June, Present Day
When Paul showed up at work on Tuesday morning, he discovered his carefully nurtured routine had been disrupted. Routine would have been arriving at the Calapooya College Academic Help Center to find his schedule filled with students desperately seeking tutoring assistance so as not to flunk yet another class. Summer term was for the hardcore cases. Only the students on their last scholastic leg needed help then: the morons and the miscreants.
On the miscreants’ team were the hardcore partiers about to be kicked out of school, and therefore Daddy’s good graces—and wallet—if they couldn’t get their sorry, drunken asses off of academic probation once and for all. Or at least until next year. “And dude! I think he really means it this time,” was a common complaint. The miscreants mostly offered him money to provide them with the answers, and while he could use the funds, he didn’t want them at the expense of his personal integrity.
Paul’s popularity with the miscreants was low, but he wasn’t generally well-loved by the masses, so it didn’t bother him.
Personally, he preferred the morons—the people taking a class for at least the third time that they absolutely had to pass. They were rarely actually of sub-par intelligence; they just had things like mental blocks against certain subjects caused by traumatic experiences in their scholastic history. A high school chemistry teacher who used to hit on them, for instance, or a psychology teacher who picked his nose and ate it while lecturing. Helping the morons comprehend their material was rewarding. They often got it all at once, like a lightbulb coming on. When that happened, he felt as if he’d provided that one piece of knowledge that broke through the student’s brain cell logjam, and then a tidal wave of learning rushed out, smashing barriers with its momentum—a true sense of accomplishment, if a bit unpredictable.
But on Tuesday morning, Brutus the work-study receptionist—or whatever the hell his name was—yelled out, “Oy! Paul! Got a note for ya here.”
“I’m standing right in front of you, there’s no need to raise your voice,” Paul said, sotto voce.
“I’m not yelling!” Brutus hollered, rearing back in his seat and blinking at him.
“Are you familiar with the concept of an ‘indoor voice’?” Paul whispered.
Brutus blinked some more, then went back to digging through piles of papers on his desk. Paul shifted from foot to foot while he waited. He had to get to the staff lounge before that pseudo-bohemian from the Philosophy Department did, because he knew for a fact that there was only one packet of gunpowder tea left, and he aimed to get to it first. Dammitall, his life had really gone downhill since tea drinking had become a fad and every patchouli-doused, soul-patch-sporting “free thinker” with a college degree felt qualified to dunk his twig and berries in hot water.
“Oy! Here it is,” Brutus bellowed. He handed Paul a printout of an email to the Center’s general address.
“What is this?” he asked in his normal voice, forgetting all about behavior modeling.
“I dunno, read it.” Brutus went back to his computer, ignoring Paul.
So he took the damn thing and hurried off to the lounge, relieved to reach it before Kendall the Existential Tea Drinker. It wasn’t until he had dropped the tea bag in freshly boiled water that he looked at the printout.
It was a summons from the new Calapooya College women’s softball coach to appear before him, since Paul had apparently been assigned a number of his players as clients.
“I have a strict ‘no jocks’ policy!” he said aloud.
“Well, the rest of us are swimming in athletes to tutor,” Kendall said sulkily, standing next to Paul with his supermarket-brand tea bag. “You’re going to have to suck it up.”
“We’ll just see about that.”
He stomped toward the office of the Academic Center manager, where he was promptly told to suck it up. “You were specifically requested by the new coach. He asked for a list of tutors, and I guess he chose you based on your academic performance or something.” Paul could’ve sworn his boss muttered something about it not being on the strength of his personality.
He retreated to his corner of the center, mulling it over.
Quitting his tutoring job wasn’t an option. He had to move out of the dorms by the end of summer; therefore, he needed this paycheck. It was humiliating that he’d had to move into the dorms in the first place, but when one behaved as he had to his roommate’s boyfriend, one might rather suddenly end up without a place to live when said boyfriend moved in with said roommate.
He looked back at the dumb email printout Brutus had given him. The coach—who’d only signed the email “Coach”—wanted to see Paul to “discuss the future academic success of my athletes.” He had, it seemed, “concerns about their course of study.”
Paul absolutely did not want to think about what those concerns might be. Instead he dredged up everything he knew about the new coach. Next to nothing, as it turned out. At a double-A school like Calapooya, the sports program was, at best, an afterthought for much of the student body, so it was easy to miss the fact that a new coach had been hired.
It had, however, been hard to miss when the old coach resigned to run off to a love nest in Mexico with her star pitcher. The student cable news show had covered it as “breaking news” with one of those ticker-tape things running underneath for three days. Paul had heard that the new coach was a gay man—presumably he wouldn’t poach female student athletes—and he’d stopped listening after that.
He turned on his laptop, ready to do some quick research, when the printout from “Coach” caught his eye again.
Lovely. He needed to meet the man in nine minutes.
Fifteen minutes later, Paul was lost in the labyrinthine Athletic Department, waiting to be pounced on by a hungry minotaur-cum-defensive-lineman. He supposed it’d be a fitting end for him to starve in the maze of coaches’ offices, strangely equipped cubicles, and locker rooms (did each team need their own?). After his somewhat extreme—some had called it irrational—reactions to jocks in the past, it was almost predictable really. Jocks—especially jocks who ran in packs with fellow jocks, such as frat jocks—pushed all his uncontrolled-anger buttons. He had a traumatic past, after all.
If he were to be honest, they pushed a few other buttons, too. Like his insecurity buttons, and his humiliation buttons.
And possibly the odd humina-humina button.
Oh, hell no. No jock will ever touch my humina-humina button again.
Heartened, Paul lifted his chin and set his jaw, marching forth to find this damn coach person’s office and get this damn meeting over with.
Then he turned the corner, and someone found him. She looked suspiciously like a softball player. The shoes and glove were a big clue. “Hey, are you the tutor?” she asked brightly. “Paul?”
He set his teeth. “Yes. And you’re a softball player.” Paul knew he sounded snottily arrogant, but there went his buttons again. Even female jocks seemed to do it.
She widened her eyes and looked him up and down carefully. Attitude begat attitude, after all. “You must be some kind of genius,” she said. “And charming too.”
He nearly bowed. “Thank you. I’ve heard that before.”
She shrugged at him, seeming to dismiss him along with his attitude. “My name’s Geneva. C’mon, Coach sent me out looking for you. You’re late.” She turned and walked off, clearly expecting him to follow.
Paul waved his hand grandly at her back. “Lead on,” he called.
“Ha!” echoed toward him, but she didn’t turn around.
He didn’t bother hoping that she wasn’t one of the players he’d been assigned to work with, because by Murphy’s infernal law, she most definitely would be. What a wonderful start to his new job as the official team tutor. He really had quite the natural talent for pissing people off.
Not that the softball players had to like him; they just had to listen to him. Follow his wise and valuable counsel. He decided against figuring the odds on that, and grudgingly followed Geneva.
She showed him silently to an office approximately fifteen hallways over from where she’d found him, and stood in front of the door, rapping on it quickly.
“Come in,” a voice said, and even through hollow-core steel, Paul knew that voice.
Trevor Gardiner was the new head coach of women’s softball?
Paul closed his eyes against a wave of dizziness, and images formed behind his eyelids—as if his life were flashing before his eyes, if his life had been made up entirely of six months of sex with his high school boyfriend.
Then he heard the door unlatch, and his eyes popped open, and he seemed to be following Geneva into Trevor’s office.
“Hey Coach Gardiner,” she said brightly. “I found the tutor.”
Shouldn’t voices change more in nine years?
Trevor had his back to the door, doing something with a file, and Paul immediately noted his scalp shining through his hair. He had the I’m-going-bald-but-I’m-not-there-yet cut: almost shaved, but not quite.
Some things change in nine years.
Unfortunately, most things didn’t, it seemed. Trevor still had a nice ass. Tight and high and round, even under those sweat shorts he wore.
“Hi Paul, have a seat,” Trevor said, turning but not quite looking at him, brown eyes flashing for a second or less.
Paul collected the pieces of himself that had (metaphorically) exploded all over the room. Soul shrapnel. He cleared his throat. “Thank you, Coach Gardiner.”
He noticed other things he’d admired about Trevor’s appearance as he walked to a chair in front of what was apparently the coach’s desk. He could swear Trevor’s shoulders were broader and his hips narrower and his back muscles more defined. Who had well-defined back muscles, anyway?
And his arms. Paul had loved his arms.
God help him, he couldn’t possibly be stupid enough to betray himself so viciously—to lust after Trevor? Again? After their history?
No. It was unthinkable.
“Um, thanks Geneva,” Trevor said again. Is he nervous? “You can go. Got it under control now.”
“Sure, Coach,” she said, backing out of the room. She watched them both closely—she had to feel the tension, didn’t she? Paul could barely make his butt meet the seat, it was so thick.
When she closed the door, for a split second, he heard the clang of the prison cell shutting him in.
He stared across Trevor’s desk at the man standing there, holding his file. Paul was certain it was a prop. “I take it you picked me.”
Trevor’s Adam’s apple bobbed. “Picked you?”
“Team tutor?” Paul asked with a twisted, hopefully condescending smile. He wanted to stand to equalize things—though he knew he’d still be a few inches shorter than Trevor—but he didn’t want to give even that much away. Didn’t want Trevor to know he felt the need to level the playing field. Or even cared about the fucking playing field anymore.
Trevor dropped his head momentarily in a sort of guilty nod, exposing his almost-bald spot again. He pulled his chair out and sat in it carefully.
“You’re losing your hair,” Paul informed him.
“Leave it to you to mention that.”
He shrugged. “Someone has to tell you. None of your sycophantic fans will. I’m just trying to keep you in the stratosphere with the rest of us normal humans.”
Trevor rolled his eyes. “Fans,” he muttered.
Paul found himself at a loss.
He hated being at a loss. He liked to know what he felt and thought and how to speak to someone for maximum effect. “What are you doing here, anyway?” he demanded. “Shouldn’t you be playing? It’s still regular season.” He winced internally at letting on he knew enough about baseball to know it was regular season. At least he hadn’t let on he knew Trevor’s career had ended.
“I guess that tells me you pay no attention to my career. I retired after last season. Not that I expected you to pay any attention,” he added, leaning back and steepling his fingers on his abdomen, as if he wasn’t wound up tight, which he so patently was.
Pity Paul couldn’t think of it as a stomach; stomachs were soft, not rigid enough to bounce coins off of. And dammit, he had to stop staring at Trevor’s abs. He ripped his eyes away, meeting Trevor’s. Trevor had obviously been watching Paul, but he didn’t look smug, just . . . sad?
Paul shook his head vigorously. “Of course I don’t follow your career. It was hard to miss when you moved up to the majors though,” he grumbled, inspecting his nails.
When he glanced up at Trevor, he was still watching him. “I think you meant hard not to miss.”
“I still read the local paper,” Paul snapped. The local paper for their hometown 250-plus miles away. Yeah. “Online,” Paul added. He needed to just shut the fuck up. He sounded like he was covering his ass. “That’s where I read the paper, I mean. Sometimes read it. And what do you mean, ‘retired’?” Best defense was a good offense.
Finally, Trevor looked away, down at his fingers, pushing the tips against each other until his knuckles turned white. “I quit.”
“Loquacious as always.”
Trevor half smiled humorlessly. “I wasn’t going anywhere in Major League Baseball, so I left.”
Paul rolled his eyes and tilted his head, scrutinizing Trevor. “Uh-huh. And I just bet ‘not going anywhere’ in the major leagues is a six-figure-a-year dead end. This job can’t pay anywhere near that much; I don’t believe you.”
Paul wouldn’t have responded to that if Trevor—or really, much of anyone—had said it to him. Sharing his motivations only exposed his weaknesses and added nothing to the conversation.
But Trevor replied. “I wasn’t happy.”
“All you ever wanted didn’t make you happy? You didn’t let anything stop you from getting there. Certainly not your inconvenient sexual orientation or your shameful, covert relationship with me. There was never a suggestion that you might be gay the entire time you played. Jolly good job keeping it in the closet, Trevor. Very commendable.”
“Have you read the paper recently?” Trevor asked quietly, watching his fingers flex and relax.
Dammitall. This was where Paul had to either play stupid or admit he knew. He’d been hoping not to have to make that decision. He hesitated, unconsciously steepling his own fingers in imitation of Trevor. When he caught himself, he dropped his hands and gave in. “Yes, I know. You came out publicly when you resigned.”
“You already knew I’d quit?”
Paul sighed in answer.
A dimple flickered in Trevor’s cheek for a second, prelude to a smile that never arrived.
“What do you want me to say, Trev? I’m so proud of you? I’m not, and it doesn’t change anything about what happened between us. If you wanted me to care about it, you should have come out nine years ago.”
A muscle in Trevor’s jaw flickered. He flexed his fingers until Paul could see small blue veins through his skin. “Not everyone has it in them to come out in high school, you know.”
“Not everyone has a choice, do they? Sometimes one gets outed by people one trusts so they can save their own ass.”
Paul wondered dispassionately if he should feel guilty for using that against Trevor, but why? Trevor had thrown him under the bus without a second thought.
“Some people are sorry for what happened and have regretted it ever since,” Trevor said so quietly it somehow filled the room.
“Some people can bite me,” Paul said, standing up and gathering his pack from next to his chair. On his way to the door, he heard Trevor’s feet hit the floor. Trevor grabbed his arm just as he reached for the door handle.
He absolutely fucking hated that the feel of Trevor’s fingers, warm and dry on his skin, brought him up short, nailing his feet in place.
Trevor dropped his arm immediately, then cleared his throat. “We still have to talk about this tutoring thing.”
“I’m quitting.” If only he could.
“You are?” Trevor didn’t sound surprised, just resigned. “I need a tutor for them, Paul. More than half the starting lineup is failing everything, and I know you’re a good tutor. I wouldn’t have graduated high school without you.”
Dammitall, compliments would get Trevor everywhere. Paul turned back, slowly inspecting him from toe to receding hairline. It was so cosmically unfair that Trevor still looked so delicious. “I can’t quit,” he finally confessed. “I need the money.”
“Yeah?” Trevor asked.
“I pissed off my roommate and he kicked me out.” Why did he admit that? “I insulted his boyfriend. Repeatedly.”
“You always were good at annoying people.”
For a second, Paul got a glimmer of the old Trevor he’d known. The confident guy. Then new Trevor, the guy who was nervous and couldn’t quite look him in the eye, returned. He tried to stuff his hands in his pocket, but he didn’t have any in his shorts, so they fell to his sides.
Paul smirked at him.
Trevor closed his eyes and blew a heavy breath out his nose. When he opened them up again, he looked straight at Paul. “I’m sorry.”
“Sorry isn’t enough,” he shot back.
“Tell me what I can do, then. To make it up to you.”
Paul turned to him fully and smiled. “You can blow me.”
* * *