Alex moved off campus after the first year and found an apartment on Shattuck, past Northside. "I'd rather pay now than pay later," he explained to Jesse. "My folks are giving me money. And I'm looking for a job." His roommate was a girl named Maria who was never there, and that suited him perfectly. He kept the apartment fairly neat in her absence, which suited her perfectly. She said that was why she hadn't wanted to room with a straight guy.

Jesse somehow managed to luck out and stay in the dorms. It was cheaper and more convenient for him, since a combination of his parents, scholarships, and student loans paid his tuition and room and board. His roommate was a guy named Jonas who had a girlfriend with an apartment. Said apartment was his preferred hangout these days, so Jesse had the room to himself a lot of the time. Jesse wondered why they didn't just live together, since Jonas spent half his nights there anyway. Or so it seemed.

Eventually, Alex did find a job at, of all places, a sporting goods store. He hated it, but it paid all right, and the hours were flexible. But it meant that between class, work, and different living spaces, they saw much less of each other. Jesse wasn't sure how he felt about that, and worse, he really wasn't sure how Alex felt about it.

Jesse liked Alex. A lot. Alex was smart and funny (if you appreciated a dry sense of humor, anyway) and helped Jesse with his math homework. And Alex was good-looking, in that he didn't look like all those underweight Asian males who ate but still always seemed too thin. But they weren't in any of the same classes, thanks to their wildly different academic interests, and Alex was done with English, just as Jesse was done with math. So there was no reason for them to talk anymore, really.

Then his phone rang. Jesse didn't recognize the number on the display, but he answered it anyway, expecting a wrong number.

"Hey," said someone who sounded like Alex. "I just got a Gamecube. Wanna come over and break it in? I got two controllers and everything."

"You can't even afford your apartment by yourself, how do you justify a Gamecube?"

"Got it off of craigslist for ninety bucks. C'mon over."

That was how Jesse ended up at Alex's apartment on a Friday evening, sucking at Mario Kart but having fun. When he asked where the roommate was, Alex said, "Out, like she is every Friday," and handed him a beer. Jesse took it reluctantly, since he'd never really liked beer, and was surprised when he didn't hate it. The Japanese, it seemed, knew how to brew beer.

"Costs a fortune," Alex said, "but it's great."

"Yeah." Jesse inspected the can, which had a prancing mythical beast on it and declared itself Kirin Ichiban. "How do you get beer?"

"Can't reveal my sources." Alex put the beer on the coffee table and picked up the controller. "C'mon, let's play."

A few minutes later, Alex said, "Hey, remember the first time we ran into each other at the queer center?"

"Yeah. You were checking people out."

"Thought my gaydar was broken when you turned out to be on the market," Alex chuckled. He jerked the controller, as if that would somehow help him turn better. "Or maybe not on the market. You ever figure that out?"

"I kinda stopped worrying about it, actually." It wasn't quite a lie. Or the truth. Jesse wasn't one of those guys who concentrated on getting laid 24/7, and he had other things to occupy his time. That, and his continuing crush--God, was that what it was?--on Alex, along with the occasional wet dream and masturbation fantasy, had served to convince him that if he wasn't at least bi, he was Alex-sexual. "I figure whatever happens, happens, and then I'll worry about it. I'm not really looking right now, anyway."

"Ah."

Then Alex leaned over and kissed him. Jesse's kart careened off the road and spun out of control.

It wasn't much of a kiss, just a dry press of lips. But it was enough to make Jesse's brain freeze. Actually, it was very much like his brain had just run into something really large and solid, and he couldn't seem to reverse.

Alex pulled away way too fast, breathing quick. His face was perfectly blank, which Jesse knew meant that he was actually really freaked out. A muscle in Alex's jaw clenched, and he looked away. "You can leave."

If he left now, Alex would never call him again. He realized that was--completely unacceptable. "No, I--" What the hell was he supposed to say? I like you, too? Can we kiss again? "I--I don't want to leave." Dumb. Dumb.

But Alex looked serious. "You sure?"

Jesse licked his lips. "Yeah. I'm sure." He dropped his controller and this time they leaned into each other. Alex ran his tongue over Jesse's lips until Jesse let him in. He tasted like beer and cigarettes and ew it really was like licking an ashtray. But it was nothing like kissing a girl. Jesse couldn't say if it was better or worse, just that it was different. He was falling, terrified and ecstatic, and oh God what was he going to tell his parents?

It was Alex who broke the kiss. His lips were swollen, and Jesse wondered if he looked the same way.

"You should go," Alex said.

"But--"

"No. Just. Crap. I shouldn't have done this." Alex ran a hand distractedly through his hair. "Go and. Think about it."

"But--"

"If you won't leave, I will." Alex actually stood up, like he really meant it. It was completely retarded for him to leave his own apartment, so Jesse scrambled to his suddenly too-large feet, feeling huge and destructive as he almost fell out the door.

Jesse wandered down Shattuck feeling rather like he'd just been clobbered with something dense and heavy, only without the headache. He'd wanted to stay, so why had Alex made him leave? Think about it, he'd said, but what--okay, there was a lot to think about. And Alex had been through this before, at a much younger age, so really he was just looking out for Jesse.

Alex had had two significant others since starting college and numerous hookups. Alex fell in and out of love easily, it seemed, and each time was just as terrifying and ecstatic as the last. But they never lasted. Afterwards, Alex was always resigned, as if he'd known that it wouldn't work out but had wanted to try anyway.

"I hurt people," Alex once told him after significant amounts of alcohol. "I don't know what it is. But I do. That's why I just fuck, sometimes. It's easier that way."

Jesse didn't want to be hurt. He was also pretty sure that Alex didn't want to hurt him.

"He doesn't tell me anything," said Marc, one of the no-longer-significant others. "I can't ever get inside his head. He just closes himself off." "I don't know him," Dylan agreed. "He doesn't talk about himself, his problems, or anything."

But Alex talked to Jesse all the time. Talked about his problems, even. So communication wasn't a problem, right?

And God, what was he going to tell his parents? He'd just kissed a guy. Or been kissed by a guy. And liked it. At least, he hadn't thought it was gross or anything. He was pretty sure he wanted to do it some more, and go beyond kissing, like into making out and groping and sex and stuff. So was he gay? Or was he just Alex-sexual? Was that even possible?

But honestly, who cared if he was just Alex-sexual? Alex was the important part, right?

Jesse decided that he had better sit down and selected a random bus stop to do so. Somehow he'd ended up in front of the public library, so there were plenty of benches to pick from. A pigeon strutted by his foot. Jesse carefully made a mental list in his head.

1. Alex likes me. Likes me likes me.
1a. Alex's previous relationships have not ended well.
2. I like Alex. Like him like him.
2a. I've never been in a relationship with a guy before. Is it different from being in a relationship with a girl?


The conclusion, Jesse decided, was that he was afraid.

"Nothing ventured, nothing gained," Jesse muttered to himself, and retraced his steps up Shattuck Ave.

---

Alex looked surprised to see Jesse back so soon, or maybe back at all. He opened his mouth, then shut it again.

Jesse frantically tried to think of something to say that didn't amount to, "Will you kiss me again?" when Alex said, "You left your backpack here."

"Oh. Thanks." Jesse could see it now, actually, just inside the doorway. He wasn't sure why he'd brought it. It wasn't like he'd expected to get any homework done or anything.

"Is that. Is that it?" Alex was trying very hard to sound confident and collected, and he wasn't succeeding very well.

Jesse looked at his backpack. This was another way out, wasn't it? He could just take the backpack and go. He bit his lip and looked up. Alex wasn't looking at him at all; he was actually looking at the doorframe.

Before he let himself think too much, Jesse reached up and turned Alex's face toward him, and then kissed him. Alex's mouth tasted less like ash and more like beer, and he was just as soft and warm as before. When he pulled away, Alex looked like he wanted to ask another question.

"I'm sure," Jesse said. "But you have to stop smoking. Because it really is like licking an ashtray."

Alex's mouth twisted into a wry shape. "I'll think about it." He looked away and muttered, "Jesus, I really must love you."

Jesse grinned, warmth pooling from his gut all the way down to the soles of his feet.



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