Fermat gaped at his roommate for a moment. “Wh-What do you m-mean, lie to you?”
A.J. closed his book very deliberately and turned to confront the older boy. “I mean about the sports scores. It was an obvious lie to cover up what you were doing. So, why did you lie to me?”
Oh, no. Hackenbacker, think fast! Fermat moistened his lips with his tongue. His mind cast back to another tight spot, inside the ventilation ducts over the command center, listening to the Hood gloat over Tin-Tin’s father and her despair at being the niece of such a villain. Tin-Tin, with her pretty face, her long, black hair, her smooth, tanned skin… he blushed involuntarily and the answer came to him in a flash.
“Wellll,” he began, “I’m s-sorry we l-l-lied to you, A.J. It’s j-just that, well, the a-administration kinda frowns on wh-what we were d-doing. We d-didn’t want to get into any t-t-trouble.”
A.J. folded his arms. “What were you doing that was so bad? Looking at porn or something?”
“N-Not exactly,” Fermat replied, nervously running a finger under his collar. “We were l-looking at… girls.” He hastily corrected himself, “Women. We were l-looking at w-women.”
His roommate gave him a disbelieving look. “What kind of women? I mean, you said it wasn’t porn…”
“It’s not!” Fermat’s voice squeaked as he defended himself. “But we were l-looking at women–in sw-swimsuits, y’know. L-Lingerie catalogs. Victoria’s Secret, th-that sort of th-thing.”
Comprehension dawned on A.J. “You mean, like Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue?”
“Yeah,” Fermat said, relieved. “Like th-that.”
“But the swimsuit issue doesn’t come out until the spring.”
Now Fermat knew he was on solid ground. “Th-That’s true, but it’s sp-spring south of the e-equator, y’know. And the w-w-w… girls there are j-just as pr-pr-pr… hot.”
“Oh! I see!” A.J. nodded. “I understand. I promise I won’t tell…” Fermat mentally wiped a hand across his brow. “… on one condition.”
A.J. grinned. “The next time you look at those sites, you let me look, too.”
Fermat got up from his chair, offering his hand to A.J., who took it. “D-Deal,” he said, shaking hands once. He returned to his desk just in time to hear the warning for lights out. “Uh oh. B-Better get ready for bed.”
Alan lay on his bed in the darkened room, his hands behind his head, wide awake. His mind sifted through the confrontation with Sugi, wondering how to head off any reprisals and hoping Dom could stay strong enough to see this through.
I’m sure Belvedere will ask about Fermat and why I don’t ask for a change with A.J. He grimaced. As much as it’d kill me to tell her that she was right, I’d have to. Not for Fermat’s sake but for A.J.’s. She did the right thing putting those two together. I don’t think A.J. would’ve made it with anyone else.
But what do I tell Dad? I was so excited to have Sugi as a roommate at first; he seemed so cool, the big man on campus. Now I’ve seen another side to him and I don’t like what I see. But Dad’s right. I can’t let him stomp all over me–and I won’t. I’ll call home tomorrow, talk to Dad, then Gords. I want to hear for myself he’s okay.
He rolled over onto his side and his nose wrinkled up. Ugh. My pillow smells. Sugi didn’t do a very good job with all those sprays and our laundry isn’t picked up until Tuesday. I’ll see what I can do about the smell in the meantime. I wonder if Dom has talked to Trey yet. I hope so. I hope Trey will think this is a good idea. Maybe with three of us against him, Sugi will give in.
It took some time but Alan’s mind eventually stopped whirling and he dozed off. His dreams were filled with smoke and flame and the mocking voice of his roommate breathing unintelligible threats as Alan choked on the poisonous atmosphere.
Sunday morning breakfast was usually cereal and milk or juice. Most boys slept in and skipped it. Those who wanted to attend church services usually ate in the dining hall and, today, so did Fermat. He dressed casually so no one would think he was going to church and picked up his dose of painkiller on the way to breakfast.
He managed to balance his tray on his way to the nearly empty dining room, glad for the sealed individual servings. He sat at an empty table because, even for Sunday, he was early; only a few other boys occupied the echoing chamber.
Opening the cereal and a carton of milk proved to be a challenge, but not as difficult as Fermat had feared. The juice and second carton of milk were easy; all he had to do was poke a straw through the hole near the top. He settled down to eat when Dom Bertoli came out of the serving area and looked around. He tried to signal to the older boy, but his mouth was full of cereal. Before he could clear his mouth, Dom had been scooped up by Lee Sugimoto and the two of them sat at a table halfway across the room. He wanted to join them, seeing as they were the only people around he knew, but he didn’t want to try dragging his tray over and possibly spilling what he had in his bowl. So he set himself to eating and getting out as quickly as he could.
Every so often, he would glance over to the two, who seemed to be having a spirited conversation. Fermat couldn’t see Lee’s face, but he could see Dom’s. The yearbook editor frowned, then shook his head at first. Fermat went back to his food for a moment and when he looked up again, Dom seemed pale. An expression of concern mixed with fear had crossed his face.
Wonder what that’s all about?
He took the last bite of his cereal, wiped his mouth with a paper napkin, and piled his trash on one side of his tray. Moving carefully, he maneuvered the tray up to the disposal units, dealt with the dishes, swept the trash off into the can, and handed the tray to the bored cafeteria worker who stood there. He turned, almost running right into Lee Sugimoto, who was behind him in line.
“Hey, Hackenbacker,” Lee said, his voice holding a touch of sarcasm. “Where’s your special friend, Tracy?”
Not liking Lee’s tone, Fermat responded, “You’d kn-know better than I w-would. You’re his r-r-r… you live w-with him.”
“Ah, yes,” Lee said. “But you were supposed to, weren’t you?”
“Yeah. So wh-what?” Fermat responded, raising his chin and glaring at the older boy through his spectacles.
“I have to wonder what the real reason was behind Belvedere splitting you two up,” Lee sneered. He handed his tray to the bored young man with the white apron and the paper hair cover. “Thanks, Pierce.”
“Why is it any of y-your b-business anyway?” the younger boy asked.
Lee leaned down, his face close to Fermat’s. “Because I don’t want your special friend making any moves on me.”
Fermat’s face went white as the implications of the athlete’s veiled insult and accusation hit home. It rendered him speechless, gulping air like a fish. Lee laughed as he left the stunned teen behind.
It took a few moments for Fermat to recover his wits. “That d-damned son-of-a-b-b-b… that b-bastard!” he muttered, scowling. “That’s g-got to be wh-what Alan was t-talking about y-yesterday.”
He took a few purposeful strides toward the athlete, who had gathered a few of his classmates around him just before he got to the exit. But before he could get very far, someone grabbed him his shoulder from behind. Fermat whirled, his face furious, dropping instinctively into the defensive half-crouch that Scott had been drilling into him all summer. His assailant took a step back in alarm. Fermat relaxed as he recognized Dom Bertoli. The older boy still looked pale and his eyes followed Lee as the latter finally left the building.
“Listen, Hackenbacker,” Dom said, his voice low and slightly shaky. “If you see Tracy today, tell him I need to talk to him right away, okay? It’s really important.”
“Sure, D-Dom,” Fermat said. He cocked his head. “Are y-you okay? I s-saw you talking with… S-Sugimoto. You s-seemed upset.”
Dom sighed and shook his head. “No, I’m not okay.”
“Wh-What did he s-say to you?”
“I’m not telling you. Just Tracy, you got that? Tell him it’s important.” Dom swallowed heavily and pushed past Fermat. “I’ve got to get out of here.”
“Hey, D-Dom, wait!” Fermat hurried, moving quickly in Dom’s wake. “What’s going on?”
But Dom wouldn’t wait; he moved faster than Fermat expected for an asthmatic and was out the door and down the front steps before the younger boy could catch him.
Fermat stood on the top of the dining hall steps and watched Dom leave. He shook his head, then remembered Sugi’s words and shuddered.
Time to get Alan out of bed. And not only Alan but the rest of the guys.
Alan woke to the sound of a buzzer going off. Late! he thought fuzzily. I’m going to be late for class! He reached for his alarm clock and hit it, but the buzzing wouldn’t stop. It finally dawned on him what was wrong; the noise didn’t sound like his alarm. It’s Sunday.
“Alan! W-Wake up!” came Fermat’s muffled voice from outside.
“What’s he doing here so early… oh.” Alan looked at his clock, really looked at it, and realized it was after ten. “Come in, Fermat!” he called, his voice still rusty from sleep.
“F-Finally!” The door’s lock snicked open, the panel slid aside, and Fermat came in, followed by Qaeshon, Jason, and Ralph.
Alan squinted at them from the top bunk. “What’s going on?” he asked, still not quite awake.
“We need to talk, Pinky,” Qaeshon said, folding his arms across his chest. “You’d better get dressed.”
“Can I get a shower?” Alan asked, pulling back the covers. He swung his legs over the side of the bed and dropped to the floor. Standing, he rubbed his eyes.
“Sure,” Jason said, waving a hand. “Shower and get dressed. We’ll be out in the common room waiting for you.”
“Brain, you stay here, okay?” Qaeshon said. “Make sure Pinky comes right out when he’s done.”
“S-Sure.” Fermat plopped down in Alan’s desk chair, preparing to wait for his friend.
“C’mon, let’s go,” Ralph said, nudging his roommate. The three retired to the common room, leaving the two friends alone.
“So, what’s this all about, Fermat?” Alan asked as he pulled clean clothes from his drawers.
“Y-You’ll find out when w-we talk as a gr-group,” Fermat replied.
Alan frowned at his friend. “This isn’t like you, Fermat.”
“I kn-know,” the younger boy said, nodding. “I have my r-reasons.”
“Oookay,” Alan drawled as he headed for the shower. “Be out soon.”
The hot water washed the rest of his grogginess away. The shampoo washed away the smell of cigarette–imagined or not–his hair had picked up from his pillow. He took his time, tousling his hair before wrapping his towel around his waist and entering the cooler, drier air of the bedroom.
Fermat turned to him, startled. Alan was surprised to see him blush and turn away. “G-Get dressed quickly.”
“Fermat, what the hell is the matter?” Alan pressed as he pulled on his briefs. The snap of elastic waistband made the dark-haired boy jump a little. Alan put a hand out to turn Fermat around.
But Fermat shrugged it off. “Just g-g-g… put your c-clothes on, Alan.”
“What is with you?” Alan asked again as he pulled on his jeans. “What’s happened?”
“I’ll t-tell you wh-when you’re d-dressed and we’re out of h-h-here,” Fermat promised.
Alan quickly finished dressing and ran a comb through his blond hair. “Okay, I’m done. Now what?”
“G-Get your j-jacket. It’s still c-c-cool out,” Fermat ordered as he got up and headed for the door.
They left the room, Alan locking the door behind him. Fermat led the way to the common room where Qaeshon waited for them. “I sent Ralph out to find Dom and Jason said he thought A.J. should be in on this, too. He’s gone to Maplewood to bring the kid along. They’ll meet us behind the courts.”
“G-Good. Let’s g-g-go,” was all that Fermat replied.
Alan shot a questioning look at Qaeshon, who shook his head slowly. “Not here, Pinky. And not until everyone is together.”
Qaeshon nodded. “Yeah.”
Alan put his hands in his pockets and followed his old roommate as the latter walked briskly toward the outdoor tennis and basketball courts. Waiting for them there was Jason, with a panting A.J.
“Where’s R-Ralph?” Fermat asked.
Jason looked over the shoulders of the newcomers and pointed. “Here he comes. Looks like he found Dom, too.”
“G-Good,” Fermat called. “Over here!”
He and Alan led the way into the woods that edged the outer boundaries of the Wharton campus. Somewhere in the forest was a barbed wire fence that was posted, “No Trespassing” but anything within that fence was considered Wharton property. The boys walked along, Fermat setting a quick pace, while A.J. brought up the rear, looking around at the pines towering over his head.
At last, they came to a small clearing that was ringed with pines but had once held some mighty oaks. Some oak stumps remained, wide and short. A couple of smaller trunks–either fallen where they stood or dragged there by past generations of Wharton students–made natural benches. An old firepit had been dug in the center of the clearing; it still saw use from time to time. The clearing was known only as “The Hollow”. It was a place the young men of Wharton went to be alone or have some fun that the administration frowned on, as evidenced by the occasional hidden beer bottle and the half-buried cigarette butts. The academy’s powers-that-be knew of the Hollow. They would sometimes send security out to see what was going on, but for the most part didn’t concern themselves with the meeting place.
“Okay, Fermat,” Alan said as his friend took up a seat on one of the logs. “Now that we’re out here, what the hell is going on?”
Fermat looked up at him, brows knitted and mouth set. “Y-You tell me, A-Alan.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” the blond retorted. “Kay says it’s something bad…”
“It is,” Fermat replied. “And I th-think it h-has something to d-do with those question you a-asked us y-y-y… Saturday.” He stood up to pace. “I’ll t-tell you what h-happened to m-me this m-m-morning and you e-explain to me why it h-happened.”
“I doubt I can, but knock yourself out.” Alan sat down on a stump and waved for Fermat to begin.
The younger boy walked the length of the clearing, then turned to speak. He explained what had happened at breakfast and his meetings with both Lee Sugimoto and with Dom afterward. Alan glanced around; Dom was white and kept looking his way. A.J.’s jaw had dropped, but the other three boys were either nodding or impassive as Fermat recounted the tale. They’ve heard this before, Alan concluded. That’s why they came with Fermat to get me. He told them first! His hands clenched into fists. Who the hell does that bastard Sugi think he is, starting a rumor like that!? I told him to leave Fermat out of it! I will personally pound him into the ground!
Fermat finished his tale and all eyes turned to Alan and Dom. “What’s going on Dom? Pinky?” Qaeshon asked, glowering. “Sugimoto’s not going to spread a rumor that Pinky and the Brain are gay without a reason.”
“What did you do to get him that riled up?” Jason asked from where he sat. He glanced over at the yearbook editor. “And you, Dom? What did you do? You barely even know the guy.”
Alan glanced over at his co-conspirator, who gazed back with a sick expression on his face. “Do we tell them?” Dom asked.
Alan’s eyes moved around from person to person in the little group, then he shrugged. “I guess so.” He scratched the back of his neck. “It all started early yesterday afternoon when I came back from the games room…”
As Alan told the story, he was gratified to see the faces on his friends grow angry at Sugi’s treatment of him and over the threat the senior posed to both him and to Fermat.
“I’ll stomp him into the grass,” Ralph growled when Alan was through. “I don’t care if he’s the soccer team captain. He’s going to get it and get it good during practice tomorrow.”
“Th-That’s not going to s-solve anything and m-might make things w-worse.” Fermat took off his glasses, wiping them with a handkerchief. He turned to the other player in the drama. “Wh-What did he say to y-you, Dom?”
Dom shook his head, still pale. “He… He said he’d make my life hell and I’d wish those guys who beat me up had killed me. He said he would start a rumor that would make me lose my friends and get me kicked off the yearbook staff if I went along with Tracy’s plan or if I breathed a word about Trey’s smoking habit.” The dark-haired boy held up his palms as he shrugged. “What was I supposed to do? If my parents heard about it, they’d pull me from school.” He shook his head. “They’re a bit overprotective of me because of the asthma.”
“So, what do we do now?” Jason asked. “We can’t let Pinky and the Brain be smeared, or Dom either. Rumors like the one Sugi has already started are hard to stop.”
“It doesn’t help that you two were split up this year, either,” Qaeshon groused. “Makes it look like something fishy’s going on.”
“But… but they’re not, uh, that way,” A.J. piped up. “I mean, they look at all those hot girls…”
“Hot girls?” Jason asked, quizzically.
“Hot girls?” Alan mouthed silently to Fermat.
Everyone else turned to look at A.J. in varying measures of surprise and, in Fermat’s case, warning. He put a hand to his mouth. “Uh, oh,” he said softly. Turning to Fermat, who was shaking his head and sighing. “Sorry about that. I didn’t mean…”
Fermat waved a hand, irritated. “I kn-know you didn’t m-mean it. J-Just… don’t m-mention it again, huh?”
“So, you’re interested in something other than the Thunderbirds?” Ralph asked Alan slyly. “Found out that life isn’t all fast planes and spaceships?”
“Uh, yeah,” Alan spluttered. He gave Fermat a look that said, “We’ll talk about this later.”
“So, back to the problem at hand,” Jason said, nodding firmly. “What are we going to do about Sugi and his rumors?”
“Sugi’s not the only big man on campus,” Qaeshon said, a hint of pride in his voice. “Zave is, too. I’ll tell him about this smear campaign. He’ll believe me over Sugi.”
“Yeah, but can you tell him without letting on why Sugi’s doing this?” Dom asked. “I mean, I’d rather not bring Trey’s smoking up to the whole school.”
“Did you talk to him about the room swap?” Alan asked.
Dom shook his head. “No, I didn’t get a chance to. I feel sorry for him, y’know. Stuck with me and having to worry whether or not he’s going to set off an attack or something.”
“Hey, Dom, don’t worry about that,” Jason said. “Probably half the school already knows about it! It just hasn’t reached the ears of the administration yet. And who knows how much of our scuttlebutt they believe anyway.”
“I thought that if Trey could be convinced this was a good thing and the three of us ganged up on Sugi, he’d have to go along with it.” Alan folded his arms, toeing the dirt with his sneaker.
“Uh uh,” Ralph said, shaking his head. “All four parties have to agree unless there’s a pressing need, like the smoking business. If you went to Ms. Belvedere and told her that Trey was smoking, he’d be expelled, and you’d probably have your room to yourself. But that wouldn’t solve Pinky’s problem, not since Sugi started this rumor.”
“I wonder why he started it so soon?” A.J. piped up.
“Wh-What do you m-mean, A.J.?” Fermat asked.
“Well, he threatened to start a rumor if Alan and Dom went to Ms. Belvedere, right?” The other boys nodded, so A.J. continued. “But that hasn’t happened yet. So why did he start? He has to have some reason.”
Alan dropped his arms, sitting down heavily on a log. “Maybe because I stood up to him. Maybe he wants me to know how serious he is about this.” He rubbed his chin for a moment then said slowly, “He did say something about ‘all my daddy’s money’ not being able to stop it.” He glanced around at the group. “Do you think that could have something to do with it?”
Qaeshon shrugged. “Who knows? I mean, your dad is really rich, yeah, but you’ve never flaunted it.”
“This is getting us nowhere,” Jason complained. “What are we going to do about Sugi? I mean, this rumor is going to catch all of us up in it, too, whether we like it or not.”
There was a murmur of assent among the group, then Alan said, “I think one thing we have to do is for Dom and me to go through with this room change request. If we have to tell Belvedere about Trey’s smoking, we will.” He looked around at his friends. “I mean, we’ve already told you all. Any of you could mention it–”
“That’s it!” Jason said, cutting off Alan’s explanation. “An anonymous tip! One of us could tip off the administration to Trey’s smoking!”
The boys all glanced uncomfortably at each other. “Who would do it?” Ralph asked. “And how would we prove it?”
Dom shook his head. “No, if it comes from me, the administration will believe. After all, I’m his roommate.”
“Yeah, but what does that do about the rumor?” Ralph asked. “We need to stop it in its tracks.”
“I think Zave can be of help. I’ll figure out a way to tell him without involving Trey’s habit,” Qaeshon said.
“And the r-rest of us have to st-stick t-together,” Fermat added. “If w-we let this b-break up our gr-group, then it will b-be like giving cr-cr-cr… like telling people the rumor is tr-true.”
There was another uncomfortable silence, then Ralph asked hesitantly, “Uh, just for the record, Pinky, you and the Brain aren’t–?”
“NO!” Alan and Fermat shouted in unison.
“Uh, I didn’t think so,” Ralph muttered as Jason slapped the back of his head.
“So, our plan is for Kay to tell Zave and maybe lighten up the impact of the rumor that way, while Pinky and Dom go through with their request,” Jason said, ticking off the points on his fingers.
“And we stick together,” A.J. reminded them.
“Right,” Qaeshon answered.
“Would a counter-rumor help?” Ralph asked. “Something nasty about Sugi?”
Alan shook his head firmly. “I don’t want to stoop to his level.”
Fermat nodded, “I a-a-agree.”
“Well, we can hold that in reserve as a plan B,” Jason added. He looked around at their surroundings. “Hey, it’s probably nearly lunchtime. We’d better get back.”
“You guys go ahead,” Alan said. “I need to talk to the Brain here.”
Qaeshon frowned at them. “You sure? I mean, we just said we need to stick together.”
“I know. We’ll catch up,” Alan promised.
“Okay, see you at lunch then,” Ralph said as he and the others left the pair alone.
When they were out of earshot, Alan turned on Fermat with anger. “Why the hell did you go telling them about this before you told me?”
“B-Because if I d-didn’t, you w-would have br-brushed me aside and t-told me nothing about wh-what was going on!” Fermat shot back. “After all, you d-didn’t see f-fit to tell m-me your plan! Y-Your f-f-f… your dad was g-going to go to b-bat for us so we c-could room together a-again! Now wh-what’s going to h-happen to that? D-Don’t you w-want to be my r-roommate again?”
Alan turned away from Fermat, folding his arms. “It has nothing to do with what I want or you want.”
“Oh? How do you think that m-makes me feel? My b-best friend doesn’t w-want to r-room with me anymore!”
The older boy dropped his arms and spun around to glare Fermat. “You don’t get it, do you? Belvedere was right in putting you with A.J. and not with me.”
Fermat exploded, flailing his one good arm around while trying to do the same with the casted one. “Wh-What the hell is that s-supposed to mean?”
The older boy spread his hands out and got close to his friend’s face. “It means that A.J. needed you, dammit! He needed you or someone like you, to get him acclimated to life here. I want to be your roommate, yes, but it turns out that A.J. needs you more. Would you dump him on someone like Sugi just to room with me?”
This brought Fermat up short. “I s-suppose not.” Fermat dropped his gaze, scowling. “B-But when were y-you going to tell me you th-thought it would be b-better for us to stay s-separate? And wh-when do you intend to t-t-t… inform your d-dad?”
Alan sighed. “I was going to talk to him this afternoon and I would have told you right after that.”
“You should have t-told me what your p-plans were first,” Fermat shot back. “After all, you’d a-already made the a-arrangements with D-Dom. If I’d known, I m-might have been m-more prepared for wh-what Sugi was t-trying to do.”
“Okay, okay.” Alan put up his hands in defense. “I agree. I should have told you before this. I was a little preoccupied WithGordon yesterday evening, y’know. But why did you go to Kay, Jase, and Ralph first? You should have come straight to me with what Sugi said to you.”
“I w-went to them f-first because I kn-knew I would need their h-help to get the whole st-story out of you,” the younger boy said, calming down. “Y-You would have r-refused to say anything if it h-had just been m-me c-coming to you. That old T-Tracy pride and self-r-reliance, y’know.”
There was quiet between them, and then Alan sighed. “Am I that self-centered?”
Fermat looked at him steadily. “Sometimes. It’s not as b-bad as it used to b-be.”
It took a few moments, but Alan finally murmured, “I’m sorry, Fermat. I wasn’t thinking of your feelings, just myself and my predicament.”
“That’s n-not quite true,” Fermat replied with a sigh. “You were th-thinking of A.J.–and I w-wasn’t. But I st-stand by my d-decision to t-tell the others. W-When Sugi started that r-rumor, they became j-just as involved as we were. And we n-need their help.” He put a hand on Alan’s shoulder. “You d-don’t have to d-do this all by yourself, y’know.”
“You’re right. I would have tried to take care of it myself. I was trying to take care of it myself and not thinking about our friends. But I didn’t expect Sugi to start in so soon.” He snorted a laugh. “At least this explains your weird behavior while I was getting dressed.”
Fermat blushed. “I d-didn’t want a-anyone in t-to think the r-rumor might be t-true.”
The two boys started back to the main campus, walking single file down the narrow path. “What was that thing about the hot girls?” Alan asked.
“A.J. figured out we were l-lying to him a-about what we were l-looking at b-before he came in, and c-c-c… called me on it.” Fermat shrugged. “It was the o-only thing I c-could think of.”
“Great,” Alan replied sourly. “Now we could get in trouble with the administration.”
Fermat smiled and shook his head. “I d-don’t think so. He s-said he w-wouldn’t tell if we l-let him look, too.”
“Yeah, but he’s already told.”
The younger boy stopped in the path. Alan, realizing this, turned around to face him.
“Alan, I trust our friends,” Fermat said, his stutter disappearing for once. “Do you?”
Alan thought for a moment, then huffed out a heavy breath, shrugging. “I guess I’m going to have to, aren’t I?” He made a motion with his head toward the campus. “C’mon. I’m hungry.”