Copyright © 2016 by Meredith Taylor
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, write to the publisher at the address below.
Meredith Taylor Books
29 Postnet Suite
PO Box X04
The characters, locations and events in this book are entirely fictional. Any similarities to actual persons, locations or events is coincidental and unintentional.
Email: [email protected]
Meredith Taylor Books
Join the adventures and M/M romantic exploits of the students at Ridgemont University in this exciting new series.
The Ridgemont University novels are wholesome, heartwarming slow-burn true love stories. No adult content. Let the characters and their journeys steal your heart.
Ridgemont University is one of the most prestigious educational institutions in South Africa, with a reputation for academic excellence. It is set in a picturesque, sleepy college town, next to the famous Ridgemont Valley and a fifteen-minute drive from Sandy Shore, where students often laze in the sun and swim in the crystal-clear waters of the many world-class beaches.
The University has highly respected sports teams and cultural groups, and a range of student societies. Many of the academic buildings are more than 100-years-old, and are inspired by both Greek and French architecture. The University Gardens and the local nature reserves also offer magnificent sights for those who love the outdoors.
Once the academic day ends, the town of Ridgemont has a thriving nightlife, and even a healthy gay scene. Most students can find something to keep them stimulated in Ridgemont.
For the latest on Ridgemont University, and to learn more about the guys who are featured in the books, visit .
It was a blistering summer’s day and, despite the heat, Ridgemont University was alight with excitement. There was a large crowd gathered in the University’s amphitheater waiting anxiously as they chanted: “Harry! Harry!” The regal beauty of the University was the perfect setting for the occasion: tall Grecian columns surrounded the amphitheater; rows of poplars cast shade onto the crowd of more than a thousand students who held signs with slogans such as Take South Africa Forward and Prosperity for All. Harry Baleka, the presidential candidate who was inspiring a revolution amongst many young people in the country, was visiting the University to speak to students about their role in building a stronger country. It was obvious from the sea of sweating but excited faces that he was striking a chord.
Simon Northbrook stood next to the stage fastening the last of the posters which read Baleka for President. He was happy that he was able to be a part of such a historical moment by organizing the rally along with the rest of the staff of the Ridgemont Weekly News. He felt sweat stain the front of his shirt and fanned himself with one of the flyers bearing Mr. Baleka’s face. Despite the unbearable heat and all of the hard work over the past few weeks, he felt nothing but excitement and satisfaction. This was, after all, his baby, and as subeditor of political news at the paper he took the responsibility very seriously. He had made sure that all of the details were meticulously ironed out and that nothing could possibly go wrong. He knew that only if he showed the editor of the paper, Ian Peters, how dedicated and professional he could be under so much pressure, could he be sure that he would be selected as the next editor-in-chief of the Ridgemont Weekly News.
Ian, Simon noticed, was looking impeccable as always, not even seeming to feel the heat as he strode around amongst the other staff of the paper and made sure that all stations were go before Mr. Baleka arrived. Simon always admired the way that Ian seemed so unfazed by any stress or pressure, and could be the consummate leader in any situation. He found himself wanting to emulate Ian, but he knew that he could never be as relaxed; there was too much to do, and every team needed a worker bee like Simon. He was the one who made sure that nothing was forgotten. He sometimes worried that the other staffers at the paper would not respect him after having such a great leader as Ian, but he would cross that bridge when he got to it.
Ian turned to Simon and waved, smiling his big, handsome smile. He had short, brown hair and eyes that were filled with kindness that made everyone feel like they could immediately trust him when he looked at them. Simon saw the way that Ian’s shoulders were pulled back as he approached him; he had a broad, strong chest and the way he carried himself made it seem like even though he demanded respect, he was always ready to give someone a hug if they needed it. His soft, handsome features made him all the more approachable, and the rosy, almost feminine glow on his cheeks gave him just the right touch of vulnerability to take away the sting when he had to reprimand a lazy staff member.
Simon fidgeted with the poster one last time even though he knew that it was already perfect. His face felt flushed and he was suddenly embarrassed that his shirt was wet with sweat when Ian came closer to him. He adjusted his glasses on his nose and pushed his dark curly hair out of his face.
“Simon, we have a problem,” Ian said, his expression suddenly deathly serious. He had a way of giving an intense, penetrative stare when he needed Simon’s help. It filled Simon with a mixture of anxiety and satisfaction because he knew Ian always relied on him in a crisis.
“How can I help, boss?” Simon said with a smile.
Ian bent in closer, and Simon looked up into his handsome face as he spoke: “One of the tape recorders just died while Dennis was interviewing some of the students. He forgot to bring his spare again.”
Typical Dennis. He was the one staffer that Simon had to babysit the most; even though he was a good writer, he was careless and clumsy. Simon bent down and reached for a box of supplies under the stage. He felt Ian’s presence over him, and enjoyed the closeness. He beamed with pride as he held up a spare tape recorder, “Luckily I always come prepared.”
Simon stood up and handed the tape recorder to Ian, suddenly feeling silly for saying this, and worried that he was coming across as arrogant. He shuffled his feet and scratched at his hair.
Ian put his hand on Simon’s shoulder and smiled his usual encouraging smile, “That’s why I always keep you so close. I know you’re always there to have my back. Thanks Northbrook!”
Simon felt the weight of Ian’s large, masculine hand on his shoulder, and felt the comfort which Ian so easily inspired. He was slightly self-conscious about standing next to someone as muscular as Ian, but he had always been the slight and geeky type, and he was comfortable in that role. Ian squeezed his shoulder gently and turned to walk over to Dennis, who had just dropped his notes on the opposite side of the stage and was shuffling to pick them up. Simon shook his head, adjusted his glasses, and decided to get some sound bites from students. He moved into the crowd with his own tape recorder.
A few rows into the crowd Simon spotted his friend Zuko. Zuko was waving excitedly, his big afro, dark skin and colorful African-print shirt clearly visible in the sea of mostly white students. Zuko was doing a movement that was a mixture between a shuffle and a dance as the music blared and the crowd continued to swell. Simon was glad that Zuko was adjusting so well to life at Ridgemont University. Even though it was the best and most prestigious university in the greater Cape Town area, it was still very conservative. Zuko was a year younger than Simon and they had met at high school when they both worked on their school newspaper. Zuko had been openly and outspokenly gay since the tenth grade. Simon admired the way his friend could be himself with seemingly no fear. He wished that he could be so brave…
Suddenly the crowd erupted in cheers. Simon jumped and almost screeched out loud in fright. He immediately felt his palms become sweaty; the moment had arrived. Simon did not even look up to the stage but ran to the sound deck and checked that all of the microphones were responding; even though the sound technician was there, he had to check everything for himself, just to be doubly sure. He looked over at the other newspaper staff members and everyone was in position. He assured himself that everything was going according to plan, and finally turned his gaze to the stage.
Mr. Baleka was there, smiling and waving at the crowd. Even though he was approaching sixty-five-years-old and was mostly bald, he was still very good-looking, with his bright, gleaming eyes inspiring confidence and brimming with intelligence. Mr. Baleka was known for his remarkable presence. It felt almost intimidating. Simon looked on in awe as Mr. Baleka walked towards the microphone at the center of the stage and began to make his speech. Blessed with a deep baritone, his voice boomed over the crowd, but with a quality of kindness that made him seem like a favorite uncle to everyone who met him. He spoke about what he had done over the course of his political career to strengthen the country’s economy and improve the previously ailing education system. He laid out a clear, strategic plan for how he could move his previous successes even further if he were elected president. But mostly, his talk brought across how much of a role the students could have if they worked to help others who were less fortunate – a fitting message for the mostly very privileged students at Ridgemont. Simon was amazed and inspired. He looked over at Ian and saw the same wonder and fire in his expression. Mr. Baleka was someone to watch, for sure, and Simon just tried to remind himself that he needed to be objective when writing the story about the event – helping to organize this rally was already toeing the line as an unbiased journalist.
Simon noticed Ian scuttling towards him through the crowd as soon as the speech had ended, appearing flustered and excited.
“Simon, I know this is short notice and that you weren’t originally assigned to do it, but I want you to do a follow-up interview with Mr. Baleka. I know how much you admire him, and the story you broke about the student housing problem last month was some of the best journalism we’ve had in a long time, so if you can go and ask him the right questions I think that you could write more than just one piece about the event. Get inside of the man for me, tell me who he really is.”
The excitement in Ian’s words made Simon’s thoughts run at a thousand miles a minute. He was flustered; everything had been planned so perfectly and now Ian was throwing this at him as well. He didn’t have any questions prepared. But it would be an incredible honor to interview Mr. Baleka, there was no doubt about that.
“I… I’m not sure Ian. I’d love to do it but I’m not prepared. This isn’t how I usually operate.”
Ian frowned and Simon was worried that he was a bit annoyed: “Listen, Simon, he’s about to leave any minute now and it would be a big missed opportunity for the paper. I’d do it myself but I thought that you could use… I just wanted to make sure that you are ready…”
Simon knew what Ian was talking about: Ian wanted to give him an opportunity to prove that he could take charge under pressure. He felt his stomach sink. He didn’t want to disappoint Ian, and he knew that it would help his chances to be appointed as editor. Ian’s large brown eyes seemed to pierce into Simon with a mixture of hopefulness and pity.
Ian quickly changed his expression into a smile, “Never mind, Northbrook. If you don’t feel ready for it…”
Ian was cut off in the middle of his sentence by a sudden flash of red running between him and Simon. It was the wild red hair of Margeaux Chamberlain, the senior news reporter at the Weekly. Margeaux turned back to Ian quickly after darting past them, saying, “Don’t worry, I’ve got it covered!” She rushed over to Mr. Baleka and shook his hand. Margeaux was one of the most confident journalists on their team, but she also had a flair for drama, and her ambition was usually extremely annoying. Simon had watched her devour other journalists who were trying to report on stories she wanted to cover. Her work was always top-notch, and other staffers had even suggested that she might be editor someday. She had even said as much to Simon before, obviously taunting him to try and intimidate him. She made his blood boil.
Ian looked over at Margaux and Mr. Baleka, and said, “I guess she beat you to it. Don’t worry about it. You did a great job today organizing this event and you’ll write a great story about student political culture.”
Simon couldn’t help but feel extremely hurt by those words. He could hear Ian’s disappointment through the compliments. But he knew that if he had gone for the interview he might have made a fool of himself. Better to be prepared, he reasoned with himself, than to mess up such an important interview. Margeaux would probably do it well, and he could always proofread her story first to make sure it was all up to scratch. Maybe that would redeem him somewhat in Ian’s eyes? Simon sighed.
Margeaux finished her interview and shook Mr. Baleka’s hand, walking back over to Simon and Ian. She had a radiant, megawatt smile on her face, making her look almost comical with her bright red lipstick and red hair, but her confidence and attractiveness counteracted the excessive makeup she wore. Her top button was always undone to show just enough cleavage.
Simon watched as Ian put his hand on Margeaux’s shoulder, feeling his insides contract in annoyance. “Great job, Margeaux! Great initiative. You’ll have to tell me all about the interview at the staff party tonight.”
Margeaux seemed star struck, her eyes pointed slightly above Ian’s head and her expression dreamy and vague: “That was incredible! He’s such an amazing man. And I got some great questions in. I think this story will be on the front page for sure!”
She giggled and stared at Simon for a bit longer than needed, with a slightly menacing look, and walked away. Ian walked off as well to attend to his duties, leaving Simon with his thoughts. He’d have to pretend to be happy for her at the staff party later that night. And Ian seemed to genuinely like her too, in a way that made Simon very uncomfortable. Maybe there was some way he could show Ian just how manipulative she was.
Simon stood by silently in the corner, his face dark and brooding. Margeaux had taken advantage of his inaction and pounced on a once-in-a-lifetime story. And it stung. Like hell. Simon looked at his Styrofoam cup filled with Coke Light, and found himself involuntarily judging his co-workers as they chugged back drink after drink with careless abandon. He recalled the last time that he had had a couple of drinks, and instantly recoiled at the memory of losing so much control and being at the mercy of his baser instincts and desires. Not gonna happen again! Especially not when he risked the chance of making a fool of himself in front of him. Simon flapping around on the dance floor, barely being able to stop himself from falling over his two left feet was not the most appealing picture. Despite his foul mood, the left corner of his mouth curled upwards slightly at the thought.
Simon cringed when he saw Dillon, who covered the sports section, putting his hands on the shoulders of Tara, one of the subeditors, as his hips swayed out of tune to the music. Every now and then he awkwardly thrusted himself into her backside ‘accidentally’. Poor Tara seemed to be trying her hardest not to punch him in the gut. Simon smirked at their hapless antics and took another chug of his coke, and then he heard the clink of a fork being tapped lightly against a champagne flute as the music wound down.
Ian was about to make a speech. Simon saw that Ian was a bit wobbly on his feet, and he fought the instinct to rush to his side and make sure he was okay. But he didn’t judge Ian. He could forgive that man anything. Ian silenced the crowd with a gesture that resembled turning the dial of a stereo.
“And now, my hard-working and ever-so-conscientious staffers, my knights seated at this here round table, I present to you, the Guinevere of our castle, Margeaux Chamberlain!”
Simon rolled his eyes, disdain and contempt casting a dark shadow on his face, and his mouth twisted into a sneer. Margeaux, true to form, scurried up to the front of the crowd, literally, to Simon’s disgust, with a pivot, a quickstep, and an elaborate curtsy.
“Margeaux, I don’t know how you did it but, yet again, you proved your invaluable worth to our great team. Getting Harry Baleka to agree to do your interview at such short notice is nothing short of a brilliant job. From the bottom of my heart, I would like to thank you for your ingenuity, talent, and skill.”
Margeaux positively beamed at this attention and praise. Her smile couldn’t be wider and, to Simon’s irritation, her head was cocked slightly to the left as she shamelessly took in all of Ian’s well-meaning praise. She took to the floor and Simon braced himself.
“Boss, I couldn’t have done it without my subordinates! I have always said that an organization can only succeed as long as people respond well to direction and instructions, and if those you manage have the self-discipline to heed those orders. And clearly my leadership philosophy has borne fruit.” Margeaux let out a loud guffaw, as if her ostensible attempt at humor was anything but meant sincerely, and Simon found himself even more miserable. He didn’t expect her to give him any credit, but being referred to as a subordinate really stung. His eyes darted over to Ian, to see what he was making of her asinine display. Ian laughed uncomfortably, himself clearly taken aback at her audacity, but proceeded to finish what he had started.
“Well Margeaux, with or without anybody else’s help, the office thanks you for such an amazing scoop, and we look forward to much more of your excellent reporting.”
To Simon’s relief, Margeaux’s arrogance wasn’t being received well by the rest of the crowd, with not an eye was left unrolled in the house, as they responded to Ian’s praise with faint applause.
Simon turned to pour himself another drink, and mumbled under his breath, “Jeez, I don’t know what I expected. A bloodthirsty, predatory leopard never changes her spots.”
“What was that, Northbrook?”
Simon heard a voice behind him, and that husky, deep-toned, warm voice belonged to none other than Ian Peters. He felt his knees buckle ever so slightly, but quickly regained his composure, as he shook his head to make sure his hair fell into place. He felt foolish for taking such great care to maintain the good impression he knew Ian had formed of him, but couldn’t help himself. Simon whirled around and did his best to smile nonchalantly.
“Oh, you know, grumpy old me muttering to myself. Writers write, right?”
Simon’s cheeks flushed at the awkwardness of the unintended assonance in his speech. Why do the weirdest things come out of his mouth when he is talking to Ian?
“That sounds about right! I love what a goofball you are, Northbrook.” Ian laughed generously at Simon’s awkwardness, but Simon felt humiliated nonetheless.
“What are you doing here standing by yourself, whispering sweet nothings to your soft drink? You should be out there having fun, celebrating our success!” Ian slapped Simon’s back as he said this, and Simon almost tripped over his feet. His coke spilled out onto his shirt and he let out a tiny yelp, and frantically reached for a paper napkin to dry himself.
“Aw, crap, Northbrook, I’m so sorry! Here, let me help you out.” Ian grabbed a paper towel from his side of the table next to him and doused off most of the damage from Simon’s chest. Despite himself, Simon felt himself enjoying Ian’s big, powerful, dexterous hands rubbing his body in such an intimate way.
“It’s okay, it’s okay, Ian, please it doesn’t matter.”
Right on cue, like a shark picking up the scent of blood in water, Margeaux swooshed by and hooked her arm into Ian’s.
“Ian, if I am Guinevere, does that make you my Lancelot?”
Margeaux smiled seductively, lowered her eyelids, and raised her one eyebrow. Simon instantly felt his cheeks alight with fury. The only thing Margeaux was more ambitious about than securing the editor position at Ridgemont University Weekly News, was to be Ian’s girlfriend. That was blatantly obvious to even the most casual observer. Even so, Simon couldn’t help but notice that his two-minute long interaction with Ian hadn’t yielded nearly as much fruit as a casual passing remark by Margeaux. With an apologetic shrug at Simon, Ian sauntered off with a gleeful Margeaux by his side, and it took all of Simon’s self-control not to throw the remaining coke in Margeaux’s face.
Simon was comforted by the sound of another familiar voice from behind him: “My honey snookums, my little baby fluffy bear, my gay husband!” Simon looked over as his roommate Olivia approached him with a smile and wide, open arms. He had invited her as his plus one for the party, and she sometimes wrote an advice column for the Weekly’s online edition so he imaged that she would not be out of place. His sour mood started to lift instantly, and with a sudden rush of joy he leaned over to her and embraced her in a tight hug.
“Oh my, somebody is certainly out to make my day! What has you in such a great mood? Hmmm, is it a certain someone someone?” Olivia winked.
“Ha, I wish! Quite the opposite. You-know-who beat me to the punch.”
“Aww, sweetie, I’m sorry to hear it. I swear, that boy has the thickest skull this side of the equator. Why he doesn’t snatch you up at the first chance is beyond me.”
Simon smiled at her attempt to console him. He could always count on his best friend to lift his spirits. They have been thicker than thieves since high school, and Simon could now only smile at his fear that their friendship wouldn’t last after they graduated. They were closer than ever. It wasn’t for nothing that they listed each other as ‘siblings’ on Facebook!
As Simon broke the hug, he had a good opportunity to give her a once over. She was wearing a flowing, floral print, spaghetti strap dress the color of sunshine, her chestnut hair caressing her shoulders, with light makeup tastefully applied to accentuate her gorgeous, almond shaped eyes and generous full lips. While sometimes grating, Simon never found it surprising that people asked him why he never hooked up with his best friend.
“Sailor, I’ve got just the thing to lift your spirits. Justin and I are planning a boat trip on his parents’ yacht tomorrow afternoon. We’d love it if you could join us.”
Simon considered this, and wondered whether a nice day of relaxing in the sun would outweigh the awkwardness of being a third wheel to Olivia and Justin. Simon’s brow furrowed as he thought of spending his Saturday holed up in the apartment, with his books and assignment notes staring accusingly at him from his desk.
“Liv, you know I’d love to. That is if Justin doesn’t mind?”
“Get out of here! You know Justin loves you. Besides, if he didn’t, I wouldn’t be saying yes to a certain question he’s about to pop in the near future, now would I?” Olivia giggled.
Simon thought of how perfect Olivia and Justin’s relationship was. They had been dating for two years, and he thought of how hard it was for him to come out to Olivia and to dash her hopes of ever being with him. But were it not for carrying out that difficult decision, Olivia would never have met such a fabulous guy as Justin. And me? sighed Simon inwardly. Where’s my Justin?
Simon’s eyes drifted over to Margeaux, who was happily swaying to and fro in tune to the music; her body grinded up against Ian, who didn’t seem to be resisting. Simon gasped as, during one particularly ambitious move, Margeaux’s six-inch heels were unable to support her and she fell backwards like a giraffe on roller skates. But Simon’s scowl returned as Ian caught her before she hit the ground like a ton of bricks, and Ian equally shared in her hoots of laughter and general drunken buffoonery. Margeaux looked up at Ian with an adoring face as she leaned in and whispered in his ear. Simon just about couldn’t believe his eyes when she pinched his butt! “The sheer audacity!” he seethed. “Ugh, what a schemer.”
“Oh Simon, what’s with the frowny face, sweets?” Olivia asked as she returned from getting herself a drink.
“Same old, same old. Margeaux is pulling out all the stops.” They watched Ian and Margeaux finally regain their footing on the dancefloor.
“That’s it, Simon Northbrook! Time we reprogram those two left feet and let your inner Michael Flatley shine! And this time, I’m not taking no for an answer!”
Olivia dragged a very reluctant Simon by the arm, his every attempt at resisting futile. As disappointed as he was in Margeaux and Ian’s growing intimacy, he couldn’t help but laugh at Olivia: she was slamming her feet down onto the floor, pulling a monkey face, and at the same time doing some very inappropriate gestures. It was a hilarious combination of what not to do on the dance floor. Simon felt grateful for the bond the two of them shared: the many nights staying up over WhatsApp, having pajama parties, gossiping about boys. All of that, of course, changed with the arrival of Justin. Simon was happy that Justin made his best friend so happy, and although he was loathe to admit it, he also felt a little bit jealous. He wondered what the future had in store for their relationship, and whether the idea of such a strong relationship was in the cards for him.
Simon twirled Olivia around, caught her by the waist, and leaned down over her while supporting her back as she raised her leg, and she laughingly looked up at him. Olivia was the only one who could bring out the playful side of Simon, and make him feel slightly less self-conscious. As they got back to their feet, Simon noticed Ian across the room, clearly mouthing something in Simon’s direction. He turned around, but nobody met Ian’s line of sight. Simon frantically faced Ian again, but he was already on his way to the door. Was that just his imagination? Did Ian just try to whisper something to him in secret? Simon felt his cheeks burn hot with the confusion of what the moment had meant. He fanned himself, telling himself he was getting his hopes up over nothing and that he was probably just mistaken.
Simon started to contemplate leaving early before the party became too raucous, and then, right on cue, ever the opportunist, Margeaux drunkenly crawled onto a table, and clumsily managed, by some act of God, to get to her feet.
“Ladies and gentlemen, my humble subordinates… my fellow, my uh…” Margeaux giggled and nearly lost her balance, with an amused Simon struggling to contain his grinning.
“What, I mean, how great was that interview I conducted, huh? Oh, I mean us, I mean that we conducted, of course, my henchmen, my underlings!”
Simon felt his blood boiling to a feverish point, and started to eye the exit. Repeating the same stupid joke? This was low, even for Margeaux. Margeaux, however, had not quite finished, and as she attempted to continue her drunken, slurred speech, her friend Tara strolled over and helped her off the table. Simon looked around to see what had happened to Ian, and was disappointed to notice that he had left. Given Simon’s meticulous, OCD nature, he already knew that he would be agonizing for the entire night over what Ian’s puzzling gesture had meant.
Simon leaned against the nearest wall as Olivia danced next to him. He looked down at his stained shirt, and recalled how Ian gently patted and rubbed his chest in an effort to soak up the moisture. He remembered Ian’s touch: gentle, soothing, yet firm and commanding. Simon sighed. After a few more minutes Olivia called it a night and he watched as the last guests departed, and not that this came as a surprise at all, but he realized that he would be left to clean up the mess. As annoyed as he was, he held his hand to his chest, and a faint smile teased the corners of his lips. His Justin might not be about to pop the question, but maybe there was reason to hold onto hope… right?
Simon looked around the office at the mess left by his colleagues. The clock in the corner of the office said that it had just passed 2 a.m. He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes gently, feeling the exhaustion of a long day in the heat and all of the excitement of seeing Mr. Baleka’s speech. He felt tension in the pit of his stomach; he felt like a failure despite all of the hard work that he had put into the day.
He began to slowly walk around the dimly lit room to pick up some of the paper cups and leftover food and put them in garbage bags. They had luckily not spilled anything because the party had migrated early enough to a local pub. He gave out a loud, animalistic yawn and thought that his bed would be divine, but he knew that he would still have to come into the office the next day to write his article for the paper, and he hated walking into a messy office on the weekend.
Simon began wiping down some of the desks and cleaning away crumbs with a cloth, and noticed on his own desk that his laptop was closed. His brow furrowed; he distinctly remembered leaving it open, as he had begun working on his article just before the party started. He walked over to it and opened it to switch it on. It was opened to a folder that contained all of his latest research for articles he was working on. He felt slightly concerned, but thought that someone might have just mistaken it for their own laptop. Or perhaps he was just overtired from the many days of preparing for the rally on campus. Either way, he resolved to be a bit more careful - it never hurts to be 100% sure!
Simon filled a garbage bag with dirty paper plates and cups and carried it to the dumpster outside. The night was still quite warm, and he realized that he probably needed a shower after all of the excitement of the day. He had the desire to be reckless and take his shirt off in the heat of the night, cleaning the office bare-chested; he often had silly fantasies when he was on his own and he could let his guard down a bit. But he couldn’t be that silly, even when no one was around. As he opened the dumpster lid and put the bag inside, Simon remembered how drunk Ian had gotten and how aggressively Margeaux had flirted with him. He was surprised that Ian would be so casual around his coworkers, but Ian had a way of letting alcohol get the better of him, and just like most of the students at Ridgemont, he indulged a bit too much at parties. Simon shuddered at the memory of Ian hugging the porcelain throne at last year’s Margaret Hille ball, his stomach heaving. Simon, as always, had noticed Ian was missing, and he was sad to find that his first suspicion was correct: Ian was violently ridding himself of the night’s debauchery.
There was, however, something exciting about seeing Ian be so free at the party. It seemed like Ian was never afraid to be himself or have fun. Perhaps it would be better though, Simon thought, if he didn’t do it in professional settings.
Simon walked back inside and felt the fatigue hit him like a heavy blanket on his shoulders. He was happy that he only lived a few blocks away, in a central apartment complex right on campus. Working towards his degree in journalism and spending so much time at the paper was taxing enough; he reasoned that he didn’t need the extra burden of worrying about travel. Besides, it allowed him to stay in the office until 2 a.m.
When he walked back inside and approached the office door, he heard shuffling. His heart started to race. Who could have sneaked into the office in the five minutes that he was outside?
He braced himself as he slowly crept towards the door – the lights had been dimmed and there was a figure moving around slowly. Simon peeked inside and saw a man in a disheveled shirt shuffling through papers at the editor’s section. Without a hint of sound, Simon’s hand deftly reached inside his pocked. Liv often teased him for having Campus Security on speed dial, but now his caution was paying off. Just as he was about to hit the dial button, the clumsy figure awkwardly stumbled around, facing him, and Ian’s happy, drunken, and brilliantly blue eyes fell on him. Simon breathed a sigh of relief.
“Ian! I wasn’t expecting to see you here.” What he wanted to say instead was, you almost gave me a heart attack!
Ian seemed vague and was clearly quite drunk. He gave a squinty smile at Simon and sat down against the desk, “Hey Northbrook. Glad to see my trusty soldier still here. I hope you enjoyed the party?”
“I had a great time, boss.”
Ian had spilled red wine over the front of his shirt, and he looked like a complete disaster, but despite the fact that the gaze he held was a bit unfocused, Ian’s signature twinkle in his eye more than made up for it.
Simon walked over to his own desk and found an old plastic grocery bag in his bottom drawer, where he stashed such items for emergencies like these. Inside, he produced an old flannel shirt. “I keep some supplies here, just in case. Why don’t you take this shirt so that you’re not walking around campus with a red stain?”
He walked over to Ian and offered the shirt with both hands. Ian smiled again, this time with a bit more enthusiasm than before. He clumsily lifted himself to his feet and took the shirt from Simon: “You always have my back, Simon.” Ian rarely called him by his first name. Simon felt a rush of pleasure run down his spine, and despite his self-effacing personality, he beamed from ear to ear at the affirmation and familiarity of Ian’s tone.
Simon gasped as Ian began unbuttoning his stained shirt. Self-consciously, and to his embarrassment, Simon lowered his gaze as Ian removed his shirt exposing his smooth, muscular, broad chest, framed by wide, angular shoulders. His hair, usually so well-kept, was messy, and it made him look rugged and earthy. When Ian had removed his shirt completely, Simon watched his firm, strong body, struggling to keep his lower jaw in place. He lingered on the thought of Ian wearing his shirt.
Ian’s arm awkwardly aimed for the inside of the sleeve and, unfocused and unsteady, he nearly punched Simon in the face in an attempt to get dressed. Simon ducked his head just in time, and in a fit of apologies and giggles, Ian rested his head on Simon’s shoulder, smiling with an adorably naughty glint in his eyes. Simon summoned up the effort of a martial artist skilled in breaking stony surfaces with their bare hands in order not to delicately plant a sweet kiss on Ian’s rosy, lightly stubbled cheeks. Simon shyly returned Ian’s smile.
Ian is such a nice guy, Simon thought. Sure, the drunken antics are a bit of a turn off, but who can resist that chiseled jawline – as if sculpted by Michelangelo himself? Simon finally regained his composure, and he helped to steady Ian and pulled the sleeves over his shoulder. He felt his stomach turn. Simon nervously wondered if Ian could hear his heartbeat, because he could hear it thumping away at a mile a minute. Simon felt lightheaded as Ian’s masculine scent filled his nostrils. He moved away, and felt a sudden impulse to go over and fasten the buttons for Ian, reveling in the opportunity to look after him, but decided that he might be crossing a line. He let Ian finish putting on the shirt, and dragging his feet a little bit dejectedly, he went to the kettle in the corner.
Simon said to Ian, his back turned as he faced the coffee station: “Let me fix you up some coffee in my thermos just for you so that you can be awake when you head home. It’s not safe walking around when you don’t have your head on you. Or maybe you should get a cab.”
Ian laughed louder than was appropriate. Simon found himself frowning slightly in disapproval at another display of inebriation. Nevertheless, he prepared the coffee and went back to his bag to get some aspirin. He handed these to Ian and folded his arms as he waited for Ian to take the tablets.
“I saw you leave without saying goodbye,” Simon let out. He immediately regretted making himself seem vulnerable. Who wants a needy loser like that? He chastised himself for being so blunt. He didn’t know how to follow up the comment, so he just let it hang between them for the few seconds it took Ian to respond.
“Margeaux wanted me to join at Percy’s Pub. I went ahead. I wanted to stick around a bit more, but you seemed like you were having a good conversation with Olivia.”
“Yeah, she follows me around to these parties sometimes. I hope you don’t mind that she attended? I was told plus ones were okay.”
Ian sounded outraged at the comment: “No, of course I don’t mind! You’re one of our star players and everyone else brings someone to these parties. Why would I mind if you bring a girl?”
Simon was confused by Ian’s reaction, but he didn’t want to make the situation more awkward than it already was. “Besides,” Ian added, “someone as charming as you must have girls falling all over themselves to be with you.”
Simon was taken aback. Was this really happening? Almost right on cue, Ian smiled that lazy, effortlessly charming smile, and drunkenly stared at Simon, his hand rising up to meet Simon’s flushed cheeks. Ian lightly brushed the back of his hand on Simon’s cheek, and Simon thought his heart would explode in his chest. Then, Ian immediately turned around, furrowing his brow slightly, and approached his desk.
Ian spoke as he put more files into a folder: “I’ll be heading home soon. The pub wasn’t much fun tonight. I guess my head’s not really in it. But don’t bother cleaning any more. I’ll be in early tomorrow to try and get some of this sorted out.”
Simon swallowed, a dry, heavy lump in his throat. He was flustered by Ian’s sudden openness but was worried that he might be getting the wrong impression. Simon tried to turn the conversation towards work to avoid any further confusion: “Thanks for giving me that break today. I felt stupid for not going for it afterwards. You must’ve been so disappointed that I chickened out like that.”
Ian looked up at Simon, seeming even more sober now. His eyes narrowed, and he looked at Simon intently, his head cocked slightly to the side, as if he were deep in thought: “Don’t be ridiculous. You’re one of our best writers and I threw you a curveball. Don’t worry about it. I’m just concerned that…”
Simon held his breath as Ian paused. Was he about to hear that he wasn’t good enough to be editor of the Ridgemont Weekly?
“I’m worried that your articles are a little bit detached. Like you don’t put enough of yourself in them. You seem too guarded when you write. I wanted to give you the chance to do something spontaneous. I really respect the fact that you are so organized and that you do such a great job of getting things done, but I want you to find your own voice, and to write something that shows me who Simon Northbrook really is. I’d like to see you write something personal, and to put yourself into the articles you write for the paper more.”
Simon was flabbergasted. It sounded unprofessional to make his work personal. What was Ian asking for?
Ian stumbled over his feet and fell towards Simon. Simon caught him, barely managing to support Ian’s large, muscular frame.
“Woah, sorry about that, Simon. I’m feeling a bit lightheaded. Maybe I should just get off my feet for a few minutes and I’ll feel a bit better.” With that, Ian walked towards his desk where he lay down on the floor, as both of his hands cupped his sleepy eyes. Simon frowned and asked: “Should I call you a taxi? Are you sure you don’t need anything else?” He walked over and stood over Ian.
“Nah,” Ian said, smiling coyly. “Just a bit of company would be good. Why don’t you come down here and sit next to me?”
Simon was overwhelmed. He didn’t know if it would be appropriate at all to sit down on the floor next to his drunken boss. Especially not with the way he was feeling! Simon was acutely aware of his body’s desire to be close to Ian, to lie down next to him, and to feel Ian’s closeness warm his heart, his soft embrace enveloping him, the intimacy satisfying a deep need within him. Simon couldn’t help but notice how his shirt burst at the seams as it struggled to contain Ian’s well-developed muscles, and he noticed how the buttons were tautly stretched under the pressure. A small tuft of hair from Ian’s exposed belly was showing as he squirmed on the floor and took his hand away from his face, his eyes dreamy and wistful. Simon’s impulse was to run. All of these temptations proved too much for Simon, and before he changed his mind, he found himself seated next to Ian, looking at him expectantly.
“There you go, Simon,” Ian whispered, smiling more broadly than before. His features were even more striking up close, although his eyes were hardly open from his drunkenness. “It’s nice to have someone so close when I’m feeling like this. Aren’t you a bit drunk too? Don’t you maybe need to lie down as well? There’s space next to me…” Ian put his hand behind the small of Simon’s back and held it there, and Simon’s skin, rippling with goosebumps, felt like it was on fire.
Simon couldn’t believe what was happening. He felt his chest tighten, his breathing becoming sharper, faster. His mind raced and he knew that he would very likely regret staying longer. Simon jumped to his feet, pulling himself away from Ian’s hand. “I have to go, Ian. Sorry. I think I’m feeling… too tired now or something… Sorry.” His speech frantic, Simon averted his gaze, trying hard to avoid the hurt and surprise in Ian’s eyes.
Ian got to his feet, the smile gone from his lips, and told Simon that he would get a taxi. He walked out of the office without his files. Simon was left there reeling. What had he done? Why had he been so frightened of being close to Ian?
Simon sat down at his desk, his shoulders sagging, and he slumped over his desk, resting his head on his arms. He didn’t quite know how to explain what he was feeling. Clearly, the expert services of one Ms. Olivia Smythe were needed. Only his best friend could wade though his muddled thoughts and his silly behavior. Simon turned the lights off as he exited into the hallway, and with Ian’s scent lingering in the air, he left the building.
The wind blowing in his hair, the sound of seagulls ringing in his ears, and the salty smell of the ocean in his nostrils, Simon and Olivia looked silently, head bowed against head, at the beautiful sunset. He could usually count on Olivia to lift his mood, and agreeing to join Justin and her for a trip on the boat was clearly the right choice. Simon felt his tensed up muscles relax, his mind clearing, and he felt light on his feet. It has been a relaxing day, and his body was clearly thanking him for it.
“Where’s my man with my sex on the beach?” Olivia giggled indulgently, and slyly winked at Simon. Justin had been tasked with bringing them drinks.
“Liv, I’m so glad that you and Justin are doing so well. To think, only about a year ago this time he was still under the impression that I wasn’t really gay but secretly still pining after you.”
Olivia let out a hoot of laughter. “I know, right? And now he is on the committee of Ridgemont Rainbow? I’m so proud of my forward-thinking, social justice warrior husband!” Olivia spontaneously broke out into the song “What a Man”.
Simon burst into a hapless heap of giggles as he watched his best friend’s antics. Only Olivia could succeed in making him forget his worries and set his fun side free.
“There she is! My beautiful girl. A drink for you,” Justin said as he made his long awaited appearance from the bar, and handed her a cocktail with a miniature paper umbrella hanging over the edge as decoration. A rainbow motif, naturally.
Justin gave her a deep smile, bowed down, and kissed her gently on the cheek.
As if struck by a jolt of electricity, Olivia turned to Simon, and almost accusingly asked, “And you? It’s about time we go on double dates, but Mr. Picky here just can’t seem to choose from his ever-so-available and willing contestants!”
Simon blushed a deep crimson red. His sorry excuse for a love life was often the topic of teasing from Olivia and Justin. And while he knew there was no ill intent, it still stung a little bit.
“Aww, you know, Prince Charming must be running late. I think it’s about time my fairy godmother and I have a chat.”
“And who would this mysterious fairy godmother be, if not yours truly? Contestant #1: Trevor, gorgeous deep brown eyes with a killer smile. Verdict: Dismissed. Hair too long. Contestant #2: Migiel, cutest dimples you can find, nicest guy all around. Hey! Points for rhyming!” Olivia giggled at her silly joke, and Simon nodded his head in mock exasperation.
“Verdict: Dismissed. He spoke with his mouth full once. Contestant #3: Zane, a stylish dresser, zingers that will have you laughing for days. Verdict? Dismissed. He smiles too much. I sense a pattern here.”
Simon stared down at the deck, shuffled his feet, and sighed because he knew what was coming next.
“But then there is the one to beat them all. The one who gets a golden star on all fronts. One Ian Peters,” Olivia said dramatically.
Justin, a psychology student, who had a calm, reassuring, and wonderfully supportive nature about him, noticed Simon’s discomfort and tried to come to his rescue. “Alright, ladies and gents, time to get this party started! Too much chatting and too little dancing!”
Simon, as he was wont to do, pretended to take a big gulp of his drink, and silently snuck onto the bottom floor to visit the men’s room.
Justin watched him leave, and noticed that despite Simon’s display of guzzling mouthfuls of alcohol, his glass was still quite full.
“Everything okay in Simonville?” he asked Olivia gently.
“Oh babe, do you have to ask? I feel so bad seeing him pine after Ian Peters all the time. I want to be there for him, but I just don’t know what else I can do short of kidnapping Ian, wrapping him in a bow, and hand delivering him to Simon myself!”
Justin chuckled and, touched by his girlfriend’s concern for her best friend, grabbed her by the waist, and leaned in for a deep, loving kiss.
Simon reemerged from the deck and witnessed the intimate moment shared by Olivia and Justin. Despite his love for his friend, he felt that all-too-familiar stab of loneliness piercing his heart, and he sighed deeply.
“Simon, get over here! This glass of champers isn’t gonna finish itself!” Olivia yelled from across the deck, and Simon sheepishly joined them again.
“We’re so happy to have you with us. And I have no doubt in my mind that soon you’ll be joined by Mr. Right. Maybe even Mr. Peters.” Olivia threw Simon a huge smile, but he felt himself cringing. If there’s one thing he couldn’t stand, it was people pitying him. Despite himself, he returned her grin and told her that he hoped so, too. Olivia’s teasing was usually tolerable, but doing it in front of Justin was still embarrassing for Simon.
“Besides, you need some fun in your life. After hours fun, if you know what I mean,” Olivia said. Simon blushed a deep crimson red and faux punched Olivia in the shoulder, and the two giggled.
“You know, the perfect time to flirt with a handsome, intelligent man is the journalism faculty opening function. I know it might be stuffy, but lots of cute guys from Rainbow will be there.” Simon had been reluctant to go since he wanted to spend the time working on his article about Harry Baleka and to get his studies in order for the year. He thought that the opening function was just an excuse for the Weekly’s staff to get free drinks. Olivia was relentless and said, “I think the four of us will have a lot of fun.”
“Uh, the four of us? What do you mean, Liv?”
“Alistair Simmons! Tall, blonde, with the cutest baby blues you’ve ever seen!”
Simon smiled. That did sound pretty hot. Olivia had served on Ridgemont Rainbow’s committee, the gay student society, a year before as events organizer, and she still had many gay friends. She had been trying to set Simon up with her friends for a while now but, and Simon knew this was pretty sad, it felt like he would be betraying Ian if he went for one of them.
“Zuko will be there, and we need to keep an eye on that sneaky cow Margeaux. Who knows what else she’ll get up to? And besides, you have to play the social game a little bit to advance your writing career. As much as I love reading your work in the Weekly, you’ll need some more contacts in the field to get ahead.”
“Okay, okay, you got me, Liv! I’ll think about it. Jeez.” Simon faked an exasperated sigh and wiped his brow as if exhausted by her.
“You know I’m looking out for my bestie. I want you to be happy, sweets.”
Simon frowned: “You know, now that you mention Zuko, he has been a little bit distant lately. Know if something’s up?”
“Nothing that I know of. I think he’s seeing a cute little redhead twink. He seemed happy the last time I spoke to him.”
“Hmm. It might be my imagination, but I know when something’s up with him, and I’m usually right.”
Just then, Simon’s phone buzzed. His heart skipped a beat when he noticed Ian’s gorgeous face pop up next to a text message.
Hey buddy. Just curious to know if you’re going to the journo opening function?
Simon put his phone back into his pocket. This time, no forced or phony smiles, but a huge grin spread from ear to ear.
“Liv, babe, looks like we have a date.”
Simon gave his shoes one final wipe down from the cloth he kept in his glove compartment, and gave his reflection in the rearview mirror one last glance. His dark brown hair was smoothly combed in a side parting, not a hair out of place. Simon took pride and care in his appearance, and tonight he had to look his best.
“Jeez, boy beauty, are you done admiring your masterpiece in the mirror? Time to get to the function already!” Olivia yelled from outside of his car, her fist rapping against the passenger door’s window.
Simon grinned, climbed out of the car, and happily hooked his arm into Olivia’s. He entered the town hall, and was greeted by a first-year student, eagerly smiling at him, as she handed him the program for the evening. Simon entered the foyer and admired the formidable statue of Steve Biko, his imposing frame captured in stone as his figure sat in a pose of deep reflection.
The hall didn’t disappoint, and the journalism faculty’s ample cash reserves were proudly put on display, with elaborate floral decorations of white orchids and glittering silver vases lending a tasteful elegance to the evening’s atmosphere. Around fifty attendees were huddled in typically Capetonian cliques, and Simon’s eyes quickly scanned the room, darting to find Ian Peters.
“Hey, do you see Zuko around?” Olivia asked, pulling at his arm.
“What?” Simon was roused from his preoccupied search for Ian.
“Wait, I got this. Let me guess. Ian Peters, right?” Olivia teased, but smiled at him and lightly nudged him in his side with her elbow.
Simon decided to sidestep Olivia’s teasing, as he didn’t feel up to another round of being reminded of what a dismal failure his love life was. Simon was also reminded of Zuko’s absence lately, and he creased his brow.
“He did mention a couple of weeks ago that he would definitely be coming, right? That was your impression as well? I saw him at the rally but he didn’t come and speak to me after.”
“Yep, that’s what I thought as well. Hmmm. Hey, that cutey Jeremy from Rainbow is coming over! Simon, you have to meet him!”
Simon rolled his eyes, but found himself following Olivia’s gaze. Jeremy, a member of Rainbow, the university’s LGBT society, strolled over. Tall, slim, and blonde, Jeremy’s bright, gleaming green eyes glanced over confidently, and he winked at Simon just as he leaned in to hug Olivia. Simon blushed and looked the other way.
“Sweetheart, how have you been? Aren’t you just a picture of gorgeousness?” Olivia gushed. Simon felt a ridiculous twinge of jealousy. He didn’t react well when Olivia was so chummy with other gay guys. He appreciated the special bond that often exists between girls and their gay guy friends, and he found himself at times jealously guarding his territory. Even so, Jeremy was definitely cute. Even Simon had to admit that.
“And so, Mr. Clarke Kent, how have you been?” Jeremy all but batted his eyelashes at Simon, and Simon involuntarily blushed at the attention. Was Jeremy really flirting with him, or was he just imagining things?
“Um, I’ve been fine thank you, how about yourself?” Wow, Simon, what riveting repartee you’re creating here. Simon mentally smacked his head.
“Oh, you know, Lois Lane is patiently awaiting the arrival of her Superman, ready to be whisked off her feet and to be flown into the sunlight.”
Simon did a little bit of a double take, but found himself reluctantly admiring Jeremy’s candor and comfort with approaching a guy. Even he knew that Jeremy was flirting with him, and he was attracted to Jeremy…sort of.
“Well, uh, that’s nice.” It took everything Simon had not to punch himself in the gut. Jeremy raised his eyebrows, and he curled his lips in… what, sympathy? Simon felt himself lowering his eyes involuntarily. Even he was amazed at his poor romantic socializing skills. Don Juan he certainly was not! Jeremy turned to Olivia, who herself was shaking her head subtly, but there was just enough motion that Simon could gather that she was feeling sorry for him.
“Liv dear, mind doing me the honor of being my dancing queen?”
“Why Jeremy darling, I would be ever so humbled. Oh, by George, the thrills!” Jeremy threw back his head in laughter, hooked his arm into Olivia’s, and the two skipped happily to the dance floor. Simon’s flurry of envy grew stronger, and he wondered to himself what kept him back from flirting so openly and comfortably as other people seemed to be able to do.
Simon shook his head vigorously from side to side, raised his shoulders in a shrug, and resolved not to let a failed flirting interaction get to him. He scanned the room, hoping that Ian had finally shown up during his dismal attempt at doing the mating dance, but instead, his eye caught a tall, slim figure, his back turned to him. Simon instantly recognized the rainbow-themed blazer, the afro and the deep burgundy skinny jeans. He walked over eagerly and tapped Zuko on the shoulder.
“Zee, how have you been? It’s been too long!”
Zuko whirled around enthusiastically at the sound of Simon’s voice, and quickly enfolded Simon in a tight hug.
“Hey Simon, it’s good to see you, too!”
Zuko held on to Simon even tighter, and resisted Simon’s reflex to break the hug. Something was wrong.
“Zuko, hey, hold on, are you okay? You seemed to rush off after the rally. Come on, talk to me.”
Zuko finally let go of Simon, his brow folded in a crease, and his eyes wide with distress. Simon couldn’t quite figure out what it was, but something seemed different about the skin tone of his left eye.
“Hey, hold on Zuko, come a bit closer…hey, what is that?! Zuko, what happened to your eye?”
Zuko turned away from Simon. While Simon was not always the most adept at flirting, he had always prided himself on being a pretty good friend, and with his arm around Zuko’s shoulder, he steered him outside to the balcony, the gentle summer breeze offering some comfort from the stuffy interior.
“Zuko, please, come on, talk to me. Who did this to you?”
Zuko, who had always been outspoken, loud and proud – one of the many things that Simon liked about him – quietly bowed his head and said, “Them.”
“Zuko, you’ll have to be a bit more specific than that. Help me out here.”
“Simon, this isn’t exactly cool, man.” Zuko’s temperament changed from quiet and withdrawn to suddenly hostile. “You don’t know what it’s like. Living in that res, constantly being made to feel that you’re not good enough, the hammering on your door by your drunken res mates, shouting at you to go sleep on the street. And that’s not even half of it! And this? This is what you can see, this is what is visible! They know to leave most of the bruises out of sight!”
By now, Zuko’s voice was shaking, his eyes wide with fear and anger, and his arms clenched on Simon’s shoulder, the passion of his speech overwhelming both him and Simon.
“Zee, I had no idea, I’m so sorry. What, what assholes! Complete d-bags! Have you told anyone about this? Does anyone know?”
“No, I haven’t mentioned this to anyone.”
Simon pointed to Zuko’s eye, “Tell me about this assault. What exactly happened?”
“Same thing that has been happening the last two weeks after I moved into that hellhole. They tried to barge into my room. My coward roommate pretended that he didn’t hear, and finally, fed up, I went to confront them. The minute I opened up the door they wrestled me to the ground, I managed to push them off me, and somewhere in the process I got a black eye. I have some bruises as well.” Zuko removed his rainbow blazer, a symbol in such clear contrast to his grim tale, and he lifted up his shirt to reveal bruises and welts spread across his torso.
“Zuko, this is totally not okay. We can’t let them get away with this. There must be something we can do. We can call the police. Talk to management. The Weekly will have a field day with this. We can totally bring these guys to justice!”
Zuko let out a deep, frustrated sigh, and shook his head at Simon, his upper eyelids lowered.
“No. No. I don’t want you to do anything. It’s okay, I can handle it. Everybody’s just kind of feeling everybody else out, testing their worth, or some such crap. It’ll get better. But I mean it, Simon, please don’t do anything.”
“You’re just going to let them continue treating you like this? Zuko, this isn’t cool. I’m worried about you.”
For the first time during their conversation, Zuko smiled in recognition of Simon’s affection for him.
“They promised they won’t do it again. I know I sound like I’m suffering from Battered Wife Syndrome, but they seemed genuine, man. I just want to move on and get to studying, follow in your and Olivia’s footsteps. Be a writer. You guys are the best.” Zuko mustered up a smile and, despite his great efforts, Simon knew after years of friendship that Zuko was genuinely troubled. The fact that Zuko was trying to cover up his distress was even more worrying. But Simon knew when not to push, lest he lose Zuko’s trust.
“I’m not happy about this at all. But I’ll take your word for it. Please stay in touch, okay? Don’t disappear again.” Simon gave Zuko an extra gentle hug, now mindful of Zuko’s injured body, and Zuko left to visit the restroom.
Simon rested his hands on the balcony, a little bit lost in thought. He was worried. And not just about Zuko. Simon was aware that he was a little bit too willing to let Zuko’s dire situation go unattended, precisely because he didn’t want to get too involved. Even though he had learned to accept himself, he wasn’t sure that he was entirely ready to confront other people with the fact that he was gay. He felt a little bit guilty, wondering if he was really being a good friend to Zuko and, feeling downcast, he walked back into the hall.
His thoughts scattered, and his mind preoccupied with worry about his friend, he walked over to his table. He felt the heat emanating from the room, and took off his blazer. His eye caught the name tags placed next to each other with his and Olivia’s names. He found himself wishing that Olivia’s name was replaced with ‘Ian Peters’. Simon noticed that the volume of the music was lowered, and that the lights of the room were brightened. He turned around, and immediately his gaze was fixed upon Ian, as was everyone else’s. Simon knew that Ian had a panache, a sense of style that was unrivaled on campus, but tonight he outdid himself. Wearing a pinstripe grey suit that settled snugly on his broad shoulders, his hair wavy, light, and softly luminous, Ian took Simon’s breath away. His blazer was unbuttoned, and foregoing the need for a tie, he had unbuttoned a few of the top buttons of his shirt. Simon felt lightheaded as he noticed how closely the navy blue cocktail shirt hugged Ian’s chest. Simon was so distracted by the vision that was Ian, that he barely noticed that Ian was fast approaching him. As Ian neared, a huge grin enveloped his face, and he mischievously winked at Simon, as if the two of them shared a secret. Simon shook his head a few times, in an effort to regain focus and appear in control in front of Ian.
“Simon, buddy, looking smart my friend!” Ian smacked Simon on the shoulder, and luckily for Simon, he managed to steel himself moments before impact, avoiding making himself look like a fool by falling over his feet like the last time. Ian started, “Listen, uh, about the other night… Sorry if I made you uncomfortable. You know, I guess that I thought you just looked, uhh, I don’t know, I guess I had a couple of drinks and was just feeling a little bit overly friendly.” The one corner of Ian’s full lips turned upward, and his hand rested on Simon’s shoulder. This time he gave Simon’s shoulder a soft squeeze, as his eyes became gentler.
Simon, forever on the ready for a round of rejection, feared that Ian was trying to let him down easy if he got the wrong impression, and he put on his best poker face; his lips became tightly wound, and his eyes projected an unaffectedness that could cool the Swiss Alps. He shrugged off Ian’s hand.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, boss. You were drunk, you needed help cleaning up the office. That’s about as far as my recollection of the evening’s events extends.” Simon raised his eyebrows challengingly, and stared Ian down.
Ian looked a little bit startled and confused.
“I see. Well, old chap, I’m sorry to have put you out.” Ian gave an unconvincing grin, and then made his way to the front of the room, where the guests had been impatiently awaiting his address.
Simon watched him trail away to the stage, unfeeling and determined not to read anything into Ian’s dejected body language.
“Ladies and gentlemen, thank you so much for attending!” Ian proceeded to thank the various faculty heads, the vice-rector in attendance, and all of his staff.
“Now, I have a small announcement to make. As richly rewarding, challenging, and exciting as it has been to be the editor of the Ridgemont Weekly, I have unfortunately not been able to dedicate as much time and energy on my studies as I would have liked to as I approach graduation. It is with this concern in mind that I have decided to retire as editor of the Ridgemont Weekly at the end of this term.”
Simon felt a terrible, sinking feeling in his chest, and his face dropped. Ian was leaving the Weekly? Under Ian’s guidance, the readership for the newspaper had increased, online engagement had tripled, and advertising revenue has skyrocketed. Of course, Simon was well aware that his disappointment in Ian leaving had nothing to do with the future of the Weekly – he would miss Ian desperately.
Simon steeled himself against the disappointment. What Ian said next piqued his interest.
“Seeing as I will be leaving the paper in a few weeks, we will be interviewing candidates for the position of editor in the coming weeks. Naturally, a recent record of excellent reporting will count in your favor. Be on the lookout for the job advertisements online and circulated internally in the next few days.”
Simon’s eyes widened and his eyebrows shot up in anticipation. Could this be the big break he had been waiting for?
“Now what’s got you looking like you just spotted the cookie jar, Northbrook?” Margeaux’s voice, sickly sweet, buzzed in his ear.
“Oh, hey there Margeaux.” Simon expertly assumed a neutral expression, his features relaxed as he tried to appear nonchalant, determined not to let his interest in the editor position show. “Oh you know, I was just thinking of a few promising candidates for the editor position that I think I might make a recommendation for.”
Margeaux gave him a skeptical look, and she let out a snort. Simon wrinkled his nose in disgust.
“Is that right, Northbrook? Well, you need look no further. After my brilliant interview with Harry Baleka the other day, it’s as good as in the bag.” Margeaux gave him a wide grin, her obnoxiously white teeth gleaming in the dark, and left Simon stewing.
Simon walked away from Margeaux, and found himself drifting aimlessly to the balcony again, his thoughts on Ian’s impending departure. He felt conflicted for being given the opportunity to apply for editor, but also acutely aware of the sinking feeling in his stomach at the prospect of not seeing Ian on a daily basis. For what seemed to be the umpteenth time, Simon wanted to slap himself across the face for acting so cavalier and cold with Ian. He wished that he could summon up the courage to gently touch Ian on the shoulder and gauge his reaction, or to send him a knowing grin across the room, or to linger a little bit whenever Ian’s big, warm hands gripped his in a handshake. Simon let out a heavy sigh, his chest sinking and his spirit falling. He gripped the cold railing of the balcony, and tried to distract himself with the sight of Karelberg Mountain, the strategically placed lights illuminating the mountain to cast a beautiful contrast against the dark of the night.
“Penny for your thoughts?”
Simon whirled around at the sound of Ian’s voice, and nearly tumbled forward in the process. Ian alone had this startling effect on him, and he never ceased to be amazed at what a commanding influence his now nearly-former editor had on him.
“Oh, Ian. I didn’t notice you. You creepy creep, creeping up behind me like that.” Simon let out an awkward laugh and cringed. Really, and I call myself a writer?
“Well now, I guess I have been called worse than a creepy creep, but hey, at least I caught your attention, right?” Ian’s eyelids were slightly lowered.
Simon noticed Zuko far off in the distance, slow dancing with Jeremy, the boy who had approached Simon earlier, and couldn’t help but feel a slight twinge of envy at Zuko’s ease at picking up boys. What did Simon so glaringly lack?
Simon glanced back at Ian, his heart racing a mile a minute. If Zuko could so effortlessly get closer to a guy he met barely two minutes ago, why could he not summon up the courage to let Ian know, even just subtly, how he felt?
Just as Simon was pondering his ineptitude in flirting, a flash of red swooped in between the already constricted space between himself and Ian, and, giggling and giddy, The Flash, otherwise known as Margeaux Chamberlain, planted a wet one on Ian’s cheek.
“There you are, you ole salt-and-pepper greyhound journo! Finally hanging up the monocle and putting the pen out to dry, huh? At least it means you’ll have some free time for me.”
To Simon’s astonishment, Margeaux proceeded to kiss Ian full on the lips. Shameless, he thought. Margeaux even had the gall to reach behind her and push Simon back, sending a very clear signal for him to back off.
“Margeaux, wow, hold on there cowgirl! These lips don’t come unscrewed, no matter how hard you suck!” Ian frowned a bit in distaste, to Simon’s absolute delight. Why did he not tell Margeaux off immediately, in no uncertain terms?
Margeaux, clearly unperturbed, smiled with a faux innocence that annoyed Simon to no end, and pinched Ian on the butt.
“Ole chief, you know what I want, I know what you want, and you and I both know people like us wrote the rules to this game.” Margeaux placed her hands on Ian’s strong, muscular chest, and looked up at him, her upper eyelids lowered seductively and her mouth primed in a pout.
To Simon’s dismay, even Ian couldn’t resist Margeaux’s feminine wiles, and he threw back his head, laughing.
“Well, looks like I might need the assistance of Mr. Johnny Walker to keep up with you, Margeaux. I guess it is a celebration after all.” Ian winked at Simon as he left the balcony, and Simon felt his heart skip a beat and his knees weaken ever so slightly.
“And so, Simple Simon, what’s your story? Do I have some competition for editor-in-chief of Ridgemont Weekly, or should we just fulfil everybody’s expectations and have me land the position? I’m sure I could squeeze you into entertainment. Maybe book reviews or something.”
Simon squirmed at being called Simple Simon, a nickname from his childhood, mocking him for being so single-minded about his studies – all work and no play. He had confided his dislike of the nickname to Margeaux months earlier in a moment of weakness, before he knew her well enough, and she seemed to delight in dredging up his past hurt and embarrassment.
“I guess you’ll just have to wait and see, Margeaux. But word to the wise: don’t count your chickens before they hatch. And don’t buy the lingerie before you get the man for that matter, either.”
Margeaux let out an involuntary gasp, but she smiled as if she enjoyed Simon’s ballsiness. Simon turned around, bolstered by his cheeky comment to Margeaux.
The battle lines had been drawn. The prize definitely worth fighting for: stepping in to fulfil the duties of editor-in-chief of Ridgemont Weekly, which, under the leadership and vision of Ian, had been voted best student newspaper nationally. Simon reentered the hall, and resolved that he would be editor, no matter what.
Ian rolled over and smiled as Simon entered the bedroom from the ensuite bathroom.
“Don’t you look super cute? My dream twink boyfriend.” Ian teased Simon playfully.
“Oh yeah? I guess that makes you my bear cub!” Both Ian and Simon laughed, the happiness shining from their eyes, and Simon jumped into bed next to Ian. He rested his head on Ian’s chest, which was rising and falling, and Simon felt deeply comforted by Ian’s heartbeat.
“And to think, I almost let Margeaux rip me away from you. What a mistake that would have been. I’m so happy that we can be together, now that you’re the editor of the Weekly, and that I will be staying on this year to do my Master’s degree in journalism.” Ian softly caressed Simon’s cheek, and Simon felt electric tingles race up and down his spine; he was barely able to contain his happiness.
“Jackass, watch where you’re going, man!” Simon felt the sudden impact of another person’s body hitting him square in the shoulder, sending his book bag tumbling ahead of him, and he sheepishly apologized.
He bent down on the busy sidewalk, worrying a little bit that he would be late for his meeting with Zuko, when someone handed him his textbooks.
“Silly banana, you looking for this?” It was Zuko, evidently taking the same path towards the study center where they were scheduled to meet.
“Oh, hey Zee, fancy seeing you here.” Simon smiled at Zuko, thinking immediately of his recent troubles with his res roommates.
Zuko smiled weakly at him, his eyes not really focused on Simon, shoulders slightly hunched over, and the pace at which he was walking encumbered and slow.
“Zuko, what’s the matter? You look terrible.” Simon reached out to lightly touch Zuko’s arm in an effort to show some concern, but to Simon’s surprise, Zuko flinched and quickly pulled his arm away.
“Hey, what’s wrong? What’s up with your arm? Zuko, come on, I need you to talk to me. I’m not stupid, I can tell something is wrong, and I want to be there for you.”
Zuko took Simon’s hand, turned left down a side path with a sign reading Ridgemont Botanical Gardens, and found a quiet corner with a comfortable bench. He inhaled deeply, staring at the ground, and rolled up his sleeve. Simon, a little bit apprehensive by then, noticed the huge welt on Zuko’s arm.
“Zee, what the hell! Who did this to you? Is it that jerk from your res?”
Zuko nodded, quiet and somber. “It’s pretty intense, man. This is escalating. They have now somehow figured out what my class schedule is, and what my walking route to res is. They shoved me into an alley and just tuned me crap. Telling me I don’t belong here, that I need to go back to the townships. I just kind of blocked out what they were saying after some time and waited for it to be over.
“Zee, I’m really sorry. But you’re saying that this has been going on for a while now, is that right?”
“Yeah. You know this. But I guess I wasn’t that forthcoming when it started.”
Simon carefully hugged Zuko, and reminded him of the appropriate channels to follow if he wanted to report harassment. Zuko sat there sobbing, the quiet of the park echoing the intensity between the two friends. Simon felt completely powerless. Zuko had been something of a protégé to him, someone he had wanted to introduce to the amazing life that Ridgemont could offer. He didn’t want it to be a constant nightmare for his friend.
Simon was very concerned, but something held him back from being Zuko’s knight in shining armor. Was it really his place to do something about it? He felt a sense of dread descend on him then. He was trying to become editor of the Ridgemont Weekly, and he wanted to build his career by forming the right networks at the University. Would he be isolating himself if he caused trouble over Zuko? And shouldn’t Zuko be standing up for himself either way? He thought of many different excuses why it would be wrong for him to do anything. After making up a story, he excused himself. Simon hated to admit it, but he was wondering if Zuko’s openness about his sexuality might be adding fuel to the fire for his tormentors. Ridgemont was known for its socially conservative climate, and Simon wasn’t sure if he was comfortable yet being open about this part of his identity. Especially when he still had many years ahead of him at Ridgemont. Simon felt ashamed, but also the powers of self-preservation kicked in. He’d be there for Zuko, but he wouldn’t get overly involved. At least not until Zuko asked him to. He felt like he was being a terrible friend, but he pushed those thoughts away. He had a lot on his plate to worry about.
Simon entered the Ridgemont Weekly offices, and looked disdainfully at Margeaux’s desk to the right of the entrance, with various knick-knacks scattered all over it, from crumpled up post-its, to disorganized sheets of paper covering unmarked folders, to a sad dying desk plant having a pity party in the corner. Simon sneered contemptuously, and felt his dislike for Margeaux multiply tenfold, as he recalled Margeaux’s antics from the journalism faculty’s opening function.
A few seats down, Simon found his own desk. A small smile of satisfaction crept up his face as he surveyed the perfectly ordered scene: neat, color-coded folders stacked in the corner of the desk, not a loose piece of paper in sight, and his own beautiful potted plant perfectly healthy and bursting with life, its effervescent green hue a welcoming hi to a productive day at the office.
Simon seated himself in his desk chair, and reclined as he rubbed his temples to relieve some tension. His right hand found the computer mouse and, as the screen loaded, he noticed Margeaux entering from the far side of the room, rummage around at her desk, retrieve a file, and with a quick wave at Simon, she became absorbed in her computer screen. Simon’s eyes returned to his own screen, and immediately confusion, and then suspicion, clouded his face. His personal folder, labeled ‘Works in Progress’, which he kept password-protected, was glaring right back at him again, opened up in a window. Simon prided himself for his professionalism and meticulous nature: no way would he announce what he was working on for everyone to see or leave his folders open. He vaguely remembered seeing the folder open before. Was he losing his mind? He rubbed the nape of his neck, shook his head, and reminded himself not to become paranoid. Surely everyone, even he, was capable of an oversight or two, right? Simon lost himself in thought, thinking of Ian’s words to him:
‘Northbrook, you have to make yourself a little bit more vulnerable. Be more authentic. Don’t hide behind what you think is the right thing to do. Relate some experience you had to help you formulate your own point of view.’
Ian’s words rang in Simon’s ears. He still didn’t quite get what Ian meant with that line. Wasn’t reporting supposed to be all about remaining objective, gathering and reporting on facts only, distancing your own point of view from events as they transpired? Wasn’t following the rules the best way to get things done?
“Oh my God, seriously? No way!” Margeaux let out a loud guffaw, slapped her knee, and sauntered over to Simon as she put down the phone, before collapsing into a fit of giggles. “Looks like King Arthur got himself in a bit of a scrap. Buddy wrapped his Merc right around a tree, smashed his head against the steering wheel, and is now being treated for a concussion at the hospital. What a klutz. Oh, the boys I pick.”
“What are you talking about?” Simon demanded, the thought of Ian hurt nearly paralyzing him.
“Ian was in a car accident last night. He’s okay, of course. Just being an idiot. No big deal.”
Simon stared at Margeaux, shocked at her callous reaction to Ian’s injury, concerned over Ian’s condition, and overwhelmed with an urgency to see Ian. He was speechless.
He heard a voice coming from the entrance: “Simon honeybunch, how are you?” Olivia pushed through the front door, smiling brightly, and under normal conditions, her cheeriness and good-natured attitude would have put a smile on his face. But Olivia could immediately sense Simon’s distress.
“Simon, what’s the matter? You look spooked!”
“It’s Ian, he’s been in an accident, crashed his car into a tree, he has a concussion, he must have been, I don’t know, I mean, I… do you think he’s okay?” Simon stumbled and stammered over his words, his voice heavy with worry, and Olivia grabbed him by the arm.
“Simon, we have to get to the hospital. What are you still doing here?” Olivia’s voice was urgent and high-pitched, alarm widening her eyes.
“I guess I, I mean, do you think he would want me there? Won’t I just be in the way? Is it appropriate for me to go?”
“Of course! You and I both know you care about him, and I’ve got a good idea that he cares about you too, so you need to be there for him right now.”
Hearing this, Margeaux snorted loudly, and looked at Simon with raised eyebrows.
“I mean, sure, yeah, I care about him as a friend, Liv. And yeah, maybe uh, Margeaux would you like to come with us?” In a vain effort to hide his feelings for Ian, Simon extended the awkward invitation, trying to avoid the gob smacked expression on Olivia’s face.
“Dude, it’s a concussion, not brain surgery. What’s the big deal? Ian’s a big boy. Dennis just called and said he’s fine. I’ll go see him a bit later, make him chomp at the bit for a while.” Margeaux dismissed both Simon and Olivia with a small wave of her hand, and strolled back to her chair.
“Self-obsessed idiot! Honestly, what a heartless cow,” Olivia whispered. “Come on Simon, let’s go.”
Simon, breathless with worry, hurriedly pushed through the swing doors of the hospital that led to the reception area. In his hurried state, he accidentally ran into a hospital gurney being pushed towards the ER section. An elderly gentleman who was laying on the gurney absorbed the shock of Simon’s impact, and he opened his eyes with effort.
“Um, excuse me sir, I am sincerely sorry. I didn’t see you there.” Simon fumbled for words as he tried to conjure up an apology.
“Just get out of my way, please.” The old man made no attempt to be polite. He was clearly in pain and frustrated, and Simon shuddered as he wondered what kind of state Ian must be in, despite Margeaux’s flippant attitude.
“Sweetie, come on, let’s go see how studkins is doing.” Olivia grabbed Simon by the hand and led him to the receptionist.
“Ian Peters please. I believe he was admitted a few hours ago.” Olivia had gotten some extra information from her friends while Simon was driving the two of them over to the hospital.
“Just a moment ma’am. Yes, Ian Peters, room #443. Are the two of you family members?”
“No, but…” Simon’s voice trailed off, and he realized that his opportunity to be there for Ian was fading fast.
“I’m afraid only family is allowed at this point, as quite a large gathering has formed at Mr. Peters’s bedside already. Friends will have to wait.” The receptionist assumed a business-like, clipped tone of voice, and as she spoke, she lowered her gaze to her paperwork, clearly wishing to get on with her job. But Simon wasn’t about to give up so easily.
“Is that right?” Simon asked. “Well, I guess I neglected to mention that he is my fiancé.” Olivia had to contain herself from squealing with excitement at Simon’s uncharacteristic bravado. She squeezed his hand firmly, in a mixture of pride and astonishment.
“Oh, umm, I see. Well, then, I would suppose you qualify as family. And your lady friend?”
“Umm, maid of honor…?” Olivia weakly offered.
“Oh, for goodness sake, I’m too old for these shenanigans. Take note that Mr. Peters fortunately didn’t suffer any serious injuries, so bending the rules ever so slightly won’t do too much harm. But I’m keeping my eye on you two.” Despite her harsh tone, Simon could have sworn that she winked at the two of them. With an appreciative nod at the receptionist, Simon and Olivia made their way to the fourth floor, and it didn’t take too long for them to find Ian’s room. It was filled with so much hustle and bustle that it felt like a coffee shop, and Simon swore he could smell the flowers from the hallway. He marveled at Ian’s popularity, and suddenly self-doubt crept it. Why would Ian want to see him, if he had all of these people clamoring for his attention? What possibly could a geeky, scaredy-cat loser like him have to offer Ian? Simon stopped dead in his tracks as he allowed these dark thoughts to take hold.
“Babe? What’s holding you back? Your man’s just around the corner!” Olivia looked at Simon quizzically.
“Liv, what am I even doing here? What makes me think that I count among his close friends? How presumptuous of me. I feel like a fool.” Simon stared down at the floor, leaning against the wall, and awaited the torrent of disapproval that Olivia was about to unleash on him.
“Really? Are you kidding me? Tell me that you haven’t been noticing all the hints and clues Ian has been sending your way! Are you going to let that badly made-up Pollyanna disaster take your man from you? Is that what’s going on here? Simon Northbrook, I expected so much better from you!” Simon thought that Olivia was about to stomp her foot down and throw a tantrum, and he shrugged.
“I mean, I don’t know. What do I say when I get in there? Liv, you know I turn into a high school wallflower when I’m around him. I don’t think I can stomach that now, just yet.” Simon groaned, his knees buckled, and he nearly sank into the floor, right in tandem with his heart.
“Don’t you think Ian will appreciate the gesture?” Olivia let out a frustrated sigh of her own. “Simon baby, you know I’m your number one cheerleader, and I really want to see you make a go of it with Ian, but I can only do so much, honey. I’m going to go and give him my best wishes. It’s up to you whether or not you’ll be following me. Sometimes you need to do things even if they feel weird, even if it doesn’t feel like it’s your place or like it’s the smart thing to do. You have to do it because you can’t keep hiding.” Olivia leaned in, gave Simon a firm hug, and disappeared into Ian’s room.
Simon could hear Ian’s voice, happy and surprised to see Olivia. He leaned in closer to Ian’s door, his ear trained for any mention of his name.
“Olivia, what a sweet surprise to see you! How are you doing?” Ian said, his voice sounding groggy.
“Oh, Ian, I’m good, thanks. Question is, how are you doing? How’s that concussion?” Olivia was clearly buying time and hoping to retain Ian’s attention so that he could attend to Simon once he just got through the door.
“Aw, it’s no biggie. Luckily nobody was hurt, and no, I wasn’t drinking. Only crime I’m guilty of is being doofussy and distracted. Say, uh, Liz, how’s Simon doing? Does he know I’m in here?”
Simon’s heart melted at the sheepish tone that crept into Ian’s voice when asking about him. Buoyed by Ian’s interest, he prepared to enter Ian’s room, a huge grin already starting to adorn his face. Just as Simon was about to enter the hospital room, his phone started to blare the opening notes of ‘We are family!’ by The Wicker Sisters. Simon recently assigned this special ringtone for whenever Zuko called, as he wanted to be alerted immediately when his friend needed him, especially given recent events. Despite his concern over what had been happening with Zuko lately, Simon’s heart dropped into his shoes, as he realized that he was about to let another opportunity to get closer to Ian fall by the wayside.
Wringing his hands in frustration, and staring at the ceiling, Simon finally answered his phone.
“Zee, hey man, what’s up?”
“Simon, you… answered!” Zee was sobbing into the phone, his voice barely audible through the loud sobs.
Simon’s heart started racing.
“Zee, what the hell’s going on? Are you okay? Talk to me!”
“Please, Simon, just get over here man. I need…I need to talk to somebody, this can’t go on any longer. I’m really scared. I’m worried they’re going to come back!”
‘Zee, I’m right there. I’m out of town at a private hospital right now, so it’ll take me just under an hour to get there, but stay put in your room, lock the door, and don’t let anyone in.” Simon was alarmed by his own instinct to want to protect Zuko, suddenly fearless and no longer second-guessing himself, but he was finally acquiescing to his instincts, and those instincts were loudly and clearly telling him that Zuko was in danger.
“Uh, yes, I will. Just please, hurry.” Zuko hung up.
Simon dashed through the reception room, ignored the startled receptionist, reached his car, and sped onto the highway after sending Olivia a message that Zuko was in danger and that she should get an Uber. He was going to cast his own doubts and selfish insecurities aside, and do everything he could to help Zuko.
Knowing that he had already told Liv to take an Uber – he would make it up to her later – he knew he could ignore her texts and phone calls and direct his attention towards helping his friend, who was clearly in distress. Simon pulled up at Eikeman Men’s Residence, dashes out of his car, and came crashing into the front doors, the surprised student assistant manning the front doors as a guard staring up at him.
“Can I help you?”
“I’m here to see Zuko Mavuso. Don’t worry, I know what his room number is.” Simon turned towards the staircase, desperate to reach Zuko’s room.
“Hey, you, wait! You know protocol, man. I have to announce your presence first and mention who you are here to see.” The student admin assistant frowned in annoyance at Simon, and Simon could feel his blood boil.
“You don’t understand. He’s in trouble! Something happened, he gave me a call, and I tried returning his call on the way over here, but his phone died. Something is not on and I have to figure out what it is!” Simon’s voice teetered on the edge of desperation, and with each passing word, his firm grip on the reception desk seemed to tighten, until his knuckles were white with exertion. Simon now realized that he had been stifling his worries about Zuko all along, that he had been trying to protect himself and not cause trouble instead of looking after his friend, and his feelings were all bubbling to the surface.
“Wouldn’t be the first time ole Ladyboy landed himself in hot water. Just take a seat, dude.” The student admin assistant smirked and pointed to the waiting area.
At first, Simon was shocked at the casual, throwaway gay slur so callously hurled at his best friend. As soon as he regained his composure, he faced the student admin assistant.
“You either let me go up there right now, or these delicate ladyboy fists right here will punch your teeth out, you homophobic little twit!” Simon’s voice was trembling with anger, and finding a justifiable way to express it was strangely exhilarating.
The student assistant did a bit of a double take, raised his eyebrows in alarm – fear? – and motioned to Simon to go up the stairs. Simon resisted the urge to make good on his threat, and instead whirled around, sped up the staircase, and reached Zuko’s door. As he rapped his knuckles against the hard steel door, the corridor’s odors of faint urine, sweat, and unwashed socks couldn’t escape his senses. Simon’s revulsion at living in a men’s residence further fueled his urgency to get Zuko out of there. Without even bothering to knock, he burst inside, and the scene that he was met with instantly puzzled him.
Zuko’s roommate, a tool Simon vaguely remembered being introduced to a few weeks before, stared at Simon with the faintest hint of a smirk – but to Simon’s overwrought mind, it was clear that he was not imagining things. Simon’s eyes hurriedly scanned the room, and his confusion was compounded: Zuko’s colorful African print bedsheets had been removed, posters of his favorite actors had been removed, and his desk was empty. Simon shook his head in disbelief, and accusingly he stared down Zuko’s arrogant roommate, whose former poor attempt at masking his self-satisfied, smug smile was all but abandoned now. He seemed to dare Simon to ask him what was going on.
“Where the hell is my friend?” Simon thundered, the sheer anger in his voice almost startling himself.
“Oh, I’m sorry, who would you be referring to? Kindly pardon my ignorance.” The little ass was clearly going to make this difficult for Simon. Simon felt his entire body tense with fury. With a deep breath, he summoned up the courage that he had commanded a few minutes ago with the equally bullish student assistant.
“Listen here, you stupid little snotface, you better tell me right this minute where my friend is, or I’ll…”
“Or you’ll what, pretty boy? Pull my hair? Cry and ruin your pretty mascara? What exactly do you plan on doing?” The sarcasm was dripping from the boy’s mouth, and Simon could tell how he enjoyed every second of tormenting him. Simon recalled how this was the boy who must have pretended that he was sleeping while Zee was being beaten up.
Without further ado, Simon stormed over to the grinning little gnat, picked him up by his preppy collar, and gave him a firm shake.
“If you don’t tell me right this second what happened to Zuko Mavuso, this ladyboy right here will mess you up so bad, you’ll wish you helped Zuko every time he needed you. Now ‘fess up, you loser, or you’ll be flying through that window.” Simon’s nostrils were flaring with anger, his jaw set in a determined line, and his eyes were bulging with alarm.
“Okay, okay bro, I get it. Listen, I really don’t know. Zuko was being hassled by the other guys for a few weeks now, and I decided to stay out of it. It doesn’t have anything to do with me, right? And I got here about 30 minutes ago to cram for a test tomorrow, and when I got here, it seemed like he had gone home for the week or something.” The boy was now flustered and clearly caught off guard by Simon’s anger.
“What reason would he have for taking all of his bedding with him?”
Simon walked over to Zuko’s closet, flipped it open, and there wasn’t a trace of any of his clothing.
“And if he’s going home for only a couple of days, why would he take all of his clothes?” Simon opened up the top cupboard.
“And instead of taking a gym bag or something, he took his luggage with him? Dude, come on, what’s going on here?” Now that Simon was finally able to get the boy to be honest with him, he had to appeal to his humanity.
“Bro, I seriously don’t know, man. Look, he was flamboyant, you know? Kind of challenging? Maybe he felt out of place?”
“Or maybe he couldn’t stand being beaten up by jerks like you, being constantly harassed, need I go on? You’ve been swell, mate, thank you for your invaluable help. You have been an exemplary roommate, once again.” Simon, dejected, but still smarting with anger, turned on his heel, and slammed the door behind him. Either the roommate was genuinely confused and not in the know, or they were covering something up. And Simon was scared of what that cover-up might entail.
Simon went back to his car, opened up the door, and climbed into the driver’s seat. He paused for a moment, considering his next move. He hurriedly whipped out his phone, searched his inbox, and chanced upon the number of Zuko’s mother. Zuko would periodically text him from his mother’s phone when he ran out of airtime. Grateful for finally landing a lead, he dialed Zuko’s mother from his phone.
“Helen Mavuso speaking. Who is this?” Simon nearly burst out in tears of relief.
“Mrs. Mavuso! I’m so glad you answered your phone! This is me, Simon Northbrook! Mrs. Mavuso, have you heard from your son recently?” Simon could barely get his words out fast enough.
“Simon my child, how are you?” Simon noted that Mrs. Mavuso paused just a little bit longer than necessary, and he was puzzled at her strange reaction.
“I’m fine, Mrs. Mavuso. But I’m worried about your son. Do you know where he is?”
“Simon, Zuko is very well. He has decided to transfer from Ridgemont University to a training college right here in Hillville. He’ll be closer to home and be less… troubled.” Mrs. Mavuso was not being forthcoming with details, and Simon again felt the pangs of suspicion.
“That sounds very strange to me. He didn’t let me know that he wants to leave Ridgemont Uni. Could I speak to him, please?”
“No, I am afraid you cannot. He is busy unpacking now, and we will have some family time for now. I am sure he will get back to you tomorrow. Now if you will excuse me, Simon, I have to go and look after my son.”
To Simon’s dismay, he heard the sound of the phone being hung up. If before he suspected that something was up, now he was sure.
“Look babe, I’m worried about Zee, too. And I agree, it seems weird that he would take off like that without so much as a word to anyone. But stranger things have happened, you know? This is starting to take over your life.” The concern in Olivia’s voice was palpable.
“Liv, Zee’s our best friend. We haven’t heard from him in days. His mother cut me off. The residence head won’t breathe a word to me. They’ve banned me from going into his res. All of this is adding up and it just seems really suspicious. We’re supposed to be looking out for each other, right?” A slight tone of panic had crept into Simon’s voice. He couldn’t help feel that he bore some responsibility for his young friend’s strange predicament, as he hadn’t acted earlier. He was too afraid of tarnishing his own reputation at the paper, and of too many people finding out that he was gay. But now he was determined to follow through and get to the bottom of this.
“Okay sailor. I get it. And I’m here supporting you. I would die if Zee were in a pinch and we stood by doing nothing. Let me know what your investigation reveals, you old intrepid reporter.” Simon was a little bit put off by Olivia’s cavalier attitude at the sake of pushing a joke. But he reminded himself that Olivia’s happy-go-lucky attitude oftentimes masked real concern. He gave Olivia a hug, and decided to retire to his bedroom.
Simon pushed open the door, and he involuntarily found himself brooding about Ian again. Even though Simon was alone in his bedroom, he felt like it offered him no sanctuary now. The walls were tastefully decorated with scenic portraits and the odd family picture. His mother and sister’s smiling faces made him remember why he was studying to be a journalist in the first place. His mother had lost her IT business because of red tape that was manufactured by a bigger business that was competing for the same clients. Simon had wanted to expose the operations of this business, to find out how they could get away with ruining the livelihoods of smaller firms. He knew that if he became a journalist, he could expose such injustices when they happened in the future. He sat on his bed, staring at a picture of him hugging his sister while his mother stood over them. He wanted to do them both proud.
His desk was neatly organized with research material and assignment notices carefully arranged in heaps with no overextended corners. A little bit warm, Simon removed his acrylic, powder blue sweater. Simon carefully folded the sweater, military precision style, and opened up his cupboard. His polo shirts were carefully ironed and hanging on the railing, color-coded, his socks neatly matched and his underwear folded and ironed. Simon felt a little bit self-conscious about his OCD ways. He placed his sweater neatly upon the shelf that contained his other sweaters, and plopped down onto his bed. He looked sideways at his bedside cabinet, and wondered if he should… It certainly helped him to relax, and gave him a kick in the pants. Simon rolled over on his bed, and pulled out the A3 poster. Ian Peters’s copycat double stared back at him. There was nothing salacious about his outfit or about his gaze. Just the right mixture of class and sexiness. Simon smiled indulgently, and quickly pasted the poster above his desk, where his PC sat ready and waiting. He’d have to be careful to remove it once he received a visitor, but by now he had become adept at removing the poster and hiding it at the slightest hint of an interruption. Simon chuckled to himself as he thought of how Olivia just assumed that he was having, uh, ‘Simon Time’, as she put it.
Ian and Zuko both needed him. And he was determined to be there for them.
Sufficiently energized, Simon was bolstered by the idea that if he could get to the bottom of Zuko’s mysterious disappearance and the strange behavior from Zuko’s mother that Ian might develop a newfound respect for him. Simon pulled out his desk chair and decided to get to work. With his highly organized and methodical approach, Simon researched Zuko’s case, but to his disappointment, his search did not reveal much. He resolved to reach out to his contact in the student administration department as soon as he could, and see if he could wring any information out of him.
Since his investigation was not really bearing any fruit, Simon’s gaze drifted up to his poster. The model, with his smoky gaze, his hands holding the collar of his shirt defiantly, and his hips pushed forward provocatively, seemed to dare Simon to make a move and contact Ian. Simon glanced at his phone, scrolled down on his contact list to the entry of Ian Peters, and he found himself involuntarily let out a small squeak. Ian’s casual, relaxed, and somehow oddly reassuring smile made him simultaneously peaceful and breathless with excitement. Simon again fell down onto his bed, this time his attention absorbed by Ian’s image. He selected ‘send text’, and imagined what he would have said if he and Ian were already together.
Wistfully, he typed in: I miss you. I care about you. I can’t wait to see you soon. His hand tentatively hovered over the ‘send now’ icon, as it had done so many times before.
“Oh dear mother of Mary, not you again! Get out, you filthy little scoundrel!” Startled by Olivia’s high-pitched screech, Simon found his fingers clutching the phone tighter at the moment of surprise… and to his dismay, he realized that he just sent Ian that pathetic, needy message. He felt all of the blood rush out of his face, and he felt sick.
“Liv, get in here! Right! Now!” Simon let out a horrified screech of his own, and Olivia scurried over to Simon’s room, her eyes wide with fright.
“It’s that disgusting little rat, no doubt ridden with diseases, and would you believe it, I swear it gave me a stare down before it scurried away, defiant little… baby, what’s wrong?” Olivia’s eyes were filled with concern as she took in Simon’s hopeless expression. He stared down at the floor and looked like he was on the verge of tears. Wordlessly, he handed Olivia his phone.
Olivia glanced at it, and burst out in gleeful delight.
“Baby, you did it! Finally, you gave King Arthur a clue! I’m so proud of you!”
“Liv, why on earth would you be proud of me for ruining any and all chances I ever might have had with Ian? He must think I’m such a loser right now. I mean, obviously I sent it by mistake when you were hollering down the roof, but how do I explain that? I can’t even, I just …”
At that very moment, both Simon and Olivia’s eyes widened as Simon’s text notification went off.
“You do it, you read it. I can’t even bear it. I’m so nervous, Liv. Please, deliver the bad news gently.” Simon paced the room, his hand nervously rubbing the back of his head, and he took a deep breath as he prepared to be humiliated.
Olivia cleared her throat, ever the drama queen.
“Hey Simon. I was just thinking about you. Got out of hospital yesterday. Mind if I pop over in a few?”
Simon met Olivia’s eyes in confusion. “What does that mean? That sounds pretty cryptic.”
“Well hey, no doubt it’s much less dramatic than what your imagination has conjured up. I say a casual ‘sure’ should do the trick.”
“Uhm, I guess. After that embarrassing text, there really is no going back.”
Simon quickly sent Ian the message, and felt another wave of apprehension and uncertainty wash over him. Was Ian heading over to tell him off? To tell him what a loser he was? To tell him he ruined his future prospects at the Weekly? Simon’s head swirled with confusion. He decided the best course of action was to take a shower, apply a modest amount of cologne, and to simply prepare himself for the worst. He might be going down, but he was going down in style.
Simon sat at the edge of their couch, nervously chewing his fingers, careful not to do any real damage. For what seemed like the fifth time that afternoon, he carefully arranged the magazines and repositioned the flower pots in anticipation of Ian’s arrival. It had been an hour since he had sent that text. What was keeping him?
Simon nearly jumped up from his chair as he heard the doorbell. Olivia peeked around the corner from her bedroom, and gave an enthusiastic thumbs up, frantically motioning him to the door. She mimicked zipping up her lips, placed her index finger in front of her mouth, and with a final wink, she gently closed her bedroom door to give them some privacy. Simon smiled at the show of support and realized she gave him a little boost in confidence. Just the right amount that he needed.
Simon stood by the front door, and looked through the peephole. To Simon’s surprise, Ian was supported by crutches. But despite his compromised state, he still looked as adorable as ever. Sporting light stubble, Ian was wearing a tight-fitting pair of light blue jeans and a Ridge U t-shirt tightly hugging his broad shoulders and chiseled pecs. Simon felt his legs slightly buckle under the strong physiological reaction he was having to seeing Ian. He took a deep breath, and opened the door, wondering if he was about to make the biggest mistake of his life.
“Simon! Thank you for seeing me on such short notice. I’d give you a hug, but I don’t know how you feel about getting intimate with crutches.” Simon laughed, grateful at Ian’s attempt to make the awkwardness a little bit lighter between the two of them. Simon felt a bit more confident.
“That’s no problem. A pat on the back will do.” Simon smiled at Ian, and helped him into the living room, where Ian, with a little bit of trouble, managed to seat himself on the living room couch.
“So hey, Simon. Listen. That text you sent me. It was kind of out of the blue, but not really unwelcome at all. I’m just curious, what brought it up? Is there anything you want to tell me?” Ian’s voice quivered ever so slightly. It would have been clearly audible to anyone else, but Simon, suddenly finding himself caught up in a whirl of self-consciousness and uncertainty, found himself doing what he thought was damage control. Nerves overcame him, and he felt himself slip back into his comfort zone to protect himself.
“Oh, that text? It’s a funny story, Ian, but I sent that to you by mistake. It was meant for somebody else, whose name also begins with ‘I’. Total slip-up. You must have been freaked out, right?” Simon found himself babbling, but paused nearing the end of his speech to see if Ian took the bait.
“No, actually. Not at all. I would not have minded if that text was meant for me.” Ian stared Simon down, challenging him to stick by his bogus story.
Simon, feeling overwhelmed, found himself copping out again.
“Was there any reason besides that text that you came over to see me?” Simon decided that he didn’t have the nerve to lie to Ian’s face twice.
Ian let out a nearly imperceptible sigh, his eyes momentarily betraying the shadow of disappointment, and then, squaring his jaw, he looked Simon straight in the eye.
“It’s been brought to my attention that Zuko Mavuso recently left the uni, with no explanation. I heard some rumors that he has been experiencing some trouble with some of his roommates, and that concerns me. Ridgemont University can’t afford to let students from less advantaged communities slip through the cracks. And after I poked around a bit, it seems like things aren’t adding up. I know I’m on my way out at the paper, but Zuko was a bright, talented kid, with lots of potential, and the piece he wrote for the online edition was excellent. I want to leave a legacy behind that I’m proud of. I know you and he are close. Do you know anything? Is there any way the Weekly could help with figuring this out?”
Simon was a bit startled by Ian’s sudden turnaround, assuming his position of authority over Simon again, but he resolved not to let Ian’s businesslike attitude get to him.
“I’m glad this has been brought to your attention. Yes, Zuko did disappear from campus. And you’re right, we are close. I’m concerned as well and tried to do some research. You remember the case I tried investigating last year that sounded similar to this? I think it might be a pattern. In fact, I didn’t come up with much when researching earlier, but something did catch my eye. Why don’t I help you up and we can go to my computer in my room?”
Simon approached Ian, pulled him up by his big, commanding hand, and draped his arm around his shoulder. Ian let out a wince of pain, and Simon readjusted his hold to minimize discomfort. Simon ached to be this close to Ian at all times. Why had he been so afraid of acknowledging that he meant to send that text? Why was Ian’s confidence so overwhelming for him? He felt the heat emanating from Ian’s body, he could feel Ian’s heartbeat, and the warm comfort of Ian’s strong body resting tightly against his own. To Simon’s disappointment, they reached his bedroom door too quickly, and he reached over to turn the doorknob.
And there it was. Ian’s spitting image, adorning his wall. Only this time, Simon felt that the model’s facial expression was one of a sneering taunt. Not only did faux Ian help him send that text, now he was happily revealing himself as Simon’s object of affection.
“Well, lookie here. I guess we all need to keep our juices flowing somehow, right?” Ian let out his characteristic casual, laid-back laugh.
“Uh, yeah. What, that poster over there? Just an actor I like.” Simon let out a forced, awkward belt of laughter, and his cheeks reddened with humiliation.
“I hear you.” Ian winked at him, and Simon gratefully noted that he didn’t seem to question the glaring similarities in appearance between the model and Ian. Until…
“Hmmm. He looks ever so slightly familiar. But hey, I’m sure it’s just my imagination.” Ian nudged Simon playfully in the ribs with his elbow. Simon feigned ignorance and approached his desk, where his PC was readily awaiting his attention.
Ian was cognizant of Simon’s face-saving tactics, and decided to let him get away with it just for a little bit longer.
“So hey, let me have a look to see what you found. I want us to jump on this and make it happen. I want to go out with a bang and I want you to do this story with me.”
Simon smiled shyly, and opened up a few of the news articles that he had stored on his browser’s tabs.
“In the case last year, one gay student was harassed at a male residence, and you know we were granted an interview with him to hear his side of the story, and then a few days later he disappeared without a trace. I mean, doesn’t this sound familiar to you?” Simon looked at Ian hopefully, and found himself wishing that he wasn’t so desperate for Ian’s approval.
“Definitely. I remember how hard you worked to win his trust and to schedule the interview. And I remember you were so crushed when you didn’t hear from him and the story fell flat. Poor tiger.” Ian smiled lightly, and placed his hand carefully on Simon’s shoulder, giving it a firm, yet gentle squeeze. Tiger?
The mood suddenly became very heavy, and Ian’s voice was soft and warm as he stared at Simon intensely: “Simon, I want to ask you something. Before we continue with the story. When was the last time that you felt your heart tugging at you, pushing you to do something crazy, willing you ahead, but your mind, your rationality, holds you back? I mean, it’s so tempting, you just want to reach out, but you stop yourself, you know?” Ian was looking at Simon with an urgency, and even Simon couldn’t deny at this point that there was genuine desire and longing for… something.
And then Simon saw black.
Suddenly robbed of his vision, Simon heard a groan of frustration from Oliva’s room.
Simon stumbled over Ian, and nearly tripped over his feet in the dark as he fumbled around until he eventually ended up in front of Olivia’s bedroom door.
“A scheduled power outage, I completely forgot! Ugh.”
“This is super annoying. Ian and I were just… I mean, we were just making some progress in connecting the dots with what has happened to Zee.” Simon was aware that his recovery was lame at best, but he tried to take it in his stride.
“Oh, I’m sure that’s all that you two got up to, alone in your bedroom.” Olivia chuckled as she made her way to the kitchen and to light a few candles. She said it loud enough for Ian to hear her, and Simon was furious. Olivia whispered her next line when she realized that she might have been embarrassing Simon in front of Ian.
“Go tend to your boyfriend, honey. Or have you forgotten that he is in crutches, basically begging you for your assistance?” Although the faint flickering of the candles provided only a little bit of light, Simon could still see Olivia’s playful wink.
She walked over to the kitchen counter and put the candle down. “Okay sweetheart, I’m out of here. Justin is missing me. I better skedaddle and grab some takeout on the way. Don’t be too naughty. But I at least want to see a hickey when I come back, or at least your perfect side parting a little bit ruffled!” Olivia gave Simon one of her hearty hugs, grabbed her keys from the empty fruit bowl, and left the apartment.
Simon collected some of the unlit candles she had put on the kitchen counter, felt a rush of bravado, and carefully placed them on the living room floor. He opened up the linen closet, and spread out a blanket on the floor. Bolstered by Ian’s suggestive words earlier, he had decided to take advantage of this opportunity, especially now that Olivia had left.
Simon gingerly made his way back to his bedroom, carefully balancing a candle in his hand, its flame fighting to stay alive.
Ian was seated on the bed, his silhouette casting a dark shadow on Simon’s wall in the faint light.
“There you are! I’d started to think that you’d forgotten all about me!” Ian flashed a brilliant smile, and Simon’s heart leapt.
Simon smiled shyly, took a deep breath, walked over to Ian, and held out his hand without a word. Ian took a hold of Simon’s hand, his eyes intrigued, but also questioning.
“Come with me to the living room.” Simon’s voice was so shaky that it was barely audible. He could feel a heavy lump in his throat and his mouth was dry. It had been a long time since he had been this bold…
Simon carefully assisted Ian in hobbling to the living room on his crutches. Simon relished the role he was playing of tending to Ian’s needs, just like that night after the staff party – only, this time, Simon was not about to let an opportunity to get closer to Ian go to waste. Gingerly helping Ian to a sitting position, Simon sat down, and mustered up the courage to sit a little bit closer to Ian. Ian’s ridiculously handsome features were only enhanced by the gentle flickering of the candlelight. His skin looked smooth, his eyes a rich, warm, coffee brown, and Simon could see the candlelight reflected in his gaze. Ian was looking at Simon expectantly, and Simon was careful not to let the weight of expectation overwhelm him.
“Ian, I know we don’t know each other that well yet. And I know, at the best of times, I’m a bumbling, awkward, neurotic mess. So I’m not always as articulate as I want to be, except when I’m writing. But I think it’s obvious from the way that I act around you, that…”
The moment felt right. Ian was leaning in closer to Simon. As much as he wanted to do it, Simon couldn’t bring himself to make a move. He started rambling again, his words hardly making sense: “I don’t want to be such a klutz all the time, and miss out on what I want. I feel like everyone is moving forward and I’m left behind. Olivia is so close with her boyfriend Justin, and they take me out with them, but I’m left feeling like a loser. And Zuko is so brave, standing up to everyone in his res even when he was being driven away. He never stopped being himself and going after what he wants. He even danced with Jeremy, the cute Rainbow guy, at the Journo ball. I’m too scared. I don’t want to be. I don’t want to miss out on…”
Simon immediately realized what he was saying, and became extremely embarrassed. “I’m sorry about that; I don’t know what came over me!” But Ian was still staring at him with a gentle smile on his face.
“You know, Simon, that’s the most you’ve spoken to me in the entire time we’ve been working together.” His smile broadened and he once again put his hand on Simon’s shoulder, that familiar gesture that made him feel so close.
Simon felt his confidence growing. “You know what? I’m glad I got to know you. I’m glad I got to know such a special guy.” He suddenly felt a jolt of adrenaline shoot up his arm as he realized that Ian was holding his hand. Somehow, it had felt so natural that he did not even notice it happening up to that point. Ian looked him in the eye with a serious expression and said: “You know, sometimes I get scared too. I’m not as fearless and confident as you think I am. I still worry about what people will think about me, and whether they’ll still respect me. And as you have had the dubious honor of experiencing it first hand, sometimes I control my nerves with alcohol. Not my strongest selling point!” Ian looked at Simon, and Simon felt a warm rush at the trust that Ian was placing in him.
Simon was elated. Could this really be happening? But along with the excitement, he also felt the familiar sense of fear descending on him. Was he making a huge mistake? Since when did things work out for him? And since when had he ever been able to navigate his love life? Before he could stop himself, Simon cleared his throat in embarrassment and pulled his hand away from Ian, and said dismissively, “I guess we all have things to work on.”
Ian’s facial expression grew from shock to what seemed like mild anger and embarrassment. There were a few painful seconds of silence between them, and then heralding the end of Simon’s chance to grow closer to Ian, the lights came on and rudely forced them head first into stark reality, the romantic ambience replaced with harsh lighting and Ian’s glowering glare. Simon felt awkward sitting with Ian on the blanket on the floor. Neither said a word as Ian stared Simon down, challenging him with his gaze to retract his rejection, and Simon strained as he focused not to meet Ian’s glare. Just as Simon was about to break the awkward silence, Ian’s phone rang. Simon quietly listened to Ian’s conversation, and with a sinking heart, he realized Margeaux was at the other end of the line. Ian said: “It’s Margeaux. I forgot that I had a date with her tonight and I’m running late already. Could you help me up? I’d better get going.”
Simon once again wrapped his arm around Ian’s shoulder and lifted him up from the ground, but this time Simon’s cold demeanor betrayed his anger. Once again, Simon chastised himself: I’ve ruined everything.
Simon reached for the doorknob, and tried for a weak apology. He had no idea what to say, but managed: “I’m sorry about… I’m sorry for being so…”
“That’s okay, Northbrook. Maybe we just got our lines crossed or something. No problem at all.” Every hint of confusion and disappointment was gone from Ian’s face, and he was his regular confident self again. “I’ll talk to you soon. We have to follow up on this story. Work comes first, right?”
Ian turned away without giving Simon the reassuring smile that he had become accustomed to. Simon longed for Ian’s hand on his shoulder, assuring him that everything would be okay. He closed the door, and felt tears welling in his eyes. His heart was breaking, and he felt like he was breaking it all by himself. Simon went back to his room and took down the poster of the actor who looked so much like Ian, putting it on top of his closet. He didn’t want to see it for a while.
He heard the front door open again and Olivia shouted to him, “Are you alone, babe? You okay?”
Simon managed to let out that he was alone, and that he was okay. Despite his protestations, he knew he wasn’t okay. He wasn’t okay at all.
Liv. My stupidity clearly knows no bounds. I messed up. I messed up bad.
Simon’s finger rested limply on the ‘send’ button as he lay in bed the next morning, looking at his phone vacantly, and pondered the wisdom of sending yet another text to Olivia. He had barely slept a wink, and his stomach was clenched in tight knots. He knew at some point he had to accept greater responsibility for how he was handling the Ian situation, but he also needed Olivia’s comforting advice. The night before had finally been his chance to let Ian know how he felt, and it seemed like Ian was returning his feelings, but he had let the opportunity slip away from him again. His thoughts were swimming. He pulled the sheet up over his face, ready to explode with embarrassment and the sinking feeling that he had missed his one chance to be with Ian.
Simon had had a dream about Ian the night before, replaying the events of their evening with a more favorable outcome. In his dream, Ian had held on tightly to his hand, and then reached up to hold his face, staring into his eyes, and he whispered to Simon: “I don’t want to be without you. I want you.” The longing was overwhelming for Simon. He could feel the yearning he felt for Ian course through his body, and he remembered how close he was to tears the night before.
And then Ian had left him to see Margeaux. Of all people. Was there something going on between the two of them? She had certainly been very forward in kissing him and even pinching his butt before, but Ian was too smart to go for someone like that. Right?
Simon finally pushed himself out of bed, and tried to fight away thoughts of Ian. It was getting him nowhere to be recycling the self-loathing and regret that he had been feeling all morning and night. He was determined to focus on something that he could control: helping Zuko. His friend needed him, and Ian needed him to investigate and expose what was going on. If there was a pattern there, it could be a really important story to share with students. Simon needed to make sure, first of all, that Zuko was okay.
Ian’s instincts were always right, so Simon decided to trust him. If he thought that there was something fishy with the way the Ridgemont management handled cases of unfair discrimination, then Simon believed him. The only thing he had to do was find out why they would try and cover up it up, and what exactly had happened to finally drive Zuko away. Simon reached for his phone again and tried Zuko’s cell phone. It was at least the hundredth time that he had tried calling his friend over the past few days, but every time the phone was either switched off or it would just ring. Zuko’s mother was being of no help, simply ignoring Simon’s calls. This time, however, Simon was taken aback to hear an answer to his call, and Zuko’s voice timidly saying, “Hello?”
“Zuko, is that you? Finally! I’ve been trying to reach you non-stop for days now. Why have you been ignoring my calls?”
“Simon, I’m sorry for being so distant. I just needed some space to think things through.” Simon heard Zuko take a deep breath.
“But everything is fine. You don’t need to worry.”
Simon was unconvinced. Zuko’s voice sounded different, heavier, and he knew from the injuries Zuko had sustained before that everything was definitely not okay. “What happened? Why did you suddenly leave? Why are your things not in your room anymore?”
“Simon, I left Ridgemont. It’s just not the place for me. You know I wasn’t really fitting in.”
“What are you talking about? What exactly happened?” In Simon’s mind, it was clear that Zuko was hiding something from him. Simon strained to keep his voice calm but involuntarily clenched his phone tighter: “Zuko, please tell me exactly what is going on.”
Zuko hesitated for a few seconds. “I can’t talk about it, Simon. They made me sign stuff. I’m not even sure if I should say anything at all.”
“Who made you sign what? What did you agree to? Zuko? Zee, I can help you. You know you can trust me.”
Zuko went quiet for a long time, and Simon waited for him to respond. Finally, a small, quavering voice, Zuko said, “I can meet you for lunch to talk about it. If you’re sure you can help me.”
“Okay, should we meet at my place? Or at Valerie’s just across the road from my flat?”
“No, I’d rather not meet on campus. Let’s go to the city and meet at Dino’s at Pinelands mall. I can be there around 1:30. Will that suit you?”
“Definitely, I’ll meet you there. I’m here for you, Zee. Please know that.”
Simon hung up the phone and had a new sense of determination to help his friend. Even though he felt a bit hesitant about going up against management, who had obviously made Zuko keep quiet about something, he was determined to stand up for what was right. He couldn’t allow his friend to live in fear.
After a quick shower, and on his way out, Simon noticed the corner of a poster showing over the edge of the top of his closet. He took it down one more time and looked at the man who reminded him so much of Ian, his clear cut jawline and deep, coffee brown eyes smiling back at him. I want to make you proud, Ian. I want to be braver for you.
Simon rushed out of the door of his flat, grabbing a banana from the kitchen counter for breakfast, and decided to make one stop before meeting Zuko since he still had a few hours to kill. He would go back to Zuko’s residence and try to speak to the residence head again. There were too many pieces to this puzzle to just ignore the residence, and if Zuko really was subject to a gag order, maybe he wouldn’t be able to find out what he really needed from him anyway.
Simon walked down Quellerie Street, lined with tall, proud oak trees, and stopped at his favorite coffee cart, where he picked up a latte. Feeling the caffeine rush through his blood, Simon felt a renewed sense of hope, and he was going to fix things. First with Zuko, then with Ian. He was going to go after the things he wanted, and not let himself be held back by fear anymore.
Simon arrived at Zuko’s residence and saw Zuko’s roommate sitting outside on the benches with other residents. Bare-chested, the group of guys were back-slapping one another for the most demeaning catcall. Empty beer bottles littered the grass. Simon’s disgust produced a sour feeling of distaste in his mouth, and uncharacteristically, he had to suppress the urge to spit. Better make a mental note to report these jerks later, Simon thought. He marched straight to the bench and stood facing Zuko’s roommate. “Can I ask you some questions for the Ridgemont Weekly? We are doing a story about what is happening in your residence.”
Leaning in aggressively as if accepting the challenge, the freshman met Simon’s gaze with a hard, thin sneer, not even bothering to mask his disdain for Simon. “If this is about your friend, he really didn’t belong here. Do you know the kinds of things he was doing?” The men all laughed, and Simon’s cheeks were warm with fury. Realizing the futility in talking with a bunch of Neanderthals, Simon gained a greater understanding for what Zuko was going through in the residence with such a group to contend with. He walked into the front door of the residence and asked the student assistant to see the residence head about a complaint. The student assistant walked up the stairs without saying a word, and Simon sat waiting in the foyer. He could see that this would be an uphill battle. The rest of the students living in the residence must have been briefed on how to deal with this situation already. Everyone standing united against the outsiders.
A few minutes later the student assistant returned, and said with an expressionless face: “You can make an appointment to see him if it is on official business only. You will need a letter to discuss complaints from a student society and faculty officer, and then he will be able to see you within the next few weeks if the letter is approved. Just protocol, you know.”
Simon was fuming. He took a few deep breaths, and struggled to contain his anger. It was common practice for students to consult with resident heads, whether or not they themselves were a resident. Bristling with anger, Simon seethed over his shoulder, “Thanks for the help. Your considerable efforts are greatly appreciated.”
His anger clouding his vision, Simon almost didn’t notice the familiar face outside of the residence.
“Jeremy! Is that you?”
It was Jeremy from the Rainbow society, who got so close to Zuko on the dance floor at the journalism opening function.
Simon was startled by Jeremy’s appearance. His hair disheveled and unkempt, with loose strands falling over his forehead, his current appearance stood in stark contrast to the perfectly coiffed hairdo he sported at the ball. Dark circles lined his eyes, and his eyelids were drooping. Jeremy greeted Simon somberly. “Did you see Zuko? Is he still here? I’ve been trying to call.”
Simon explained that Zuko had left the residence, and that he was seeing him for lunch.
Jeremy seemed relieved, but his face was still heavy with worry. “I didn’t know what happened to him. I was so scared. I’ve been walking past here for the last few days just hoping I would see him come or go.”
“What happened, Jeremy? What did they do to Zuko?” Simon took Jeremy by the arm and pulled him down the street away from the residence, being careful not to be noticed by Zuko’s roommate who was still laughing with his friends on the bench in front of the residence.
Jeremy shook his head: “We were in his room. We hit it off after the journo function. I really liked him, and he said his roommate was away for the weekend. But he walked into the room while we were kissing. He saw us. He ran out, shouting horrible things. Poor Zuko. He came back with his friends. They kept me in the room and dragged Zuko away. I don’t know what they did to him. After a while they lifted me and carried me out of the res. They locked me out. I called campus security and told them what had happened. I waited here for Zuko.” Jeremy’s voice rose with a feeling of urgency, and tense worry strained his features.
“But they just told me that everything was okay and that they had resolved everything. The residence head told me to leave or he would have me arrested for trespassing. I didn’t know what else to do. I was so worried about him.”
Jeremy wrapped his arms around Simon and began to sob bitterly. “I know Zuko doesn’t want to see me. He sent me a message telling me just to stay away. I just didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know if he was okay. I really liked him, and I didn’t want to be the cause of him getting into so much trouble.”
“You did nothing wrong, Jeremy. I’m on my way to see Zuko soon. Give me your number and I’ll keep you updated, okay.”
Simon continued to pat Jeremy on his back, feeling desperately sorry for him and for Zuko. While he tried to comfort Jeremy, he was also taken aback, shocked at the enormity of what was done to both Jeremy and Zuko. A somber determination settled in Simon’s bones, and he resolved to hold those responsible accountable for their actions.
He glanced back at the roommate and his friends, who were opening up another six pack.
“Zuko is way too important to me to allow a bunch of pinheads to ruin his chances at a good education and happiness. And I’ll happily prove that.”
Simon got out of the cab at the entrance to Pinelands Mall, finishing his text to Ian as he walked. Following up on the story. Will update soon. There’s definitely something here. His eyes narrowed as he considered how to end the text. Should he acknowledge the tension between them? Should he apologize for being completely neurotic the last time they saw each other? Never mind, he thought, Zuko deserved all of his attention. He had to make things right and help Zuko to stand up to the residence and the way he was treated. Jeremy had seemed so shaken, like he really thought that Zuko was in danger, and the look in his eyes had scared Simon.
Strangely enough, Simon also felt a sense of exhilaration, like he was investigating a story really worth following and actually using his skills to help someone who needed it. He would tell this story. With Ian. And they would do their darnedest to ensure that no one had to go through the humiliation that Zuko went through again.
Simon found the coffee shop where they had agreed to meet. Nestled in a quiet street, with the entrance flanked by low-hanging cedar trees, the spot was discreet and not frequented by students. Simon accepted the menu from the hostess at the entrance, and sat down in a darkly lit corner. Simon’s mind and heart raced with conflicting emotions as he wrestled about how best to approach Zuko’s dilemma. He hoped Zuko would arrive soon to assuage his fears.
Simon had a lot on his plate, from pining over Ian, to feeling judged by Olivia for being so anxious about saying how he really felt, to feeling like a failure over not helping Zuko when he really needed it. And then there was Margeaux clamoring for the editor job once Ian stepped down. Simon tried to quiet his mind and scanned the room again to see if Zuko was arriving. He glanced at his phone; Zuko was late. A message tone sounded then and Ian’s name appeared on Simon’s screen. I will be in tomorrow and then we can work on it together. Good job, Northbrook!
Talk? Would they just be talking about the story, or did Ian want to bring up what happened between them?
“Deep in thought I see?” Zuko’s voice boomed over Simon. He was smiling broadly, again wearing one of his signature floral shirts and reached out to hug Simon enthusiastically. Simon got up, suspicious of Zuko’s jovial attitude, but reluctantly returned his hug.
“It’s good to see you. Sorry if I’m a bit late, I just had a bit of a wardrobe malfunction. More accurately, wardrobe indecision! How are you?”
Zuko’s cheeriness was unnerving to Simon. Why was he acting like nothing was wrong? Simon gave him a confused look and said, “I’m fine, Zee. But I know you’re not. I spoke to Jeremy this morning.”
Zuko looked at Simon, and his expression fell. He sat down at the table, propped his fist onto his cheek, and wearily eyed his friend.
“Is he okay? I wasn’t ready to talk to him yet.”
“He’s okay. He’s worried about you. He told me what happened, or at least he told me everything until you were dragged out of the room. What did they do to you? Why did you say you can’t tell me what’s going on? Are they forcing you to leave Ridgemont?”
Zuko sat still for a moment, his eyes nervously darting around the room. His lip started to quiver, and in a shaky voice he said, “Why must you put me through all of this again, Simon? I’m trying to move on with my life. A bad thing happened but I am strong enough to just move on.”
“I want to help you. Ian thinks that this has happened to other people before at your residence. I can guarantee you that it will happen again unless we tell your story. Ian wants to help and so do I.”
Zuko’s face fell into his hands and he began sobbing. It was heartbreaking for Simon to watch, but he was glad that the façade of nonchalance was breaking.
“Poor Jeremy,” Zuko said between sobs. “He didn’t deserve all this drama. I should’ve known that taking him to my res was a mistake. They even warned me that I would face ‘consequences’ if I overstepped their boundaries. I didn’t want to cause so much trouble. But you know me, I have a flair for pushing back when I’m being bullied. I couldn’t just sit back and let them treat me like that. That’s what I was thinking when I took Jeremy with me to my room that night.”
Zuko dabbed at his eyes with a white satin handkerchief, his head bowed down. His eyes were red, but the sobbing had stopped. Simon reached out and took his hand. “Zuko, I need you to tell me exactly what happened. I want to take this further, confront management and the residence head, and write a story so that this doesn’t happen again.”
“No!” Zuko exclaimed, and stood up quickly, alarm tensing the muscles in his face. He was shaking, “You can’t do that. They made me promise. They made me sign a nondisclosure agreement. I can’t go back on it. I’ll get in a lot of trouble. I shouldn’t even be talking to you.”
Zuko turned on his heel to leave, but Simon stopped him. “Zuko, listen to me! If they harassed you, you have to make them pay for it. They can’t get away with this. I can write an anonymous story, leave out all of your details, and focus more on the previous case. We don’t need you to get into any sort of trouble. But I need to know what happened so that I can know what to look for when I’m researching this.”
Zuko sat down slowly and considered Simon’s words. After a moment of contemplation, his face lit up, and he excitedly exclaimed, “You know what? Screw it! I made a mistake agreeing to their terms. I don’t care what the consequences are. I don’t care what they do to me now. They took away my dignity. They need to take responsibility for what they did. How about those bastards ‘face the consequences’?” Zuko’s voice rose as he became exuberant at the prospect of standing up for himself, his chin jutting out and exposing his long neck.
Simon smiled, guided Zuko back to the table, and ordered coffee. Zuko took many deep breaths, and he nervously surveyed the room. “I wasn’t expecting my roommate to come home,” he finally said. “I thought he would be away for the night. But he came in and saw me kissing Jeremy. And then all hell broke loose. He called his friends. I told Jeremy that we should escape somehow. They had hurt me before, and that was only because of the way I dress and talk. Imagine what they would do to me for kissing another guy! I tried to get out but my roommate was already coming back with his friends. And that guy. The ringleader. The one calling all the shots.”
“Who was it?” Simon asked. “What did he make them do?”
Zuko hesitated again, but then he composed himself, and said with determination. Conrad Riley. Do you know him?”
“Professor Riley’s son? The Vice-Rector’s son? He was involved in this?”
“He was the one who targeted me first. That’s why I was so scared to talk to you, or to talk to anyone. I knew that he could make my life really difficult if I said anything. Ironic, hey, because he was already making my life unbearable.”
“What did they do?” Simon demanded, grinding his teeth.
“He told them to slap me. They all took turns, and called me filthy. Said I was a disgrace to their residence. They treated me like a dog.”
Simon instinctively hugged Zuko, and his heart was completely broken for his friend. He couldn’t believe that Zuko had to suffer like that, in Ridgemont University of all places. He knew that the University was considered conservative by most standards, but he never expected it to be this hard for people who were different. And what about Simon himself? He had been staying in the closet, too scared to hurt his chances of being editor or eventually being a successful journalist. Was he a part of the problem by letting his fear control his life?
Zuko spoke again, sounding like he was holding back tears, “When I complained, tried to take things further, they had me meet with a lawyer. He represented Conrad Riley and told me that they could offer me a comfortable deal, under the table, if I agreed to make this all quietly disappear. They paid my tuition at the college and arranged the transfer of credits. They even arranged for private accommodation for me, and gave me some money that I could give to my mother. I took their hush money, Simon. I just wanted it all to end.”
“They’ve done this before, Zee. They use their power to abuse and then they cover it all up with money. We can make that change.”
Simon and Zuko spoke for what seemed like minutes, but was in fact hours, as Zuko vented his fear, hurt and frustration, and Simon become more and more incensed about what happened to his friend. Simon promised Zuko that he would make Riley and the others involved take responsibility for their actions. This was the kind of story he had always wanted to do – something that could really make a difference and change things for the better. He couldn’t wait to tell Ian about it and for them to work on the story together.
Simon rushed over to the office immediately after seeing Zuko, and went to his PC and the ‘Works in Progress’ folder. He wrote up the main notes from the story and everything he had learned so far about Riley and the history of harassment on campus. He rushed out of the office, his mind buzzing, and forgot to turn off his PC. On his way out he walked past Margeaux. He greeted her half-heartedly, and was grateful that she didn’t stop to make any snarky comments. Preoccupied, he whizzed by her. He had to get to Ian as soon as possible.
Simon knocked on the door at Ian’s flat, barely able to contain his excitement. He was impatient to tell Ian about what Zuko had said, that Ian was right about a pattern similar to the last story they tried to pursue. But Ian was taking long to answer the door. Maybe he wasn’t home. He hadn’t responded to Simon’s texts. Simon debated whether or not to leave a note, to try shouting out, or to just leave and text Ian later.
He was about to turn away when he finally heard movement inside of the flat. “Ian, is that you? It’s Simon. Did you get my messages?” he shouted through the door.
Ian opened the front door, and greeted Simon, his appearance unkempt, and his eyes tired and red.
“Hey Simon. Sorry for not answering sooner. Uh, I’m kind of out of it.”
Simon noticed that Ian was still using a crutch to walk, and it was the first time that Simon had seen him look… anything other than perfectly put together. It was hard to look at, because Simon knew that something must’ve been very wrong. His characteristic charm and smile were gone, and his shoulders drooped like a wounded animal.
“Are you okay? What’s wrong?”
“I’m okay. Come in. You said you had a breakthrough with the story? Anything concrete?”
Simon was conflicted. He wanted to break through the pretense of only being colleagues with Ian. He cared about him, more than he could say, and Ian was clearly hurting, but he was trying to act like the boss again. Simon wondered if this was for the best, that he should try and distance himself from Ian who could clearly never feel the same way about him as he felt about Ian. But his heart felt like it was being torn apart at the thought that Ian, his Ian, was hurting for some reason. Despite his concern, Simon knew that he would only hurt himself more if he allowed Ian to see just how much he really cared. He had to stay focused on helping Zuko, anyway. That was the most important thing right now, wasn’t it? Simon wanted to reach out and help Ian walk to the couch when he saw how much he was struggling. But he went back to his safety net of reason and professionalism. At least he could rely on that, rather than getting hurt, or hurting someone else.
“I… I went to see Zuko. You were right. They were trying to cover up the way he was being treated in the res. The things they were doing to him… “
Simon described what had happened to Zuko, how Conrad Riley was the ringleader, and how it would look very bad for the University if it ever got out. How Zuko was paid to keep quiet.
“I can’t believe it. I’m so sorry that he had to go through that. But we will make this right. We have to run the story as soon as we can. I’ll speak to our legal consultant about how to get around the gag order they put on Zuko. I’m sure we can still get the story out without directly saying that he was our source. There were more students involved?”
“A group of them, yes. I got their names from Zuko. We can trace them back to the case from last year and see if there are any links. I started a quick write-up in the office right before I came over here. Just put down all of the facts so far. If we get something concrete, any shred of evidence, we can run the story immediately. The residence head dodged me when I tried to visit.”
Ian tried to get up from the couch and winced in pain. He gave Simon a weak smile, trying to pretend like nothing was wrong, “I just wanted to get some water, but I can do it later.”
Simon was even more concerned now. Were his injuries worse than he had let on? Simon stifled his doubt, his insecurity, and before he could help himself, he blurted out, “Ian, are you sure you’re okay? You don’t look like yourself. I’m worried about you.”
Ian’s head sank then, and his weak smile faded. “I went to see the doctor again today. He says that the tear in my ligament is too severe and I won’t be able to be on the rugby team for the rest of the year.” His gaze was distant and he gave a deep sigh. “Nothing I can do about it though. I just need to keep pushing on.”
Simon went and sat down next to Ian on the couch, feeling the closeness of Ian’s body to his, again, and remembering the night on the floor of his flat, where they shared an intimate moment. Why had Simon ruined it then? Why had he been so scared to be vulnerable in front of Ian? His stomach was aflutter and he felt his neck break out in sweat. But he was not going to get up and walk away. “Ian, what exactly happened to cause your car accident? How did you just drive off the road?”
Ian stared at the floor, a heavy crease forming between his eyes. Simon became suddenly aware of the silence around them, and hung on Ian’s every word. “I’ve been such a coward. I’ve been trying to fight against… against myself. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’ve been distracted, drinking too much at parties, trying to numb myself. School is almost over for me. Everyone respects me so much and thinks I live this charmed life. But I’m a coward.”
He finally turned to look at Simon. His eyes were wet and red. They seemed to beg Simon to probe, to ask him what he meant. But fear once again overtook Simon. He felt lightheaded from being so close to Ian, but also felt like he was a thousand miles away.
Ian started to cry then, big, heavy sobs that rocked his entire body. He covered his face with his big hands, and he said, “That day, crashing my car, I was thinking about what I really wanted, and I realized that I might never get it. I realized that I might just keep being the Ian that everyone expects me to be. That my parents expect me to be. The people at the paper. Margeaux.”
Why did Ian have to ruin the moment by mentioning Margeaux? Simon was instantly upset, and wondered if something was happening between Ian and Margeaux. But his heart was still breaking for Ian, who sobbed on the couch next to him, and he decided to push his jealousy aside, and he moved in to hug him. He wrapped his arms around Ian’s broad shoulders, feeling the tears on his cheek. He moved his mouth to Ian’s ear, whispering to him, “I’m here for you.” And he kissed him, gently, on his cheek, tasting the salty tears Ian was crying.
Simon savored the adrenaline rush, his head dizzy, reeling at the enormity of what he had just done, and desperately fought off his inner voice, urging him to retreat. In that moment, he didn’t care. He wanted to be close to Ian. He wanted to care for him when he was hurting the most. Ian was still crying and said to him, “That day, I just wanted to be someone else. My father had called me again, telling me how important it was that I get in for the best internships after I finish my studies, how I had a legacy to uphold. He said that when I take over his business I need to be ‘a man worthy of the Peters name.’ I didn’t want to think about that. My mind was somewhere else as I was driving. And I crashed before I knew it. I don’t even know… maybe there was a part of me that wanted to crash. To make it all different somehow. To not be this person that everyone wants me to be.”
“You don’t have to change a thing,” Simon said to him, still hugging him tightly. “You’re perfect the way you are. You’re everything.”
“I wish I could be more like you. Just being happy to focus on work. Not letting myself be so distracted by my feelings. But I feel like a fraud.”
Simon paused, and found himself pulling back. Was that what Ian thought of him? That he was nothing but a robot who only cared about work? He considered taking Ian to task for it. He was hurt by the words for some reason. And a part of him was upset that Ian would say that when he was clearly trying to be closer to him. Maybe Simon had imagined it all. And he had mentioned Margeaux when he spoke about people he was trying to impress. It must have been a sign that there was more going on between them than he had let on.
Simon, in a moment of spite and an attempt to gauge Ian’s reaction, said: “You must be happy that Margeaux is there for you, though. She seems to really be taken with you.”
Ian stopped crying then, and a hint of confusion entered his eyes. “She hasn’t really been around much. She sent some flowers. But she says she’s working on some kind of story and doesn’t have time to visit right now.”
Ian was more confusing than ever to Simon, but he knew, looking at the handsome, disheveled man sitting in front of him, that his feelings would not go away. He knew that Ian was everything he could want. Why couldn’t he just say it? Why couldn’t he just take a chance?
He decided to do the one thing he could manage to do easily – write. He excused himself, walked to the bathroom and took out his notepad and pen. He was determined not to give Ian the wrong impression again, not to be the cold, ambitious workaholic that Ian implied he could be. He wrote on the note: Ian, I’m sorry you’re going through a hard time. I don’t like seeing you in pain. I’m sorry I’m such a weirdo when it comes to talking about feelings. But I do care about you. I really do. And I want to be there for you. Simon.
Simon walked out of the bathroom, taking a deep breath and feeling dizzy from emotion. He walked to Ian’s wallet which was on the kitchen counter and slipped the note inside of it. Ian would have to find it there, and no other eyes could see it by mistake. He needed to say it now before he lost his nerve.
“I have to go, Ian,” he said when he returned to the living room. “Will you be okay?”
“I’ll be okay, Simon. Don’t worry about me. I just had a moment of weakness. It’ll pass soon. You just focus on this story. Make me proud. And give me something to leave behind when I move on from the paper.”
Simon smiled at Ian and walked out of the door. His heart was racing, and he almost didn’t notice his phone’s message tone sounding. He read it as he walked towards his car. It was Olivia: Simon, you won’t BELIEVE WHAT HAPPENED LAST NIGHT. OH. EM. GEE. You, me, a bottle of champers, RIGHT NOW. xoxoxoxoxox. It had finally happened. Simon smiled with contentment, and headed home.
Simon stood in front of the door to his flat, already preparing himself. He knew what Olivia was about to tell him, and he smiled knowing how happy she would be. He hated admitting it, but he felt a slight stab of jealousy. Simon wanted to find the same kind of love that she shared with Justin, and to be as unafraid of sharing that love as they were. But his heart was with Ian. He knew that now more than ever, after holding Ian in his arms earlier that night, seeing him break down in tears. Although it pained him to see Ian hurting, he felt privileged and special that Ian could reveal himself in such a vulnerable moment to him. Would it be that far-fetched to believe that they were getting closer? Simon sighed wistfully.
This was the man that Simon wanted to be with. Was it really an impossible dream? Was he fooling himself? He couldn’t help but remember how Ian mentioned Margeaux at that crucial moment. If Ian really was involved with her, Simon seriously questioned his judgment. Someone so arrogant and shameless couldn’t possibly be good enough for Ian. Simon hated playing the martyr, but if he couldn’t have Ian, then only somebody way more deserving would do!
Simon finally shook himself out of his self-indulgent thoughts. He opened the door and saw Olivia standing there, her smile rivalling the Capetonian sun. She shrieked loudly and waved her arms in the air, exuberant, and jumped into Simon’s arms. “It finally happened! Aaaaahhh! I knew it was coming. He’s been acting nervous for the past few weeks already. I think he might have even been planning on proposing on our boat trip, but I missed the signals and invited you along. But it was perfect! It was a perfect, perfect, perfect day!”
Olivia playfully hid her left hand behind her back, and slowly, dramatically, revealed her ring finger to Simon – a white gold band with an incredible diamond nestled in the middle.
“Ain’t she a beauty?” Oliva raved. “And diamonds are my birthstone, the month of April! Is this a cosmic conspiracy or what?”
Olivia showed Simon the ring on her finger, doing a happy dance around the room while waving her hands at him, smiling all the while. He had never seen her this happy.
“I’m so happy for you, Liv! I can’t even believe it! I mean, I can believe it! I don’t know what I’m saying, I’m just happy for you.” Simon grabbed Olivia by the waist, genuinely feeling happy for her, twirled her around, and caught her in his arms as she dipped, gracefully, her face the picture of bliss. Simon tried to push away thoughts of Zuko, his hopeless expression when they met for lunch, and of Ian, sobbing into his shoulder, the kiss Simon softly lay on his cheek, and just focused his attention on being there for Olivia. This was one of the most important days of her life.
“Wait, wait, wait, you have to tell me everything. How did he propose?”
Olivia told Simon about the perfect day that Justin had planned for her. He had taken her to a music show in the botanical gardens and afterwards they had a picnic together. Champagne and chocolate covered strawberries. They went for a walk through the gardens when the sun started to set, and Olivia finally arrived in a clearing where Justin had arranged fairy lights and a violinist played her favorite song. She started crying immediately then, she said, because she knew it was the moment. Justin got down on one knee, even though he was wearing his favorite jeans and the grass was wet. Olivia chuckled at this. And he said that he could never love anyone as much as he loved her. “He told me that I’m his dream, and if I marry him he can live his dream every day for the rest of his life.”
Simon was overwhelmed with emotion and hugged Olivia. “I’m so happy for you. You deserve all of the good things that Justin can offer you. He’s an amazing guy and you know that you’re my amazing girl, so I couldn’t be happier.”
“Well you know what this means,” Olivia said, with a mischievous smile. “You have to be my man of honor.”
They both laughed at this, and Simon said, “Of course! I wouldn’t have it any other way, babe!”
Despite his best efforts, Simon couldn’t fight off flashes of Ian, wondering if they could ever have as much happiness as Olivia and Justin were having. Olivia noticed then that Simon was not himself. “Listen, I know you’re happy for me, but something is up. What’s wrong?”
Simon took a glass from the table and poured himself some of the champagne which Olivia had put out. He realized that he had to tell Olivia, his best friend, about what was happening in his life. He didn’t want to ruin her perfect day, but he knew that she would know exactly what to say to him to offer him some guidance. What else are best friends for?
“I met with Zuko today. Some numbskulls at his res were really being jerks to him. It’s a long story, but Zuko has really been given a raw deal.”
Olivia gasped in shock. “Is he okay? Is he going to press charges?”
Simon explained how Zuko had signed a nondisclosure agreement and accepted money from Riley’s lawyer. Olivia was outraged. “We have to do something about this! They can’t get away with this!”
“Don’t worry, I’m writing a story about it. They won’t get away with any of it. Ian is helping me to get them.”
“Ian?” Olivia said, a sly smile crossing her face. “You’re working with him.”
“That’s the other part of my problem right now. I went to see Ian today. He’s not doing well. The injuries from his car crash were more extensive than he thought and he’ll be in recovery for a while. But that’s not all. We had a… moment… tonight.”
“A moment?” Olivia asked, her eyes drinking in the intrigue. “Did something happen?”
Simon felt an involuntary smile cross his lips at the memory. “I kissed him. Okay, to be fair, I just kissed his cheek. But I wanted to do so much more.” Simon blushed, and braced himself for Olivia’s reaction.
Olivia squealed and jumped off of the couch. “I can’t believe it! Simon Northbrook! You dirty, dirty boy!”
Simon was smiling even harder then, happy that he had a tiny bit of good news to share with Olivia too. But then he had to tell her the whole story, and why he was so confused.
“That’s not all though. He mentioned Margeaux again. I’m really starting to think that there’s more going on between them, that they might be getting serious. If he is into guys, I think he is still very much in denial. Liv sweet, I’m kind of lost on this one! My heart is calling out for this guy but I don’t want to make a fool of myself.”
“Simon, that’s your problem. You’re always playing it too safe, always waiting too long to make your move and then, before you know it, you missed the bus and you’re sitting on the bench in the rain. You need to tell Ian how you feel, right now! Don’t wait for permission. Besides, I don’t think Margeaux will really be a problem.”
“Why do you say that?” Simon pulled Olivia down next to him on the couch again, trying to contain her excitement.
“I saw her today, at the botanical gardens, getting very cozy with a guy. Girl was getting it on, and as a testament to her audacity, she even winked at me when I noticed them! Talk about shameless! If she is seeing Ian, she’s definitely cheating on him with this guy. Or maybe you were wrong and there’s nothing going on between them. Either way, I think your chances might be better than you think, sailor.”
Olivia winked and reached for Simon’s hand, but he pulled his hand away and snapped at her. He felt his temperature rising, and was instantly a different person: “I can’t believe you can be so casual about someone cheating on Ian. Don’t you think he could be hurt by all of this? Don’t you care about how he’ll feel if he finds out?” Simon got up from the couch. He didn’t know exactly why his feelings were changing so drastically and why he saw Olivia as being so callous in that moment, but he couldn’t contain his outburst. “You can’t take so much delight in her hurting him!”
Olivia looked confounded. She looked like she was ready to have an outburst of her own, but calmed her voice: “Look Simon… you really care about him. I can see that now more clearly than ever. But I’m not the enemy. I’m trying to help you. You’re very defensive when it comes to Ian. I wasn’t laughing at his expense at all. I was just happy that you don’t have to worry about Margeaux. She’s not the kind of girl he needs. He doesn’t even need a girl. He needs you.”
For some reason, this wasn’t enough for Simon, and he couldn’t clear the anger which was fogging his mind. He should have been excited to hear that Margeaux wasn’t committed to Ian, but all he could feel was a frantic sense of confusion rising again. Olivia stood up and walked over to Simon. “Look, all I want is for you to be happy. I just want you to talk to Ian and tell him how you really feel. I think it will work out a lot better than you think.”
“How do you know that?” Simon’s voice was rising even more. To Simon’s mortification, his jealously at Olivia’s fairytale romance and engagement was consuming him, and he lashed out, his hurt and anger leading the way. “How exactly do you know that he will feel the same way? Not everyone is as lucky as you are, Liv. Not everyone can have such a perfect life. You’ve been trying to pressure me to do something I’m not ready for and frankly I’m sick of it. I think you should just let me live my life the way I want to. I can’t be this together guy that you imagine me to be. I’m not going to suddenly be able to confess how I feel about Ian. Don’t you see that?”
“Simon, I’m trying to help you, not pressure you. I’m trying to be there for you and, yeah, sometimes I think you need a kick in the butt when you don’t go after what you really want.”
“You look down on me. You make me feel like I’m letting you down, like I’m never good enough. How am I supposed to live up to your expectations of me?”
Simon stormed out of the door, slammed it behind him, and left Olivia in a state. She was hurt by Simon’s words. How could he think that she was being anything but a supportive friend? She called Justin and made plans with him to go away for a few days. She couldn’t be around Simon when he was acting like a spoiled child. She would give him some breathing space and let him process some of his own drama.
The worst part was that she considered that maybe he was right. She had planned to leave him alone with Ian in the flat that night, not consulting Simon about what he really wanted. She only wanted him to be happy. If he couldn’t see that, then he was being obstinate.
She packed a small bag and decided not to be in touch with Simon for a few days. They both needed to cool off, and besides, it was her time to be happy. Not to be worrying about her friend who never wanted to take his chance on love.
The week after Olivia left had been a frenzy for Simon. He had been calling and emailing management, telling them that he would like to discuss abuse in university residences, but everyone was giving him the runaround. It was frustrating, but he was already putting together a good draft of the story to publish, and he knew that only a single interview with management would be enough to legitimize his article and boost its credibility.
Simon sat in the office as the week was drawing to a close. He was exhausted, and had hardly been sleeping because of being so focused on the story. He was, of course, also consumed with guilt over the way he had treated Olivia. He knew that she was only trying to help him. He knew that he should’ve done nothing more than be supportive about her engagement. But everything was getting too much for him. He was glad that he didn’t have to deal with the distraction of Olivia constantly pushing him to talk to Ian. He could focus all of his energy on the story and make sure that Zuko got some justice. Simon massaged his temples with his thumbs and shut his eyes, inhaling deeply and exhaling slowly. His vision was blurry from a lack of sleep. He had compiled news stories on his desk, and even though they were neatly stacked, there was so much material that Simon began to feel claustrophobic in the Weekly’s offices. He decided to call the office of Professor Riley again, to try and confront him directly about what his son had done. All of his previous calls had gone unreturned, and Simon was already familiar with the perky voice of Riley’s secretary.
“Professor Riley’s office, can I help you?” she answered in her high-pitched, pleasant tone.
“Hello, this is Simon Northbrook from the Weekly again. I’d like to find out if Professor Riley is able to make an appointment with me yet?”
The secretary did not answer in her usual stern way with another excuse. Instead, she maintained her pleasant tone and said, “Ah, Mr. Northbrook. Yes, I’ve passed on your many messages to the Professor. And I have some good news to report, young man! Professor Riley says that a meeting can be arranged for this afternoon at 4. Would that suit you?”
Simon was shocked. It would have been much easier for Riley to just ignore his call again. But he had to see him, to see his reaction when asked about what his son, Conrad, had done. He obviously knew about it if he was willing to help pay off disgruntled students. Conrad was terrorizing others and he deserved to pay for it.
“I’ll be there!” Simon said, and took down the details of the meeting from the secretary. He felt exhilarated. This could finally be the piece of the puzzle that blew the story wide open. Would Riley really be able to deny what they had done?
Simon decided that he deserved a nap before the meeting. Besides, he had to be fresh and awake in order to confront Riley with the truth. He walked back to his flat, feeling the sun on his face. He had been indoors for most of the past week, and only then noticed that the telltale signs of summer fading were all around him. The streets were littered with leaves and the wind had a slight bite. Some of the students he passed were wearing jackets. Simon reflected on the many changes that he was being confronted with recently. Olivia was getting married. Ian was retiring as editor. Simon felt like he was changing as well; a new sense of determination was sparked inside of him. He lazily opened the front door, ambled slowly to his bedroom, collapsed onto the bed, and fell into a deep sleep.
Simon awoke with a start. How long had he been asleep? Why had his alarm not sounded yet? He fumbled for his phone and when he finally found it, it was almost 3.45 pm. His heart leapt into his throat. He grabbed his satchel, and didn’t even bother to look at himself in the mirror before he started running to the admin building where Riley’s office was located. He arrived in front of the office at 4.02, not yet too late to be considered completely unprofessional, and he chastized himself for taking a nap when he should have been focusing on work at the exception of everything else.
The secretary gave him an unnaturally bright, breezy smile, her eyes twinkling with a sense of unpleasant indulgence. There was something sickly sweet about her, like she knew what was going on and was trying to pretend like nothing was amiss. “Yes, Mr. Northbrook, they are waiting for you inside. You can go in.” She motioned to the professor’s door, her face the picture of contrived innocence.
They? Simon had thought that he was only meeting with Riley. He wiped his forehead, and noticed that he had broken out in a light sweat, and swallowed heavily as he walked through the door. The office was magnificent – it was at least double the size of Simon and Olivia’s entire flat, and was adorned with a portrait of Riley and his family, Conrad smiling between his stern-looking parents. A conference table was in a sunny corner of the office, and seated at it were two men Simon didn’t recognize, dressed in very expensive looking suits, and Professor Riley himself. Riley’s moustache was visibly twitching, and his piercing green eyes stared at Simon with a hint of disdain.
“Simon Northbrook?” the man finally bellowed. Simon nodded, and Riley pointed to the seat across from him. Simon would have to stare directly at the imposing figure throughout the meeting.
One of the men in the expensive suits said to Simon, “Good afternoon, Mr. Northbrook. My name is Mr. Minzi and this is my associate Mr. Reynolds. We represent Professor Riley and the university. He has explained to us that you would like to report abuse?”
“Not report it,” Simon said, his voice shaking. “I’m writing a story to expose how your son, Conrad…”
“I’m going to stop you there, Mr. Northbrook,” said the lawyer. He raised his hand to silence Simon, his manner harsh and domineering. “I wouldn’t say anything that you will regret later. I assume you’ve spoken to Mr. Zuko Mavuso. I trust that he told you that he signed a nondisclosure agreement about the events between him and Mr. Conrad Riley. I would like to remind you that it was a legally binding document with severe consequences if broken.”
Mr. Minzi stared at Simon without a word. Simon took a deep breath, imagined that Ian was sitting right next to him, his hand tightly squeezing his own.
“I would like to point out that unlike Professor Riley, I am not being represented by counsel. In addition, I am not writing a story about Zuko and what happened to him. I’m writing about a pattern of homophobia perpetrated by well-connected students on campus, and how they are being protected through unethical and questionable practices by management at Ridgemont University.” Simon silently thanked Ian in his absence for providing some encouragement.
“And who will you credit as your source for this story? Tell me, what exactly did Mr. Mavuso say to you?”
Simon’s mind was racing. What should he say to them? Whatever he said, they would be able to trace his connection to Zuko and he might be causing him a lot of legal problems.
Professor Riley, who had been leaning back in his chair expressionless, finally spoke then: “Mr. Northbrook, you are a very capable, smart young man.” Simon winced as the condescension dripped off the older man’s tongue.
“Top of your class, I am told, and applying to postgraduate studies in journalism in a few years, no doubt? Do you know Arthur Camus?”
Simon nodded slowly, reluctant to play into Riley’s hands. Arthur Camus was the editor of one of the largest papers in the province.
Riley leaned in closer. In Simon’s eyes, it seemed like he was closing in for the kill. “I happen to be a close personal friend of Mr. Camus. In fact, I have friends at many of the top papers and broadcasters in this country. It would seem that someone as ambitious as you are would know that.”
Simon sat in silence. He had walked into the meeting unprepared. He should have guessed that they would try to intimidate him, bribe him, threaten him. All he had thought about beforehand was his righteous quest to save Zuko from the evil management and egotistical, violent students. He hadn’t really thought about what kinds of consequences there would be for him.
Mr. Minzi spoke again, straightening his tie: “Mr. Northbrook, if you decide to pursue this discussion today, I will need to first know what Mr. Mavuso said to you. For legal reasons, it’s crucial that you reveal this information to me. If you refuse to cooperate in a reasonable manner, we will have to consider legal courses of action.”
Simon was in a corner. He wished that he had asked Ian to come with him. He would know what to say. But Simon was lost. Simon felt his chest tightening, and he tried to swallow uncomfortably, his throat dry with tension. Simon felt a distinct sense of fear, and he saw his entire future falling away if he decided to push ahead with the story.
He stood up then. “Thank you for your time, gentlemen.” He started walking towards the door.
Riley’s voice bellowed behind him, “I trust I won’t be seeing you again, Mr. Northbrook.”
Simon walked out of the admin building completely shaken. He was in way over his head, and he had underestimated how strongly Riley would push back against him. He started to question everything. Maybe Zuko was better off at another university. Maybe he didn’t have what it takes to be editor if he couldn’t stand up to people like Riley. This was an important story, but maybe it was too big for Simon to write.
Simon took out his phone and without thinking called Ian. He needed some comfort, and no one comforted him like Ian could. Besides, Olivia was basking in the sun at Camps Bay, unavailable to be there for him. Ian answered the phone, still not sounding like himself.
“Ian, I just went to see Riley. He had lawyers with him and they basically told me that they could end my career before it even starts if I pursue this story. They also say that they will prosecute Zuko for breaking his nondisclosure agreement if they can link any leaks to him. I don’t know what to do. I completely fell apart in front of them.”
“Simon, you’re on to something. That’s why they’re being so aggressive with you. They’re threatened. You’re getting to them. You need to keep pushing with this. You need to write this story, Northbrook! Not just for Zuko, but for anyone who could be treated the way he was.”
“I don’t know if I’m ready for this, Ian.”
“You can’t let your fear get in the way. You can’t miss out on the important stories because you want to stay on the sideline. Sometimes you have to get your hands dirty.”
Simon remembered how he had been too frazzled to interview Harry Baleka when he had had the chance, and how Margeaux had swooped in and stolen a career defining moment from him. He bristled at the memory. For some reason, when Ian said these things to Simon, he listened. “You’re right. I need to push this. I need to show everyone that I can be a real journalist.” Simon didn’t add that he really needed to show himself.
“I’m proud of you, Northbrook. You’re doing the right thing.”
Simon smiled and thanked Ian for the kind words. He loved the feeling of Ian being proud of him and encouraging him.
Ian spoke again, even more sincerely than before, “Why don’t I meet you at the office in the morning to discuss everything. I’ve been finding some info you might want to use in your story as well.”
“That sounds great. I could use your help. Another pair of eyes and another brain to think about the best way to pursue this.”
“Exactly. Oh, and Northbrook…” Ian hesitated for a while, and finally said, “I care about you too.”
Simon was speechless. The note! That small act of bravado, so significant for Simon, had been buried in his subconscious, as if its implications were too severe to bear. But it was real. And Ian cared about him too! Right before Simon was about to have an intimate moment with a lamppost, he jutted out of the way in the nick of time. Victoria Street had no special lane for pedestrians walking on air!
“I’ll talk to you soon, Ian. See you in the morning.”
“Have a good evening, Northbrook,” Ian said before hanging up.
Simon was approaching his flat, and didn’t care who was watching him; he started to do a happy dance in the street. A group of young women walked past him then and giggled at his silly dance. Simon, buoyed by his newfound carelessness, grinned maniacally at all of the girls, gave them all high fives, did an elaborate bow and twirl, and blew kisses at them. Simon was elated. Simon glowed with giddiness at the thought of seeing Ian again soon. He was most certainly en route to dethroning Margeaux as Guinevere – maybe there was something brewing between King Arthur and his loyal chief knight, Lancelot, after all, and Guinevere was merely a cover. Simon entered the elevator of his apartment complex, and to his surprise, he saw his reflection in the mirror, a bright, earnest, and hopeful smile spread across his face. What could possibly go wrong?
Simon had spent the entire weekend working on the article and even found some other students who lived in Zuko’s residence willing to be interviewed. Ian was by his side for most of the weekend, helping him to focus his research and to write the best story he could. Simon relished the time they got to spend together, even if it was only for work. Those words echoed in his mind… I care about you too. He noticed that Ian was looking a lot better, and was walking without his crutches, even though he said he was still in some pain. Simon made sure to bring him coffee and snacks when they took a break, trying to look after him a bit when he was struggling so much.
They were getting closer, and casually joking with each other in between bouts of deep concentration. Ian had even taken to a new regular nickname for Simon, ‘tiger’. He had called Simon this once before, back when Simon felt they were on the verge of getting closer, but he had stopped since. Simon was glad that it had started up again. Did this mean that Ian was giving him another chance?
That Sunday, Simon sat on the couch of his flat reviewing his notes from the week. With Ian’s help, he had put together a strong draft of the story, and Ian had heavily hinted that it would be the front page feature when it was ready. “Don’t sit on it too long,” he had said. But Simon wanted to make sure that it was perfect. There was a lot riding on this story.
As Simon sat deep in thought on his couch, he heard a key turning in the front door of the flat, and Olivia appeared, looking as surprised to see him as he was to see her. “Oh, you’re here,” she said.
Simon had felt increasingly bad about the silly fight he had had with Olivia. Clearly, she felt the same way because they both started apologizing at the same time: “I’m so sorry, Liv. I didn’t mean to blow up at you. I was taking out my frustrations on you. I guess I was just a bit overwhelmed. Can you forgive me, babe?”
“I should be apologizing, Simon. I’m so sorry for always being on your case about Ian. You’re right, it’s none of my business. I should let you live your own life.”
“I was a jerk. I had no right yelling at you like that, no matter how angry I was. But…” Simon paused dramatically, the corners of his mouth playfully rising in a teasing taunt.
“I think you’ll be happy to hear that I decided to take your advice.”
“Oh?” Olivia sat down next to him on the couch, her eyes twinkling with anticipation. “Tell me more.”
“I wrote Ian a note, telling him that I care about him. And he said that he cares about me too, Liv!”
Olivia let out her signature squeal of excitement, and planted kisses on Simon’s face. “That’s amazing! I’m so happy for you!”
“Hold on a second there, sweets. We’re not dating or anything. We’ve just been spending a lot of time together. And even though it’s under the guise of work, I think we’re getting really close. He even calls me ‘tiger’. That’s a good sign right?”
Simon immediately regretted telling Olivia this, because he was giving her endless ammunition to make fun of him for weeks. However, she surprised him. She smiled and said, “I think it’s great. He’s a great guy and if he makes you happy, the more time you’re spending together, the better! Now I realize that perhaps I shouldn’t be asking you this, because it was the reason we had our last fight, but what about Margeaux? Aren’t they dating?”
“He says he hardly sees her these days. I don’t know, really. I haven’t had the nerve to ask him outright and shatter my illusions. But as you said, we both know she’s not the right girl for him.”
“Exactly, because you’re the right guy for him! Giddy up, cowboy, go claim your man!”
They both laughed at this comment, and Simon playfully wrestled and tickled Olivia on the couch. “Speaking of delectable dudes, how is Justin?”
“He’s good. We’ve been on a bit of a proposal honeymoon for the past week. But I needed some Simon in my life. I hate that we had this cold war between us. I can’t be without you for so long.”
“Well, you know what this means, right?” Simon asked. Olivia nodded in agreement. It was their long-standing tradition to go around the corner and raid The Cheesecake Factory, their favorite haunt, especially to make up after a silly fight. “I’ll go grab the cake and you get settled in. I’m glad you’re home.”
Simon popped out and quickly grabbed two slices of caramel cheesecake. As Simon entered his apartment complex’s hallway, he heard Olivia’s loud telltale guffaw, and he instantly knew that she was watching her favorite reality show. True to form, Olivia was in her pajamas on the couch, the smell of popcorn in the air, and she had taken the liberty of preparing Simon his favorite rooibos ice tea.
“Listen,” he said, “I know you couldn’t tell because I was being such a neurotic mess, but I really am happy for you and Justin. I really am glad to be your man of honor, and I know he’ll make you happy. I just hope it’s a very long engagement so you don’t leave me any time soon.”
“I know you are. You’ve supported me forever. I just want the chance to support you too. Which is why I’m so glad things are heating up with you and Ian. First a kiss on the cheek, then a declaration of mutual ‘caring’… what’s next?” she smiled.
“Nothing more than working on a story, for now. I’ve become a bit obsessed with it. I spoke with Zuko this morning and he sounded like he was reconsidering moving forward. I’ve been trying to find a way to protect him while still getting the story out, but it doesn’t seem possible. And Riley threatened me too.” Simon filled Olivia in on his meeting with the vice rector. Her jaw dropped in tandem with all the beats of his retelling, and Simon was reminded by her reaction that he was getting in deep.
“I just hope you’ll be okay. He’s only threatening you because he’s scared, you know that right?”
“That’s what Ian says, too. They have a lot to lose if this story gets out. But I have a lot to lose too if they follow through on their threats.”
“Well, this is a whole new Simon I’m seeing. Standing up to management, putting yourself out there for a story, even telling Ian that you care about him. I’m impressed, Mr. Man, somebody is growing up!”
Simon smiled, but he knew that he had not changed that much. He was still frightened of what would happen to him, and a big part of him was terrified of ever publishing the story. He secretly wished that Ian would take credit for it, or that there was some way out of it. But at that moment, he knew that he couldn’t back out.
Simon decided to re-read his draft of the story before going to sleep, and headed back to the office where he kept the rest of his notes, leaving Olivia to her reality TV show. The night was definitely getting colder, and he pulled his jacket close around him. There was a light on in the office when he arrived, and he felt excited that he might be lucky enough to see Ian again.
When he stepped through the office door, however, it wasn’t Ian that he saw. It was Margeaux, and she was sitting at his desk. “What are you doing at my computer?” he demanded, suspicion at her behavior rising to the surface.
Margeaux quickly exited the window she was working in when she heard Simon’s voice, and turned around to face him, her face blood-red. “Simple Simon, how diligent of you, showing up in the dead of night! My, you really are gunning for that editor position, aren’t you?” Margeaux projected a false confidence and ease, and Simon sensed that she was hiding something. His antennas went off, and a growing sense of unease was clustering in his stomach.
“My computer has been acting up lately, and yours happened to be logged in under your profile. Silly boy! Remember to log out!” Margeaux let out an unnaturally high-pitched laugh, and Simon worried at what her strange behavior was compensating for. Changing tack, Margeaux exclaimed, “How are you, by the way?”
“I’d prefer it if you don’t use my computer next time, but rather use the one at reception. I have a lot of my work on it and if anything goes wrong it could be really catastrophic.”
Margeaux seemed to regain her regular confidence then, or, Simon thought, it could better be described as arrogance. She got up, her spine straight and rigid, and walked over to him, “You know, Simon, you really should learn to back up your files if they’re so precious to you. No need to be all pissy. I won’t use your computer again. Jeez. Simple Simon? More like Sulky Simon! Get a grip!” Margeaux turned on her heel, in a huff, and Simon stared after her quizzically.
Simon tried to ignore her and walked over to his computer to open his draft. He had an uneasy feeling about Margeaux. She was acting strange over the past few days, weeks in fact. Simon knew that the competition for editor was getting to her, but he didn’t have time for her shenanigans when he was already under so much stress.
Simon heard footsteps approaching the office door, and he swung around to see an unfamiliar face, a man greeting Margeaux and saying, “Hey sexy, did you miss me? Let’s pick this up where we left off!”
Simon’s eyes were ready to pop out of his head. Simon stared at Margeaux, who nervously shot Simon a look and at the same time chastized the tall man with a sharp elbow to his chest. “What’s going on here, Margeaux?”
Margeaux’s mysterious companion went into damage control mode, and nervously offered, “I mean, Margeaux, I have those… uh… files you asked for.”
All three parties regarded one another, suspicion clouding everyone’s eyes. Simon continued to stare at Margeaux and the unknown man who had walked into the office of the Ridgemont Weekly. Margeaux looked like a deer caught in headlights, and, uncharacteristically, seemed to be waiting for something to happen to ease the tension, instead of instantly manipulating the situation to her advantage. The unknown man, tall and with extremely muscular arms, started to say, “Files. I was just bringing the files.” He wasn’t carrying any files, Simon noted.
“Who is this, Margeaux?” Simon demanded, his patience wearing thin.
Margeaux turned to her male companion, clearly giving up any pretense that there was nothing going on between them, and angrily started berating him: “Why did you have to walk in now, idiot? You know you need to be careful on campus. What if someone important just happened to be here? Then what would we have done? Useless!”
The young man walked towards her. “You said there would be no one here tonight, so I wanted to surprise you. I thought you’d be happy to see me. And you said that Ian guy would still be away for a few days.”
“This isn’t Ian. It’s just Simple, Stupid, insufferably Sulky Simon!” Margeaux exclaimed, letting her disdain for Simon show with careless abandon. Clearly, she had now fully regained her confidence, and was taunting Simon. “Why don’t you wait in your car for me, Theo? This won’t take long.”
The tall stranger looked from Simon to Margeaux one more time before he retreated, rolling his eyes on his way out. Simon felt the veins in his temple pulse, engorged with rage, as he bristled at Margeaux’s betrayal of a vulnerable Ian.
“So, this is what you’ve been doing instead of visiting Ian? Aren’t the two of you dating?”
“Well now, lookie here, Simple Sulky Simon entering the ring, vying for Ian’s affections! What a pathetic display of desperation, you pitiable weasel. Ian and I have a connection that only the two of us understand. Your closeted, clichéd, trite tormented gay man stuff is boring and overdone. Theo is a friend, he looks out for me, but with only one friend at your side, I wouldn’t expect you to understand friendship.”
Simon collected himself, deftly sidestepping her baiting tactics. “He definitely looks like more than a friend to me. Listen, I really don’t care what you do with your life, but you’re the one who was pursuing Ian, and if he’s still under the impression that you two are an item, you’re messing with my friend and I won’t stand for it!”
“Friend?” Margeaux scoffed. “What are you talking about? Don’t fool yourself, you silly simpleton! Ian isn’t your friend. Let me spell it out for you: the two of you are not the same kind of people. Do you know that Ian is next in line to take over his father’s publishing business? People of that pedigree don’t associate with people like you. Ian’s a good guy – too good for you, clearly, and good guys are often nicer to lesser achievers, like you. He’s being charitable and kind, and you’re making more of it than it’s intended to be. Get a grip, Stupid Simon, stumble out of your closet, and get a guy that will give a fig about you, already!”
Simon was taken aback at the acrid bitterness and hatred in Margeaux’s voice. She was one of the reasons that Simon had held back with Ian. He thought that there was something between them, and he thought, when Ian said that she was someone whose opinion he cared about, that it meant Ian was open to more with her. And now she was treating him like this. Running around on him when he was injured. “Listen, Margeaux, Ian is a stand-up guy with authentic, genuine qualities that you clearly don’t understand, arranging clandestine rendezvous with other guys. He deserves better, and yes, I qualify as better! I can make him happy, and one way to do that, is to most certainly not run around on him when he’s barely out of crutches, you harlot, you treacherous harpy!” Simon was becoming a little bit carried away, and voicing his true feelings, tinged with a dramatic flair, and even though he felt a bit silly, he also felt better finally telling Margeaux what he thought about her.
Margeaux regarded Simon with a mixture of surprise and amusement. She let out a loud, cackling, guttural laugh. Margeaux did not seem concerned at all about Ian finding out that she was seeing someone else. “Sulky Simpleton Simon, you’re so transparent, it puts a fame-hungry, gold-digger reality star to shame! Transparent and, even worse, pathetic. Do you really think that we aren’t all gossiping about your desperate, high school girl crush on Ian Peters? Do you think this has been some deeply buried secret? Have you really not noticed us all laughing behind your back, embarrassed at how you’re pining after a guy that’s clearly straight?”
Simon was taken aback, stung by Margeaux’s venom and vitriol. She clearly felt threatened and was launching at full throttle. How did she know about his feelings towards Ian? Was he really that transparent? He suddenly felt his stomach turn and a wave of embarrassment washed over him.
She started again, “Let me break this down for you, baby. You’re clearly not computing! You will never be with Ian. He’s not even into guys. I don’t know what gave you that impression. And even if he wanted to be with a guy, he would never choose you. A guy of his pedigree, his standing, not only does he deserve better, you deserve way, way worse.” Margeaux let out a bitter, salty laugh, relishing her hold over Simon. “You’re pathetic for hanging on to him so long, running after him like a sad puppy desperate for approval, just waiting for a measly bone, a crumb off the table. For months now we’ve been laughing at you behind your back. Everyone in the office. There’s no way Ian will ever feel the same way about you.”
Simon’s head sank and he felt all of the energy leave his body. His knees felt wobbly, and he gasped for air as he felt the wind knocked out of him.
“Aww, Silly Simon, quickly morphing into Sad, Sad, Sad Simon. Listen up. Even I’m starting to feel a bit sorry for you now – and that says a lot! We can forget all about this and I won’t tell Ian about your embarrassing crush on him. You can spare us both the embarrassment if you keep your mouth shut. How does that sound? Definitely a win-win proposal to my ears.”
Simon continued to stare at the ground, struggling to regain his composure. He couldn’t bring himself to look up at Margeaux.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” Margeaux said, her tone of voice projecting confidence and, worse still, victory. “Cheer up, Silly Simon! This is all working out. I promise when I’m editor I won’t take you off news. You actually do have some skills at investigative journalism. It’s too bad you don’t have the follow-through.”
Not even bothering to conceal her triumphant grin, Margeaux turned around and walked towards the door. She paused, turned around, and slammed the final nail into the coffin: “Ian will be with me. Even if he does feel something for you, he has too much to live up to in his family to ever be gay. He’ll marry a nice, respectable girl like me and all you can do is watch from the sidelines. It’s time you accept that and move on. I’m only trying to help you. You’ll be so much better off if you take my advice.” Margeaux bore through Simon’s soul with a final glare, her gaze shooting daggers of warning at Simon, and he shuddered.
After Margeaux left, Simon sat down at his desk again. He felt empty. He was too broken to even cry about what she had said. Was it true? Would he only be hurting Ian by continuing to have feelings for him? Would Ian be disowned by his family, miss out on his father’s company, for being with a guy?
He had been getting much closer to Ian lately, feeling their connection deepen as they worked on the story together, but maybe it was time to pull away from him for good. It was causing Simon nothing but pain to care so deeply about someone who couldn’t love him back. Not even if he wanted to. But the thought of Ian ending up with Margeaux… Simon couldn’t bear it. She was manipulating him, seeing other guys, using him for her own gain.
Simon thought through his options. He could either tell Ian about all of it and risk Margeaux exposing him and embarrassing him, or he could pull away, and let Ian make his own choice if he wanted to be with Margeaux or not. Simon pulled on his jacket and went out into the chilly night, his flushed cheeks shocked by the chill of the breeze, and tried not to let his thoughts spiral out of control.
Simon spent the next few weeks working furiously on the story, trying to make sure that every detail was captured perfectly. He was growing a bit of an unkempt stubble, and he had even let his files fall into a state of relative chaos. Only one thing was important to him, and that was finishing the story.
Ian had been texting him constantly, but he would only see him when they were working on the story together, and tried to avoid him at all other times. Despite feeling closer to Ian than ever before, what Margeaux said had stuck with him. Maybe he was just holding Ian back, and Ian really was better off making a perfect little life with a perfect wife. Simon didn’t want it to be Margeaux, especially knowing that she was seeing someone else, but what could he really do to stop her? She had promised him mutually assured destruction if he tried to speak to Ian about what she had done.
Besides, he thought, if he wasn’t seen around Ian that much, the rest of the office couldn’t gossip about them anymore. He couldn’t believe what a fool he had been, trying to so desperately and so transparently chase after someone who was way out of his league.
If he couldn’t have Ian, at least he could still be editor by writing one of the best pieces of investigative journalism the Weekly had seen in years.
He sat in his room one afternoon. The sun shone faintly through his window, not as hot as it once was, and Simon scratched the stubble on his face. He stared at his computer screen, and realized: it was done. He had said everything he could say about the story, and it was finally in good enough shape to show others. He would have to get it to Ian soon, but first he wanted the one person most affected by the story to read it. He sent Zuko a message, It’s ready. Meet me at our regular spot and I’ll bring a copy along. Are you free at around 7? Simon didn’t know exactly what he was feeling. He should have been relieved, but he still felt uneasy. Perhaps seeing Zuko would give him a sense of closure.
Olivia walked into Simon’s room then, carrying a mug of coffee, “Hey there, handsome stranger. I thought I’d bring you some refreshments. You’ve been stuck in here for so long I was worried you were dead and would be smelling up the place soon.”
Olivia frowned as she walked over to Simon with the mug of coffee. “Never mind. It smells like you’re already dead. Are you keeping fresh, sailor? What if Ian comes over here and gets a whiff of this?”
“He won’t be coming over,” Simon said, without looking at her. “Let’s not talk about him. Thanks for the coffee. Guess what? I just finished the article. I’m about to head over to see Zuko to let him read it. It’s a bit longer than I had wanted, but there was a lot to say. I found so much. Conrad Riley was apparently reported for assault before, but the charges were dropped. I also have some witnesses from the residence who gave me more details on how much abuse goes on, and how long Conrad had been planning an attack on Zuko. He was just waiting for an excuse. I think there’s a lot here.”
“Wow, sailor, that’s amazing! I’m proud of you. Now you can finally get the recognition you deserve as an excellent writer… and hopefully get a shower and shave too. Seriously, I don’t know you like this.” Olivia looked around Simon’s room at the scattered files. Her eye caught the picture on top of his closet, the one that looked so much like Ian. She was secretly hoping to find it hanging on his wall again, or at least moved from the spot on top of his closet. Simon seemed to be regressing again, fighting his feelings for Ian, and this time it seemed worse than ever. But he wouldn’t talk to Olivia when she asked, and she was too afraid of setting him off again, like the last time they fought, to pursue it too aggressively.
“I get obsessive about things sometimes. You know this about me. But the story is done. I better get ready to go and see Zuko.”
Simon walked past her to the bathroom, not touching the coffee she had prepared for him. She wondered if there was something she could do to help him.
Simon watched Zuko’s every minor change of expression as he sat reading the story at their favorite restaurant. He hoped that Zuko would be happy with what he had found, and how he had presented the story. It was important that the truth came out, Simon knew that, but in the end, it was still Zuko’s story, and Simon wanted his approval before he published it.
Zuko read with a serious expression. He breathed deeply as he finally reached the last paragraph, and looked up at Simon. “This… this is it, Simon. They can’t deny it any more. Thank you for doing this. Thank you for writing this. Even if they come after me, and I expect them to come after me, it’s time for us to stand up to them.”
Simon smiled self-assuredly. He had grown closer to Zuko over the past few weeks, texting him regularly and meeting for coffees and lunches. He had remembered how close they were in high school, how he had always looked to Zuko as both a protégé and an example of the courage he hoped to have.
“Zuko, you have always been the bravest person I know. You never backed down to bullies, even in high school. You were always so open about being gay, and always going after guys you were attracted to even if you faced rejection. I could never be like that. I don’t want Conrad Riley and his father to take that away from you, to make you scared to be yourself fully. You shouldn’t have to hide from people like that.”
“I know, Simon. I don’t plan on hiding any more. My only question is, why do you think that you could never be out and open too? What’s holding you back?”
Simon considered the question for a bit. He had never really thought about it in detail before. “I’m… scared. Scared of what will happen if I go for it and if it doesn’t work out. Scared of what will happen to my future if I run into people with as much power as Professor Riley who also happen to hate others for being gay. And I tend to be attracted to the wrong guys. Like Ian.”
“Ian Peters? The editor of the Weekly? I knew it!” Zuko exclaimed, excitedly. He grabbed Simon’s hands across the table. “He’s been flirting with you for months. I could see it all the way back on that first day I saw the two of you together, at the rally for Harry Baleka. The way he looked at you. The way he touched your shoulder. Simon, I’ve had some fun romances, but I’ve never had a guy look at me quite like that yet.”
“What do you mean? How was he looking at me?”
“I don’t know how to say this, Simon… He’s clearly in love with you.”
Simon almost laughed when Zuko said this. He couldn’t possibly be serious. “You can’t tell that from a look, Zuko. I know he feels close to me, but I wouldn’t use the L word.”
“I’m telling you. All of those books and movies I watch have taught me something, and that’s to recognize the signs of love.”
Simon felt like Zuko was being ridiculous, but he decided to change the subject to avoid any further embarrassment. “I’m pretty sure his heart is with someone else, unfortunately. But anyway, I’m on my way to see him tonight. I told him that I’ve finished the story and he said that he wants to read it immediately. I better get going. He’s waiting at the office.”
Zuko smiled knowingly, and Simon could read his mind. Everyone was an expert on his love life. He hugged his friend warmly and said goodbye before heading over to the office to see Ian.
Ian was waiting for Simon as he walked into the office, sitting idly on his office chair. He seemed to be deep in thought as he rested his chin on his palm. Although faint, color had returned to his cheeks, but with a wan, tired smile, Simon noticed, distressingly, that this was not the same Ian. He seemed to be carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. Simon approached Ian, his hand reached out in mid-air to gently touch Ian’s shoulder, but he quickly retreated before Ian noticed his clumsy indecision.
“Hey Ian. How are you?” Simon said, trying to inject a coldness in his tone of voice.
“Hey tiger. Good to see you. I’m right as rain, thanks. How was your meeting with Zuko? And when can I see the article?”
“Woah, hold your horses there. I have it with me.” Simon took the pages out of his brown leather satchel. Ian pulled out a chair for him, and Simon, hoping he wasn’t blushing, sat down. Now being closer to Ian, Simon noticed the dark circles stained under Ian’s eyes, and he felt a pang of regret. Ian seemed so happy to see him, calling him by his pet name (swoon!). Was Simon ruining his happy ever after? What a fool! Simon winced at his own naiveté. Margeaux’s words echoed in his mind… there was no way Ian could ever feel the same way about him.
“Excellent. I can’t wait to dig in. I just want to tell you before I get started that… it’s been good working on this story with you. It’s been good having something to focus on. To keep my mind off of my injury and all of these silly thoughts. You’ve been a kind friend to me, Simon.” Ian paused, his gaze sharpening as he carefully regarded Simon with his coffee brown eyes.
“And Simon, if I did something to offend you, you really can tell me. I’ve noticed that you’ve been pulling away from me lately, and I know it must be for a good reason, but I just can’t think of it. If you tell me, I’ll figure it out with you. I just thought I’d say something because this distance is definitely… not fun for me. It sucks, in fact.” Ian bowed his head, and Simon’s heart melted at Ian’s show of vulnerability.
Ian’s sincerity caught Simon completely off guard. He looked straight into Ian’s eyes, and his heart yearned and ached with longing. He could swear he was experiencing heart palpitations. Only the cause was heartache.
But what could Simon tell him? How could he tell him how deep his feelings really were? Surely Margeaux was right, and Ian would run for the hills at the very suggestion.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Ian. I think things are perfectly fine between us.” Simon couldn’t look Ian in the eye while saying this. Simon steeled his jaw, determined not to meet Ian’s eyes, determined not to weaken his own resolve again.
Ian met Simon’s gaze, his eyes dim. “Okay. I… If you’re sure there’s nothing wrong. Then I guess we’ll just focus on the story. It was silly of me to get so deep; sorry about that. I’m probably just projecting all of my issues onto you. I’ve become a neurotic mess these past few weeks. Not even Margeaux wants to spend time with me anymore, and she was all over me in the start.”
Simon waited for the moment to pass, willed it to pass, and finally Ian came to his mercy.
“Anyway, let me get to the story right now. I’m excited to read it. The front page of next week’s edition, I’m sure!” He began reading the story, and Simon went to make some coffee. He waited for Ian to finish reading the story, feeling suddenly very nervous. Despite everything, Ian’s opinion was still extremely important to Simon, and Simon realized how much he needed Ian’s approval. The minutes passed slowly, with the consistent hum of Ian’s computer and the ticking of the office clock providing little comfort to soothe Simon’s nerves. Finally, Ian reached the last line of the article and looked up at Simon. He put his hand on Simon’s shoulder again, as he had done so often when he was praising him, and said, “Excellent job, Northbrook. You’ve done it. We need to get this on the front page of next week’s edition. I’ll get to the edits immediately.”
Simon began to feel a sense of apprehension. The moment of truth, quite literally, had arrived, and it was time to face the music. Simon felt a tightening in his chest. “Thanks Ian. But not next week yet.” Simon blurted out.
“I want to run through a few more facts and see if I can get any more interviews. Let’s put it off just a little bit longer so that I can make sure it’s really perfect.”
“It’s not going to get any more perfect than it is right now. I mean, after my edits, of course. But it’s exactly the story we need to tell right now. Are you sure you won’t be ready to publish by this week’s edition?”
Simon considered Ian’s suggestion. He knew that the story was ready, but he was unsure of whether or not he was ready to publish it. Of course, exams were not too far away so he needed to publish it soon. And Zuko deserved to have this story told as soon as possible. “Tell you what, give me one more week. Let’s put it in next week’s edition. I’ll definitely have it ready by then.”
Ian hesitated. Eventually, he nodded thoughtfully, “Okay Northbrook. But don’t sit on it too long. You’ve done good work here. Don’t let the opportunity escape you. Remember, perfection is the enemy of good. Ian winked at Simon.
Ian and Simon sat working through the article then, Ian offering some useful edits. Simon relished the time they could spend together, and seeing Ian being in control, taking on the role of editor again, comforted him. There were glimmers of the old, confident Ian, who didn’t let anything bring him down, whose smile could instantly inspire confidence in Simon. But they had both been through so much and their relationship was no longer the same.
Simon looked at the clock hanging from the wall. It was almost 1 in the morning. They had been working for hours, and it had felt like mere minutes. “Wow, looks like we’re really burning the midnight oil here,” Simon said. “It’s fun doing a real investigative piece like this. And, of course, it’s great having an editor who I can bounce ideas off of.”
“Well, I’m having a great time too, tiger,” Ian said with a wink.
Simon indulged in the moment, for once just forgetting all of his worries. “I don’t want it to end,” he said, and despite his desire to kick himself, he went with it.
Ian seemed taken aback by the comment. “Well, tiger, there are many more stories we can do together.”
“No, that’s not what I mean. I mean, I don’t want to stop spending time with you like this. I don’t want us to be distant. I was lying before when I said that I didn’t think that we were drifting apart. There are some things going on with me. But you shouldn’t be the one to suffer for it. I know I’ve been hot and cold with you. I’m sorry. I really do value you as a friend.”
“Wow, Simon, I don’t know what to say. Listen, let’s put all of that behind us and just make a promise that we won’t let anything drive us apart. I don’t want to go that long without seeing you again. I don’t even know if you remember this, but I said something to you on that day when we hosted the rally for Harry Baleka. I said that I need to keep you close because I can always trust you to have my back. I hope that’s still true. It might have sounded like nothing at the time, but there was a lot more behind that comment than you know. In fact, I had wanted to say it to you for a while. But when it finally came out, it sounded stupid. I hope we won’t drift apart again. I hope we can remember what’s really important. And that’s being there for each other.”
The conversation had turned much more intimate very quickly. Maybe it was just the tiredness and the sense of accomplishment of finishing the story, Simon thought, but he felt like they were both saying things they had wanted to say for a long time.
“We’d better get some shut eye,” Simon finally said. “I have a big week ahead of me if I’m going to be on the front page of the Ridgemont Weekly with a headlining feature.” He smiled and walked over to Ian. “I’m glad we had this talk. Really glad.”
“Me too,” Ian said, and he stood up from his seat and gave Simon a hug. His big arms were firm around Simon’s slight frame. It felt comforting and safe to be embraced by Ian like that. He remembered the moments they had shared, how Ian had called him to sit by him on the floor when he was drunk after the staff party, how he had given Ian a kiss on the cheek when he was distraught after his accident. A real intimacy had developed between them, and the hug, in the office together at 1 a.m., felt like an acknowledgement of their closeness. Simon couldn’t let his head get in the way anymore. He couldn’t let himself be pushed away from Ian because of his fears. He resolved, in his tired, euphoric haze, to do better.
“Oh,” Ian said, “I don’t know if Olivia told you that she invited me to her engagement dinner. I guess I’ll be seeing you there.”
Simon almost rolled his eyes. Of course Olivia would not stop trying to push the two of them together every chance she got. But he was grateful that he would be able to share more time with Ian, especially when they had worked so hard to finish the story about Riley. “Great, I’m looking forward to seeing you then, boss,” Simon said. “I mean, tiger.” He tried the pet name for Ian, but he immediately realized he was making a fool of himself.
Ian laughed, “Hey, that’s my name for you! You need to find your own!”
“Ha! I guess I’ll have to think about it.” The color was definitely coming back into Ian’s face, and his eyes seemed more alive. Simon felt optimistic for the first time in a long while. Maybe things would work out. But first, he had to concentrate on getting the story published.
The engagement dinner was held at Cafe Del Sol, the Italian restaurant that Olivia loved. She had invited Zuko as well, and he and Simon were catching up over cocktails. The atmosphere was warm and the setting was classy. Olivia was wearing a black evening dress, a strange sight for Simon because she was usually so casual. She looked radiant as she hung on Justin’s arm and rested her head on his shoulder. Justin really made her happy.
But Simon felt more and more like an outsider. He and Olivia had once spent most of their days together, completely inseparable. Olivia had even refused to move in with Justin on multiple occasions when he asked her because she said that she wasn’t ready to stop living with Simon. Maybe they were too close back then, but it made this new phase of their relationship all the more difficult for Simon. Olivia was spending many nights a week at Justin’s place, and they were making plans for the wedding to take place in the following year. Simon didn’t know what the future held, but he knew that he would miss his friend. “Everyone has to grow up at some point, I guess,” he said to Zuko as he explained how he was feeling. “I’m glad that she’s happy, and I know we’ll always be really close friends. There just comes a point where you find that person that you want to settle down with. Olivia’s found that with Justin, and I know that they’ll have an amazing life together.”
“They do make a beautiful couple, don’t they?” Zuko said. Simon looked at them again, chatting with other friends. Justin was tall and he had finally been persuaded to trim his mop of hair. He looked distinctly like a grownup in his shirt and tie. He would be a good husband for Simon’s best friend.
Olivia’s mother, already drunk and threatening to cry from happiness, clanged her fork against her wine glass. “I want to make a speech. To my beautiful daughter: I couldn’t be more proud of you. And to Justin: you are just so, so special to me.” She began to sway dangerously and rubbed her already-smeared makeup. “I’d better sit down, but I just want to say again how happy I am. Okay then.”
Simon and Zuko struggled to stifle their laughter. Suddenly Simon noticed an arresting figure entering the restaurant: Ian. Simon had to catch his breath for a second. Ian looked incredible. He was wearing a dark blue shirt, with the top button undone, his hair styled perfectly and the color back in his face. He was walking without any noticeable limp. It felt like the room became quiet as he walked in, and Simon briefly caught Olivia’s eyes as she gave him a knowing wink. She got up to greet Ian and pointed over to Simon at the far end of the table. Ian walked over, holding his broad shoulders back and carrying himself with grace and authority. His square jaw broke into the smile that melted Simon’s heart as he approached him. “Hey there, tiger. Olivia says my seat is over here next to you?”
Zuko couldn’t contain himself, and broke out into girlish giggles. “Nice to see you again, Ian. You’re looking very spiffy tonight.”
“Thanks, you too Zuko.”
Zuko and Ian spoke about the story that would be published soon, and as they spoke Simon considered Olivia’s decision to invite Ian. Olivia was always looking out for Simon. She always tried to make sure that he was okay, even when he tried to push her away. He was nothing but grateful that she had invited Ian to the party.
Ian seemed to be his regular old self again. He seemed much more alive than he had been over the past few weeks, and Simon was happy for it. Ian lifted his arm and rested it on the back of Simon’s chair, sparking a rush of blood to Simon’s face. Zuko’s eyes darted from Ian’s arm to Simon’s eyes, and he tried again to stifle a smile. Simon was in ecstasy.
Olivia’s father got up then, after finally getting his wife to stop overwhelming Justin with questions and stories. He said that he wanted to say a prayer for Olivia and Justin, and asked everyone to stand up and close their eyes. As they stood up, Ian took hold of Simon’s hand and held it throughout the long prayer. After a few minutes, Ian’s fingers started caressing Simon’s, and when Simon opened his eyes to glance over at Ian’s face, he was looking at him with a piercing, warm expression. Ian gave only a faint smile, and his face said so much even though they just stood there silently listening to the prayer. Simon clutched Ian’s hand tightly and smiled back. He wanted to do so much more then.
After the prayer, Simon released Ian’s hand and did not say anything to him, but walked towards the exit. His emotions were overwhelming. He was elated but frightened. He told Olivia that he had to go but he would talk to her soon, and he ran out of the restaurant. He felt like he was struggling to catch his breath and his heart was racing when he entered the cold air outside. What was happening to him? He felt like he was having a panic attack, like his whole body was about to explode.
He heard the restaurant door open behind him, and he turned around to see Ian rushing over to him. “What’s going on, Simon? Why did you rush out?” Instead of looking angry, as Simon expected, Ian only looked deeply concerned.
“I couldn’t breathe. I just needed to get outside for a bit.”
“Simon, is it because of what I did in there? Because I took your hand?”
Simon stood in silence. His heart was still racing. In fact, it felt even more furious than before.
“Is something going on between you and Margeaux?” Simon asked.
Ian moved closer to Simon, “She was coming on to me very heavily. To be honest, I considered it. For a long time. But it wasn’t real. Listen Simon, there is someone I want to be with, but it’s not Margeaux. I think you know that already.”
Simon felt faint. He remembered all of the threats that Margeaux had made, all of the time he had spent pining over Ian. And now this moment was here. He panicked, and before he could put any thought into it, he was running away from Ian. His feet were moving without being willed; instinct had taken over. He was breathless, but he ran through it. He was so preoccupied that he didn’t realize that Ian was running after him.
Simon found himself panting in front of the offices of the Weekly. His feet were sore and his chest aching from running so fast. He couldn’t believe how he had reacted, but something had come over him. He had never felt that scared in his life before. He had never felt so out of control. Ian had a way of completely disarming him and making him act like a two-year-old. And he had just run out of Olivia’s party. He would have to apologize to her when he got the chance. Embarrassment flushed over him, and he sat down at his desk.
His phone started ringing then and he pulled it out of his pocket. He didn’t want to talk to Ian or Olivia right now, but the number on his screen was one he didn’t recognize. He decided to answer, and heard an unfamiliar voice on the other end of the line.
“Simon Northbrook?” the heavy voice with the thick Afrikaans accent said to him.
“Yes. Who is this?” Simon was still struggling to catch his breath, and he felt sweat on his forehead.
“You are the one asking all the questions about me for the Ridgemont Weekly?”
Simon’s eyes widened and he froze in terror. It was Conrad Riley himself. Simon had been trying to get him to agree to an interview, but after the threatening meeting with his father it seemed highly unlikely that he would want to talk to Simon. But here he was, on the phone.
“Listen here,” Riley said, sounding increasingly threatening, “everyone who you spoke to in my res is being taken care of. They will be taking back their statements soon. And you will stop this nonsense if you know what’s good for you. And if you know what’s good for your friend, the ladyboy. Believe me, what we did last time was merely an appetizer for what he’ll get if this story ever sees the light of day.”
The phone was put down in Simon’s ear then, and he sat there, shell shocked. Riley had threatened him. This would be perfect to include in the story as well, and then to speak to the newspaper’s lawyer about, of course. But despite these rational thoughts Simon was still chilled by the threats of Conrad Riley. He could understand why Zuko was intimidated enough to leave campus after being harassed and abused by such a strong presence. Simon felt scared for his safety until the story was published, but he knew that once it was out there, there was little Riley could do. It sounded like Riley and his team were ready to take more drastic actions to make sure that the story did not come out.
Simon got up from his chair, ready to go home and sleep off the confusion of the day. But he was not expecting to see Ian standing at the doorway, breathing heavily, still looking impossibly handsome as he walked into the room.
“I lost you for a bit there. But I figured you probably came here. Looks like I know you quite well.” Ian stood in the center of the room, waiting for Simon to say something. Only half of the lights in the office were switched on, creating a haunting effect, and it was completely silent in the room.
“I… I’m sorry,” was all Simon could manage.
“Why did you freak out like that? What happened? Did I totally misread the signals?”
“I… I just got scared. I couldn’t deal with it. With you acting like that towards me.”
“I’ve wanted to do something like that for a long time. But I was the one who was scared, trying to hide from what I was really feeling.”
Ian stepped closer to him then, standing only a few feet in front of him. “Don’t you see, Simon? There was always someone who made me want to be more than just the person my father wanted me to be. There was someone who made me want to be something I was always taught was wrong. But I don’t care anymore. I want you to know how I feel.”
He took a single step closer to Simon. Simon felt weak then, like he was ready to faint. “I need to sit down for a second, Ian. I need to think about things.”
“What’s there to think about? Are you telling me not to say what I want to say?”
“No, that’s not what I’m saying. There are just other things involved. Other people.” Simon thought again of Margeaux’s threats and how she had told him that he would never be good enough for Ian.
“There’s someone else?” Ian asked, dejected.
“No!” Simon exclaimed, in a higher pitch than he intended. He cleared his throat. “No, there’s no one else.” Simon paused, and he gave Ian a studied glance. “Not for me, at least.”
“Silly man!” Ian couldn’t resist himself as he pinched Simon’s cheek, tempted not to take the bait. But he smiled at Simon, and brushed his cheek at the spot that reddened. “You know there is nobody else for me either.”
Ian paused, as he became aware of how vulnerable he was making himself. “Simon, I want to say it, please let me say it. Every time I push forward you pull away.” Ian turned around then, and whispered, “I can’t take it anymore.”
Simon moved over and touched Ian’s arm. He wanted to say the right thing, but he didn’t know what that was. Here was Ian, ready to pour his heart out, and Simon couldn’t accept it because he was afraid of what would happen to them afterwards. He was afraid of the unknown.
“Just give me some time,” Simon said, finally. “I just need to get my mind clear of this story. Then I can process everything. I just feel like my head is swimming. I got this threatening call from Conrad Riley a few minutes ago, and I’ve had a few glasses of wine, everything just feels…”
“What? He called you? Tonight? What did he say? Are you okay?”
Ian’s eyes softened with concern and gentle care.
“I’m okay. I know he can do nothing to me once the story is out there. But he’s in a corner, and he sounded dangerous. I don’t know what he might try to do.”
“You need to publish the story right now. You know it’s ready. You know you don’t need to wait another week. We can have it on the front page for this week’s edition if I give the go-ahead tonight.”
“I can’t yet. I just need a bit more time to make sure everything’s perfect.”
“Simon, at some point you just have to take the plunge. Everything won’t always be perfect. You won’t always be able to control every detail. You just need to do it at some point. You know: perfect is the enemy of good.”
Simon took a moment to absorb Ian’s words. They rang true, and although not intended as such, they stung. He wanted to be that person who could just follow his instincts, and stop overthinking. He wanted to be the type of journalist that Ian was, and be the type of man that Ian deserved to be with. But he was neither of those things. He was just neurotic Simple Simon. He was still afraid of the consequences of diving into something he couldn’t control.
“That’s not how I live my life, Ian. I can’t just do things because I feel like them. I need to consider the dangers, not just to myself, but also to the people I really care about. Everything doesn’t just miraculously work out with a happily-ever-after ending. This is real life, with real consequences, and these decisions could cost us a lot more than you think. I know you want me to just be reckless for a change. I know Olivia wants that for me. But that’s not who I am. There’s too much to think about.”
Ian studied Simon, and if Simon was not so hyper alert to every gesture, look, and affectation from Ian, he would have missed it, but Ian slightly shook his head with disappointment. “At a certain point, Simon, using your head so much will cost you the things you really want.” “Send me the final version of the story when it’s ready. I’ll see you, Northbrook.” He raised his hand and waved goodbye to Simon without turning to look at him.
Simon sat down at his desk again. He felt empty.
Simon walked home in a daze a few hours later, the quiet of campus serving as an echo chamber for his swirling thoughts. Students were getting ready for exams, and very few of them could be seen walking around campus at night. The only thought that was clear in his mind was Ian’s near imperceptible shake of his head. How could Simon allow himself to shut Ian down when he was trying to talk to him honestly? If the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, then he should have expected the men in white coats to drag him away soon.
He arrived at his flat barely remembering that he had run out on Olivia’s engagement dinner. She was there already, sitting on the couch with some leftover pasta from Cafe Del Sol. She was watching her favorite reality television show again. “I saved you some in the fridge. And I took home some of the cheesecake too. Help yourself.”
“I’m sorry for rushing out like that. I don’t know what came over me.”
“I know what came over you, Simon. Honestly, I don’t know what I expected. This was an important night for me. I wanted you there. And I wanted to talk to you about something important.”
“I’m really sorry, Liv. I know I was being a complete jackass.”
“You were being selfish.”
She was clearly a lot more upset than Simon had expected her to be. “I know. I’ve been selfish with everyone I care about. I’m finally starting to realize that. Especially after I probably chased Ian away for good now.”
Olivia’s eyes were still shooting daggers at him, but Simon knew her well enough to know that she wouldn’t be able to resist letting her curiosity get the best of her. “What happened? I saw him running after you. It was all very romantic. I was more upset that neither of you came back to fill me in on what happened!” Simon smiled at Oliva’s dramatic rendition of events, and found himself for the umpteenth time wondering why she never went to acting school.
“I said some stupid things to him. He was about to pour his heart out to me. He chased after me, even when I ran away, and he was about to really open up. And all I could do was be a scared, pathetic, insecure child. I could just hear those words of Margeaux, telling me I’m not good enough for Ian. Telling me I’ll ruin Ian’s life if we end up together.”
“She’s really good at what she does, I’ll give her that. And what she does is manipulate people to get what she wants. You know that, don’t you? You know that she’s jealous because she sees what everyone else sees between you and Ian.”
Simon couldn’t help but frown. “No matter what Ian felt for me, I’ve ruined it all now. The way he looked at me when he walked away tonight. The constant barriers he’s had to face with me. I don’t think I’ll be hearing from him for a long time.”
Olivia sighed deeply, got up, and embraced Simon in a tight, forgiving hug, and slapped a wet one on his cheek, giving him a reassuring smile as she faced him. “Listen up, bestie! I’ll forgive you for bolting from my dinner if you make me a promise.”
“Anything for you, you know that.”
“Okay, you need to promise me that you’ll make things right with Ian! Your knight has mounted his white horse, taken off his armor, and put it all on the line for you! You need to reward him for his efforts and finally make mad, passionate love to him!” Simon giggled at Olivia, appreciating her attempt to lighten the mood.”
“Baby, for real. Be honest with him, no matter what fears or insecurities you might have. Immediately. No excuses. You can’t keep going through this cycle with him. He can’t take it any longer, you can’t take it any longer, and most of all, I can’t take it any longer!”
Simon realized how many people he was hurting by constantly trying to control every situation to the point where he took no action at all. His self-preservation ended up being nothing more than self-sabotage. “You’re right, Liv. I should have listened to you months ago. I should have treated Ian so much better than I have. I’ve allowed this stupid insecurity to hurt you, Ian, and Zuko. I could have helped him a long time ago. I should have. And I allowed people like Margeaux and Conrad Riley to intimidate me. I don’t want to hide anymore.”
He frowned, and asked Olivia, “Didn’t you say that you had something important to talk to me about?”
“Oh. It’s a bit of a big deal. Or it doesn’t really have to be a big deal if we don’t let it be. I finally said yes to moving in with Justin. It’s time to get used to it now. But we can still see each other all the time! I’ll probably still be here with you a lot. Unless you get a completely obnoxious new roommate, in which case we’ll just see each other occasionally.” Olivia laughed nervously, and Simon sensed her apprehension.
“I knew it was coming. I’ve been preparing myself for a while now. It’s time, you’re right. We’re both ready to take our lives to the next level. I’m happy for you, Liv.”
Olivia squealed and hugged Simon, planting a kiss on his face. “I’m so excited! I finally get to decorate his flat. It’s so much bigger than ours. We’ll have to get extra copies of all of our favorite movies to keep at his place so that we don’t have to lug things up and down. It’s gonna be great.” Olivia’s eyes shone with glee and excitement, and Simon relished being a part of her happiness.
Simon was happy that Olivia was moving forward with Justin and adjusting so well to the changes in her life. He knew that he would miss her. She had been his safety net since they were children. She was the one who had helped him to come to terms with being gay in high school. She was the one he could count on to listen to his endless rambling about boys. And she was the one who encouraged him to get closer to Ian. Without her, he wouldn’t be who he was. But despite realizing how much he would miss her, he also realized that everything she had helped him to learn made him ready to live without her. He was ready to be his own person and to finally take responsibility for his own happiness.
“You know I’ll always love you. And we’ll probably see each other just as much. Poor Justin will be sick of me in no time. And you know what, since you’re making so many changes, it’s time for me to change some things too. I’m going to speak to Ian tomorrow and tell him everything. It’s time for me to grow up too.”
“Music to my ears! It’s about time that my bestie goes and gets his man!
With that, Olivia and Simon collapsed in giggles on to the couch, sharing in each other’s excitement as they started to talk about what lie ahead for both of them. Barely noticing the hours tick by, and feeling his soul renewed as he drew strength from his strong friendship with Liv, Simon finally went to bed.
Simon could hardly sleep, however. Tomorrow, he was finally going to give in to Ian.
Tomorrow, everything would change.
Simon got up early the next morning, a good hour before his alarm went off. He barely slept a wink all night, but he felt energized, alert, and very focused. To work off some of his excess energy, Simon went for a run and scanned they day’s headlines, gratified to see that Harry Baleka’s poll numbers were looking good. Earlier, Simon had sent Ian a text, asking if they could meet, but Ian had not responded.
As he made his way to class, he was trying his darnedest not to interpret Ian’s lack of response as a bad sign, but doubt started to nibble at the back of his mind. He could hardly concentrate during his early morning class, and wanted to get to the office as soon as he could to see if Ian was there.
As he walked to the office, he checked his phone and saw four missed calls from Zuko. He would have to attend to those later, he thought; his focus was solely on seeing Ian as soon as possible. He reached the front of the Weekly’s offices, and he saw Dillon from Sports coming out of the building. “Northbrook! Did you see the front page story? This is bound to cause quite a stir.”
“Haven’t seen it yet, Dillon. I’ve been a bit distracted this morning. Which story got the front page this week?”
“Check it out,” Dillon said, and handed Simon a copy of the paper that he was carrying under his arm. On the front page, with a huge headline, he read, Vice-Rector’s Son Accused of Hate Crime. A picture of Conrad Riley and the residence where he lived was under the headline.
“How did they… why is this in here already? I haven’t sent the final version yet.”
“What are you talking about? Are you working on the same story? This one was written by Margeaux. Maybe your follow up can be in a future edition.” Simon could see Dillon’s lips moving, but he couldn’t hear a word he was saying. Simon’s eyes slowly moved to the byline of the story: Margeaux Chamberlain. What was happening?
Simon rushed into the offices, and saw Margeaux sitting on a desk drinking a glass of champagne, chatting with a few of the other Ridgemont Weekly journalists. “Oh absolutely, Mitchell, it was very challenging writing this story up, not to mention what a calculated risk I was taking. But I am a journalist of integrity, and believe strongly in the principles any good journalist believes in. Namely, the public has a right to know. And yes, Tara, I think this is definitely one of the most hard-hitting stories we’ve ever done. I know it will be causing waves. I just thought, if we can’t tell the truth, if we can’t fight the system, then we’re not a true news organization. I was doing this for our entire student body.”
Tara, one of the subeditors, actually applauded at Margeaux’s obnoxious speech. Simon stomped towards her, his face red with anger, “What’s going on here, Margeaux? What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
Oh my, somebody got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning! Simon, are you well? You look like a complete disaster! Come with me, you clearly need a bit of debriefing.” Margeaux reached out and grabbed Simon’s elbow, as she tried to force him out of the room.
The rest of the room went quiet, looking at Simon as if he were crazy. “I’m not going anywhere, Margeaux Chamberlain, and neither are you! Did you really think that you could get away with this?” Simon shouted, as he threw the newspaper at her feet. Margeaux pulled her feet back and narrowly dodged the flinging Weekly.
“Didn’t you think that you’d be found out for this? This is plagiarism!”
“Simon Northbrook, what nerve! I don’t know what you’re talking about. I wrote every word of that story. Sure, I relied on research of public records that were freely available, and I followed up on some interviews with leads I found from an unnamed source, but this is my story!”
Margeaux’s cunning in trying to find loopholes to cover up her act of pure and adulterated theft infuriated Simon even further. “You stole that research from me! And those were my interviews! I mean, I don’t know how you did it, I can’t figure it out yet, but this was my story! You will not be getting away with this, and you can kiss the editor position goodbye, Margeaux Chamberlain!”
Margeaux smiled mockingly, “Simon, unless you have proof, I wouldn’t be making such radical accusations. You’re really coming off as quite unhinged, my sweetheart. I think you need a holiday. Shouldn’t you be studying for exams or something? Maybe you should leave this to the real professionals.”
Simon stormed out of the office. He was hardly able to see straight. How did she get hold of his research?
Simon’s phone vibrated, and he saw that it was a text from Ian. Simon, I’m so sorry. Come over to my place and we can talk about it.
Sorry? What was Ian talking about? Did he have something to do with Margeaux stealing his story?
Against his better judgement, Simon proceeded to sit down on a bench outside and read the story. She had definitely used her own words, but all of the ideas were his. All of the information was from his research. There was nothing new or unique to the article. He could prove quite easily that she had stolen it from him by comparing it to some of his old drafts that he had emailed to Ian. She didn’t even seem to care. She must have just thought that Simon would lie down and take it.
When he reached the final paragraph, his mouth was agape in shock. She had named Zuko as a source! She had said that he had taken a bribe to stay quiet about the story! There was no telling what the consequences would be for him now. That must have been why Zuko was trying to call Simon all morning.
Simon was only a few blocks from the Weekly’s offices, and he saw Ian’s car pull up. He walked towards Ian, ready to lash out at him. “Ian!” he shouted at him as he approached.
“Simon, I don’t know what to tell you. I know you’ve seen it. I just want to reassure you that…”
“That what? How did this happen? You’re the editor! You were the only one who had earlier drafts of the story! Did you send it to her? Why did you approve this paper for printing? Why did you let her steal my story and not stop her?”
“I didn’t! I don’t know how this happened. She must have changed the files we sent to the printers at the last minute or something. I really have no idea how this happened. When I looked at the first copies this morning it was too late, it was already being sent to the distribution sites. I couldn’t get all of them back in time. I’m working on it right now, but most people have already read the paper.”
“I can’t believe this. This was my story. You know what this meant to me. I trusted you to respect what I was trying to do by writing this story. Did you read it? She completely sold out Zuko at the end. Riley will be coming after him now, you can bet on that. I don’t understand how you could let this happen. Not with this story. You’re supposed to be in charge here.”
“I’m so sorry, Simon. I feel terrible about it. You know I would never want to do anything to hurt you. You’re right. I should have made sure that this didn’t happen. I’ve been off my game.”
Simon stormed off, hot tears streaming down his face. His body shook with shock and outrage, and in typical Simon fashion, he quickly slipped on his sunglasses to hide his distress.
Ian watched him walk away. He couldn’t believe that because of not being more diligent he had caused Simon so much pain. He walked into the office with purpose. He saw Margeaux laughing with the other journalists and drinking champagne at her desk. He walked up to her, trying to remain as calm as he could even though his body was shaking with anger. “Margeaux, collect your things and get out of here. You’re fired. We’ll be writing a full explanation for our next edition.”
Margeaux feigned shock, as she slammed her near empty champagne glass onto her desk, her eyes dancing wildly. “Ian, dear, you’re being irrational. I don’t know why you’re so angry about this!”
“I’m not your dear. You’d be wise to leave now before I tell everyone here exactly what you did.”
Margeaux stared at Ian incredulously. “You’re making a big mistake. You’ll realize that soon enough. I’ll come back when you calm down.” She put down her glass and grabbed her bag while walking to the door.
“You’re finished here, Margeaux. Get the picture!”
Ian realized how unprofessional he was being, embarrassing Margeaux in front of the entire office, but he didn’t care in that moment. She had hurt the one he cared for, and he wouldn’t stand for it. He tried to call Simon, but there was no answer.
He finally sent him a text. I’m trying to make it right. I’ll keep working to make it right with you.
Simon sat in a stupor on the couch at Olivia and Justin’s flat. He had been ignoring Ian’s non-stop calls and texts for the last few days. Olivia had finally moved all of her things into the new place, and no matter how bad Simon was feeling, he had to be there for his friend during this change. She brought him a cup of coffee, “New mugs! Don’t you love them, sailor?”
He nodded and gave a weak smile. “Gorgeous,” he said. Simon was plagued by pangs of regret about everything that had happened to him over the past few months. He remembered how he had caught Margeaux at his computer, and how he had noticed that some files seemed to be moved to locations that he didn’t recall placing them in. Of course she was stealing information from him. If he had just published the story when it was ready instead of trying to make it so perfect, he would never have given her the chance to steal his story.
Simon had been trying over the past few days to call Zuko, but he had not answered his phone. He must have been furious that Simon had broken his promise to him; Simon had told him that he would not be directly mentioned in the story, that he would not be in trouble for breaking his nondisclosure agreement. That Simon would do whatever he could to protect Zuko. And now who knew what Riley and his twisted son would do to him? Simon had left countless messages trying to apologize, and had sent Zuko an email to explain everything, but he felt like he had lost a friend and betrayed his trust in the worst way possible.
And then there was Ian. Simon knew that he couldn’t have been involved in stealing the story. He knew Ian too well to even suspect that. But he couldn’t help but be angry at him. Ian was the one who didn’t shut down Margeaux’s flirting, who encouraged her sense of entitlement, who built up her ego publically. He was the one who should have had final oversight before sending the paper to the printers. Ultimately, he should be held responsible.
But Simon regretted the fact that he could not have told Ian ages ago how he felt about him. He knew that Ian was ready to open his heart to Simon on that night after Olivia’s party. Simon was too afraid bare his heart. He wanted to control everything, and he ended up losing it all.
Despite fighting as hard as he could to keep it together, he felt tears welling up in his eyes and dripping down his cheeks. He immediately tried to hide it from Olivia, but she noticed anyway. She walked up to him and hugged him. “Don’t cry, Simon. I don’t know how yet, but I have a feeling everything’s going to be all right. When you’re ready, I’ll go with you to the paper and make sure that they sort this out. And Zee will come around. He’s not one to hold a grudge, especially since it’s not your fault.”
“I feel like such an idiot, Liv. I feel like I made this huge mess.” Simon stuttered in between sobs, barely able to get the words out.
“What’s going to happen to me now? The paper was my whole life, but I can’t go back there and see Margeaux and Ian again. And Ian…” Simon sobbed gently as Olivia hugged him.
“We’re gonna figure this all out, okay. Listen, I can come and stay at the flat with you for a few more nights if you need me around. What do you say?”
“No, I think I want to be alone for a while. I just want to figure it all out. Figure out where to go next. I might have messed up my entire career as a journalist if Riley comes for me. He knew the research for the story was all mine.”
“Why don’t you talk to Ian? I’m sure he’s doing everything he can to make sure you get the credit you need. And he might be able to help you and Zuko if Riley does come after you.”
“I can’t face him yet. I can’t even think about him without hurting. The worst part is, all I can think about is how much better I would feel if I could talk to him.”
“Why don’t you just cool off for a while. You need to be studying for exams, anyway. Maybe it’s not such a bad idea to just isolate yourself for a bit. I’ll be over with some ice cream later tonight and you can watch my soapies with me. Let’s make fun of Brooke as she sleeps her way through the father, uncles, and sons of yet another powerful family! Whaddyasay?”
“Thanks, how about another night? I’m just gonna be alone for a bit. You should celebrate being here with Justin. You’re moving forward with your life. That’s a good thing. I’m being a huge downer and a complete disaster crying on your couch over my drama.”
He got up from the couch and wiped the tears from his face. Olivia frowned at him, “Hey, that’s my best friend you’re talking about! Just look after yourself, sailor. You’re still my main man. I need you, so don’t go disappearing for too long, okay.”
“I won’t. You know I need my regular dose of Liv to keep me sane.” Simon finally managed a very teary smile, and hugged Olivia goodbye.
The following few days went by quickly for Simon. He took Olivia’s advice and kept to himself, trying to make sense of the events of the past few days. He had tried to play everything by the rules, and it had imploded catastrophically. He needed to rethink things.
As he sat in his room one afternoon, deep in thought, he realized that it was already the day when the new issue of the Weekly would be released. Despite his reluctance to have anything to do with the paper anymore, he looked up the online version out of a self-defeating curiosity.
The headline on the front page shocked him. It was a letter entitled A Note from the Editor. Simon read the opening paragraphs:
It is my unfortunate duty to inform our readers that the article from the front page of the Ridgemont Weekly of 14 April, Vice-Rector’s Son Accused of Hate Crime, was the product of plagiarism by the attributed journalist Margeaux Chamberlain. The editorial staff would like to sincerely apologize to our readers and to the original investigative journalist for allowing this article to be printed. Despite our best efforts to ensure that the content of our final newspaper was the same as what we had sent to our printers, Ms. Chamberlain had managed to access our secure files and had sent a new version, which included her plagiarized article, for publication. We deeply regret that the research was not attributed to the investigative journalist responsible for securing it, and that such actions were allowed to potentially taint the reputation of the Ridgemont Weekly.
We value the trust of our readers, and for this reason we have terminated Ms. Chamberlain from her position at the Weekly, effective immediately. While we stand by the content of the story, we strongly condemn the actions of Ms. Chamberlain. We will be following up on the story in the coming weeks with any further information.
Simon scanned the rest of the article, and saw, in the final paragraph:
Finally, I would be remiss if I did not credit the journalist responsible for the excellent work in exposing the abuse and corruption happening on campus revealed in the article, Mr. Simon Northbrook. Mr. Northbrook has been an invaluable part of the weekly for over a year, and I am extremely sorry that he has suffered through the personal and professional injustice of having his work stolen in this fashion. Mr. Northbrook’s full, vastly superior article has been published on our website.
Simon beamed, his heart soaring with pride. He realized that it was more the source of the praise than the actual content of the praise. His story was getting out there, the way he wanted to tell it. And Ian was standing up for him, even though it would embarrass the Weekly for him to do so. It was a hard knock on the reputation of the paper, but Ian was willing to take it in order to make things right with Simon. He needed to see Ian, soon.
The next day, Simon was walking on campus heading towards his first exam. He had grown his beard a bit in the past few days, and even though the unkempt facial hair was itchy and uncomfortable, it also gave him a sense of freedom. He thought about Ian, feeling content that he had stood up for Simon in his editorial. Simon knew that he needed to make things right with Ian as soon as possible. He felt a new sense of invigorated passion for the paper and for his job as a journalist. His version of the article had received the most hits in the history of the Weekly’s online version, and campus was abuzz with not only the scandal of Riley, but also with the mysterious writer who had exposed the story, and who had been treated so unfairly. Simon knew that there was no way that Riley and his son could take any action against him or the paper without creating even more scandal, and the only way they could really respond was by giving empty apologies. But the fact that people were aware of what Riley had done was a good start at bringing about real change at Ridgemont University.
As he was walking his message tone sounded, and he saw a text from Olivia. I miss you and I love you. I hope you’re out of your room and doing better. He smiled thinking of how loyal his friend was, and how well she was adjusting to living with her fiancé.
As Simon walked towards his exam venue, the Humanities building, he heard a familiar voice shouting his name. He looked up to see Zuko, smiling and waving at him. Zuko was dressed in a bright pink shirt and seemed radiant. “You’re looking all handsome with your beard,” Zuko winked at Simon as he came closer.
“Thanks. I’m trying something new.”
“It’s edgy. I like it.”
“What are you doing here? And what happened after the story came out last week? Why didn’t you respond to any of my calls?”
“Sorry, Simon, I’ve just been overwhelmed, to be honest. In a good way. Everything’s been working out since the story broke. The university issued a formal apology to me, and they’ve suspended Conrad Riley and his cronies pending an investigation. I’ve been on a lot of interviews so far with other papers and a TV news team has picked up on it now as well. But that’s not all…” Zuko said, in a mock-game show host voice. “They’ve given me a full scholarship and invited me back. I’m busy figuring out how to transfer my credits from the college I’ve been at for the past few weeks, but they assured me that it won’t be a problem. Looks like I’ll be back here to make your life a little more colorful!”
Simon was overjoyed, and hugged Zuko. “I can’t believe it! I thought for sure that you were furious with me that the story got out with your name in it. Didn’t they come after you for breaking the nondisclosure agreement?”
“Nah, you know it would be a PR nightmare if it ever got out that they were trying to silence me about what had happened. They pretended like it never even happened. Even Prof. Riley himself sent me his best wishes. I guess he’s too powerful to face any real consequences, but I’ll be framing that letter from him because it means that, even in a small way, I won.”
“I think we won in a big way. I think they’ll be changing policies around here for cases of harassment and victimization. You were brave to speak up, Zuko.” Simon hugged him again, not even feeling self-conscious that he was being so affectionate in public. He was just happy to see his friend, and happy to see that everything was working out for him.
“Oh, here he is,” Zuko said suddenly, looking past Simon, and waved enthusiastically at the approaching figure. Simon turned around to see Jeremy, who came up to them and greeted Zuko with a kiss.
“Simon! It’s good to see you again,” Jeremy said. He looked much better than the last time Simon had seen him in front of Zuko’s old residence. “I see the two of you have caught up already.”
Zuko hung onto Jeremy’s arm. “Yes, but I didn’t let him know yet that we’re officially dating.”
Simon chatted with Zuko and Jeremy, enjoying seeing his friend so happy, and also overjoyed that he was back at Ridgemont where he belonged. They made plans to see each other again for dinner, and Simon thought that after such a good start to his day, there was nothing that could bring him down.
He was wrong. As he walked into the building he saw a short figure with a bright-red bush of hair and an orange shade of lipstick so garish it stung the eye marching towards him: Margeaux Chamberlain. Her expression was frightening, and she looked ready – and able – to rip Simon’s head off. His eyes shot around him, trying to find an escape route. There was no telling what she would do.
“Simon! Siiiimoooooon!” she screeched, loud enough for everyone around her to stop their conversations and look over. Simon felt the fear rising in his belly.
“Margeaux, let’s just calm down now. There’s no need to do anything you’ll regret.”
“The only thing I regret was not taking care of you sooner! You’ve cost me everything!” Margeaux was centimeters from Simon’s face, screaming as loudly as she could. “I wrote that story! Those were all my own words! How can you use a word like plagiarism? I might have had a look at your research, but I wrote it all myself!”
Simon felt his confidence build slightly in the face of the verbal assault. “Margeaux, you broke into my private files, saw drafts of my story which I had been working on for months, looked through my interview notes… that’s stealing! Have you seen the comments online? Everyone agrees. Your plan backfired and you need to move on and not take it out on me.”
Margeaux stared at Simon in shock. “What? What did you say to me? You couldn’t pull the trigger when it counted. You sat on that story for weeks. I was simply doing what you probably never would have done!”
“You might have been right, before, but not anymore. I’m not the same scared guy who would have let you get away with something like this. I’m not going to be bullied by you, Margeaux.”
Margeaux’s expression changed suddenly, and Simon’s fear returned. She was smiling! She let out a deep guffaw and seemed to really snap. She turned around and started shouting at the gathering crowd, “Do you all know that he’s in love with someone he’ll never get? He’s in love with Ian Peters! What a Simple Simon! In love with someone who won’t love him back.”
“You’re right,” Simon said. “I do have feelings for him. But you’re wrong if you think he doesn’t feel the same.”
Margeaux, sensing that her last card had been played, let her baser instincts take over and lunged at Simon, ready to attack. Simon ran for his life, and campus security, who had been called by one of the students in the crowd, was soon upon her as Simon made his escape. “I won’t stop until you pay for this, Simon Northbrook! You can’t humiliate me like this!”
Simon giggled as he ran into his exam venue, relieved that he had escaped unscathed. He actually felt bad for Margeaux, whose manipulation backfired on her disastrously. But he was happy that she had been exposed for her lies.
Simon went to the offices of the Weekly after his exam. He wanted to see Ian. He wanted to make sure that Ian knew how much it meant to him that Ian had put the Weekly’s reputation on the line to make things right with Simon, risking one of the most important stories they had written in years. When he arrived, the office was empty. He looked around the room and realized how much he missed being there. He knew then that he was meant to be a writer, and meant to tell the stories that needed to be told.
But he thought of something that Ian had said to him after Simon was too afraid to do the interview with Harry Baleka. Ian had told him that he needed to let down his guard when he wrote, and that he needed to inject more of himself into his articles. Simon looked across the room at his computer on his desk, and something compelled him to sit down and write. He opened a new document on his word processor and Ian’s words echoed in his mind:
Do something spontaneous… find your own voice… write something that shows me who Simon Northbrook really is…
Simon began typing, and immediately felt a sense of release as the words flowed out of him. He allowed the article to write itself, not overthinking every word as he normally did. He started: My name is Simon Northbrook, and I am a gay student at Ridgemont University.
He wrote about how he had been hiding who he was because he was afraid that he would not be accepted. He wrote about how he was afraid to go after the person he really cared for because he feared rejection, and he thought that being gay meant that they would both be seen differently. He wrote about how he tried so hard to control situations, always being an outsider, merely reporting on the things he saw around him instead of having his own experiences.
Then he wrote about how he had lost so much because of his fear, and writing the article about abuse in Ridgemont residences gave him a newfound confidence. He could only begin to change by being honest and unafraid. And he was ready to do that.
The piece felt authentic, like Simon had put himself on the page for the first time in his writing career. He went to the online portal of the Weekly without thinking, and uploaded the article under the opinion section.
Simon expected to be terrified when he pressed the upload button, but the only feeling he felt was pride that he could do something that he would have once been so frightened of.
Simon texted Ian as he walked to the exit: Are you free? I’m coming over to your place if you are. I hope we can finally have that talk.
He looked back at the quiet office one more time, and exhaled.
Simon stood at the door to Ian’s flat. He read the message that he had received from Ian again: I’m free. I’ll be waiting for you.
He felt his heartbeat quicken, but didn’t feel afraid this time. Something was different inside of him. Writing the article that he had just written, being so honest about who he was, had awoken something in him that was dormant before. He knocked on the door.
“Come in,” came the response in Ian’s masculine voice. Simon turned the handle of the door.
He walked into the room and saw Ian sitting on the couch, with his laptop, and smiled up at Simon. “I’ve just been doing some reading, actually.”
“Anything good?” Simon asked, smiling coyly.
Ian put down his laptop next to him, stood up and walked towards Simon. “Why yes, in fact. It’s a new article by my favorite writer.”
Simon lifted his eyebrow slyly. “Your favorite writer, you say?”
Ian put his hand on Simon’s shoulder again, but this time he moved it slowly behind Simon’s neck and pulled his face gently closer to his own. “Why don’t I just show you how I feel about that article?”
A jolt of excitement shot between them. Simon felt himself getting lost in Ian’s gaze. Ian leaned over, and lightly brushed his lips against Simon’s, and Simon felt the hairs on his skin rise. Ian finally enveloped Simon’s lips in a tender, yet passionate kiss, wrapping him in his arms. Simon put his hands around Ian too, loving the feeling of their bodies pressing together, their lips finally interlocking. Simon could feel his whole being come alive. He felt euphoric finally being able to show Ian how he felt. They had skipped all of the talk which invariably led them in circles around each other, and were finally connecting like Simon had always wanted. It was everything that Simon had hoped it would be.
Finally, Ian pulled back and looked Simon in his eyes. “I can’t tell you how long I’ve wanted to do that. How long I’ve been holding myself back from doing that.”
“Me too,” Simon said, and planted another soft kiss on Ian’s supple lips. “Sorry about this beard. I must be scratching your face up.”
“I like it, actually. It’s a different kind of you.”
Ian’s eyes were filled with affection, and Simon was swimming in them as they finally connected. Here he was, the man he had dreamed of for so long. The one he had thought he would never be good enough for. Here they were together.
“I’m so proud of you for writing that article. It’s everything I knew you were capable of. You’re a fantastic writer, and that level of honesty isn’t something you see every day. It’s rare to be able to capture people’s hearts and minds with your writing like that. But then again, you had my heart since the start.”
Simon embraced Ian in a tight hug. He wasn’t going to let him go.
They sat on the couch together, having some wine, enjoying the freedom they finally had to share their feelings and be together as they had wanted for so long.
Simon again felt the regret of trying to hide his feelings from Ian: “I’m sorry I pushed you away for so long. I’m sorry that I gave you the impression that I didn’t feel the same way you did.”
Ian responded, “I knew we had a connection, and I wanted to be around you constantly from the first time we worked together at the Weekly. We could have conversations for hours, and I could always trust you and rely on you. I didn’t know yet that I was falling for you. But once I knew, it was all I could think about. That’s why I became so down over the past few months. I couldn’t bear the thought that I couldn’t be with you like I wanted to. That we could only ever be colleagues or friends.”
Simon frowned, “What I don’t understand is why you decided to give Margeaux the impression that you were interested in her.”
“I needed to try and distract myself from my feelings for you. I couldn’t deal with the idea of falling for a guy yet. It was all so strange to me. I needed to see if I could make it work with a girl.”
“But Margeaux, of all people?”
They both laughed. “Yeah, I could’ve made some better choices there. But it all worked out in the end. I get to be with you now.”
Ian bent over and kissed Simon again. Who would’ve thought: once this was only a fantasy for Simon, and now he was kissing the man of his dreams.
Simon took Ian’s hands in his: “Let’s just make a promise not to hide from our feelings for each other ever again. To always be honest. I don’t want to ever lose this.”
“Deal,” Ian responded. “I don’t either. I’ve never felt this strongly for someone before, tiger. I’ve never been this happy and comfortable with someone before.”
They sat late into the night, discussing everything, opening up to each other. A few times Simon thought that he must have been dreaming. But it was no dream. He and Ian were together.
The day had finally arrived. Even on such an important day, Simon couldn’t neglect his new duties as editor of the Ridgemont Weekly, so he quickly answered a call from Dennis about the latest edition as he stood outside of the church. It was a magnificent day, the perfect day for such a special occasion, and Simon felt excited and content. He finished the call with Dennis, who told him to enjoy the day, that he would be able to handle the crisis on his own. Simon decided to take his advice, and walked towards the entrance of the church hall.
Zuko stood outside, looking incredibly dashing in his blue tuxedo and bow tie. He smiled at Simon and hugged him. “I can’t believe this is happening! It feels so soon!”
“I know! I’d better be ready at the front of the church. What time is it?”
“It’s not time yet. Are you nervous?”
“A little. But mostly excited.”
Simon felt uncomfortable in the hot suit he was wearing, but he knew that he looked great in it. He had perfectly trimmed his beard and styled his hair, and he wore a red tie that he knew Ian loved to see him in.
Zuko walked inside to sit next to Jeremy. “I’ll see you in there. Good luck.”
Simon thanked him and took a deep breath. He was ready to take his place.
He felt a tap on his shoulder then. He turned around and was taken aback: Ian stood there, smiling his megawatt smile and looking more handsome than Simon had ever seen him. His suit fit him perfectly, and his cheeks were red with excitement.
“Looking handsome, tiger,” Ian said, winking.
“You too. But you shouldn’t be here. Shouldn’t you be inside already?”
“Relax, Olivia is running late, as expected. Poor Justin is a mess of nerves. I’ve been trying to console him.”
“I’m supposed to be helping Olivia get ready, but her mom chased me away. Said it was no place for a man to be in a bride’s changing room. So I guess I’ll just have to carry out my man of honor duties inside the church. Olivia tried to argue but her mom has had a few already so it was pointless.”
“She’s lucky to have you,” Ian smiled, and kissed him. They walked into the church hand-in-hand, ready to witness Olivia marry Justin.
At the reception, Olivia looked radiant in her long, strapless white dress. She wore her hair up and her makeup was done perfectly to accentuate her soft features. Ian sat with his arm around Simon’s shoulder as they watched Olivia and Justin’s parents make speeches.
Finally, it was time for Simon to say something as Olivia’s man of honor. He stood up in front of the crowd and fought back tears as he spoke.
“Olivia is my best friend. I’ve known her since we were in school, and she’s always had my back. No one has been as fierce in their support of me. No one has been as kind and giving as we both grew up together.
“Today she’s marrying the man she loves. The man who makes her so happy. I’m honored to be here to celebrate this day with her.
“I’m fortunate enough to say that Olivia has inspired me to be a better person. She’s taught me how to go after what I want, fearlessly, and she’s helped me to learn how to love.” Simon looked over at Ian, who wiped away tears from his cheeks. He raised his glass to Olivia and Justin, and felt happy that he could be there on one of the most important days of her life, and share it with the man that he loved.
“That was a beautiful speech, tiger,” Ian whispered into Simon’s ear as they slow danced at the reception.
“Thanks. I meant it.” He looked into Ian’s eyes. “I meant it when I said that I learned how to love. I love you.”
They embraced and danced like they were the only two people in the room.
Simon and Ian will return in future Ridgemont University books. You can catch up on their next short story in Second Chances for free by visiting
To get updates as soon as a new book in the series is released, and to stand a chance to receive free copies, sign up for the mailing list at .
The next book in the series follows the story of Darryn and JP, two swimmers for the Ridgemont University team, whose bitter rivalry in the pool leads to complicated feelings for both of them. Find out more at . I’ve included the first few chapters on the pages ahead!
Second Chances follows the story of Ian and Simon a few months after they start dating and move in together.
Public reviews really help other readers find my work. If you’d like to leave a review and share your opinion on this book, please .
Thanks for taking the time to do this!
Against the Tide: Ridgemont University
Darryn Fredericks stood at the edge of the Olympic-sized swimming pool in the large swimming stadium of Ridgemont University. He felt his heart racing wildly and, even though the crowd was cheering and excited, he could hardly hear a thing. He was laser-focused on what he had to accomplish. Get to the other side first. Stroke, pause, breathe, stroke, pause, breathe. He mentally went through the race then, and saw himself gliding across the water gracefully. He couldn’t make a single mistake, and in the hours of practice over the past months he had perfected his form and technique. But he was not about to become complacent or think that winning was a sure thing. He had always had to work hard for everything in his life, and it had gotten him onto the Ridgemont University swim team as a first year student, on the path to make the national team in a few months if he could keep on winning. This was the time to be more focused than ever.
Darryn noticed the stands growing quieter. The moment was approaching. His muscular chest was rising and falling as he breathed deeply. His caramel skin glistened with small beads of nervous perspiration, accentuating his muscled, toned swimmer’s physique. He adjusted his goggles and swimmer’s cap to make sure everything was in place. He bent his bare legs and kicked out some of the tension he was building up. He was as ready as he would ever be.
The announcer’s voice boomed over the loudspeakers: “Welcome everyone to the Ridgemont University swimming championships quarter-final match 3. The winner of this race will go on to compete in the semi-finals in three weeks’ time, and will be considered for the intervarsity team. We are also happy to welcome the scouts for the South African national team who are in the stands today. Please give them a round of applause!” The crowd responded with a loud roar. There were at least a hundred supporters. Swimming was one of the most popular sports at Ridgemont University and, next to the rugby championships, the swimming finals were the most attended event on the annual sporting calendar. Darryn knew that this was the only reason he received such a sizable scholarship for being a gifted swimmer, as the swimming team was well funded and had many sponsors. The scholarship was almost enough to cover his entire tuition at Ridgemont, and since it was one of the most expensive universities in the country, this was saying a lot. He knew that if he wanted to make the national team and make a career out of swimming, losing was not an option.
The announcer spoke again when the crowd became calmer: “In a moment we will turn over to the referee who will signal the start of the race. Good luck to the swimmers!”
Darryn looked into the crowd, seeing the expectant faces and the signs supporting particular swimmers. He wished then that his father and brother could have been there to support him, but he knew that it would not be possible. He felt slightly selfish for not being at home, where he could help his father on such a difficult day, but he knew that he had to be at the race. He had to win and hold on to his scholarship so that he could at least support them with some of the funding that he received. He had to win for them.
He noticed his coach and the rest of the swim team at their spot on the benches. Coach Tyson was chewing his nicotine gum furiously, making it look like the veins in his neck were about to explode from stress. He nervously gave Darryn a thumbs-up and managed a smile that looked more like a grimace. Coach Tyson was the reason that Darryn’s swimming had improved so much in the few months that he had been on the swimming team, and Darryn respected him immensely. He returned his coach’s gesture, and saw that he was being leered at by a particular set of piercing blue eyes that stirred immediate anger in him.
JP Terreblanche was giving Darryn a smug look, his eyebrow raised. He had his short blond hair styled in a spiky, boyish style, and his sharp jaw and heavy mouth gave him a look of mischief that only fueled Darryn’s distrust of him. JP adjusted his Ridge U jacket, but his gaze did not move from Darryn. Even though Darryn knew that JP was good looking, with his high cheekbones and strong jaw, the arrogance that went along with it made Darryn’s blood boil. JP was one of the best swimmers on the team, but Darryn knew that he was definitely better. JP, however, acted like he was God’s gift to swimming, and walked and talked with an air of importance that only the spoiled Ridgemont elite could pull off. Unfortunately, JP had won his quarter-final race earlier that morning, only adding to his arrogance. Darryn knew that he would enjoy beating JP in the finals if both of them made it, and a smile crossed his lips at the thought that JP would have to watch him win. Beating JP would be one of the most satisfying parts of his swimming career at Ridgemont, Darryn thought.
He stepped to his mark at the very edge of the pool, and bent down to be ready for his starting dive. He trained his eyes on the water in front of him, rehearsing his movements in his head again. He could do this, he reminded himself, and held his breath as he waited for the sound of the gun that spelled the start of the race. Everything was quiet, and Darryn’s mind was blocking out even the stray thoughts of JP’s arrogant stare, which was surely still trained on him like a laser. Suddenly, the bang of the starting gun sounded, and Darryn was in the water. He found his rhythm perfectly as he hit the surface. Stroke, pause, breathe, stroke, pause, breathe. He felt his movements echo the months of training and mental preparation that he had done. He knew that he was doing everything right. He knew that the stakes couldn’t be higher, and he pushed himself even harder than he thought possible.
The thrill and discipline of swimming were intoxicating for Darryn. This was where he was happiest, and where he felt most in control. He loved the feeling of moving so swiftly and powerfully in the pool, his large arms and shoulders sliding through the water and propelling him forward, his legs finding exactly the right rhythm to facilitate his propulsion, all combining to make his movement through the water like that of an eagle swooping through the air. Coach Tyson had looked at him in amazement the first time he had seen Darryn swim, and told him that he had a rare talent. Darryn knew that he had to put his talent to use and go as far as he could with his swimming career. He had had too late a start at swimming to compete internationally earlier in his life, but he could still make the intervarsity and national college teams. He knew he had it in him.
Suddenly he felt his fingers touch the opposite edge of the pool. It was over. He emerged from the water and saw on the scoreboard that he had completed the race in a new personal record time. He had won, and the crowd was cheering in elation. Darryn raised his fist proudly and smiled. He saw his coach and the rest of his team standing and applauding. Coach Tyson looked especially jubilant. But one face was smirking between the rest of the team. JP was still sitting even though the rest of the team were standing in applause. He was not cheering at all, but merely staring at Darryn. Darryn decided to ignore him; it wasn’t worth letting JP ruin his proud moment.
He was eager to let his father and brother know that he had won, and that he would be progressing to the semi-finals in a few weeks. He got out of the pool and found his towel, and his coach was immediately next to him, tapping his shoulder. “Well done, Darryn! That was excellent, exactly as we practised it. You did an amazing job. Now you just need to keep it up at the semis and you can make the first team. It’s been years since we’ve had a first-year student on the first team. Keep it up!”
“Thanks, Coach,” Darryn said, with a bashful smile. He knew that his coach favored him over many of the other swimmers, and that he was secretly rooting for Darryn to do well. Maybe it was because Darryn was one of only two mixed-race students on the swim team, or “coloured” as they were called in South Africa. The rest of the team were all white, often from wealthy backgrounds. Darryn knew that he had a lot to prove, and Coach Tyson seemed to be determined to help him in any way he could.
Coach Tyson moved in closer to him and said, “Just remember to try and make it to the get-together this afternoon once the last races are done. I invited the national scouts and it would be good for you to meet them.” Darryn was thrilled at the prospect of meeting the national scouts, even if it meant attending a party with the rest of the team.
Darryn’s best friend on the swim team, Mario, came over to him and enthusiastically shook his hand in congratulations. Mario was the other coloured student on the team, who had come second in his quarter-final race, as he had participated in the race that JP had won that morning. Mario was always optimistic and merely shrugged off his second-place finish, saying that he would do better the following year, and that he didn’t need to make the intervarsity team just yet. He was one of Darryn’s most ardent supporters, and was always ready to tell Darryn how much he admired his technique. “You know you’re the best swimmer on the team, and in a year’s time you’ll definitely be captain,” Mario often said to Darryn.
Darryn shook the hands of the rest of the team. It was a ritual that Coach Tyson encouraged, even though Darryn knew that he was not well-liked among the other guys on the team. They often treated Darryn like he was beneath them, but they were forced to accept that he was one of their best first-year swimmers. Last in line for the handshake was JP, who didn’t say a word as he approached Darryn and squeezed his hand tightly, almost hurting him. Darryn squeezed back, and they stared straight into each other’s eyes. JP was trying to provoke him, he thought. But he resolved not to let JP ruin his proud moment. Darryn pulled his hand free and just walked away from JP, moving towards the locker room to change.
Mario came up to Darryn again as he walked towards the locker room, whispering in a serious tone, “Listen, Darryn, I need to talk to you. Your dad just called my phone, he said that he was trying to get through to you but that your phone was just ringing. He said it’s quite serious, about Billy, and you must call him back as soon as you can.” Mario had thin, sharp eyebrows and his hair was cut short on his round face, giving him an almost comical look which suited his jovial personality. It was rare to see Mario being serious, and the contrast of his playful features and serious words made Darryn uneasy.
“Thanks, Mario, let me just get to my phone. Can you drive me home? It will take too long to get there with the bus.”
“Sure. Go call your dad and I’ll tell Coach that I can’t be here for the rest of the races. I’ll be ready to go when you are.”
Darryn rushed into the locker room and opened his locker, taking out his ancient Nokia phone. He saw eight missed calls and two messages from his father, and immediately returned the call. His father answered in his deep voice, sounding nervous, “Hello? Darryn?”
“Dad, yes, what’s going on? Is Billy okay?”
“He just had another episode. I thought he was getting better when you left for your race this morning, but it’s not looking good. Can you come back now? You’re the only one who can calm him down when he gets like this.”
“I’m on my way. Mario says he will give me a lift. Listen, don’t worry. I’m gonna be there in twenty minutes. Just try and see if you can play some music for him until I get there.”
“I’m sorry, Darryn. I know it’s an important day. I just don’t know what to do.” His father’s voice was faltering, and Darryn felt sorry for him. His father was approaching fifty and not in the best of health himself, and all of the worry over Billy was really getting to him.
“Don’t worry. I’m done here and I’ll be back soon. Just stay with him.”
Darryn hung up the phone and didn’t bother showering, throwing on his clothes and rushing out. His face hung in a look of worry, his sharp cheekbones and serious brown eyes accentuating the look of sadness and fear. He knew that he should have stayed home with Billy. He rushed towards Mario’s car, desperate to get home as soon as he could.
Mario pulled into the driveway of Darryn’s house. They only lived a few blocks from each other, and they had both been able to get out of their impoverished community and go to the prestigious Ridgemont University by studying together and getting scholarships. Darryn often marveled at how strange it was that such a poor community as theirs could be only a short drive away from a place like Ridgemont University, with its immaculate, regal buildings and incredibly rich students. But he was glad that he could have an opportunity to study there, and to one day be able to get his father and brother out of their difficult circumstances, and look after them like his father had looked after Darryn and his brother their whole lives.
He rushed out of the car as it stopped, ran to the front door and opened it. The house was completely quiet. Their family dog, Colette, was sitting quietly on the couch, and just watched Darryn as he entered. He walked towards the bedroom that he shared with his brother, Billy. The curtains were drawn in the room, and only a sliver of light entered in the space between them. His father was sitting on the bed, looking at Billy as he sat on the floor. Billy was eleven-years-old, and he had his fingers clenched in his long, curly hair, as his face hung low. He was rocking slowly from side to side.
Darryn’s father, Angelo, looked at him with an expression of desperation. He got up from the bed and tapped Darryn on his shoulder as a signal to follow him outside. When they stepped out of the room, his father gave a sigh of exasperation. He was a heavyset man, with dark lines under his eyes and big, calloused hands from years of manual labor. His skin was darker than Darryn and Billy’s, and he was balding on top of his head. Darryn could see the exhaustion written all over his father’s face. “I’m glad you’re home, Darryn. He’s been like this for about an hour now. He was doing so well this morning, I thought it was only a minor episode. I tried taking him to school, but his teacher called me about half an hour later and said that he wasn’t doing well.”
Darryn’s sharp, dark eyes were stuck in a frown as his father spoke. “I came as soon as I could. I’m sorry I missed your calls. I saw that he wasn’t doing well this morning. I should have stayed.”
“No, you did nothing wrong. I hope I didn’t make you miss your race,” his father said.
“I just finished it when Mario told me you called, actually.” Darryn thought that it would be frivolous to talk about winning the race when Billy was not doing well.
His father spoke again in a strained whisper: “This is the second time this month already that he’s had such a bad day. The episodes seem to be getting more frequent. I thought that the new medication would help, but he doesn’t seem to be doing well at all.”
Darryn nodded solemnly, and walked past his father into the room where Billy sat in the corner. “Hey, Billy boy,” he whispered. “How are you doing, kid?”
Billy looked up, noticing Darryn’s presence for the first time. “I just felt bad again. I don’t know why I feel so bad sometimes. There were just so many people at school.”
“It’s not your fault, buddy. You don’t have to worry about a thing.” Darryn walked towards Billy and knelt down next to him, putting his hand on his brother’s. He gave a gentle smile. “How are you feeling right now?”
Billy remained quiet. Since he had been diagnosed with mood and developmental disorders, he had only regressed. Darryn was able to stabilize him most of the time, but his episodes had become worse in recent months.
“Guess what,” Darryn said, trying to force a wider smile. “I won the race this morning.”
Billy’s eyes lit up, and he gave a look of excitement. “You won? Can I see the medal?”
“I still have to pick it up. I didn’t have a chance to stick around for the prize giving ceremony. But when I get it, we can add it to the collection, okay.”
“That’s great, Darryn. I wish I could’ve watched you instead of going to school. I don’t like school.”
“I know, buddy, but the doctor thinks it’s good for you to be there.”
Billy was quiet again. He noticed his books in the bookcase. “I’m reading a great book right now. Do you want me to tell you about it?”
“Definitely,” Darryn smiled. They sat on the floor together, Billy seeming more peaceful as he spoke about the fantasy book that he was reading. Darryn was happy that he could be there for his brother. He was happy that they could finally afford to get his brother better care since he had received the swimming scholarship, and he was also giving most of the money that he earned at his extra job at a local fast-food place to his father. But he knew that it was not enough yet. If he made the national team, he could get a sponsorship deal that would really help them. He could afford to get Billy the best care that the country could offer.
After half an hour of sharing the details of his book with Darryn, Billy gave a big yawn and stretched his arms above his head. “I think I need a nap,” Billy said.
“You’ve had a lot of excitement. I think a nap will be good for you. I’ll put on your music.” Darryn went to the stereo in the corner of the bedroom and played the calming music that Billy enjoyed. The boy closed his eyes and said, “Good job on winning today. Next time I’m definitely coming to watch you, okay?”
“Absolutely. Rest well, kid.” Darryn walked out of the room and saw his father sitting on the couch in the living room, looking depleted.
Angelo took a sip of the glass of water he was holding, staring at the table in front of him. “It’s so hard seeing him like that. I just don’t know what to do. We can’t afford the nurse more than once a week. I have to be at work; I can’t stay home with him. What are we going to do?”
Darryn sat down next to his father. “I’m gonna do everything I can to help. Are the new meds not working? Should we see if we can find a better psychiatrist for him?”
“I think it’s the school. I don’t think he’s getting everything he needs at public school. They have too many children, and they’re under resourced. I’ve been looking into other options, but they’re so expensive. There is a school in town, a very good special school where he can get everything he needs. They have a team of good therapists on staff. But it’s private and expensive. I just don’t think he’ll be able to do well at public school. He’s getting worse.”
Darryn sat in thought, observing his father’s desperation. He knew that Angelo had been doing everything he could to help their family. He had given his all to make sure that Darryn could get into Ridgemont University, and he was working long hours to try and provide for Billy’s needs now. “I’ll do more to help. I know that the fast food job isn’t cutting it. I’ll try and find something else.”
“Darryn, you need to focus on your studies. It’s not your job to look after us. It’s my job, I’m the father here.”
“You did everything for me. You sacrificed so much. Let me do what I can to help now. I love Billy too, and I want him to have the best life he can have. We both have to do everything we can.”
Angelo turned to Darryn and hugged him them, sighing heavily. “You’ve always been a good son. The best son I could wish for. Your mother would have been so proud if she could see you now.” Angelo looked up suddenly with concern written on his face: “But what happened at the race? How did it go?”
“I won,” Darryn smiled. “Made it to the semi-finals. Now the hard work begins.”
“I’m so proud of you, son! I knew you’d make it.” His father’s eyes were suddenly alive again, and Darryn could see the pride emanating from them. “But shouldn’t you be celebrating with your team today? Don’t you usually have braais after racing days?”
“They’re at the club house right now, but I want to be here with the two of you. I should be here for Billy.”
“Nonsense!” his father protested. “We can’t steal you away from them for the whole day. Billy is okay now, and I’m okay. You’ve helped us a lot today. Go be with your friends.”
Darryn didn’t say that most of them were not really his friends. “There are scouts there today that Coach Tyson wants me to meet, so maybe if I can just go for an hour I can meet them and be back before dinner.”
“Stay as long as you like. You do so much for us, and when you’re not here you’re practising your swimming. When do you ever find time to have fun?”
“It’s fun for me to hang out with the two of you,” Darryn smiled. “Besides, there will be time for fun when I’ve made the national team and finished my studies.”
“You’re way too serious for an eighteen-year-old, Darryn. Go, be with people your own age, and be a bit irresponsible for a change.” His father punched him playfully on his shoulder. “And I don’t want to see you home before eight. Nothing serious for the rest of the day, okay? Celebrate your victory, swimming champion!”
Darryn laughed at his father’s silliness. “Okay, I’ll go for a bit. Just to get you off my back.” He sent Mario a message to ask for a lift to the braai, and walked over to his house. He knew that it was important to meet the scouts, and that he would have to work even harder to make sure that he could look after his family like they needed him to.
The gathering in the swimming team’s clubhouse had turned from a more formal celebration into a raucous party. Coach Tyson and the national recruiters had left after a few hours of meeting the players and congratulating the semifinalists, and the team had taken the opportunity to invite many other students to join in their first blowout party of the year. The swim team’s parties were legendary on campus, and the team members themselves were notorious for how raucous they became during these parties. Music was blaring from a sound system in the lounge area, and the lavish interior and expensive furniture gave the clubhouse a distinctive Ridgemont flair of pomp and prestige. On the walls around the main hall were pictures of the swim teams of previous years, and a trophy case displayed all of the successes that the team had achieved in their illustrious history.
JP sat on a couch in the lounge area next to the reception desk that was being used as a bar, his leg over the side and his arms stretched out. A first-year student, Emma, sat cuddled against him and looked around the room with a disaffected stare. JP wore a tight blue striped shirt, light jeans that showed off his swimmer’s legs, and a pair of expensive boots. His tanned neck and face contrasted with his intense blue eyes. He bobbed his head along to the song that filled the room, watching the antics of some of the other swimmers as they played drinking games.
Emma tapped JP on his arm, throwing her long dark hair over her shoulder as she moved to his ear and said, “You’re so hot.” JP kissed her wildly, and he saw some of the other guys on the team watching him. He knew they were jealous that a girl like Emma was spending time with him. JP had never had trouble finding a girl to keep him company for a night, but he was always bored at how vapid most of them were, and how much some of them would fawn over him. He got up and grabbed a beer from the bar, and downed it in three big gulps.
His best friend on the team, Peet, came over to him then, and slapped him hard on his shoulder: “Having fun, I see, JP.”
JP took another beer and raised it at Peet: “Always,” he said, a mischievous glint in his eye.
He felt his phone vibrating in his pocket and checked it. He saw that the call was from his grandfather, and he felt the frustration building in him. What did the old man want now? He knew that he had no choice but to answer. His grandfather was the one paying for JP’s flat and giving him an allowance. His parents had said that they would not pay for the luxuries that JP wanted, but his grandfather gave him enough money to maintain his lifestyle. “A Terreblanche man shouldn’t live like a commoner. He should have everything he needs and wants,” the old man had said at the time. JP sometimes regretted taking the money from the old man, because he knew that it came with expectations. JP would have to take over the family business one day, a business that his father and grandfather had already spent their entire lives building into a leading international investment firm. JP would inherit all of their wealth and status, but he had to follow his grandfather’s rules in order to be seen as good enough.
JP went outside to the clubhouse’s pool area, where the music was not as loud, and answered his grandfather’s call. “Oupa, how are you?” he said.
“JP, why is there so much music in the background? What are you doing?”
“I’m with the swim team, Oupa. We just had a prize giving and we are celebrating.”
The old man’s voice was stern and commanding: “Do you really think you have the time to be partying like a common hooligan, JP? Is that what we are sending you to Ridgemont for?”
JP tried to control his frustration, and reminded himself that he had to stay in the old man’s good graces. “It’s just a small get together, Oupa. Nothing to worry about.”
“Well it looks like there is a lot to worry about. I just received your term report. It looks like your studies are suffering. What do you have to say for yourself?”
JP felt blood rushing to his face. He hated it when he had to explain himself to his grandfather. He felt like a small child trying to find excuses. “It’s just a small hiccup, Oupa. First term adjustment. I am working hard and I will pass everything.”
“I’m not paying so much for you to be there and live in a nice flat just so that you can have hiccups. This is not time for fun and games, JP. In a few years you need to be ready to shadow me at work every day. Your father will never be good enough to run this company. You need to be a real Terreblanche man and take your responsibilities seriously.”
“I take it all very seriously, Oupa. There’s no need to talk to me like that.” JP was ready to say much worse, and it took everything in him to restrain himself.
“Don’t try and tell me how I can talk. I’ll talk to you exactly like I want to. You are starting to act like a spoiled, lazy child, and if your grades aren’t better, I expect you to cut out frivolous things like parties and swimming and get more serious. Do you understand me, boy?”
JP was biting his lower lip. His eyes were tearing with fury. “Yes, Oupa,” he managed to say. “I have to go now. I’ll talk to you soon.”
JP heard a click in his ear before he received an answer. He was just about ready to throw his phone against a wall, but he simply walked inside to the lounge area of the clubhouse and gulped down another beer.
Peet saw him then, and came over to him laughing: “What’s wrong, JP? Why do you look so pissed? It’s a party man, don’t get your panties in a bunch.”
“It’s nothing,” JP said, seething. “Just some unnecessary nonsense I needed to deal with. Let’s have another drink.”
JP’s eyes went to the door of the clubhouse then, and he saw Darryn Fredericks enter the party. Some of the other guys on the team went up to him to congratulate him on winning his race. JP saw that he was with his friend, Mario, the other coloured guy on the swim team. He immediately felt a smile cross his lips, and some of his anger dissipated. He knew that Darryn didn’t like him, and for some reason, taunting Darryn was very satisfying for JP. Darryn had an arrogant, aloof attitude towards the rest of the swim team, and hardly ever came to the parties that they hosted. JP thought that Darryn’s attitude must have meant that he felt superior to them, and he couldn’t stand Darryn’s constant detached glances. Why did he even come to the party if he didn’t like anyone on the team?
Peet was also smiling at spotting Darryn. “Looks like our best friend is here, hey,” he laughed indulgently. “Maybe I should go and say hello.”
“You go ahead, Peet. I don’t have time for such uptight people tonight,” JP said. He went back to sit next to Emma, who was still patiently waiting for him to return to the couch.
JP was close enough to hear what Peet was saying to Darryn: “There he is, the champion swimmer. Coach’s pet, hey? Congratulations on your win today, mate.” Peet played a childish prank on Darryn where he pretended to want to shake his hand and pulled away as Darryn put his hand out. JP laughed at how silly his friend was being.
“Listen, I only came here because Coach said that there would be recruiters. But it looks like everyone important has left already, so I guess we will be leaving too,” Darryn said. Mario stood by his side, seeming uncomfortable. JP was amazed at Darryn’s arrogance.
Peet spoke again, louder than the music, which had been turned down so that the rest of the party could focus on the exchange. “Listen here, mister, you have a chip on your shoulder, don’t you. You are so entitled that you think you can just come in here and say whatever you want. Everyone knows you are on a free ride, so don’t act like we owe you anything.”
Darryn was being obstinate and standing his ground, even though Mario was trying to pull him away. JP decided to get up and intervene before things got ugly. Even though Darryn annoyed him, he didn’t want Coach to find out that they had gotten into a drunken brawl with their teammate.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” JP said as he reached them. “Let’s not get too heated. Why don’t you come and have a drink with us, Darryn? We should celebrate our victories today. Next time, hey, Mario,” JP said.
“I don’t want to have a drink with people like you,” Darryn burst out.
JP was getting annoyed. He said, “Look, I’m trying here. There’s no need to keep being so difficult with all of us. How do you expect us to treat you when you keep talking to us like this?” JP suddenly felt all of the eyes in the room on him, and he began to feel self-conscious. He knew that he would be embarrassed if Darryn continued to be difficult with him in front of everyone. “Why don’t we just go outside and cool off a bit?”
Peet grabbed Darryn’s arm and started dragging him outside, “Yeah, let’s go cool off a bit.” He was laughing as he continued to drag Darryn, who tried to fight him off. JP looked on, horrified.
“Let him go, Peet. There’s no need for that, man,” JP said as Peet and some other guys on the team laughed and dragged Darryn outside. He followed them to the pool area.
“No, he’s the swimming champion, isn’t he? Let’s see how he swims tonight.”
JP saw the situation deteriorating, and walked ahead of Peet and the other guys who had left Darryn standing at the edge of the pool. “Let him go, guys. Rather just let him leave so that this doesn’t escalate.”
Darryn’s face was red and filled with anger. He was clearly hurt by what the other guys were doing to him. “I knew I shouldn’t have come here,” he shouted at them. “You all think the world revolves around you, that you can treat the rest of us any way you want.”
JP felt sorry for him. He knew that Peet could be relentless, and he didn’t want Darryn to be a victim of his childish games any longer. “Darryn, why don’t you just go? Let him get past you, guys,” JP said, trying to diffuse the tensions which were building.
Darryn lashed out: “You don’t talk to me. I saw the way you were looking at me before my race today. I know what you think of me. I’m sorry I don’t have a perfect life like you do,” Darryn shouted at JP.
“Perfect life? Don’t talk about things that you know nothing about, okay? I’m trying to help you here.”
“Help me? I don’t need your help. Why don’t you just go back to your little cushy life where mommy and daddy pay to make everything right?”
JP couldn’t control himself then. He saw red, and before he even made a conscious decision, he shoved hard on Darryn’s chest, and Darryn flew back into the pool. He shouted, “Don’t bring my family into this!”
Darryn landed in the pool with a loud splash. The music came to a sudden stop and JP heard a voice yelling behind him, “What’s going on here?” Coach Tyson stood there, looking at the scene with shock.
Get the full book at .
Don't allow your fear of the unknown to hold you back from true love... Sweet/ wholesome MM love story. Easy reading introduction to the Ridgemont University gay romance series. No adult content. Focus on slow burn true love story and character building. Simon Northbrook has the smarts, looks, and he is an excellent journalist for Ridgemont University’s Weekly paper. But Simon’s perfectionist nature hides a deep need to be loved and appreciated. Specifically by Ian Peters, his unbearably gorgeous editor. When Simon’s friend Zuko disappears, Simon’s investigation soon reveals that he is on the brink of a scandal that will rock the entire university. Will Simon let down his guard to work with Ian and solve the mystery, or will his fear of love stand in his way? Flirty, fun, and above all sweetly romantic, the exciting new Ridgemont University series follows the exploits of m/m college students. Full of character-driven drama and suspense, and a healthy dose of romance and comedy, the boys of Ridgemont University are sure to steal your heart. Hot Off the Press is a slow burn m/m contemporary college romance novel set in the fictional Ridgemont University. It has lots of flirtation and character development, medium angst, a little bit of heat, and a happily-ever-after ending.