Excerpt: A Boy Called Cin

There’s a kid sitting on the low wall by the coffee cart—the only one Tom’s found on the whole campus, which seems odd, considering the amount of caffeine students consume—wearing two coats and three scarves. The layers are probably because he’s too tired to keep himself warm anymore, unless it’s a fashion statement that Tom’s too old to understand. Dark circles under the kid’s eyes hint that it’s not for show.

Tom orders two coffees and goes to sit down next to him when they’re ready, holding one out in front of him in offer. The kid looks at him dubiously, bright blue eyes wary, but maybe just a hint hopeful. “You look like you could use it,” Tom explains, still patiently holding the cup out.

After another few seconds, the kid takes it and holds it reverently in fingerless-gloved hands, pressing his nose to the little spout on the plastic lid to warm it with the steam. Tom watches this as he sips his own. It’s still too hot for normal human beings, but he’s had a lot of practice getting coffee into his stomach as quickly as possible. Coffee’s a lot more effective in the blood stream than in a paper cup.

The kid pretty much looks like the living embodiment of finals week—which as far as Tom knows, it isn’t, but not everyone’s classes run on the same schedule—and just remembering what that was like makes Tom a little nervous. “Rough week?” he tries to break the silence again.

A soft, little grunt is all the reply he gets at first, but then his impromptu coffee companion takes a sip, swallows, makes a sound as though he’s just had the politest orgasm ever, and then finally speaks up. “Has it occurred to you that unbridled charity with no fixed goal in mind only serves to create dependencies in those having charity inflicted on them?”

“I’ll take that as a yes.” Tom sips his coffee again. “Business major?”

“Fine Art. But I figure I might as well attend as many lectures as possible while I’m here.”

“So do you believe that, or do you just like to antagonize strangers who bring you coffee?”

“I don’t know, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot,” the kid replies thoughtfully, after another mouthful of coffee. “I thought you might have an answer.”

“You recognize me.” Something twists uncomfortably in Tom’s stomach. He’s still not really used to total strangers knowing his life story, and while it’d be unreasonable to expect the average modern twenty-something not to be a solid wall of cynicism, he knows he hasn’t got half a chance with this one. Not that he’s entirely sure why that seems important.

“I would have to be both blind and deaf not to. I imagined you shorter.” He pauses for a second to draw his knees up to his chest and wrap his arms around them, deftly juggling his coffee. “Not that I’ve spent a lot of time imagining you, to be clear.”

“Obviously.” Tom’s suddenly extremely conscious of not being twenty-five any more, aware of the kind of stuff they Photoshop out on magazine covers and that doesn’t show in head-and-shoulder shots.

“I try to leave the idol worship to the actual business majors. Your face is much more interesting in person, though.”

“Interesting?” Tom raises an eyebrow.

“I stick by that adjective.” The kid peels the lid off his now-cool coffee and tips his head back to drink it in a few dramatic gulps, then stands and throws it in a nearby trash can with impressive accuracy. “Thank you for the coffee.”

“You’re welcome,” Tom calls after his retreating shoulders.

*~*~*

When he’s surprised by seeing the kid he had coffee with earlier wandering in to listen to his lecture, Tom feels instantly stupid. The kid pretty much straight up told him that he’d be there. It just hadn’t occurred to Tom that one of the ‘as many lectures as possible’ might include his.

The kid’s lost two of his scarves, but he’s still wearing two coats when he wanders in and flops into a seat in the front row, grinning broadly at Tom when they make eye contact.

It hits Tom, belatedly, that he’s really attracted to him. Normally, he’d try to avoid being attracted to people probably half his age, so it’s fair enough that he didn’t get that straight away. Probably. In any case, it makes him even more self-conscious and unable to look at him—and he needs to stop thinking of him as a kid, because that’s suddenly creepy—for a few minutes.

As he relaxes into the familiar pattern of lecturing, though, he finds himself talking more and more to the one semi-familiar face in the room. He knows that the audience is made up mostly of actual business majors and the inevitable few groupies, except this one guy. He looks like he’s listening, but not like he’s hanging on every word or like he’s desperate to interrupt with his own ideas. Just absorbing what Tom’s saying.

It’s a change, and it’s one he’s finding he really likes. Especially since it’s business majors he’s lecturing about how good business is mostly about taking people’s needs into account, and they’re largely budding sociopaths. The cute art student isn’t one of His People either—Tom’s an inventor, out on his own, and he’s never actually studied business formally—but he’s closer to being so.

Tom’s got no idea what kind of art he does, but creation is creation, whatever way you look at it. People tend to think of programmers—which is what Tom really is, behind all the smoke and mirrors that make up the PR part of his career—as pure scientists, but to anyone who really understands how code works, they’re poets. An art student is a lot more likely to understand that than a business one.

Plus, he’s cute. That definitely has a lot to do with Tom’s assortment of warm feelings toward him. No one ever said he couldn’t be shallow.

Tom makes up his mind to see if he can catch the guy before he leaves. He manages to forget, however briefly, that the problem with that plan is that he’s a rock star. Normally, the part where a bunch of bright-eyed and excited college kids flock to him to tell him how cool he is serves as a massive ego boost, but today, it’s an annoyance at best. He wants to chase after the weird art student, no matter how stupid that may be, because he’s still young enough to do stupid things and he hasn’t done anything really ill-advised in a while.

After making his way through the crowd—and signing about four hundred things, including someone’s boobs—Tom heads for the solitude of the campus coffee shop, which he’d finally discovered two minutes before he had to be in the lecture hall.

As fate would have it, this also involves literally walking right into the person he’s thinking about. The guy rolls his eyes when he sees who it is and quickly pockets the small sketch book he’d been absorbed in.

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