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Conventionally Yours

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When two “big name fans” go head-to-head at a convention, love isn’t the only thing at stake.

Charming, charismatic, and effortlessly popular, Conrad Stewart seems to have it all…but in reality, he’s scrambling to keep his life from tumbling out of control.
Brilliant, guarded, and endlessly driven, Alden Roth may as well be the poster boy for perfection…but even he can’t help but feel a little broken inside.

When these mortal enemies are stuck together on a cross-country road trip to the biggest fan convention of their lives, their infamous rivalry takes a backseat as an unexpected connection is forged. Yet each has a reason why they have to win the upcoming Odyssey gaming tournament and neither is willing to let emotion get in the way―even if it means giving up their one chance at something truly magical.

Volume:
1
Year:
2020
Edition:
1
Publisher:
Sourcebooks Casablanca
Language:
english
Pages:
402
ISBN:
B0821NF8C4
Series:
True Colors
File:
EPUB, 1.13 MB
Download (epub, 1.13 MB)

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2 comments
 
Jax
Enemies to lovers all the way!! Its a switch perspective between the two boys and its such a lovely and sweet romance :) didnt cry once. Its really just a sweet love. No drama!
28 March 2021 (10:35) 
Uznah
It's a sweet book tbh, highly recommended, no drama, but I think it dragged on for too long
18 May 2021 (19:59) 

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			Books. Change. Lives.





		 			Copyright © 2020 by Annabeth Albert

			Cover and internal design © 2020 by Sourcebooks

			Cover design and illustration by Colleen Reinhart

			Internal design by Danielle McNaughton/Sourcebooks

			Internal illustrations by Lauren Dombrowski

			Map design and illustration by Travis Hasenour/Sourcebooks

			Sourcebooks and the colophon are registered trademarks of Sourcebooks.

			All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems—except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews—without permission in writing from its publisher, Sourcebooks.

			The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.

			All brand names and product names used in this book are trademarks, registered trademarks, or trade names of their respective holders. Sourcebooks is not associated with any product or vendor in this book.

			Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca, an imprint of Sourcebooks

			P.O. Box 4410, Naperville, Illinois 60567-4410

			(630) 961-3900

			sourcebooks.com

			Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

			Names: Albert, Annabeth, author.

			Title: Conventionally yours / Annabeth Albert.

			Description: Naperville, IL : Sourcebooks Casablanca, [2020] | Summary: “LGBTQIA+ ROMCOM Conrad Stewart and Alden Parks are enemies, and that’s the way it’s always been. But when they’re stuck together on a cross-country road trip to the biggest fan conven; tion of their lives, the competition takes a backseat as unexpected feelings blossom. Yet each boy has a reason why they have to win the upcoming con tournament and neither is willing to let emotion get in the way-even if it means giving up their one chance at something truly magical”-- Provided by publisher.

			Identifiers: LCCN 2020001675 (trade paperback)

			Subjects: GSAFD: Love stories.

			Classification: LCC PS3601.L33438 C66 2020 | DDC 813/.6--dc23

			LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2020001675





Contents


			Front Cover

			Title Page

			Copyright

			Chapter One

			Chapter Two

			Chapter Three

			Chapter Four

			Chapter Five

			Chapter Six

			Chapter Seven

			Chapter Eight

			Chapter Nine

			Chapter Ten

			Chapter Eleven

			Chapter Twelve

			Chapter Thirteen

			Chapter Fourteen

			Chapter Fifteen

			Chapter Sixteen

			Chapter Seventeen

			Chapter Eighteen

			Chapter Nineteen

			Chapter Twenty

			Chapter Twenty-One

			Chapter Twenty-Two

			Chapter Twenty-Three

			Chapter Twenty-Four

			Chapter Twenty-Five

			Chapter Twenty-Six

			Chapter Twenty-Seven

			Chapter Twenty-Eight

			Chapter Twenty-Nine

			Chapter Thirty

			Chapter Thirty-One

			Chapter Thirty-Two

			Chapter Thirty-Three

			Chapter Thirty-Four

			Chapter Thirty-Five

			Chapter Thirty-Six

			Chapter Thirty-Seven

			Bonus Content

			Character Sketches

			Resources

			Author’s Note

			Acknowledgments

			About the Author

			About the Illustrator

			Back Cover





		 			For all the date nights spent tabletop gaming and all the memories created one round at a time, win or lose.





Chapter One


			Conrad

			“You can’t kill me,” I said. “You don’t have the strength.”

			In reality, I was already dead. My fate had been sealed by my own stupidity, but I wasn’t going down with a whimper. No, the last of my life might be spinning away, leaving me with only a dwindling collection of scrolls and my wits, but I’d rather go out fighting—or at least laughing.

			I leaned back, feigning confident disinterest. “Come at me.”

			“You’re rather confident for someone with no defenses.” Alden, my least favorite opponent, sounded almost bored, which only made me even more determined to hold on.

			“And you’re so predictable,” I shot back. Maybe I could egg him on, push him into making a mistake. It seemed like the only option I had left.

			“Dude. You are so screwed. At least your carcass is going to be pretty.” My sometimes-friend Jasper wasn’t helping any, taking great glee in my predicament.

			“Beg for mercy.” Payton, as always, was more pragmatic.

			I neither needed nor wanted an audience for this latest humiliation, so I tuned everything out, focusing every resource on staying alive.

			“I move to attack,” Alden said. The swing came, just as I’d anticipated, with Alden going all in, trying for a fatal blow.

			“Yeah, well, attack this.” I slapped down a card to create four tiny frog soldiers. Not much when facing off against everything Alden had at his fingertips, but it was the best I could manage.

			One more turn. It had become something of a mantra over the last hard, seemingly endless year. And yes, this was only a card game, and no, another loss to Alden wouldn’t really be the worst thing to happen to me. But regardless, I still wasn’t going to let him see me falter.

			“Really? That’s your response?” Alden shook his head, his weary expression making him look far older than twenty-three. He didn’t seem cowed in the slightest. He did superior better than anyone I knew, full mouth curving, lock of dark hair falling over his forehead as his hazel eyes gleamed. Fresh dread gathered in my stomach. My cheap-yet-effective mercenaries should have been just enough to hold him off and to get me to my next turn. But then Alden shook his head again and activated five scrolls, turning them sideways with long, clever fingers. “Unblockable Quest.”

			It was a hundred-dollar card, the sort of comeback that pro players trotted out like jelly beans, and so far above my current gaming budget it might as well have been gold-plated. But I had one final answer, my last card and my last scroll to activate it. “Peace Offering.”

			It would mean the sacrifice of my soldiers, but at least it would get me that one more turn.

			“Conrad.” The irritated way Alden sighed my name always made my teeth grind. “Peace Offering is one of the cards that got outlawed with the new rules. It’s no longer tournament legal. Didn’t you freshen up your deck last week like everyone else?”

			No, no I hadn’t updated a damn thing because I’d needed my last forty dollars for food, not cards. But I wasn’t telling Alden that, wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of pitying me. Instead, I stuck my hand out. “Guess I forgot. Good game, man.”

			“Yeah, good one.” Alden barely glanced at me as he gave a perfunctory shake.

			“That’s right. You missed the release event last week when they unveiled the new cards and revised rules. Hot date?” Payton asked, leaning forward, long hair swishing over their shoulders, the soft hint of southern in their lilt making date sound old-fashioned and dirty at the same time.

			“You know it.” I leaned back in my chair. I wasn’t about to admit I’d been working extra hours at the pizza place, trying to replace that money I’d spent on food. I’d spent hours dodging irritable parents and hyped-up kids instead of being here at my favorite game store for the unveiling of a set I’d been looking forward to for months.

			Alden made a disgruntled noise. “Can we film his death reaction now?”

			“Sure thing.” Professor Tuttle swung his handheld camera in my direction. “Die, Conrad. Make it good.”

			On cue, I sank low in my seat, almost sliding under the table as I made noises like I was melting, like a cartoon character getting hit with acid. Elimination reactions were something that Professor Tuttle’s audience always loved, almost as much as his “Gamer Grandpa” game analysis. Gamer Grandpa was one of the most popular Odyssey vlogs, with Professor Tuttle analyzing our in-person card play as well as matches on the wildly successful online version of the game. He made game theory accessible to the masses, and we were all regulars on his channel. Jasper did a lot of the editing for him, Payton did some special effects, and Alden…

			Well, Alden did all the winning. He had a combination of the best decks and exactly enough infuriating skill to make him darn near unbeatable.

			Oh and me? I liked to think I was the eye candy of the group. Or maybe the comedic relief. I brought the sort of trash-talking our viewers loved. That it never failed to rile Alden was only a bonus. And I’d take being seen as cocky over the truth, which was that I was the professor’s latest charity case—a scrappy player with cheap cards, a fucked-up life, and a missing future.

			“Great. That’ll do it for this game.” Setting the handheld camera aside, Professor Tuttle bustled around, disconnecting the overhead cameras that pointed at our play mats.

			“They’re going to want the room back soon.” Jasper moved to help, collecting dice and counters and rolling mats. He worked part-time at the game store where we filmed the shows and was the reason why we got the private play room so often.

			“Arthur can wait.” Payton was one of the few people not rattled in the slightest by the store owner’s gruff exterior, and they gathered their stuff slowly.

			“Give me a minute and I’ll grab you some of the latest card packs, Conrad. I bought two set boxes, so I’ve got some to spare.” Ignoring Payton, Jasper continued to aim for employee of the year, wiping down the table.

			“Thanks, man.” There was a time when I’d been one of the store’s best customers, but those days were long gone, and now, even borrowing Jasper’s employee discount, I could barely afford to keep playing. I should have been too proud to accept the packs, but it was probably my only shot at updating my decks. I couldn’t afford to buy individual cards on the secondary market like Alden or Payton. No, I’d be limited to whatever came in the packs. And I supposed I could get lucky, score some rares, but luck and I were hardly on speaking terms lately.

			“I’ve got some commons you can sift through too.” Alden reached for his deck bag—one of those custom deals that held a bunch of decks in their boxes securely, nothing jumbling around like my duffel, which was often where good cards went to die.

			“Nah. I’m sure I’ll be okay with whatever Jasper can spare.” I might able to live with myself in accepting handouts from the professor and Jasper, but not Alden. I’d sooner stop playing than take his castoffs.

			“Suit yourself.” Alden gave a shrug of his elegant shoulders. Not broad. Not bulky. Not even a swimmer’s lean build or the more technically accurate slight. No, the only word that worked for describing Alden’s body type was elegant. Or perhaps regal if one was feeling even more fanciful, which I decidedly was not. But it was undeniable that Alden had a presence to his posture, a way of holding himself that took up far more than his share of space, and that frequently made me forget that I was technically the taller, bigger one.

			“Wait. Before you guys head out, I’ve got something to share.” Professor Tuttle sported a gray T-shirt that proudly proclaimed “Gamer Grandpa” with his Einsteinesque wild-hair logo beneath it. Like Alden, he had a professional-grade deck bag, along with assorted camera and laptop cases. Checking three different bags, he finally came up with a thick manila envelope. “Do you know what this is?” He waved the envelope in front of us before reaching inside. Practically vibrating with excitement, he didn’t wait for any of us to take a guess. “This, my friends, is the trip of a lifetime.”

			He laid five white tickets out on the table. They looked expensive—large rectangles of thick, creamy card stock with gold lettering that proudly proclaimed, “Massive Odyssey Con West” on them.

			The room went silent, the kind of eerie stillness that often preceded a summer storm back home, but in this case, it was anticipation, not a tornado, building, energy crackling as I waited to see who would speak first.

			“But MOC West has been sold out for months. I know. I tried.” Payton’s green eyes were wide. Among all of us, they were probably the only one of us who could easily afford the high price of admission for the fan convention taking place in Vegas next month. Giant in scope, it rivaled the largest of the Comic Cons in popularity. Better yet, not only was it a showcase for the game, but also a huge tournament for players, with prize money and even seats on the pro tour up for grabs.

			A spot on the pro tour could be life-changing.

			“I know. But my contact at Odyssey Games said they’re really impressed with what our channel is doing. They want us to come—me to sit on some panels and make fan appearances, and you guys to play in the tournament. Then we’ll do a recap video about our experiences afterward.”

			“Wow.” I whistled low, visions of an invitation to the pro tour and the end of my money worries dancing in my head.

			“All we have to do is get there.” Professor Tuttle nodded so enthusiastically that his unruly white-gray hair bounced.

			And hell. Just like that, my vision went poof, lost in a cloud of reality. “You mean we have to cover airfare?”

			“Well, yes, travel expenses are ours, as are meals and—”

			“Not a problem.” Payton already had their phone out and was clicking away, probably telling their trust-fund manager that they needed a boost of cash.

			“For you, maybe,” I grumbled, already digging my duffel out from under the table. Time for me to get going. That ticket might be my one last decent hope of digging my way out of the hole my life had become, but the cost of airfare wasn’t even remotely within my pitiful budget, and I needed to escape the excitement of the others before my disappointment ruined their fun.

			“Slow down now, Conrad.” Professor Tuttle could do stern when he wanted to. I slumped back into my seat, bag in my lap. “I’ve got a travel plan for those of us with more…challenges to face.”

			More like those of us with nonexistent bank balances, but I didn’t say anything. I’d worked hard to make sure that as few people knew the extent of my situation as possible. The professor knew more than most, but no way did I want the rest to realize just how screwed I really was.

			“I don’t fly.” Alden stared at the tickets as if they might hop up and bite him. I had to blink at that. In the couple of years that I’d hung around Alden and the rest of our play group, I’d never known him to be anything other than rigidly in control. Our perennial winner had a weak spot?

			“Since when?” I asked before I could think better of it. I’d learned long ago that Alden, conversation, and I seldom mixed well.

			“Since ever.” Alden gave me the scathing look I’d been expecting. “I just…don’t.”

			“Which is fine.” Professor Tuttle had moved from stern teacher back to peacemaker. “You don’t fly. C—Some of us have limited funds. And I have a plan.”

			Pulse pounding, I eyed those tickets again. Forget Alden and his blinged-out decks. I could hold my own in that tournament, and I knew it. I could solve so many of my problems. But rather than being giddy with hope, I felt like I’d swallowed Alden’s huge deck bag, a heavy weight pressing on my vital organs.

			Whatever this plan was, I wasn’t at all sure I was going to like it.





Chapter Two


			Alden

			I straightened my shoulders, not letting my body lean forward like it wanted to. I wasn’t going to let myself be overeager. Not yet. Real-world plans had a way of seldom working out in my favor, which was why I loved Odyssey so much. In the game, all my careful strategies could come to fruition, as they had when I’d won out over Conrad a few minutes earlier. Across from me now, he had gone pale, his usual Disney-hero face gaunt and more than a little green.

			“A plan?” he croaked. I had to admit, it was nice to see the Prince of Swagger off his game, even a little. He deserved to be off his game, in no small part thanks to his endless needling and mockery. He called it trash-talking, but I’d never seen the difference. It was hard not to take his comments personally when they always felt so targeted.

			My fingers itched to reach for the tickets, to make sure they were real, but I wasn’t going to be the first to grab. I also wasn’t about to let Conrad—or anyone else—see how badly I wanted to go. Payton and Conrad undoubtedly wanted a ticket so they could party with other gamers, and Jasper was likely already envisioning the cosplay possibilities, but all I could think about was that tournament. A seat on the pro tour. Yeah, that would be worth something after the tire fire that was my last year.

			A win like that would validate all the time I’d spent honing my game, but more importantly, it would give me the one thing my life was sorely lacking: control. I’d spent the past year racking up disappointment after disappointment, and here was my chance to seize a fresh new direction for my future that had nothing to do with the increasingly claustrophobic path my family had set me on.

			I swore I could already hear the cheers, feel the weight of the trophy, the intense wave of pride washing over me. But behind the daydream was the bitter splash of reality. I didn’t like to fly. It was what had kept me limited to cons and tournaments within driving distance here on the East Coast and what had held me back from registering for MOC West when it first opened.

			“And it doesn’t involve flying?” I asked, trying to not sound as skeptical as Conrad.

			“Nope.” Professor Tuttle offered a wide smile. “I’ve had a bunch of midwestern local game stores ask for signed books. And they’ve been clamoring for something of a tour. So my idea is to drive with whomever wishes to join me. We can share time behind the wheel, stop at my favorite local game stores along the way, play a few hands of Odyssey with their regulars, see the sights… It’ll be fun.”

			That was easy for him to say. He had friends all across the country thanks to his storied career as a mathematics professor as well as the reputation he’d built with his vlog. He loved travel, but I knew full well that he was only proposing driving because he thought that was the best way to get us there. He’d been friends with my family long enough to know about my issues with flying. Also, Jasper was perennially short of funds, and I was never quite sure what was up with Conrad lately. He’d had to drop out of school for reasons he was cagey about, and I could never tell whether he was as broke as Jasper, or just didn’t care, or possibly a mixture of both. For all his bravado, he was tough to read—something that irritated me even more than his swagger and constant needling.

			“Can it be the sort of fun that I hear all about when I see you guys at the con? Road trips are so not my style, and I’ve got plane tickets already up on my phone.” Payton waved their phone, managing to sound dismissive without outright knocking the professor’s plan. I desperately wanted to learn their trick for always managing to seem above the fray without being rude about it. They were never emotionally invested in anything, whether it was grades or relationships or even the game itself. Me? My adrenaline was still thrumming from the win, my stomach yet to settle from that sick feeling when I’d thought Conrad might be about to best me. Holding back his soldier tokens had been a stroke of genius.

			Not that I’d ever tell him that. He didn’t need the ego boost.

			“The convention is right after the term ends for summer break.” Professor Tuttle still taught part-time, despite devoting most of his retirement to his vlog. “I say we take two weeks—five or six days there, three days for the convention, five or six days coming home. It’ll be a grand adventure. Who’s in?”

			I expected Conrad to agree first, because no way would he turn down a chance to go party with Payton and be a minor celebrity with Gamer Grandpa’s following. I’d been forced to overhear too many stories of their wild antics over the years to think otherwise.

			In the end, though, it was Jasper who nodded first. “I’m up for it. I’ll have to talk to my folks and Arthur, though, make sure I can be spared.”

			“Excellent. Conrad?” Professor Tuttle prompted. Relief rushed through me that he hadn’t asked me next. I still hadn’t sorted out my reaction to this turn of events. Unlike the others, I wasn’t the best at reading situations and never coped well with sudden change. I wanted to go. That wasn’t the issue, but there was a ton of other mental clatter going around in my head that was making it hard to focus.

			“Uh…” Conrad still sat across from me, still holding his duffel like a shield. “Work, you know? Might need to rearrange some things…”

			That was typically vague. I wasn’t entirely sure what job Conrad currently had. He seemed to have an endless supply of side hustles and part-time gigs that never lasted long. Rumor was, he got fired almost as often as he went out and partied. I’d once tried to help him see that the two probably were related, but he’d almost bitten my head off, so I tried not to get involved anymore. It wasn’t my business anyway.

			“That’s fine. How about you guys think about it? The tickets are yours, but you can tell me your decision about the road trip when we play Sunday afternoon.”

			“Time to think is good.” That gave us a little under forty-eight hours, but it was better than being put on the spot. I nodded along with Conrad.

			“The tickets are ours?” Conrad licked his lower lip as he took one from the stack. I couldn’t shake the feeling he was mentally working out what his ticket might fetch on a reseller site. And see, this was why I needed to go. I was the only one of us who truly cared about the game and the tournament.

			I grabbed mine before anyone else could think about taking it.

			“So, you think you’re going?” Conrad nodded at the ticket in my hand. His midwestern flat affect took a turn for the country with you sounding more like ya when he was agitated. I’d never figured out exactly where he was from—some corn-fed rural state where they grew their guys naturally athletic and tall as water towers. Conrad always looked like he’d escaped some minor league baseball team to come slum with us nerds at the game store.

			“Maybe. I said I’d think about it.” I didn’t owe him a peek at my inner turmoil, didn’t want him to know how rattled I was, and my tone came out way too snappish. Something about Conrad always made me feel even more out of my depth socially, and that uncertainty tended to come out as combative—little verbal swipes that accomplished nothing other than to ensure that we were always at odds.

			“Chill, Alden.” Jasper was more Conrad’s friend than mine, and the long-suffering look they exchanged grated on my last nerve.

			Whatever. I wasn’t in this to make friends. I was here for one reason, and one reason only—the high I got from winning. Sure, the satisfaction of deck building was nice, and the aesthetics of the game weren’t entirely lost on me, but nothing compared to the rush of victory. And right now, at this point in my life, I needed that rush in the worst way.

			Payton would accuse me of being overly dramatic, so I’d never admit it aloud, but there were days when the game kept me going. Just knowing we’d had the filming today had been good. Getting to do this professionally? Being able to call this a career choice and not an expensive hobby? That might be worth whatever it would take to get that seat on the pro tour. I still wasn’t sold on Professor Tuttle’s plan, but that ticket was mine, and I wasn’t letting go.





Chapter Three


			Conrad

			The ticket might as well have weighed a hundred pounds for how it pressed on every part of my consciousness as I walked back from the game store. It made my bag seem to dig into my shoulder and made my steps heavy. I’d used the store’s Wi-Fi to quickly check the ticket’s value when the others had been distracted saying goodbye and making plans for Sunday’s game. I could easily make several hundred for an all-access tournament slot at the sold-out event. If I put it up tonight, I could have money in my account in a few days.

			But…

			I sighed as I crossed from Gracehaven’s quaint main street to the district of historic homes that ringed the small downtown, cutting through the park. I could already see Professor Tuttle’s frown if I told him Sunday that I’d scalped the ticket. Which honestly was the best option for me. No way did I want to go on a road trip with Alden the All-Knowing. Five days straight in a confined space with a judgmental dude who always seemed to find me lacking? Count me out. And I had zero faith that he would bow out of the trip. My luck simply wasn’t that strong, and I’d seen the way he’d looked at those tickets as if they were a slice of my grandma’s red velvet cake. He wanted to go, probably so he and his decks could get a “real” challenge like he was always bemoaning, as if our play group were a peewee league and he the only pro wannabe.

			Screw that. I was every bit as good a player as him. And I would have—should have—shown him that earlier if I’d simply been able to get that one more turn. Sure, I tended to goof off during matches, which I knew full well drove Mr. Serious Player crazy, but what good was playing if you couldn’t have a little fun?

			“Conrad! Hey, Conrad!” A group of kids were playing soccer in the park, assorted parents and babysitters looking on from the benches at the other end of the field. The short, skinny one calling out to me was Dominic, son of the owner of the pizza place. “Come play with us!”

			“Guys,” I groaned as I came closer, setting my bag down before I was mobbed. “I’m tired. It’s been a long day. I don’t—”

			“Please.” Dominic’s sister, Maria, had braids and two missing teeth and reminded me so much of my own sisters that my chest ached.

			“A few kicks,” I conceded, doing a fast rewind in my head to make sure I’d taken my meds that morning. And at least I had meds that month, which was something. Even though I hadn’t been kidding about being tired, I still got a familiar burst of energy jogging toward the goal with the kids. “You want to be goalie first, Maria?”

			She nodded, and I stayed out with the kids until everyone had had a turn being goalie, trying to deflect my soft kicks. Finally, I begged off before they could talk me into a stint as goalie myself.

			“You should be, like, a pro,” Dominic declared. “Like on TV. Goooooal.”

			“Ha.” I laughed. You’re too good to quit, Conrad. No son of mine is a quitter. Harsh voices from my past rang in my ears, making it hard to smile, but I made my tone come out light. “Not hardly. Thanks for the workout, guys.”

			And with that, I continued on my way through the park toward the three-story blue Victorian with apple-green trim that, while not exactly home, wasn’t that far off either. I headed around back where I found Maxine on a low stool next to one of her immaculate flower beds, using the last of the light to get some weeding in, curly gray hair sticking to her forehead.

			“Hey! Isn’t that supposed to be my job?” I set my bag on the porch and hurried over to help her as she tried to get up to greet me.

			“It’s my joy.” She gave me a tired smile that didn’t reach her dark eyes. “And you’ve got enough jobs. Where are you scheduled tonight?”

			“Overnight stocking at the grocery store.” I sighed as she let me lead her to the Adirondack chairs on the back porch. “And then tomorrow night at the pizza place. And I know it’s the third, and rent—”

			“You’ll get it to me when you have it. I trust you.” She sank into one of the chairs, her lack of protest showing that she really was more tired than she was letting on. “And speaking of rent, I need to talk to you.”

			Crap. My back muscles tensed one by one until my shoulders felt guitar-string tight. I perched on the arm of the chair next to her. “Oh?”

			“I’ve reached a decision. Even teaching part-time is getting to be a lot for me. This is going to be my last term. I’ll take my emeritus status and ride off into the sunset.”

			“What? The poor freshman. First-year seminar won’t be the same without you.” I forced myself to smile, even as dread continued to gather. Unlike Professor Tuttle, who continued to dabble in upper-level courses in his retirement, Maxine’s passion had always been for freshman courses, especially the seminar class where I’d first met her as Professor Jackson. She’d easily been my favorite class, and she was one of the few people outside the administration who knew the whole story about why I’d had to drop out. Faced with hard choices, agreeing to rent one of her spare rooms at a discount in exchange for yard work had been one of my better decisions. She’d spent most of the year finally convincing me to call her Maxine.

			“You’re too kind.” She patted my arm. “I will miss teaching. And this place.”

			“You’re moving?” Dread turned into full-on bile, rising in my throat. No way was I finding another rent this low.

			“Even with your help, this is a lot of house for an old woman—”

			“You’re not that old,” I protested, even though I knew her to be at least seventy, having kept teaching long past when other professors took their retirements.

			“I am.” She laughed, a rich full-bodied sound that belied her small stature. “And DeShawn and his wife are having number three this fall. Maya’s getting married this summer, and she’s got that look too. Won’t be long for her and Carol, I bet. I think it’s time I moved nearer to my grandbabies.”

			“Can’t argue with that,” I grumbled. Both of Maxine’s kids and their partners lived in the DC area, having settled there after college, and I couldn’t deny her logic in wanting to move closer. Family was important to her, as it should be, and I was merely her renter. “So you’ll be putting the house on the market?”

			“Yes. Soon. Everyone says it’ll sell fast—the place across the street got a cash offer in eight days.”

			“Ah.” I chewed my lower lip, trying to calculate how much time I had.

			“Why don’t you keep this month’s rent, Conrad?” She’d always been too perceptive by half. “You can add it to your fund for a new place. And I can ask around—”

			“You’ve done so much already.” No way was I letting pity drive her to find me another professor with a spare room. It was beyond time for me to figure out what came next for the smoldering heap that had become my life. A vision of the MOC West ticket leaped to the front of my brain. If I could win, if I could get a seat on the pro tour, that could be my next move. Rent money, breathing room from my bills, and the chance to win big at the game I loved. What could be better than that?

			Road trip with Alden, I reminded myself. And using the last of your cash to take two weeks off would be beyond stupid. Damn it. I hated practical reality. Would braving a road trip with Alden and his barbs be worth the payoff in the end? I still wasn’t sure.

			“Well, all right.” Maxine nodded slowly. “But I hate leaving you in the lurch.”

			“You’re not,” I lied. “I’ll come up with something.”

			And I would. It was what I was good at—coming up with strategies on the fly, seeing opportunity where others saw only defeat. But later that night, when the manager at the grocery store sought me out, I was having a hard time not seeing doom in her sad frown.

			“We’re having to cut back. Both hours and positions. I’ve got some hours for you through the end of the month, but then…” Bian looked away at a display of cereal boxes, not meeting my eyes. “You’re the most recent hire.”

			“Yeah.” First in, first out. I got it. This wasn’t my first time losing out due to not having seniority somewhere. And the manager was a nice enough woman—twenty years’ experience at the store, and still able to be patient when I didn’t know where things went at first. “Listen, don’t worry about me. I’ll figure something out.”

			I was less and less sure about that, and when I collapsed across my bed at seven thirty that morning, all I could see was my duffel at the foot of the bed. That ticket. It could be a few hundred to try to get another rental situation, or my last, best hope of actually turning my luck around. I tried to picture winning, being handed the check, and all I could feel was relief as I counted zeroes. And if I got on the pro tour, there would be more checks like that—enough to buy a future, one win at a time.

			Maybe, just maybe, the road trip wasn’t the worst idea, especially if it delivered me to a better place.





Chapter Four


			Alden

			“You’re so beautiful.” I stroked Emma’s golden head, reveling in her presence, drinking in her calm acceptance. She was easily one of the highlights of my day, which said a lot about the state of my life right then.

			“I’m pretty sure you came to see the dog and not us, didn’t you?” my mom asked from the kitchen doorway.

			“I came to see you guys too,” I protested from my spot at the bottom of the staircase where I’d been brushing Emma. My hand tightened around the brush because I was totally guilty. Knowing Emma had been counting on our weekly Saturday run while the moms made brunch had gotten me up and out of bed, much more so than the thought of French toast casserole or turkey sausage. Or the grilling I knew was coming.

			“Well, the food is ready. And no, you can’t take yours back with you.”

			“Hey, I’m not that bad.” Two weeks ago, however, I had done exactly that, claiming the need to make a phone call and grabbing my waffles on the trek back to the carriage house behind my moms’ Victorian, where I currently lived. I supposed I couldn’t do the same trick again. I knelt for one last pat for Emma. “Who wants a treat?”

			“You spoil her.”

			“She deserves it.” And she really did. I might live in the backyard, but my visits to the main house had been irregular at best this last year—all part of a losing effort to distance myself from the pressure my moms had been exerting. Also, the dog had put up with my anxiety over the last year far better than either of my moms. That morning, she’d eagerly done an extra lap around the pond while I continued to puzzle out what I was going to do about my ticket.

			I wish I knew for certain whether Conrad was going to bail. That would make everything easier. I did not want to spend days on end in a car with someone who made no secret of not liking me, even though he got along with almost everyone else. Something about the two of us was like mixing Diet Coke and Mentos—guaranteed instant eruption. I wasn’t blameless either. I knew I had a tendency to bristle at all his teasing. Just as I retreated to my carriage house to avoid uncomfortable encounters with my moms, I retreated to the relative safety of the game when around the rest of the Gamer Grandpa crew, its rules and requirements so much more reassuring than the complexities of social interactions.

			And okay, part of me wouldn’t object to being smashed in a back seat with someone who looked and smelled as good as Conrad did, but that part of me was not in charge of making important life decisions, and I’d spent over two years trying very hard not to notice Conrad in that way. I wasn’t about to start crushing on someone who hated me now.

			And if nothing else, I knew myself. I didn’t travel well. My social awkwardness tended to worsen when I got anxious—something that new and uncomfortable situations often triggered to begin with. Summer camps and field trips had been misery for me growing up, and even now as an adult, day trips to local conventions could be stressful. And Vegas would be an entirely different beast.

			Yet none of that stopped me from wanting to go, to play, to win. Badly.

			After giving Emma her treat, I followed my mom into the breakfast nook where Mimi, my other mother, was setting out the food on the colorful stoneware she collected. Mimi—whose given name was Judith—had been a part of our family since I was six, and in many ways, I related better to her than to my bio mother. Actually, I looked more like her too—shorter, dark hair, thin build—and teachers frequently mixed up who was related to whom and how. I didn’t care. I loved them both, even as they drove me to the brink sometimes, especially lately. My bio mom was taller, statuesque, with hair she kept highlighted, built more like an aging starlet than the renowned neurologist she actually was. She took the seat next to Mimi, leaving me to sit across from them, a double firing squad of expectations.

			“Food looks good. Thank you.” Weekends were one of the rare times they cooked big meals together, and growing up, we’d anticipated the Saturday bounty like a mini-Hanukkah.

			“It’s that challah I made when Rebecca was home on spring break,” Mimi enthused. The mention of my genius older sister, who was in her final year at Harvard Med, made my jaw ache. But Mimi was undaunted as she served us all generous portions of the egg casserole and sides of turkey sausage and fruit. “Thought it might be a nice treat as we head into the end of the semester rush.”

			“Yeah. Lots of grading for you?” I was intent on keeping the focus off me as long as possible.

			“Well, lots of grading for the teaching assistants.” Mimi laughed lightly. A biochemist, she was a long-time faculty member at the university—one who brought in more than her share of grant funding for her groundbreaking research. “And you? Lots of papers due?”

			Here we go. “Some. It’s a light term.”

			“Well, let me know if you need me to look anything over.” Mimi might be one of the busiest faculty members, but she’d always made time for us kids, everything from homework to heartbreak.

			“And don’t forget about the writing center,” Mom added.

			“Got it.” Writing wasn’t my strong point, but my classes for the postbachelor certificate program were notoriously soft, most students having done what I’d intended to do—use the program as a stepping-stone toward other graduate programs. A number of students were in my same boat, having missed out on acceptance letters senior year and going for a second try at the programs they’d really wanted. But even knowing that I wasn’t alone didn’t make my situation any easier to stomach.

			“Alden. Are you taking exams seriously?” Eyes narrowing, Mom set her fork aside to lean forward as she warmed to her favorite topic—how to fix my life. “It’s past time we discuss your future beyond this year.”

			“Is it?” I groaned, the couple of bites of casserole I’d managed turning to glue in my stomach.

			“We know you’re disappointed.” Mimi’s kind eyes were full of sympathy, but there was also a resignation there that made me want to squirm. This was high school all over again, them bound and determined to figure out why I was fine academically and floundering socially. The endless pressure to add extracurriculars and pursue prestigious colleges like Gracehaven. Me never feeling quite good enough, letting them down over and over.

			Disappointed didn’t begin to cover it. Disappointed was last year, when the first wave of rejections for my medical school applications had come in. But everyone had said to try again, to spread my search wider, to be more flexible. Do this certificate, work even harder, get better references. And be patient.

			This? The feeling after all that had failed, after there wasn’t a single acceptance, as even the chances of being waitlisted dwindled to nothing, was devastation. Disappointment was something I knew how to navigate, but this emptiness inside me was on a scale that I hadn’t yet figured out how to cope with.

			“You’ve got options though.” Mom held up her hand, ticking them off on her well-manicured fingers. “You can finish the certificate program, do the second year focusing on health administration. Or transition to an MBA.”

			“A PhD program is also still a possibility,” Mimi added. “Especially with your strong grades. With an undergrad in math and minors in biology and chemistry, you’re well set for any number of options.”

			Ah. Options. The moms were huge on plans of action and choosing acceptable options. But no one wanted to hear about the option I really wanted, which was to play Odyssey until I forgot that we’d ever dreamed of me being a doctor. But I didn’t say that, just nodded and forced myself to take another bite to buy myself time.

			“I do wish you’d written your entrance statement on being neurodiverse. I really think it would have helped.” Mom shook her head.

			“Yes, embracing your differences and challenges would have shed a better light on your résumé,” Mimi agreed.

			“So say my mothers,” I groaned. “And when not even medical professionals can agree—”

			“Which is what you could write about.” Mom always acted like the parade of experts they’d dragged me to in junior high and high school were a fun field trip, a life-enrichment experience, and they both had zero problem bringing it up around other people. I, on the other hand, didn’t much care for public airing of my issues—and really didn’t like remembering their quest to fix me, unable to understand why things were so much harder for me than my older sisters, who had glided through school and landed in top medical programs with almost balletic ease.

			“It’s too late now, anyway.” I did not want to rehash my shortcomings all morning. At least they weren’t dredging up how many times I’d taken the MCAT entrance exams and all the money involved in the tests and application fees and study courses. I had the grades, sure, but those tests. I never failed to freeze up. “I’m…weighing my options.”

			I tried to sound deliberate, the way they both always managed to play uncertainty off as thoughtfulness, but it didn’t work, both of them shaking their heads simultaneously.

			“You need a direction,” Mom said firmly, and Mimi made a noise of agreement. “I want to hear that you’re committed to a course of action. Soon. Deadlines are fast approaching. You need an appropriate plan for your future. You can’t keep closing yourself off from the world and losing yourself in that game.”

			That game was the one bright spot in my life right now, but this was an old argument between us, and I wasn’t going to relitigate it. Instead, that ticket and everything it represented flashed like a neon billboard behind my eyes. Get to Vegas. Win. Join the pro tour. Find a way past my fear of flying. Use pro tour commitments to hold off big decisions that threatened to swallow me whole. Figure out my own life and my own direction away from all their expectations and pressures. It wasn’t a terrible plan.

			“I’m not. In fact, I’m considering a trip with…friends.” Friends was pushing it. Professor Tuttle was more of a mentor. Meanwhile, Jasper and Payton loosely tolerated my presence but didn’t invite me along for anything outside of the games, and Conrad and I were closer to enemies than anything else. But, I knew the word friends would immediately reassure the moms, get them to back off.

			“That’s wonderful.” Mimi beamed.

			“You getting social interaction is always good.” Mom sounded exactly the same as she had about the nine zillion different clubs she’d made me try as a kid, but then her tone shifted to something far more ominous. “But, I want you to come back with a firm commitment to your future. Or else we’re going to need to have a different talk. One about living arrangements.”

			Hell. Sweat gathered along my hairline. I’d known that at twenty-three I couldn’t keep living at home, under their benevolence, but I’d hoped to buy myself a little more time. And now, with both of them nodding grimly, I supposed I was locked into going on the trip, no matter what my own reservations were…and no matter who else was along for the ride.





Chapter Five


			Conrad

			Late. I was late for the Sunday game, and while hardly a novel situation for me, I still hated it. But flat-out sprinting from Maxine’s house also wasn’t an option, so I settled for a half walk/half jog that put me at the game store ten or so minutes behind schedule—which considering that I’d gone from my grocery-store gig to two hours of sleep to covering the lunch rush at the pizza place because someone else was sick, to racing home because I’d forgotten my gaming bag, to back downtown was something of a minor miracle. I was close to falling over from exhaustion, but I was there. Had to count for something.

			As I entered the store, my shoulders relaxed the way my body always did there, the glassed-in display cases, shelves of board games, racks of play accessories, and tables of casual gamers reassuring me in a way that little else could. This was my place. It wasn’t my hometown game store, which had been smaller and darker, but the smell of new cards and old coffee was the same, as was my feeling of belonging. After nodding at Arthur, who was looking particularly intimidating cleaning off one of the cases as if its existence offended him, I found my group at one of the back tables. Alden was glaring at the closed door to the private room, but everyone else was kicked back in the folding chairs.

			“I’m here. Previous group running behind?” I asked as I took the chair next to Jasper. “Guess I’m not actually late.”

			“It’s three forty-five. We said three thirty,” Alden pointed out. “That the other group is also late doesn’t make you less so.”

			I blinked at him, wondering not for the first time what the hell his problem was. He had a major tendency to go hyperliteral, especially when plans didn’t go his way. His tone was more matter-of-fact than belligerent or accusing, but it grated. While less accusatory, he still sounded like my dad, all harping on personal responsibility and not interested in good excuses.

			“Late Saturday night?” Payton gave me a tired-looking grin. They had on dark sunglasses and a giant fuzzy hoodie and undoubtedly were nursing a world-class hangover. They and I used to be regulars at a lot of the same places a lifetime ago, when my biggest worry on weekends had been where the action was, whether at an all-night gaming marathon or an off-campus party.

			“Didn’t make it home until seven thirty.” I went for honest, even if not the whole story.

			“The best.” Jasper gave me a high five. “I love living vicariously through you people.”

			I doubted he’d want to live vicariously through six hours of shelving assorted pet-food products, but I nodded anyway. “And you? What trouble did you find?”

			“Only the good kind.” Jasper pulled a deck box out of his bag and removed a stack of cards. “Opened some more packs, sifted through the single card bins, and ta-da! Boss-ass new deck. Every creature card in it transforms.”

			“Formidable.” Before I could ask to see, Arthur came over. Dude was built like a wrestler, with tats, big arm muscles, rumors of a career in special forces cut short, and a deep voice that sent would-be shoplifters scurrying for safer targets. However, he also had a lot of respect for Professor Tuttle, as evidenced by the deferential nod he gave him.

			“Sorry about the other group. They should be out soon. Got something in I thought you guys might like.” He held out his massive hand to reveal rainbow-striped unicorn card sleeves.

			“I like.” Payton delicately plucked the pack out of his hand. “Ring me up when you get a chance.”

			“Do you have any more?” Professor Tuttle stroked his chin. “Maybe those would finally convince Julio to play.”

			“I’ll grab you a pack when I ring Payton up. But I doubt that husband of yours is going to become a regular here anytime soon.”

			Professor Tuttle laughed, both because no way would his elegant husband go for the unicorns, and because his inability to catch onto the game was a running joke among us.

			The store didn’t specialize in LGBTQ gaming or anything like that, but we also weren’t Arthur’s only group likely to have some rainbow-loving members. It was a big part of why I felt so secure here. Arthur might be scary as heck, but he ran a tight ship and didn’t put up with any offensive behavior. And while Professor Tuttle never shared anything personal beyond our first names on his show, he was a founding faculty adviser for the Safe Space Alliance on campus. I’d never admit it aloud, but I admired his forty-year partnership with his retired drama professor husband almost as much as I did his impressive grasp of the game.

			They had the sort of relationship that ordinary people never achieved—like something out of a movie. I could envy it, but I also knew it was never happening for me. Hell, I wasn’t even sure I’d want that in my life. There were too many times when I’d seen how love screwed people over, that sort of commitment setting one up for near-inevitable hurt.

			“So.” Professor Tuttle turned in my direction as Arthur left our table. “Who’s up for the road trip? We should start making plans.”

			“I am,” I said at the exact same instant Alden did. My gaze locked on his, catching the moment when his eyes dimmed, his face seeming to collapse in on itself, disappointment clear in the way his shoulders sagged. Yeah, he’d heard me. And it was pretty darn obvious that he’d been hoping for me to not go, but now he was stuck. As was I. Damn it. I couldn’t change my mind now without looking like a giant tool.

			Across from me, Alden’s expression returned to neutral even as his posture went stiff, like no way was he going to let us see him rattled. Arrogant. Stubborn. Perfectionist. Jerk. He was all those things. Was I really going to spend two weeks with that?

			Even as I questioned my resolve, I could see myself winning the tournament, could sense the relief, could almost feel the crispness of the check. Yeah. I was going.

			“You got off work?” Jasper asked me. “I had to call in a bunch of favors to make it happen for me. Arthur’s being more flexible than usual, but he wants us to take T-shirts advertising the store, like as a sponsor.”

			“Yeah, I figured it out.” I managed to sound casual and not panicked. No one, Alden especially, needed to know that I was using my last cash to do this, the rent Maxine wouldn’t take along with whatever else I could scrape together. I was setting myself up for the gamble of a lifetime. If I failed, chances were high that I’d come back to no place to live, no steady job, no plan B. But I’d been there before, starting from scratch. It was simply a risk I had to take.

			“Excellent. I’m so looking forward to this.” Professor Tuttle smiled even broader than the Gamer Grandpa logo on his shirt.

			The private game room finally cleared, an obnoxious group of older adults dedicated to a popular kids’ card game filing out. As we got set up with the cameras, Alden sniffed the air.

			“Did the other group have food? There are rules for a reason. Now it stinks of pepperoni in here.”

			I looked away. With anyone else, I’d laugh and admit that the smell was undoubtedly me, still in the plain black T-shirt the pizza place asked us to wear, no time to shower and change before I’d had to hurry here. But, with him, all I could do was glare.

			“My kingdom for Arthur letting us have drinks at least. He could make a killing if he’d add an espresso bar instead of just keeping that swill on in back.” Payton sank into one of the chairs. “And tell me I don’t have to go first. We’re doing tournament-style matches today, right?”

			Friday’s video had been the more casual four-person Odyssey game, while today Professor Tuttle wanted to do two matches in the more popular two-player tournament format.

			“That’s correct. And if you’re going to sit out the first match, let’s do Conrad versus Jasper’s new deck to start.”

			“Awesome.” Grateful to not have to face Alden, I unrolled my play mat and set up opposite Jasper.

			“Do you need to borrow a tournament-permissible deck?” Alden was already riffling through his bag as though it was a given that I would need to borrow something.

			“Nah. I worked something out yesterday.” As per my usual, I’d cobbled together a workable deck from cards I already owned and the packs from Jasper.

			Once we got started, I kept waiting for my adrenaline to kick in, but all I felt was tired, three days of very little sleep catching up with me. Waiting for Jasper to make a move, I couldn’t hold back a yawn. He played a giant Cyclops Wizard, one that made me quickly need to adjust my strategy. But my brain was fuzzy as I looked over my hand of cards.

			“I hit it with Sudden Extinction.” I slapped down a card.

			“Conrad.” Alden sighed before Jasper could. “You can’t play an extinction card against a wizard. You should know that.”

			“Crap.” I did know that. I was simply so darn tired, even my toes ached. Stupid, newbie mistake. And of course Alden had to be the one to call me on it. Had anyone else pointed out my mistake, it wouldn’t sting so much. Something about Alden always made humiliation that much more intense, made me feel like a newbie kid.

			“You know, plenty of people go to MOC West for a lot of different reasons. You don’t have to play in the tournament.” Alden made himself sound all reasonable. And he wasn’t lying—these sort of cons were as known for the social opportunities as for the tournament play. I’d attended enough regional events to be able to look forward to the mingling, the speakers and panels, the after-hours parties, the casual pickup games, and continual people-watching. But unlike a day pass to a regional con, this ticket included a spot in the tournament—usually a pricey add-on. No way was I turning that down when it was my whole reason for going, for putting up with Alden and the hassle of this road trip.

			“I’m playing.” I gritted out the words. And I would. I’d prove him wrong. Prove everyone wrong. I’d play. I’d win. And maybe it would be the longest two-week trip ever, maybe I’d have to live with headphones on to tune out Alden and all his judgments, but I was going, and nothing was going to change my mind.

			* * *

			The weeks leading up to the road trip passed in a blur—logistics planning, helping Maxine get the house ready to sell, taking every spare hour Bian could find for me at the grocery store before my position ran out, and trying to ignore that another group of friends was preparing for graduation day while I was over here spinning my wheels and living on SpaghettiOs. I went to all the graduation stuff Friday and Saturday morning, though, because I wasn’t a shit friend. Next year would be the turn for all the kids I’d started Gracehaven with. I wanted…

			Fuck. What did it matter anymore what I wanted? It wasn’t going to happen. And honestly, I fit in less and less with my old crowd, leaving me in a terrible funk when I arrived at Professor Tuttle’s place Saturday afternoon to help pack. The plan was packing Saturday with an eye to a crack-of-dawn departure Sunday morning. Luckily, he also lived in the historic district, so it wasn’t that far to tote my gaming duffel and backpack. The rest of my stuff—which wasn’t much more than a sad stack of three boxes—was in a friend’s basement so that Maxine wouldn’t have to worry if the house sold while we were gone. No way was I telling the others that I was essentially homeless now, and I took a deep breath as I approached the tall, narrow row house, trying to put on the fun-loving face I knew they all expected of me.

			Professor Tuttle and Professor Herrera kept their yard as neat as Maxine’s, early June pink flowers in tidy beds that lined the way to an equally narrow backyard and detached garage where I found Jasper and Alden. Payton was flying out later in the week, after they had recovered from all the graduation parties I’d be skipping that night. Last thing I needed was Alden lecturing me if I yawned when it was my turn to drive. And speaking of the burr in my paw, he was already frowning as I walked up.

			“I’m not late,” I said, hating my defensive tone.

			“Your punctuality isn’t my issue. The suitability of our transport is my more immediate concern.” As with his literalism when the game had been delayed, I could tell he was worked up because his speech was more formal, affect more wooden, as he turned his critical gaze on the car parked in front of the garage. And, huh. I couldn’t say I’d ever seen Professor Tuttle drive. His house was located about equidistant to the downtown and the campus, and despite his age, he often walked to our gaming sessions or his class lectures.

			But clearly I should have given more thought to his car preferences. Because parked there in the driveway was a boat. A gleaming, black boat of a car with tinted windows. Looked to be a Lincoln, at least twenty years old and totally at home in FBI and Mafia movies alike. It was the largest sedan I’d seen outside a classic car show, and the trunk alone could easily hold half a basketball team worth of bodies.

			“Is this thing up for the trip?” I hated to agree with Alden about anything, but I didn’t want to be broken down in the desert in something that had seen better decades, possibly better centuries.

			“We discussed this.” Jasper took on a long-suffering tone that pointed to an ongoing argument with Alden over the car. “Neither of you owns a car. Mine is a tiny hatchback with 200,000 miles and a transmission that I pray for weekly. The professor says this is in perfect repair. Quit acting like he should have sent you guys a CarFax report before you signed up to go.”

			“Who’s knocking Black Jack?” Professor Tuttle came out of the rear of his house, crossing a small patio to join us. “This beauty was the one real luxury I allowed myself when my first book hit the bestseller lists. Julio’s always had our practical, everyday car, but for a trip, nothing beats a good, old-fashioned luxury sedan. I’ve kept it for just such an occasion.”

			I couldn’t say I agreed, but as it was clear the car had sentimental value to him, I wasn’t about to go on record dissing his ride. Besides, I was too invested to back out now.

			“Pretty sure I can drive it,” I said, trying to find some confidence. “My folks have a newer Suburban. If I can park that, this won’t be an issue. As long as you’re sure that it’s ready to go, let’s pack.”

			“Biggest thing I’ve driven is a Prius,” Alden muttered, looking decidedly unsure of himself, which was novel enough to give me pause. I couldn’t say I’d seen him that much outside of filming the show—him outdoors and not under the store’s fluorescent lights was jarring enough, and him anything other than self-assured and opinionated almost never happened. Even when rattled and falling back on factual-yet-cutting remarks, he always stayed supremely confident.

			“I can drive your shifts,” I volunteered, both to get us to move on and to finally have a comeback for his offers of loaned decks and subpar cards.

			And as I’d expected, my proposal got him straightening back up to perfect posture, chin lifting. “I’ll be fine.”

			“Of course, you will.” Professor Tuttle clapped him on the shoulder. “Now let’s bring out the rest of my stuff before we start arranging our baggage in the trunk. There’s an art to it. Biggest things first.”

			We followed him to the French doors that led to the kitchen and dining area where a neat stack of bags waited. I took most of it, leaving a few things for Jasper, who was right behind me, but I wanted to make sure Professor Tuttle didn’t have to carry anything.

			“Hey, I can help too,” Alden protested on the way back to the car.

			“We got it.” I set the bags down next to a backpack I recognized as Jasper’s and a massive suitcase better suited to a European expedition next to a bag for one of the high-end natural-food stores in town. Looking over at Alden, I gestured at the elephant-sized luggage. “Did you leave anything in your room?”

			I meant it to come off as a tease, but from the way Alden bristled, he took it as a personal attack. “I packed thoroughly, yes. You want to be prepared, you know.”

			No, actually, I didn’t know, having been entirely unprepared for everything that had happened this past year. But I’d managed to make it through, and the way I saw it, there was no sense in overpacking. Or overpreparing. Life would do what it was going to do, and the most any of us could do was to just roll with the punches and hope it didn’t suck too badly. Too many plans simply led to disappointment.

			“Leave some room for spontaneity,” I said to Alden. No point getting philosophical. “And you brought food too?”

			“Of course. Road food is inherently unhealthy. And you’ll waste all your money on that stuff if you’re not careful.” Alden spoke deliberately, as if I were eleven with too much money to spend at the camp store or something. To me, road food was one of the best parts of a car trip, but his words made me feel stupid for looking forward to it. Before I could come up with a good retort, Alden added, “My moms are making muffins for the morning too.”

			“Oh, I do love Judith’s cooking.” Professor Tuttle clapped his hands together.

			“Yeah.” Alden sighed a little as though it was such a burden, having awesome parents. I’d had a biochem class with Professor Goldstein, Alden’s mother, sophomore year, and I knew both from things she’d said as well as clues Alden dropped that his other mother was some sort of bigwig doctor.

			And two moms? How fucking lucky could a queer kid get? I imagined that Alden’s coming out—if there had even been need for one—had been greeted with a cake and streamers. That they were baking him send-off muffins was no surprise, and if a bitter tang gathered in my mouth, I tried to swallow it and other less-than-charitable thoughts.

			“Surprised the moms are letting you off the leash.” The words escaped my better efforts and earned me a disgusted look from Alden.

			“I’ll make sure to leave some muffins for Professor Herrera too,” Alden offered, giving Professor Tuttle his full attention, effectively dismissing me.

			“He’ll love that. Now, let me just duck back inside a moment.”

			“You need help?” I turned to follow him, but he waved me away.

			“No, no. I’ll be right back. Call of nature, and I want to make sure I didn’t leave anything upstairs.”

			More like he probably wanted to escape the tension between Alden and me, but I was still smarting too much from Alden’s comments to apologize for my own crack, especially not when Alden waited until the professor was back in the house to remark to Jasper, “I’ve been thinking. Given the age and sentimental value of this car, perhaps certain ground rules are prudent. Like no drinking or smoking.”

			“I don’t smoke.” I didn’t know what he’d heard, but that wasn’t among my many vices. And he might have been addressing Jasper, but I knew darn well that he meant his rules for me, and I was having none of it. “And if you’re implying that I’d be stupid enough to try to drive—”

			“But I heard—” He stopped, the silence damning. I had a pretty good idea what kind of crap he had heard. “You did have a car, but it was taken away. I’ve been worried that perhaps you don’t have a license anymore.”

			“It wasn’t a freaking DUI,” I growled at him, fierce enough to make him take a step back. “And I am a damn good driver. Like I said, I’ve driven big SUVs. I’ll be just fine with this car. You’re the nervous one, not me.”

			“I’m not nervous.” Alden plucked at something on the cuff of the sweatshirt he wore over khaki shorts.

			“Sure you—”

			“I’m going to go check on the professor.” Not waiting for a reply, Jasper headed for the house. A natural peacemaker for our little group, he’d never been much on conflict, and I should have felt bad for chasing him off, but Alden and his stupid-ass assumptions had me too worked up.

			“You are. You’re scared about this trip.” I stared Alden down. “You’ve been like a nervous rabbit ever since the tickets appeared—all twitchy and on edge. Maybe you should just bail.”

			“Like you did on school?” Alden shot back. Then he flushed and looked away, as if he hadn’t meant to rise to my bait.

			“That’s what you think? That school was too hard for me? Or that I flunked out?” It felt good, actually fighting with him instead of us just taking random swipes at each other.

			He shrugged, picking at that fraying cuff again. He wouldn’t meet my eyes. “You never say what happened, but you did like to party.”

			“And so does half the damn school. You don’t know dick. If you knew the truth—”

			“Conrad! Come quick!” Jasper’s panicked yell cut through my rage. I turned toward the house, emotions reluctant to disengage from Alden, but then Jasper called out again, “It’s Professor Tuttle! Call 911.”

			And with that, every dream I’d clung to for the past few weeks froze, crumbling like flowers caught in a surprise spring blizzard. I should have known better than to pin my hopes on anything.





Chapter Six


			Alden

			Jasper hadn’t called for me, but I still ran after Conrad, already fishing my phone out of my shorts.

			“I can call,” I yelled, already dialing. “What do I tell them?”

			“Professor Tuttle fell down the stairs carrying a box of books. He’s conscious but hurt bad.” Jasper lowered his voice to speaking tones as we entered the house. His skin had taken on a sickly green cast. “I’ll go unlock the door for the paramedics. Tell them to hurry.”

			“Got it,” I said right as the dispatcher picked up, and I relayed our information to her, trying to catch my breath enough that she could understand me. Even though I was flustered, I still got the address right. I always was far better with numbers than words, and I trailed after Conrad who’d already headed to the front staircase. My stomach roiled as uncertainty over what we might find rushed through me.

			Professor Tuttle lay in a heap at the base of the stairs, copies of his book scattered all around him. There wasn’t any blood that I could see, but the low, pained moans were enough to make my hand clench tighter around my phone.

			“Please hurry,” I told the dispatcher.

			“You should hear sirens any moment,” she soothed me. Gracehaven was a small enough city that the main fire station was only a few blocks past the other side of downtown. “I’m going to let you go so you can let the EMTs in.”

			She was gone before I could tell her that Jasper was handling that, leaving me to stand helplessly by while Conrad knelt next to Professor Tuttle. I was the one who was supposedly going into medicine, and I was ashamed at how my hands were shaking and my sinuses burning. My head kept ringing with memories of how my moms were always remarking on how badly I handled unexpected disasters, their assumptions that I would freak out often feeling like a self-fulfilling prophecy that ratcheted up my anxiety and dulled my ability to cope.

			“Can you hear me?” Conrad asked Professor Tuttle with none of my own hesitance.

			“Yes, yes.” The professor sounded weak, but also more like himself than I’d expected. “Still here. Just a bit of a…predicament.”

			“Don’t try to move,” Conrad ordered as I finally picked up on the sound of sirens in the distance. “Can you feel your toes and fingers?”

			It was the sort of question I should have thought to ask, but my throat remained too tight to even squeeze a reassuring word out—not that I was sure what one should say in such circumstances. I couldn’t lie and tell him everything would be okay, not when it so clearly wasn’t.

			“I…can. Everything hurts.”

			“I bet.” Conrad was the sort of sympathetic that I should have been. “Do you want me to find a blanket?”

			“No. My…phone. Right pocket. Call Julio. At…graduation party.”

			“I will.” Conrad leaned in, gently extracting the phone. “I’ll make sure he meets us at the hospital.”

			“No need…trouble you guys.”

			“We’re going,” Conrad said firmly, and I supposed we were. The ambulance crew arrived right then, a man and woman, Jasper trailing behind them along with two firefighters. Apparently they’d sent a truck too. Despite Professor Tuttle’s protests that he had sensation in his limbs, they strapped him to a backboard with a cervical collar before transferring him to a stretcher. His groans as they moved him made my teeth grind, that helpless feeling continuing to well up inside me.

			“All…so…unnecessary,” Professor Tuttle gasped as they got him settled on the stretcher, strapping him down. “Feel…foolish.”

			“Don’t,” Conrad said. “This is our fault. You shouldn’t have been trying to carry something down the stairs.”

			From the way he glared at me as he said it, it was clear that he blamed me for the professor’s injury. Which probably wasn’t that far from the truth. If we hadn’t been arguing, he might have been more likely to ask for help instead of trying to escape inside, and Conrad and his insistence on carrying triple loads would have been the one with the box. Which meant, really, it was my fault because I’d let Conrad’s comments and my anxiety about the car goad me into an argument that I wouldn’t have otherwise started. Stupid anxiety, always in the way, making me say exactly the wrong thing at exactly the wrong moment.

			Conrad’s harsh glare remained as they wheeled Professor Tuttle out to the ambulance, and we scrambled to Jasper’s tiny car to follow. Jasper drove like the emergency was an excuse to try out for the Indy 500, even though his car seemed prone to an ever-more-alarming series of noises—rumbles and shakes and squeals. While I rode in the back seat, praying that we made it to the hospital in one piece, Conrad spoke into the professor’s phone, leaving a message for Professor Herrera.

			“I’m not sure who else to call. They don’t have kids, do they?”

			“Nah,” Jasper answered as he badly parked in the hospital’s lot. He was on the white line, and the urge to point it out was almost overwhelming. “Professor Herrera will come, and he’ll know who else to call. It’ll be okay, man.”

			I wished I shared both his certainty and his ability to calm Conrad down. Not surprisingly, the receptionist for the ER wasn’t able to allow us to go be with Professor Tuttle or to tell us anything more than we already knew. She directed us to have a seat in the waiting area.

			“Can you call your mom? The doctor one?” Jasper asked after we’d been there long enough for our breathing to even out and our silence to turn awkward. It was the first time one of them had spoken to me directly since the accident. “Maybe she can find out more for us.”

			“Good idea. I can do that.” Having a concrete task was good, and my hands were steadier as I got my phone back out. “HIPAA stuff probably means she can’t tell us much, but if he’s got a head injury, they might have already paged her. She’s on call this weekend.”

			“Excellent.” Jasper nodded, but Conrad kept right on glaring at me. Needing privacy and an escape from that anger, I took my phone away from them, stepping into a side corridor.

			“They haven’t rung yet, which is probably a good sign, honestly,” Mom said after I explained what had happened. “But I’ll call in, see what I can find out, and I’ll have Judith try Julio herself. She might know which party he’s likely at.”

			“Thanks.” It helped just telling her, knowing she was looking into the situation.

			“Do you want me to head there?”

			No. Things had been weird enough earlier, her and Mimi all excited about me having friends like I was a kindergartner with their first playdate, baking muffins and handing out unwanted advice. But I didn’t want to start another argument. “We’ll work it out.”

			When I returned to the waiting area, Jasper was nowhere to be seen, and Conrad was sitting with his head down, hands in his hair, shoulders slumped. He looked utterly defeated. I might not have the first clue what I was supposed to say to him, but I knew I couldn’t simply take the empty chair next to him and ignore his despair.

			“The doctors here have excellent ratings, you know. It’s not a nationally ranked teaching hospital for nothing. They’ll take good care of Professor Tuttle.” Facts were more comforting to me than false platitudes, but given the way Conrad blinked at me, perhaps I should have opened with something more like “he’ll be okay” even though I had no way of guaranteeing that.

			“What did your mom say?”

			“They hadn’t called her for a neurology consult yet, which she says is good. She’s going to see what she can find out.”

			“Good.” Conrad scrubbed at his hair, making it even more unruly than it already was. He used to always keep it short and tamed with product, but lately it always seemed a few weeks overdue for a trim. “Can’t believe this happened. It’s all my fault for not insisting he let me carry everything.”

			“It’s not your fault.” I wanted to pat his leg or arm, the way Mimi might if I were the one upset, but I knew better than to touch Conrad right then. “It’s mine. I shouldn’t have argued with you. And I’m sorry.”

			“‘Sorry’ isn’t going to fix Professor Tuttle.” Conrad blew out a harsh breath. “But I argued back. So it’s on both of us, really.”

			That wasn’t the same as “apology accepted,” but it was probably about as good as I was going to get.

			“Yeah. But I’m the one who…” I swallowed hard because admitting I’d been wrong was never easy. “What did you mean by if I knew the truth about you and school?”

			His laugh was a brittle, jagged thing. “You don’t get that story. Not now. Not while I’m still so pissed at you—at me, at both of us—that I can’t think straight. Sorry.”

			“Fair enough.” I hated the disappointment that made my muscles sag. He was right. I had no right to his story, whatever had really happened to him, but it didn’t stop me from wanting it as the minutes ticked away. The initial rush of trying to make it to the hospital had given way to the monotony of waiting, time passing with the slowness of a standardized test even as the urgency in my chest didn’t let up.

			“I’m here.” Professor Herrera came charging into the waiting room right as my eyes started to glaze over from waiting. Tall and broad-shouldered and somewhat younger than Professor Tuttle, he had a commanding presence as he loomed over us. “What happened? Tell me everything.”

			“I’m so sorry, sir. It was an accident.” Conrad did a better job than I was capable of at relaying the limited facts we had.

			“And how is he now?” Professor Herrera’s cultured voice was way calmer than either Conrad’s or mine.

			“We don’t know,” Conrad said miserably. “They haven’t told us anything.”

			“Well, they better tell me. You guys wait here. I’ll go see if they’ll let me see him, then come back and update you.” Radiating confidence, he hurried away, and I settled further into my chair. He wasn’t the kind of guy who could be argued with. If he said wait, then wait we would.

			Sometime later Jasper came back with three cans of soda. I almost never had soda—the moms had been strict about junk food growing up—but Conrad accepted his gratefully, so I did the same thing, right down to mimicking his nod.

			“Thanks, man,” he said to Jasper.

			“Thanks,” I repeated and took a sip before I set it aside. The last thing we needed was me hyped up on sugar and caffeine.

			We watched a bad true-crime show on the waiting-room TV and generally avoided talking to one another. My mom messaged that she didn’t know much more than that he was stable and getting tests, which I shared with the others, who nodded, then went silent again. I wished yet again for the sort of social ease people like my sisters had. They’d know how to cut this tension, get the other two talking. Anything to make this feel less funereal. Someone must have texted Payton, who stopped by on the way to a graduation party, bringing sandwiches that we all picked at. Shortly after Payton left, Professor Herrera came back out in time to claim one of the remaining sandwiches.

			“He has a broken collarbone, a broken hip, and shoulder and knee injuries,” he reported, sinking into one of the empty chairs. “No concussion that they can see, but they’re working on admitting him now, getting him comfortable before surgery in the coming days. I know you’ve all probably got places to be, but he did say he’d like to talk to you once he’s in a room.”

			“Don’t worry, sir. We can wait.” Conrad didn’t bother looking at either Jasper or me, not that I would have objected. My guilt over what had happened kept clawing at me, making it hard to think. And while I didn’t think that Professor Tuttle would be able to make me feel any better, I wanted to see him, see if there was anything we could do for him.

			“Yeah. I told my folks I’d be here awhile. They wanted to know if there’s anything they could do, and Mom said to tell Professor Herrera that she’s making an extra lasagna tomorrow for you for when he comes home.”

			“Your parents are good people, Jasper.” Professor Herrera gave a weary half smile before standing. “And I’ve told you before, Julio is fine. Gus doesn’t need all that Professor Tuttle business either. You guys are friends now, not simply students.”

			“I don’t think I could ever get used to that.” Conrad’s laugh was brittle, but I had to agree. I didn’t have his propensity to tack “sir” onto the end of sentences, but I also couldn’t see either of them as anything other than professors. As Professor Herrera walked away, I tried thinking of him as Julio. Nope. It simply didn’t compute. It made me strangely warm, though, knowing that Professor Tuttle thought of us as friends, and that made it easier to keep waiting.

			Finally after several episodes of some courtroom drama on the waiting-room TV, Professor Herrera reappeared. “He’d like to see you now. They’ve given him some medication, but he’s remarkably alert considering what he’s been through. Still, let’s not keep him too long.”

			“Understood, sir.” Conrad led the way as we followed Professor Herrera away from the ER, down several corridors to a hospital room. Not the ICU—a regular room with two beds, one of which was empty. Professor Tuttle looked smaller, lying there in a blue hospital gown, and older too. Professor Herrera was probably early sixties like my moms, but Professor Tuttle was more like midseventies, a fact that I often forgot because he brought so much energy to the classroom and the game.

			“This is not your fault,” Professor Tuttle pronounced as we lined up in front of the bed, Conrad closest to him, continuing to look as though he’d flunked every final and lost his dog the same day.

			“Yes, it is,” he said miserably.

			“I was foolish, forgetting the box upstairs and not waiting for help. And now I’ve ruined all our plans.”

			“It’s okay.” Jasper’s sigh echoed that of Conrad, who was now studying his beat-up sneakers. “They can probably use me around home anyway. It’ll work out.”

			“No, no, you are not staying home.” Professor Tuttle’s voice was surprisingly firm, given his situation.

			“Last-minute plane tickets…” Conrad shook his head. “Not happening, sir. Sorry.”

			Nothing that had happened in the last few hours had made me any more capable of flying, despite how disappointed I was. I had wanted that victory so, so badly. I swore I could almost feel the trophy slipping through my fingers. I, too, shook my head.

			“It’ll be okay.” There. See? I was capable of the feelings-sparing white lies that other people could reel off so easily. Occasionally.

			“No, it won’t. And I’ve been talking to Julio in between tests. I want you to go. Take Black Jack with our blessing. Julio’s going to give you cash for gas. I was always planning on paying for that myself.”

			“We can’t take your car, sir.” Conrad’s eyes flickered briefly, like a hope he’d immediately stomped down. “No offense, but this is probably the painkillers talking.”

			“It isn’t.” Professor Herrera spoke from behind us. “We’re in agreement. Gus was so looking forward to this trip. And that car… Not like we use it daily, and not like Gus is going to be up to driving it for a few months. Like he says, it was meant for a trip like this. And if he can’t go, at least you guys can.”

			“We can’t—”

			“You can. And you’ll be helping me.” Professor Tuttle frowned then, the first sign of pain I’d seen on his face since we entered the room. “Apparently I’m going to be laid up weeks.”

			“Months,” Professor Herrera corrected.

			“Yes, yes. That. And if you don’t go, then we’re hanging around, all of us miserable. But if you go, you can send me pictures and videos from the road, distract me. Give me content for the channel.”

			“Like you need more subscribers,” Professor Herrera muttered before brightening. “But if it keeps Gus happy, then I’m in favor of it. Send him lots of pictures. FaceTime. Keep his spirits up, probably far better than I can.”

			“Exactly. And you are all celebrities in your own rights. The local gaming stores will still be happy to have you stop in, I’m sure. I’ll make some calls tomorrow.”

			“More like I will call for you,” Professor Herrera said gently. “But yes, you guys can take the signed books and Gamer Grandpa merchandise. And the car is already packed, right? It simply makes sense.”

			Packed was an optimistic overstatement—we’d tossed the luggage in the trunk in an untidy heap as part of our mad dash for Jasper’s car.

			“I still think this is nuts, but if it’ll make you happy, I’ll do it, sir.” Conrad was first to agree.

			“Me too,” Jasper added.

			“Alden?” Professor Tuttle looked right at me.

			I had a feeling the other two would probably like it if I declined, and honestly, it might make their lives easier. But despite our earlier argument—or maybe because of it—I couldn’t let Conrad take on the trip alone. Jasper either. At least if I went, I could help with expenses. I’d figure out the driving part and get past my nerves there. I could help the professor, too, make sure the others didn’t do anything stupid. And even after all that happened, I still wanted to go, wanted to win. I needed to prove to myself that I could do this. The thought of spending the next few weeks at home, Mom and Mimi pushing me to make decisions I wasn’t ready for, me trying and most likely failing to meet their expectations, made my back sweat—the sort of itchy, clammy feeling I hated. At least going would be doing something.

			I took a deep breath and nodded. “I’m going.”





Chapter Seven


			Conrad

			I wasn’t forgiving Alden anytime soon.

			Wait. That wasn’t entirely accurate. As I made my way to Professor Tuttle’s house Sunday morning, dodging early-morning sprinklers and crack-of-dawn joggers, it was more myself that I couldn’t forgive. I couldn’t help feeling like I could have prevented his injuries if only I hadn’t been distracted by Alden and our stupid argument. Seeing the professor lying there at the bottom of the stairs had made my chest feel split open, made it hard to breathe in and out, be calm for him.

			I wasn’t going to get over it anytime soon. Neither Alden nor Jasper had been as upset as me the day before. Alden had been all infuriatingly logical, while Jasper had been overly helpful, and I was the one freaking out. Which I supposed made sense. They wouldn’t understand where I was coming from. Alden had his moms doting on him, while Jasper had his huge family that baked casseroles for people they barely knew, and I had…

			Well, I supposed my life was divided into before and after. Before, I had a wide friendship circle. Not too many besties, but lots of people who knew my name and invited me to things. And I had my family. After? My social life had shrunk as the result of work until it was basically only the game play group. The less I thought about family the better, but that too was gone. Professor Tuttle wasn’t my dad or my grandpa or anything like that, but he was important to me in a way that I doubted he was for the other three in our group.

			Maxine, my professor landlord, had heard about the accident and had been all upset the night before when I’d finally made it in. I’d already lied and told her I had a plan for after the trip, so adding one more lie that we’d be fine without Professor Tuttle barely registered on my list of sins.

			“Professor Goldstein’s son is going, right? He’s got a good head on his shoulders. You listen to him if you run into trouble.”

			“I will,” I’d said, even though Alden was not the leader of this little trip, no matter what he thought. He might be older than me by a couple of years, but he wasn’t the boss of me, and as for having a good head on his shoulders, that remained to be seen. Good at a card game did not automatically translate into real-world street smarts as I had so rudely found out in the past year. And listen to him? Him with his big opinions and his low assumptions? Ha.

			Jasper was exiting his older sister’s Bug when I arrived at the house. He’d bummed a ride from her because he hadn’t wanted to leave his car at Professor Tuttle’s house. Alden was already there, waiting by Professor Tuttle’s car. And yeah, the professor kept pushing for us to call him Gus, but old habits died hard. I kept thinking of Maxine as Professor Jackson half the time, even now. And it was still Professor Herrera to me, not Julio. Julio was a buddy you played cards and drank with on a Saturday night, not this stately older gentleman crossing the lawn, holding out a fat envelope of cash.

			He was fully dressed in what looked to be churchgoing clothes—button-down shirt, tie, pressed pants. He and Professor Tuttle were regulars at some sort of inclusive church downtown, the sort of “welcoming” congregation that went against most of what I’d thought I’d known about religion before arriving at Gracehaven for school. And they must have been pretty darn tolerant, given the professor’s obsession with a card game where we regularly summoned demons to journey through the underworld with us. I had to smile at that thought as I sped up to meet Professor Herrera partway. My parents’ church wasn’t nearly so cool.

			Oh well. I’d long ago stopped caring what any church thought of me or what I did. But, still, it was nice of Professor Herrera to see us off. Nicer still for the gas money, which would make my own limited funds go further.

			“Thank you, sir.” I took the money. The car had a locking glove box, so I placed the money there before Alden could suggest that he take possession of it. Last thing I wanted was him doling out funds like Jasper and I were his wayward charges. “We’ll take good care of Black Jack, I promise.”

			“I know you will. Gus thinks the world of you guys. And you flooding him with messages and photos and videos will be exactly what he needs.”

			“Let’s start now.” Jasper whipped out his phone and had Professor Herrera take a picture of the three of us by the car. I glanced at the picture before he hit Send—Jasper looked sleepy but excited with a wide smile, while Alden had a suspicious tilt to his firm jaw and narrowed eyes. I was in the middle between them, closer to Jasper, taller than both, warier than Jasper but less apprehensive than Alden. If this was the before picture, I could only hope the after when we arrived in Vegas wouldn’t show us battle-worn and bloody.

			“Who’s driving first?” Professor Herrera held out the keys, which were on a ring with a twenty-sided die key chain and another with the logo for the Gamer Grandpa show.

			No one rushed to answer, so I took the keys. “I am.”

			“I suppose that works.” Alden could say he wasn’t nervous about driving until he turned purple, and I still wasn’t going to believe him. The car intimidated him. It did me, too, but I was determined to not show it as I slid behind the wheel.

			“Shotgun,” Jasper called, which left Alden to ride behind us. First, he gave Professor Herrera a little basket of muffins. Like, not even a plastic container or bag like normal people. A basket, as if it wasn’t enough that his moms had brilliant medical minds, but they also had to have mad domestic skills. At least he had the decency to blush, as though he knew how absurdly perfect his family was.

			“We can have ours when we stop for gas,” he said primly. “No eating in the car.”

			I sighed because I had a feeling this was the first of many decrees from Alden that I’d have to ignore.

			“It cleans.” Professor Herrera laughed, but Alden didn’t. “Drive safe. Text Gus often.”

			“We will,” I said before I closed the door. Backing out with him watching us made my neck prickle and my hands tense, and I waited until we were safely clear of the house to say to Jasper, “Can you call up GPS on your phone?”

			“I took the liberty of printing maps as a backup as well as copies of our itinerary and scheduled stops,” Alden spoke up before Jasper could answer.

			“Thank you.” I worked for a civil tone, as that was helpful even if the subtext was that we were both too stupid to think of such things.

			“Even if you go slightly under the speed limit, we should still keep to the schedule—”

			“Are you going to watch the speedometer the whole way to Vegas? Seriously, man? How about you let me get on the highway first?” The car drove exactly as I’d expected it to—wide turns and plodding acceleration balanced by a smooth ride. Unless I floored it, the risk of speeding wasn’t anywhere near what Alden feared. A Ferrari, this thing was not.

			“Fine. Jasper can turn up the GPS to help you.” Alden neither promised to not watch my speed nor changed his autocratic attitude. I could practically feel the tension rolling off him, and I got that he was likely uncomfortable about this whole situation, but damn it, so was I.

			“No music?” Jasper pouted even as he complied, setting his GPS to bark at me in the weird British voice that he had his set to. “Not that this stereo looks like it can connect to my phone anyway, which sucks as I’ve got the perfect playlist for us.”

			“No music yet,” our back-seat tyrant decreed, and my jaw went tight enough to carve ice sculptures, but I didn’t say anything. We didn’t need an argument ten minutes into the drive, even if part of me was itching for the fight.

			From Gracehaven’s downtown, we wove our way to I-295, which would take us into Pennsylvania, and lead us to our first tricky section—navigating Philadelphia’s many interchanges, while avoiding as many tolls as we could, and trying to avoid accidentally heading for the city center. I’d driven this part before when going home to Kansas—back when I had both a car and a home—and on other occasions when I had wanted a more happening club scene than the one in our sleepy little college town. With about an equal drive or train ride to Philadelphia or NYC, we had plenty of options if we wanted the whole big-city experience.

			But as much as I loved the food and night life, driving around Philly was always a challenge. Not so much the traffic, as I could handle that, but the confusing exits and signs and rapid need for lane changes. And knowing Alden was waiting for me to screw up wasn’t helping matters any. With a car full of friends, we’d miss an interchange, end up circling for an extra fifteen minutes or whatever, and no harm, no foul, but with Alden, I felt new pressure to be perfect, to not get lost.

			Which naturally meant that I did screw up. Because of course I did, messing up the part where we were supposed to connect with the outer-belt highway that skirted the city on our way to I-76, instead ending up on a straight shot to downtown—exactly what I’d hoped to avoid.

			“Rerouting. Rerouting. Rerouting,” the GPS chided in that stupid faux British accent.

			“Hey, how are we headed back into New Jersey?” Jasper tapped away at his phone as we approached signs for a bridge and Burlington, which was not at all where we wanted to be. But traffic was far heavier on this section, and the stupid boat of a car wasn’t exactly nimble for lane changes.

			“We’ll turn around. Double back.” I started looking for any possible exit prior to the bridge. In the back seat, Alden was rustling papers.

			“Take the U.S. 13 exit,” Alden pronounced. “We’ll hook back up with I-95. Not ideal, but—”

			“It’ll do.” I took the exit at pretty much the last possible second, but we made it. “Thanks.”

			“This is adding a great deal of time onto our day. If we get too far behind, we won’t make the game store before they close.” Alden sounded more anxious than angry, that earlier tension coming out in faster speech and restless hands drumming on the seat. Mad I could tune out pretty well, but anxious hit me somewhere softer. Away from the game, he really was a big ball of worries—the car, the trip, my driving…

			It made me less inclined to bite his head off for his decrees, which, while saving the peace, was also unsettling.

			“It’ll be okay. Promise.” The gentle words came out of my mouth without my brain’s permission. I didn’t want to feel compassion for Alden, didn’t want to try to understand where he was coming from, didn’t want to think of him as anything other than an annoying jerk who was also my biggest competition. And I still wasn’t over our argument from the day before, not by a long shot, so I hated this sudden urge to calm Alden down.

			As I sorted out the necessary lane changes, I tried to hold on to that sneer of his from the day before, the way he’d judged me. We weren’t friends, weren’t going to be friends, and me feeling bad because he was anxious wasn’t going to change any of that. This whole trip would be so much easier if we could simply stay enemies. The last thing I needed was the complication of suddenly seeing Alden as human instead of as the competition I had to defeat if I stood any chance of straightening my life out.





Chapter Eight


			Alden

			I was done with back-seat riding before we reached our first stop. My anxiety kept spiking because I wasn’t remotely in control, and I wasn’t sure I trusted Conrad to get us there in one piece. Of course, thanks to Mimi and Mom I had pharmaceutical options for the jittery feeling that no amount of quiet breathing would relieve, but I hated taking them when I knew I had to drive later. That was the thing about anxiety—worries over whether to take the medication and when could be worse than the primary symptoms sometimes. But my current situation wasn’t that usual garden-variety dithering over when to take a pill. No, my pulse was pounding because Conrad kept missing interchanges and didn’t seem that fazed by it.

			Nothing threw him or changed his affable demeanor, not even almost crossing back into New Jersey. He and Jasper kept joking around with the GPS, which led to even more confusion. Finally, though, we were heading back out of the city proper, its collection of tall buildings behind us, morning sun fully up, but sky gray and hazy.

			“Not sure why I always seem to flub the exits downtown. Guess my brain wants to head to the clubs like old times.” Conrad’s laugh was as attractive as the rest of him, warm and sweet like maple syrup, but his words had me bristling.

			“Didn’t you just turn twenty-one? Like two months ago?”

			“I maybe had an ID. And not all the gay clubs in Washington Square look that closely.”

			“I wouldn’t know.” I let my scorn cover any other inconvenient emotions like regret or longing.

			“As in you waited until you were twenty-one before you went out? Or as in you’ve never been?” Jasper turned around in his seat to gape at me.

			“Parties are not a requirement of college life.” That longing was back, sharper now, a distinct wish to be casual like them, able to turn up at events and parties and find friendly faces without much effort. I tried hard never to let myself dwell on those sorts of feelings, and frustration over my emotions came out in my tone.

			“You’re missing—”

			“Leave it, Jasper.” Conrad kept his head facing the road, but I could almost hear his eye roll. “If it’s not an extracurricular for the ol’ résumé, Alden wants no part of it. He’s the only one who shows up just for the Safe Space business meetings and never for the social stuff.”

			No way was I telling him that I only went to the Safe Space meetings to keep Mimi’s nagging at a minimum and that the special events, particularly the unstructured gatherings, tended to require skills for interacting I simply didn’t have. Not to mention triggering my anxiety. But note-taking and voting on new rules and initiatives, that, I could do. I went to exactly enough meetings to satisfy Mimi and tried not to regret the lack of filter I’d had as a little kid, talking about “my husband” around the time that Mom had Mimi move in. I hadn’t known better and had simply assumed that adult people got to pair up as they saw fit.

			Fast-forward a bunch of years, and I knew the truth—there was no pairing up for me, no knight riding in to make me believe in soul mates again—but the whole “husband” phase had lit a fire under Mimi and Mom to get me in every rainbow-clad activity they could find. So yeah, I showed up at the meetings to work while kids like Conrad lounged around, picking up their next conquest as easily as shuffling a deck of freshly sleeved cards. And if I couldn’t even make small talk at those meetings, there wasn’t any hope for me at a gay nightclub, and I knew it.

			So, I let Conrad speak for me, let it seem I was just too studious and stuck-up to be bothered with partying. Neither of the other two was ever going to understand me, and there wasn’t much point in trying. Instead, I focused on the suburbs flashing by, gradually turning into farther-spread-out towns until our first stop, a little over three hours in, when Jasper began complaining about being hungry and Conrad started looking for a gas station.

			“All the signs for Hershey make me remember this one time when my folks brought all of us to tour the factory and go to the amusement park.” Jasper gestured out the window at one of the many billboards we’d passed. “You guys ever go?”

			“With my sisters. And school groups.” I wasn’t really much on field trips like that, but they already thought I was some sort of anti-fun prude, so I wasn’t about to elaborate, instead adding a lame “It was all right.”

			“I’ve been once. On the way to freshman orientation, when my folks drove me out.” Conrad’s voice was distant. “This exit look good?”

			Even I could sense that he was wanting to change the topic. “Sure. I’ve still got muffins for us.”

			Because of course I did, Mimi and Mom having packaged them in ridiculous baskets amid more reminders of how to act that had had me gritting my teeth and hurrying out the door.

			“Good. I’m starving.” Jasper stretched in his seat as Conrad took the exit, following the signs that directed us to a truck-stop gas station—a large, low white building with red and blue details that was surrounded by dozens of idling trucks and cars packed with weekend tourists.

			Paying with cash for the gas turned out to be more complicated than a card purchase and necessitated two trips inside the store, but eventually we had a full tank of gas and were parked in the relative shade of a row of trees. A few picnic tables had been placed closer to one of the fast-food places sharing a parking lot, and we made our way there with the food. As I handed out the muffins and napkins, Jasper took some pictures for Professor Tuttle, mainly him and Conrad goofing off.

			“Man, your moms can cook,” Jasper said around a mouthful of muffin after a few minutes of quiet eating.

			“And healthy stuff. My mom does the oat-and-apple combo too.” Conrad sounded strangely wistful, same as he had earlier when the subject of his family had come up. I wasn’t sure how to respond, but before I could figure it out, he pushed away from the table. “I’m gonna go find the restroom and get a drink.”

			I thought about reminding him of the whole no-food-in-the-car rule, but he looked so determined that I kept my mouth shut.

			“I’ll drive the next part,” I said instead, trying to mimic some of Conrad’s easy confidence. I was done sitting in the back seat, and since Jasper seemed well installed in the passenger seat, driving was my only way out.

			“Okaaay.” Conrad drew the word out. “It’s pretty flat and easy until we hit Pittsburgh at least. Yeah, you can have a turn.”

			I wanted to tell him that he didn’t get to be the leader just because he’d driven first, but he was striding away before I could find my voice. A short while later, we were all back at the car, but instead of Jasper taking the passenger seat like I’d expected, he headed for the back seat.

			“You’ve got longer legs,” he said to Conrad. “And I wanna nap while Gramps here figures out how far under the speed limit he can get away with.”

			They both laughed as they climbed into the car, but I didn’t. True to his word, Jasper was asleep before we were even back on the highway. And yeah, I was creeping along. This…tank drove nothing like the sporty compact that was my only comparison, as both moms owned matching Prius hatchbacks. We’d always lived close enough to campus that a separate car for me hadn’t made sense. The gas pedal was too mushy, the steering too boxy, the shifter too sticky, and my already-galloping pulse didn’t like any of it.

			“Turning radius is weird, but you should be okay on the highway.” Conrad probably meant it as encouragement, but knowing he’d picked up on my discomfort only made me feel patronized, shame snaking up my spine. And frustratingly, he was right. The relative openness of the highway did help once I found an equilibrium for the accelerator.

			“You gonna freak if I browse the radio?” Conrad had a ridiculously big soda in his hand, one too big to fit in the cup holder.

			“No radio.” My jaw and neck were still final-exam tight.

			“Okay. You’re doing good.” The compassion in his voice made me want to crawl under the seat. I hated pity and false praise more