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On a Roll

By Lynn Townsend


Published by JMS Books LLC at Smashwords

Visit jms-books.com for more information.


Copyright 2019 Lynn Townsend

ISBN 9781634869195

* * * *

Cover Design: Written Ink Designs | written-ink.com

Image(s) used under a Standard Royalty-Free License.

All rights reserved.


WARNING: This book is not transferable. It is for your own personal use. If it is sold, shared, or given away, it is an infringement of the copyright of this work and violators will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

No portion of this book may be transmitted or reproduced in any form, or by any means, without permission in writing from the publisher, with the exception of brief excerpts used for the purposes of review.

This book is for ADULT AUDIENCES ONLY. It may contain sexually explicit scenes and graphic language which might be considered offensive by some readers. Please store your files where they cannot be accessed by minors.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are solely the product of the author’s imagination and/or are used fictitiously, though reference may be made to actual historical events or existing locations. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Published in the United States of America.

* * * *

On a Roll

By Lynn Townsend

Chapter 1

There was nothing particularly awful about the door. The paint was chipped around the frame and some urban wit with a Sharpie had suggested calling Julie for a good time. A taped flier advertised office hours for the two TAs whose offices were inside. A Post-It declared, “Things to Remember: 1) Alamo! 2) Johnson, Intro Lit, Paper Due 10/15! 3) Call Julie.” In short, a perfectly ordinary classroom door.

Except that it was closed, and Beau was late. Not very late. Just ten minutes.

Stupid. He’d scoped the room out the previous week so he’d know exactly where it was. He didn’t want to be too early and look desperate. Or worse, get stuck chatting with someone else who was early. He wasn’t ready for that. He didn’t want to talk. He just wanted to listen.

But now he was late, and the door was closed. And everyone would stop and stare when he opened the door and walked into the room. Beau reached for the knob, then dropped his hand. No, he couldn’t do it. Maybe next week. Except next week he’d be the guy who had chickened out from the first meeting. Everyone would know each other, have started forming their cliques.

“Shit.” He touched the knob again. Which turned under his hand.

“Fu—” Beau started to swear, stopped, jumped back. The door opened outward—that was standard. His uncle was in the volunteer fire department, and “volunteer” apparently meant, to Uncle Jeff, telling everyone everything about buildings and fire safety and first aid, whether they wanted to know it or not. And in this case, Uncle Jeff had explained that public buildings were required by law to have doors that open outward, to prevent crowd crushing in case of a fire.

“Oh!” The guy who opened the door was good-looking in a J. Crew catalog, casual way, with clothes that Beau would have sworn were tailored to draw attention. A tight, plain white, cotton shirt fit well over a lean and sculpted chest. A three-button vest in one of those colors that had strange names like wine or claret hung open over it. The boy wore tight jeans, and a large, black leather belt encircled narrow hips. He topped the outfit off with a rugged, oval face, adorned with four-day stubble and a ready smile. Beau admired the look, then blushed for his own outfit and appearance. As his brother said, Beau dressed in retro-chic-redneck. “Sorry,” the guy said, edging past Beau. “Go on in, man. I gotta tap a kidney.” The men’s room was down the hall and around the corner. Beau turned to watch him go, observing the flex of J. Crew’s thighs and ass, not even paying attention to the door swinging closed. It struck the frame with a solid thunk.

“Ah, screw it,” Beau muttered. He backed away, then fled—and knew it for a retreat—down the hall. It was farther to the exit; the elevator was to the left, and he’d have to take the stairwell, but really, there just wasn’t any other choice. He didn’t want to risk bumping into J. Crew. “What kind of fucked up name is Rainbow Connection anyway?” He dug the battered and folded flier out of his pocket as he thudded down the stairs, turning the corners blindly. He threw it to the ground angrily. No one would be in the stairwell, no one ever was. By the time he hit the ground floor, ten stories later, he was sweating and gasping for air.

The September evening was still muggy, unpleasantly warm, and the tang of cafeteria grease lingered like a noxious cloud. Beau took several deep breaths anyway. He threw himself onto the concrete banister that lined the well-worn steps and leaned against the column, staring up at the sky. There were no answers in the shapes of the sunset-stained clouds.

He dug through his backpack and fished out a crumpled pack of Marlboros. Two left. He lit one and pulled the nicotine-laden stress relief into his lungs.

Beau closed his eyes, smoked, and let everything fade out. This was never going to work. When he got back to his dorm, he was going to throw out the pamphlets, go firmly back into the closet, and lock the door behind him. It worked for Aunt Lucy, it would work for him. Fake it ‘til you make it.

He finished the coffin nail, stubbed it on the cement railing. After it cooled, he’d stick it in his pocket until he could find one of the very few ash cans left on campus. He smoked and he knew it was bad, and he annoyed every crystal-twinkie, new age, left wing, egotistical health nut out there that insisted he should quit. Which is why, Beau pointed out, smokers often acted like selfish bastards to begin with. You may as well have the fun when you’re gonna be stuck with the blame, right? Despite that, Beau was not a litterer, and there was nothing appealing about a grassy lawn covered with used butts.

“Got a light?”

Beau fumbled in his pocket for the Bic and held it out without opening his eyes.

“Thanks, man,” J. Crew said. Of course it was. Beau started to get up. This was going to be awkward, and hopefully as short as possible.

“Keep it,” he said.

“Don’t let me chase you out of your perch, man,” J Crew said. He pulled an honest-to-God cigarette case out of his breast pocket. It was even engraved with flowery initials. Beau could barely make out a V and everything else was an incomprehensible scrawl. “Dunhill?”

Beau stared. “Really?” He’d never actually tasted one of the luxury cigarettes before; when smoke prices had risen to over five dollars a pack, he’d seriously cut back. Five a day, that was his limit. Frankly, it was all his budget could afford.

“I only smoke ‘em to piss off my grandparents,” J Crew admitted. “You looked like you were enjoying yours.”

Beau nodded, reluctant. “I keep meaning to quit, you know,” he said. He lit the Dunhill and pulled in a mouthful of the finest smoke known to man or gods.

“I hear ya,” said J. Crew.

“Good meeting, King!” A pair of girls danced out of the stairwell, one blonde and the other an Asian with hair a shade of impossible green, holding hands. They made for an odd couple, the blonde towering over her girlfriend by at least a foot and a half.

The shorter girl had the silhouette of a chess piece tattooed just under one eye. “We made the right decision, putting you in charge. No matter what Blake might have said.”

“Thank ya, thank ya verah much,” said J. Crew. “Elvis has left the building.” For some reason, this sent the girls into gales of shrieking laughter.

“No, really,” the blonde one said. “It was great. Thanks. I think you even got a smile out of Jody the grouch!” She punched J. Crew in the arm, grinning. J. Crew winced and rubbed at his arm.

“If you say ‘two for flinching’ Ann-Marie,” J. Crew said, holding up one finger in warning, “I will nominate you for the treasury position.”

“No, not that!” Ann-Marie snorted laughter. “Anything but that!”

“C’mon.” The petite Asian tugged at her girlfriend’s arm. “I’m starving!”

“For such a little person, you need an enormous amount of food. I told you to eat before the meeting,” Ann-Marie scolded, relenting to the yanking.

“Nag, nag, nag.”

Beau stared back at the sky, enjoying the smooth, British smoke. The girls’ voices vanished into the sultry evening.

“Well, that settles it,” J. Crew said. “You should have been at that meeting.”

Beau choked on a mouthful of smoke. “Damn, bro,” he said, “don’t make me waste it. What are you talking about?”

“Any straight guy on this campus would have asked them some stupid-ass question like, ‘Can I watch?’ or at least made some sexist, bullshit observation as they walked away, meaning for them to hear it. You didn’t even look at them.” J. Crew flicked his butt off into the bushes, earning a scowl from a passerby.

“So because I’m not an asshole, you assume I’m gay?” Beau wasn’t angry. He wanted to be angry. There should be some righteous indignation somewhere in his gut, but there wasn’t. Just a dull sense of shame and heat on his cheeks and throat.

“Well, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that straight guys are all assholes,” J. Crew snickered. “But they are all hardwired to be idiots about lesbians. My name’s Vin, by the way. I’m president of Rainbow Connections, but don’t let that worry you. I’m actually pretty much okay.”

“It’s a stupid name,” Beau said. The blush was fading slowly and he couldn’t seem to shift his gaze from the trees behind Vin’s head.

Vin shrugged one shoulder. “It’s an acceptable enough nickname, considering the alternatives. Not that I mind, really. But I do get tired of answering all the questions. And all the misspellings. And the people who think, no, really, I don’t know what my own name is, I must mean Vincent, right? We can just go with ‘my mom’s right mind was somewhere on vacation without her when she named me.’ Okay?”

“I actually meant the group,” Beau said. He forced himself to look at Vin’s face, then got distracted by the shape of his mouth. He had an engaging, open smile, full, sensual lips, and straight, white teeth. The double dimple on his left cheek lent him a look of impish mischief. It was the sort of smile that encouraged a man to smile back.

“Oh. I guess I jumped the gun on that one,” Vin said. “If you only…”

“Well, now that you’ve started it, I think you’re required to tell me the story.” Beau stubbed out the Dunhill reluctantly. “I’m Beauregard—people call me Beau—so believe me, I know where you’re coming from.” Was he flirting? Actually flirting? He offered his hand to Vin and was surprised by Vin’s firm grip. Nothing limp-wristed there. Vin’s fingers lingered just a moment longer than might have been appropriate, warm and friendly.

Vin cocked an eyebrow. “It’s Vinyl. Vinyl Elvis Reyes. Which would be why Shannon calls me ‘the king.’ She is under the misapprehension that she’s being amusing.”

“Wow, and I thought my mom didn’t like me,” Beau said.

“Actually, my mom loved me very much,” Vin said. His pale brown eyes shifted uncomfortably to the sidewalk.

“Loved? Past tense?”

“She died. I was four, so I don’t remember her very well,” Vin said, waving off any advanced sympathy. “My grandparents brought me up.”

“Good that you had somewhere to go,” Beau said.

“Come on,” Vin said. He gestured in the vague direction of the cafeteria. “Shannon’s not the only hungry queer around here.”

Beau ground his teeth together, then hopped down from the cement banister. “No, I guess she’s not.”

“That was smooth,” Vin said, clapping Beau on the shoulder. “First time you’ve actually admitted it to someone else?”

“Yeah.”

“It doesn’t get any easier,” Vin said. “And I’ve been out since I knew what out meant.”

* * * *

“There aren’t so many times that I miss being at home,” Beau said. He didn’t look away from the unappetizing mess on his plate. He wasn’t even certain what it was supposed to be. Cheese with tomato sauce over some sort of pasta with a side of limp greens and soggy garlic bread. “But dinner sure is one of them.”

Vin swiped his student ID. “I don’t eat on campus most of the time. I’m not that adventurous.”

“So why are you eating here tonight?” Beau asked.

“I didn’t think you’d be real comfortable if I offered to take you to dinner.”

“Maybe next week.” Uncomfortable wasn’t the right word. A chorus line of butterflies kicked it out in his lower belly, accompanied by a ribbon of warmth.

“After the meeting?”

Pushy. “Are you recruiting?”

They found empty seats, hard plastic, and a battered table, in a back corner. The hum of voices in the room drowned out the slight clatter of Beau’s tray. Ah, fine dining.

“No.” Vin was firm, his eyes steady. “We’re not allowed. Hell, we’re not even allowed to have a booth for freshman orientation. We might make the new students upset.”

“Yeah, I know I didn’t see you at the frosh-or. Got the flier off the pile outside the coffee shop. You can’t even put them up on campus?” Beau shook his head. “How’s anyone supposed to know about it?”

“Well, we do have townside support,” Vin said. “Or I do, leastways. Been working it up for the last few years since I joined the GSA. So there’s fliers at the cafe, a few of the local restaurants, and of course the Screech has a big poster up.”

“The…huh?” From the corner of his eye, Beau saw a group of students point, say something that was meant to be overheard, but he couldn’t quite catch it, over all the rumble in the caf. The hostile, mocking laughter was unmistakable, however. He’d heard that before, although never directed toward him. Beau turned all his attention toward his tablemate, as if he’d noticed nothing. “What’s a Screech?”

“Local bar. They have a college night, on Thursdays. Nonalcoholic drinks, dancing, local bands. Most of the brewskis are frat boys and they don’t go. So, we sort of took it over. The owner doesn’t mind; he’s a friend.”

“And they have music that’s worth listening to?” A bar called Screech? Truth in advertising, maybe. The group of students to the left were now involved in shenanigans, pretending that all the muscles in their wrists had gone out, making kissy-duck faces at each other. Jesus Christ, didn’t people have something better to do?

Vin shrugged. “Depends what you’re into. Sometimes. There’s a duet, Always Room for Cello, that does some good stuff. Violinist and cellist. Good singers. They do weird mashups of classical music and punk.” Vin poked at the remaining noodles on his plate. “You still eating, or you ready to give your intestines a break?”

“I expect if I eat much more of this,” Beau said, “I’ll regret it the rest of my life.” All ten minutes of it. Really? He’d been out of the closet for all of an hour and he was already getting bashed? Time to go. He picked up his tray and headed for the trashcans.

And here they came. Beau tracked four, no, there was a fifth who had skipped ahead to perch on a chair directly in Beau and Vin’s path.

“Hold this for a second, would you, Vin?” Beau handed Vin his drink cup. As far as Beau could tell, Vin hadn’t even glommed onto the incoming—how was that possible? Was he really that clueless? Or did he feel that same sheep-safe sense of security that most people did, and Beau was only noticing because he was on edge?

There went the out-stretched leg from the guy who’d dashed ahead, aiming to trip Vin and let him fall in the mess of leftover pasta and sauce. Without missing a beat, Beau kicked the guy in the back of the knee, steering the chattering Vin—still oblivious—around the obstruction.

A second guy, hands out as if to grab, appeared directly in their way. “Where d’you think…” Beau didn’t wait for him to finish.

“Oh, thanks, dude!” Beau handed the tray off to the menacing guy. Startled, the guy took the tray, uncertain what to do with it. “See ya around.” Beau got Vin a few steps away as Menace threw the tray down to the floor, splattering sauce all over a few girls, who shrieked with indignation. Beau checked the scene, ducked under an attempted clothesline from a third attacker. Beau slammed his shoulder into the guy’s chest, knocking him back, and then pushed Vin out the door.

Behind them, Trip was already on his feet and closing fast.

“Can you run?” Beau said.

“Huh? Yeah, if the situation calls for it.” Vin stopped, looked back. Trip rammed the door open, his face dark with anger, a smear of spaghetti across his T-shirt. Beau grabbed Vin’s shoulder and propelled him forward.

“The situation does. Let’s move, okay?”

Out the main lobby door, down the stairs, Beau leading, but Vin guiding with soft calls of “left up here,” they ended up in a narrow space between two of the academic buildings, the view from the north end of the alley blocked by overgrown shrubbery.

“So, what were we running from?” Vin leaned against the brick, tilting his head up to look at the sky, his chest heaving as he panted for breath. Beau watched him, feeling that familiar ache. At least he knew what it was now, and why he felt it. Damn, that boy was attractive. A flush of shameful desire, guilt warring with wanting rushed through him, leaving him breathless the way running never did. He panted for a moment, hands on his knees.

“You really didn’t see ‘em?”

“See—”

A shadow stepped into the alley, attached to the would-be tripper. “Yeah, go ahead, tell him what he should have seen, faggot.” Trip raised his voice, intending to scream for his cohorts, without a doubt. “GU—”

“Fuck.” No help for it there. One, Beau could handle. Two in tight quarters, maybe. More than two? Not so much. Step, catch, twist, and Trip was up against the wall, face pressed to the crumbling brick, wrist up between his shoulder blades.

“Ow! Damn it, fucking COCKSU—”

Slam! Grunt. Silence.

“Shut up, Trip.” Beau was quiet, his voice persuasive. He knew schoolyard fights. Had always known them. “You don’t want your friends to see you here like this, do you? Pinned up against the wall, helpless? Right now, only your pride is hurt. You think they won’t hesitate to wonder if you liked it? If maybe you let me hold you like this?”

Trip struggled, as Beau knew he would. Beau wrenched the arm up higher. That stopped him quick, matter of leverage there. Only a really good fighter could get out of some grips, and random assholes trying to prove their masculinity were rarely good fighters. “Shhhh…shhhhh. You don’t want me to dislocate your shoulder, bro. That takes a while to heal, and it hurts like hell in the meanwhile. Relax.”

“Chris.” Vin’s voice, more saddened and regretful than shocked.

“You know this asshole, Vin?”

“My frosh roommate. I made mistakes.” The light brown eyes flickered up to meet Beau’s gaze. “Sorry.”

“When my boys get here—” Chris blustered. There was a strange clicking noise to the left; Beau risked a glance. Vin shrugged one shoulder and tucked something into his pocket.

“They’ll probably kick my ass, I know,” Beau said. “You think I can’t count? But in the meanwhile, you’ll still have a broken wrist and a dislocated shoulder. Can you count, hmm? You like those odds? I advise you to walk away. Live to be an asshole another day.” He loosened his hold, waited, stepped back. Beau didn’t let his guard down—assholes were sometimes really, really stupid. Chris turned, brick imprinted on his cheek.

“You’re dead meat, fag.” Chris was trying for intimidating, but his voice cracked in the middle. Like a spider, Chris was just as frightened of Beau as Beau was of him.

Beau stepped up, nose to nose with him. “Yes, I’m sure you’ll try. Know this: if your friends jump me, I will make it a point to hurt you. Not them. Just you. Do you think I can do that, bro? Just you?” Menacing. Quiet. Confident.

“Yeah.” Chris was also quiet.

“Go on, then.”

Chris ran off, not looking back.

Vin was staring, eyes wide. “Do you even lift?”

“We should get out of here,” Beau suggested.

“That was the most awesome thing I have ever seen! My hero! You are one dangerous man!” Vin was laughing, high on adrenaline and amazement.

“I’m going to be one dead man, and so are you, if we hang around here much longer.”

“I know a place we can chill.”

* * * *

Chapter 2

Vinyl pulled his cigarette case out of his pocket. “Smoke, man?” He’d dropped onto a worn bench by the lake; it wasn’t as famous a make-out spot as it was back when the campus was younger.

Paper mills up the river fed into the lake and the smell could be pretty bad if the wind was blowing in from the west, which it frequently was. Tonight was quiet enough, though. He leaned back against the gently rotting wood and stared up into the sky. He recognized Orion’s constellation, but he’d been shit in astronomy last year, so couldn’t have said what the other stars were. They certainly were bright. Beau hesitated, then took one of the Dunhills and flicked his lighter.

Vin shook his head. “That was incredible. Where’d you learn to fight like that?”

“I was a wrestler in high school. Took some martial arts classes to maintain my weight class. Also, grew up on a farm.”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

Beau glanced at him, blew a perfect smoke ring, and smirked. “I can buck seventy-five pound hay bales all afternoon. Tossing around a couple of assholes isn’t that much work, as long as I don’t have to do it for an hour.”

“Still…”

“Nah, it’s no good, man. That guy, he won’t forget. You best watch out for him.”

“There’ll be consequences if he does.” Vinyl took his phone out and opened it up. “Take a look.”

Beau held out his hand and Vin dropped the phone in it; under other circumstances, he might have let his fingers brush against the other guy’s hand, but not tonight. There was something about Beau, something he didn’t want to risk—especially not on his first day. Hell’s bells, this one was better than a lot of first days; he’d seen or heard so many stupid stories, but never a triumph like this.

“You took pictures?” Beau snickered. “That’ll be great when we get arrested for assault.”

“We won’t get arrested for assault. And if we do, I have an excellent lawyer.”

“You have a lawyer?” There was a long hesitation just before the question. Vin sighed. This was going to be one of those conversations. Might as well get it all out of the way at once.

Vinyl sat up and hugged his knees up to his chest. “Technically, I have three on retainer, and that’s not including the ones that are available for consulting for business. Yes, I’m very wealthy, and no, I try not to make a big deal out of it, but I’m not going to apologize for it, either.”

“Wasn’t asking you to,” Beau said. “I just never met any lawyers before.”

“Well, Gerry’s a stand-up guy. And if you get arrested for fighting on my behalf, I’ll cover your expenses.”

“What did you do to that Chris guy, anyway?” Another perfect smoke ring hovered in front of Beau’s firm mouth before dispersing in the breeze.

“He was my frosh roomie,” Vin said. “And I don’t know if he was totally clueless, or just stupid, or what. I never made any attempt to hide my sexuality from him. I mean, I didn’t specifically say, hey, I’m gay, but I wasn’t hiding it, or trying to be something I’m not. I thought we were friends; we hung out a few times, I helped him with some of his classwork—why in the hell would anyone take linear algebra without taking calculus first? And I lent him some money; gave it to him, really. That was probably the big mistake. Halfway through the semester, though, he walked in on one of my boyfriends and me—I really did leave a note on the door, but I dunno, maybe he didn’t see it. Anyway, Chris completely flipped. I dunno what he thought, I was going to ask for the money back in blowjobs or something?” Vin had then volunteered the opinion that he didn’t actually find Chris particularly attractive; which while true, had probably been the wrong thing to say.

“Did he get a transfer?” Beau studied his hands. They were obviously the hands of someone who’d done physical labor, and quite a bit of it. His nails were dirty, ragged, and had probably never actually been filed. The kind of guy who trimmed his nails with a pocketknife. Or chewed them to the quick. Vin shivered, aroused and not wanting to be. Not yet. Not quite yet.

“Yeah, but we had to stay roomies for the rest of the semester. As soon as break came, he was switched out with someone who was going for a semester abroad. I had a double to myself the rest of the year. Which wasn’t what I intended when I decided to live on campus, really. He wasn’t around much anyway, after that. I think he took to sleeping at one of his friend’s rooms. I’m not sure that wasn’t gayer; go from sharing a room with one guy to sharing a room with two? Whatever.”

Beau started to shake, his hands trembling. The tip of his cigarette jittered around, the smoke swirling up into the evening breeze. “So, you’re saying I shouldn’t tell my roommate?”

“I’m saying people can be assholes. Sometimes you can tell who’s going to be a prick about it and who is cool. But people surprise you. They always will.” Vin shifted, hesitated, put his arm around Beau’s shoulders. “I wish I could promise things would be okay, but no one can. All I can say is that some days are better than others.”

“Epic,” Beau said. The shaking grew worse and Beau swallowed several times, gulping air. “I don’t…man, I hate feeling stuff, you know?” Tears formed up at the corners of his eyes and he rubbed at them, smearing grime over the angled planes of his cheeks.

“Yeah, but it’s okay to feel. People can be shitty. You might have to accept that, but you don’t have to feel good about it,” Vin said.

“And when it’s you?” Beau asked. He wiped his nose with the back of his hand, sniffling loudly.

Vin frowned, brushed a tangle of his curls out of his eyes. “I’m a shit?”

“No!” Beau leaned back, the tears momentary held off, and punched Vin lightly in the arm. “You’re great, man. I mean me. I’m the shit.”

“Because you’re gay, or because you’ve been getting into fights to avoid facing it?”

“That obvious?”

“Dude, you didn’t hesitate,” Vin said. He lit another smoke, making a mental face to cut back tomorrow, and inhaled a long, smooth breath, the tang of rich English tobacco over his tongue. “Take all the martial arts classes you want, there’s a difference between lecture and lab. I’d say you’ve been brawling.”

Beau nodded. “I’m on probation here at school; I have a juvie record. If I get in any legal trouble, I can probably kiss any shot of graduating good-bye.”

Vin whistled low through his teeth. “That sucks, dude. So that’s a no on posting these pictures?”

The Look, it was painful. Vin held up his hands in surrender.

“Seriously. You’re not a bad person, not because you’re gay, and not because you’ve been getting into fights. Being openly gay…it’s hard, man. Trust me, dude, you do not want to be gay in high school, even if you go to boarding school—which I did. I can’t imagine what it must be like in public high school. But being in the closet, that’s hard, too. Pretending to be something you’re not. Wondering who knows, who’s guessed, and never feeling like you belong anywhere. The fighting, that comes out of that conflict. But now—”

“I’m still conflicted.”

“It’ll get better.”

Beau just stared at him, then the tears finally spilled over, and Vin found himself holding a weeping boy, all the traces of the man, cool and collected, were gone, and Beau was a frightened child, terrified of himself, of what people would think and do.

“Dude. You gotta come to the meeting next week. I promise, it’ll help.”

* * * *

Chapter 3

“I now call this meeting to disorder,” Vin said.

Beau leaned back against the desk, the chair legs scraping lightly against the linoleum floor. Disorder did seem to be the classification of business for the evening; at least half the group seemed to know each other quite well. One guy with his black hair cut in the jagged bangs and asymmetrical spikes of the true emo, including the finger-applied kohl eyeliner, was chucking chalk-dust coated erasers at people, who were ducking and yelling and throwing them back.

A girl with several facial piercings sported a wide smear of chalk dust on her black T-shirt and a maniacal gleam in her eyes stalked another girl who was wearing a dark, sleeveless dress. “But I have to dry-clean this!” she shrieked, dodging and laughing.

They all stopped and took seats, astonishingly well ordered, as soon as Vin opened his mouth.

Well.

“Old business,” Vin said. He consulted some notes on a blue legal pad. “I managed to find out what happened to our treasurer. I’m sure it’s a relief to everyone, but Bert didn’t flunk out, transfer, die in a car crash, or anything like that over the summer break. He is, instead, doing a semester in the Dominican Republic and his cell phone is turned off. Roaming charges, you know. I talked with his mother, rather obliquely, you can imagine. Anyway, she passed along the message and he got in touch with me. He says to tell all of you ‘How do,’ and that he’s sorry. His acceptance for the program was extremely last minute notice—he was wait-listed and his predecessor backed out two days before. I told him not to worry about it, but I did cancel his access card to the club’s treasury and yesterday I went to the bank to order a new card and get new checks, plus the balance sheets. As of this time, we have $630.19. And, incidentally, no treasurer, for this semester.

“To that end, I’d like to nominate Ann-Marie Darland to take Bert’s place temporarily—” he held up one hand to silence Ann-Marie’s protest “—until Bert comes back next semester and can take back his duties. If he chooses not to, we can hold a special election at that point.”

“I second!” Ann-Marie’s tiny girlfriend said. She bounced in her chair, waving her arm around wildly.

“You have got to be kidding me,” the beleaguered Ann-Marie complained.

“It’s only the one semester, I promise,” Vin said.

Beau watched the debate, tuning out the voices, as Vin used all the power of his not inconsiderable charm against the reluctant blonde. It probably worked less well against her than it would have against Beau, since she was obviously not watching the way his mouth moved up and down, the shape of his lips as he formed words, the eager puppy gaze, and damn, the way he lowered his chin, almost bashfully, to gaze at her from under those thick eyelashes. Beau shivered in his chair, having completely lost track of the conversation.

“Other old business,” Vin said. “Now that we have a treasurer—thank you for consenting so graciously—we need to collect dues. Remember, your dues are, well due, by the beginning of the fifth meeting, that’s three weeks from today! That’s ten bucks per semester, or fifteen dollars if you can pay all at once for the year.”

Shit. Dues? So much for being able to smoke this semester. Beau wondered if he could convince his mom to send him some extra cash.

Yeah, that was going to be a great conversation. Hey mom, I need some money to give to a bunch of gays. Why? Oh, because I’m one of them and I want to be in their club. Beau didn’t foresee a check coming any time soon. Maybe he could write a letter to a few of his other relatives. If he sent his cousin, Kate, a card, she might feel like sending him a few dollars. Kate was sometimes generous like that.

“New business?” Vin looked around the room. “Just so you all know, the Dean of Student Affairs has given us official written permission to have a homecoming float this year.”

The room erupted into sudden, enthusiastic cheers.

“Yes, yes, I know. Here’s the problem,” Vin said. “We don’t have enough money in the treasury for that. Another reason to collect dues as soon as possible. But I’m taking suggestions for fund raising.”

Beau scratched his chin, feeling the rasp of his few days of stubble. “What about alums?”

“Beg pardon?” Vin turned those light brown eyes on him. Beau swallowed hard around a lump of sudden desire that built rapidly in his throat.

“Well, you said,” Beau said, squirming uncomfortably at the unexpected attention, “that we were being allowed to have a float. Which sorta implies that y’all haven’t been. Able to, before, that is. So, if you’ve got a list of members from previous years, mightn’t they be interested in helping to support the project? I know that people from previous years in my high school come back to homecoming, droves of ‘em.”

Vin just stared at him, and Beau resisted the urge to crawl under his desk.

“That’s brilliant!” one of the guys in the back of the room shouted. “Sure that Chuck and his crew would give us some money. I’ve still got his phone number.”

“Bro, do you even lift?” Vin said. “That is a great idea. This is the man, my friends, the absolute man!” There were a few scattered whoops and exclamations from the room at large.

Ann-Marie looked at him out of the corner of her eye, a wide smile painting her face. “I nominate—what is your name, kid?”

“Beau Watkins,” Beau said.

“Yeah, well, I nominate Boo Randal here,” Ann-Marie said, “to organize a letter writing and phone calling committee aimed at getting us some donations.”

“Did she just make a To Kill a Mockingbird joke?” someone said. “Only a fucking English major.”

“Would you like fries with that, English major?”

Ann-Marie glowered. “You want side order of ‘fuck you’ with that?” She held up a hammer-sized fist. “I will kick your ass sideways for you, boy or no boy.”

“You wouldn’t hit a guy with glasses, would you?”

Vin came out from behind the professor’s stand and perched on the edge of Beau’s desk. He smelled of sandalwood soap and his fancy cigarettes. “So,” Vin said, “will you run the committee? We can get a few volunteers to help you make cold calls and stuff.”

Beau opened his mouth to say no and was lost in those pale brown eyes. “Yeah, sure.”

* * * *

“Your mom called.” Josh looked up from his bed where he was folded into an uncomfortable pretzel position, curled around a battered hardback full of 18th Century poetry, the bright yellow USED stickers running down the spine.

“Uh-huh.” Beau hung up his backpack.

“No. Don’t uh-huh at me,” Josh said. Beau’s roommate, a skinny, short boy with an unfortunate beard on the bottom of his pointed chin, looked up at Beau over his hipster glasses. “She was very adamant. You call her back. Before you do anything else. She’s called every twenty minutes since three.”

“Oh jeez. I’m sorry,” Beau said.

“Don’t be sorry, just call her.” Josh turned back to his book, licked his finger, and turned the page. “Or I promise, I will wake you up at O-dark thirty and read Edward Evans poetry to you at top volume.”

“Who?”

“Exactly!”

“Has anyone told you that you are both very weird and exceedingly annoying?”

“All the time, man.” Josh rolled over on his back, holding the tome at arm’s length. “All the fucking time.”

The phone was not actually a snake. It wasn’t going to bite him. Beau checked his cell phone. Texts from Vin, three texts from Ann-Marie about the fund-raising committee, texts from his girlfriend back at home that he was ignoring. Thirteen voice mail messages from his mother. He’d turned the ringer off for class a few days ago and forgotten to turn it back on. Ah, bliss.

“Pick up the phone, Beau.” Josh hadn’t moved, wasn’t even looking at him.

“Right.” Beau picked up the handset, cradled it between his ear and his shoulder, and dialed his home phone. He listened to the clicks and beeps as the number hit the college switchboard. Maybe he would get really lucky and hit his mom’s phone at the same time she tried to call him again. Oh, if only it was busy, no blood, no foul.

No way. The phone rang. Beau sighed, sat down at his aged, duct-tape repaired desk chair and tried to get comfortable.

“Watkins’. How y’all doing?” his mother said in her soft drawl.

Big breath. “Hey, Mom.”

“Beau!”

“Yeah,” he said. “What’s up?”

“What’s up? You’re asking me what’s—” Joanna Watkins started. Beau counted; his mother was notorious for her ‘count to ten’ lectures. Sure enough, at his tenth breath, she started up again.

“You haven’t called, you haven’t answered your cell phone, or your electronic mails.”

“You sent me an e-mail?” That’d be the day.

“No. But I’ve spoken with Donna’s mother and she says that Donna is—”

“I don’t want to talk about Donna,” Beau said, flat. No room for compromise.

“Did y’all have a fight?”

“Look, Momma, that’s not your concern. I just don’t want to talk about that, okay? Did you need me for something?”

“I need you to call your family once in a while,” she said. She coughed, recomposed herself. “How’s school? Do you like your roommate? What are classes like? Are you eating enough greens?”

“School is great, Momma,” Beau said. “I love school. And Josh is fine, or leastways he was before you started terrorizing him. Now you got him threatening to read poetry at me, so rest assured, he took you right serious. Classes are, honest, a lot of work. I ain’t never been much for studying, an’ some of my professors are mad-crazy for readin’ outside the course material. Which is why I ain’t called. Been real busy.”

His cell phone buzzed in his hand.

Vin: U want 2 grab some pizza?

Beau squeezed the phone uncomfortably between his ear and shoulder, holding it steady while he typed out a reply. “How’s everyone?”

At that point, it was easy enough to tune his mother out. She talked long and expressively about his brother’s upcoming wedding and the plans for adding another barn that his father had. She covered the neighbor’s recent break-in; the would-be robber got a face full of what was usually a very sweet sheep dog and was probably traumatized for life. The robber, that was. The sheepdog was fine. Beau’s cousin, Kate, had gotten a new role in an upcoming film, nothing big, mind you, just a few lines, but it could be a start, you know. Beau nodded, even though she couldn’t see him, and said yeah in appropriate places.

It’s a good thing I’m gay. Even more than the norm, he did not understand women. He didn’t want to understand women, and more than half the time he really just wished they’d stop. Talking. Oh. My. God.

Beau: When I get off the phone? 10 mins? Bacon?

Vin: Ur the man. Bacon it is.

“Look, Momma,” Beau interrupted a tirade about the county adding another storm water tax, “I gotta run. Gonna grab some dinner with my friends.”

The phone was already on the way to the cradle when his mother yelled, “Eat something green!” just before he hung up.

“Be careful there,” Josh observed, looking over the edge of his book, “Your Dixieland is showing.”

Beau grinned, somewhat shamefaced. “Yeah, that happens sometimes. Sorry.”

“I’m sure the ladies think it’s adorable. I bet they fall all over that shit,” Josh said. “Poor me, I’m pure Chicagoan. I need, you know, a gimmick to get girls to talk to me.”

“I’ll throw you my spares, if you want?”

“That’d be uber-fab.”

That’d be all of them. “Gonna go for a slice with some of my friends. You want to join us?”

“No, thanks,” Josh said. “I’ve still got three more chapters of this crap before class tomorrow.”

“Then I’ll let you get to it.”

“Rapture.”

* * * *

Chapter 4

“I want to have sex,” Beau announced, tossing himself onto Vin’s sofa. He kicked his feet up onto the wall, staring up at Vin’s framed Horse Head Nebula photo.

“Well, that’s sudden,” Vin said. He scanned the living room of his tiny apartment in a panicked flurry. Dirty clothes and empty Pepsi bottles battled it out to see which would take over the most carpet real estate. The dishes hadn’t been done in so long, he was actually considering buying a new set and just tossing the old ones. Again. And he really couldn’t remember the last time he’d changed the sheets. Vin winced, shame snuggling up against his throat, making him swallow the knot. His grandmother was constantly lecturing him—just because he had lots of money didn’t mean he needed to act like everything was disposable. He’d gotten that speech more than once, particularly just after he got his driver’s license and wrecked two cars in less than a month. Completely totaled.

He dragged his attention away from his messy living room to his guest.

“I didn’t mean you know, you. Right now,” Beau said, not looking over. Vin’s stomach took the express elevator to hell. “I just mean, in general. And I don’t know where to go for advice. It’s not like my brother’s birds and bees lecture covered how you go about picking a guy up at a bar. I mean, can you just do that? Are there ways to tell?”

Vin inhaled tightly through his nose, pinching his lips absolutely flat. There was no need to feel so empty. It wasn’t like he’d mentioned to Beau that he was interested. And Beau considered him a friend, a mentor. Try to be worthy of that much.

“You mean, ways to tell without getting the shit kicked out of you by straight guys for hitting on them.” Vin’s voice was flat, unemotional. Or the best facsimile he could manage. He remembered his own first boyfriends; some good, some—well, if he was going to be honest, the first entire year was pretty bad.

“Yes…no…I just, you know, don’t want to make a mistake.”

“Well, if that’s all…” Sarcasm dripped from Vin’s mouth and formed a puddle at his feet. “Seriously, Beau, you’re going to make mistakes. You’re going to hit on the wrong guy, you’re going to fuck the wrong dude, you’re going to nurture a creepy ex-boyfriend who follows you around all semester because he’s convinced—convinced, mind you—that a ten-minute blowjob was the best thing that’s ever happened to him, and why why why must you take it away? The man of your dreams is going to hate you for what you are, and your best friend from high school is going to dump mashed potatoes on your head.”

“Project much, Vin?”

“The point is, shit is going to happen. You can’t help that. There is nothing you can do to prevent a mistake: bad judgment, inexperience, other people doing what’s right for them. You can’t not make mistakes, unless you kill yourself right now, and while that, too, is a mistake, it’s the last one you’ll make. What you can do is figure it out, just like everyone else.”

“Gee, thanks, Mom.” Beau had rolled over, chin resting on his hands, elbows spread in an inverted V. “I’m not asking for long-term. I don’t want forever and ever. I want to get laid. I want to have screaming-crazy monkey-sex that doesn’t involve me, some hand lotion, and my favorite uPorn channel. I’ll worry about a date to my brother’s wedding later.”

“Well, I can take you around, if you want. There are a few places in town that are relatively friendly, and I do know a lot of people. Hell, if you just want to get fucked, I’ll introduce you to Hector. He’s completely nonpicky, nonclingy, and while not an ideal long-term partner, he is a pretty fun guy to hang out with. As long as you don’t expect anything from him, he won’t expect anything of you,” Vin said, scratching at his chin. At least Hector wasn’t likely to turn into a rival. Hec was always after the latest shiny toy. Vin’s fingers rasped against the few days of peach stubble there. He had never been able to grow a decent beard, but he was rocking the stubble. Except it might be time to trim again; if he could actually tug on it, it was too long. Great, no wonder the kid doesn’t think of you as a potential. You look like hygiene was last on your list of priorities.

“You want to be my wingman? This weekend?”

No. “Absolutely, Beau. I’ll take you around.”

* * * *

The music was a wet, smothering blanket, thrown out the door and into Vin’s face. The beat was so loud that the pavement vibrated underfoot. Some barely discernible guitar chords screamed somewhere in the mess of bass and tempo. DJs, Vin reflected, were convinced that louder was in some complicated algorithm better than comprehensible. Or conversation, but hellwazzamatter with you, you wanted to talk to someone? Really?

Vin rolled his eyes at his inner monologue and gestured grandly to Beau. “After you,” he said. The bouncer went through the routine and stamped his forearm with a blurry rendition of an eagle after inspecting his ID so closely that one might have supposed Vinyl Elvis Reyes was on some terrorist watch list somewhere. He was used to it. One of those things that happened when you had an unusual name.

Beau showed his ID, didn’t get tramped, stamped, inspected, or injected, and said, “Yeah, I’m the designated walker tonight.”

“Are you planning to carry me home when I get too trashed?” Vin said. They entered, drowned in the music and flow of people for a moment before gaining some traction. There were a few small tables—not the nice kind, designed for sitting—but what Vin thought of as “show offers.” No chairs, just a flat surface to hold drinks, or run a line off. For the pretty people to see and be seen. That’s us, Vin thought, angry and somewhat vindictively. He did a quick scan, nodded to a few of his acquaintances—Maggie was actually waving frantically, big overhead sweeps of both arms until he smiled and then she immediately returned to gabbing with her neighbor, a dread-locked guy wearing the inevitable marijuana leaf T-shirt.

“Hey, gorgeous!” Hector Lange’s cheerful, unctuous voice rang out, audible even over the throbbing beat and whatever inane bullshit the DJ was going on about. Vin turned, grin already starting. Hec pulled him in, tipped his head, and didn’t hesitate. Barely a warning and Hec was kissing Vin, a mouthful of tongue and enthusiasm that would have drowned someone less alert.

Warmth, comforting and swift, blossomed in Vin’s stomach and drew a line down his belly toward his groin. Vin’s hand went up to grip the back of Hec’s scalp, feeling the rough stubble of his brutally short hair.

By the time Vin freed himself from Hec’s ebullient greeting, Beau’s eyebrow had climbed all the way into his hairline. “Someone you know?” Casual, almost dismissive, but Vin suspected he was not, actually, that relaxed. The disinterested mask Beau hid behind had only cracked the once, but Vin thought it might yield to pressure. Eventually.

Hec smirked, hands on his wide hips. He was dressed in his usual style, a half-unbuttoned white linen shirt, showing copious amounts of chest hair, muscles, and the leather harness underneath, with tattered black jeans and combat boots. Typical bear uniform. Vin wondered if they’d gotten around to passing a dress code. Hector rubbed one hand over his head, looking interested.

“Bringing your new boytoy to the scene, gorgeous? You sharing, or showing off?”

“Neither,” Vin said. Shouted, really. “This is Beau. He’s a frosh and wanted to meet some friendly people.”

If possible, Hec looked even more interested, a wide grin splitting his bearded face. “Hot stuff! Lemme buy you a drink! Or three!”

“Coke,” Beau said. There was no shame in his voice, no hesitation, and no room for negotiations.

“Seriously?”

Beau held up his naked hands, unstamped by the bar’s mark. “I don’t drink.”

Vin whipped out his camera again, snapped a few pictures of Hec’s frozen, sardonically horrified expression.

“Damn it, Elvis, stop that!” Hec made a half-hearted grab for the camera. Vin danced out of the way, grinning. He ducked behind Beau.

“Save me!”

“Save yourself, bro,” Beau said. He stepped aside, gesturing like a matador. “That phone of yours is going to get you into trouble someday.”

“Oh, it already has, my young friend,” Hec said. He put an arm around Beau’s shoulders and spun the lean blond toward the bar. “I’ll buy you a Coke and tell you all about it. You see, Vin and I were in a class together, Philosophy 253, Kant-anese class, we used to call it and…”

Their voices didn’t fade out so much as they were buried in the wash of music and screaming conversations. Beau leaned toward Hec, listening intently. Vin felt a pang in the chest area—he wouldn’t be quite so corny as to call it his heart, but he knew Hec pretty well. It wouldn’t surprise him if Hec was deliberately talking quieter, the better to get his new interest to lean in, to place his ear just so close that he could feel warm breath. Vin shuddered, jealous and angry for being jealous.

Beau’s in good hands, Vin argued with himself. Hector was outspoken, free with his affections and desires, but generally not deliberately hurtful. Hector was more like a child in an ice cream store: he wanted to taste everything and so at the end of the trip, he didn’t want the cone anymore.

Vin closed his eyes, feeling the beat of the music thrum against his eyelids. When he opened them, Hec and Beau were gone. Bar, right. Tucking up against grain-smooth wood and peeling leather, Vin offered a single, crisp, hundred-dollar bill to the perky girl behind the bar with the huge eyes and too much lipstick. “Bourbon, please. Let me know when I’ve used it up.”

* * * *

Chapter 5

“Well, there was nothing to do then, but eat it,” Hector yelled in Beau’s ear. Beau laughed, vaguely uncomfortable. The driving beat had obscured at least half the convoluted tale that Vin’s friend was expounding upon, complete with wide-armed gestures and mimicking the voices of people Beau’d never met. On the plus side, Hector appeared to be one of those types of storytellers who was more enamored with being in the spotlight than with actually expecting a thoughtful response, and so Beau had spent most of the last hour or so nodding along and saying “yeah” at the right junctures. Beau experienced a weird sense of déjà vu; his conversations with his girlfriend had frequently followed the same pattern.

Hector had managed to score them an actual table, with chairs, in the boldest move Beau could have imagined. He walked up to his chosen spot—occupied by a couple of straight guys wearing boots and cowboy hats, and started hitting on them. He beckoned Beau over, grinning, and Beau inhaled nervously before joining him. The cowboys hadn’t been slow in departing and Beau took one of the seats, planting his foot in another, to save it for Vin.

After a few of Hector’s outrageous stories, however, it because obvious that Vin was not going to be joining them and Beau allowed the chair to be stolen by a girl who glared at his foot in a manner strikingly similar to the way his mom often viewed his dirty clothes on the floor.

Beau allowed his eyes to wander around the room, seeking a familiar tousle-headed figure, but he couldn’t spot Vin anywhere. He bit the inside of his lip until he tasted blood, then shook his head. It was his own fault—he’d asked for a wingman and a wingman was what he’d gotten. Someone to introduce him around and then leave him with good company and not get in the way.

Damn it but Vin is good company.

“So you h’ain’t said a peep this evening,” Hector said, nudging him with one thick elbow. “Not that I mind so much, when I’m in a hectoring sort of mood. But I don’t know a thing about you.”

“There’s not that much to know.” Beau shrugged.

“That can’t be true,” Hec said. He drained the rest of his beer and slammed the mug down on the ring-stained table. “Everyone’s got a story, man. You just got to hec-splain it to me.”

Beau rolled his eyes. That joke was getting old; at this rate it would pass right back into funny by the end of the night. “I just got out of high school,” Beau said. “All the interesting parts of my life are supposed to be coming up next.”

“Rare is a kid that knows it,” Hec said. He laughed. “Took me years to realize that nobody cares about high school. Especially not me. Once you get into college, high school ain’t nothing. And once you get a job, college is even less. Try to remember that during exams.”

Beau checked his cell; no emails, no texts, no nothing. Figured. He wasn’t entirely certain how he felt about that. “Where do you suppose Vin wandered off to?”

“He’s givin’ you some time,” Hec hec-splained, his voice taking on those pedantic notes that, already, Beau was becoming overly familiar. “I mean, you two ain’t…together, now, are you?”

Beau chewed his lower lip again, a strange twist in his gut. “No,” he said. Did he want to be? Beau didn’t have an answer to that question.

“That was kinda a long bit to think about something that don’t ken on thinking about much.”

“I’m almost positive you used that word wrong,” Beau said.

As expected, Hector launched into a long, dramatic, hec-splanation about how “ken” was exactly the word he’d meant, and furthermore, certain favorite authors of his had used the word in exactly the same way, not exclusive of Neil Gaiman and Chuck Palahniuk. Once again, Hector was on a roll. It would be at least ten minutes, Beau figured, before his attention was required again.

Beau shivered. Was he really thinking about having sex with a man who exasperated him—fondly, mind you. Hector was charming enough, talkative, and good-looking. Much like Donna, his girlfriend, who had always been so happy that Beau wasn’t pushy or talkative, and she could just run on and on at the mouth, and Beau never expected her to do anything beyond show up. And carry stuff. And squash spiders from time to time. She was arm decoration, something to block the suspicious looks his father gave him sometimes. Camouflage, of a sort. He turned his attention back to Hector—when had Hec gotten himself another beer? Was it his third?—and watched as his lips moved, shaping the words, pushing them out. Hector punctuated this story with some dramatic arm movements that pulled and stretched at his too-tight button down shirt, giving Beau a good look at Hector’s hirsute chest and the leather straps he wore under his shirt.

Well, that did it. Or something. Beau twisted in his chair, his jeans shrinking two or three sizes. It was like being back in junior high. God, that was a sexy stop sign.

“Crap.” Beau’s voice broke, cracked, and warbled over the one word. Definitely junior high.

Why that one word drew Hec’s attention, Beau couldn’t have said, but he was suddenly caught, trapped, pinned to his chair like a strange species of insect under the eye of a watchful entomologist. Hector’s eyes weren’t brown, Beau realized suddenly. They were hazel, deep golden-green. The twist of heat in his gut fluttered, threatened to burst into flame.

“What?” Hector demanded. He leaned forward, bringing his knees into contact with Beau’s. Yep, there it went. Sproing.

Beau licked dry lips. His heart throbbed in his chest. He inhaled, the longest, deepest breath of his life to date, and leaned forward. His mouth was only centimeters from Hec’s ear. “I’ve got a raging hard on.”

“There’s a problem that I can fix for you,” Hector said. He gestured grandly toward the door and Beau didn’t even hesitate. The two of them were halfway across the bar when Vin caught Beau’s elbow.

“Whaaaat,” Vin exclaimed, nearly falling on his face in front of Beau. Instinctively, Beau took a step back, his nostrils flaring. He felt light-headed from the fumes coming off his friend. “You all leaving already? Party’s just gettin’ started, homeboy!”

“Whew!” Hector said, waving his hand in front of his face. “Don’t go have a smoke, Elvis, until you’re a little less flammable.”

Beau sighed. “We took the train out here,” he confessed. “And I really don’t think he should walk back on his own. He’s gonna wind up face down in the ditch. Do you have cash for a taxi?”

Vin lurched forward, threw his arms around Beau, and nearly dragged him to the floor. “Love you guys! C’mon, have a drink with me!”

“Glerk!” Beau disappeared beneath Vin’s flailing limbs. He fell backwards into a chair and Vin sprawled over him, clinging to his neck. Hec rolled up his sleeves—so to speak—and dragged the drunk boy off him. “Thanks, man.”

“Can you get his cell phone for me? It should be in his front pocket.” Hector held Vin under the arms, keeping him upright and stable, without allowing him much freedom of movement.


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