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Discerning and particular

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It was only his second week of university, and Mike Webster had determined three things: his sister Vicky had been unfortunately correct in her predictions about the state of the boys bathroom in his residence building, there was a very specific glazed expression that came across peoples' faces when he told them he was majoring in math, and the cheese at the salad bar in the cafeteria should really not be that shade of blue.

"It's not like it's a Stilton or a Roquefort," he said. "It was cheddar! And it was practically glowing!"

Alyson Wong, the closest thing to a friend he had made so far, was doubled over with laughter.

Mike glared at her indignantly. “Taking a stand is important!”

Alyson wiped her eyes. “A stand on cheese?” she said. “It’s very noble of you. The cafeteria staff definitely appreciated it, and I can guarantee they will absolutely not spit in your food the next time they see you.”

“Oh, come on,” Mike said. “They probably won’t remember.” He shifted uneasily, feeling a vague sense of déjà vu. "Will they?"

Alyson laughed again. “This is why you’re my favourite,” she said. “Also, they will definitely remember.”

Mike wondered whether he would have to eat at the cafeteria at the far end of campus for the next seven and a half months. He was starting to calculate the cost-benefit analysis of an apology note when their Resident Assistant, Lars, threw open the door to the building. He ushered them inside.

“Perfect timing!” he said jovially. "There's a mandatory floor meeting in the common room in five minutes. No excuses!”

Mike bit his lip. Floor meetings so far had been 50% listing rules and 50% cajoling everyone into having team spirit. Their RAs all had a lot of pep. Mike tried to think of a plausible excuse that could be used in a "no excuses" situation, but his mind was still stuck on cheese, so all he managed to say was, “I can’t, I -- gouda.”

“Oh, don't worry. We’ll have snacks,” Lars said. He smiled at them, and shooed them towards the common room.

“C’mon then, Gouda,” Alyson said. She was more invested in their residence's team spirit than Mike was, and also had a lot more friends than he did. For the most part, Mike was okay with that. Alyson pulled him along to the common room despite his protests.

“I’ll just stand over here,” Mike said, and slunk against the back wall where he (hopefully) had little chance of being singled out. He leaned against the wall and crossed his arms. “Oh, fine,” Alyson said, rolling her eyes, and went to sit down next to a girl with blue streaks in her hair. Mike was hoping he could escape being recruited into the most recent team spirit-related event, the scavenger hunt. For some reason, Alyson was keen on participating. Mike, however, was unimpressed. It had theoretically been designed to help all the new students learn how to navigate around the campus -- and possibly also for camaraderie-building reasons. Having it take place after dark seemed to defeat the purpose of learning how to find their way around. Mike was not keen on running at the best of times, and running in the dark while also engaging in camaraderie seemed like a terrible idea.

The common room was full of people, and there were quite a few standing against the wall like Mike. As they waited, Lars shepherded a few stragglers in as well.

“Great to see you all!” Lars said, smiling happily at them. “There are just a few things I want to tell you about. I’m really excited about them and you should be too!”

Mike stared at his shoes and tried to tune Lars out as he rambled on about clubs and intramurals and upcoming residence events, like movie nights and bowling. As much as he liked to hang out with people sometimes, he was really hoping to sneak away and chill out with his guitar for a bit. He was suddenly startled by Lars picking on someone by name. Damn. He hated it when people got singled out by name.

“I don’t even know how to play badminton,” the guy said, sounding a little cornered.

“That doesn’t matter! Everyone's welcome,” Lars said, and wrote his name down on his clipboard. “How about you?” he added to the next guy over.

Mike wondered if he should start inching towards the door or if that would bring too much attention his way. Maybe he could claim he had to go to the bathroom?

Then he heard: “I don’t play badminton.”

That almost sounded like – it almost reminded him of –

He craned his neck over to the other side of the common room. This necessitated him poking his head out farther than he would have liked to, but he suddenly really needed to see who had just spoken.

“Beginners welcome,” Lars was saying. “We're all improving. That’s what makes it so much fun!”

“I don’t,” the voice said again, and this time Mike saw who it was. The boy was lanky and dark-haired, and very attractive in a don’t-fuck-with-me kind of way. He was sitting in an infuriatingly relaxed pose, and it was the expression on his face – or the non-expression, rather, because it somehow conveyed blank inscrutability and blasé superiority that left Mike with absolutely no lingering doubts.

“Rudy Miller?” he exclaimed before he could remember he was trying to remain inconspicuous.

Everyone in the room turned to look at him. He saw Alyson giving him a puzzled look out of the corner of his eye, and Lars, who he had interrupted mid-encouraging-speech, looked put out.

But it was Rudy Miller’s face that he was looking at, and he was delighted to see what seemed like surprise flit across Rudy’s face.

“Well,” he drawled. “Mike Webster. It seems that, once again, we find ourselves as lone islands of sanity amidst a sea of clones.”

No one else, especially Lars, seemed to think this was funny, but Mike collapsed into laughter that made his sides ache from shaking.

***

Thankfully, the floor meeting broke up before Mike could be forced to volunteer for anything. As everyone dispersed, Rudy came straight over to him. Up close, Rudy was even more attractive; he had ridiculously long eyelashes and smooth cheekbones, and his hair was kind of floppy and messy, but in a way that looked artfully styled. Maybe it was, but more likely, Mike suspected that it fell that way naturally. Rudy probably didn't do hair.

Rudy looked grown-up, especially compared to Mike, who was still gangly and long-limbed and awkward about his height. He still had the same dark assessing stare and inscrutable expression.

This close it was also hard to forget that Rudy Miller had featured extensively in some very specific fantasies when Mike was fourteen.

Rudy eyed him up and down carefully, and then extended his hand. “Mike,” he said.

“Hi Rudy,” Mike said, and shook his hand. “How are you?”

“I find myself living in a tiny college dorm room despite my best attempts to convince my parents otherwise, subsisting on sub-standard cafeteria food, and surrounded by drunkards, layabouts, and the occasional over-achiever,” Rudy said.

He raised his eyebrow slightly, which Mike took for a query of reciprocation. “Huh,” he said. “Well, er, same. Obviously.”

Rudy looked at him again, with that careful gaze. “Obviously, we shall have to come up with an escape plan,” he said blandly and it took Mike a minute to realize that he was making a joke.

He grinned. “D’you wanna come see my tiny room and make fun of my obnoxious roommate?”

“Obviously,” Rudy said.

Mike caught sight of Alyson making faces at him as he and Rudy left the common room, but he wasn’t sure how to interpret them, so he shrugged back at her. She stuck her tongue out at him.

Rudy pronounced Mike’s room “dingy” and said that it smelled of cheap cologne.

“Uh, that’s Kyle’s, probably,” Mike said. Rudy sat down on his bed, and Mike tried to ignore the blush that immediately rose on his face. “I haven’t seen him since yesterday evening, so it’s possible he may have gotten laid last night. There’s no accounting for taste," he added.

“I suppose he could have decided to move into a treehouse in the woods on the south side of campus,” Rudy said

Mike snorted. “Oh, yeah. I've contemplated that myself."

“Hmm,” was all Rudy replied.

“I forgot,” Mike added. “You’re a snob, aren’t you?”

“I prefer discerning."

“Ha,” Mike said, and pointed at him.

“Discerning and particular,” Rudy allowed.

Mike grinned.

From what Mike remembered of their summer at Camp Alcatraz, being Rudy’s friend had involved a lot of digging, running, and hauling trash. He himself had been prone to giggling, which he hoped had now grown into a more manly chuckle (though he wasn’t always sure about this). He and Rudy had written and phoned each other a few times in the following year, but, as was the way of adolescent boys, had eventually fallen out of touch. Rudy’s letters had grown increasingly undecipherable, even to Mike, who felt like he once knew how to read Rudy with ease. References to the summer dwindled, and it was harder to write to a correspondent whose dry wit did not come across well on paper and who did not offer much about his life at all.

When Mike was in grade eleven, his mother had shown him a newspaper article about Rudy sweeping the medals at the national track and field event. Mike had not been surprised, but was still oddly pleased. That had been the last Mike heard about him.

Sitting in Mike's room and catching up wasn't awkward at all. For one thing, Rudy's expression didn't glaze over when Mike admitted he was a math major. Despite the fact that Rudy's facial expressions remained blank, he was surprisingly easy to talk to. He informed Mike of his own major (doubling in biology and political science), his thoughts on the cafeteria food (dismal), and his grudge against the person with loud footsteps who lived above him.

Mike, giggling, told Rudy about the blue-tinged cheese and his own interaction with the cafeteria staff. Rudy solemnly pronounced him an unsung hero.

Rudy was still there when Alyson knocked on the door.

"Hey, guys," she said, eyes lighting up as she spotted Rudy. "Mike, I signed us up for the scavenger hunt."

He groaned. "You know I hate running," he said. "I'm bad at it. Very bad. Also, there's like, peppy team bonding stuff."

"I bet you're good at clue-solving," Alyson said. Her grin took on a sly slant that Mike disliked instantly. "Do you have a team yet, Rudy? You could join ours."

"What?" Mike said. He glanced over at Rudy. "I'm sure he has better things to do. Ignore her."

"It'll be lots of fun," Alyson added, which was a strategy that seemed highly unlikely to work with Rudy.

"Will it," Rudy said blandly.

"Alyson!" Mike hissed. "Rudy doesn't like -- doing stuff like that."

"He might if you asked him," Alyson said. She turned to Rudy. "I apologize; we're being awfully rude," she said. "But I know Mike's hoping you'll be on our team for the scavenger hunt."

Mike gaped at her.

Rudy looked at Mike again, this time with an even more assessing stare. “Are you,” he said.

Mike flushed, remembering all those times at camp that Rudy had proved to be wildly successful at the many things that he didn't want to do. And all the times that he'd been forced into doing the things he'd said he didn't want to do. How it might seem to Rudy if Mike asked him to join something.

"I'd be happy to have you on my team," he said firmly. "I mean, I'm not thrilled about this scavenger hunt. But I just mean, I don't want you to think I want you on my team just because -- you know."

Rudy didn't say anything.

"Just because what?" Alyson said.

"Just because he's good at it!" Mike said, which was really only part of it.

“Ah,” said Rudy, sounding more thoughtful.

"Plus, we're -- we were friends," Mike blurted. He flushed, and stared determinedly at the floor.

Just because he and Rudy had an intense summer friendship when they were thirteen didn’t mean they needed to try being friends again. The fact that he used to fantasize about the tilt of Rudy's jaw and the pinkness of his lips had nothing to do with the here and now.

“Plus there are prizes,” Alyson said, in a cajoling tone.

Rudy was silent for a minute and then assumed an expression of wounded reluctance. “I accept your proposal,” he said.

Mike stared at him, shocked. “Really?” he said.

“Only under the condition that you do not attempt to cheer-lead me or otherwise use a tone of voice that may be considered ‘peppy’ or ‘perky’ at any point along the way.” This was directed at Alyson.

Alyson was grinning, unrepentant. “I can’t wait for you to meet my roommate,” she said.

“And an addendum,” Rudy added. “I have a guest visiting this weekend. Can we both participate in this activity?”

Mike was still feeling bowled over. “A guest?” he said.

“We’ll make it part of the rules,” Alyson said, gleefully. “I think Lars will take anyone he can get at this point.”

She looked at Rudy with a kind of speculative air, waved vaguely, and said goodnight.

"Ugh," Mike said, with feeling. "Sorry about all that."

He waved his hand to try to encompass Alyson, the scavenger hunt, and everything.

“Your girlfriend?” Rudy said, kind of indifferently. Mike was startled to realize it was the first direct question Rudy had asked him all night.

“No,” Mike said. He wasn’t sure how he felt about coming out to Rudy right then, so he just said, “She’s got a boyfriend.”

“Hmm,” Rudy said again.

Mike bit his lip. “Uh -- and you?” he said awkwardly.

“Ah,” Rudy said. “Love letters, mostly.”

"Oh," Mike said, unaccountably disappointed. Of course Rudy had someone. Or someones.

"There were some delivery issues," Rudy added. "I ended up having to write a severe letter to Canada Post to address some deficiencies of service.”

Mike wondered what that could possibly mean. “You affixed insufficient postage?” he hazarded.

“Only once,” Rudy said with dignity.

***

Mike found, the next morning, that someone had written I’m disappointed you still had all your clothes on! – A on the chalkboard on his door. He erased it, blushing, and hoped Rudy hadn’t seen it when he left last night. Alyson managed to corner him when he came out of the bathroom and pulled him into her room.

“Tell me everything,” she demanded.

“There’s nothing to tell,” Mike said, glaring at her repressively. “He’s a guy I met at summer camp when we were thirteen. That’s all.”

“Ooooh. I’ve heard things about summer camp,” Alyson said, with malicious glee. “Tell me more, tell me more --”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Mike said. “Let’s go get coffee.”

“I see your attempts to distract me,” Alyson said, pointing a finger at him. “This is only a temporary reprieve.”

It wasn’t until Mike was halfway through a large coffee that he abruptly realized that Rudy was the one that everyone on their floor referred to as Weird Guy.

“He’s no weirder than that girl who does headstands on the landing every morning,” Mike said defensively.

“Well, he barely talks to anyone,” Alyson said, sipping her coffee.

This was number four on their caffeine map of campus. They were rating each cafe on a variety of features including quality, service, ambiance, location, hotness of baristas, and background music. This one was getting high marks on quality and hotness, but Mike could already see the negative numbers Alyson was awarding in the music and ambiance sections. Mike couldn’t blame her; they were playing some kind of boring easy listening mix and the chairs were uncomfortable.

“I guess he’s not really that outgoing,” Mike said.

“He talked to you,” Alyson said, eyes gleaming, “all night.”

“It wasn’t all night,” Mike said irritably. “And we were just catching up. It’s kind of weird to run into him here; we really only knew each other for one summer.”

“Oh-oh-ooh, those suh-uh-mer ni-ights,” Alyson sang at him with a grin.

“Oh shut up,” Mike said, and threw a napkin at her.

***

The scavenger hunt was that Friday, and Mike found himself too wired to pay attention in class. He was still skeptical about the part of the scavenger hunt that involved running around in the dark. But at the same time, he had butterflies about seeing Rudy again. For a guy who lived on the same floor as Mike, Rudy was hard to accidentally-on-purpose run into. Mike had knocked on his door around dinner Thursday night but no one had answered. Mike's room was near the bathrooms, so he kept his door open more often than before in order to seem approachable if Rudy came down to that end of the hall. This had resulted in Mike meeting five new people and accidentally joining a band -- but no Rudy.

Mike arrived in the quad just before nine o’clock. He spotted Alyson and Lars assembling near the other teams. The only other member of their team was Alyson's peppy roommate, Tanya.

“No sign of Rudy and his -- friend?” Alyson said. “Do you think it’s his girlfriend?”

Her attempt at a subtle whisper left a lot to be desired.

“Shh,” Mike hissed at her. “I don’t know.” He was very manfully attempting to avoid thinking about Rudy writing love letters.

“Our team is low on numbers,” Lars said anxiously. “It’s almost nine!”

Rudy arrived just after nine, towing someone along in his wake.

"Oh," said Tanya, deflated. "It's Weird Guy."

"Hey," Alyson said, glaring at her. Tanya huffed, and Mike sent Alyson a grateful glance.

“This is my younger brother,” Rudy said, and Mike was startled to recognize Jeffrey Miller standing behind Rudy.

“Hey, everyone. Did you know this university is ranked in the 70th percentile for athletics. Shocking, isn’t it?” He bared his teeth in a grin, and his gaze fell on Mike. “Whoa, hey! It’s Alcatraz.”

Tanya turned to stare at Mike wide-eyed. “Your nickname is Alcatraz?”

“Er,” said Mike. He was surprised Jeffrey remembered him at all.

“Oh my god,” said Alyson in tones of utter delight.

Jeffrey had rounded on his brother. “Is this why you insisted on doing this stupid scavenger hunt?”

Rudy looked blank.

“Hi Jeffrey,” Mike said. "Hi Rudy."

Rudy nodded at him in greeting.

“Well, Miller,” Lars said. “I’m glad to see you! I certainly wasn’t expecting you and -- uh. Your brother. But it’s great you came! Our team was looking a little sparse.”

Jeffrey looked Lars up and down. “Who’s this clone?”

“This,” said Rudy, “is our RA.”

“Oh. I thought this was an activity for freshman,” Jeffrey said. “What are you doing here? Won’t you know all the answers already?”

“Oh, I won’t give anything away,” Lars said. “I’m here to make sure you don’t get lost. Though I might give you the occasional hint.” He winked. “Mostly, I’m just here for general encouragement!”

“Aha,” said Rudy drily.

“Goooo, team!” added Tanya.

Apparently their team colour was navy blue. Lars was disappointed that no one was wearing it except him, but there was no time for them to go back and change. They listened to a breakdown of the rules, then opened their envelope and Lars read the first clue aloud:

“Students here may moan and groan
In lifting many a heavy tome,
Under my archway, you
May find the next best clue.”

He read it with peculiar tonelessness, as if by emphasizing precisely zero of the words, he would be unable to unconsciously influence them.

“That is absolutely horrendous,” Rudy said. “Who wrote that drivel?”

Mike coughed to cover up his giggle.

Lars looked a little red-faced. “The clues were written by the RAs who put this together,” he said. “But ignore the poetry. Analyze the clues!”

Around them, the other teams were setting off in all directions.

“Groan and tome don’t even rhyme,” Mike said, craning his neck to look at the paper.

“Technically they are off-rhymes,” said Alyson. “It’s difficult to tell if it’s purposeful or just bad writing because there is so little of it, but – ”

“Let’s put the literary analysis aside,” Lars snapped. “Think – where is the biggest arch on campus?”

“McDonalds?” said Tanya.

“Ha,” said Mike. “There is probably some moaning and groaning happening there.”

“No, no,” Lars said. “Think harder.”

“I don’t think you’re supposed to be helping us this much,” pointed out Rudy mildly.

“Come on, team,” Lars said. He glanced anxiously around. They were the last ones in the quad. “Think!”

“I’m so excited to find out what happens next,” Jeffrey said. “Yawn,” he added, in case anyone had missed his sarcasm.

“Well, it’s clearly a library,” Alyson said. “Because of the tomes. Which library has a big archway?”

There was silence except for Lars’s heavy and excited breathing. He was practically urging them on with his breath, Mike thought.

There were several libraries on campus, Mike knew, although he only knew where the main one was; he and Alyson had seen it on their coffee expedition on the weekend. He couldn’t remember if it had an arch.

“Oh come on!” Lars exploded. “We can do it! You went on the campus tour last week, didn’t you, Mike?”

“I, er, slept in.”

“Rudy?”

“I don’t do tours.”

“But surely you know your way around campus? Don’t you remember which library has the archway?” Lars sounded desperate.

Rudy said, finally and a little reluctantly, “Yes.”

“You mean, you know?” Tanya said, annoyed. “You could’ve told us.”

“I wish I had a camera to document this proud moment for your future children,” Jeffrey said.

“Well, which is it?” Lars exclaimed in excitement.

“Northeast Library,” Rudy admitted.

“Yes!” announced Lars. “That’s it! Lead the way, Rudy!”

They were off. Mike was not surprised that Rudy led them unerringly to the library with the arch. There, they collected their second clue.

“Yay!” Tanya said.

Mike came up next to Rudy. “Sorry you got, uh, discovered. Well, that your talent -- um, knowledge -- got discovered." He coughed. "We -- you don't have to stick around."

Rudy glanced over at him, and his mouth was quirked at the corner, just the tiniest bit. He inclined his head toward his brother, and said in a low voice, “I’m trying to dissuade him from coming back again at Thanksgiving.”

Mike grinned. "Do you think it's working? I've got to think of a reason not to let Vicky come visit me, too."

"Time will tell," Rudy said with a long-suffering sigh. "He snores."

The second clue wasn’t any more well-written than the last, but Lars was a quick learner and headed off any poetry criticism by asking Rudy a few direct questions. He soon had the answer to clue number two.

“Wow,” said Alyson, grinning at Rudy, and winking at Mike. “You sure know your way around. Don’t tell me. Are you a geography major?” Rudy looked at her expressionlessly and didn’t answer. “No? How about cartography?”

“I didn’t even know they had cartography here,” Tanya said to Mike.

“I recommend Celestial Navigation 101,” Rudy told Alyson finally, and she doubled over in laughter.

Although Rudy aced them through the clues, the team was starting to slow down on the running portions. Rudy, typically, seemed to have barely broken a sweat. Neither did Jeffrey. Mike, who was thoroughly winded, scowled at both of them.

It was dark by this point, and Mike was vindicated to realize that he had absolutely no idea where they were. Clearly, this was not going to better prepare him for navigating the campus. However, this was a shallow victory in light of the cramp in his side.

At the fifth clue (the bridge near the university’s main entrance), they met another group, led by an RA from their building that Mike only vaguely recognized.

“Hi guys,” she greeted them. “We’re on number four,” she added to Lars grinning.

“We’re on . . . five,” Lars retorted, breathless but giddy.

While the rest of their group struggled to catch their breath, Rudy collected their clue and read it silently.

“The bus stop in front of the life sciences building,” he announced, and took off again.

“I hate running,” Mike moaned.

“Is this what being friends with Rudy is always like?” Alyson asked, breathlessly.

“Yes,” Mike said sadly.

As they started to struggle after him, Mike heard the other RA say, “Geez, Lars, you didn’t have to recruit a walking campus guidebook.”

“I didn’t know!” Lars called back.

Rudy reached the bus stop far enough ahead of them to open the clue, decode it, and head them off before they got there.

“Is that -- cheating?” Mike gasped.

“Absolutely not,” Rudy said. “The rules state only one member of your team has to finish. That applies to clues as well.”

“This is ridiculous,” Tanya whined. “There’s no need for us to even be here. I thought we were supposed to be a team.”

“We’re a winning team!” exclaimed Lars.

Alyson almost tripped over a tree root. “I don't think I've even seen this part of campus,” she said. "Where are we?"

Rudy found the eighth and final clue (under the marquee of the campus theatre) while the rest of them were still far behind.

“Go on!” Lars shouted joyfully. “Finish! You can make it! We’re right behind you!”

Rudy waved and jogged away into the darkness. The rest of them slowed to a walk as they made their way to the finish line.

“What a nerd,” Jeffrey said. “Maybe I’ll get him a mug hand-painted with 'Rudy is a nerd' for Christmas.”

"I think he'd break it over your head," Mike said, only semi-breathlessly.

Jeffrey guffawed.

“We are experiencing a distinct lack of team spirit,” said Tanya severely.

“And we might even win!” exclaimed Lars. “This is amazing!”

“Rudy’s pretty athletic,” Alyson said, eyeing Mike. Now that she had her breath back a little, Mike didn’t trust her an inch.

“Yeah, I guess,” he said, noncommittally. “He won all sorts of things at nationals in track and field when he was in high school.”

“It’s pretty hot,” Alyson said.

"Yeah," Mike said.

"Um, ew," Jeffrey said.

"Um, don't eavesdrop!" Alyson told him, and he huffed and ran ahead of them.

Mike dropped his head into his hands and groaned.

“Also, you told me you only knew him when you were thirteen,” Alyson added.

Mike was too busy being humiliated, so he ignored her.

It was lucky Lars was with them because otherwise Mike wasn’t sure they would have been able to find the quad or their residence building again. When they arrived, a jumble of people were there already, talking loudly and arguing.

Rudy stood to one side, looking unruffled.

Lars rushed up to him. “What happened? Did we win?”

“I got here first,” Rudy said. “And they said all the clues were in the right order.”

“Amazing!” Lars said exuberantly. “I never thought we’d actually win!”

“The prizes better be good,” Jeffrey said.

“Oh, that’s great, Lars,” said another one of the RAs sourly. “You didn’t have to whine so much about how few people joined your team when all along you were hiding a powerhouse.”

“I honestly didn’t know!” Lars said.

Rudy looked bored.

“I’ve reached my quota for group activities,” Mike told Alyson in an undertone. “I’ve decided I hate participating. And team spirit. And making friends.”

“Yeah, right, Gouda,” she said dismissively. “I heard about your new band. Besides, like you’d miss the chance to stare at Rudy’s ass.”

Mike glanced around wildly to see if Rudy was in earshot, and then poked her in the side. “I was not!” he hissed.

“Uh huh.”

“It was way too dark, anyway,” Mike added.

Alyson laughed.

Other teams straggled in, and the RAs had to send a few rescue teams out to look for some of the people who got lost. Rudy was ceremoniously presented with a grab bag of prizes which he handed off to Lars. Lars excitedly distributed them among his team. Even Jeffrey was awarded a prize bag.

“Higher education sure is super,” he said.

“Well, come on, Webster,” said Rudy. “Jeffrey brought some non-cafeteria food, which we can eat in celebration of our victory in my room. And Alyson,” he added after a pause.

Alyson looked delighted to be invited.

“And Jeffrey,” Rudy said.

Jeffrey rolled his eyes.

They joined the dispersing crowd heading towards their dorm.

“You’ll be on my team, next time, right, Rudy?” Lars called after them. “Oh -- and do you want to join Badminton Club?”

"No," Rudy called back.

"Okay, well, see you soon, buddy!"

"Do you think we can avoid that guy for the next seven and a half months?" Mike said.

"Yes," Rudy said, after a moment of consideration. "It would involve a state-of-the-art surveillance system, a nocturnal food schedule, and intermediate rock climbing skills in order to use the third floor window as an egress."

There was a moment of silence.

"Huh," said Alyson.

"Too bad," said Mike.

"Oh, come on," Jeffrey said. "Clearly the southeast window on the fourth floor is better situated."

“So, Rudy,” Alyson said, heading off an incipient sibling argument. “Mike tells me you went to nationals for track and field.”

Rudy shot an indecipherable look at Mike, who looked down and felt his face flush red.

Alcatraz,” Jeffrey said, in delight. “I didn’t know you were paying such close attention.”

Rudy, who was normally sure-footed, accidentally stepped on his brother’s foot. “Ow,” Jeffrey said, but he was still grinning.

“That is undeniably true,” Rudy said finally to Alyson.

“Are you going to try out for the track and field team?”

“Unlikely,” Rudy answered.

“Rudy doesn’t run,” Mike put in.

Alyson looked at him in a sort of exasperated way. “I can see with my own eyes that he runs, Mike,” she said. “Don’t hog the Rudy time.”

When they got to Rudy’s room, he provided them with potato chips and chocolate chip cookies. The cookies were in a tin and had been sent with Jeffrey from their mother. Jeffrey sprawled in one of the desk chairs, pushing the other towards Alyson, and leaving Mike to perch awkwardly on Rudy’s bed.

Rudy paused for a moment before he sat down on the bed as well.

“Well, that sure was a lark,” Jeffrey said. “I can’t believe the shenanigans you university students get up to.”

“I forget -- did you ask to come for a visit?” Alyson said, eyebrows raised.

Jeffrey grinned at her, unrepentant. “I did not, but I’ve got so much more than I ever expected out of it.” Inexplicably, he gave Mike a little salute.

Mike, confused, waved back.

“Ignore him,” Rudy said calmly. “Cookie?”

Rudy’s roommate was nowhere to be seen. “He has a girlfriend,” Rudy said, when Alyson asked him. “I believe that occupies much of his time.”

“I wish my roommate had a boyfriend,” said Alyson morosely. “Or a girlfriend. Or something. She’s barely left the room at all.”

“Maybe we just need to set her up with my roommate,” said Mike.

“Well, there is a flaw in your grand plan,” Alyson said. “And that is Kyle’s complete lack of sex appeal.”

“You do have a point,” Mike said. “I wouldn’t touch him with a ten foot pole. The cologne would kill me.”

“Oh please, you could do much better,” Alyson said.

“Anyway, I was never that great at coming up with plans, was I, Rudy?” he added and turned to look at Rudy.

He was surprised to find Rudy staring at him intently, his dark gaze calm and assessing. He seemed unfazed to be caught out, and simply raised his eyebrows at Mike. “I don’t recall you coming up with any plans at all,” Rudy said.

“Hey!” Mike said affronted. “I didn’t say I never came up with plans.” He paused for a moment, thinking, then added, “It was 100% my idea to land the hot air balloon in the lake.”

“Hot air balloon?” Alyson repeated in disbelief.

“Would you call that a landing? More of a crash, I’d say,” Rudy said mildly.

“I distinctly remember yelling ‘Steer towards the waterfall!’ and you shouting back ‘The wind is coming from the northwest!’”

“It did turn out to be a northwesterly,” Rudy said.

“What a romantic story,” Jeffrey said.

Mike started giggling.

“You crashed a hot air balloon into a waterfall? What kind of summer camp was this?”

Mike laughed even harder.

“Camp Alcatraz,” Rudy said by way of explanation.

Alyson gave Mike a long look. “Ah,” she said. “I think I see. Bonds forged among the shared experiences of cots, canoe trips, and campfires.”

“They were bunk beds,” Rudy said. “And beavers. But yes.”

Eventually, Alyson yawned her way out the door, and Jeffrey immediately announced he wanted to see the college parties he’d heard so much about.

“From Rudy?” Mike said doubtfully.

“From everyone!” Jeffrey exclaimed. “Come on, Alcatraz. You look like a guy who knows how to party.”

“Do I?” Mike said, even more doubtfully. So far he’d been to twenty minutes of a college party, and all that happened was he accidentally insulted someone’s hockey team and spilled half a beer on his shoes.

“Quiet, Jeffrey,” Rudy said.

“I’m just saying, I want the full university experience here! Otherwise, I might --”

“Okay, all right,” Rudy said, with disarming speed. “We’ll go to a party. Mike?”

“What?” Mike said, blinking at Rudy’s abrupt change in tune.

“Keep me company while I put in the minimum effort to avoid getting this guy killed on my watch,” Rudy said. “At the funeral, I need to be able to tell my mother that I tried.”

“Haha,” Jeffrey said. “As if you’d be invited to my funeral.”

Mike looked into Rudy’s dark eyes and found himself saying, “Sure, okay.”

****

The party was at a house ten minutes away from campus. Mike had no idea how Rudy knew about it. It was loud and obnoxious, and Jeffrey immediately disappeared into the fray.

“Clone city,” Rudy said to Mike, deadpan.

Mike giggled, despite himself. “Do you want to see if they have any beer?”

Rudy gave a shrug, but followed when Mike led the way through to the back of the house, where they found the kitchen.

Having secured beers, they propped themselves against the basement door and clinked gravely.

“Long live the beaver,” Mike said, and Rudy’s eyes glittered and his lips twitched, which Mike chose to read as Rudy’s version of hysterical laughter.

They had a decent view of the kitchen, and beyond that, the living room, where someone was playing very loud music for a crowd of people dancing. Occasionally, Mike caught sight of Jeffrey. He drank his beer and listened with half an ear as Rudy gave a running commentary on their fellow partiers.

“People will start think you don’t like anyone at all,” Mike pointed out eventually. He was feeling warm and happy, and just a little tipsy.

“That would be unusually perceptive of them,” Rudy said.

“They call you the Weird Guy,” Mike blurted out. He flushed and glanced over at Rudy. "On our floor, I mean."

“Hmm,” he said, and took a sip of beer. He licked his lips, and Mike looked away quickly

“I don’t think you’re weird,” he said. “I mean, you are pretty weird. You are a whole summer camp’s worth of weird. But not weird the way they mean weird. If you know what I mean.”

There was a small pause. “I can’t say that I do,” Rudy said.

Mike waved his hand around to try to capture the whole party, all the people talking and dancing and drinking, completely oblivious to how fun it could be to hang out with Rudy Miller. It seemed to be growing even louder, so he tugged Rudy by the sleeve until Rudy followed him out the kitchen door onto the back porch. “They don’t know how good weird is,” Mike explained. “That’s what I mean.”

Another pause. “And you do?” Rudy said.

“Well, I forgot for a bit,” Mike admitted. “But I was fourteen, so allowances have to be made for stupidity.”

“Allowances granted,” Rudy offered generously.

“And you were fourteen and stupid, too.”

“Marginally less so, but I will admit to a reduction in faculties at that stage in my life.”

Mike grinned at him. “But now I remember again!”

Another pause. “You do,” Rudy said.

“Yeah,” Mike said. “Don’t you?”

Rudy was watching him, his eyes dark and shadowed under the glow from the porch light. Mike felt suddenly as though Rudy could see right through him, right to all his insecurities and anxieties about being liked, about getting through college, about living up to his parents’ expectations, about being gay.

“I like weird, too,” Rudy said, so quietly Mike could hardly hear him.

He put down his beer. “You do?” he said, just to be sure.

“I always have.”

Rudy sounded almost vulnerable. Still, he didn’t move. He was haloed in the porch light, and his dark eyes were directed straight at Mike, and he didn’t move a muscle.

Mike's breath was caught in his throat, the butterflies in his chest going wild. The moment seemed to stretch between them, held in the chill of the early autumn night air. Mike's gaze snagged on Rudy's mouth. His lips were slightly parted, unmoving.

Mike couldn’t stand it a moment longer. He stepped towards Rudy, watching his eyes widen with surprise, took hold of one of his hands, and leaned in to kiss him.

The most shocking thing wasn’t the way Rudy kissed him back, his mouth opening against Mike’s. It wasn’t the way his fingers closed around Mike’s wrist, heated pressure that sent sparks through Mike’s body. The most shocking thing was the way Rudy shivered, a full-body movement that gave the lie to his statue-stillness.

Rudy's mouth was hot, and Mike dizzily wondered why he'd never managed to do this before.

He pulled away for a moment to catch his breath.

“I don’t,“ Rudy said, and then stopped abruptly.

Mike pulled back in alarm, feeling as though he’d been doused with a bucket of cold water.

“Oh, I --” he said. “Shit, I’m so sorry. I --”

He never wanted to make Rudy do anything he didn’t actually want to do. And he definitely didn’t want to ask anything of Rudy, not when he knew, he knew, that Rudy would do it if Mike asked him.

The idea that kissing him was something Rudy didn’t want to do, or that he had been manipulated into doing, made Mike feel suddenly sick.

“I don’t want to do anything you don’t want to do,” he said firmly.

Rudy’s eyes widened. “I was about to say,” he said and his voice sounded unusually rough, “that I don’t really know what we’re doing.”

Mike sucked in a breath. “Me neither,” he said.

“I usually know what to do,” Rudy added.

“I know,” Mike said gravely. “That’s okay.”

Rudy stared at him for a moment. Mike could feel his own heartbeat thudding in his chest.

He was suddenly struck by the thought that Rudy’s versions of love letters might look a lot like weird and incomprehensible postcards to a stupid and oblivious fourteen year old boy.

“There’s nothing about you that I don’t want,” Rudy said at last.

Mike was unable to stop himself from flushing, but he grinned at the same time. “Yeah?” he said. “Well, uh, ditto.”

Rudy stepped towards him, and he reached out to curl his hand in Mike’s hair as he leaned in to kiss him again. He was a good kisser, Mike thought distantly. He kissed like he knew exactly what he wanted.

“Were they for me?” he said breathlessly.

“Were what for you?” Rudy murmured, kissing Mike’s neck and making him gasp.

“The -- the love letters you wrote. Did you send them to me?”

Rudy paused and lifted his head. “I did realize,” he said, “that they were not received in the spirit in which they were sent. Eventually.”

“Oh my god,” Mike said. “I was so dumb. I spent so much time thinking about you with my hand down my --” He cut himself off, flustered.

“No, no, please go on,” Rudy said, one side of his mouth curling into a smirk.

Mike kissed him to shut him up. “But I didn’t understand them,” he said at last. “I wish I had. But I didn’t.”

“Yes, well,” Rudy said, curling his fingers under Mike’s T-shirt. “My fourteen-year-old self is disappointed, but I am certainly not.”

Rudy kissed him again.

“Oh my god, ew,” Jeffrey said loudly, and Mike pulled away like a shot.

"Go away, Jeffrey," Rudy said, without looking away from Mike.

Jeffrey was pointing at Rudy and smirking. “Ha! I knew it! I knew it all along!”

Rudy turned to glare at his brother. “I think you have been sufficiently babysat for the night.”

“Uh,” said Mike, confused.

Rudy gave him a look and then reached out to grasp his hand and, just like that, they were standing on a porch holding hands.

Jeffrey turned to Mike. “And you! Took you long enough to get your head on straight, Alcatraz,” he said.

Mike, who was thoroughly distracted by Rudy’s warm fingers wrapped around his hand, said, “What?”

“I’m definitely telling Mom and Dad!” Jeffrey added.

“Please do,” Rudy said with dignity. “Come on, Mike. I think we should leave.”

“We should?” Mike said, disappointed. This was the best party he’d been to ever in his life, and he was hoping it wouldn’t end just yet.

“Yes,” Rudy said. “We’re going back to my room.”

“Oh,” Mike said. “Yes, then. Okay.”

“Ew!” Jeffrey said.

Mike smiled happily at Rudy. “Let’s make our escape,” he said, and ignored Jeffrey groaning behind him.