He was so screwed. Tom Molina stared at his organic chemistry textbook, the volume a heavy weight on his lap even with his right foot tucked up under his opposite thigh for support. Despite his struggles to focus, the dark letters kept blurring, swirling into unreadable patterns before his tired eyes. Tom pulled his glasses off his nose and set the thick, plastic frames on the end table next to the three, half-empty coffee mugs, silent testaments to his studies. A headache pushed its way to the front of his skull, the dull ache settling behind his left eye, and he pressed the heel of his hand against his forehead with a groan. Great. He didn’t have time for a migraine. And, thanks to his roommate Derek’s fondness for the movie Kindergarten Cop, all he could hear was Arnold Schwarzenegger’s voice proclaiming “It’s a tumor,” and that wasn’t even Arnold’s line in the comedy.
Tom always thought the joke about studying until your head exploded was kind of lame, but here he sat, brains ready to splatter in vivid Technicolor out over everything within a ten-foot radius. Possibly twelve-foot, Tom conceded as the painful throbbing increased. Would the bookstore take back his textbook if he sprayed blood and gray matter on the pages? Did he care? Tom leaned his head against the pillow wedged beneath his shoulder, shifting until his legs sprawled down the length of the couch. Damn, they’d have to clean the upholstery too.
Barely ten o’clock on a Saturday morning, and his life was over. He was doomed. Worse, his plans for the future lay in ruins, buried beneath the weight of student loan debt and no way to ever pay for it all. Forget about a prestigious career, the awards for his breakthroughs in medicinal biochemistry, and best of all, the satisfaction of showing his parents what he achieved without them. He wasn’t even going to finish out the semester. All Tom had left in his future were soup kitchens and homeless shelters. The throbbing in his head increased in direct proportion with his drama-fueled panic. Maybe if he gave himself just a few minutes to rest, things would magically get better?
“Help me, oh great roommate. You’re my only hope.”
Tom grunted, eyes flying open as Derek’s full weight fell across his legs, trapping them against the couch and knocking his textbook onto the floor. He had been so wrapped up in his crisis, he hadn’t noticed Derek’s key in the front door.
“What the hell?” Tom swallowed, suddenly doubting the wisdom of revisiting last night’s three-meat special for breakfast. “Get off me before I vomit.”
“Promise you’ll help me, first.” Derek wrapped his arms tighter around Tom’s legs and the cushion beneath.
“I’m serious,” Tom said. “I swear I’m going to hurl.”
“So am I.” Derek buried his head between Tom’s knees, leaving the stubby, blond ponytail at the back of his neck exposed. “Do your worst. This is bigger than puke.”
Tom pushed at Derek’s heavy bulk. He might be short, but the guy was built like a fireplug. Well, at least the wave of nausea had thankfully receded. “Man, I have two words for you: Organic Chemistry and Professor McCafferty.”
“That’s five words.” Tom had to strain to hear Derek’s voice muffled against his thigh.
“No, that’s two words used twice and a joiner word thingy.” Tom nudged Derek with his knee. “And get your face out from between my legs.”
“Joiner word thingy?” Apparently realizing the danger had past, Derek dared to raise his head. “Besides, I’m the best thing you’ve had between your legs in months, if not the only.”
Tom shrugged off his roommate’s mocking. It was hard to take Derek seriously. His face was all red and sweaty and escaping chunks of blond hair helped him resemble a deranged cherub. So what if Tom’s tired and overworked brain refused to spit out the correct grammatical term. He wasn’t an English major. Or had a lot of time to spend dating. He had plans.
“Whatever. My entire future is riding on this test.” He wiggled his legs in another effort to free himself. “So you go back to doing whatever you were doing, and let me keep studying.”
The two men stared at each other. Brown eyes and blue met across the distance in a silent battle of wills.
“Alone,” Tom emphasized when Derek showed no signs of obeying.
“I will. But, first, you know how to make Christmas cookies, right?” Derek shoved Tom’s legs out of the way and took their place on the couch. “I remember those ones you made when you were dating that one guy.”
“What one guy?” Exasperated, Tom ran his hand through his hair before he reached for his glasses.
“You know, the cookie-eater guy?”
Oh yeah, Mike. Tom’s brain automatically filled in the details of the redhead who went along with the name. Nice butt in the plus column, but an overdone tribal tattoo and his distinct lack of bicep definition in the minus. They had dated for a couple of months last semester, and Tom would now confess to making a batch or two of his grandmother’s special sugar cookies to aid his efforts to get into Mike’s pants. Unfortunately, Mike turned out to be too unfocused for Tom’s tastes.
Tom wondered if being able to actually understand Derek’s convoluted thought process was a sign he really did have a tumor pressing on his brain and causing his migraines. No wonder he couldn’t make any sense of the last three chapters. Right. Chapters. Test. Studying. Tom stood up slowly, surprised to find his headache had fled in the face of the disaster that was Derek. “Fine. I’ll go to the library. You can have the apartment.”
“You can’t,” Derek said. “I need you and your mad, cookie-making skills.”
Tom pushed aside Derek’s coat, and picked up his favorite wool scarf discarded just as carelessly. “Did I say you could borrow this? I think I would remember if I told you it was okay to borrow this.” He poked through the mess of footwear kicked to the side of the front door for his boots. Only two of them lived there, where did they get so many shoes? “I need to study.”
“And I need to get into Jeanette Carlson’s pants. It’s vital. Otherwise, I don’t know, something’s going to fall off. Which would totally suck and be all your fault.”
“Derek, I love you, man. I do. But nobody believes that crap.” Giving up the search for his boots, Tom shoved his feet into a pair of tennis shoes he thought were his, and walked over to the kitchen table for his wallet and keys. He put off grabbing his backpack and books from the floor, unwilling to move back within Derek’s reach.
“You did when Jimmy Francisco told you that’s what would happen if you didn’t blow him.” Derek folded his arms across his chest and stared at Tom.
“I was thirteen. So was he.”
“You still owe me for saving your ass. We’re talking teen-geek abuse or something. You would have been scarred for life.”
“Fine. My delicate psyche thanks you.” Tom glared at his friend. “Now will you please let me live down yet another embarrassing life moment and allow me to study?”
“And how about in high school? I played lookout so you and what’s-his-name the football player could make out in the locker room?”
Tom pulled out one of the chairs at the kitchen table and sat down, facing his friend with a deep exhalation. “Why do I live with you when all you do is bring up my sordid, sexual history every time you want something?”
“Because we’ve been best friends since kindergarten?”
Tom ignored Derek’s cheerful smile and rubbed at his forehead. Bastard was wearing him down.
“Because I already knew you were gay before you told me and never cared?”
Tom almost gave him points for that one, but took them back when he remembered Derek was the one who accidentally outed him to his parents earlier than planned. Thus creating the reason Tom was so far in debt for his education.
“Because my dad promised to pay for this apartment off campus if you lived with me and kept me out of trouble?”
Tom pointed his finger at Derek in acknowledgement of the scoring point. Yeah, that was it. “I’m going to fail my test. Miserably.”
“My dad will still let you live in the apartment, you know.”
“That’s not the point! The point is I need to study.” Tom’s headache made a valiant comeback.
“Seriously? You need to relax. It’s one test, and we’re only days away from the Christmas break. No matter what scenario you’ve created, flunking a test won’t disrupt that master plan you keep in your head of how you think things should go.”
Tom grunted his acknowledgement of their familiar argument. Besides, how was he supposed to take Derek seriously when his friend had squiggled around on his back, dangled off the side of the couch, and spoke to him while upside down? “That’s called being motivated.”
“Try being afraid to have a life. It was one thing in high school, after your folks made you move out. I get that. But three years here at college, and you’re so busy running around following this plan, you miss the things right in front of you.”
“Like what?” Tom ducked as Derek pulled a foam rubber ball from the depths beneath the sofa and threw it at him. “You missed.”
“I don’t know.” Derek balanced the top of his head on the floor as he reached further under the couch. “How about having fun, helping others out, just enjoying life?”
“Helping you out,” Tom said knowingly. Okay, maybe he had been wrapped a little too tight the last couple of weeks.
“Hey, I’m a worthy cause. And have you seen Jeanette Carlson?”
“Obviously not,” Tom replied.
“After weeks of not giving me the time of day, we talk cookies, and she’s all over me. Besides, what if in return I promise you extra tutoring from Professor McCafferty’s old TA?” Derek suddenly pulled his hand back and stared at it in disgust.
“Isaac the Terrible?” Tom couldn’t help but breathe the name in awe. He had spent his first two years in the program positive he was going flunk his core courses due to his inability to get past the absolute smoking blond hotness that was Isaac Peterson and focus on the work. Add in the teaching assistant’s insistence on calling on Tom in class despite his vocal chords refusal to form complete sentences, and Tom’s hopeless infatuation had been impossible to hide, leaving him the butt of his friend’s jokes even after the TA received his master’s degree and disappeared from campus. “You’re kidding.”
“I’m not.” Tom forgave Derek the smug smile on his face. This was after all, Isaac Peterson they were talking about. He’d acknowledge Derek’s right to smugness assuming he actually delivered. “You help me out, and in return you could finagle hours of chemical bonding with the TA of your dreams.”
“This doesn’t involve lasting physical marks or impact my future career options?” Tom asked suspiciously. Common sense demanded he examine Derek’s proposal with more caution, but the sudden wash of memories, hours spent watching Isaac bend and flex in front of the classroom and form his looping scrawl across the whiteboard, left Tom weak and open to persuasion.
“This is the man you’ve been jerking off to for the last three years. Do you care?”
Well, when Derek put it like that. No. But it didn’t say a lot for the thickness of the apartment’s walls.
“All you need are cookies?”
“How many?” Tom knew this would prove too good to be true when Derek’s eyes shifted away from his. Either that or the rush of blood had finally overwhelmed Derek, and he was going to pass out.
“Only about twenty or so,” Derek mumbled as he rolled over onto his stomach, his face pressed into the bottom of the couch.
“Cookies?” Tom prodded, certain he was still missing something.