As celebration for having made it all the way to senior year at Harrison University, Gio moved into his dorm room a week early.
Not that he needed the extra time to set up much of anything. He threw a set of light-blocking curtains over the window, tugged mismatched sheets onto the twin bed, hung his few sweaters and jeans in the closet, and then slouched down in comfort with a worn favorite book.
The week and a half before the first class, in his opinion, was best spent exactly like this: storing up energy for all the socializing (read: classes) to come.
And McKinley Hall was reserved for upperclassmen, who waited until the last minute to move in, as if putting it off meant academics didn’t exist. So he got this week to himself, alone in the big silent empty dorm, emerging only for food, textbooks, and the occasional library run.
Until a rhythmic knock at the door startled him out of his Tuesday-afternoon Netflix marathon.
He stared at the door for a moment before shuffling his blanket and laptop off his lap. He’d lived in this same room for three years; everyone in the hall knew who he was, knew not to bother him before classes started. And other than the RA’s move-in, he hadn’t heard anyone else banging around.
He opened the door, looking down. (He was tall; he lived that way.) Then he blinked and raised his head.
Against his doorpost leaned the most attractive man he’d ever seen.
Gio choked on his initial uh and swallowed the unspoken word, unable to manage much more than that. This guy was definitely new to the hall; he’d have remembered seeing him before. Lean and lithe, he held his chin up with confidence that matched his pristine eyeliner and the smattering of glitter on his tawny skin. Gio didn’t know or care much about clothes, but this man clearly did—his bedazzled black tee and purple skinny jeans framed him perfectly.
So Gio asked the only reasonable question: “Do you have the right room?”
The man extended one arm out to his left, gesturing grandly to the rest of the empty hall. “I don't think I could've gotten it wrong. No one else is here.”
Gio folded his arms, touched by old insecurities. “The RA must have gone out,” he mumbled, looking away. That had to be why this guy was here, at Gio’s door: he needed the RA. “He never remembers to lock his door. You can wait for him in his room, it’s fine.”
The visitor stared at him until Gio fell silent and looked grudgingly back at him. At that point: “I’m not looking for the RA. I need a little help. A favor.” He crossed one leg over the other, hooking his shoes together at the ankles.
Gio found it easier not to dwell on the various types of favors and his willingness to do them. “Who are you?” he asked instead.
“Amir.” The guy, Amir, stuck out his hand amiably. “And you’re…” He craned his neck back to look at the name stuck on the door, and Gio deliberately looked away from the sliver of flat stomach that his shirt revealed. “Gio? What is that, short for Giovanni?”
How did he manage to make the full name sound so rich? Something in the way he rolled the consonants? “No, it’s—well, yes, but it’s just Gio.” Heat prickled Gio’s face, and he prayed the blush remained light enough that Amir wouldn’t notice. He shook Amir’s proffered hand once and yanked his hand back, wriggling his fingers to get rid of the tingling. “Are you moving into McKinley, or helping someone else?”
“Oh, I’m moving in,” he assured him, green-gold eyes creasing in a smile. “That’s what the favor’s for.”
Ah, of course. He would have a ton of stuff to cart up the stairs. Gio debated whether spending a few extra minutes with Amir was worth the physical effort...and decided that yes, yes it was. “Sure, I can help you bring your stuff up.”
Amir’s eyes widened in brief surprise. “Oh, no, not that. I have that taken care of. No, this requires…a more delicate approach.”
“Oh.” The heat rushed to his face again, and Gio knew it was visible this time. “So what is it?”
Amir eyed him for a moment too long to be comfortable, and then the corner of his mouth quirked upward. “Can you,” he asked, lowering his voice, “help me sneak my cat into the dorm?”
Gio blanked. He could, sure. It remained within his realm of capabilities. But— “That’s against the rules,” he said, feeling like he had word diarrhea.
“Obviously,” Amir said with exaggerated patience. “Hence, sneaking.”
“He couldn’t exactly stay in an empty apartment during the entire school year. Besides, he’s quiet. No one will even know he’s here. Besides you. And me. Of course.”
Gio couldn’t fault Amir for maintaining responsibility; in fact, it came as a pleasant surprise. But the rules remained. He chewed the inside of his cheek as he contemplated the options.
A, alert the RA or RD. Amir would lose his cat for sure.
B, do nothing. Amir on his own drew too much attention, so he’d probably get caught and lose the cat.
Gio shifted his weight and slid past Amir to stand in the hall. “Where is it?” he asked, shoving his hands deep into the pockets of his ratty sweatpants.
Amir beamed, and Gio coughed a tiny laugh that left an even tinier smile, a smile that he couldn’t wipe away as he followed Amir down the stairs, past all the RAs in the lobby, and out to the parking lot, out to a shining yellow Corvette. Dear Lord, Gio thought in awe, considering his own dilapidated Oldsmobile minivan. How does this guy even exist?
Amir bent over to reach down into the passenger seat, which provided Gio a fine-ass view, quite literally. When he straightened (and Gio looked up), he held in his arms a small mound of black fluff that might pass as a cat in good light. Then the mound blinked her eyes open, revealing almost the same shade as her owner’s. “This is Tali.”
Without thinking, Gio held out one hand, fingers curled into the palm, for the cat’s approval. She sniffed his knuckles, considered, and then lightly nosed him.
“She likes you!” Amir sounded pleased, and maybe a little surprised.
Gio shrugged, trying for nonchalance. “Cats usually do.”
“Well, good.” Amir handed Tali over to Gio, who hurried to cup one hand under her hind legs. “What we’re going to do is—I’m going to distract the RAs, get them to help me cart all my shit up to my room. And while we’re doing that, you can just kind of sliiiide in through the side, all incognito, and hide Tali until I can come get her from you. The RAs won’t bother you, right?”
“Right.” The momentary glow faded from Gio’s chest, despite the cat’s warmth. He should have known Amir wasn’t interested in him as a friend, as a person; he’d only noticed that Gio all but had the superpower of invisibility. He lowered his gaze to the cat. “Sure, that’s fine.”
“Excellent.” Then Amir called over to someone pulling into the lot. Gio heard footsteps and an engine revving, and looked up only in time to see the Middle Eastern man trotting over to a piled-high pickup truck. A girl with pink hair shot him a rude gesture but parked in front of McKinley Hall.
Gio’s fingers dug into the thick fur, scratching more than petting. Tali twisted in faint displeasure, but he held her firm. This was a mistake, he realized too late. A stupid mistake. I should never have even opened the door.
Yet when the RAs rushed out to help Amir and the pink-haired girl unload the truck, Gio held the cat to his chest and slipped in through the side door, padded upstairs to his room, and closed the door behind him. The cat curled into his side as he resumed his Netflix, but he found less repose in his show now. The soft, sleepy purr vibrated through his fingers, and he clenched his jaw, willing himself not to be hurt by ten minutes’ interaction.
Amir had discarded him. So? Many people had discarded him, many who’d known him better and longer. That was just the way it was. And the sooner I realize that, the easier life will be, he scolded himself. No need to feel so disappointed. If he had hoped…
No. No hopes.
An episode later, the same rhythmic knock tapped against the door, though quieter this time. Gio covered the sleeping cat with his blanket and slid off the bed to answer. He cracked the door open and saw in the sliver of hallway light one hazel eye traced in charcoal and fringed in glitter.
“They’re all downstairs again,” whispered the perfect full lips, and Gio opened the door all the way, turning back to collect Tali. “Did she do okay for you?”
“Yes.” Gio clipped the word short. “She was fine.” He scooped up the cat and handed her to her owner, who accepted her but looked a little rocked at his change in demeanor.
“Thank you for helping me,” Amir said, though he had his cat and, Gio figured, probably would rather have gone to see someone, anyone, else. “I really appreciate it. So does Tali. We owe you.”
Right, sure. Gio ached. “Don’t worry about it.” He had no interest in gaining a pity favor in return.
But instead of taking the out, Amir cocked his head and, pulling a shamed frown, leaned back against the closet. “We didn’t really get to talk much before I left, did we? I’m sorry. That was bad form.”
Gio shifted his weight, unwilling to agree aloud but physically incapable of lying.
“Look,” said Amir, a tad unnecessarily. When he was in the room, it was difficult for Gio to do anything else. “I’m a couple doors down, and there’s next to no one moved in so far. Want to go out for dinner?” To ward off protest, he added, “Consider it a thank-you, or an apology. Or both.”
Gio considered this. And he considered saying I’m perfectly fine alone, but thanks anyway and shooing this wild, colorful enigma out of his room and going back to Netflix.
But when he opened his mouth, what came out was “Okay. Um, sure.”
Relief—and genuine pleasure? no, certainly not—shone through Amir’s bright smile.