“Hey nerd, you’re with me.”
It starts in Robotics class. Specifically, the day Ms. Ahn has them pair up for the latest group assignment. The entire class groans as she says it, entire class except for Chris and Ashley, who give each other high-fives. Group assignment with the two of them? Piece of cake.
That is, until Josh freakin’ Washington crashes their party.
“E-excuse me?” Chris stutters. Josh is leaning across his desk, dark brows drawn down into a scowl, his nose nearly up against Chris’. Chris pulls back, feels the heat creeping into his cheeks and tries in vain to will it down.
“I said,” Josh growls, “you’re with me. For this group shit.”
“Listen, nerd. I can’t afford to fail this class. You wouldn’t want to be responsible for me failing this class, would you?” Josh’s grin is razor-sharp and cannibal bright. Chris swallows, the sound thick and heavy even in the dull roar of the classroom.
“Good,” Josh says. “Fuckin’ great. Nice working with you, nerd.” Then he’s straightening up, and stalking off, and Chris is left feeling like he’s been mauled by some kind of wild animal.
“Holy. Shit.” Ashley sounds about as stunned as Chris feels. “So. That… happened.”
Chris nods. Yeah. Apparently it did.
One, the guy’s loaded. His dad is some Hollywood bigwig; director or producer or something, Chris isn’t all down with the terms. Chris has seen at least five films with “Bob Washington” somewhere in the credits, and feels a little jolt of thrill every time. Kind of his own weird dumb degrees of separation thing he can use as an icebreaker in college. You know I went to high school with that guy’s kid?
Two, Josh freakin’ Washington is an only child. He used to have two sisters, but there was some kind of accident up at the family ski lodge or whatever, and now he doesn’t.
Three, losing his sisters messed Josh up. Big time. Or maybe Josh was always messed up, and being alone made it worse. Either way, the guy’s a psycho, and the whole school knows it.
Four, Josh freakin’ Washington is the hottest thing since the inside of the Large Hadron Collider. He’s all big sharp grin and wide green eyes, and the sort of smooth bronze skin Chris would be one-hundred-percent okay with running his hands over, like, forever. And maybe Chris has a thing for hot messes and this is something no one knows except for Ashley. Chris is already a certified chess club loser. He doesn’t need to be the school faggot as well.
“You could’ve told him to get lost,” Ashley says later, at lunch. “What was he going to do? In front of Ms. Ahn?”
Chris just shrugs, keeping his eyes firmly glued to the Minecraft on his phone. It’s a dumb kid’s game but whatever. Playing it means not having this conversation with Ash.
Ash, who’s sidling up against him, elbow nudging into the chub below his ribs. “I think,” she says, voice low and conspiratorial, “you didn’t want to tell him to get lost.”
“Washington’s a psycho,” Chris mutters into his screen.
The comment earns him a shove against his shoulder that has his thumb slipping and mining a door by mistake. He curses, but Ash isn’t done. “You can’t say that!” she tells him.
“Why not?” Chris says. “It’s true, isn’t it? The guy pops like twelve pills a day.”
“Ohmigawd. Dude. Not okay.”
“He says so himself!” This, in Chris’ defense, is true. Most of the school rumors about Josh freakin’ Washington can be traced directly back to Josh freakin’ Washington. Most of them. And the rest, people are too scared to say out loud on school grounds.
“That doesn’t make it okay to repeat them,” Ashley says. “One in five people experience mental illness in their life, you know.”
“Gee, thanks for the PSA, Tumblr,” Chris snaps. “Got any, tilde, friendly reminders, tilde, on how to survive my group assignment while you’re at it?”
Ashley gives him a knowing little smirk. “Just be yourself,” she says.
Yeah, Chris thinks. Right.
He is such a fucking idiot. So much. Like, visible-from-space levels. His stomach has been tying itself in knots ever since that stupid fucking Robotics class, his hands shaking so bad he drops his stupid fucking pills all over the bathroom floor. He has to scramble to pick them up, and that’s fucking disgusting, but he downs them anyway with a whiskey chaser, figuring the alcohol will cancel out the chlamydia or whatever-the-fuck-else it is one picks up off the bathroom fucking floor.
Fuck. He’s late. His watch buzzed at him like an hour ago, then again half an hour, then fifteen minutes. Now it’s buzzing again to tell him he should be in the library, ready to fucking learn some fucking Robotics. If he’s late, Chris might leave. And if Chris leaves…
Of course Chris is going to leave, dipshit. Why would he stay?
His shrink would tell him to lay off the negative self-talk, Joshua, but his shrink is why Josh is late in the first place, so fuck him. Asking so many dumbass questions about The Latest Incident, the one that left Josh with a cracked rib and stupid fucking Austin McIntyre with a broken nose. Fuck McIntyre and fuck Dr. Hill, basically.
“Fuck your own dirty, gaping ass,” Josh tells his reflection. Then he goes to find Chris.
“Hey, nerd,” he says, then instantly wants to die. He’s such a fuckup. He throws himself down in the chair across from Chris before the guy can react, hands jammed in the pockets of his hoodie to try and hide the shaking.
Chris looks up, blinking his big dumb nerd eyes behind his big dumb nerd glasses. God, he’s so fucking cute. Josh just wants to fucking eat him, and isn’t that entirely the problem?
“Um,” says Chris. “Are… are you okay?”
This is… not what Josh was expecting as a response, and his drugged-out, half-drunk brain has to scramble to find a different script before he can respond.
“What?” Oh, yeah. Feel that Washington smoothness. His sisters would be so fucking proud of their big bro.
Chris looks down, not fast enough to hide the blush. The one that makes the knots in Josh’s gut feel more like butterflies. “Um,” says Chris. “Don’t worry about it. I just… your, um…” He makes a vague gesture towards his face, and Josh has to copy it—has to feel his own stupid fucking fingers press against his own split-open skin—to know what Chris means.
“Oh,” Josh says. “Right. Lucky shot. Other guy got it worse.” He gives his best shit-eating grin, feeling the scab on his lip split open as he does. He doesn’t mention the fact his rib aches every time he takes a breath. Fucking McIntyre.
“Looks like it hurts,” says Chris. He keeps half looking up, then back down again whenever Josh’s eyes meet his. Josh wants to grab him by the collar, drag him into the stacks, and blow him till he screams.
Like he’d ever let a sick fuck like you touch him, say Josh’s Unhelpful Self-Talk. Today he can’t decide whether it sounds like Beth, like his dad, or like Chris. His fingers are sweat-slicked where they curl tight around the hip flask in his pocket. He’s not nearly buzzed enough for this, to be sitting so close to so much delicious, virgin nerd. But if he gets caught drinking on school grounds again, he’s a fucking dead man.
He must be vagueing like a doped-up freak, because Chris is saying something, shuffling the pile in front of him, looking for his notes. Josh is staring at the beautiful way Chris’ throat moves when he speaks so it takes a moment to realize Chris is after the assignment sheet.
“Wait up,” Josh’s mouth says. “Gimmie a sec.” He reaches down under the table, rummaging around in his satchel. “Here.” He retrieves the MacBook from his bag, tossing it on the desk and pushing it towards Chris.
Chris eyes it like it’s on fire. “You bring a laptop to school?”
“It’s just a stupid Air.” Josh has a proper MacBook at home, the one he does his assignments for Film with. It’s basically the only class he isn’t failing. Dad said if he didn’t stop fucking up everything else, he’d have to drop it, because Dad is nothing if not a giant asshole. When he could be bothered coming home. Which is never.
“Are you even allowed to have this?” Chris is saying.
Josh shrugs, feeling like an idiot. “Whatever,” he says. “If you don’t wanna use it—”
“No!” says Chris, maybe a bit too fast. “No, it’s cool. Um. Thank you.” There’s that blush again. And half a smile and, fuck. Josh has it bad. He sneaks a drink, just one, while Chris is busy with the laptop. The Lagavulin tastes like dragon’s piss, the good stuff. It sits warm and easy in Josh’s wrecked stomach, settles some of the shaking in his hands. It’s okay. He’s got this. He’s Josh fuckin’ Washington, of course he’s got this. He folds his arms, pressing the fingers of one hand against his cracked rib. The pain helps him focus.
“Okay,” Chris says. “So, like. Here’s the assignment.” He turns the laptop around so they can both see, Ms. Ahn’s shitty website displaying in all its default-font glory. “It’s not too hard,” Chris continues. “Just research questions basically. Um. You wanna, um…” He trails off, glances up. Josh tries to soften his scowl a little beneath the shadow of his hoodie. From Chris’ expression, it doesn’t work.
“I can do whatever,” Josh says. Then, almost as an afterthought, tries adding, “Bro.” That’s… friendly, right? Fuck. It’s been so long. Josh is almost certain he used to be good at this, way back before everything went to shit.
“Um, okay,” Chris says, pushing the laptop back his way. “How ‘bout taking notes? Um. No point writing everything by hand if we can just type it up now.”
“Sure, bro.” The word seems to work last time, so Josh tries it again. When it earns him half an awkward smile, Josh knows he’s going to keep it up until he dies.
Two hours later. Working with Josh is… It’s actually pretty cool. The guy had been super late and Chris had been shitting himself, would’ve walked out if his fear of a Washington-induced death hadn’t been so strong. And then Josh had shown up, reeking of alcohol, mouth busted open and half his face covered in a purple-green bruise, and…
… and it hadn’t been too bad. Chris had figured he’d just have to do all the work himself, which is why he’d already started by the time Josh arrived. But, lo and behold, because Josh’s nose is currently buried in a book, pen hanging from his lips.
“So I’m thinking, like… what about companion robots?” Josh is saying.
“Huh?” says Chris, suddenly glad Josh is busy reading and not, like. Noticing Chris has spent the last five minutes fantasizing about what it would be like to be a Biro.
“Companion robots.” Bright green eyes look up beneath shadowed lids, and Chris thinks he’s going to die right then and there. Die, or pop a boner, and he knows which one would be worse. Other guy got it worse, Josh had said. Chris doesn’t want to wind up Other Guy 2.0.
“You mean, like, sexbots?” says Chris, face immediately turning scarlet because, holy shit, he just said the word “sexbots” out loud.
Josh laughs. It’s more of a startled bark, but it’s a laugh. “Bro,” he says. “No, bro. I mean, like. For sick people and shit. Like this fucking seal thing.” He holds up the books he’s reading, showing Chris a black-and-white photo of an Asian guy in a business suit hugging what looks like a stuffed baby seal. “They give it to, like, old people or whatever,” Josh is saying. “To make them feel better.”
“Um…” says Chris. Honestly, he was expecting Josh to suggest they go with military robotics. Or sexbots. Chris had been kind of getting the courage to suggest they choose space exploration.
He must stare too long, because Josh scowls and looks away. “Or not,” he says. “I guess it’s lame—”
“No!” Which, okay. Maybe a bit too loud in the quiet library, but Chris has a sudden, almost painful, need to interject. Because Josh had suggested something kind of sweet, and unexpected, and for a moment when he’d suggest it, he’d just looked so… so earnest. So beautiful. And maybe Chris wants that expression back, if only for a moment. Wants something other than that broken, angry scowl.
“No, man,” he says. “It’s a good idea. The seal is cute.” He tries a smile. When he gets one in return, he can’t help the way his stomach feels like it folds over on itself.
“Bitches will fucking love it,” says Josh.
Chris forces a laugh and tries not to wince. “Yeah, sure,” he says. “I know Robotics is where I go to pick up girls.” There are, like, three in their entire class.
Josh just gives a crooked grin. “Like that Ashley chick?” he says. “You boning her or what?”
Chris feels himself go absolutely scarlet. “Ash? I, uh… No! She’s like my best friend. We’re not… Y’know.”
“You should, man,” Josh says. “She’s fucking hot. I bet she’d let you.”
“Dude! No! It’s Ash. I mean… I’m not…”
“What?” Josh is practically leering. “Not into chicks? That’s fuckin’ gay, bro.”
Chris just sighs. “Yeah, man,” he says. “You got it in one. Not being into chicks is literally the definition of ‘fucking gay’.” He thinks for a moment, then adds, “If you’re a dude.” Because Ashley would expect him to. He tries not to feel the way his hands are shaking under the table. Did he just… come out to Josh freakin’ Washington? Oh, fuck. He is so dead.
Except Josh just laughs, his green eyes practically glowing under the flickering library fluorescents. Chris really likes that laugh. Really likes causing that laugh. If he can make Josh freakin’ Washington laugh every day for the rest of his life, Chris thinks he can die a happy (if sexually frustrated) man.