe you could have thought about letting him know the next time you invite Sid round.’

 

Jack had relaxed, and Nick asked him if he wanted to come food shopping with him. He said yes.

 

Nick generally disliked food shopping. It took up more time that could have been spent doing something else. Still, doing it with someone else made it fun.

 

Returning home a few hours later, Nick had discovered a few things. Namely: while shopping with Jack was fun, it was also tiring, as he never seemed to know what he needed and kept darting back and forth between the aisles to grab things, claiming he wasn’t a ‘list person’; that Jack had also applied for a year abroad, in Lyons, meaning that at least Nick would know somebody else in France; and, finally, that Jack and his parents had an odd relationship. It was not so much what Jack said about them as the way he said it. He mentioned them a few times, only briefly, while they were out, in almost adoring tones, but then seemed to freeze up at any questions about them. Jack had always been quiet. Maybe he was just a really private person.

 

*

 

It had been longer than Nick intended in between visits to the gym. This time he had only gone since, as he lounged about on the couch eating lunch with Joey, Boone had come in and pointed out how pronounced his stomach was getting.

 

‘Like you’re any better, you eat as much as me’, Nick had scoffed, reaching for another handful of chips.

 

‘Yeah, but I actually go to the gym.’

 

‘Fine, tell me when you’re going next time and I’ll come with you.’

 

And that had been the end of that. At least until Boone texted him a week later asking if he was free and wanted to come break a sweat. Upon arrival at the gym, Nick had found Boone with another classmate of theirs’, David, who was French-Canadian. Nick had seen him around before, although they had never really spoken. Boone called him Savy, and it took Nick until long after he had broken into a sweat on the treadmill to understand that he wasn’t calling David ‘savvy’. That seemed like the kind of thing Boone would call someone, after all.

 

They didn’t really talk much during their session. It was only when David told them that he had to go since he had work in an hour and headed for the showers that Boone paused on the cross trainer, sat back and said; ‘Nick, are you gay?’

 

Nick had been trying to hide the fact that he was gasping for air at this point, and suddenly his subtlety failed him. He almost choked. Leaning forward to catch his breath, he waited for Boone to continue.

 

‘I mean, it’s okay if you are, obviously. I was just wondering.’

 

Nick realized that he had never actually really told Boone, or anyone in his classes, besides Cam. He had never really told anyone besides Cam. He shrugged. ‘It’s not a big deal. I just sort of assumed everyone knew.’ Which, honestly, he had. He was pretty sure at least a couple of his dormmates from first year knew, since he had brought a couple of guys back overnight. And they had never asked him about girls, like some people did. They had just never really spoken about it, so he had assumed that was all there was to it.

 

He met Boone’s gaze, and Boone gave him a small smile before leaning forward and continuing on with his exercise.

 

‘Yeah, just figured it’s better to ask than presume.’

 

‘Yeah.’ Nick joined him, pumping his arms.

 

‘So do you have something going on with Cam? I mean, he’s bi, right?’

 

That shocked Nick even more than the previous question. ‘Me and Cam? No, of course not.’

 

‘Not at all?’ Boone sounded a little disappointed, and Nick couldn’t help but laugh.

 

‘Cam’s a friend. Just because he’s bi and I’m gay doesn’t mean we’re magically going to fall in love with each other.’

 

‘Yeah, well, I just thought since you guys were so close…’

 

Nah.’ He shook his head. ‘Actually, I haven’t met any guys I’ve been interested in at all this year.’ That wasn’t exactly a lie; it had been freshman year that he had met Bob.

 

Confused about why his mind had gone to Bob when he had thought he was getting over that, he shook his head. Maybe he and Cam had something in common when it came to letting go.

 

*

 

The first and last party- really more of a predrinks before they went out- that Nick ever held in that house was right at the end of term, a joint goodbye for himself and Jack before they headed to France. It was also a chance to say goodbye to Scott, who was graduating that year. He had joked when Nick invited him that it was his chance to avenge his table and break theirs, but he seemed to have behaved himself, making it to the club with no furniture damaged.

 

In one corner Boone, Ryan and David attempted to talk to a group of girls. Calvy and his girlfriend watched them, laughing. Joey and Cam were dancing together, Cam’s head thrown back in laughter. Brandon and Jack were drinking with Artem and his housemates, Fedor and Nikita, at the bar. Nick was secretly relieved that Jack and Brandon seemed to be getting along as well as ever. And Scott was doing shots with a couple of people he didn’t recognize. Nick had no idea whether they were people Scott knew or if he had just met them. Either option was as likely as the other.

 

‘Nick! Nick, hey!’

 

‘Bob!’ That fucking grin, the one he never knew how to control, the one that appeared whenever Bob did, sprung unbidden onto his face. ‘What’s up?’

 

‘I think I’m going to head home now.’ Bob smiled apologetically. ‘I have to get up tomorrow.’

 

‘Well, I can walk you if you like?’ Really, it was only a small detour from his usual walk home to Bob’s apartment block.

 

‘Really? Okay!’

 

The night was relatively cool, yet it was still summer, and they went without jackets comfortably enough.

 

Nick tried not to make anything of the fact that Bob’s fingers were brushing his hand when he walked. It would be so easy to reach out. Those long pianist’s fingers cradled in his hands and entwined with his own.

 

Eventually, he spoke. ‘I’m going to miss you when I’m in France, you know.’

 

‘Miss our coffee sessions’, Bob sighed.

 

‘Yeah.’

 

They rounded a corner. The street was lined on either side with darkened shopfronts. There was a surprising number of cars passing by given how late it was. Every few seconds their shadows would stretch out in front of them as headlights approached from behind, then suddenly shrink and disappear again. On the next corner a group of middle-aged men stood outside a bar, cradling cigarettes. The waft of smoke hit Nick in the face, and he struggled not to cough from the sharp inhale of the acrid air as he passed. They were smoking something a little stronger than tobacco. From the corner of his eye he saw Bob spluttering against his wrist, eyes a little red. He caught Nick watching and the spluttering turned to muffled laughter. They rounded another corner, to the block Bob lived on, and meandered halfway down until the Russian stopped walking.

 

Nick turned to say goodbye and paused. Bob’s face was deep in shadows under the moonlight, so close to his own.

 

It only took a second for him to lean forward and press their lips together.

 

This wasn’t like in his fantasies, or with any of the other guys Nick had been with. Bob’s lips were cold and dry and a little chapped in the air, and remained still as a statue as Nick pressed in further. They parted slightly just before Nick drew away, eyes closed. All he could sense was the smell of Bob’s leather jacket and the feeling of Bob’s sigh on his face. He opened his eyes slowly.

 

Nick was only dimly aware he had stopped breathing.

 

Bob looked at him for a long time, eyes unreadable behind his lashes.

 

‘I have to go.’

 

The walk home was cold and lonely.

 

At the house Nick climbed the stairs as soon as he came in, then paused before climbing up the next flight as well. Joey’s door was shut and Cam’s room was empty; of course, he wasn’t home yet.

 

He wandered back down and slumped into bed.

 

Fuck. Had he misread the signs? He hadn’t thought so. He was pretty sure Bob had wanted that, too. But if he had then why did he rebut Nick after Nick had put his heart on the line like that? Perhaps he had just been reading too much into Bob’s reactions, twisting what were simply friendly conversations into something more.

 

Maybe Bob was as scared as he was.

 

He hoped he hadn’t hurt him even more. He hoped he hadn’t messed things up and ruined a friendship.

 

His head was aching, and he closed his eyes.

 

*

 

Nick’s parents drove him to the airport in September.

 

‘I’ll be fine. It’s no different than when I go to Ohio’, he re-assured them with a lop-sided smile, sounding more confident than he felt.

 

‘But, Nick, it’s another continent’, his mom had cried, and he hugged her.

 

Dad put his hand on Nick’s shoulder and looked at him quietly for a moment. ‘You really are all grown up now.’ He sounded choked up, and Nick laughed to clear his own suddenly tight throat.

 

Marcus, ever the typical teenager, had rolled his eyes at that. However, he did accept Nick’s offer of a hug.

 

*

 

Marseilles went by fast, in a rush of warm and beautiful weather that quickly turned cool and grey. The city itself was beautiful and inviting. For some reason it was the similarities to home he found himself commenting on more than the differences from.

 

‘Oh, we have that at home, too’, he often thought. Perhaps because the similarities were all easy to label under that blanket of ‘home’. The things that were done differently were done differently for a variety of reasons and built on various collective memories, ones he didn’t entirely understand.

 

Nick picked up a little French, but most of his classes were also filled with exchange students who either spoke English as a first language or were competent enough to take a class in it, and so the majority of the time he was speaking English. Whenever he told people at the university that he was an exchange student many of them thought he was Italian, for some reason. Probably the name.

 

He did make friends with students from different countries, including an Estonian that he tried to speak Russian with, even after she admitted with a laugh that she only knew the bad words, and promised to teach them to him.

 

In his final few weeks he messaged Jack and arranged to meet him in Paris to spend a few days there before flying back for Christmas. Flights were much cheaper from there anyways. And it would be fun seeing part of the country he had grown to love with someone else from back home, to see the different perspective Jack had.

 

*

 

‘Bob?!’

 

‘Nicky?!’

 

Nick stared, speechless. Their time in Paris had flown by. With it being just him and Jack, they hadn’t spent much time drinking or going out, mainly seeking out the beautiful sights and artwork. Jack, while quiet as ever, seemed to enjoy himself, looking in wonder at buildings which dated back hundreds of years. Nick was glad it had been Jack there beside him, too: while it would have been fun to be there with Cam or Boone, some of their jokes might have provided a different atmosphere than Jack’s reverence.

 

However now, seeing Bob on a tourist street on their final day, he wished with all his heart that Bob had been beside him the whole time.

 

‘This is insane’, Nick found himself spluttering, while Bob nodded, a shocked expression locked on his face.

 

‘Yeah, what a coincidence’, Jack said. ‘What are you guys doing here?’

 

And then Nick noticed Bob wasn’t alone: standing beside and a little behind him was a stocky dark-haired man. He was watching Nick and Jack with open curiosity, bordering on leering.

 

‘I didn’t think you would still be in France’, Bob began, suddenly mobile and gesturing wildly with his hands. ‘Me and Dima- this is my friend from home, Dima’, he indicated the dark-haired man, whose expression relaxed into a wary smile, ‘we were flying home for Christmas together, but he found some cheap flight to Paris, so we decided to make a short stop here first.’

 

‘Yeah, we’re doing pretty much the same, you know, on our way back home for Christmas. Wow, I can’t believe this, what are the chances?’

 

‘Great minds think alike, hmm?’ Bob suggested wryly. He paused, then added; ‘How long are you here for?’

 

‘It’s our last day’, Jack informed him.

 

Bob shook his head sadly. ‘We just got here.’

 

‘Oh, have you been to the Louvre yet?’

 

‘Not yet. Would you recommend it?’

 

They began to discuss the city; things they had seen, things they hadn’t. After a couple of minutes, seeing Dima shifting a little in discomfort, Bob suggested they get lunch, and they ventured away from the main tourist area to a slightly-less-touristy yet still overly priced café.

 

Once they were seated, Nick and Jack launched into storytelling mode, telling Bob about the Pigeon they saw steal a little girl’s ice cream, and how Jack almost got hit by a car after looking the wrong way before crossing the street. Dima seemed to lighten up a little too, chipping in occasionally when Bob told them the story of the literally quite turbulent flight and how they had originally planned to go to Moscow for a couple of days before at the last minute changing their plans, wanting to avoid multiple long layovers.

 

It was with reluctance that Nick eventually stood and told them they had to go back to their hostel and pack. Their flight was that evening. Embraces and words of parting were exchanged, and then they were back out in the steely cold, leaving Bob and Dima sitting at the table. Nick caught a final glimpse of Bob, skin soft and pale and cheeks heated in the warmth of indoors, as he and Jack headed away.

 

They didn’t mention the kiss at all.

 

*

 

That afternoon he and Jack prepared and packed for their overnight flight; or, rather, Jack sat on his phone on the bed as Nick bustled about in the outfit he planned to wear on board, coat and all, loading the few items he had removed from the huge case he had brought to Marseilles with him.

 

He was just packing the few toiletries he had left in the bathroom of their twin room when he heard a strangled moan.

 

‘Jack? What’s up?’

 

No response.

 

Nick emerged into the larger room. Nothing had really changed. Jack was leaning back on one elbow on the bed, phone in his hands.

 

‘Everything okay, Jack?’, he asked again, cautious.

 

Jack’s pale face slowly looked up at him. His eyes were wide, pupils dilated.

 

‘Jack?’

 

Nick watched as his friend mutely shook his head, rubbed his hands over his face, and then marched past Nick into the bathroom, closing the door behind him. Nick could hear him talking on the phone, sounding angry and upset. He carefully carried on packing, trying his best not to listen in.

 

After a long while, long enough that Nick had finished packing and was idling on his own bed, Jack reappeared. His eyes were red and his frame tense.

 

‘Hey’, Nick began softly.

 

‘Hey.’ He closed the bathroom door behind him.

 

‘Everything alright?’

 

‘I don’t know.’ Jack came over and sat, not on his own bed, but Nick’s, at arm’s length from him. He hung his head slightly.

 

Nick remained silent, waiting for him to come out with it himself. It didn’t take long.

 

‘My parents… They’ve, they’ve emptied my bank account. My college loan, everything.’ His voice shook with something that was partway between a cough, a laugh, and a sob. ‘Thank god I already paid for the plane tickets. I’m… I guess I’m in debt now.’

 

‘You’re kidding.’ One glance told Nick he wasn’t. ‘Oh… My god. Jack. I’m so sorry, I don’t know what to say. That’s awful.’

 

‘Just don’t say anything.’ Jack shook his head, shoulders shuddering. ‘We have to get home. I’ll… I guess I’ll talk to them then.’

 

Nick continued to look at him, horrified. Jack merely stood up and turned his back, focusing on packing. Nick watched him as he did so, mind reeling. How could his parents have done that to him?

 

They remained silent for the whole plane ride home, although he was pretty sure Jack was awake throughout. Nick himself found his sleep was interrupted and stormy thanks to turbulence. At one point he thought he saw Jack’s eyes shining with tears, although that may have just been the moonlight streaming through the window. Nick pulled the blind down and closed his eyes without a word.

 

Still no words were exchanged as they landed and collected their bags. It was only as they made their way out of security that Nick put his hand on Jack’s shoulder and said; ‘Jack, you can come home with me, if you want.’

 

He hadn’t had the chance to message his parents yet, but if Nick knew his parents, he knew that they would be more than willing to welcome Jack into their home for a while. Especially given the circumstances.

 

Yet Jack simply shook his head and drew a shuddering breath before plastering on a weary smile. ‘It’s okay, Nick.’ He peered through the glass and, following his gaze, Nick could see Jack’s parents, standing alongside his own. As he watched his mom attempted to make conversation with Jack’s parents, and they smiled, but kept their eyes fixed firmly forward. Perhaps Nick was imagining that they looked guilty.

 

Jack began to move forward, pushing his baggage in front of him. ‘I have to face them at some point.’

 

Nick followed him through the exit and into the embrace of his mother’s arms.

 

*

 

‘Is this how Rick used to think of us?’, Nick caught himself wondering as he wiped down a table which had the dried remains of spilt soda- and something a little stronger- on it. ‘Just drinking and leaving a mess in the kitchen all the time?’

 

Upon his return to college, he had elected to stay in an apartment on campus, not dissimilar to his accommodation in freshman year, only with eight bedrooms rather than six. Maybe that was what led to him having so much cleaning up to do here, he thought; that there were two extra people sharing the kitchen and bathroom. Or maybe it only seemed like more cleaning to him, having forgotten what his freshman year was like, and most of the drinking back then having been done at Scott’s house.

 

Still, they were good guys, from what Nick had seen of them in his first week of living there. Although some of them had obviously already forged strong bonds, they had all made an effort to introduce themselves to him and initiate conversation, which he appreciated.

 

Nick had, amusingly, found himself in Room 4 again. In Rooms 1 and 2, diagonally opposite from and next to him respectively, were two Swedes, who were apparently already best friends and who Nick hadn’t seen apart as of yet. They were often in the kitchen, hanging around and speaking Swedish together, politely switching to English sometimes when Nick came in. He probably wouldn’t have been able to tell them apart, except he remembered that William had long hair, while Alex- or Wenny, as William called him- had short hair. Directly opposite Nick was a Finn named Markus, who made his introductions by knocking on the door and asking for help with the instructions on the oven. The poor kid had also apparently only just arrived halfway through first semester, due to a mix up over timetabling, and was, according to the Swedes, kind of clueless about many things in life. Then there was Seth in Room 5, who came from Texas. Nick had only met him briefly, twice, however he had told Nick they would have to get dinner and hit the gym together some time. He seemed sort of like the bro type, though not as obnoxious as Dubi, more cool and calm. A good kid, Nick thought, not at all patronisingly. Opposite Seth in Room six was a Canadian, Josh, and next to him in Room 8, another Canadian, only this one was French-Canadian. His name was Pierre but the others all referred to him as PLD. Nick hadn’t exactly worked out the group dynamics in the apartment yet, only that the Swedes were virtually inseparable, that Josh and PLD seemed pretty close- he chalked it up to their being Canadian- and he had seen Seth with them a couple of times. The final occupant of the dorm, in Room 7, was a kid named Zach, who reminded Nick of Boone in terms of his serious attitude. However, he also told Nick the other day that he had just bought his own scooter for his pizza delivery job. Cam had designated him a walking meme during his one visit to the apartment so far once hearing about the scooter, and he was thus secretly fast becoming Nick’s favorite dormmate. Not in the least because he gave Nick free pizza the first time they met.

 

Jack was in another apartment somewhere on campus. Nick hadn’t really heard from him, other than for him to say that he had gotten a job to try and make ends meet. Nick had told him that he knew where to find him if he needed anything, but since then it had been radio silence.

 

On the first night he went out with his new dormmates, they began to jokingly refer to him as dad, and the more he protested the more they kept it up.

 

‘Our flat dad’, Bill sighed, seemingly falling asleep at their table. Nick hoped he would be alright to walk back; none of them had a car. And he wasn’t about to send Zach to get his scooter.

 

‘More like round dad’, Seth joked, and Nick elbowed him.

 

*

 

While Cam had already given the hall a cursory once-over, it was only on the second Friday after Nick’s return that Cam, Joey, Matt and Boone came over for the evening to catch him up. While they had kept up a steady stream of messaging in his time away, there was only so much that could be communicated via group chat. His former housemates would often seriously debate what type of cereals they had bought over text and then, a week later, mention that someone Nick knew had dropped out a month before. So, most of what they told him he already knew, yet having them fill in the blanks face to face after so long was glorious.

 

What he learnt was that Calvy had, sadly, broken up with his girlfriend, but Joey and Madison were still going strong. Brandon had a job now, which was why he hadn’t joined them on their visit. Bob had sold his car for a fair amount due to his want of money for travel. Ryan had broken his foot, and nobody was really sure how.

 

‘Apparently, he broke it in several places’, Joey said.

 

Nick sighed. ‘Damn. He really shouldn’t have gone to those places.’

 

Cam hit him.

 

Nick could see some of his dormmates watching curiously as they passed by the kitchen, where they had converged about the table. The only ones who dared to journey in were Zach, who came in to take his food out of the oven, and Markus, who strolled in and stared blankly at them for several seconds until Nick began the introductions. His friends seemed oddly interested in the freshmen, asking questions and claiming to want to meet them. Matt said he was having his 21st birthday soon, since they were all too busy or not around at Christmas time.

 

‘You’re welcome to bring your dormmates slash children with you, Nick.’

 

‘Ahh, come on guys, they’re not kids.’

 

‘Yes!’ Cam grinned. ‘I want to get a scooter to match Zach!’

 

Nick looked at him. Telling him about Zach’s scooter had obviously been a mistake. ‘You’re kidding, right?’

 

‘No. We can go round like in a scooter gang together!’ Cam’s eyes were wide, excited.

 

‘What, you got a crush on him or something? Don’t you know he’s too young for you, Atko?’, Nick teased. He wasn’t expecting the reaction he got.

 

Matt choked on the gulp of juice he was taking. Joey hid his face behind his hands, laughing, as Cam went red.

 

‘What?’

 

Matt coughed, gasping for breath, and Boone thumped him on the back.

 

‘What?’, Nick demanded, looking between them. ‘Does he?’

 

‘No’, Calvy choked out, ‘it’s just-‘

 

But then Cam elbowed him and Boone spoke. ‘It’s nothing.’

 

‘Okay’, Nick said slowly. He gave Cam a confused look before continuing. Cam merely looked away. ‘Besides all that, how have you guys been? Where are you living?’

 

‘We’re still in the house’, Matt laughed. ‘We spoke to the landlord again. Apparently because we were good last year he was fine with having us back.’

 

‘Yeah, especially since you’re not there anymore’, Cam put in.

 

‘And Boone’s taken your old room.’

 

Joey added; ‘And Ryan is in Jack’s old one. Ryan and his crutches.’

 

‘Oh yeah, how is Jack?’, Boone asked. ‘We haven’t heard from him since you guys got back.

 

Nick sighed and launched into the story.

 

*

 

He had only just dragged himself out of bed and through the shower the next day when Bob arrived. Nick tried not to be annoyed; the presence of a guest meant having to open his blinds so they weren’t sitting in pitch black darkness, and that hurt his head at this time of the day. To be fair to Bob, it was already the afternoon: The guys had stayed pretty late.

 

‘Long time no see, stranger’, Nick had greeted the Russian as he answered the door.

 

Bob pushed past him confidently, which made Nick smile as he followed his friend to the kitchen. He had been a little worried of how this interaction would go, given how unsure he was of where they currently stood and the guilt he still felt when he thought of how he simply acted on his own initiative without talking to Bob about it first, but Bob seemed largely unconcerned.

 

‘Wow.’ He had paused in the doorway, taking in the mess. Nick probably should have cleaned that up but, again, he had literally pulled on a shirt as he stumbled along the corridor to answer the door, so anything else was asking too much.

 

‘What?’

 

‘It looks so… Student-like.’

 

Chuckling, Nick reminded him; ‘You’re a student too. Does your house not look like this?’

 

The guys had told him yesterday, when he finally dredged up the courage to ask, that Bob was living with Artem and a couple of other Russians, except not Fedor and Nikita, who had since graduated. He wondered idly if Dima was one of them, and was surprised by how vehemently his mind rejected that suggestion.

 

‘No. We do not live up to the Russian stereotype, do not drink as much as people say. Artem keeps it clean.’

 

‘Nice. I’m the oldest one here, so I guess that’s my job.’

 

Bob smiled. ‘Father of the household.’

 

‘Don’t. You sound like Calvy. He keeps calling them my kids.’ He stretched an arm above his head. ‘You want some lunch?’

 

‘Sure.’

 

Nick got out two bowls and heated up some pasta for the two of them. They sat curled up on the sofa, legs barely touching, and talked about France for a while, comparing some photos they took of the landmarks of Paris. Bob nearly spat out his mouthful of food when Nick brought up the food-stealing pigeon again, claiming he had seen it after Nick mentioned it.

 

‘No way! It can’t have been the same one!’

 

‘It stole ice cream! Just like you said! Dived right in and- gone!’

 

‘No, buddy, that would have been too much of a coincidence. It can’t have been the same one.’

 

‘What, there’s just groups of pigeons all stealing ice creams?’ Bob giggled, surreptitiously wiping his mouth with the back of one sleeve.

 

Nick waggled his eyebrows. ‘Yeah, maybe, they’re all just sharing it behind the back of Notre Dame.’

 

‘Really, though, you can’t talk about coincidence. Us meeting was such a coincidence.’

 

‘True.’ He shrugged one shoulder. ‘My mom always says there’s no such thing as coincidences.’

 

‘Synchronicity.’

 

Nick didn’t know what that meant, nevertheless he nodded. ‘Yeah.’

 

After they had eaten Bob suggested watching a movie and managed to find one that was just starting on the small TV. Nick washed up as he did so, and when he returned to his seat, the title cards were rolling.

 

‘What is it? Looks old.’

 

‘No idea.’

 

‘Is it a comedy? Action?’

 

‘No idea.’

 

Argh, Bob.’ Nick shook his head.

 

‘Shhh, let’s just watch and see.’

 

Nick curled up as close as possible to Bob without actually pressing against him, closed his mouth, and watched.

 

Halfway through the movie- which turned out to be a comedy- PLD, Josh and Seth came in, and ended up staying for the remainder of it. Nick didn’t mind; there was plenty of room, after all. This kitchen was a little more spacious than the one he had been given in freshman year, probably due to the increased number of residents. They hadn’t had a TV in first year, either.

 

Bob went home after it had finished, promising to come back soon. No sooner had he walked out the door when PLD turned to Nick and asked; ‘Is he your boyfriend?’

 

Nick answered as levelly as possible. In truth the question hadn’t shocked him; he had seen the three nudging each other and looking in his direction for the past half an hour. The only reason he hadn’t told them to stop was because he knew Bob had also seen them and, from his occasional slight smile, found it just as amusing as Nick had. ‘No. He’s just a friend.’

 

Seth sighed. ‘I told you guys he wasn’t.’

 

‘Well you can’t blame me!’, Josh protested. ‘You saw them, they were straight up cuddling, man. And, Seth, you thought Bill and Wenny were a couple all first semester. Your relationship radar is shit.’

 

Mentally affirming that the Swedes were actually not a couple- he had half-wondered- Nick said; ‘We were not cuddling. That’s Bob, he’s a friend of mine from first year.’

 

‘Bob? Is that a Russian name?’

 

‘Bobrov?’, PLD asked around a mouthful of chips.

 

‘Bobrovsky.’ Nick nodded at him. ‘Sergei Bobrovsky.’

 

‘Sick name’, Seth muttered appraisingly, and Nick felt a warm glow in his chest.

 

Fuck.

 

*

 

He only started to get suspicious a week later, when he realized he hadn’t seen Brandon his whole first three weeks back. He had figured the asshole would have shown up at some point. Or at least asked when Nick wasn’t busy so that they could arrange something. Initially he had guessed that Brandon was probably busy with work, so he had tried not to hold it against him. Yet after so long it was getting harder not to take things personally.

 

Therefore, it was a pleasant surprise when Brandon pulled up next to him and Cam as they walked along the main road by campus, having just left a lecture together. His timing maybe could have been a little better; Cam had just been admitting he had missed Nick in class when he was away. Still, Nick was glad to see him.

 

‘Dubi, hey!’

 

‘Hey, Fligs! Get your asses in, we’re going for dinner!’

 

Nick opened the passenger door and hopped in, only to find Brandon staring at him weirdly, both hands on the wheel.

 

‘What?’ He looked in the mirror. Nope, nothing on his face.

 

Brandon was still staring.

 

‘Yeah, nice to see you too, Dubi.’

 

Cam had already clambered into the back and belted up, so Nick quickly did the same. Brandon shrugged at him and they drove off.

 

Things got weirder when they got to the restaurant.

 

Cam and Dubi kept smirking at each other. Nick began to fear that, like Matt, they had decided to hold another birthday party for him since he had been away for his actual birthday, and this was the surprise. There was no sign of it when they sat down, though, no extra seats at the table or people dressed as superheroes. The only oddity was Brandon keeping his arm across the back of Cam’s chair. For their group that was admittedly pretty normal, however with the strange vibes Nick was getting from the evening so far, his eyes zeroed in on it. And when he began to tease Cam about how short he was, as per usual, and Cam protested, as per usual, Brandon joined in, and Cam took his protests to another level. He prodded Brandon in the side until Brandon grinned, and Cam grinned back.

 

They ordered, and Nick only had to wait a few moments for his chance to bring up his suspicions, when Brandon headed to the bathroom.

 

‘How long?’

 

Cam looked up at him. He had been toying with the drinks menu, still undecided despite already having ordered food. ‘How long?’

 

‘Yeah.’

 

‘What?’

 

‘You and Dubi.’

 

Cam went red. ‘About a month.’

 

‘Wow.’ Nick leaned back in his chair. ‘You and Dubinsky.’

 

‘I know. I was surprised, too.’ He laughed a little nervously. ‘I really thought he was an asshole, but I guess, I like assholes?’

 

Nick laughed at that.

 

When Brandon came back Cam put his hand on his leg.

 

‘Why didn’t you guys just tell me? You know I’m not gonna have a problem with it.’ In truth, the only thing his brain was having trouble with was Brandon’s sexuality. He had just always assumed he was straight. But, as Boone had said all that time ago, you could never really assume.

 

‘We wanted to wait until you came back. And Dubi was terrified you would kill him.’

 

‘I was not.’

 

‘You should have been’, Nick mock-glared at him, stopping only when a waiter brought their food over.

 

When they were alone again, Brandon asked; ‘What about you? Have you met anyone?’

 

Nick took a careful mouthful of his food, discovered it was too hot, and quickly took a sip of the water he had ordered.

 

‘No. There were a couple of guys in France, but not anyone I really liked so much.’

 

‘Have you heard anything from Jack?’, Cam asked.

 

‘Nah. I figure when he wants to get in touch he knows where we are, right?’

 

Brandon pursed his lips together thoughtfully yet didn’t say anything.

 

They finished their meal, Nick relaying for probably the tenth time his stories about his time in France, and what Marseilles was like. Afterwards he headed back to theirs in the car.

 

‘Joey lives with Madison now’, Matt explained when Nick asked if he was around. ‘Cam took it as the ultimate betrayal.’

 

‘Really? I thought he still lived here?’ They had only mentioned Boone and Ryan moving in, not anyone else. He gratefully took the mug of coffee Boone handed him over the back of the couch.

 

‘You’d think he does, the amount he’s here’, Brandon snorted from the couch. Cam patted his leg placatingly.

 

‘Nope, Savy’s here too. Only we moved round the rooms, so he has Dubi’s old one and Cam and Dubi are in the attic.’

 

‘But Savy’s never around. He’s always with his French friends. And Ryan is always at the hospital. So it’s just me surrounded by the PDA’, Boone whined.

 

Nick said; ‘Don’t worry, you get me back next year. We can be single together.’

 

‘Are you sure you can leave your children?’ Brandon laughed. Obviously the others had told him about that.

 

Nick didn’t even bother to protest, settling in on the couch besides Boone. It had been a while. It was as comfortable as he remembered, especially sitting among his bickering friends. Brought back memories. Christ. He was 21 and he was already getting nostalgic about the good times.

 

That night he stayed late, long after Cam and Brandon went up to sleep and Matt went to write a paper, talking to Boone about nostalgia and memories and life in general.

 

Once again, he was surprised by one of Boone’s suddenly serious questions.

 

‘You really didn’t like Cam at all?’ He was watching Nick intently.

 

‘What? No, I already told you that like a year ago.’

 

‘Oh, I just thought maybe you did.’ Boone blinked. ‘I think Dubi did too, or he would have said something to Cam sooner. He liked Cam for a looooong time.’

 

‘Seriously?’ Nick honestly would never have guessed. He could sort of see it now- their playful arguments, the moments they had genuinely seemed concerned for each other- although that was probably simply because he was retrospectively looking for signs of attraction. ‘How did that even happen?’

 

‘No idea.’ Boone faced him. ‘Do you like anyone, Nick?’

 

Nick swallowed. He supposed it was once again time to admit to himself what he thought he had gotten past. ‘I sort of… I mean… Bob. He’s… Okay. But he’s Russian, so I don’t think it would work out. And I think I might have messed it up already.’

 

Nodding slowly and levelly, Boone pronounced; ‘Sucks, man.’

 

‘What about you?’

 

He shrugged. ‘There’s a girl in my astronomy class… But you don’t want to hear about that.’

 

‘Why not? Boone, I told you about Bob, I wanna hear about yours, come on.’

 

When Boone was done telling, Nick smiled softly at him. ‘Awww.

 

‘Shut up.’

 

‘No, really, it’s cute.’

 

‘Shut up’, Boone laughed.

 

‘Seriously, Boone, thanks for telling me though, man. Glad you trust me like this.’

 

Boone gave him a sarcastic look. ‘You’re a great friend and confidant, Nicky.’ He laughed a little. ‘Nah, you’re alright.’

 

‘No, I’m half left.’

 

That earned Nick a well-deserved punch on the arm. Worth it.

 

*

 

Nick was studying in his room when Cam showed up to tell him he bought a scooter, and he and Zach were going scooting together. Nick just shook his head and turned back to his desk, wondering how his life had turned out like this.

 

*

 

Boone’s 21st birthday party was held at his house. His house being Nick’s former house. It still felt odd, regularly walking into a place where he used to live and knowing he would have to leave to go ‘home’ in the end.

 

He did end up bringing the freshers with him. Almost immediately Markus had located the only other Finn at the party, a guy named Joonas who was presumably friends with someone in the house. If he hadn’t just turned up off the street. The two minutes of conversation Nick had passed with him so far had done nothing to convince him of the contrary. He seemed calm and collected, just a little odd.

 

It was nice to see a lot of faces that he had been missing over the past few months. Artem and Artemi were there, talking in a group with Josh, PLD and Seth. There was a guy he and Cam had worked with on a presentation in one of their classes last year, a Dane named Oliver, talking to a couple of girls Nick didn’t recognize. Madison was sitting on the stairs with Cam and Ryan, whose leg was propped up on a pillow. Another old classmate, Sonny, was pouring Boone a drink, wishing him a happy birthday.

 

After introducing the Swedes to Joey, who he had just caught coming out of the bathroom in the back, and mentioning Joey’s Swedish neighbors, Nick made his way out to the small yard in back. There he met Dubi and Calvy. He grabbed a beer, staggering a little as he joined the two of them under the stars. They spun above him like fireflies. He was probably going to regret drinking this much in the morning, and he was aware of it. However, this was the first time he had let loose like this in weeks. He couldn’t stop.

 

‘Hey’, Brandon turned to him immediately, reaching one arm out to steady Nick as he keeled forward. ‘What do you call a guy in a swimming pool with no arms and no legs?’

 

Nick knew this joke. ‘Bob.’ He scowled as Brandon and Matt grinned at each other.

 

Cheers floated through the crisp evening air from the patio door that stood ajar behind them. Something must have been going on inside. Instead of checking it out, Nick leaned closer to Brandon.

 

‘I really wish he was here.’

 

‘Yeah, why isn’t he?’, Matt asked curiously.

 

‘He has a presentation in the morning.’ He let out a sigh. Bob had messaged him earlier to let Nick know he would not be able to come, and to tell him to have fun.

 

Brandon snorted. ‘Why don’t you just tell him you like him?’

 

Wise advice, still. ‘I can’t. He’s Russian.’ He gave Brandon a confused look.

 

‘Yeah, but he’s not in Russia now.’ He spoke slowly, as if to a child. Nick was a little pissed off, and fought not to show it.

 

‘Russians don’t go for that kind of thing, man.’

 

‘Yeah they do. I hooked up with Artem in first year.’

 

Nick gaped at him. ‘What?!’

 

‘Yeah’, he continued, blasé. Only like once, and it wasn’t great, but yeah.’

 

‘What?!’ Nick was nearly shrieking now. ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’

 

‘Why would I tell you?’

 

‘So Artem is gay?’

 

‘Bi, I think.’ Now Brandon was the one looking at him strangely.

 

‘You didn’t know?’, Matt asked. ‘I thought he told everyone that.’

 

‘Not me!’, Nick protested. His mind was spinning. So if Bob knew Artem was bi, and they were still friends and he was fine with living with Artem, maybe…

 

Two minutes later Cam practically climbed up Nick’s body to wrench his phone away from him as he attempted to drunk-dial a certain Russian. Nick thanked him the next day. At the time, he just yelled at Cam for ruining his chance of true love, and Cam yelled back. After that, everything was a little hazy. He remembered the feeling of Dubi pushing him and Calvy grabbing his arm to steer him away. Then everything was a blank, right up until Zach and Seth dumped him on his bed back home.

 

*

 

Bob came over four days later.

 

‘Hey.’

 

‘Come on in, Seryozha.’

 

Bob started and looked at Nick as he made his way to sit down on the bed.

 

‘What?’

 

‘That’s right, isn’t it?’

 

‘Yes, but’, Bob laughed, ‘Nicky, your pronunciation is terrible.’

 

‘I’m trying here, man.’

 

Nick sat next to him, looking at his profile. Bob was between himself and the window, so the curve of his cheek and line of his nose were thrown into stark contrast against the light. He was beautiful.

 

‘Hey, Bob?’

 

‘Yeah?’

 

Nick swallowed.

 

‘A grasshopper goes into a bar and orders a drink. The bartender says, hey, we have a drink named after you. The grasshopper says, you have a drink named Steve?’

 

Bob looked at him for a long moment, face distorted in bemusement, and soon he was doubled over giggling.

 

‘That is terrible.’

 

‘I know’, replied Nick.

 

He wanted to ask Bob about Artem, about how he felt, about so many things. Only he was a chicken. It was so hard to actually ask about real feelings, beyond just touching.

 

Sitting there now, he realized that he hardly ever touched Bob, beyond perhaps a casual arm about the shoulders or a brushing of hands. It was almost like Nick knew, one hug and he would be completely done for.

 

There had been an exception though, he thought. That kiss. He felt his face fall as he remembered. As much as he wanted to avoid talking about feelings, this was the one he couldn’t put off any longer. It ate away at him whenever he saw his friend.

 

‘Bob… I just wanted to say, that one night…’

 

Bob looked at him for a moment, confused. Then understanding seemed to dawn on his face.

 

His tone was cautious as he asked; ‘What about it?’

 

‘I should have- I mean I shouldn’t have just- I should have… Warned you, or asked you, before I did anything like that.’ Nick finally got out what he wanted to say. ‘What I guess I mean is, I’m really sorry. I thought maybe you wanted…’ He trailed off, afraid of sounding like he was making an excuse.

 

Bob shook his head slightly, face unreadable. ‘It’s okay, Nick.’

 

‘Is it?’ Nick looked at him. He could feel his heart beating a little faster.

 

Bob shrugged and looked down. ‘Yes. I was surprised, but… I sort of saw it coming.’

 

Nick wanted to ask what he meant by that; if he had been waiting in anticipation or dread. Only, Bob had surely made it clear he wasn’t interested when he pushed Nick away.

 

‘Okay’, Nick said slowly. ‘Anyway, I genuinely am so sorry, man. It won’t happen again.’

 

Bob hummed, picking at the sheets, and they fell into a slightly awkward silence. Nick’s chest clenched: He must have really upset Bob with the kiss, more so than he thought. He resolved to find a way to make it up to him, to show Bob that he could be trusted, and that he wanted to be his friend, even if there was no possibility for anything more.

 

So instead of talking anymore about any feelings he had or potentially would want to explore, he went around knocking on his dormmates’ doors to ask if they wanted to join he and Bob for pizza.

 

To his surprise, he heard multiple voices coming from behind Josh’s door, one of which sounded- he had learnt to distinguish this accent in particular- distinctly Russian.

 

‘Josh? Hello?’

 

A faint rustling, and then Josh yanked the door open, a huge grin on his face.

 

‘Yeah? Nick, what’s up?’

 

‘Who’s in there?’, Nick peered around him, laughing, and Josh stepped aside.

 

Sitting on the bed, waving at him, were PLD and Artemi.

 

‘Oh, Artemi! Hey, what are you doing here?’

 

‘Talked to him at the party’, Josh shrugged. He’s alright.’

 

‘Bob’s in my room right now.’

 

‘No way!’ Artemi smiled. ‘I’ll go say hello now.’

 

Seth was the only other one home. He had been playing video games, though as soon as Nick mentioned pizza he grinned, tugged his baseball cap down slightly, and threw his controller down onto the bed.                                                                 

 

An hour later the six of them were sat in the kitchen together, chewing the last of their pizza. PLD had realized the pizza guy was also from Quebec by his accent and spent several minutes talking to him, until Seth dragged him away and distracted him with a story about how he had been trying to play Pokemon Go that morning in a lecture only to find his phone wasn’t on silent, like he had thought. Josh began to wind him up about still playing such a nerdy game, while the Russians snickered in amusement and PLD set up a movie for them to watch. They fell silent as the title credits began to play.

 

Eventually, Nick’s curiosity got the better of him.

 

‘Did you guys know Artem was bi?’

 

Artemi looked at him, a little uncomfortable. ‘Yes. Why?’

 

‘Oh, no reason. I don’t have an issue, obviously, I just didn’t know.’

 

‘Oh. Okay.’

 

They turned back to the TV.

 

Bob hadn’t reacted at all, staring straight ahead.

 

Once the Russians finally headed for home together and his hallmates retired to their rooms, Nick sat with his head in his hands for several seconds before clearing up.

 

*

 

Saturday night takeaway with Nick’s old housemates became a tradition for the remainder of the year. Two or three of Nick’s new hallmates would often join him on these evening outings, if they didn’t have work (which Zach unfortunately often did), and sometimes David or Ryan or the Russians would drop by. Due to studying and workload hardly any of the guys were available at the same time, but all of them came at least every few weeks.

 

One night toward the end of term it was a little quieter than usual: Only Nick, Cam, Brandon, Ryan, Markus, and the Finnish guy who had been at Boone’s birthday, Joonas, were there. It turned out that Joonas was a coursemate of Bob’s, who Nick was shocked to learn had since ingratiated himself into their friendship group with his calm and slightly quirky personality while he was away in France.

 

‘Doorbell’s going’, Brandon noted as the notes continued to chime out. He was reclining on the couch with his feet on the table and one arm around Cam’s shoulders.

 

‘So it is’, Cam hummed.

 

‘For fuck’s sake, I’ll get it.’ Nick made his way over to the door.

 

‘Oh. Hi. How’s it going?’

 

Jack was stood on the doorstep. He looked tired, and smaller than Nick remembered, which was saying something since Jack was not really a small guy.

 

‘I’m good. Can I come in?’

 

‘Yeah, of course, come right in. I mean, I don’t live here, but sure, come in.’ Nick stepped aside.

 

The chatter in the kitchen stopped when they saw who it was.

 

‘Hey! Jack!’ Cam waved enthusiastically.

 

Brandon smiled. ‘Jack, how’s it going?’

 

Jack waved back at them, eyes darting around, hesitating over the Finns slightly. Of course; he didn’t know them.

 

‘So I actually just wanted to let you guys know I’ve been looking into it, and I’m transferring colleges for final year.’

 

‘What? Where to?’

 

‘Somewhere closer to home, so I don’t have to pay for accommodation.’

 

There was silence as that sunk in.

 

‘You’re going back to your parents? Seriously?’

 

 ‘Yeah. They said they’d let me stay with them.’

 

‘Let you? Dude, they should be paying back your money.’

 

‘They said they needed it.’

 

Nick frowned, frustrated by how blasé Jack seemed to be about it. However, he was determined to end this on a positive note so he said nothing more as Jack thanked them all for their friendship, smiled politely at the Finns, and left.

 

*

 

At the end of the year, thus far unbeknown to Nick, Artem graduated as well.

 

‘Don’t be upset’, Cam had teased Brandon, one of the last times Nick visited their house before he went home for the Summer, and Brandon responded by tickling him until Boone cleared his throat.

 

Nick hadn’t known Artem was a sophomore already when they lived together, had assumed he was a freshman.

 

When he voiced this, however, Brandon asked incredulously; ‘Did you really learn nothing about the guy in the year we lived together? Or, you know, the years of friendship after that?’

 

Nick shrugged.

 

‘He’s not always the most observant guy, Dubi’, Cam said, waggling his eyebrows, and Nick scowled at him.

 

*

 

They went against the idea of holding a graduation party for Artem. Nick wasn’t sure whether the reasoning behind a low-key barbecue and movie night was because Artem would prefer that over a party, or that they were just getting old. He was definitely starting to think that he was feeling the gym a little more the next day, although that could have been due to him going far less frequently the last couple of months due to exams.

 

It was a relaxed affair. Everyone laughed at Joey, manning the barbecue in brightly colored shorts, flips flops, a chef hat and a ‘Kiss the Cook’ apron. Artem and the rest of the Russians tried to teach the Nick’s new dormmates the Russian card game, Durak, that Nick vaguely remembered they went on a streak of playing during second year. The Swedes, however, resorted to drunkenly flipping their cards at each other.

 

Nick was finishing off a hot dog and wiping some sweat from his forehead, cursing himself for not wearing a hat or sunglasses, when Cam and Zach tore into the yard on their scooters and began circling the small garden at the end. The guests standing about on the patio watched with mild interest, a true sign that it was the end of the academic year: any other time and they most likely would have been yelled at.

 

‘Oh my god’, Brandon sighed, ‘my boyfriend is a toddler.’

 

Cam threatened to run him over.

 

Once all the food had been eaten and the sun was beginning to retreat over the horizon they too retreated, heading inside to watch the movie. Nick was hyper aware of Bob’s thigh pressed against his where he was wedged between the Russian and David on the couch. He tried to hold his upper body away, but as he leant his head rocked slowly back onto his neck and he felt his eyes close barely ten minutes into the movie.

 

He only woke up an hour later to Joonas egging Markus on with drawing on his forehead, and Bob giggling quietly in his left ear.

 

*

 

That Summer was spent, like many Summers past, playing street hockey with Marcus and Dad, when Dad wasn’t busy. Nick was surprised to find that his wins were much harder fought. His little brother was growing up.

 

Only the aesthetic melancholia of fall arrived far too quickly that year. By the time Nick was on the bus back to Columbus the world was a torrent of amber and gold and maroon, and the temperature seemed to drop along with the leaves.

 

Thinking about his friends, it dawned on Nick how much things had changed over the last three years, finally beginning to see the truth in his parents’ words: that he had grown up so much. He wasn’t sure how it had happened. Looking round at his friends now, their group dynamics were shifting. College was getting harder, less common sense now and more morally challenging cases in his pre-LAaw classes. Of course, he never thought about giving up, or doing anything to jeopardize his friends’ relationships in an attempt to take things back to how they were before, however he felt the difference keenly and it was hard not to mourn the loss of a simpler time.

 

Still, when Scott came up to visit one day, and they met up for a beer in town, Nick felt himself answering, ‘Not much’, when Scott asked him what had changed since he was away. He wasn’t sure he could express what he was feeling in words.

 

*

 

Final year felt different, somehow, already.

 

Nick and his friends had left behind the house that had given them two years of memories, and instead had taken a two-storey apartment over a hairdressers’. They had been warned about the fumes, but Nick never noticed them, and his friends didn’t mention it. Although that may have been an indication that the chemicals had already seeped into their brains.

 

He was living with Cam, Brandon, Matt and Boone. Joey had found an apartment with his girlfriend on the other side of town. It was cool, Cam had said, that he was abandoning them again. Joey had hugged him until Cam gave up protesting and trying to push his friend away. Apparently, it wasn’t a student apartment, so they could stay there after they graduated if they wanted to, Joey explained, and even though it was on the other side of town he had met a bunch of his neighbors already. Some of them were guys he knew from Scott’s parties in first year.

 

Jack had also messaged over Summer, just once, letting Nick know that he was still back at home and starting college there. Nick had fired back a thumbs up emoji and then, feeling guilty, added a message asking Jack to let him know how it went.

 

Of the kids, they had split into two distinct camps; Bob had ended up living in a what was essentially a bungalow with PLD, Josh and Artemi. The three of them were sharing small rooms downstairs, while Bob got the attic bedroom. When he first saw it, visiting just before the term started to check out where his friends were living, Nick had assumed it was because Bob was the eldest. Bob told him, however, that since he had found the house, he got first dibs. Plus, the younger guys didn’t mind too much, according to him: they liked being closer together, while he preferred his own space.

 

The other camp consisted of Zach, Seth, the Swedes and Markus. Late in the previous academic year, when Zach had told him in the kitchen one evening that he had found a house with those guys, Nick had laughed.

 

‘What?’, Zach asked, confused.

 

‘Nothing’, Nick replied. ‘Just… Sounds like a fun house. Enjoy it.’

 

As with Bob, he visited them for the first time before the term started, joined by Boone and David, who was living with a couple of guys from one of his classes. The place itself was pretty large for student housing. It gave the impression of being small, however, thanks to the level of noise.

 

When they arrived, Wenny and Bill were blasting Swedish pop music while chasing each other with shaving foam. Markus yelped and knocked over a lamp trying to stay out of their way, and Seth charged after them, yelling for them to put that back, it was his. Zach had merely stood in the middle of the kitchen with his usual straight-faced expression, casually chewing on a slice of leftover pizza. The only thing betraying his frustration was the tired look in his eyes.

 

Nick met his gaze and smiled. Oh yes, that was going to be a fun house.

 

*

 

The weekend of the first week back couldn’t come quick enough. Had classes always been so tiring? He was sure they had, though now he had more spread out across the days, so the week seemed to drag on.

 

So, on the Saturday he had little more energy to do anything other than sit at the desk in Bob’s attic room, working on a case on his laptop. Bob, apparently similarly exhausted, was reading on the bed behind him.

 

‘Hey, Nicky?’

 

‘Hmmm?’, Nick replied, half-hoping Bob wouldn’t launch into a conversation while he was trying to focus on his work, and then remembered he had spent the last two minutes opening and closing Word and folded down the screen.

 

‘What’s where you grew up like?’, he spoke tentatively. ‘Buffalo?’

 

Nick blinked, half-turning in his chair. ‘Oh, yeah, I forget you guys have never been to New York sometimes. We should really go. Up to Canada, too. We know a lot of guys from Canada. I mean, Calvy, Boone, Savy, PLD… I live close to the border and my dad’s Canadian, and my brother technically too because he was born there, so we go up there a lot. There’s some beautiful parks and cool cities and stuff.’

 

Bob said; ‘Yes, and maybe one day you come Russia, use the knowledge you got from that one Russia book.’ His voice was softly teasing, and Nick spun to face him fully.

 

He was lying on his front, long lanky body stretched out so his legs were hanging off the edge of the bed. The very tips of his hair were silvery outlines in the light from the overhead skylight. His book lay face-down on the bed beside him with the spine protruding up where it was still open on a page somewhere in the middle.

 

When he could speak, Nick responded haltingly; ‘We’d have to go to Sweden and Finland, too. Make it a road trip.’

 

‘Europe isn’t so small you can drive across like that, Nicky.’

 

‘Us Americans are used to driving long distances.’ He paused as Bob rolled his eyes. ‘But then you live down South Russia, right?’

 

‘Sort of South, Central. Siberia.’ He waved one hand in the air.

 

‘Yeah, that might take a little too long. Too cold. How cold is it there right now?’

 

Bob wrinkled his nose and looked at his phone. ‘Probably about minus five. Not too cold this time of the year. But January, February, it can go to minus thirty. Celsius’, he added at Nick’s wondering look.

 

‘Okay, no Siberia. We could go somewhere warm. I’d like to go back to Marseilles at some point.’

 

‘I’d like to explore some more of North America.’ Bob sat up decisively. ‘Before-‘ He lowered his voice. ‘Before I have to go home.’

 

Nick felt a sudden pang in his chest. They didn’t have long left together.

 

‘Okay’, he said slowly. ‘We can do that. Seriously, let’s ask the others and arrange something. Maybe we could go hiking.’

 

The Russian’s eyes lit up. ‘In Canada?’

 

‘Sure, why not?’ Nick opened his laptop and began to look at flights. Bob scurried off the bed and over to his side. ‘We’ll probably need money for this, though. I mean, depending on how long you want to go for. It won’t be cheap.’

 

‘I still have some money left from selling my car’, Bob informed him, smiling. ‘Not a lot, but it is a start.’

 

‘Well, then, let’s do it.’

 

‘Let’s.’ They grinned at each other softly in the dim evening light. Even as they did so, a pang of guilt still shook Nick, guilt for his own sense of joy, the gentle thrumming in his chest as his heart began to race.

 

*

 

Nick began applying for jobs soon after that. He had applied for a few already throughout his time in college, yet had been unsuccessful, usually getting money in the summer from his dad by helping out with odd tasks. Only now he was more serious about it. Now he had a motivation.

 

As if by magic, a position opened at the local ice rink, teaching kids to skate, and they hired Nick almost immediately. It wasn’t exactly a trying job, and he enjoyed working with the kids. It was something he had helped out with in summers back home. However, it took up a lot of his hours, so in between college and work he barely had time for his friends anymore, only seeing his housemates fleetingly.

 

One night he came home late, having stayed to help lock up after ice disco night, to find the lights off and two plates of lasagne sitting on the kitchen counter. He looked around, confused, at the deserted kitchen. Just then Cam came tiptoeing downstairs.

 

‘Oh, good, I hoped you’d be home soon, I was getting hungry’, he said. ‘The others are asleep. Figured you could use some company.’

 

‘Thanks, man.’

 

The two ate in companionable silence, with the TV on and volume turned down low, content.

 

Nick didn’t say anything, but the little moments like that made him happy to be living with his old housemates again, as much as he had loved the kids. It made him sure that, once they graduated, they would still be in touch. They cared.

 

‘Are you really tearing up over lasagne right now?’, Cam laughed, seeing Nick’s vision had suddenly clouded over.

 

‘Shut up’, he replied gruffly, wiping one arm over his face. ‘Eat your fucking lasagne. It’s so awful, it’s making me want to cry, that’s all.’

 

*

 

A couple of weeks later Boone, Matt and Joey sprang a visit upon Nick while he was working. It wasn’t lesson time, luckily; that wasn’t for another two hours, after the schools all finished for the day. He was just watching by the rinkside, occasionally helping people figure out if their skates fit right and pulling them to their feet whenever they slipped over, when he noticed some familiar faces.

 

He hadn’t seen Joey pretty much since they first moved in, so it was nice to stand with him, watching Boone and Matt flirting with the girls there, using their so-called ‘Canadian charm’, which Nick was so never going to drop.

 

‘I can’t believe those morons’, Joey snorted.

 

‘I know.’ Nick chuckled, before asking what he had been wondering the past few weeks; ‘How are things with you, by the way?’

 

‘Good.’ He shrugged. ‘The apartment’s pretty great. There’s a bunch of Swedes and Finns living nearby, too, they’ve invited us to a few parties and they’re pretty fun.’

 

‘Hey, you should introduce them to Bill and Wenny and Markus.’

 

Joey laughed. ‘These guys would probably think they’re nuts. Either that or they’d fit right in. I don’t know, man, Europeans are weird sometimes.’

 

‘Oh, speaking of Europeans, me and Bob were talking about maybe making a trip soon’, Nick told him. ‘Would you want to come?’

 

‘To Europe?’

 

‘No, probably just up to Canada or something. We said maybe hiking.’

 

Joey hummed. His eyes were trained on Matt and Boone, who were now showing off and spinning in circles around the center of the ice. Nick considered telling them to knock it off, ultimately deciding against it. ‘Maybe. When are you going?’

 

‘We haven’t really planned yet. Maybe Christmas? Or Spring break?’

 

‘Huh. I’m not sure, you know, final year so lots of work, right? But I’d like to come. If you guys sort it I’ll see if I can make it.’

 

‘Great’, Nick beamed. ‘We’ll probably decide something soon, if it’s Christmas. I’ll let you know.’

 

‘Yeah, I-‘

 

Joey broke off as a little girl wailed nearby, having slipped and fallen onto her knees. Nick rushed over to help her up, reaching her just the same time as her mother.

 

Fortunately, there was no harm done, and she was soon happily on her way.

 

*

 

Friday of the following week was another late night. When Nick got back he found Brandon taking his coat off, having also just made it home.

 

‘Hey, man.’

 

‘Oh, hey. How was work?’

 

Nick shrugged. ‘The usual. Lots of moms who think their kid is going to be the next Olympic figure skating star, and somehow I’m going to teach them to jump triple axels or something.’

 

Brandon barked a laugh. They made their way to the couch. It felt good to sit down. Nick put his feet up and laid his head back, before he noticed how silent the apartment was.

 

‘Where are the others?’, he asked.

 

‘Cam messaged me, he said they went to Zach’s to play some games. Their house just bought an old second-hand Wii.’

 

‘Oh my god. Ten bucks says someone breaks it sometime this week.’

 

‘Who do you reckon? I say Nuti.’

 

‘The Swedes can get pretty competitive.’ Brandon snorted in agreement. ‘Actually, no, wait, I bet Z finally snaps after they beat him in Mario Kart and just trashes everything.’

 

‘Ah, shit, I would pay to see that.’ Dubi made his way to the kitchen and asked over his shoulder; ‘Beer?’

 

Nick shrugged. He didn’t have work tomorrow, or college, no obligations for the first time in about two weeks. ‘Sure thing, man, thanks.’

 

Brandon tossed one to him and then made his way back to sit beside Nick.

 

They both tuned into some minor league football game. Nick was only half paying attention, more enjoying the silence for once.

 

‘Do you think you’re going to stay at the rink after we graduate?’, Brandon asked suddenly. ‘Or find something else here? Or go back home?’

 

Nick looked at him sharply. ‘I’m… I’m not sure yet. Why?’

 

Brandon laced his hands together, looking down, and sighed. Nick had never seen him so reprehensive before. ‘I’ve just been thinking a lot lately… About what happens after this. Right now, we’re sort of living in this… Bubble, you know?’

 

Nick let out a long breath and nodded. ‘Me too. Yeah, I know. I’ve been thinking the same.’ There was quiet for a moment as they both took sips from their cans. ‘I don’t want to stay at the rink forever. I guess I’ll go home for a while and see. If I can find something I really like, I’ll go wherever, but it’d be nice to be near my friends and family, right.’

 

‘Yeah.’ Brandon lifted his head, eyes still on the TV. Nick thought he had become engrossed in the game, and tried to tune into it as well, when Brandon continued; ‘I’m sort of… Scared, I suppose. About me and Cam.’

 

Nick gave him a questioning look.

 

‘Things are going so well for us, I mean. I’m just worried about what will happen next, when we’re out of this bubble.’

 

‘I figure if you guys care about each other, you’ll both make the effort though, right?’

 

‘Yeah. But… Alaska and Connecticut… They’re kinda far.’ Brandon laughed suddenly. ‘Not as far as Buffalo to Russia, though. You still want to sleep with Bob?’

 

Now Nick fiddled with his hands. ‘I don’t want to sleep with him. Well, not just sleep with him. I want to-‘ He blushed a little. ‘-I don’t know-‘

 

Dubi was nodding. ‘I know. I feel the same with Cam, man.’

 

‘But we’re just friends.’

 

‘Have you asked him how he feels about you?’

 

Nick hesitated. ‘Well… No.’ Bob had never explicitly said he didn’t see Nick that way, but he was pretty sure he could read between the lines, and what he read was that the Russian wasn’t interested.

 

‘Then ask. You never know.’

 

‘It’s not just- It’s not just that, though’, he said. ‘It’s nearly the end and, I’m still not sure about what I want to do after this, not just yet. I don’t want to start something and have to figure things out with him when I don’t know what I’m going to do myself. It’s been, I don’t know, eating away at me a little, I guess. Just how fast things are changing.’ Nick bit his tongue, suddenly thinking that it could sound like he was criticising Brandon and Cam for starting a relationship if neither of them were sure of their futures just yet. Only Brandon simply, strangely, put a hand on his arm. This was more emotional than he had ever expected he could get with Brandon Dubinsky.

 

‘It’s okay, Nick. I sort of had to get my head sorted around first year, too. It. It. Took me a while. I don’t think you guys really noticed. Maybe I wasn’t so close to you then, maybe I didn’t want to be close to you then, but I was so confused. Not saying you’re confused in the same way or that you and Bob will turn out the same as me and Cam, just telling you that I’ve been somewhere similar, man.’

 

Nick stared at him, mouth dry. Brandon looked back levelly and continued to talk.

 

‘At least if you talk to him you can get definite closure. Otherwise you’re going to be hanging onto that hope in the back of your mind.’

 

‘Yeah. I guess so.’

 

‘And, you know, I really appreciate you talking to me like this, Nick. Telling me this, I mean. Because everyone always sees you as, like, the mature, decisive one of the group.’

 

Nick blinked in surprise. He hadn’t known his friends saw him that way. ‘Me? Seriously?’

 

‘Yeah.’ Brandon chuckled, before his face turned serious. ‘But you know, we’re your friends, and no matter how college ends, even if we’re apart, I’ll still be your friend and be rooting for you.’

 

‘Thanks. Same to you. Love ya, buddy.’ Nick patted Brandon’s knee.

 

‘You too.’ He grinned. ‘Fuckface.’

 

Nick shook his head. ‘Should have expected better than to have a nice moment with Brandon.’

 

Brandon took a gulp of beer and burped. ‘Damn straight.’

 

‘Shame you’re not.’ Nick smirked.

 

‘Original.’

 

‘You’re too Canadian, that’s your problem, B.’

 

‘I’m American.’

 

‘Alaskan. You’re practically Canadian.’

 

Dubi scoffed. ‘At least I’m not from some prissy East coast state like New York- or Connecticut.’

 

‘I’m telling Cam you said that as soon as he comes in. Then you’re in trouble.’

 

Brandon put his beer can down on the table and surged forward, tugging Nick into a headlock. They were still half-wrestling, half-laughing when the others got home.

 

*

 

‘Hey again, stranger’, Joey laughed as he skated to a stop besides Nick. It was a few evenings after Nick’s late-evening talk with Brandon, and an assorted menagerie of his friends appeared while he was at work. Joey had reappeared, only this time he had his girlfriend with him, as well as Cam, Zach, Bob and Artemi.

 

‘Hey’, Nick laughed as he caught Joey in a one-armed hug. ‘You actually deciding to skate this time?’

 

‘I was thinking about paying for skating and then just hanging out over here with you for an hour.’

 

‘Now Joey, I know you love spending time with me, but Cam is stealing your girl, man.’

 

They both looked over to where Cam was holding hands with Madison, spinning and laughing. Nick’s eyes were drawn across to where Bob and Artemi were also watching, identical smiles on their faces. Bob was holding Artemi’s arm. Nick was glad that he only felt a little jealous. He and Bob were just friends, after all.

 

‘Actually, Nick, I did want to talk to you about something’, Joey confessed, and Nick jumped, wondering for a moment if Joey had seen where he was looking.

 

‘Yeah?’

 

‘Yeah. I, erm.’ Joey licked his lips and pushed his hair back with one gloved hand. ‘I swear if you laugh I’ll punch you. I was actually thinking of asking her to marry me.’

 

‘Seriously?’ Nick gaped at him.

 

‘I love her, man.’

 

‘Holy shit.’ Nick paused. He wanted to ask, are you sure you want to ask now? Yet he didn’t want it to seem like he disapproved.

 

Because, honestly, he didn’t. He knew Joey. He trusted Joey. If his friend, the guy he knew, thought this was right, then Nick believed him. If it worked out Nick would be ecstatic for him. If it didn’t, he would be around to talk to.

 

‘Is that a good holy shit?’, Joey asked. He was grinning, yet Nick could tell he was nervous from the way he was glancing about.

 

‘It’s not a bad one. More of a surprised holy shit, you know.’

 

‘Yeah.’

 

‘What did Cam say?’

 

‘I…’ Joey met Nick’s eyes now. ‘I actually haven’t told him yet. I will, of course, probably tonight even, I just sort of wanted your opinion first. You’re sensible with things like this’, he clarified when Nick raised his eyebrows.

 

Nick felt flattered. ‘Thanks.’

 

‘They’re getting along well though, right? Her and Cam?’

 

Nick looked over.

 

‘They are.’

 

The two of them had stopped spinning, though they were still laughing together, weaving back and forth around each other. Again, his eyes drifted slightly to Bob and Artemi, now skating several feet apart in silence.

 

He turned back to Joey, only to notice that Zach was rapidly approaching.

 

‘Hey guys. What’s up?’

 

‘Not much, man. How have you been?’

 

‘You know, the usual. Essays, exams, crying.’

 

‘Wait ‘til final year’, Joey teased.

 

‘Anyway, Nick, I heard some of the guys talking about you organising a vacation. What is that about?’

 

‘Oh, yeah. Me and Bob’, he indicated with one hand to where the Russians were gliding along, ‘were thinking about maybe heading up toward Canada. Maybe New York area, somewhere like that.’ He raised his eyebrows. ‘Why? You wanna come?’

 

‘If I’m invited, sure.’ Zach shrugged. ‘I’m actually from by Detroit, and I’ve been all around there, so if you headed by there I’d be happy to show you guys about.’

 

‘I’ll keep it in mind, Z.’

 

And then Cam was there, grabbing onto Zach’s arm with both hands and dragging him to the center of the rink, spinning him tightly and then pushing him away.

 

‘Stop! Cam, what’re you doing?’

 

‘Come on! Let’s be figure skaters! Lift me!’

 

Cam took a run at Zach, and Zach was forced to hold his arms out and catch the small blond.

 

‘Hey! No lifting in the rink!’, Nick yelled. Joey snorted by his side.

 

They both ignored him, continuing an improvised routine.

 

‘I’m serious guys, stop it. Guys. Guys! No- shit!

 

One ride to the hospital later, Zach was sporting several stitches, a black eye, and a swollen face.

 

Which was how Nick almost got fired. The only thing that saved his skin were the multiple witnesses who attested to the fact that he was yelling at his dumbass friends to stop mucking about a few seconds before they fell.

 

When Nick and Cam eventually got home, Brandon took in their displeased expressions from the kitchen and asked; ‘What’s up with you guys?’

 

‘He broke Zach’s face’, Nick answered.

 

‘I didn’t mean to.’

 

‘I nearly got fired.’

 

‘But you didn’t.’

 

Brandon looked back and forth between them. ‘What?’

 

‘Here’, Cam was holding his phone out. ‘He’s already put a picture up.’

 

Leaning over, his boyfriend squinted at the image, then groaned. ‘Shit. Boone! Hey, come look at this!’

 

‘Where?’, Nick asked, and Cam turned the screen round to him.

 

He winced. That was not pretty. Hopefully Zach had no dates planned any time soon.

 

‘What is it?’, Boone was asking, having appeared from upstairs. He too took one look at the phone and groaned. ‘Oh fuck. How did he even do that?’

 

As Cam explained the story, Nick continued to stare at the image. That could have been a lot worse. Zach was lucky, really. They all were; Nick had no idea what he would have done had it been worse.

 

‘Holy shit’, Boone said, when Cam finished telling the tale.

 

‘I know.’

 

Dubi said; ‘Oh man, someone really ought to put that on a T-shirt.’

 

*

 

The next day Nick went with Cam and Brandon to apologise to Zach. Cam had bought a large bouquet of flowers by way of apology. Zach received them into his room-slash-‘injury ward’ with mild enthusiasm.

 

‘It’s really not your fault, Cam. We were just being stupid assholes.’

 

‘Yeah, you were.’ Nick grinned, perched on the foot of the bed Zach was reclining on, and received a swift jab in the hip. ‘Oh, so he’s well enough to kick me.’

 

The four of them briefly discussed their vacation, coming to the decision that they should put it off until spring break, given both Zach’s injury and the fact that nothing had been officially planned thus far.

 

The whole time they were there Zach’s housemates dashed in and out, the Swedes offering him some strange Swedish candy and Seth bringing soup. The ‘patient’’s protests were feeble, leading Nick to think that he might be enjoying being taken care of for once a little more than he was letting on.

 

*

 

For the end of term, the dormmates Nick had lived with the previous year held a small reunion. The invite he had received over text had said strictly no plus ones, but Artemi had still shown up to the crowded bar they were meeting in along with Josh and PLD. When Seth asked, they claimed he was their honorary roommate.

 

It only took an hour before the counselling sessions started.

 

Wenny approached him first, at the bar.

 

‘Hey, Nick, can I ask you something?’

 

‘You just did.’ Nick dragged his eyes from where the bartender was filling his glass.

 

Wenny cracked a smile. ‘Okay. Can I ask you something else?’

 

‘Fire away.’ Nick placed his money on the counter and took a sip of his drink.

 

‘Have you noticed anything weird with Bill lately?’

 

He snorted. ‘Besides the haircut?’

 

Half of the girls in Bill and Wenny’s course had been absolutely devastated by Bill’s decision to cut his hair. Nick himself had been stunned when he first saw it: the Swede had taken great pride in his long locks. He thought Boone may have taken it a little too far in his suggestion that they hold a memorial service for them, still Nick could see why that would prove popular.

 

‘Yeah. Anything else?’

 

‘Erm.’ Nick thought for a moment. ‘Not really. Sorry.’

 

Wenny frowned thoughtfully. ‘Oh.’

 

‘How come? Is something going on between you two?’

 

‘I’m just… He’s been keeping secrets from me lately. He doesn’t know I know it, but he left his laptop open… He’s been looking at universities… I think he maybe wants to go back to Sweden.’

 

‘You think he doesn’t want to tell you?’

 

‘I don’t know. We’re meant to be best friends.’ There was a hint of anger in his tone and his posture, and when Nick spoke he did so soothingly.

 

‘If he had told you that he was thinking about it, would you have been okay with it?’

 

Wenny deflated a little. ‘I don’t know. Probably not. I don’t want… to lose my best friend.’

 

Nick was suddenly, oddly, reminded of how Cam was when Joey first got a girlfriend, the conversations they had. ‘So maybe he knows you wouldn’t be okay with it, and that’s why he doesn’t want to tell you?’, he suggested gently. ‘You know you guys can still be friends, even if you end up going in different directions in life, right? You’ll still have that.’

 

‘I guess.’

 

‘Look, Wenny.’ Nick threw his hands up in the air. ‘I’m just saying, there’s not a lot I can do to help you here. You really need to talk to him, if you want to know what’s going on with him. All I can do is speculate. But remember what I said; don’t be a dick to him because he wants different things than you do.’

 

They returned to the table with their drinks, Nick sliding into the side of the booth after Wenny. Wenny immediately began to speak to Bill, seated opposite them in Swedish, and Nick tensed slightly, hoping he hadn’t decided to begin that awkward conversation right that second. From their smiles it didn’t appear so.

 

The next half hour passed with a lot of shuffling in and out from the table to allow others in the group to get up for a trip to the bar or the bathrooms.

 

Nick tuned out of a conversation between Josh and Seth about politics, aware that something was attracting his attention, unaware as to what that might be. It only took a moment to figure out.

 

To his left, Markus- when did he get there?- was sighing.

 

‘What’s up, Marky?’, he asked lightly.

 

‘I’m having trouble. Essays.’ The Finn’s face was downcast.

 

‘Yeah, I know how you feel, man. Still, we have break now, at least, right?’

 

Markus seemed unaffected by his attempt at lightening the mood. He shook his head morosely.

 

‘No. Is not just essays. It is, but… They are difficult. I have to read everything very slowly to understand. Everything is so different here. It is hard for me to- to fit, you understand?’

 

Nick nodded. ‘Ah.’ He racked his brains for something to say, and a solution quickly dawned on him.

 

‘Maybe you should talk to Bob about it?’

 

‘Bob?’ Markus’s eyes brightened.

 

‘Yeah. He’s majoring in Physics, too. You’re doing a class in that, right? Maybe he can help.’

 

He smiled. ‘I like Bob.’ Nick felt a flicker of jealousy. It must have shown on his face, though, as Markus added; ‘Don’t worry, not like you like Bob.’

 

He said it so casually and matter-of-factly that Nick spluttered. The Finn merely looked at him, confused, then turned to talk to the Wenny, who was sitting on his other side.

 

Nick tried to brush it off. Weird Finnish students.

 

A glass of juice was placed in front of him and he felt someone settle in on his other side. He turned and found himself face to face with PLD, who was- well, Nick had known he was a big guy, yet suddenly cramped into a seat next to him his frame seemed to fill the bottom and top corners of the booth.

 

‘Hi.’

 

‘Hey, how’s things going?’

 

‘Erm.’ The Quebecer looked down at his own drink, and Nick sighed. His face had the typical signs of a distressed young man seeking guidance. It was a sight he wished he wasn’t so familiar with. Did he just have Group Dad imprinted on his forehead?

 

‘Do you want to talk to me?’

 

PLD looked up at him, not exactly wide-eyed yet still clearly imploring. ‘Is that okay?’

 

‘At least you asked first. Sure. You always can, you know that.’

 

‘Okay.’ PLD turned his gaze back down. Nick thought he would have to prompt him, but then PLD spoke.

 

‘You’re gay, right?’

 

Nick refrained from rolling his eyes. How many people in the last few years had felt the need to begin a conversation with that?

 

‘Yeah.’

 

‘Cool. It’s just- I- er.’

 

Nick looked at him, recognition dawning. Hesitantly, he asked; ‘You think you might be…?’

 

‘No!’ PLD burst out. He glanced about quickly, then added; ‘No, I like girls. I mean, I really like girls. It’s just, sometimes, there are guys, and they’re just really hot, you know?’ Nick shrugged and he carried on. ‘Not many guys. A few. But I keep thinking, what if…?’ He trailed off.

 

‘Look, Pierre’, Nick sighed, taking a large gulp of his juice. In the time it took him to do so, he realized that was probably the wrong tone to take. This was a guy coming to him with something he was worried about, earnest and open. Nick had never really done that; he had never really needed that. He had always been rather content with who he was, accepting with few questions. Only that didn’t mean everyone was. He thought of Brandon talking to him on the couch of how he had struggled alone; of Cam confessing his feelings in the dark of the night, not necessarily conflicted though needing to say it.

 

‘Look’, he began again, softer this time, and moved an arm around PLD’s shoulders. ‘As far as I can tell, sexuality is always a changing thing, you know. Someone could go eighty years of their life thinking they’re straight, or gay, and then meet the one person who makes them doubt it. If it turns out you do like just girls and this is a phrase, then that’s good. If it turns out you do like a few guys, so what, that’s great too. If it turns into more than a few guys, too. All that matters is you’re happy, so don’t stress yourself too much about this. And if anyone does try to make you stress about it, you know you can always come to your friends.’

 

PLD watched him for a moment, eyes swimming, then hugged Nick. They both laughed when Seth joined the hug from behind, leaning over the back of the booth and almost spilling half his drink on PLD in the process.

 

They broke up into more trivial, amusing conversations, and Nick felt… Merry was the only way he could describe it.

 

When a guy approached him at the bar as he went up to buy his next drink, he didn’t say no. He might have done another time, almost certainly would have a week before. Today, although he hadn’t drunk a lot, he felt uninhibited, not really caring if his dormmates saw him leave, actually half-glad when he caught Josh winking at him, and gave PLD- who was blushing- a mischievous glance before he ducked around the doorway. It was nice.

 

The next morning, he woke up feeling a little more at peace with himself, and laughed at the thought that maybe he did just need to get laid.

 

*

 

To save money for Spring, Nick stayed in Ohio for Christmas, skyping his family and living off of leftovers.

 

Christmas Day itself was spent with Bob, the Swedes, Markus, Joonas, Brandon and Ryan, who had all remained in town for various reasons, be it work, studying, or trying to save money like Nick himself. The group met at Bob’s house, now empty, to eat dinner- mercifully the majority of which had been pre-prepared and only required baking in the oven for a little while- and drink hot chocolate and cheap wine. Joonas and Bob were wearing matching sweaters. When Nick asked, Dubi explained that, thus far unbeknownst to Bob, the Finn had decided that Bob had adopted him in a way. It wasn’t obvious, but Joonas liked to copy what their Russian friend did sometimes. It was sweet, in a way, and Nick couldn’t help smiling when he saw Joonas following Bob to the kitchen and back for second helpings. He was going to build himself an army of Finnish followers if he wasn’t careful. Then again, maybe that was the game plan.

 

After they had all filled themselves with too much food to move, watching a movie on Bob’s laptop which had been propped up on the coffee table, Joey called.

 

‘Hello?’

 

‘Hey, Nick. Merry Christmas.’

 

‘Merry- hold on. Guys.’ Nick half-covered the microphone with his hand. ‘It’s Joey.’

 

‘Merry Christmas Joey’, the group chorused, and Nick heard Joey cackling.

 

‘You’re a beauty, Nick.’

 

‘I know it. So, are you just calling to say happy Christmas?’

 

‘Actually, I do have a reason for calling. I proposed. And she said yes.’

 

‘Holy shit, dude, that’s awesome! Oh man, I’m so happy for you.’ When Brandon raised an eyebrow, he clarified; ‘Joey proposed.’

 

‘And she said yes?’, Bill asked, half-serious, ruffling one hand through his hair.

 

‘Of course.’ Nick raised the phone back to his ear. ‘I’m happy for you, man. We all are. So, when’s the big date?’

 

Joey huffed. ‘Not for a while yet, I guess. We both said we probably won’t think about officially doing it until we both have decent jobs and somewhere to live.’

 

‘That’s fair. Hey, do I get to be best man?’

 

‘Cam already taxed it.’

 

‘Ah, shit. Should have guessed.’

 

‘Maid of honor’s open if you feel up to it?’

 

Nick chuckled. ‘Maybe. Although I think that would suit Murray better, I can see him carrying a bouquet or whatever.’

 

Ryan gave him the finger without taking his eyes from the laptop screen.

 

Later on, after a few eggnogs and a few more beers, Nick dozed off on the couch, his head so far back that the brim of his baseball cap pointed directly up to the dingy ceiling. He was only jolted back into the present by a crashing noise from the stairs to the second floor of the building. Blinking, he discovered the room was empty.

 

‘Guys? What’s going on?’, he asked when they all shuffled back in a couple of minutes later.

 

‘Oh’, Bill said. ‘Ryan fell down the stairs and dislocated his shoulder.’

 

‘He what?’

 

‘It’s okay, I popped it back in.’ Ryan shrugged, blasé. ‘It’s happened before.’

 

Nick shuddered at the thought.

 

‘Anyway, now I don’t have to call an ambulance again’, Bob grinned. ‘Who wants to play a game?’

 

Nick looked up at him, aware of the probably dopy look on his face and also not really caring. ‘What kind of game?’

 

‘You have Monopoly, right?’

 

‘You really want to challenge me- me- to a game of Monopoly?’

 

The Russian’s face grew serious. ‘Yes.’

 

‘You’re going down, Bobrovsky.’

 

*

 

Nick and Bob spent the final few days of the winter break essentially locked in Bob’s attic, only leaving for work and to sleep. Nick was surprised Bob let him in the first day, given how intense their game had gotten.

 

Together they doubled down on researching flights and places to stay for the spring break vacation given that neither of them had any major assignments due over the holidays, thankfully.

 

Nick still held his breath a little whenever Bob leant over him at the desk to point to something or look at which Nick was showing him on the screen, only the ache was manageable now. He knew it was sad that he still felt it, all these years on. He knew he was wasting his time. Only it wasn’t like in dumb romance novels where the air was thick with tension, not all the time. It was a soft, subtle, underlying thing that he only really caught himself thinking about on odd moments when he noticed how nice Bob was looking. Mostly he was just glad to be with his friend, and that his friend was happy to be with him. Those days spent together passed slowly.

 

*

 

Sitting back in his own room, before the first day of the new term, Nick decided to upload a picture he had taken from Christmas onto Facebook. He needed a new profile photo, anyway. And he and Bob looked cute in their Christmas sweaters, grinning into the camera.

 

Ten minutes after uploading it, it had already received a lot of likes, and Nick had received a message from his mom, asking which of his friends that was; she knew most of the names but few of their faces. He told her it was the Russian with the cool name. She told him it was a nice picture. Nick agreed with her and shut his laptop.

 

*

 

‘I have had a bright idea’, Zach announced during lunch with Nick on campus on Friday.

 

‘Rare.’

 

Zach rolled his eyes- Nick rembered he hadn’t been capable of doing that the last time they saw each other, one of them had been so swollen- before saying; ‘Actually, I had a bright idea a while ago. You’re the last to know. I just thought you might want in. My house are all up for it, and the Russians.’

 

‘Okay. What is it?’

 

‘Street hockey game tomorrow?’

 

Nick smiled. He hadn’t been expecting that. ‘Alright, you’re on.’

 

When he went to Zach’s house the next day, it was with David in tow, who had dropped round to discuss a law essay and ended up staying.

 

‘That’s actually perfect’, Zach said. ‘Joonas came over to visit Markus, he wants to join. We have five a side now.’

 

Nick was glad when he heard that; he had sort of suggested to Joonas that he try to befriend Markus, since the kid occasionally appeared a little lonely before, and it seemed to be working, from the way the two of them were laughing by the side of the road together. He mentally patted himself on the back for that one.

 

They divided themselves into two sides. Nick’s team consisted Bob in goal, then Markus, Wenny, and Seth. David, the other nominated captain, had Joonas in net, then Bill, Artemi and Joonas. It had been David’s idea to split the Russians, Swedes, and Finns; he claimed it would give an extra edge to the competition.

 

‘This is going to ruin some friendships here, man’, Nick laughed as he and David faced off against each other.

 

‘Still not as bad as Monopoly.’ David grinned back.

 

They won, yet only narrowly. The final score stood at 3-2. A large part of that was thanks to Bob in goal. Nick was honestly impressed. Joonas, too; both of the goaltenders were better than he had anticipated. Joonas had robbed him on a couple of good shots.

 

Later, exhausted, they sat in the house and drank lemonade.

 

‘Hey, I’m surprised Zach didn’t mess his face up anymore than he already has.’

 

Zach had spent the entire game with a helmet that had a cage on it. He was still wearing it now, as part of his punishment for losing, sipping on his lemonade through a straw.

 

‘Where did you even find that thing, man?’

 

‘Oh’, Zach said, ‘this?’

 

‘Yeah’, Nick said. ‘That.’

 

‘Me and my best friend, back home, Dylan, always used to play street hockey together. My mom sometimes made me wear this, since I got hurt a couple times, and she told me to take it in case I played here.’

 

He went quiet. The whole group sat in silence, comfortable, all reflecting on childhood memories spent playing sports in the summer and running home for a glass of cool, refreshing lemonade.

 

*

 

David ended up crashing on the end of Nick’s bed that night, after the two spent time studying for the math class they were taking together. Nick volunteered to fix them breakfast the next morning, but David just wanted toast and made it himself.

 

Come midday they dragged themselves into the planning session Nick had proposed for Spring break. David had told Nick the night before that he wanted to join, promising to show the group some cool places around Quebec, given they made it up there.

 

Cam and Dubi had gone out somewhere, so it was just Nick, David, Matt, Boone, and Bob seated around the table.

 

‘I was talking to Zach’, Nick began, laptop open in front of him and hands folded above the laptop. ‘He said about a bus to Michigan- up to Detroit- and he’d show us around. Then we can fly out to anywhere in Canada from there, really. When we’re there we can also meet up with-’ (check on, Nick’s mind provided unbidden) ‘-Jack, and maybe see some of Zach’s friends too.’

 

Those words sparked a debate. While they were all apparently on board for Detroit- not particularly as a city, rather as a chance to see their old friend- there were multiple long pitches as to where in Canada they should go. Matt argued for Manitoba, Boone for Ontario- ‘It’s where all the cool cities are, seriously, Calvy, what the hell is there to do in Manitoba’- and David for Quebec.

 

‘It would be nice if we could see New York too’, Bob said wistfully, after twenty minutes of back-and-forth arguing.

 

‘Yeah but, guys, remember we don’t have too long, okay? We won’t be able to do everything. And we’re not made of money’, Nick attempted to quiet them.

 

It worked. They all fell silent and stared at him, and after a long beat of silence he recognized that they were looking to him to make a decision. Brandon’s words that night, around a month ago, about him being seen as a leader, suddenly returned to him. It felt odd, still. Yet it was something he could work with, especially here.

 

‘Alright, so Michigan is definitely in, for Jack and Zach’s friends, yeah? But we’ll get everyone to vote on the rest and see what kind of money we have.’

 

Boone suggested; ‘Maybe we should look at the sort of accommodation costs for each place, and flights, so we can tell the others? It could affect their decisions.’

 

‘Good idea. Me and Bob already looked at some, see?’

 

Nick showed them some of the research they had already done on his laptop; flights, hostels, apartments on Airbnb. ‘I mean, some of those Airbnb places seem pretty expensive, like 400 to 500 dollars a night, but if you look a lot of them have like four or five beds, and most of them are double, so we could bunk up and it would be cheaper. I mean, 50 bucks is still a lot, but these places are nice, like luxury. If not, these hostels are pretty sick, and about 30 a night. Some private rooms for like 5 or 6 people are good prices, too.’

 

They elected to think about it, noting down the prices with the intention of messaging the others.

 

‘Now I gotta go hammer out an essay boys’, Matt told them, standing up and stretching one arm behind his head.

 

His departure seemed to break the serious mood, and they decided to suspend all discussions about vacations until the others were around.

 

*

 

Their journey, Nick had decided, was a small lifesaver. Before, he had been afraid of the prospect of graduating, moving back home, and falling into the rut of having nothing to do. Only now, graduation was still a terrifying prospect, but the Spring vacation and the effort that went into planning it had occupied the forefront of his mind, to the extent that he was completely tuned out of whatever Cam was saying as the two of them left their class together in the evening. Until a horn honked near them, anyway.

 

Cam broke off from what he had been saying as the two turned to find Brandon leaning out the driver’s side of his car. Bob sat in the back, waving cheerily.

 

‘Hey, you guys, what’s going on?’, Nick asked as he climbed in besides Bob.

 

‘We were gonna go for food. You wanna come?’

 

‘Absolutely, I’m starving.’ Nick smiled at Brandon in the rear-view mirror as he responded to him, before turning to Bob. ‘Thanks for not leaving me alone with the couple.’

 

Bob grinned back. ‘Least I could do. I know what it is like, being alone with them.

 

‘Fuck you, it’s not like we make out in front of you guys or anything’, Cam huffed, twisting in his seat.

 

‘Yes, Cam, we’re thankful for you not giving B a dental examination in our presence.’ Nick rolled his eyes.

 

‘Hey, man, this is practically a double date, stop bringing down the mood.’

 

Nick froze. He didn’t dare look at Bob. He could almost feel the mortification rolling off of the Russian in waves.

 

Cam snorted; ‘As if Bob would ever stoop so low. He has better taste than that.’

 

Nick cursed his friends’ lack of tact silently.

 

After dinner and dropping Bob back home, they rode in silence. Nick leaned his head against the window, watching the dark shapes of the buildings that they passed in the night.

 

Cam said, not demandingly but in a soft tone that was wondering and confused; ‘Seriously, Nick, why aren’t you doing anything about this? You really like him, it’s frustrating for the rest of us to watch. It’s like you’re one of the most decisive people I know, except when it comes to this.’

 

Avoiding answering, he asked; ‘Do you think he likes me?’

 

There was a pause.

 

Then; ‘Honestly, Bob can be a little hard to read, Fliggy.’

 

‘Exactly. And even if he does, he said he’s probably going back to Russia. And that’s only a few months away. And I don’t want to press anything, force him into something when we don’t really have the time to take things slowly.’

 

‘Well, whose fault is that for leaving it so long?’, Brandon snarked from the driver’s seat.

 

‘Maybe you could give him a reason to stay’, Cam suggested brightly, and Nick’s heat tugged at that.

 

*

 

Cam was acting strange- or stranger than usual- on Friday evening. At this point, Nick no longer questioned his friends’ odd actions. They would reveal their thoughts to him at some point, if they wanted to do so.

 

The short blond had returned from wherever he and Brandon had been, come into Nick’s room, and laid on Nick’s bed, where he had been trying to do work.

 

Nick closed his laptop and eyed him suspiciously.

 

Cam remained sprawled on his front, head resting on his crossed arms, not saying anything. Nick was reminded of second year, when he and Cam would just walk into each other’s rooms if they needed to talk or if they just wanted company. He turned back to his work, electing to quickly wrap up this paragraph of his essay before he lost his train of thought.

 

Barely a minute later, his phone, on the bed between Nick himself and his laptop, buzzed, and he reached for it. There was a text from Joey. It read;

 

‘Come over. Bring Cam. Madison has gone out with her friends.’

 

Nick shot back a quick ‘sure’, grabbed a mute Cam, and they made their way over to Joey’s apartment in silence, Nick sneaking glances at his friend in curiosity. What the hell was going on?

 

His confusion only mounted when, upon opening the door, Joey gripped both of Cam’s upper arms, staring at him for a long moment. Cam tipped his head back to meet Joey’s gaze silently. Several seconds passed, with Nick watching frozen, before Joey suddenly hugged Cam.

 

‘Guys, am I missing something?’

 

‘Didn’t you tell him yet?’, Joey asked, still holding Cam. A small hum emerged from somewhere around the general area of Joey’s chest.

 

Cam pulled back and shook his head, pushing his hair back out of his face with both hands. ‘I was going to but then I just… I feel so overwhelmed right now.’

 

‘Overwhelmed in a good way, though, right?’ Joey sounded worried.

 

‘Yes!’ Cam seemed to be going through a whirlwind of emotions, turning red and laughing. ‘Yes, in a good way. Fuck, though, I just wasn’t expecting-’

 

‘What?!’, Nick demanded now.

 

‘Dubi proposed’, Joey burst out.

 

‘Oh my god.’ He looked back and forth between them. He knew it was not a joke from the way they were acting, yet he still found himself waiting for confirmation. ‘Oh my god.’

 

‘Yeah’, Cam squeaked. ‘Tonight, at dinner.’

 

‘Come on, inside’, Joey said, apparently just realising they were still in the hall. He grabbed each of his friends by the sleeve and tugged them inside.

 

Cam poured out some glasses of wine, and his story.

 

‘I mean, it wasn’t really a surprise, exactly, we’d talked before, about the future, but it was only really meant to be the future, it didn’t feel real then.’

 

‘So, it was a surprise?’, Joey asked. ‘How did he ask?’

 

‘He didn’t exactly get down on one knee.’ Cam snorted. He carried the glasses over to the table and set them down gently, in front of where Nick and Joey were sitting, and joined them on the couch. ‘I guess he was a little worried- I mean, I would be- he just sort of got out the box and asked me if I wanted to marry him?’

 

‘Wow’, Nick said. He wasn’t sure what else there was to say.

 

‘Ahuh’, Cam nodded, taking a drink. ‘So we talked, and I said yes, but only after we talked, and we decided we’re going to live together after graduation, fuck everything else. We’ll have to get jobs, we’re not all that put together like you guys, but we’ll find something. S’long as we’re together.’

 

Nick didn’t think he was all that put together. Joey maybe- this apartment was nice and there was so much cream furniture that Nick was slightly panicking over how best to drink his red wine without spilling anything- but he and Cam were in this screwed up boat together. He decided to keep his mouth shut instead of beginning a debate and ruining the mood.

 

‘I call dibs on best man’, Joey announced cheerily.

 

‘Hey! He’s your best man, so then I should be his! And then you can be mine! Triangle buddy system, man. I’m not being maid of honor for this one.’

 

Joey laughed. ‘You can give him away maybe? When you guys go out together people think he’s your son anyways.’

 

Cam kicked him.

 

They finished their glasses in relative silence.

 

Cam gestured around. ‘Man, I haven’t been here in a while. This place is sweet.’

 

‘Yeah. I actually had something to tell you, too.’ Joey didn’t appear nervous at all; he smiled, relaxed. Nick took it as a good sign. ‘Some guy in the apartment below has some contacts. I was talking to him, and he sort of got me recommended for a job, as a future graduate. A good one. And I did the interviews the other day, and I passed.’

 

‘That’s great!’ Nick high-fived him. Cam began pouring some more wine.

 

‘When do you start?’

 

‘That’s the thing. I start pretty much straight after graduation… And it’s in Louisiana.’

 

‘Louisiana?!’ Cam whipped his head around, mouth open. ‘Really? But… That’s so far.’

 

‘Yeah.’ Joey took the glass Cam was handing to him. ‘I’m a little scared, to be honest with you. I mean… It’s a great opportunity and Madison is coming with me, but… We’re going to be living together, somewhere where we don’t know anyone else.’

 

‘Ah.’

 

Nick asked; ‘Are you sure you want to go?’

 

‘Oh yeah. It’s not enough to put me off, really. And after four years here, I guess, that’s enough. Still shitting myself, though.’

 

‘It’ll be okay, man. If it doesn’t work out you can always come back.’

 

‘Yeah, I guess.’

 

Cam hugged him. ‘Does this mean I can have your apartment now?’

 

‘No, fuck you.’

 

They carried on drinking. Joey got out his laptop and showed them some pictures of where he was moving.

 

‘We’ll have to come down and visit’, Nick suggested.

 

‘Oh yeah, definitely’, Cam agreed.

 

Joey suddenly asked; ‘Hey, Cam?’

 

‘Yeah?’

 

‘When are you and Dubi actually planning to have the big day?’

 

‘Erm… Pretty much after we graduate… Maybe the year after, so we have time to sort everything. Sorry, I know you and Madison want to wait until you have the money-‘

 

‘What are you apologising for? That was our choice. If you guys choose different and you think it’ll work for you, then go ahead.’

 

Cam was silent for a moment. Then he said; ‘Do you guys think it’s a mistake, getting married so young?’

 

‘No’, Nick replied, surprised. ‘Why, you’re not having second thoughts, are you?’

 

He hurriedly shook his head. ‘No. I know I want to marry him, and I love him, but I… You wonder, don’t you? How life would be differently, if you did shit differently.’

 

‘Yeah man, of course’, Joey said quietly.

 

‘It’ll be fine, Cameroon’, Nick added.

 

‘You think?’

 

‘Yeah’, Joey said. ‘If not I’ll beat the shit out of Dubi.’

 

‘How do you know he’s the one who’s fucked up?’

 

‘Okay, then we’ll beat the shit out of you for messing with Dubi’, Joey joked.

 

Nick sighed. ‘Cam, this is a genuine question, don’t take it the wrong way. I mean, it’s not like I’m doubting your decision, but I gotta ask: Why Dubi? Like when did you know?’

 

Cam looked up at him. ‘He just… Makes me happy, I guess. Even when I don’t see him, and I think about him.’

 

*

 

Nick ruminated on that for a long while.

 

*

 

They held an engagement party the next weekend. Joey sulked through the first half an hour.

 

‘Well, you never held one for me.’

 

Probably adding to the insult was the fact that Artem and Scott both came up for the weekend to visit his old friends, and dropped by. Scott had added a ‘y’ to all of the signs so they read ‘engaygement’. He probably thought it was funny.

 

Nick was glad to see PLD was looking a little happier than the last time Nick saw him; he was grinning madly at Josh, and Nick couldn’t help wondering if he maybe had a crush. Although he was also grinning madly at Artemi, too, so perhaps it was just a roommate thing. At least he wasn’t looking at Bob like that.

 

The Swedes were teasing Markus, as per usual, although they were all laughing and in good humor, and Seth and Zach were being regaled by Hartsy’s many tales: Nick had forgotten that they didn’t know him before.

 

He ended up speaking in a group with the Russians for most of the evening, and while they attempted to stick to English for him, they often ended up divulging into their mother tongue at some point in the conversation. Nick was admittedly sort of jealous; not that they were excluding him, but that he didn’t get to hear how his friends spoke in their native language. It was like a whole other side to their personalities was closed off to him, he thought as he looked around at them laughing, trying hard not to look like he was staring.

 

Some of the other Russians, Nick noticed, used English as a blunt tool, forcing it into the representation they desired with odd sentence structures and hastily uttered syllables. (For some reason, he always pictured metaphorical concepts like language in physical terms, some nameless object whose form could be changed.) Bob, on the other hand, seemed to shape it with care, drifting on ellipses in between words as he searched for the right ones; not necessarily word choices that sounded proper to native English speakers, but ones that conveyed how Bob was thinking, testing them tentatively before he committed to one.

 

Russian was different. In Russian Bob didn’t need to be tentative. The longer he listened to their conversations, the more he could pick up the individual differences in the ways they spoke, in both languages.

 

Part of his mind resolved to start learning Russian, although he was aware it was just a random thought more than any meaningful commitment. He supposed, even if he did learn it, there were a lot of things he would never really get about Russian culture. For some reason, instead of enhancing the feeling of distance between himself and his friends, the acceptance of that thought calmed Nick. There were things he would never understand about Bob and Artemi and the others, and things they would never really understand about him. It was interesting to try to bridge that gap, though.

 

*

 

After many evenings of torturous debate and a long-winded vote, Nick was given total control over their spring break plans. He spent the next few weeks in Bob’s room, the two of them pouring over the laptop once again and messaging people about hostels and rooms, knelt side by side facing the desk like he and Markus used to do as kids so they could read an article on the sports page of the newspaper each.

 

‘Bob, do I make you happy?’, he asked one day.

 

Bob looked at him and laughed. ‘That is an odd question.’

 

‘I know.’

 

He thought about it. ‘Yes, of course.’

 

And that was enough.

 

*

Finally, it was end of term exams, and Nick was just trying to get through them so that break could arrive. At the same time, he wanted it to drag: the clock was counting down, ticking away the seconds, and he was not sure what would happen when that timer hit 0.

 

*

 

One evening, in the guise of a break from studying, Nick took Bob skating. His co-workers who were supposed to be locking up for the night were kind enough to let them stay after everyone else had gone. The perks of working at the rink.

 

‘Does this remind you of home?’, Nick asked, genuinely curious, after the two of them had made a few laps side-by-side in silence. They had been circling the rink, sometimes just moving in their own half but continuously coming back together over the smooth center ice and laughing. Nick looked back at the surface glistening under the lights, the tracks embedding patterns in it, trying to guess which ones belonged to him and which belonged to Bob.

 

Bob turned to look at him. His long strides were graceful and he wasn’t thrown out of balance by his body shifting. Nick stared in both awe and jealousy.

 

‘A little, I guess.’ His eyes shone, wedged in between the low brim of a wool hat and flushed cheeks. ‘I think I have told you before, where I live, there’s a big river and ponds. When it all freezes in the winter, all the neighborhood kids skate. Sometimes we have hockey games.’

 

‘Were you a goalie?’ Nick made a small loop, cutting off the corner of the rink to catch up with Bob.

 

‘Yes.’ Bob started going backwards, facing him now, although evidently a little slower, unsteady. ‘How do you know?’

 

‘When we played street hockey- you were really good.’

 

Bob laughed, a little self-consciously. ‘Good to know all that practice went somewhere.’

 

‘And here I thought goalies were meant to be the worst skaters’, Nick gestured. ‘Isn’t that what they say? You become a goalie because you don’t want to skate? But here you are, and you’re doing better than me.’

 

‘No’, Bob shook his head. ‘Your strides are powerful. And I can skate but… I’m no good at stopping. You might… Have to help me.’

 

Nick laughed. ‘I can stop with both feet at the same time. Wanna try?’

 

‘Okay.’

 

Bob was right. He wasn’t very good at stopping.

 

‘No, see, put your skates like this-’ Nick laughed again as Bob fell for the fifth time. He was about to reach out a hand, unsure if the Russian was okay, but Bob was already on his knees, doubled over in laughter.

 

‘Sorry’, he gasped between chuckles. ‘I will get it soon.’

 

Nick smiled fondly and wondered how the scene would appear to an observer looking down from the small rink’s café overlooking the ice surface, next to where the skates were rented out. It was dark and cold now, all locked up for the night, but he could picture the faces of the families, thick coats and woolly hats, as they observed the two small figures under the spotlights, the ice which was glistening as it rapidly got wetter and choppier. How one figure was bent as though in pain, the other half-reaching out, reaching to touch before pulling back.

 

He pulled Bob to his feet with both hands once he had stopped laughing, and the two spun in several tight circles for a minute, hands locked together.

 

‘Hey, maybe if I do it first, and then you can try and push your skates against mine to stop’, Nick suggested.

 

Bob looked at him blankly.

 

‘Like this’, he explained, gesturing with one hand. ‘I stand away from you, and then you skate at me- slowly- and stop with your skates against mine so you won’t fall.’

 

‘What if I make you fall?’, the Russian asked hesitantly.

 

‘You won’t. It’s okay, I do it for the kids at the rink sometimes if I think they’re going to fall. I got you.’

 

Bob still looked doubtful, but he nodded. ‘Okay. Let’s try.’

 

Nick skated away a few steps, and, hell, the thin sheets of water on the ice were beginning to form shallow puddles on top of the frozen stuff. They needed to go soon. He skidded to a stop, gliding along sideways much longer than usual and nearly slipping and falling himself this time.

 

‘Go slow, it’s pretty slippery’, he called back. Bob merely nodded again and began to move forward slowly.

 

He made it to Nick with no problems, but as soon as he began to turn his skates to stop Nick realized they were going to have a problem. Bob was still moving too fast, and Nick could almost feel himself sliding about while he was standing still, thanks to the water.

 

Bob’s feet hit his, and they both went sprawling to the surface.

 

Nick laughed and spluttered as water seeped into his jacket. ‘Fuck!’

 

‘I’m sorry! Are you okay?’, Bob was asking, gripping at Nick’s jacket and practically half-clambering over him to see his face.

 

‘Bob! I’m fine, just-’ he coughed a laugh and reached with one arm to push himself up, finding it impossible with the weight on top of him. ‘-get off!’

 

‘Oh, sorry.’ Bob shuffled back the way he had come from, sitting back heavily on the ice, then wincing as the cold water soaked his pants.

 

They sat there for a moment, in abject horror at the state they had found themselves in. Nick looked down at himself, at the dark patches on his clothes. Then across to Bob, whose hair was ruffled and, likewise, had the telltale dark spots. Nick wondered why neither of them were moving.

 

After a long minute, they began to get up. It took several attempts, pushing their skates together and grasping hands in an attempt to propel each other skyward. Nick almost made it upright once, before Bob got a hold of one of his knees and yanked him back down.

 

By the time Nick’s co-worker appeared and told them they needed to go home, Nick was drenched, only he didn’t feel the cold, just the ache of his sides from laughing.

 

*

 

They were still laughing when they reached Bob’s road.

 

‘You’d better hold on to my arm’, Nick had said as they left the rink behind, after they had turned around the corner. They had already waved Nick’s co-worker goodbye when he headed in the opposite direction. ‘I don’t trust you not to fall again.’

 

Nick had congratulated himself on being smooth, only for his ace to flush warm and red for the rest of the journey, so he mentally retracted the smooth thing and concentrated on telling awful dad jokes as they braved the night.

 

They stopped outside the door to Bob’s apartment.

 

‘Better get inside quick’, he said lightly. ‘It’s not that cold, but man, the wind-’

 

Bob cut him off, nodding and moving away from the American’s side so that they stood face to face. ‘Yes, yes, hurry home Nick.’

 

Only they remained where they were, standing and staring at each other through the thick night air.

 

Eventually, Nick opened his mouth to speak, only for Bob to get there first.

 

‘Thanks, Nicky. Was a good break.’ He smiled shyly, tipping his head right down so their eyes were on a level, peering up through his lashes.

 

The only thing Nick could come up with in response was; ‘You’re welcome.’

 

There was more staring. Bob inched closer without looking away.

 

Nick thought of that night. Two years ago.

 

He knew what he should do.

 

Instead, he said; ‘Have a good one, my man.’

 

Which.

 

What.

 

Why did he say that?

 

As he walked away, leaving Bob to turn and go inside, the small inner voice Nick had moved beyond anger at himself and into a stupefied rage.

 

How could he have done that?

 

He had been so close.

 

He could have kissed Bob.

 

It was right there. And he just walked away.

 

But what if he had misread things again, his mind provided. Better to walk away than make another mistake like that.

 

He turned back at the end of the street, expecting to see Bob still frozen in what he imagined was confusion, perhaps even horror. Maybe he could ask. Maybe he could explain himself. But Bob had gone.

 

Nick sighed and screwed his face up as he turned to face the bitter wind. Now he got why Brandon was so frustrated with him.

 

*

 

‘‘Have a good one’?!’, Cam roared, half-laughing, half-incredulous.

 

‘Shhh.’ Nick waved one hand in an attempt to quiet him. It was past 11pm and he was pretty sure Calvy had said he had a paper due in the morning. His hand accidentally touched Brandon’s back, where he was sleeping on his front. Nick shuffled away a little where he sat on the bed, unwilling to be caught in the middle of Dubi’s rage.

 

‘Sorry, but what the fuck, Fliggy?’, Cam was chortling. ‘‘My man’?’

 

Brandon, still half-asleep, groaned and put a pillow over his head. ‘Can you two shut the hell up?’

 

He must have been really out of it, Nick supposed, if he was passing up on this prime opportunity to chirp him. Nick was sure he would make up for it in the morning, however.

 

‘Alright, alright, I’m gone.’ Nick threw his hands up, moving toward the doorway. ‘Goodnight, fellas.’

 

‘Night’, Brandon grunted.

 

‘Goodnight Fliggy! And… have a good one!’, Cam called after him, dissolving once more into laughter.

 

Nick shut the door behind him as Brandon whined at Cam to please be quiet.

 

*

 

Nick only saw Bob twice again before Spring break.

 

The first time was at Bob’s house. Nick had dropped by on his way home from a particularly awful exam, hoping that Bob would be in his attic and he could just go straight up there to receive the gentle comfort of Bob’s pitying stare.

 

Only when he arrived Bob was watching something on TV with Josh, PLD, Artemi, and Dima, who Nick didn’t recognize until Bob mentioned Paris. He joined them for a moment to relax, and also to attempt to comprehend what exactly they were watching. Apparently it was some old Russian movie that Bob and Artemi had been attempting to foist upon their housemates. There was more crying than Nick would have expected in a Russian movie. Josh and PLD seemed to be into it, whatever the case, cheering and calling some guy named Nikolai a ‘true bro’. Nick failed to grasp what was happening and, after several minutes, made the excuse of needing to go home and study.

 

The second time was when the group who were going on their vacation gathered at Nick’s to run over the plan, make sure everyone was on board, and that everyone knew what to pack. The group consisted of Nick himself, Cam, Brandon, Boone, David, Bob, Artemi, PLD, Josh, Zach, Seth, Wenny, Markus, Joonas, Lukas, Oliver and Sonny. Joey had been busy with work. Bill had dropped out the last minute; he said it was because of money, but Nick could see Wenny was worried about him and resolved to find out what was going on there. Jack was meant to be joining them for the second part of their vacation, only he messaged Nick a couple of days before to say he thought he could probably only meet them in Detroit for the day.

 

The plan was to take a four hour bus ride to Detroit on Friday evening. Most of the guys finished any exams a couple of days before, but apparently Seth had a nasty one to sit on Friday morning. They would stay in a hostel for the weekend, meeting up with Jack and maybe a couple of Zach’s old buddies, who he kept messaging excitedly. On Monday afternoon they would fly to Calgary and take the airport shuttle to Banff, where they’d booked a few places on Airbnb, and would be exploring and hiking until Thursday afternoon, when they flew back to Columbus from Calgary.

 

‘We’ll decide the roommate situation when we get there’, Nick said, after going over the plan one more time.

 

‘What are the houses like?’, Sonny asked.

 

Nick looked at the word document he’d made on his phone, charting all the specifics of their vacation. ‘They all looked pretty good in terms of reviews and stuff. One house has three double beds and one sofa bed. The next one has two doubles and two singles, then one with one double, two singles and a sofa bed, and one with two double beds. A couple of you might need to double up, but I don’t think there’ll be any problems.’

 

He scrolled further down, checking if he’d forgotten everything, and added; ‘They should have washing machines, so you only really need to bring a backpack, just with clothes for the weekend. Basically, just bring some hiking pants, maybe a couple of shirts, a spare pair of jeans or sweats if they’ll fit, some underwear, socks and a toothbrush. Wear a coat and boots. Appropriate ones. Everything else we can buy on the way.’

 

He looked up and found the entire group watching him. It was a little unnerving.

 

He scanned their faces. ‘We good?’

 

The room broke apart, smiling and talking, and Nick smiled, genuinely excited now.

 

*

 

Nick received a call from Marcus on Friday morning as he packed. He sounded a little awkward, saying that mom told him about Nick’s vacation, and he hoped he and his friends would have fun.

 

‘Thanks, Marcus’, Nick replied, staring at a plain black T-shirt in deliberation before beginning to fold it and put it into his pack.

 

‘Actually, Nick, I wanted to ask you something…’

 

‘Oh, what’s that?’

 

‘It’s about college.’

 

‘Okay?’

 

‘Well… I didn’t want to ask mom and dad, but… There’s a college I really like, but it’s in Minneapolis.’

 

‘That sounds great.’

 

‘You don’t think I should stay home? All my friends are here.’ His voice was almost drowned out by the sound of a scooter skidding to a stop out in the front street.

 

‘You’ll be okay. I know it’s scary, but you can always call me or mom and dad if you need anything.’ Nick waved out the window to Zach as he spoke, who had hopped off his scooter, still wearing his uniform from his pizza delivery job.

 

He further encouraged his brother as he headed toward the door, expecting to hear Zach knock any minute now, as soon as he wheeled his scooter round back and climbed the steps up to the apartment door. He waved to Boone, sitting on the couch- most definitely not ready to go anywhere- and eating a bowl of cereal as he watched TV.

 

‘Yeah, but Minneapolis is far. Further than Columbus. And I told Dad I wanted to stay and go to the same school as he did.’

 

‘He’ll understand. It’ll be fine, buddy, trust me.’ He opened the front door. ‘I gotta go, I love you, kiddo.’

 

Marcus snorted. ‘Love you too, idiot. Call me when you get back.’

 

‘Sure.’

 

Nick hung up, then peered round outside. No Zach.

 

He made his way down the steps and round to the street.

 

Zach was stood on the small strip of yard in front of the hairdressers, jacket on the ground, and was attempting to yank his pants off.

 

‘Z? Buddy? What the heck are you doing?’

 

‘I quit my job, Nick’, he replied between grunts as he stepped out of one leg and then the other. ‘I’m done with that place, finally.’ He threw the pants to the floor triumphantly.

 

Zach had already told them he was quitting his job before spring break, something his housemates lamented as he often brought home free pizza, but Nick hadn’t expected him to be so happy about it.

 

Nick perceived that Boone had joined them only when he whistled. He was still holding his bowl of cereal and, as Nick could now see, also not wearing pants. Jesus Christ. What must the neighbors think.

 

‘What happened? Did you break Zach?’, Boone asked him, casually spooning more flakes into his mouth.

 

‘Yeah, this vacation should be fun. On a bus with two half-naked lunatics for four hours’, he remarked sarcastically as he shepherded the two of them out of public view and into the apartment.

 

Luckily, once they got inside, Zach revealed he had packed spare clothes into the little pack on his scooter that morning, and that all of his things were neatly packed and ready for the vacation. ‘Just have to burn this fucking uniform and I’m good to go.’

 

‘Really, you’re all done? Knew there was a reason I liked this kid.’ Nick turned to Boone. ‘You could take a leaf out of his book, you know.’

 

Boone put the bowl down and slinked off to get dressed, muttering to himself.

 

*

 

The bus ride up to Detroit was pretty fun, given that they were the only people on the bus besides an elderly woman with a small dog, who Cam immediately ran over to and attempted to befriend.

 

Brandon rolled his eyes and slid in next to Nick. They began a round of cards with Boone and Seth, sitting in front of them (although Seth kept protesting that they could see his and Boone’s cards from behind, which they denied even though they totally could), and Artemi and Bob across the aisle.

 

Halfway there Markus panicked as he thought he had forgotten his passport, which caused several of the others to panic, until Nick told him to check his pack again and he found it wedged at the bottom.

 

David and PLD, sitting in front of Artemi and Bob, were grumbling together about not going to Quebec.

 

‘We’ll maybe go next time, guys’, Nick told them as he shuffled for the next game, and they both looked round a little guiltily.

 

‘No, Alaska next time’, Brandon said. ‘You guys think you know cold? Wait til you spend Winter in Alaska.’

 

‘Fucking Anchorage, though, not exactly the Alaskan tundra, is it Dubi?’

 

‘I take you to Siberia in Winter’, Artemi interrupted as Brandon opened his mouth to protest that Anchorage is cold, like really cold. ‘Then you know cold.’

 

Bob began to giggle. ‘Artya, you come from Chelyabinsk.’

 

‘No. Korkino.’

 

‘Close enough. Is not Siberia. Urals.’

 

‘Whatever.’ Artemi rolled his eyes.

 

‘Aw, your Russian buddy turning against you, bread?’, PLD asked, grinning.

 

Nick tuned out as they fell into more back and forth bantering, turning instead to the conversations taking place at the back of the bus.

 

Some of the sophomores were talking about the electives that they were planning to pick for next year. Nick felt a pang as he recognized he wasn’t going to be doing that for the next year, although he easily pushed it away. He would find something. He was still young yet, at the same time, he was an adult who could take care of himself. He would be fine.

 

*

 

The dorms of their hostel were arranged in bunk beds.

 

‘Feels like summer camp’, Cam snickered.

 

*

 

Saturday morning came, and with it, Jack.

 

They met their old friend at the bus station. As soon as he appeared in their view, Nick and the others who had known the man surged forward as a wave, laughing and ruffling his hair and hugging, which was not a good idea given how warm it was out and how sweaty some of them already were. Even some of the sophomores came with them, barrelling into the group hug, everybody talking at once.

 

When they stepped away, there was a beat of awkward silence as everyone smiled at each other.

 

‘So, lead the way, tour guide’, Boone said, making a sweeping gesture with one hand along the street.

 

They all fell into formation as they followed Jack, essentially walking single-file in order to not block the sidewalk. Nick was reminded of primary school trips, where everyone had to hold hands.

 

Nick powered ahead slightly, overtaking Calvy so he was next to Jack. Dropping his voice, he asked; ‘How have you been, man?’ He squeezed his old dormmates arm gently as he spoke, making it look like he was guiding the man around an elderly lady whose walker took up most of the pavement.

 

‘Alright, honest, Nick. My parents have been… It’s been okay.’ He smiled a strained smile. ‘And I’ve made some friends. Sid’s visited a couple of times.’

 

‘Good.’ Nick slung an arm around his neck. ‘How about you show us this town of yours now, eh? I bet you’ll be a better tour guide than Z.’

 

*

 

The majority of the morning was spent hanging out along the riverfront park. Although it was chilly due to the wind in the exposed landscape, it was dry and sunny, and the views were good. Many of the guys were taking pictures for Instagram and Snapchat, captions varying from clever banter to ‘the adventure begins’ and other cheesy shit like that. Nick laughed at them but got in the pictures. It also gave them a good chance to catch up, swapping college stories with Jack, and just generally speaking to members of the group Nick didn’t often get the chance to talk to.

 

For lunch Jack steered them toward a little café that did takeaway bagels and sandwiches, and it took about half an hour for all of them to order. Probably about fifteen minutes of that was thanks to PLD, who kept changing his mind about what he wanted and apparently mistranslated something in his head and ordered completely the wrong thing when he finally did decide.

 

They headed to the Institute of Arts for the afternoon, half of the group complaining about the idea of paying for entry but still consenting and coughing up, and then Jack took them on a trip around the streets.

 

‘Where we’re going is sort of- well, not really- a surprise.’

 

‘What do you mean, sort of a surprise? It is or it isn’t’, Brandon said.

 

‘Well, it’s not a surprise, but it is something you might not expect to see.’

 

Zach seemed to know where they were going ten minutes later, when they turned down one street. ‘Oh shit, I haven’t been here in ages. Has it changed much?’

 

Jack shrugged. ‘I don’t know. Still weird.’

 

They ended up at a street decorated with garbage, houses twisted beyond recognition beneath the objects imposed upon them. According to Jack it was an art project. Their reactions ranged from impressed to creeped out. Nick felt a mixture of both. It was impressive but, lacking a lot of context, strange, and seemed a waste of materials. Maybe he just didn’t really get art.

 

‘This is what you guys do for fun in Michigan, huh?’, Ryan asked, staring around in bewilderment. Besides him, Boone and Seth grinned.

 

‘I mean, that and drink. That’s pretty much all there is to do.’

 

They made their way back to downtown by bus, wandering by the river for a while and talking. When Jack told them that he needed to go home, they dissuaded him, convincing him to join them for dinner and a few drinks to make a point to his parents. About half of the group went for another walk afterwards. Nick and the others went back to the hostel and slept.

 

*

 

They all managed to wake up relatively early the next morning, just in time to meet Zach’s friend Dylan for lunch. As soon as the two caught sight of each other, they were jumping and hugging. Nick couldn’t recall having seen Zach so happy. Dylan couldn’t stay long, however, and Nick wasn’t left with much of an impression of him beyond a pretty friendly young guy.

 

‘You’re alright, Dylan.’ Nick laughed as he patted the guy on the back in farewell. ‘For a Michigander.’

 

He waved away Zach’s protests.

 

Dylan shrugged. ‘Rather be an alright Michigander than go to Ohio.’

 

Zach high-fived him, and then he was gone.

 

After lunch, lacking any plans, they went to Detroit Zoo. Zach had claimed he was going to show them round for the day, only Nick was sure he had improvised the trip at the last minute, having forgotten to plan anything else and unsure of what else the whole group would enjoy. It was a good improvisation though, if it even was one. They spent most of the afternoon pointing out which animals each of them resembled. Not all of the resemblances were flattering. He tried not to be hurt by Josh’s claims that Nick reminded him of a hyena. It was probably due to the bad puns he made at each enclosure they stopped at.

 

‘Hey, why are leopards so bad at hide and seek?’

 

‘Nick, that’s a tiger’, muttered Boone, knowing it was pointless to try and avoid the upcoming joke yet attempting it anyway.

 

‘Because they’re always spotted.’

 

*

 

Upon returning to town, they headed to a bar. Nick remembered that they did shots, however that was just about where his memory ended. He thought that there may have been a karaoke machine at some point, although he wasn’t entirely sure.

 

He did recall that the Russians taught them a song about New Year, and for some reason found it funny when they sang ‘Novy God’ over and over. Random snapshots emerged through the fog of his brain: Bob doubled over in laughter. Artemi hiding his face in his elbow. Zach and Cam linking arms to drink. PLD and Josh jostling over a microphone.

 

*

 

‘Wake up.’ Nick said, shaking Wenny’s shoulder. He was surprised how groggy his voice sounded. Swallowing heavily, his tongue felt like a dead dry fish in his mouth. He shook Wenny harder. ‘Wake up. Or we’re going to miss our flight.’

 

Wenny rolled onto his back and threw one arm over his eyes. Before Nick could try again, Josh had reappeared and was trickling a glass of water down the Swede’s bare chest. Wenny yelped and scrambled to a seating position, eyeing them mutinously.

 

They had passed out on the same lower bunk, each too tired from the day of walking to scramble up to the top one.

 

In a hurry, the group threw their things together. It was a miracle that they made their flight. Well, partially a miracle and partially thanks to Uber drivers.

 

The flight to Toronto was fairly short, only then they had to catch a connecting one to Calgary, and then take the shuttle bus to Banff. It took about 12 hours total, from arriving at the airport to arriving in Banff at 10pm. Luckily the people they were meant to collect the keys to the houses from had been pretty on board with the idea of leaving them in the doors for the group to pick up, for which Nick was grateful.

 

Granted, they probably should have decided on room situations and who was sharing what house before, as now they were all pretty tired, and just about ready to collapse onto any given mattress or decently soft surface. However, the decisions didn’t take too long. Nick had numbered each of the four houses they were sharing, and, possibly because they were tired, the group didn’t squabble as much as he had suspected.

 

In house one, almost in the center of town, Cam and Brandon were sharing one bed, Nick and Bob the other. Nick had been confused as to why everyone seemed to assume he and Bob would share. Instead of querying it, he moved on. The second house was just down the road from that one, and featured David with his own double bed, and then PLD and Artemi in the single beds. Josh had taken the sofa bed after arguing that he couldn’t sleep with David, for some reason. The others in the single beds had offered to switch round, and he had told them he would think about it. In house three Zach and Seth shared a double bed, as did Markus and Joonas. Sonny had his own single, and Wenny had been relegated to the sofa bed. The final house consisted of Boone and Matt, each with a double bed, and Lukas and Oliver, each with a single. One of the only small moments of tension came when Josh complained that if Boone and Matt would just share then he and Wenny could take the other bed, and they refused. Nick privately thought Josh might just want to share a room with Wenny, and honestly Nick would not blame him.

 

*

 

In Detroit it had gone unnoticed, as they were largely spending time as part of a group, but here in Banff it became obvious to Nick that Bob was distancing himself. When they all split up to unpack their things, they did so for the most part in silence. Whenever Nick spoke, to ask what drawer space Bob wanted, or if he minded Nick throwing a couple of their shirts in the washing machine together quickly before the others got to it, Bob would answer, or give him a smile, but otherwise would make no attempt to initiate conversation. To begin with Nick wondered if maybe he was just overthinking: Bob was quiet sometimes, and the silence wasn’t necessarily awkward between them.

 

Then Bob didn’t speak to him at all as they ate the takeaway Cam and Dubi had graciously ordered and payed for with the promise that Nick and Bob get them back another night.

 

And when they called it a night, still exhausted from the evening before and the travelling and wanting to get enough sleep to be motivated for hiking in the morning, they lay in the bed with a foot of space between them. There was so much silence to fill with words that for whatever reason didn’t come, and it swamped Nick.

 

The next morning, he discovered Bob sleeping right over the other side of the bed, as though as far away from him as possible.

 

*

 

On the Tuesday they went around exploring the town. It was pretty small and picturesque. The mountains could be seen from the main street, almost seeming to loom over the town. Various members of the group almost got left behind because they kept stopping to get pictures. They checked out a few restaurants, scouting out potential venues for group meals later on, and then hit up a grocery store for the essentials before heading back to their houses to drop off what they had bought and have some early lunch.

 

They caught a bus to Lake Louise, took a bunch of pictures, and wandered around the shores. It was simply stunning. Nick didn’t suddenly get any crazy zen-like feelings, but the place was peaceful enough that he felt more relaxed than he had done in a long while. The evening in town contributed to the peaceful feeling; a quiet dinner and an hour in the hot springs. By the time they made it back to the house Nick was ready to fall asleep, although he joined the others for a movie first. He sat next to Bob, feeling a little awkward, while Cam and Brandon lounged on the other small couch. At one point, laughing at what was happening on the screen, he made eye contact with his Russian friend, and they smiled at each other. He counted it as a small victory.

 

*

 

His relationship with Bob was pretty much back to normal by the end of their hike around Banff on Wednesday. Nick’s new policy of ‘fake it until you make it’, acting as friendly as normal and talking to Bob as much as possible, had apparently worked. His friend had begun the morning withdrawn, barely responding or showing any sign of recognition when Nick spoke to him. But throughout the day he had thawed. A small nod of the head turned into one word responses, into a small smirk, and then into open laughter and questions.

 

The group had split up into smaller subdivisions for most of the morning, meeting back up in a small clearing for lunch, occasionally waving and exchanging greetings with other hikers passing through.

 

‘How are we meant to find the clearing though?’, Brandon had demanded when Matt told him the plan, ‘I can’t find one random clearing on a map.’

 

Matt scoffed. ‘You have a phone, don’t you? If you get lost call us.’

 

‘Oh yes, I’ll call you and tell you that I can see trees and you’ll tell me how to get to the random clearing from that.’

 

‘Use Maps if you don’t want my help then, dumbass.’

 

Matt was the only one who had been hiking properly before, so he had taken charge. Nick wasn’t entirely confident that the guy knew what he was doing, but he wasn’t going to say anything.

 

After lunch- they managed to find each other with few problems, which was honestly a miracle- they messed about, playing a little road hockey with some branches and a stone, careful to keep the stone down low and to not actually shoot it at anyone.

 

‘Imagine if I try to block that thing’, Bob laughed at Nick. His face was open, relaxed, now.

 

Nick laughed back and shook his head as Bob dropped down and mimed blocking a shot, then rolled onto his back and threw his arms out, pretending to make a big save. When he got up there were twigs and dusty patches in his hair.

 

Grinning, Nick raised his phone to take a photo. Bob turned a little red, reaching out to grab the phone from Nick’s hands, but the camera went off just before he moved, and Bob relented and allowed him to keep it when Nick asked if he wanted to delete it.

 

Later that night he would look at the photo as Bob slept beside him. He would save it, aware that he was smiling like a moron, before turning to the slumbering figure through the dark. The distance between the smiling figure in the image and the man in his bed, so close but somehow untouchable, made his heart ache.

 

*

 

‘Nick.’

 

Nick blinked awake, to wide blue eyes staring into his own. He stirred, pulling the covers up. He had somehow fallen asleep on his side, duvet halfway down his chest so the only thing keeping his skin from being exposed to the cool air was his t shirt. He shivered a little.

 

‘Bob?’

 

‘Nick’, Bob said once more. He was breathing very faintly.

 

Nick didn’t speak again.

 

*

 

Warm, dry lips pressed to his own cold ones.

 

Moving hesitantly, roaming slowly across skin.

 

*

 

Exploring the sensitive pink flesh inside his mouth.

 

Hands pressing to his chest.

 

*

 

A final soft kiss left on the side of his mouth, and then Bob was moving away.

 

Nick, stunned, only fully realized what was happening when the cold vacuum of air rushed in to fill the space previously taken up by Bob’s body, and reached out with one hand, managing to merely skim his fingertips along the back of Bob’s shorts as he headed for the door.

 

He allowed himself to lay still for a little while, before propping himself up on his elbows.

 

They really needed to talk when Bob came back.

 

Nick waited.

 

*

 

It was only when Cam came in and asked him if he was going to use the shower that Nick knew Bob wasn’t coming back. Part of him wanted to tell Cam what had just happened- not much had happened, it was just a kiss, but the kind of kiss Nick never thought really happened, where you both went in with a wordless, silent passion, and- yet he knew he couldn’t. Not when the four of them were still in this enclosed area together.

 

So, he merely nodded, grabbed his towel, and held it in front of him to hide the fact that he was still half-hard as he went to the shower.

 

As he went he made his way past Brandon and Bob, who were eating cereal in the sitting room and watching something on the TV, as though nothing has just happened. Bob didn’t look at him.

 

After his shower, Nick packed, and then left to get something to eat when Bob went in to pack. As they passed each other in the hallway, Bob smiled at him. Only it wasn’t a promising smile, or even a friendly smile. It was an apologetic smile. Nick dropped his gaze.

 

The whole ride home, on the bus to Calgary and then the plane back to Columbus, Nick stewed in his bitterness. Bob obviously wanted to forget what had happened between them. So why had he initiated it? Nick could come up with a number of reasons, all of them plausible. There was obviously something between them; at this point, there was no denying it. So, to test it, to give Nick that small moment of happiness just to take it away again, was cruel. Nick was done with Bob giving him hope like that and then driving him back; if Bob had some kind of issues with what he was feeling, then that was down to him to work out, and Nick wasn’t going to play along with the will-they won’t-they anymore when the second option was just as likely- hell, even more likely, this was the end, after all- as the first.

 

Through the sudden swarm of thoughts, on the plane, that one stuck out.

 

This was the end.

 

And Nick suddenly couldn’t wait to go home.

 

*

 

The final term passed so quickly.

 

Nick went out several times, got drunk some of those times, and also got laid on a few occasions. In a way there was some relief in his mind. It felt good to have fun with his friends, be his own person.

 

When Bob was there Nick was friendly. He refused to get too close.

 

*

 

Graduation rolled by in a haze of parties and good times and a miasma of tears and farewells.

 

*

 

The few days after graduation existed in a weird void.

 

Officially it was the end; they were done. Yet it took a while, days filled with sitting around together reminiscing after the grand farewells of graduation, before those who had long since said goodbye began to fade out. It happened slowly, one by one: Joey to Nashville, then Calvy, then Cam and Dubi. Boone was the only one of their house left besides Nick, since he was in the year below. He mostly stayed in his room, however, apparently not liking the ghostly silence permeating the common spaces any more than Nick.

 

In a way, Nick supposed Boone was waiting for him to go, so that those who were taking over from him and his friends could move in. Artemi, PLD, Josh and Lukas would be moving in. Their place wasn’t the only one with such a transition: In Zach’s house, Joonas was taking Bill’s old room. Bill, who had got a good offer from a college somewhere out West as he had wanted to change what he was studying, had wanted a fresh start. Wenny had been heart-broken but understanding. Nick was proud of him.

 

*

 

The morning he left Nick went to Bob’s. He knew- had heard from Artemi and the others- that Bob was leaving that evening as well.

 

‘Will you get to the airport okay?’, Nick asked quietly. He was sat at on Bob’s bed, where his old friend had gestured for him to sit upon entering the room. Bob sat beside him, the both of them staring ahead at the wall so as not to have to look at each other.

 

‘Yes. I will get the airport bus. Most of my things are packed now.’

 

‘Yeah, I see.’ Nick folded his hands together.’ Mine too.’

 

‘How are you getting home?’

 

‘My dad and brother are driving down.’ Nick swallowed. ‘How long is your flight?’

 

‘Long. Very long. I go to New York first, to change, then fly to Moscow. I will spend a couple of days in Moscow, maybe visit some friends I have not seen in a long time, and then fly to near home. I think some of my family and friends will meet me there.’

 

‘You get to see New York after all.’

 

Nick felt Bob shrug. ‘Only from the airport.’

 

They remained in silence for a long time.

 

Nick could feel so many emotions bubbling up under the surface, and knew Bob felt the same. It was impossible to describe entirely accurately. An odd mixture of nostalgia and mourning for something that never was.

 

He grabbed Bob’s hand. All of a sudden, he felt like he could say everything he never said before, only it was okay, because he didn’t need to. Bob knew.

 

Bob scooted down to gently rest his head on Nick’s shoulder and clasped both his hands, and they closed their eyes and sat like that for several minutes.

 

Eventually they were broken apart by Nick’s phone ringing. Marcus.

 

‘It’s my brother. I told him to call when they were nearly here’, he explained, getting to his feet and staring from his phone to Bob and back again for a few moments before answering.

 

‘Hey.’

 

‘Hey, Nick. We’re just coming into Columbus. Can you send me your address, so we can get to yours?’

 

‘Er, yeah, sure.’ Nick looked at Bob, smiling apologetically as he indicated toward the door. Bob nodded. ‘Just a second, Marcus.’

 

He hugged Bob, squeezing him tightly, for the last time, and his heart shattered. Oh god. He loved hugging Bob. It was the most comforting feeling in the world, feeling so whole and complete in himself and then suddenly having more, what felt to be almost an extension of his self, pressed against him, and he didn’t want to leave it like this.

 

He turned his head slightly, his lips brushing Bob’s chin, and coming to rest by the side of Bob’s mouth. Bob pressed forward slightly, into an almost-but-not-quite kiss, just a ghosting at the corner of the other’s lips.

 

When Nick did pull away Bob’s eyes were bright with tears, and he had to get out before he did something stupid and let Bob give him a reason to stay.

 

‘Bye’, he mouthed while he raised the phone to his ear once more and pulled the door open.

 

‘Bye’, Bob mouthed back, looking small in the center of his bare room and blinking rapidly.

 

As Nick headed down the stairs he heard a muffled sob and his vision blurred.

 

It took him the whole walk home to compose himself enough to see his family.

 

Even then his dad commented that graduation was an emotional time for everyone.

 

*

 

Summer flew past in a blur. The only thing breaking up the monotony of the void Nick had found himself in, unsure of where to begin the next stage of his life, was Zach coming to visit for a weekend. Again, Nick was reminded that Zach was quite possibly, secretly, his favorite of the ‘kids’.

 

*

 

Nick helped Marcus move in to college. He had managed to get into the one he wanted, in Minneapolis, and of course their parents were nothing but supported. Seeing the empty, sterile dorm room dredged up so many memories. His own first room. The first house he had shared with Cam and the others, his favorite. The apartment. Bob’s room, devoid of any personality, as he left.

 

He shook his head. He was feeling oddly more emotional over his brother’s departure for college than his own.

 

‘You’ll be okay, Marcus?’, he asked just before he left.

 

‘Yeah.’ Marcus looked up at him, eyes dazzlingly bright. He seemed excited. ‘Of course.’

 

Nick smiled at him and punched his shoulder gently. ‘Okay. Go have fun. And don’t forget to call if you need anything.’

 

‘Of course.’

 

Nick looked back at him from the doorway, partly excited for him and partly jealous.

 

‘I love you, Marcus.’

 

‘You can go now, Nick.’

 

‘Right. Yeah. Leaving now.’

 

‘I love you, too.’

 

*

 

He and Bob messaged each other infrequently over the next few weeks, mainly sending pictures. Nick sent Bob photos of his home and his family, some of the city, a selfie with Joey and Madison when they came to New York for a vacation and he went to meet them for the day, and received similar images back. Smiling faces, dazzling snowscapes, a couple with Dima and a few other Russians Nick remembered seeing at their parties over the years. He found them interesting, scrolled through them sometimes on his laptop, awing at the alien backgrounds as much as the happiness painted on his friend’s face.

 

*

 

‘You’re working where?’

 

‘Hey, at least I have a job, okay, Fliggy?’

 

Nick had made the journey back to Columbus to see Cam and Dubi, who were now living together. Their ground-floor apartment was a little dark, the majority of any sunlight they might have gotten blocked by the tower across the road.

 

When Nick arrived, he wasn’t sure anyone was going to be home. He probably should have called ahead and warned them, only he had intended it to be a surprise. He was in luck: Cam had been in the cramped kitchen, making lunch. There had been no sign of Dubi, which Nick assumed was due to the factory job he had started the last time they spoke to each other. Nick had asked Cam whether he had found a job yet, and Cam had dropped a bombshell.

 

‘It’s not like I’m a phone sex worker or something’, Cam scoffed, setting a plate down on the coffee table in front of where Nick sat, before slouching onto the armchair opposite.

 

‘Nope, you’re just a morally corrupt telemarketer.’

 

‘Oh great, the wannabe lawyer is accusing me of being morally corrupt. And yeah, it’s crap a lot of the time, but the pay is decent.’

 

Nick took a bite of the omelette Cam had given him. ‘You majored in pre-Law too, moron.’

 

He paused when he heard footsteps. A second later, Brandon emerged into the front room from a previously-closed doorway. Through it Nick could see a small, dishevelled-looking bedroom. Clothes were strewn about the floor and, much like the rest of the apartment, it was dark inside.

 

‘Dubi! Hey!’

 

‘Nick?’ Brandon blinked at him, mouth open. He appeared as dishevelled as the room he had just left, his hair a mess and his baggy clothes rumpled. Nick wondered if he had picked them off the floor.

 

Brandon hugged him fast, and they went through the usual exchange of pleasantries, updating each other on their lives, in the same fashion as Nick and Cam had done when he first arrived half an hour before. Brandon sat beside him on the couch. Nick ate his omelette and listened, laughing in the right places when Brandon told him about their attempts to find an apartment they both liked and could afford to pay rent for, which turned out to be rather difficult.

 

He had just finished eating when Brandon stood up, stretched, and headed towards the door.

 

‘Where are you going?’, Cam asked. There was a faint crease between his eyes.

 

Brandon shrugged. ‘Just out.’ He stared at Cam for a moment, as though waiting for him to say something.

 

But Cam merely looked back at him, tight-lipped.

 

Once the door had closed behind Brandon, Nick asked; ‘What was that about? Are you guys okay?’

 

Cam shrugged. ‘Nothing, just…’ He stopped talking.

 

‘What?’

 

‘I’m…’ Cam ran one hand through his hair. ‘I’ve got to be honest, man, I’m kind of scared. He got fired, two weeks ago, and since then… He’s been looking for another job, but he’s been going out drinking and staying out, I don’t even know where.’

 

‘Well, what do you mean, scared, he hasn’t done anything-’

 

‘No’, the blond replied quickly. ‘I mean scared for him. I know he’s had some issues before, but… He seems okay sometimes, like right then, other times he just seems really down and distant…’

 

‘Cam, you need to talk to him. You have to.’

 

‘I know.’

 

‘Really. You can’t just ignore this. Or…’ Nick thought. ‘I can talk to him, if you want? If you think he won’t hear it from you?’

 

But Cam was shaking his head. ‘No, I should probably do it. It’s okay.’

 

‘Yeah, well… Let me know how things work out for you, man. I hope he’s okay.’

 

‘I hope so too.’

 

*

 

One weekend, having little else to do, Nick packed up and went to Minneapolis to visit his brother.

 

‘Hey buddy, you got to visit me and annoy the shit out of my friends, I get to do the same for you’, he had said on the phone. He could practically feel Marcus shaking his head.

 

Marcus’ friends were pretty great, he had discovered once he arrived there, and, much like Nick’s own friends, weren’t bothered by their friend’s brother tagging along with them for a couple of days. They hadn’t even minded at dinner when Nick made the joke about fake noodles being called impasta, although more than a few of them had rolled their eyes.

 

‘Yeah, you’ve got some good ones there, he had said on the first night, going to sleep stretched out on the duvan on Marcus’ floor. ‘Get along well with them because you never know what could happen.’

 

He had thought of Jack, and Wenny and Bill, and Joey, and Cam and Brandon, and Bob.

 

‘Yeah, man, I know’, Marcus’ voice came back through the dark. Nick privately thought that, no, he didn’t know. But he was probably going to find out, and it was probably better that he find out for himself.

 

The dark had made Nick feel a little braver.

 

‘Marcus?’, he said suddenly, heart pounding, because he couldn’t not say it any longer.

 

‘Yeah?’ His voice was sleepy now, a little irritated.

 

‘I’m gay.’

 

There was a long moment of silence.

 

Nick screwed his face up in anticipation, realising that he’d actually opened his eyes in the dark at some point.

 

‘Oh.’ Marcus said, and then softer. ‘Oh. I think… I think I kind of… Guessed that, already.’

 

Another long moment with nothing but their breathing.

 

‘It’s okay, you know, Nick?’

 

‘Yeah. Good.’ Nick could tell Marcus wanted to ask a lot more questions, and he waited patiently until they all came tumbling out.

 

‘Does anyone else know? Have you told mom and dad?’, he spoke hesitantly but with open curiosity. ‘When did you know? Is there someone?’

 

Nick answered them all honestly.

 

‘Some of my friends know, but I haven’t told mom and dad. Not yet. I guess I knew a long time, really. It’s not something you don’t at least suspect, when you’re a teenager and you start getting these… Feelings…’ He paused, a little uncomfortable, and then turned to Marcus’ last question. ‘I thought there was someone. I hoped so. Maybe I still hope so. But he’s gone now.’

 

He closed his eyes, fighting the sting, then opened them abruptly when the small room was flooded with light.

 

Marcus was standing at the switch, bare-chested and barefoot. ‘No. Okay, you can’t just say cryptic shit like that and leave it. Who was it?’

 

Nick sighed and told him everything.

 

*

 

Nick’s second voyage back to Columbus was to help Cam with planning the bachelor party, and the journey was made with an intrepid fear at what he would find there. It took a long while; a truckful of snow had unloaded itself on the city overnight. When Nick got off the bus he found himself wading ankle deep across uncleared sidewalks. When he eventually made it to the door, he paused and held his breath before knocking.

 

He was pleasantly surprised. Joey had shown up to help also, which was something he hadn’t known was happening. Apparently Cam hadn’t told Joey he was coming, either; when the two saw each other they each let out a shocked, barking laugh, and quickly embraced. Joey told him Nashville was treating him and Madison well.

 

The three of them sat for a while in the warm, drinking juice, before Nick slowly asked where Brandon was, watching for Cam’s reaction, ready to jump in if necessary.

 

Cam only smiled. ‘He went to town to apply for a few jobs. He’s been… Better. I’m…’ He took a breath, still smiling. ‘Cautiously optimistic about the future.’

 

‘That’s great’, Nick said quietly. Joey murmured in agreement.

 

‘Yeah. Originally we were talking about having this traditional bachelor party, you know, lots of drinking, but- hold on, Nick, I’ll show you what me and Joey have already got in a sec- but then I told Dubi, you know, how scared I was. We ended up talking for a long while. We fought a little. Then we cried, I think we both cried, a little. And now he’s been talking to someone, like a therapist, so I thought maybe we should do something different.’

 

Nick blinked, absorbing the drastic change from the last time he had visited.

 

‘Glad things are working out for you, Cameroon.’

 

‘They haven’t worked out just yet. But… We’re working on it. And I’m still sure about- about this.’ Cam gestured with one arm to the notebook he now opened on the coffee table in front of them.

 

‘So what plan have you guys come up with?’

 

‘Get this’, Joey said, running one hand through his hair, which was longer than the last time Nick had seen him. His eyes were bright. ‘A dessert party.’

 

‘How does that work?’

 

‘You have a party. And you eat dessert.’

 

‘Okay, I…’ Nick ran one hand through his hair. That was pretty self-explanatory, he guessed. ‘Yeah, that sounds great.’

 

‘We can have other food too, of course’, said Cam. ‘But I want ice cream.’

 

‘Woah, ice cream? Really pushing the boat out there. Watch out before you turn into a bridezilla. Groomzilla?’

 

‘Let’s go with Groomzilla.’ Joey nodded.

 

‘Let’s not’, Cam said. ‘I want to do as little planning for this wedding as possible. Oh, but I did have one idea I’d like to try: How awesome would it be if me and Dubi left the reception on scooters? Do you think Zach would maybe bring his down?’

 

Nick stared at him, trying to get whether he was joking or not. He couldn’t tell. Cam continued to grin at him. His eyes wandered past to the window. It was still snowing. Nick could see the large flakes drifting down. Even if the courtyard outside seemed dim and dingy, in the snow it shone brilliantly. He stood up. ‘Right. Let’s plan what we’re going to need for this. But first…’ He smiled down at his friends. ‘I’ll race you outside.’

 

*

 

In the next several months leading up to the wedding, Nick tried a lot of hobbies. The days grew longer, and he had more daylight hours outside of work to do what he wanted to do. Running, yoga, learning Italian, cooking, baking, juggling, swimming, knitting, cycling. A few of them stuck. Not all, but a few. He could feel himself testing, trying to find what worked for him. And the testing, having the freedom to do that, made him happy. He thought of what Cam said about the Dubi, about still working on things. He wondered if they would ever really stop. There was a competitive fire in his stomach when he took part in his first race that told him no.

 

*

 

Although, there was less time for hobbies when Nick finally got a job. Two jobs, actually. It was like busses; you wait so long for one and then you have them all coming along at once.

 

One was just a Saturday job, at the leisure complex where his dad was the manager, so it hadn’t fallen to him completely by chance. He taught the young kids to skate, and after the first few weeks began to give evening classes for adults as well. He enjoyed it greatly even if it didn’t pay as well as the other one.

 

The other job was an assistant in a law firm. He didn’t really do much besides recording and sorting files and making coffee. It was pretty dull, and Nick often found himself browsing his phone, but it paid well, and it would probably look like good experience on his CV.

 

In the time spent browsing on his phone, he found himself messaging Bob more frequently. To begin with, their conversations were centred about the upcoming wedding; Bob was going to come to the ceremony and reception but would be unable to make the dessert/bachelor party. Like Nick he had found a job, working as a waiter, and was playing in a sort of Russian beer league as a goaltender in his spare time.

 

‘It is not a very good job’, he said when Nick called him one day when the office was quiet. They had progressed from messaging to phone calls over a couple of months. ‘Not to do with my studies. Not like yours.’

 

‘Aw, don’t be silly, Bob’, Nick replied. ‘It’s tough out there. I was just lucky. At least you have hockey.’

 

‘That is true.’ He sounded minutely more upbeat. ‘We will have to play again, when I come back for the wedding.’

 

‘Yeah.’ Nick doodled idly on some paper with the hand that wasn’t holding his phone. He dropped the pen and almost jolted out of his chair when he saw his boss approaching. ‘I have to go, sorry.’

 

‘Okay. Talk to you later?’

 

‘Da. Do svidaniya, Bob’, he replied and, as ever when Nick tried to speak Russian with him, Bob giggled.

 

‘Davai, Nicky.’

 

*

 

He had travelled back to Columbus four days before the wedding, having booked a hotel room for a week. Joey and a few of their other friends were staying at the same place: a cheap bed and breakfast. They had toyed with the idea of getting an apartment off of Airbnb, or maybe a hostel again, but had been unable to pass up the idea of a free breakfast, and this place also did discounts on rooms when you stayed with them for a whole week.

 

Nick’s mom had raised her eyebrows when he told her he was going to a gay wedding, and he had inevitably blurted out the truth about his own sexuality a few hours later as she cooked dinner in the kitchen. Luckily, she and his father had been pretty accepting. A little awkward yet accepting. Honestly, while he’d been nervous, he knew his parents and hadn’t expected anything less of them, and he knew he was lucky in that. And really, if he hadn’t told them, Marcus would have the next time he came home.

 

Arriving four days early meant Nick was there for the bachelor party, which featured a few more aunts- all Cam’s and all very jovial- than was usual for such an event. Nick couldn’t help noticing the lack of Brandon’s relatives, but didn’t comment upon it, merely keeping quiet and enjoying the ice cream. It was the sometimes sad reality for them, he supposed. Instead he pressed a little closer to Dubi when his friend sat beside him, telling him which cakes he had tried and which were the best, some of which he had helped Cam, Joey and Madison to decorate earlier, although cake decoration was definitely not a hobby he was planning to stick with, and from the looks of how the cakes ended up the others wouldn’t be taking it up any time soon. Still, they tasted good. And the ice cream- most of it store bought, although Matt had shown up with a weird healthy tub he had apparently made- was all awesome. Most of their friends in North America were there, including Nick’s ‘kids’, although a few of their European friends weren’t due to arrive until later, just before the actual wedding.

 

True to form, Joey was the best man. Nick was a little relieved. Although he was sure he would deliver a speech of epic proportions if asked to do so, the task of coming up with one while also trying to help deal with arranging everything else would have been a little too much. And he didn’t have a Madison to help him out.

 

He, Joey, Matt and a few of their other friends largely took charge, and by took charge, Nick thought, he meant that they did whatever Cam and Dubi told them to do, picking up suits and flowers and arranging food and tables.

 

‘You’ve got all this to come soon’, Matt said when Joey complained, for the first and only time, about everything they were doing, and Joey paled.

 

*

 

There was an immediate sense of happiness and relief when he saw Bob, and when they hugged it felt like coming home. Nick tried not to attach any particularly positive or negative connotations to that. What had happened in college between them, all the hesitancy and the moving together and drawing away again, felt like a lifetime ago. He was here to have a good time for his friends, and he wasn’t going to be melancholy over what might have been, but he also wasn’t going to let his imagination run away with him about what still could be.

 

The ceremony itself was brief and took place at a small community hall. Nick had never been to a gay wedding before and wasn’t really sure what it would be like. It was a lot different than the weddings he’d seen on TV, but then he was sure most straight weddings were too. A much smaller venue, everyone packed in closely together. No close ups on the grooms’ faces. Nick actually had a little trouble seeing from where he stood in the second row. He could see Joey’s face, though, and watching Joey’s face as he watched Cam and Brandon exchanging rings and vows told him pretty much all he needed to know.

 

Bob was stood in the same row as him, separated by a couple of people, which Nick didn’t really mind since just seeing and being with all of his friends together at once made him so happy, and he knew that there would be time to talk to Bob during the reception. He felt content with himself, only a different content than before, when he was studying. Then he was content that he fit in with his environment, that his schoolwork was progressing as he wanted it to. Now he was content with himself outside of that environment. Perhaps, he thought, stealing a glance at Bob, that was what he needed to reaffirm what he felt.

 

*

 

The reception was held in the same ceremony as the hall. Cake and a buffet were wheeled out, music began to play, and some of the attendees working there began to bring out tables and chairs, dotted around the side of the room. Most of these were empty, however; nearly everyone was dancing, including Cam’s aunts, who had apparently taken over as PLD and Seth’s dance partners for the evening.

 

‘Such a strong handsome young man’, one of the aunts dancing with PLD had remarked when they moved past Nick and Nick waved. PLD caught his eye and laughed, and the aunt laughed with him.

 

Nick danced with just about everyone. He danced with Joey and Madison, or around the two of them, who seemed to move almost as one on the dance floor; he danced with Zach and his new girlfriend, giving her as much ammunition as he could against his friend in the space of one song before Zach managed to pull her away; he dramatically slow-danced with Cam; he and Boone lifted Ryan up on their shoulders and spun him round; he even danced with Bob and Artemi for a little while.

 

Eventually, he ended up standing to one side, taking a drink and a breather, watching as the festivities continued. He only noticed Brandon was beside him when the man spoke.

 

‘Hey, Nick. How have you been?’

 

Nick smiled and raised his eyebrows. ‘Pretty good, in general. This has been really fun. Seeing everyone.’

 

‘Yeah. I’m glad you guys came.’

 

‘Of course, buddy.’ Nick looked at him from the side of his eyes. ‘How have you been?’

 

Brandon gave a shuddering sigh. ‘A lot better.’ He smiled, watching the cavorting crowd. ‘I know that- I’m still not right… But I know whatever happens Cam and I can work through it together.’

 

Nick followed his gaze to see Cam heading in their direction. Brandon’s grin grew as he approached. Cam linked their arms together and turned to Nick.

 

‘Not trying to steal my husband, are you, Fliggy?’ He sounded a little drunk, but whether it was from alcohol or just giddiness, Nick couldn’t tell.

 

‘You’re free to have him.’ Nick gestured with one hand to the dance floor, only Cam shook his head.

 

‘No. I’m tired. I’ve been dancing with everyone. I’m going to go sit down for a bit. Maybe outside.’ He looked up at Brandon. ‘Coming?’

 

‘Sure. See you, Nick. Thanks a lot man, really.’

 

‘Yeah, no worries, Dubi. I’ll see you around.’ He turned to Cam. ‘Love you, little brother.’ Nick had been prepared to follow them until Brandon spoke. He figured they must have wanted a little time alone. He’d heard how stressful weddings could be.

 

Turning back to the crowd, he could see a few people standing around on the other side of the hall.

 

Bill, come all the way just for the reception, was talking with Josh and Wenny. They seemed happy. Nick hoped the aunts didn’t catch a sight of them. Although he didn’t really see any of them as anything beyond sort of younger cousins, he had to admit they made an attractive picture.

 

His eyes drifted down to the figure crouched on the edge of the low stage, looking into the distance thoughtfully.

 

And Nick was suddenly transported back to the first night of college. When he had been so much younger. Seeing a figure sitting alone, on the other side of a crowded room. Feeling that immediate interest, that need to move closer.

 

As he stared, Bob looked up and met Nick’s gaze, as though the American had called his name.

 

Nick swallowed, blinking quickly, and went to sit beside him. He huffed slightly as he sank onto his backside; the step Bob was sitting on was lower than it appeared, and Nick was just not that flexible.

 

He remembered Bob was looking at him, waiting.

 

‘Hey.’

 

‘Hey.’

 

‘How have you been?’

 

‘Cold.’

 

They both chuckled at that.

 

‘Such is life in Russia.’

 

‘Yes’, Bob echoed, smiling a little. ‘Such is life in Russia.’

 

Seeing that half-smile, Nick decided to bite the bullet and do what he should have done four years ago. Not even decided, really. There was little conscious choice involved. Something merely compelled him to keep speaking, asking.

 

‘You haven’t found anyone to warm you up, then?’ He carefully kept his tone as light and neutral as possible.

 

Bob suddenly seemed to find his hands incredibly interesting. ‘No.’ He glanced up again. ‘And you? Have you met anybody?’

 

‘No.’

 

They were silent for another long moment, and then Nick took one of Bob’s hands in both of his own. Bob twisted his entire torso to face Nick, eyes wide. Nick forgot what he was going to say.

 

‘You have the coolest name.’

 

Bob blushed yet the smile grew.

 

‘I know.’

 

‘I mean… You’re pretty cool in general.’

 

The grin grew even wider.

 

‘Thanks.’

 

‘I think you’re great.’

 

‘You’re great too, Nicky.’ They were giggling at each other now, openly and earnestly.

 

‘What a pair we make, huh, Bob?’

 

Bob laughed, bringing up his other hand to fold it over the top of Nick’s. ‘Yes. A foolish pair.’ He shrugged decisively. ‘But a good pair.’

 

They were quiet for a long time, frozen in that position, watching the dancers. Nick searched for familiar faces among the relatives and old school friends, and eventually picked Jack out of the crowd. He looked so happy as he moved about among his friends, more energetic than Nick could ever remember seeing him. Joey also came into view, talking animatedly with Boone and Ryan as they weaved among the dancers to sit down at the side of the floor. From the red flushes on their faces, they were exhausted. Must have been going hard round the other side.

 

‘I was scared, before, you know.’ Bob spoke softly, running his thumb over the back of Nick’s hand. ‘First, I think, you know, that I am confused, because I like you. And then when I get used to it, to like the idea, you kiss me.’ He sighed softly. ‘I was scared again. I didn’t think that would actually happen.’

 

‘I know, Bob, I’m-’, Nick began to apologize again, only for Bob to cut him off.

 

‘Then I was confused because you leave to France, and we don’t speak of it, and you apologize. I try to get on, but you come back. And when we go on a date, at the ice rink, I want for you to kiss me, but again you leave instead.’

 

‘I’m sorry. I was scared, too’, Nick got out quickly. ‘I didn’t even realize it was a date’, he added with a half-chuckle, turning it into a cough when he saw Bob’s expression was still serious.

 

‘I know that now. I understand, I just want to make that you understand, too. Why I left that morning. I felt… We had done this too many times. Gotten close and then… Nothing. I thought, that’s it, it’s over, we go home as friends. But I find I am missing you.’

 

Nick nodded, swallowing silently. ‘Me too, Bob. I mean, I was scared and tired, too. I wanted to be friends. I could never tell if there was more…’

 

Bob shook his head, his mouth pressed in a thin line. ‘Is all in past now.’

 

He and Nick looked at each other, and slowly two identical smiles began to form. Past, future, what else mattered besides the now?

 

Nick leaned in to kiss him, their hands still tangled between them.