Zefyr Note: The following is an experiment. I rarely write in first-person POV, but I had this idea for a story, and decided I'd give it a shot. It's a little different from my usual style, and it's the first time I've ever tackled this particular character headlong like this, let alone for such an extended duration. You be the judge of whether I've succeeded, and I look forward to hearing what everyone thinks. As always, I don't own GW, and mean no harm. Thanks for reading!

Cinnamon, Mint, and Smoke: Part One

     I was twenty years old, and I'd never been kissed.

     Well, that's an exaggeration, I suppose. I'd never kissed someone that I actually wanted to be kissing.

     I was also a virgin.

     My life sucked.

     In high school, I went to class so I'd have a place to sleep. It wasn't like there was much sleep at home, or whatever passed for home that year. Y'see, Social Services isn't always that particular about foster homes. They just shove you wherever someone's willing to take you, and you learn to just deal with it. It's never long before you're moved again, but I learned not to worry whether the next one would be worse. It usually was. That's just the way things worked.

     The government pays for your feeding, your board, and your education. They're not real particular about your care, so I got used to thrift stores. Besides, there's nothing easier to rip off than a thrift store, if you don't mind wearing something that's not quite perfect. And if you get caught, it's not like they're going to do much to you, not like the department stores. There's a tip for you.

     I'm handy like that, chock full of stupid information.

     I also know how to deal with girls. This is another piece of useless information, seeing as how I knew - for as far back I can remember - that I preferred guys. But when you're changing schools every year, or every few months, it's not like you have a chance to really scope things out. And I figured I was doing good to just get through. I sure wasn't going to take the chance on someone finding out. I know what kids will do to someone who doesn't belong.

     So I got good at belonging.

     In high school, this means developing a rep. Y'know, if you keep people on their toes, they don't stop to ask questions. So I got good at holding up a conversation on just about anything, looking cool and casual. I got good at always laughing and smiling, cause people don't look twice at someone who's having a good time. And way I see it, if you're enjoying yourself, at least one of us is.

     Girls go for the guy who talks to them, but it didn't take long for me to figure out that girls also go for the guy who's talking to other girls. Like, they really go for it. And they especially go for the guy who's not interested in kissing them. Hey, that fit me to a fuckin' T. I didn't want to kiss 'em. Hell, I didn't even want to hold their hands. But since I figured that would be too obvious - teenage guy, never seen with a girl - I figured, camouflage, right?

     So there I was, in high school, dating regularly. I was probably the envy of plenty of my classmates, I guess. I mean, I look back now, and I gotta laugh. I had this whole routine. Charm the girl, get her to go out with me, and as soon as she started pushing for more, I'd drop her. Find someone else. Kept 'em all chasing after me, and I guess that was fine, in a strange way. At least someone wanted me around, right?

     I have this picture on my desk of my best friend from the last two years of high school. I look at it and always remember the first thing she ever said to me was, you're my height!

     At fifteen, I was five-four. Guess I forgot to mention I was a shrimp, too.

     I've grown. Okay, so four more inches wouldn't make most people excited, but believe me, the day I cracked five-eight, I treated myself to lifting a candy bar at the convenience store. I figured they'd notice if I tried to make off with a beer, but I don't drink much anyway. If you'd been through four different emergency rooms by various drunken foster parents, you'd be wary of the stuff, too.


     Next to that picture of Hilde is a second picture, of the two of us. Hilde's mom took it, when we double-dated for the winter dance, senior year. I wore her older brother's suit, and it didn't look that bad. I don't remember my date's name.

     My hair was down to my elbows at that point. Hilde got me into braiding it, and for the dance she French-braided it. She promised it didn't look too girly. I was already short, I had big eyes and a pointy girlish chin, and I had long hair. I didn't need more crap. I look at the picture now, and I see the baby fat, the skinny chest, the awkwardness. Fuck, who am I kidding? I still see that in the mirror, now. My shoulders are broader and my chest is a little more defined, but man, I see awkwardness. Maybe I always will.

     The hair, though...that's a big thing, but that's 'cause of Frank. He was the Child Services agent who took over my case when I turned twelve, and he had the coolest hair. It was just past his shoulders, and curly. Fuck, I had the hugest crush on him. I smell apples, and to this day I think of him. He always smelled like apples. I think it was his shampoo, but it doesn't matter.

     He was cool. He was hip, funny, intelligent...and married. I guess in some way I figured that if I couldn't have him, I'd be him. So I started growing my hair out. By the time it was at my shoulders, that year's bitch masquerading as a foster parent thought it should be cut. When I said no, her drunken boyfriend put me in the hospital. I ended up at the state orphanage for three months while they tried to find me somewhere else to live. It was Frank who helped me push for the right to keep my hair the way I wanted, and after that, I decided I was never gonna cut it.

     Frank died in a car accident two months after placing me in a new home. He and his wife and their kid, all gone, just like that in a screaming hulk of metal in a seven-car pileup on the highway. I was fourteen. I wasn't allowed to go to the funeral. It was too far away...New Jersey or something. I guess he had family there.

     So I don't cut my hair.

     The other thing Frank gave me was my nickname. I sometimes wonder what my mom named me, before she signed the paperwork and ditched me. I've never seen that piece of paper, so I don't know. I hated the name I got stuck with, but it was even worse that every set of foster parents has to change your name. It's part of dabbling with adoption, I think. It's like they want to squeeze you into a box labeled Harold, or Elliot, or Barnabas, or whatever god-awful name they've decided is perfect. Usually they've decided before they've even met you.

     Frank's nickname was Solo. He said he was pretty introverted growing up, which is hard to believe because he was one of the few people who could keep up with me in conversation. But to make a long story even longer, he called me Duo. I liked it. When he died, I got my name legally changed. The judge seemed to think it was pretty stupid, but I figure it's the best way to remember the first person that really ever seemed to give a damn.

     Besides, he was the first person I was ever in love with, even if nothing ever happened. Hell, he probably didn't know. Or he did, and handled it with his usual grace. Anyone else would've used a weakness like that against me, y'know? But not Solo...he was cool like that.

     Hilde's also cool like that. I see her at winter break, when I stay with her family. She went off to some pricey school in the middle of nowhere, to major in theater management or some such crazy liberal arts. Sometimes I'm surprised I got to go to college, too.

     See, when you turn eighteen, the government says they've done enough. Whatever you've got, you take, and you hit the road. I turned eighteen halfway through my senior year in high school, and I was out of the system. One day, bed and roof. Next day, nothing.

     Hilde's parents put me up in their basement for the rest of the year. I do my best to not wear out my welcome when they invite me for winter break, but believe me, smiling constantly gets exhausting after awhile. If they ever decided I was too much trouble, what would I do then? I mean, hell. They're the closest I've got to a family.

     I'm still amazed I got enough scholarships and loans to be able to afford a state university, studying architecture. The only problem was that this school is huge. It's hard to meet anyone when there's a different set of folks in every single class. So I pretty much pushed down any thought of finally meeting a guy, finding someone to kiss that I wanted to be kissing. I'm not going to get my hopes up about much more than that, but I'd be happy with a kiss. It wouldn't be much to you, maybe, but it'd be a lot to me.

     My first summer on my own was the worst. I moved to the university town right after graduation. Finding an apartment and figuring out how to pay bills on my own...that was terrifying. Man, I am not ready to be an adult, y'know? This is grown-up crap, and I don't know jack about it. What if I get sick and can't work? How do I open a checking account? Why do I have to pay for sewer and trash? I nearly collapsed in relief when Hilde showed up with her mom to check on me at the town hostel. Drove eight hours on a whim, they said.

     And two days later, they left, after giving me a crash course in finding a summer sublet, using a checking account, and paying bills. It was Hilde's mom who actually paid for me to take a course in basic accounting at the community college. It was their graduation gift to me. The only one, if you don't count the picture Hilde gave me of the two of us, in the plain glass frame. I do the dishes and vacuum and wash all the laundry when I visit them, cause, y'know, cleaning house might not be much, but it's the only way I have to thank them.

     My sophomore year I found out we have a gay fraternity on campus. Okay, so I'm slow sometimes. My social life was nonexistent, cause, hey, not like you have a lot of time when every minute is doing homework or working at the campus bookstore. Which, I might add, pays absolutely jack. But it comes with a stipend, and architecture uses up a lot of supplies.

     I applied to join the fraternity. I did all the stupid get-together stuff, and went through their questions and meeting everyone. I can do that. I'm good at talking to people, and I just kept smiling. I never really answered the questions outright about whether I'd dated anyone, or private stuff like that. I figured even if I had, I wouldn't kiss and tell. But since I've never really kissed anyone more than a few girls - and even then, only twice with tongue, if that counts - then there really wasn't much to tell. So I was kinda surprised when they invited me.

     I was also surprised when I found out that I'd have to pay dues.

     That meant telling them I couldn't join. I couldn't afford it. I didn't like saying it, so I just laughed and said I'd changed my mind. Too much homework, and I really liked living on campus. Stuff like that...so I was a little astonished when the fraternity president stopped by to tell me they were waiving the dues. Okay, so I was floored, but Quatre just smiled and shrugged. He said sometimes they could do that. I'm still suspicious about his resources, and what he might've found out, but he's never let on.

     This is how I ended up moving into a group home a month before my first semester as a junior. My room is on the third floor of an old Victorian monstrosity. The house even has a wrap around porch and fuckin' gingerbread covering the exterior. Hell, I could do my next presentation for Colloquial Architectural Styles on this damn house, y'know? It has a dumb waiter, and servant's stairs in the back. It just can't get cooler than that.

     But best of all, it had an attic room open, and that's what I got. It's one of the old servant rooms, with a tiny window. Quatre showed me the room, and then the house, introducing me to a few people on the way. A lot of them were rearranging, moving into different rooms as roommate relationships fell apart or got better. The first person we saw was Wufei. He was a Chinese philosophy student, moving in with Quatre since Quatre's roommate had graduated. The blond president assured me I'd meet his former roommate soon. Zechs was attending graduate school at the university, and often stopped by with friends.

     And there was Trowa. He didn't say much to me, but all he had to do was look at me and I was weak in the knees. He has sandy-auburn hair, like Frank's was, but Trowa's is cut like a skater, long in front and nearly shaved in the back. Plus, he's got the body of an athlete. Long legs, cool green eyes, and a way of looking at you that just makes your stomach start doing cartwheels. I kept that smile pasted on my face when Quatre introduced us, and chattered politely, but all I could think was: yes! I'm in a house full of people who also like guys. There's hope in the world.

      Trowa rooms with Mike, who's not quite as good-looking, but I'm not going to be picky. I'll find something good in anyone. I'll be upfront: if a beggar is someone without much to offer - no money, no property, no real family other than some nice people six hundred miles away... I'm a beggar. I wouldn't say it in front of other people, but whatever pride I once had, maybe, when I was real young and stupid and didn't know how the world worked...it's gone now, mostly.

     I was just hoping for a kiss. Nothing big, y'know?

     By October, I was giving up on the idea of kisses.

     Actually, I was giving up on a lot of things. Like having people come by my room to see me. I found out quickly that no one did. If I wandered down to the living room, there were always a few guys there, and sometimes a few women from the neighboring lesbian sorority. But no one really seemed to knock on my door and stroll in, not like I saw them doing to each other.

     I know I don't have a lot of experience in being part of a family, other than dealing with Hilde's parents, but I could learn fast. I tried to help out around the fraternity, y'know, make up for being a burden that doesn't pay dues. I'm not a charity case, damn it. I can earn my keep. If there were dishes in the sink, I washed them. I mowed the lawn every Sunday, unless it rained, and then I'd mow it as soon as it was dry. I even did the windows, a few times.

     Quatre always thanked me, and so did some of the other guys, but I brushed it off. Give 'em a smile and laugh, make some joke. It's easier than saying I don't have another way to thank them. Hell, I didn't even have rent or utilities. I mean, I was living there for free. I got excited about that at first, and figured this meant I could work less. I cut back to ten hours a week at the bookstore, thrilled that now I'd have a social life.

     Nothing happened, except now I had ten more hours a week to do homework.

     Architecture takes up a lot of time, being in studio drawing plans, or sitting in lecture listening to some old guy drone on about building codes. And it means staying up late in my room, hunched over a drawing board I'd found in the trash my freshman year. It's a little beat-up, and I have to support one corner with my knee when I use it or it'll give way, but it's mine. Other than my clothes, my books, my lamp, and my two pictures, I don't really have a lot of stuff. Well, I don't have anything else, but I figure it'll do.

     By September I went back to the bookstore and asked for twenty hours weekly again. I'd just spent a month of hanging around the house during my free ten hours, watching as folks drifted in and out of the living room. I got invited to stuff on the weekends, and sometimes in the evenings during the week. Don't get me wrong; I wasn't entirely left to my own devices. But it was depressing, after several weeks, to realize I was always the third wheel...or the fifth, or the seventh, or the ninth. Everyone had someone. I guess I was along as the comic relief.

     That's not completely a bad thing. Being comic relief has gotten me pretty far in this life. Frank told me once that you can pretend to be serious, but you can't pretend to be witty. I try to be witty, and sharp, and I keep that smile on my face, because people like that. The problem is that they don't seem to like it enough to just want to hang out with me, and only me.

     It was November when Quatre told me about the sign on the house's bulletin board. The board hung in the foyer, right by the front stairs. I didn't usually use those since the old servants' stairs were the only ones that went to the third floor. I tended to come in and out by the kitchen door. A few times I came in late enough to find the back door latched with the security chain, when I'd been in studio until they shut off the lights. That meant coming into a dark house and missing the board. I guess I got used to never paying it much attention.

     Anyway, I was a little surprised when he told me about it. I was in the kitchen, burning water for ramen - my daily intake of sodium being an important thing - and Quatre mentioned it to me as he got a beer from the fridge.

     Curious, I headed to the foyer, where I read that the council had decided the fraternity would be renting minivans to head into the city for some club shindig. Quatre was the president of the council. Trowa's roommate Mike was the vice-president. A very cool guy, he was dating Vijay, the fraternity's treasurer. Olsten was the fraternity's secretary, and I think he's been seeing the same guy since freshman year. They're all seniors, and old enough to drink.

     "It's a club," I said to Quatre, as if this wasn't obvious.

     He just laughed. "It's eighteen to drink, twenty-one to crawl," he replied, as if this should be obvious.

     So I laughed, too, like I thought that was funny, but in the back of my head I was thinking: great. Now I'm going to be the fifteenth wheel, or something.

     "I don't know," I said. "I've got a lot of work to do."

     "It's just one night," he replied. His bright blue eyes always caught me off-guard, that way he can look at you like he knows what you're thinking.

     So I grinned, and shrugged, and told him I'd think about it.

     I spent a lot of time thinking about it. A lot more time thinking about it than doing architectural drawings, that's for sure.

     It was a club, and everyone would be dressed up. I'd hung out on the street outside clubs, when I was in high school. I wasn't old enough to get in, and the guys I hung with couldn't, either. So we pretended to be too cool to bother, and sat outside, just loitering until we got chased away. But I'd stood around enough times to see that you didn't just go to a club wearing black military surplus pants and an old t-shirt. You had to dress up.

     I started browsing the thrift stores. After a week of looking, I discovered a pair of black leather pants. They were thirty bucks, and I figured I could manage it, after some quick calculations. I wasn't sure they fit right, and they felt strange, cool and slick against my skin as I tried them on in the dressing room. Maybe they were too small, I thought, but they weren't tight, just close to the skin. And a little long, too, I realized. I wasn't sure if you can cut off leather pants, and rolling up the cuffs just looked strange.

     I bought them anyway.

     A week later I found a shirt that I thought might be good. It was also black, which was a constant theme with me. It didn't show dirt, which meant I could go longer before scrounging quarters for laundry. Yeah, so I have about four hundred dollars in savings...but if I got sick and couldn't work, I can't see that money lasting long. I have to buy my own food, now that I don't live on campus, and I do have some expenses. You wouldn't believe how fast I can go through shampoo and conditioner, with hair past my ass.

     Anyway, about the shirt: a black long-sleeved shirt. Cotton, I think, nothing really that great, but it was nicer than anything else I have. It was five bucks, and seemed a little large when I tried it on. The sleeves were long, and there's a small stain on the front, but maybe if I kept my arms crossed, no one would notice. And if the club were dark like clubs are in the movies, no one would see once I was inside. Okay, so I'd know it was there, but I guess it's better than wearing an old t-shirt, right?

     So now I had something to wear...and I still wasn't sure I wanted to go. It seemed like all the conversations were starting to revolve around who was pairing off with whom for the event. I'd laugh and joke, and listen to the guys complaining about whom they wanted to ask, and who had been asked...

     And all I could think was: it's stupidly funny, in that 'laugh because otherwise you might cry' kind of way. I had no problems with girls. Female classmates and coworkers asked me out every now and then, even though I no longer took them up on their offers.

     But I couldn't get a guy to notice me if I set my hair on fire and danced naked across the front lawn. Not saying I'm going to try, though. I'm certainly not going to risk my hair, no matter how much of a hassle it is the rest of the time. And I'm definitely not going to subject anyone to seeing me naked, either. I do have some pride, even if it's not much.

     Two weeks before the clubbing night, I came home to find Zechs in the kitchen with Trowa. The tall skater was cooking dinner. It smelled delicious, but that's no surprise. Trowa is one of the most amazing cooks, with Olsten a close second. I've actually considered buying groceries and asking one of them to cook me dinner, but I've always chickened out. It's just easier to make ramen and eat it in peace in your own little room, I've realized, than let anyone see just how much of a crush you have on just about every guy who lives in the house.

     No, make that every guy in the house. Plus guests.

     Yeah, I'm hopeless.

     I don't think it's my long hair that turns them off. From the gossip I've heard, Zechs never lacks for company, and he's got this beautiful golden mane - there's no other way to describe it - that's nearly to his waist. He always wears it down, and with his blue jeans and crisp button-up shirts, he looks like a rock god crossed with a Wall Street lawyer. I think I was busy contemplating this image, which is why I jumped a little when I heard Zechs calling my name.

     "Right, Duo?" Zechs chuckled at whatever he'd been saying.

     I promptly made a note to memorize the sound of him saying my name, and slapped a smile on my face like I'd heard the entire conversation. Even if I'd been paying attention, I don't know if I could've heard anything over my grumbling stomach.

     "Join us for dinner?" Trowa asked, tossing his head back to get his hair out of his eyes.

     I wondered immediately if he'd heard my stomach. Great. I don't want pity invitations. I clutched my backpack a little tighter in front of me as I shook my head with an apologetic grin. "Naw, Tro, got major revisions to do on my project for Urban Corporate Design."

     "Sounds fascinating," Zechs murmured. His ice-blue eyes seemed to go right through me, and I specifically chose to take his words as a joke.

     "Yeah, completely," I said, laughing as I backed up. The smell coming from the stove was just heavenly, but it was obvious there were two in the room, and if I stayed, I'd be wheel number three. Again. "I won't bore you with the details. Thanks for the offer, but I'm fine. I grabbed dinner on campus." And with that, I bolted up the back stairs, yelling a hello down the hallway to Quatre before pounding the rest of the way up to my room as though everything were perfectly normal.

     Sure, if it's normal to have been hiding a massive boner with my backpack for the past five minutes while my stomach sounded like it was crunching rocks from growling so loudly.

     I took a deep breath to steady myself, and concentrated on my Architectural Ethics professor - an ancient man with a comb-over 'do. My erection slowly faded, to my relief. There was no way I was going to be able to curl up on the chair to support the damn drawing board with my knee if I had a stiffie. I'd just be crushing it between my thighs, and believe me, that's really not the exciting prospect it sounds like.

     An hour later I hadn't even touched the paper. I'd just wasted an hour sitting and staring at my rough draft, not even noticing the professor's comments scrawled in the corner. The eraser was still in my hand, ready to perform its duty, and yet all I'd been able to do was sit there. My head was cocked towards the door, as though I were unconsciously waiting for footsteps to come down the hallway. Every time I heard a floorboard creak, my heart leapt up in my throat. Maybe it was someone coming to see me.

     But nope...I'm not that popular with the guys, I guess.

     I checked the clock. Eight pm...not even close to late enough to warrant turning out the light and getting into bed, but who cares. I certainly don't, and it's not like anyone else is lining up to do the honors for me.

     Sighing, I dropped the eraser on the board, carefully withdrawing my knee so the table would tilt but not fall over. The 4G pencil rolled off the surface and fell to the floor with a wooden clatter. I ignored it and toed off my boots, clicking off the lamp before falling onto the bed fully dressed.

     I think it was around midnight that I woke up to hear heavy footsteps in the hallway. There were muffled voices. Curious, I got out of bed, creeping to the door to listen.

     "Mmm, stop, or I can't get the door open," someone muttered in a voice thick with lust.

     I jerked away from the door, startled. I knew they couldn't see me, and figured I was asleep or still at studio, but I could feel my face getting hot. I must've been holding my breath to hear a sound as quiet as a zipper coming undone, followed by a thump. I guess someone just went down on his knees.

     "God, Ken, your mouth," a second voice murmured, low. Then there was a click of a doorknob, and the sound of two bodies stumbling. I could visualize it, but I didn't get hard.

     I got lonely.

     That was Ken, the redhead who has the room next to mine. He's a junior, too, and is pretty quiet unless he's been drinking. I think he's seeing some grad student in the school of management.

     I turned slowly, shifting in place until my back was to the door. I laid my head on my knees, looking around my tiny room lit only by the moon shining through the window. I have a single bed, a chair, and a little dresser that works as a bedside table, provided by the fraternity. There's a small closet, just enough for what I've got. Quatre found the lamp in the basement and let me use it, and Wufei was getting rid of the desk lamp. I took it out of the trash after everyone had gone to sleep, and managed to tape it up enough that it doesn't fall down and hit me in the head while I'm working.

     I thought it'd be a cool little garret apartment, but it's not like I ever have someone to show it to. Hilde's not even had a chance to visit. I'm not sure I'd show it to her, though. She's not really the person I want to have in my room.

     Sighing, I crawled the four feet back to bed, flopping down on my back to stare at the ceiling. If I turned my head, I could look out the little window. I'd have to move several textbooks to see the houses across the street while lying in bed, but I can look up past the books to see the stars. The moon was quarter-full, and I stared at it for a long time, listening to the soft moans and thumping sounds coming from the room next to me.

     "Shit," I whispered. "This really sucks, doncha think?"

     I didn't get an answer. I didn't expect one. The trip to the club's grand party was in two weeks, and I was going to be wheel number eleven, from what I could tell. I had clothes that would pass if no one looked too closely, though I still wasn't sure what to do about the pants being too long. I wondered if it was too late to come down with the flu, or break my leg, or develop an incurable disease.

     Truth was, I didn't want any of that. I just wanted someone to go with, who wasn't going to spend the evening seeing me only as comic relief.

     "I'd sell my soul to the devil for a date on Saturday night," I said quietly.

     There was still no response.

     When I realized I'd been waiting for one, I gave myself a rueful smile. Sighing again at my ultimate stupidity, I rolled over on my side and went back to sleep.

     I woke up again at three, and lay there for a second, confused. I think I was dreaming about drawing plans for ramen noodles while my hair was on fire, but I'm not sure. At least it wasn't another dream about trying to talk to Wufei while wearing only a pair of boxers on my head.

     "Did you mean that?"

     The voice was soft, a fine tenor that was a little rough around the edges. Startled, I stared at the ceiling before sticking a finger in my ear. There didn't seem to be a lot of wax, so I was pretty sure my ears were working. I checked for a waking state by pulling on my braid. It hurt.

     Definitely awake.

     Fully bewildered by this point, and a little freaked, I sat up quickly. The bedsprings squeaked from the quick movement. I brushed my bangs out of my face as I looked around the room.

     There was a man sitting on my chair.

     I promptly lay back down and stared at the ceiling, counting to ten. Then I counted again, backwards. I must have left clothes draped across the chair. That must be it. I ignored the part of my brain screaming that I'd not taken off any clothes before falling into bed. When I didn't hear anything, I sat up again, slower this time. Cautiously I raised my eyes, letting them adjust.

     The man was still there.

     I froze, watching the shape carefully. I could make out that his head was tilted to the side, his legs crossed, one ankle resting on the other knee. As slowly as I could manage, I reached out to turn on the lamp. I squinted as my eyes adjusted, and looked again.

     There was definitely a man, sitting casually on my chair. And he seemed to be smiling.

     At least, I think he was. My first impression wasn't that he was smiling so much as giving me a look that promised trouble of the best kind. His smile had too much teeth, all of which were too sharp, if that makes any sense. It was gone in a flash, though, and I was left gaping at the sight of a man sitting on my chair.

     I probably mentioned that already, didn't I.

     He looked my age, maybe a year or two older. He was slouching a little in the chair, with one wrist resting on his bent knee, the other on his thigh. He was dressed in black jeans, skin tight if I'm any judge, black boots, and a white button-up shirt rolled up just past his elbows. His forearms looked strong, his fingers supple and powerful.

     Swallowing hard, I raised my eyes to study his face. He was watching me, and he seemed to be amused. I think I saw one eyebrow go up, just a twitch, as I absorbed the way his dark brown hair fell in tousled clumps over his brow, and the exotic tilt of his eyes. Not extreme, just enough to make me think he was Asian, perhaps, or Native American, but his skin looked golden in the light, not ruddy. I made a snap decision that there was a man of indeterminate Asian heritage sitting in my chair, looking somewhat amused.

     "Did you mean that?" He asked again, this time softer, like moonlight.

     I stared at him, trying to wrap my mind around his question. More importantly, trying to wrap my mind around the fact that he was even in the room. Mean what, I asked myself, trying to remember what I was dreaming about. Or maybe this was one of those things where not-remembering is part of the agony of the dream.

     "What?" I finally said. Yeah, real fucking witty, I thought, cringing.

     He just raised one eyebrow, another quick twitch. It felt mocking, as though he just thought this was the funniest thing - in a deadpan, expressionless way, of course.

     I started to get annoyed, as some part of my brain sleepily suggested that this was a prank by someone in the fraternity. But I've never seen this man before, I protested silently. Believe me, if I had, I would have remembered him, probably in a lot of dreams involving final exams and a mortifying lack of clothing.

     Realizing I was flailing mentally, I pulled myself together and went for the best armor I've got in strange situations: I smiled. I was a little dismayed to see the man's lip quirk, at the same time a fine line appeared between his brows. A second later his face was impassive again, and I could only watch the way his shirt rose and fell, just a little, as he breathed.

     I found this somewhat comforting. I'm not into ghosts.

     "Yeah, sure," I finally said, when he continued to watch me with that subtle question on his face. I grinned again, a lazy expression that always worked on the girls. "Why? You asking?"

     "If you'll have me," he replied, in that same low-pitch, slightly husky voice. It went straight through my eardrums and plummeted down my spine into my crotch. I blinked, then, as I belatedly registered his words.

     "No complaints from me, if you're up for it," I heard myself saying before I'd even finished figuring out what he'd said. "But no pressure. It's cool, either way."

     I kept that grin on my face through sheer force of will, and braced myself. This is it. Any minute now he's going to start laughing, and Quatre or Mike or Jake is going to burst through the door. And they'll be telling me they wished they'd gotten a picture of my face.

     Any minute now.

     I struggled to keep my hands relaxed, rather than clutching at the bed covers under me. My heart was pounding, and the silence stretched thin like parchment paper as the man looked at me in that inscrutable way. I think I would've been rock-hard and incoherent, if I hadn't been so prepared to laugh at the joke that was going to be on me, any second now.

     The walls in this place are too thin, I decided. Maybe I should start looking for corkboard next time I'm dumpster diving, I told myself: something to insulate sound, keep me from being the butt of any more pranks. I had one ear cocked for the hallway, my eyes still fixed on the strange man. He finally nodded, once, curtly, as though making a decision. When he spoke again, I nearly jumped.

     "Saturday, eight o'clock?"

     I blinked, and realized the smile had faded from my face. Valiantly I forced a chuckle and shrugged. "Yeah, sounds great." Then I paused, and frowned. "I think the fraternity is going to rent a van or something."

     He shrugged, a nearly imperceptible motion, and gave me that strange half-smile, where his lips just slightly curled at the edges. It looked like a killer's attempt to appear social, and it sent a shiver of warning up my spine.

     "I'll drive, if you think that'd be better," he said.

     "Drive," I repeated dumbly, and then grinned. The attempt at nonchalance was wearing thin. I figured he was stalling, waiting for the rest of the jokers to come tumbling into the room, any minute now. "Yeah, sure, if you want," I said. "All the same to me."

     "Fine, then," he replied. He tilted his head slightly, and I wished I could see what color his eyes were. They looked like black pools in the low light from the bedside lamp, shaded under those thick bangs. "I'll drive. Something for two, or four? Would you like to have friends join us?"

     Two or four? Okay, guys, I thought, trying to send out a desperate signal to whatever prankster thought this would be a hysterical way to make it patently obvious to everyone that I'm a complete social failure. Anyone who's listening, I shouted in my head, you'd better make a note. Asking me what kind of car to drive is a huge giveaway.

     I snorted. "Four's fine. Preferably a convertible," I added, just to see what he'd say. I hate convertibles, because it means my hair invariably gets pulled out of my braid, whips all over the place, and ends up nothing but tangles. Okay, I've only been in one convertible. It was Hilde's boyfriend's parents, and he drove it when we went to the winter dance. I shunted my mind back to the actual situation, wondering how the stranger would respond.

     "Convertible, then," he said, and bared his teeth at me, sharp and white in the half-dark room. I flinched involuntarily. "I'll see you at eight."

     "Sure," I replied. My heart was thrumming in my ears, and my chest felt like it was going to cave in. The joke's gone too far, guys, I called, knowing no one could hear me but unable to stop the sarcastic commentary. Something occurred to me, and I did my best to sound nonchalant. "By the way...what's your name? What can I call you?"

     "You'll think of something," he said smoothly.

     I frowned a little, unable to keep the smile for even a second longer. This was not happening. I had to be dreaming, because the only other option was that he was sitting here as part of a joke... I dropped my eyes to my lap, unable to formulate even a pathetic attempt at wit. I couldn't think of anything except: yeah, right. Fuckin' stupid games to play with the new fraternity guy.

     "Got any preferences?" I finally choked out, raising my eyes.

     He was gone.

     I sat there for a long time, staring at the chair. The door hadn't opened, and that aggravating floorboard outside my room hadn't creaked. The light was still on. I sniffed, noticing a strange smell, something that smelled like cinnamon, mint, and an open fire. I jerked on my braid, and winced at the pain. I jerked on it again, just to make sure.

     Definitely awake, or dreaming so damn hard that it just felt like it was real.

     I'd never had a dream where I was dreaming I'd woken up, had a conversation with a man who appeared and disappeared without opening my door - let alone a dream where the man asked me out on a date... But there's a first for everything, right? Hell, being asked out by a man was a first, anyway. At least, I think I got asked out. But who knows, with a dream, right?

     I decided to play along, reaching out to turn off the light. No point in wasting electricity, even in a dream, I told myself. And lying on my back in the little attic room, I stared out the window at the few visible stars and decided to avoid sleeping on an empty stomach in the future.