“Why couldn’t he have loved me?” Aaryn sobbed as he curled up in my lap. “Is that all he really thinks of me is that I’m some stupid slut who plays these games for fun, Jericho? What did I do that was so wrong that he couldn’t see—”
“It wasn’t you, Aaryn,” I sighed, running my fingers through his hair. “Doyle can be oblivious, laser focused, and until now wasn’t ready for something real with someone.”
“So he goes and picks some freshman cat? What can he do that I can’t?”
Apparently deep throat a dick like I didn’t think possible. But I kept that to myself because the last thing he needed was salt on the wound. Aaryn had been all over the place before the selection proceedings with whatever he and Doyle had talked about, but now, after our leader blew his first pick on a freshman nobody that he obviously merely wanted to bang, Aaryn fell over the edge.
“He even”—hiccup—“him and how could”—hiccup—“with that and let him back”—hiccup—“trust he won’t do it again?”
“I don’t know, buddy,” I muttered, not having caught all of that but really it was clearly better to agree with a person when they were like this. “Come on, you have a real chance to make your own role in the crest now so how about—”
“I can’t focus on that!” he wailed, burying his face against my stomach, getting snot and tears all over my shirt. Gross. “How can I? They’re having sex right now and Doyle’s taking his virginity. His virginity, Jericho! You know how that can be an aphrodisiac. It’s over. He’s never going to look to me again or be mine. I’m—”
“Free from this in-between shit,” I growled, pushing him onto the couch and moving over him. “You’re free from that never knowing, always hoping, trying to hint, thinking forty steps ahead to what might make Doyle react this or that way, and driving yourself crazy in the process. That wasn’t healthy, Aaryn. I love you both, but what you had was shit and shitty for you. Now you have a chance to get a clean break from it and move on. You never could like you talked about because all he had to do was open his door and you went back.”
Aaryn’s eyes were wide as he shook under me. “You’re never forceful with me. Are you giving up your desires on Mr. Unattainable and making a play on me?”
I snarled. “I’m not hitting on you! I’m being your friend. You get five more minutes to grieve being replaced in his bed and that you were mistreated and misunderstood to the point he views you in this horrible way. Then you’re going to get up, shower, and symbolically shower it all off of you and realize that need to take away from all of this that as an adult talking not dancing around shit is best. You never told him, Aaryn. He’s oblivious, but you also can’t blame a man for replacing you who doesn’t know you wanted that spot.”
“I know. I fucked it all up.”
“I know it feels that way now, but I swear if you could see what I do, it’s really for the best.” I leaned my forehead down to my friend’s and sighed. “You deserve better, Aaryn. You’re going to make someone such a nice wife one—”
He kneed me in the stomach and pushed me off of him. “Just because I’m gay, a bottom, and submissive doesn’t make me a woman. I’m pretty sure every woman in the world inexplicably felt the need to flick you off even if they don’t know why.”
“Please, you know I don’t even believe that shit. I only wanted to make you stop crying. I don’t do crying well. Drinking, putting the pieces together, and lists I do extremely well so I was trying to get us to that part.”
Aaryn chuckled as he sat up and moved his head between his knees, locking his fingers on the back of his neck as his elbows rested on his legs. “But you’re a good friend for listening and keeping this between us. Mr. Unattainable is lucky—”
“I’m starting to regret telling you,” I growled, shoving him. “Let it go already. I’m not telling you who it is, and it’s not that I don’t trust you, I can’t. Saying it makes it…” I wasn’t actually sure what even.
“Real,” Aaryn whispered. “It makes it real and then it really hurts when you can’t have what you want most.”
Sadly, he had a valid point there. One that left me rubbing my sternum and trying to pretend it was because of something other than longing for the one I wanted most.
Aaryn cried a bit more while I rubbed his back, then I finally dragged him to the showers. I went to check on the situation with Doyle now that he was back from talking about Kisten’s art studies and the cat was well prepared. I winced, hearing what definitely was lots of sex going on. Poor Aaryn. Doyle really never had a clue that the guy was so in love with him and played those games because it was what seemed to make Doyle so happy.
Hell, I had the chocolate-covered macadamia nuts that got him in trouble last. Aaryn didn’t even like them.
“How’s Aaryn?” Tucker asked as I headed back to my room. I raised an eyebrow, unwilling to let anything slip given how close Tucker and Doyle were and the secret projects they worked on. The guy rolled his eyes. “Please, anyone with half a brain could see how in love Aaryn was with Doyle. He was ignorant. The rest of us weren’t. Plus, the walls are pretty thin so it’s hard not to hear him when he’s sobbing like that.”
“He needs us, and I think in his dismissal of Aaryn, Doyle gave him the best present and tools to get through this and stay busy.”
“You mean this crest manager chance. Yeah, I was thinking about that. You guys open to working on it now? I could use a break.”
“School’s over,” I hedged, studying him as if for clues as to what he could be working on.
“Tucker, you’re a legacy. You got a 173. Let it go.”
“Pot, kettle, you’re so black I can’t even see you in the dark,” he drawled. “You got a 514 on your MCAT and you flipped your shit.”
“I wasn’t feeling well that day and I’m not a legacy at the medical school I want to go to. I need a better score.”
“Well I want one to prove I got in without being a legacy.”
I stared at Tucker, seeing the resolve in his eyes, and nodded. “Yeah, I get that. But you’re seven points off from perfect. I’m fourteen.”
“You have a wider range. You still got a ninety-seven percent where I got a ninety-six.”
“Yeah, yeah, I forgot you’re good in math too,” I snickered, shaking my head. “All right, we both take a break and help Aaryn before getting back to work then.”
“Deal. I’ll get everyone to give a wish list of everything they’d like to disappear off their plate or ideas they want to see implemented to make things run smoother. We’ll coordinate the lists and anything that’s bull we’ll give to the freshman as their grunt work jobs, like I’m going to be working with a guy at my father’s firm who used to be on the LSAT review board so I’ll have a lot of scanning and printing to do.”
“Right and I always need a little lab assistant who isn’t a klutz and dropping expensive, fragile equipment. I didn’t want to say this to Aaryn and get his hopes up until we see what all comes in, but maybe that side business Doyle wanted done. And I really want someone else to handle the freshman Doyle had me pick because he keeps insisting I’m his crest leader and already annoying me.”
“Oh lord.” Tucker pinched the bridge of his nose before we went our separate ways.
I headed back to my room and waited for Aaryn and anyone else to drop off their lists while mulling over my own. I jotted down the basics before I found myself at my telescope. Sometimes I wondered if that was why I spent so much time in the lab was because I knew if I was in my room, I’d do nothing but watch Mr. Unattainable. God how I’d wished that I’d never accidentally caught that I could see all the way into his office from here.
Which of course led me to wonder if I could see into his room… And I could. Making me not only intrusive and a spy breaking several of the student codes, but a total perv. I couldn’t help myself. I was the electron to his nucleus and part of me never wanted to graduate so I didn’t have to leave him.
A big part of me. Hell, my whole life plan revolved around ending up back at this school to teach, not because I had a drive to teach, or I liked to interact with people or kids. No, I simply wanted to be near him and thought the university would at least allow me to do research and publish on the side as well. Or maybe mostly do that and teach a few stupid classes I could endure to be close to him.
Not that he had a clue who I was or that I was in love with him or I stalked him… It was sad really. I was sad.
Sighing when I found him cleaning up, I started my normal fantasizing about what I would do if things were different. How I would push him up against the wall, take out that hair tie and get my hands on that rainbow hair. Well not literally rainbow, but close enough. I mean, it was some type of reddish orange, with black, and blue natural streaks in it. Seriously, blue, like a blueish gray. To see him shift and what his hair translated for his animal was something that kept me up at night merely thinking about it.
But I’d never seen him do it. Never heard of him shifting on campus. And even stranger, since there was several faculty that were shifters and not shy about that sort of thing, was every so often he’d dye his hair. Of course it never stayed that way long. Shifters couldn’t hide their natural color because their animals didn’t like it and forced out the toxins, as they saw them.
He always seemed so sad when it turned back, as if slapping him in the face somehow. Once I’d even seen him crying in his room. I wanted so desperately to comfort him. God he was so beautiful even then. I’d been hard for days after watching him cry. It was one of my favorite spank bank fantasies, the crying and making it all better.
I was so hopeless.
“Stars come out at night and you need to point that thing up to see them,” Aaryn teased as he came in without even knocking.
“Adjusting everything after I cleaned it,” I replied easily, having been caught doing this before. I slid back on my glasses and stood up, moving the telescope, as I always did, in case someone got nosy and wanted to see what I’d been looking at. I knew how to cover my tracks. It was the only way not to be found out the past three years. “Feeling better?”
“Yeah, much.” He went to my fridge and pulled out an adult drink. I liked a variety, but I didn’t like beer. It reacted funny with my species so wine coolers and other sillier options it was. That was better, it kept things interesting and not so drab as the same beer over and over again.
“Tucker and I have a plan to get started,” I muttered, focusing on Aaryn and then I filled him in, taking a good portion of the rest of the day to help him out. It was a good way to use my time because Aaryn had been a friend to me and I liked him, wanted him to succeed.
We’d never be an item, he certainly wasn’t my type, but in a crest like ours, there was more to sex and who was in whose bed. I did love that about our crest.
* * * *
After Doyle and Kisten went to Paris together, things changed between them and affected the whole crest in a horrid, horrid way. I tried my best to stay out of it, but it was hard not to at least worry about them and what they needed. Tucker, Dristann, and I agreed, as the seniors of the crest, it was our job to handle that. I immediately volunteered to watch over Kisten, citing that Tucker was closest to Doyle and Dristann was good at going between for both when they gave me curious looks for hurrying to pick.
At least they bought it. So wasn’t the reason, but I didn’t have my sights set on Doyle’s man. For one, that would be suicide. And also, he wasn’t who I wanted… But he was my way in if I was smart. Part of me wanted to loop Dristann in to get a good strategy but I couldn’t take the chance and end up totally humiliated when it didn’t pan out.
I entered the art studio with the supplies Kelby had picked up for Kisten and some lunch given it was likely he’d skipped another meal and I was starving as well. But instead of heading right to where I knew he normally worked, I drifted towards the office. My heart raced as I heard a shower running and the squeaking of it being turned off. I moved closer, standing so I had a clear line of sight into the attached bathroom from outside the office so I couldn’t get blamed for anything.
And then it happened. Not five feet from me, he stepped out into my view naked, with his back to me, completely unaware of me. I might have been more excited about that, but instead, I was focused on what I’d never been able to see before because of the distance and everything like windows always between us.
Namely the scars all over his body. Acid burns of some sort that started scarcely below his left shoulder, went all across his back, around his right hip and looked like to the front as well, but down lower too, over his right butt cheek and upper thigh. It was as if someone took a bucket of acid and tossed it at him from the side and that was the splatter pattern left.
Dear mother what had happened to him?
“Enjoying the freak show, little giant?” he drawled as he slid on his robe and tied it before turning around.
I met his eyes and blinked at him, frowning. “I’m sorry. I see no freak show here. Is there a festival being planned I don’t know of?” I glanced around, missing the reference, but then shrugged and looked back at him. “I apologize for staring. I’ve simply never seen acid burns like that this close. I was trying to figure out what acid.”
“You’re a strange one,” Professor Farrell chuckled. Then he tilted his neck, looking very much like his animal for a moment as his gorgeous golden eyes saw more than most would think. “You’re looking for Kisten?”
“Yes, but I have enough food for three if you’d like to join us,” I offered, my stomach jumping like one of those beans I’d seen once years ago on some random program.
“I could eat. It’s the least you could do for peeping.”
I shot him a nasty look even as I knew he was completely in the right. “I’m here for Kisten, and I thought I’d ask if you wanted lunch. Who doesn’t close their bathroom door?”
“Someone who knows it’s summer break and doesn’t have any reason for people to be coming to his office. The bathroom doesn’t have an exhaust so I can’t see crap if I don’t leave the door open so the steam has somewhere to go. It wasn’t planned, okay? I spilled glaze all over myself and that’s not exactly something I want on my skin or drying on me.”
I shrugged and headed towards where I assumed Kisten was working. “I understand. I work with all kinds of chemicals in the labs, corrosives and acids you’d never want on you or—” I spun around so fast he bumped into me. I dropped the bags and slid my arm around his waist to steady him. “I’m sorry. That was truly insensitive of me.”
“It’s okay, it happened a long time ago,” he murmured, staring into my eyes as he found his footing. “Please don’t tell anyone what you saw. I don’t need a bunch of rumors flying around or to deal with the whispers of how it happened surrounding me again.”
“Of course not. I would never be so crass.” I kept my arm where it was even though he was fine and took a chance. “I understand how hurtful those whispers can be, traumatizing even, especially when all you want is to let go and move on.”
“Exactly.” We stayed like that a moment longer before he cleared his throat and tapped my arm. “Quick reflexes for a giant. I thought you guys were more oafs and careless? It’s why I never let any in the studio normally because the last one I did wiped out all the glass pieces that were cooling.”
“I’d never survive in a lab if I broke everything like a klutz,” I replied instead, picking up what I’d dropped and hurrying to get to Kisten. This wasn’t a conversation I wanted to have and certainly not like this, our first real one. There were so many other things to talk about. But it was actually understandable that he would push for it being an instructor whereas most students wouldn’t have the balls to because I towered and loomed over them.
Precisely as I did Professor Farrell, he had the authority to be pushy if he wanted to.
“So are you going to tell me your name, little giant, like a proper introduction or do I get to keep calling you any cutesy name I want? Because I’m okay with that.”
“Why would you call him that?” Kisten asked, glancing at us. I was shocked he’d been paying attention until I saw he was cleaning brushes so it made sense he wasn’t in zombie painter mode. “Oh you think he’s small for a giant? Yeah, he’s not a giant. I’ve met a family of giants and they don’t smell like Jericho. Besides he smells of magic.”
“At least I got a first name,” the professor pushed, waving for me to go on. “And now questions about what you are.”
I took in a slow breath and handed Kisten the bag of stuff, not wanting to see the look in Farrell’s eyes when he heard. “Jericho Grimes.”
“Oh. Oh, I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have been teasing you,” he muttered. I shrugged and opened the bag of food, taking things out as I set it on the table.
Kisten got defensive and moved between us. “Why are you sorry? So Grimes is his last name? Jericho’s awesome and like my best friend ever.”
“Thanks, twerp, but he didn’t do anything wrong,” I chuckled, handing him his favorite chips. “Grimes isn’t a family surname like your mom is Park so you are. It’s a name given to a child whose parent commits a crime. It’s how we brand those in our world to be careful of because it’s in their blood to be monsters. Which is humorous since isn’t that what we all are to most of the planet’s population?”
“That’s bullshit! That’s like labeling me an adulterer because my father is.” Then he groaned. “Well, everyone calls me bastard, so pretty much, but it’s not like they think I’m going to grow up and commit adultery too, only that I’m—shit. Wow, I’m not helping. My point is that you’re not a monster because your dad—umm, what did he do?”
“He was a monster,” I answered, hoping he’d leave it at that.
“Well you’re not and I think you should change your last name,” Kisten stated firmly as he plopped down on a stool with his sandwich. I couldn’t believe the suggestion. No one had ever said that to me before. “Screw everyone and that antiquated practice. What was the last name of your family?”
“Kisten, maybe you should let this one go,” Farrell hedged as he and I took the other stools at the table.
Smart man. I opened my sandwich and didn’t look at either of them. “Look, I don’t know my family names. It’s a long thing I don’t want to get into. And no, I’m not a full giant, I’m only half.”
“The other half?” Kisten was so innocent in his questions, not realizing the can of worms he was stirring most times but I knew Farrell would get it.
“Goblin,” I muttered under my breath, but couldn’t help it and peeked to see Farrell’s reaction. His face was blank. Too blank.
Kisten however was his normal unaware self. “That’s so cool! I’ve never met a goblin before. Can you guys like wiggle your ears and zap someone? You guys like to misbehave, right? Is that how it goes?”
“Don’t believe the crap in books,” the professor offered for me but then studied me. “They don’t tend to play nicely with others though which is why they’re not normally a part of our crest society and keep to their own and stay remote. Giants tend to as well since they have trouble adjusting their size and blending. It’s also a very odd combination.”
I held his gaze, letting him sit with all of those thoughts for a bit. “As I said, I understand all too well how whispers can traumatize someone when all they want is to forget the past and move forward. I literally have the name and DNA that follows me though and while I’m blessed that Doyle knows the story and could give a shit, even that the headmaster is protective of us who got screwed in the birth lottery, the second I graduate and am in society, I’m basically chum in the water.”
“Yeah, I remember how that was,” Farrell whispered, shaking his head. “I wish you better luck than I had. Maybe your magic can save you, because I doubt our civilized society has become anywhere closer to actually that.”
By some miracle, Kisten didn’t poke at either one of us, probably realizing something big was going on and it was best he leave it be. The topic put a damper on lunch though and my heart shrunk three sizes that I finally got to spend time with Mr. Unattainable, actually talk to him and he knew my name now, and this was how we spent it. It was horrible. Roughly my worst-case scenario.
But still, I couldn’t bring myself to hurry and leave, so I ate slowly, stealing glances at him and wondering what his cryptic words meant. Was that how he got the burns and scars? Did he have some family secrets that were worth someone throwing acid on him? What happened to that person? I would have gutted them, that was for sure.
“Hey, I know I don’t get all of this and I don’t actually understand a lot of the stuff in our world, but I do know we’re building our own family now and that means none of that shit from before matters, right?” Kisten offered as I was getting ready to leave. “We’re a family and so I’m no longer a bastard and you’re not a son of a criminal. I’m Kisten and you’re Jericho.”
I smiled at him and mussed around his hair. “I wish it was that simple.”
“So do I. Fuck, so do I, because I’d do anything for a mulligan,” Professor Farrell whispered under his breath as he headed back to his office.
And I’d do about anything to give him what he wanted. I had no idea his demons were as dark or deep as mine. All that did was make me want him more.