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Wallflower



This gamer geek has a pretty little secret.

Art student and MMORPG addict Robert Ng has always been a loner, but he’s recently made it his goal to make more (IRL) friends. Which is how he winds up working nights at Rear Entrance Video, shilling sketchy porn and blowup dolls as a favor to his roommate. The longer he works there, though, the more he realizes he’ll never be truly happy until he becomes the person he is online: his female persona, Bobby.

Bobby is cuter and funnier than Rob is, and a thousand times more popular with boys. Becoming Bobby IRL presents its own set of challenges, though . . . especially when you’re sitting on the fence between two genders, only one of which has caught the attention of your seriously cute customer/classmate.

Dylan Ford is a six-foot Inuit comic book artist who always says what’s on his mind, and screw anyone who doesn’t like it. As rough as he appears, though, Dylan has a soft spot for Rob. But will out-and-proud Dylan still want Rob if he’s not all man?


What people say?

[a] thoughtful exploration of complex gender identity

What people say?

.

CHAPTER ONE

Rob breathed through the sun salutation, trying his damnedest to exhale out all the tension still clenching the muscles of his back and shoulders. It used to be that the weekly yoga class he took with his big sister could get him through anything: any stressor, any sadness, any frustration, any loneliness . . . but today, not so much.

Give it a chance, he coaxed himself. Inhale. Exhale.

Nope, totally not working. He couldn’t get the thought of tonight off his mind.

His first shift alone at Rear Entrance Video, and he couldn’t have felt less prepared—and more anxious—if he’d tried. Oh, he had plenty of experience after the last two months working shifts with Christian supervising; he knew how to work the rental system and count out the till, knew the layout of the store, knew his Jenna Jameson from his James Deen, could even recite the myriad benefits of silicone as a material for use in sex toys.

What he couldn’t do was picture himself working alone and one-on-one with a stranger—a customer, no less—doing any of those things. Especially not the “sexy” stuff. Which, of course, when you worked at a porn store meant pretty much everything, since even routine activities like filing took on new and terrifying X-rated meanings.

He startled when a hand touched the back of his left thigh—speaking of risqué. “Downward-facing dog,” the class’s willowy blonde instructor said, obviously repeating herself. She planted her other hand on his lower back to guide him down. His palms hit the mat and he let out a violent gust of air. “Ujjayi breath,” she reminded him, and although she talked as softly and as calmly as ever, Rob could hear displeasure there too, no doubt at the fact that he’d brought his distraction and stress into her studio.

“Child’s pose,” she said, louder, as she mercifully drifted away.

Now that one he could do, and gladly. He sank down, curling in on himself, letting his forehead rest on the soft fabric of the mat, his hair falling in a black curtain that shielded him from the outside world.

Child’s pose—that was the perfect name for it, because he wished he could stay this way forever. But of course he couldn’t, and before he knew it they were all putting their hands together and bowing as their instructor murmured, “Namaste.”

In the time it took Rob to pick up his water bottle and take a swig, his sister was already surrounded by a chatty group of lithe men and women all competing for her attention. Rob sighed, shook his head, and forced his sore thighs into a squat so he could roll up his mat.

Bernice had been the one to suggest the yoga classes, back when she’d been in her last year of high school and Rob had just been starting. Her rationale back then had been that it was an activity they could do together, where the socially awkward caterpillar and the social butterfly could find common ground. But Rob had always suspected a hidden motive of it being an activity that required Rob to get out of the house and be around people, even if all they were doing was waggling their butts in the air. Whatever her motivations, Rob had agreed to go along just to make her happy, and then later agreed to keep going because getting out apparently made him happy, too, and he wanted more of that. He’d committed to it. To her. To himself.

Give her way a chance. Mat under one arm and water bottle hooked around one finger, he squared his shoulders and walked over.

The circle of admirers didn’t shift, so Rob cleared his throat. Shook his bangs out of his eyes and cleared his throat again.

He could stand around all day doing this before any of Bernice’s beautiful crowd noticed him, but luckily a gorgeous muscular blond guy happened to shift a little on his bare feet, which made just enough of an opening for Bernice’s eyes to land on Rob from over the blond’s shoulder.

“Robby!” she said, and that was all it took for her friends to open up a space for him. He stepped into the circle with a shrug and a little half-smile. “You guys know my baby brother? How’s it going, Robby? I saw Alyssa had to correct your poses. You weren’t distracted staring at somebody’s butt, were you?” She winked and flashed him a big, bright, pinup girl smile to show she was just teasing. At that, everyone laughed, and Rob wheezed out a little “Ha-ha,” trying to hide his flush at the realization that he’d been behind a man in class today.

All this talk of butts and asses and Rear Entrances, was this seriously his life? Maybe he should stick to Kingdom of Elves for his socialization; at least there it was everybody else making all the crude commentary. At least there he had a screen to hide his blush behind.

If he were a more bitter person, he’d resent his sister for hogging all the beauty and charisma genes in the family and leaving him with nothing, but the truth was, he kind of suspected that she’d been born, heard her dowdy grandma name, and spent her whole life busting her butt to break that mould. So it wasn’t a matter of not enough charm to go around, just the cold reality of which of them wanted it bad enough to work for it. And Bernice had worked. Hard, all her life. Sure, when they’d been teenagers it hadn’t seemed like work when she’d pored over fashion magazines for the latest trends or spent an hour and a half in the bathroom every morning doing her hair and makeup, and it definitely hadn’t seemed like work when she’d gone out with someone or other every night. Now that he was older, though, he realized that what he’d seen as play and fucking around had all been a concerted effort to become a person people liked and wanted to be around.

Rob, on the other hand, had spent more than a few years convincing himself of the exact opposite: that he didn’t want or need anybody, no approval, no friends, nothing. That he was socially awkward and a loser, sure, but that it was better that way. Teenage Rob hadn’t had friends because he didn’t need friends. He was better off alone.

That had been before Emily Carr University, before Noah Hadley and his other roommates, definitely before Rear Entrance Video, and Rob liked to believe he was a changed man, at least as far as acknowledging his need for human companionship went, but he still had some catching-up to do.

Bernice shifted from one foot to the other. “So anyway, we were thinking of going for some smoothies. You in?” She and her friends all stared at Rob. Oh God, she was inviting him out. Again. Every week like clockwork she asked him to come out with her and her friends, and every week he panicked and refused, right back to being an insecure teenager again.

Okay, so maybe he had a lot of catching-up to do before he was a normal social human being like her.

They were all staring at him, Bernice hopeful, the others neutral at best, the gorgeous blond guy looking specifically unimpressed. Never mind Rob, this asshole obviously hadn’t gotten the memo yet that high school was over. Rob turned from him, focusing on Bernice instead: her open expression, her fresh skin, her bangs spiking up where her Lululemon headband had slipped.

“Thanks for the invite, but I . . .” Bernice’s face fell, and it almost broke Rob’s heart, knowing he was disappointing her, knowing that he was kind of disappointing himself, too. Maybe, given time, he could prove the blond wrong. Probably not, but stranger things had happened. Stranger things . . . like Rear Entrance Video. “I can’t. I promised to do one of my roommates a favor.”

That seemed to cheer her up a little: helping a roommate probably sounded a lot more normal and social to her than his usual excuses of “I’ve got a raid,” or just straight up “Not my scene.”

The circle closed around her again, unconsciously-or-maybe-not shoving Rob out as they suggested the best nearby smoothie places, argued over vegan options and independent spots versus franchises, debated the merits of organic fruit. Vancouver talk. Rob let himself fall back in a subtle retreat, raising a hand in good-bye.

“See you next week?” Bernice asked, tilting her head at him with an expression that was half hope and half sadness. She wanted better for Rob. She always had. It was just too bad Rob wasn’t quite ready to take that final step.

“Yeah, you know it,” Rob said, forcing some cheerful enthusiasm into his voice, and Bernice smiled at him one last time before she turned back to her friends.

# # #

A short trip back to the house for a shower and a change of clothes, and Rob was on his way, hopping the bus down to Davie Street before he could change his mind.

Not that he would change his mind, of course. His roommates were counting on him. Not just Christian, who was the reason they were all working at Rear Entrance Video in the first place, but the others too: Max and Noah and Austin, who had all taken time out of their hectic lives to help Christian manage his aunt’s store and depended on Rob to do his fair share, too. His . . . well, maybe it was presumptuous to call them “friends.” Rob didn’t have friends—not the way Bernice always had—but roommates on good terms, roommates he played video games and had midnight dinners with. Yeah, that. Whatever they were, Rob didn’t want to let them down. He wanted them to like him, to be happy with him, to think he was a person who could be trusted, a person worth inviting along and including. And if a few shifts of awkwardness at a porn store was the price of their approval, then so be it.

Yeah. Rob could do this. Hell, maybe he’d like it. Meet new people. Learn new things.

He rang for his stop and, when the bus pulled to the curb, hopped out the door. Quickly glanced away from an attractive middle-aged bear who flashed him a smile as they passed each other on the sidewalk.

God, it was just a smile, not a pickup line. He needed to get himself together.

He pushed through the front door of the shop and waved to Christian, who was sitting behind the counter, and Max, who was perched on it like some kind of skater-boy lounge singer.

“Hey Rob,” Christian greeted, and it heartened Rob to see that the gaunt, tormented look he’d been wearing the last couple months was finally starting to fade. He still had bags under his eyes, but that didn’t necessarily mean a bad thing. After all, if Rob had Max for a boyfriend, he’d probably be having his fair share of late nights, too.

“How’s it going, Nugget?” Max said. “Ready for your trial by fire?”

“Max, don’t be a dick,” Christian snapped, then turned a slightly feral grin on Rob. “Don’t worry, Rob, I got all the creepers out of the way this afternoon. Should be smooth sailing tonight.”

“Oh, you can schedule them now?” Rob’s tone was sarcastic as he slipped behind the counter and kicked his bag underneath it. He took his seat next to Christian, who immediately popped the till drawer for changeover.

Max threw a look over his shoulder at them both. “Yeah, didn’t you hear? Noon to one, Christian does creeper hour: creepy customers get all rentals half off. Gets ’em out of the way.”

“He’s joking, right?” Rob asked, playing along.

“Hmm.” Christian didn’t look up from the bills he was passing from hand to hand as he counted in his head. “I’d say so, but who knows what he gets up to when I’m not here. Maybe he just wants to hog all the creepers to himself.”

“You got me. Although truth be told, it’s all a ploy to get at the only creeper that matters: Sweatpants-and-boner Guy.” Max batted his eyelashes, putting his chin in his hands like a smitten teenage girl.

“He’s all yours.” Rob shuddered. Although ninety percent of their clientele were completely normal—drunk college students, groups of women looking for satin blindfolds and rabbit pearls, friendly dudes, shy and awkward types like Rob himself—there was that last ten percent, the ones with boundary issues, the ones without personal hygiene . . .

Sweatpants-and-boner Guy was an obese, middle-aged man—nothing wrong with that part, of course—who came in wearing baggy sweatpants that clung to his boner as he wandered the aisles licking and smacking his lips. He was completely harmless, but everybody who worked the counter wished he’d invest in some jeans or something, anything to even somewhat hide the chubby he always sported.

The cash register slammed shut. “Well, that’s it for me, I’m outta here,” Christian said. “Ready to go, babe? Rob, you’re gonna be okay here on your own?”

“Yeah,” Rob said, pushing all of his insecurities down into the bottom of his gut. Just because he was being a ridiculous baby about all this didn’t mean he had to show it. “Go on, get out of here. I’ll call you if anything goes wrong.”

Christian dropped a hand onto Rob’s shoulder in that overearnest teacher way he sometimes did. “Nothing’s going to go wrong, Rob. You’ll be just fine.”

Jeez, had he been that obvious?

He shrugged Christian’s hand off, not quite confident enough in his lying ability to meet Christian’s eyes. “Sure, sure, sure. Now go.”

Christian cast him one more dopey, concerned look, then got up, took Max’s hand, and let Max lead him out the door. When the bell jingled their exit, Rob sighed with relief, slumping in his chair. Alone. Finally. Was it wrong to wish he’d be alone all night?

Considering they were trying to get the store up and running for Christian’s cancer patient aunt, who owned the place and had managed it before she got sick, yeah, it really was.

And in some cosmic and/or divine punishment for his selfishness, the doorbell jingled again—from the back of the store, this time, the titular Rear Entrance—and in walked the only customer higher (or was that lower?) on the hierarchy of creepers than Sweatpants-and-boner Guy: Charlie VIP. No last name on file, just “VIP,” probably because if you looked into his customer history he had a perfect rental record and had spent the price of a pretty damn decent new car here over the last year or so. Guess that bought a little discretion when it came to last names and phone numbers.

It wasn’t that he was rude or abusive, exactly, more just . . . incredibly uncomfortable to be around. “Evenin’,” he greeted on his way to the Fetish section of the store.

“Hello,” Rob mumbled to the counter, ducking his eyes behind his hair. He’s harmless, he reminded himself. He probably looks creepier than he actually is. He thought of himself, the way people treated him based solely on outward appearances. How they judged him. Not that he wasn’t a completely average Chinese Canadian teenage boy, from the cheap Hong Kong fashion right up to the shaggy K-pop haircut. But the way he spoke, the way he carried himself . . . people picked up on that, he had to assume, picked up on it and read doormat and nerd and loser and that’s what he was to them, whether he wanted to be that person or not. And eventually, what they thought of him had become the truth, a self-fulfilling prophecy that he couldn’t seem to escape.

Maybe it was the same for Charlie VIP.

Or maybe he really was just a creepy pervert, as advertised.

Rob risked a glance at Charlie VIP and quickly ducked behind the computer monitor again before the guy caught him looking. Fuzzy slippers, like Grampa Simpson. A white cabled cardigan, open to the third button like Mr. Rogers, but with nothing underneath except for chest hair and the occasional glimpse of old-dude nipple. Wild, thinning hair. Scabby cold sores around the corner of his mouth. The guy looked like a textbook addict, except in this case his drug of choice was porno rather than heroin or meth.

In other words, he looks like a guy who doesn’t need your judgment.

As resolved as Rob was, though, he still couldn’t meet the guy’s eye when he came up to the counter with a stack of German medical fetish and fisting movies. The women in this German stuff the distributor sent them always looked so haggard and skinny and pale, but maybe that was just because Rob had become acclimatized to the California version of sexuality, women with tans and fake tits and perfect makeup and nails.

“Find everything you were looking for?” he forced himself to ask.

Charlie drummed his fingers on the countertop like he was antsy for his fix. “You need more midget stuff.” He spoke with a growl, but there was no anger in his face. Maybe he just had a worn voice, although he didn’t smell of cigarette smoke. Maybe he’d quit. Traded one addiction for another less likely to kill him. “I seen this one eight times.”

Nine times, actually. Rob couldn’t think of anything more awkward and uncomfortable than making small talk with this guy about midget porn, so he didn’t say anything at all, just popped the empty cases onto the OUT shelf and went rooting through the filing cabinet for Charlie’s discs.

“Thanks, kid. You tell your manager about them midgets.”

Rob saluted him, which seemed to work just as well as speaking. Good thing too, because he wasn’t sure he could speak. Or at least, not without squeaking like a pubescent boy.

Another sigh of relief at the sound of the doorbell, but when Rob looked up, Charlie was still loitering around looking at the blow-up dolls. Coming through the door now was a big Native guy, probably Max and Christian’s age, wearing one of those black and red ERASE RACISM NAZI PUNKS FUCK OFF sweatshirts that Rob was pretty sure were for some metal band, although he did appreciate the sentiment, wherever it came from.

ERASE RACISM guy had the hood pulled up over his head, though, and no amount of chiding himself about not judging people by appearances could keep Rob from reacquainting himself with the location of the panic button underneath the counter.

Charlie seemed to feel the same way, because he clutched his plain black plastic bag to his chest and scurried out without a word.

A few minutes later, ERASE RACISM guy sauntered up to the counter with a big grin, put down a DVD case, and pulled the hood from his head.

Hood down, he transformed into a teddy bear with a round face and twinkling black eyes. His wet bangs flopped forward until he peevishly raked them back again.

Oh, it had been raining outside. Thus the hood. Duh.

Rob spared a passing thought for Charlie in his slippers. He hoped the guy had a car somewhere nearby.

“Didja get a load of that guy?” ERASE RACISM said, and handed over his membership card. Dylan Ford, age twenty-three.

“Um . . . Not really . . .” Rob mumbled, and turned for the filing cabinets before Dylan could see the flush on his face.

He hoped the conversation would end there, but it didn’t. “Not like I can talk, right?” Dylan laughed. “Guy my age coming to a porno store for anything but a prank, weird, right?”

“I don’t know. Maybe. I guess.”

“Is it bad that I feel the need to justify myself to you? Do you get that a lot? Dudes just coming in here giving you all these excuses for why they gotta rent porn? I bet you’ve heard some pretty good ones. Even though you probably don’t care, right?” Got it in one, buddy, not that it’s going to stop you, I’m guessing. And sure enough, Dylan continued, “Well, anyway, mine is that my parents get a copy of my credit card statements. This way I can pay cash.” He gestured to the crinkled five dollar bill he’d put on the counter next to his DVD case. A gay DVD. Rob supposed that was a good reason to keep it from your parents . . . beyond just the embarrassment of having to explain the eighty-dollar charge from STR8 BOYS GONE GAY, INC. on your statement. “Not that I’m some closet case or something!” Dylan added with a scandalized expression, as if waiting to come out was some unheard-of thing, too sad and old-fashioned to comprehend. “Mom and Dad know I’m a homo, but doesn’t mean they need to know the details of what I jack off to, right?”

“Um, right,” Rob said. Although apparently it’s fine if know what you jack off to.

Well, duh, because it’s your job, you judgmental jerk. Feeling sorry, now, Rob managed a genuine smile for the guy. Just because Dylan’s overfamiliarity made Rob feel embarrassed as hell didn’t mean he had the right to be a douche about it.

Dylan smiled back, encouraged, and put both elbows on the counter as he watched Rob process the rental. “And my sister does porn in California so I’d feel bad pirating it.”

God, was that supposed to be small talk? Did this guy not have a filter? All of Rob’s goodwill washed away in a tidal wave of fresh awkwardness. He hummed a noncommittal “Mm-hmm,” in response, hoping it would satisfy.

“Would feel like stealing the food off of her table, you know? Not that I’d watch porn with her in it.” Dylan laughed again, oblivious, totally unashamed. “God! Not that you’d think I would. Shit.”

“I’d hope not,” Rob said. Please let the roof fall in on our heads. He rang Dylan through and handed him his change. “Due back next week. Thanks for coming in.”

Now please go away.

Thankfully, after pulling his hood back over his head and stuffing the DVD into his front pouch pocket, Dylan did, calling out, “See ya next week!” as he went.

Maybe Rob should trade this shift for one of Max’s.

Although God knew how that was supposed to help.

CHAPTER TWO

His last night of freedom before the start of winter semester, and Rob wasn’t going to waste a single second of it. At eleven-thirty, he locked the front door to Rear Entrance Video, gave the store one last once-over, and stomped up the sidewalk toward the bus stop. At least the rain had stopped.

After giving the wet bench a swipe with his sleeve, he plopped down to wait for his bus and pulled out his cell, which had bleeped with a text.

His sister. Going out for drinks with some girlfriends, u wanna come?

Bernice’s club of choice was Celebrities, one of Vancouver’s venerable old gay bars. Which, naturally, was a scant five or six blocks up from Rear Entrance Video—not that Bernice knew Rob was in the neighbourhood.

Rob hadn’t come out to his family, but he had a feeling Bernice knew anyway and was too kind to ask. She was always inviting him out with her girlfriends: shopping, drinks, lunch at the local salad bar, all activities he had to assume were meant to be nonthreatening to his inner gay. Not to mention the yoga.

Or maybe she just knew how badly intimidated he was by other men his age and was hoping girls would be easier. It wasn’t like Rob was at all skilled at reading people, even his own sister.

Either way, in the end it didn’t really matter. He wasn’t sassy or bitchy or well dressed, and yeah, maybe he was a little “obvious,” but not in that ideal swishy, theatrical way women seemed to love so much. He was just awkward and mousey and too much of a nerd. Bernice’s friends would want to hear his opinions on Ryan Reynolds’s godlike abs, and he’d wind up complaining to them about how disappointed he’d been in Reynolds’s turn as Deadpool—a wasted opportunity if there ever was one, because Reynolds had been perfect for the part; it was too damn bad about that nightmarishly terrible script.

He thumbed in a quick reply: Sorry, still busy w/ roommate thing. Perhaps not strictly true, but hey, maybe when he got home there’d be some Xbox going. At the very least, Austin was good for an all-nighter playing first person shooters (and at least open to the possibility of some survival horror) when he wasn’t out with his jock buddies.

Bernice’s reply was quick in coming: Boo, you whore. 😉

Yeah, she definitely knew Rob was gay.

# # #

He arrived back at the old house a little under an hour later. The rain had started up again, so he ran the rest of the way home and up the front path with his arms over his head, wishing he hadn’t foregone his umbrella. He stood under the leaking porch overhang—God, why was rain dripping from a structure so much colder and grosser than the same rain coming from the sky?—and fumbled with shivering hands through his pockets for his keys. The fucking lock stuck, of course, but at last he got the thing to click and suddenly he was falling through the front door in a pile of wet, teeth-chattering Asian kid.

The house was quiet. Dead silent, actually, the lights low.

Rob poked his head into the living room. The place was . . . Holy shit, immaculate. The throw pillows Christian had insisted on buying were actually on the couch. The coffee table was swept free of Doritos residue and takeout containers. No beer bottles scattered around Max’s usual spot.

Absurd as it was, Rob felt the weird urge to creep through the house. He kicked out of his sneakers, picked them up, and snuck back to the kitchen, which was the only room with a light on. Their Formica kitchen table was draped with a cloth that Rob hadn’t even known they had, and topped with a couple of emergency storm candles stuck into wine bottles and two of their only matching plates.

Noah stood at one of the counters, and the rhythmic sound of his quick, precise knifework filled Rob’s ears. He felt his body weirdly tighten, not sure why he was responding this way. Well, he knew why: he liked Noah, liked liked him to be precise, but even then, watching him cook was an odd thing to fixate on. But then, Rob was an artist, a future sculptor if the universe looked kindly on him. Maybe he just admired seeing that same focus and artistry reflected in another man, even if it was for food instead of clay or stone or paint. Or maybe he just liked the fact that Noah was clearly good with his hands.

The apron cinched tight around his waist and the soft well-worn jeans hugging his ass probably helped too.

Rob cleared his throat, and Noah startled. Turned. He was wearing a button-down shirt underneath his apron.

“Oh, Rob! Hey, buddy,” Noah said, still somehow knocked off balance, then shook his head and turned back to his chopping. Onions. A wave of sweet pain hit Rob’s eyes the minute he saw them, like some kind of vegetable—or were onions herbs?—placebo effect.

“Hey yourself. Where is everybody?” Rob forced himself to enter the kitchen, fighting that urge to stay back, stay away, avoid imposing himself. Old habits died hard, sure, but Rob had really meant his promise to himself that he wouldn’t act that way around his roommates, and really, wasn’t six months living with them enough time to get over it? Even so, Rob had horrible visions of himself as the weird kid who never left his room or spoke to anybody, but who paid his rent in full, on time, so nobody could come up with a good enough reason to make him move out.

“Out. I kicked them all out. Austin’s crashing at some meathead’s, probably drunk off his ass by now, and Max and Christian are at Christian’s auntie’s until no earlier than 2 a.m.”

The way Noah phrased that . . . To Rob, it sounded like Noah had been the one to set that timeline. Reverse-curfew?

“Uh, any particular reason?” Rob asked.

“I’m having a girl over. The hostess from my restaurant, actually. Which I know is a totally stupid idea, but I just can’t help myself. Her name’s Jenny Chan, her parents are from Hong Kong.”

A stab of jealousy hit Rob right in the gut. “Aha. Oh. Um. Do you want me to clear out too?” He could always call Bernice, he supposed. Get changed and pack a bag and show up at Celebrities after all. She’d be pleased.

“Nah, it’s cool. I can trust you to keep quiet and out of the way.” No question in it, no implied Can’t I? If there was one thing Rob was very good at, it was keeping to himself.

“Definitely. When’s she coming over? What are you making her?”

“Winter squash risotto. Can you believe she’s never had risotto before?”

If Austin had been there, he’d have made some borderline racist but toothless comment about Asians and rice, but thank God he wasn’t.

“Oh, and she’s coming over, um . . .” Noah checked his white plastic watch. “Shit, she’s supposed to be here—”

The doorbell rang, making its sickly busted up noise that was more like weee-aung than ding-dong.

“Now?” Rob finished helpfully.

“Shit!” Noah wiped his hands off on the towel he had draped over one shoulder. He nearly fled the room, but then stopped and spun, giving Rob a breathless look. “Do I look okay?”

His hair was messy and sticking up in places, damp with steam from the pan of sautéing squash, his apron spackled with God-knew-what from God-knew-when and God-knew-how-many-washes-ago. And his face was a little flushed.

Yeah. Hot as hell.

“You’re good, man. Go.”

Noah grinned at him. The doorbell wailed again.

“Go,” Rob insisted, half laughing. God, Noah was nervous, and there was that jealousy again.

“Oh and, um, Rob?”

“Yes?” God, why was Rob’s heart pounding like this?

“You may want to put your headphones on tonight. Just, uh, in case.”

Rob wrinkled his nose. He wasn’t one of those Ew, girl parts kind of guys (or gays, he supposed); he just didn’t want to know about Noah’s sex life unless that sex life involved him. “Gotcha. Have fun. Be respectful.”

Be respectful? Jesus, Rob.

They both walked to the front hall together, Rob taking a turn for the stairwell that took up most of the hall, and Noah heading for the front door. Rob was still on the stairs when Noah finally let Jenny in.

She was beautiful and petite, holding a Burberry-plaid rip-off umbrella, and when she closed it, Rob saw the glitter of a Swarovski hairclip in the shape of a big, girly bow tucked just behind her left ear, sweeping her bangs back. “Hi, Noah. Glad you decided not to leave me on the porch all night,” she teased, eyes flicking to Rob and then quickly determining he was of no consequence to her. She beamed at Noah like it was their wedding day, and Rob just knew that Noah was beaming right back.

Jenny Chan, five-foot-something and probably a hundred pounds sopping wet, wearing pink patterned tights underneath her trench coat. Absolutely gorgeous, and, unlike Rob, if she was shy then the trait would be as intoxicating as a dab of expensive perfume.

Rob felt that pang of jealousy again. That could be me. Not only when it came to dating Noah, but—

No, it couldn’t, and we’re not going there. Not tonight, not ever.

There was no point in waving good-bye. He was under no social expectation to say, “Nice to meet you,” since Noah hadn’t introduced them. So he just turned away and carried his wet shoes up the stairs.

# # #

Big, noise-cancelling headphones settled over his ears, Rob booted up his Kingdom of Elves account and selected his level-83 dark elf in her comically un-protective string bikini armor.

His guild-mates were quick to greet him, their scratchy masculine voices sounding in his ears.

“Hey, sweetie!”

“Evening, cutie!”

He hit the microphone button on his mouse, purring back, “Hi boys, how are you?” Okay, so he did a (surprisingly passable) girl voice over Teamspeak to match his sex-kitten avatar.

So sue him! If he had to choose between the shit he got for being a girl versus the shit he got for being a gay guy, he’d pick the girl anytime. At least the quaint chivalry of dudes hoping for eventual webcam shots or cybersex had its perks. Dubious ones, okay, but perks nonetheless. And maybe this was just his insecurities talking, but he preferred “Sweet Tits” over “Fag-boy” as far as nicknames went, as well.

He picked up some mindless grinding mission: collecting twelve eyeballs off orcs who were apparently mostly blind, considering only one in fifty he killed seemed to drop an eyeball for him to pick up.

Sadly, teen-appropriate cartoon fantasy violence didn’t do much for getting his frustrations out. His mind kept straying back to Jenny Chan and Noah downstairs, probably nibbling off each other’s forks and trading little giggles and blushes. And Noah would be telling self-deprecating stories about himself to make her laugh, and openly staring at her pretty eyes and pretty smile, which she’d notice but wouldn’t say anything about, unless she was the type of person to say something about it, of course . . .

Rob would probably be the type not to point that kind of thing out; instead, he’d just smile more and blush more and bat his eyelashes more, slowly baiting Noah into making a compliment. Or maybe not. Maybe he’d get a coy, mischievous smile instead, and he’d say, Earth to Noah, did you even hear what I just said? whether he’d just said something or not. And then Noah would blush back and maybe he’d own up to it—Sorry for staring, babe, but you’re just too beautiful to resist—or maybe he’d be a little embarrassed at getting caught, and a little flustered, but Rob would soothe his hurt ego by reaching out for his hand and lowering his eyelids and saying, I didn’t tell you that you had to stop.

“Hey, Bobby,” a male voice called in his ear, knocking him out of his Noah fantasy.

“Hi!” Sex-kitten Rob (also known as Bobby) replied. Funny how she sounded so much less mousey than nerdy boy Rob ever could. “How are you doing, Mike?”

Mike was a college student from down in New York, doing some science or another that had him in class all day. And since he seemed to game all night, Rob wasn’t exactly sure when the guy slept.

The orc Rob was in the middle of slaying suddenly started taking massive DPS, his hit points withering away, and Mike’s muscular Centaur wizard strolled in from one side of Rob’s screen. One more hit from Rob’s enchanted bow and arrow and the orc fell. Rob tapped the microphone button. “Thanks, babe. I’ve been at it all damn night.”

“I bet you have, you bad girl!” Mike chuckled at the double entendre. “Eyeball quest?”

“You know it.”

“How many you have?”

“Like, six?”

“Want some company?”

Rob pulled his legs up under him in his chair and readjusted his headset. “Sure, maybe after we get the last of these, we can get a dungeon group together, run one of your lower-level characters through the Goblin mines?”

“Sounds great. So, hey, uh . . . I’ve been practicing magic crafting and uh . . . I made this new bow and arrow that boosts your accuracy stats. You want it?”

A trade alert popped up on his screen.

“Holy shit, Mike, that thing’s worth two hundred gold. Why don’t you sell it?”

“Oh, uh, I was, uh—I was going to sell it, I mean, but I don’t really need gold, so I was thinking maybe you . . . I mean if you don’t need it, I’ll just sell it . . .”

“Mike, be honest, did you specifically make this for me?”

“Are you going to think I’m a total loser if I say yes?”

“Of course I’m not, you goofball.” Rob hadn’t quite perfected his girl-laugh, so he turned off the mic, as if entirely by accident. Then he accepted the trade.

Dubious perks, indeed.

Physical Violence, Sexual Assault

Wallflower
Heidi Belleau

Rear Entrance Video #2
Warnings: Physical Violence, Sexual Assault

Summary

This gamer geek has a pretty little secret.

Art student and MMORPG addict Robert Ng has always been a loner, but he’s recently made it his goal to make more (IRL) friends. Which is how he winds up working nights at Rear Entrance Video, shilling sketchy porn and blowup dolls as a favor to his roommate. The longer he works there, though, the more he realizes he’ll never be truly happy until he becomes the person he is online: his female persona, Bobby.

Bobby is cuter and funnier than Rob is, and a thousand times more popular with boys. Becoming Bobby IRL presents its own set of challenges, though . . . especially when you’re sitting on the fence between two genders, only one of which has caught the attention of your seriously cute customer/classmate.

Dylan Ford is a six-foot Inuit comic book artist who always says what’s on his mind, and screw anyone who doesn’t like it. As rough as he appears, though, Dylan has a soft spot for Rob. But will out-and-proud Dylan still want Rob if he’s not all man?


Preview

CHAPTER ONE

Rob breathed through the sun salutation, trying his damnedest to exhale out all the tension still clenching the muscles of his back and shoulders. It used to be that the weekly yoga class he took with his big sister could get him through anything: any stressor, any sadness, any frustration, any loneliness . . . but today, not so much.

Give it a chance, he coaxed himself. Inhale. Exhale.

Nope, totally not working. He couldn’t get the thought of tonight off his mind.

His first shift alone at Rear Entrance Video, and he couldn’t have felt less prepared—and more anxious—if he’d tried. Oh, he had plenty of experience after the last two months working shifts with Christian supervising; he knew how to work the rental system and count out the till, knew the layout of the store, knew his Jenna Jameson from his James Deen, could even recite the myriad benefits of silicone as a material for use in sex toys.

What he couldn’t do was picture himself working alone and one-on-one with a stranger—a customer, no less—doing any of those things. Especially not the “sexy” stuff. Which, of course, when you worked at a porn store meant pretty much everything, since even routine activities like filing took on new and terrifying X-rated meanings.

He startled when a hand touched the back of his left thigh—speaking of risqué. “Downward-facing dog,” the class’s willowy blonde instructor said, obviously repeating herself. She planted her other hand on his lower back to guide him down. His palms hit the mat and he let out a violent gust of air. “Ujjayi breath,” she reminded him, and although she talked as softly and as calmly as ever, Rob could hear displeasure there too, no doubt at the fact that he’d brought his distraction and stress into her studio.

“Child’s pose,” she said, louder, as she mercifully drifted away.

Now that one he could do, and gladly. He sank down, curling in on himself, letting his forehead rest on the soft fabric of the mat, his hair falling in a black curtain that shielded him from the outside world.

Child’s pose—that was the perfect name for it, because he wished he could stay this way forever. But of course he couldn’t, and before he knew it they were all putting their hands together and bowing as their instructor murmured, “Namaste.”

In the time it took Rob to pick up his water bottle and take a swig, his sister was already surrounded by a chatty group of lithe men and women all competing for her attention. Rob sighed, shook his head, and forced his sore thighs into a squat so he could roll up his mat.

Bernice had been the one to suggest the yoga classes, back when she’d been in her last year of high school and Rob had just been starting. Her rationale back then had been that it was an activity they could do together, where the socially awkward caterpillar and the social butterfly could find common ground. But Rob had always suspected a hidden motive of it being an activity that required Rob to get out of the house and be around people, even if all they were doing was waggling their butts in the air. Whatever her motivations, Rob had agreed to go along just to make her happy, and then later agreed to keep going because getting out apparently made him happy, too, and he wanted more of that. He’d committed to it. To her. To himself.

Give her way a chance. Mat under one arm and water bottle hooked around one finger, he squared his shoulders and walked over.

The circle of admirers didn’t shift, so Rob cleared his throat. Shook his bangs out of his eyes and cleared his throat again.

He could stand around all day doing this before any of Bernice’s beautiful crowd noticed him, but luckily a gorgeous muscular blond guy happened to shift a little on his bare feet, which made just enough of an opening for Bernice’s eyes to land on Rob from over the blond’s shoulder.

“Robby!” she said, and that was all it took for her friends to open up a space for him. He stepped into the circle with a shrug and a little half-smile. “You guys know my baby brother? How’s it going, Robby? I saw Alyssa had to correct your poses. You weren’t distracted staring at somebody’s butt, were you?” She winked and flashed him a big, bright, pinup girl smile to show she was just teasing. At that, everyone laughed, and Rob wheezed out a little “Ha-ha,” trying to hide his flush at the realization that he’d been behind a man in class today.

All this talk of butts and asses and Rear Entrances, was this seriously his life? Maybe he should stick to Kingdom of Elves for his socialization; at least there it was everybody else making all the crude commentary. At least there he had a screen to hide his blush behind.

If he were a more bitter person, he’d resent his sister for hogging all the beauty and charisma genes in the family and leaving him with nothing, but the truth was, he kind of suspected that she’d been born, heard her dowdy grandma name, and spent her whole life busting her butt to break that mould. So it wasn’t a matter of not enough charm to go around, just the cold reality of which of them wanted it bad enough to work for it. And Bernice had worked. Hard, all her life. Sure, when they’d been teenagers it hadn’t seemed like work when she’d pored over fashion magazines for the latest trends or spent an hour and a half in the bathroom every morning doing her hair and makeup, and it definitely hadn’t seemed like work when she’d gone out with someone or other every night. Now that he was older, though, he realized that what he’d seen as play and fucking around had all been a concerted effort to become a person people liked and wanted to be around.

Rob, on the other hand, had spent more than a few years convincing himself of the exact opposite: that he didn’t want or need anybody, no approval, no friends, nothing. That he was socially awkward and a loser, sure, but that it was better that way. Teenage Rob hadn’t had friends because he didn’t need friends. He was better off alone.

That had been before Emily Carr University, before Noah Hadley and his other roommates, definitely before Rear Entrance Video, and Rob liked to believe he was a changed man, at least as far as acknowledging his need for human companionship went, but he still had some catching-up to do.

Bernice shifted from one foot to the other. “So anyway, we were thinking of going for some smoothies. You in?” She and her friends all stared at Rob. Oh God, she was inviting him out. Again. Every week like clockwork she asked him to come out with her and her friends, and every week he panicked and refused, right back to being an insecure teenager again.

Okay, so maybe he had a lot of catching-up to do before he was a normal social human being like her.

They were all staring at him, Bernice hopeful, the others neutral at best, the gorgeous blond guy looking specifically unimpressed. Never mind Rob, this asshole obviously hadn’t gotten the memo yet that high school was over. Rob turned from him, focusing on Bernice instead: her open expression, her fresh skin, her bangs spiking up where her Lululemon headband had slipped.

“Thanks for the invite, but I . . .” Bernice’s face fell, and it almost broke Rob’s heart, knowing he was disappointing her, knowing that he was kind of disappointing himself, too. Maybe, given time, he could prove the blond wrong. Probably not, but stranger things had happened. Stranger things . . . like Rear Entrance Video. “I can’t. I promised to do one of my roommates a favor.”

That seemed to cheer her up a little: helping a roommate probably sounded a lot more normal and social to her than his usual excuses of “I’ve got a raid,” or just straight up “Not my scene.”

The circle closed around her again, unconsciously-or-maybe-not shoving Rob out as they suggested the best nearby smoothie places, argued over vegan options and independent spots versus franchises, debated the merits of organic fruit. Vancouver talk. Rob let himself fall back in a subtle retreat, raising a hand in good-bye.

“See you next week?” Bernice asked, tilting her head at him with an expression that was half hope and half sadness. She wanted better for Rob. She always had. It was just too bad Rob wasn’t quite ready to take that final step.

“Yeah, you know it,” Rob said, forcing some cheerful enthusiasm into his voice, and Bernice smiled at him one last time before she turned back to her friends.

# # #

A short trip back to the house for a shower and a change of clothes, and Rob was on his way, hopping the bus down to Davie Street before he could change his mind.

Not that he would change his mind, of course. His roommates were counting on him. Not just Christian, who was the reason they were all working at Rear Entrance Video in the first place, but the others too: Max and Noah and Austin, who had all taken time out of their hectic lives to help Christian manage his aunt’s store and depended on Rob to do his fair share, too. His . . . well, maybe it was presumptuous to call them “friends.” Rob didn’t have friends—not the way Bernice always had—but roommates on good terms, roommates he played video games and had midnight dinners with. Yeah, that. Whatever they were, Rob didn’t want to let them down. He wanted them to like him, to be happy with him, to think he was a person who could be trusted, a person worth inviting along and including. And if a few shifts of awkwardness at a porn store was the price of their approval, then so be it.

Yeah. Rob could do this. Hell, maybe he’d like it. Meet new people. Learn new things.

He rang for his stop and, when the bus pulled to the curb, hopped out the door. Quickly glanced away from an attractive middle-aged bear who flashed him a smile as they passed each other on the sidewalk.

God, it was just a smile, not a pickup line. He needed to get himself together.

He pushed through the front door of the shop and waved to Christian, who was sitting behind the counter, and Max, who was perched on it like some kind of skater-boy lounge singer.

“Hey Rob,” Christian greeted, and it heartened Rob to see that the gaunt, tormented look he’d been wearing the last couple months was finally starting to fade. He still had bags under his eyes, but that didn’t necessarily mean a bad thing. After all, if Rob had Max for a boyfriend, he’d probably be having his fair share of late nights, too.

“How’s it going, Nugget?” Max said. “Ready for your trial by fire?”

“Max, don’t be a dick,” Christian snapped, then turned a slightly feral grin on Rob. “Don’t worry, Rob, I got all the creepers out of the way this afternoon. Should be smooth sailing tonight.”

“Oh, you can schedule them now?” Rob’s tone was sarcastic as he slipped behind the counter and kicked his bag underneath it. He took his seat next to Christian, who immediately popped the till drawer for changeover.

Max threw a look over his shoulder at them both. “Yeah, didn’t you hear? Noon to one, Christian does creeper hour: creepy customers get all rentals half off. Gets ’em out of the way.”

“He’s joking, right?” Rob asked, playing along.

“Hmm.” Christian didn’t look up from the bills he was passing from hand to hand as he counted in his head. “I’d say so, but who knows what he gets up to when I’m not here. Maybe he just wants to hog all the creepers to himself.”

“You got me. Although truth be told, it’s all a ploy to get at the only creeper that matters: Sweatpants-and-boner Guy.” Max batted his eyelashes, putting his chin in his hands like a smitten teenage girl.

“He’s all yours.” Rob shuddered. Although ninety percent of their clientele were completely normal—drunk college students, groups of women looking for satin blindfolds and rabbit pearls, friendly dudes, shy and awkward types like Rob himself—there was that last ten percent, the ones with boundary issues, the ones without personal hygiene . . .

Sweatpants-and-boner Guy was an obese, middle-aged man—nothing wrong with that part, of course—who came in wearing baggy sweatpants that clung to his boner as he wandered the aisles licking and smacking his lips. He was completely harmless, but everybody who worked the counter wished he’d invest in some jeans or something, anything to even somewhat hide the chubby he always sported.

The cash register slammed shut. “Well, that’s it for me, I’m outta here,” Christian said. “Ready to go, babe? Rob, you’re gonna be okay here on your own?”

“Yeah,” Rob said, pushing all of his insecurities down into the bottom of his gut. Just because he was being a ridiculous baby about all this didn’t mean he had to show it. “Go on, get out of here. I’ll call you if anything goes wrong.”

Christian dropped a hand onto Rob’s shoulder in that overearnest teacher way he sometimes did. “Nothing’s going to go wrong, Rob. You’ll be just fine.”

Jeez, had he been that obvious?

He shrugged Christian’s hand off, not quite confident enough in his lying ability to meet Christian’s eyes. “Sure, sure, sure. Now go.”

Christian cast him one more dopey, concerned look, then got up, took Max’s hand, and let Max lead him out the door. When the bell jingled their exit, Rob sighed with relief, slumping in his chair. Alone. Finally. Was it wrong to wish he’d be alone all night?

Considering they were trying to get the store up and running for Christian’s cancer patient aunt, who owned the place and had managed it before she got sick, yeah, it really was.

And in some cosmic and/or divine punishment for his selfishness, the doorbell jingled again—from the back of the store, this time, the titular Rear Entrance—and in walked the only customer higher (or was that lower?) on the hierarchy of creepers than Sweatpants-and-boner Guy: Charlie VIP. No last name on file, just “VIP,” probably because if you looked into his customer history he had a perfect rental record and had spent the price of a pretty damn decent new car here over the last year or so. Guess that bought a little discretion when it came to last names and phone numbers.

It wasn’t that he was rude or abusive, exactly, more just . . . incredibly uncomfortable to be around. “Evenin’,” he greeted on his way to the Fetish section of the store.

“Hello,” Rob mumbled to the counter, ducking his eyes behind his hair. He’s harmless, he reminded himself. He probably looks creepier than he actually is. He thought of himself, the way people treated him based solely on outward appearances. How they judged him. Not that he wasn’t a completely average Chinese Canadian teenage boy, from the cheap Hong Kong fashion right up to the shaggy K-pop haircut. But the way he spoke, the way he carried himself . . . people picked up on that, he had to assume, picked up on it and read doormat and nerd and loser and that’s what he was to them, whether he wanted to be that person or not. And eventually, what they thought of him had become the truth, a self-fulfilling prophecy that he couldn’t seem to escape.

Maybe it was the same for Charlie VIP.

Or maybe he really was just a creepy pervert, as advertised.

Rob risked a glance at Charlie VIP and quickly ducked behind the computer monitor again before the guy caught him looking. Fuzzy slippers, like Grampa Simpson. A white cabled cardigan, open to the third button like Mr. Rogers, but with nothing underneath except for chest hair and the occasional glimpse of old-dude nipple. Wild, thinning hair. Scabby cold sores around the corner of his mouth. The guy looked like a textbook addict, except in this case his drug of choice was porno rather than heroin or meth.

In other words, he looks like a guy who doesn’t need your judgment.

As resolved as Rob was, though, he still couldn’t meet the guy’s eye when he came up to the counter with a stack of German medical fetish and fisting movies. The women in this German stuff the distributor sent them always looked so haggard and skinny and pale, but maybe that was just because Rob had become acclimatized to the California version of sexuality, women with tans and fake tits and perfect makeup and nails.

“Find everything you were looking for?” he forced himself to ask.

Charlie drummed his fingers on the countertop like he was antsy for his fix. “You need more midget stuff.” He spoke with a growl, but there was no anger in his face. Maybe he just had a worn voice, although he didn’t smell of cigarette smoke. Maybe he’d quit. Traded one addiction for another less likely to kill him. “I seen this one eight times.”

Nine times, actually. Rob couldn’t think of anything more awkward and uncomfortable than making small talk with this guy about midget porn, so he didn’t say anything at all, just popped the empty cases onto the OUT shelf and went rooting through the filing cabinet for Charlie’s discs.

“Thanks, kid. You tell your manager about them midgets.”

Rob saluted him, which seemed to work just as well as speaking. Good thing too, because he wasn’t sure he could speak. Or at least, not without squeaking like a pubescent boy.

Another sigh of relief at the sound of the doorbell, but when Rob looked up, Charlie was still loitering around looking at the blow-up dolls. Coming through the door now was a big Native guy, probably Max and Christian’s age, wearing one of those black and red ERASE RACISM NAZI PUNKS FUCK OFF sweatshirts that Rob was pretty sure were for some metal band, although he did appreciate the sentiment, wherever it came from.

ERASE RACISM guy had the hood pulled up over his head, though, and no amount of chiding himself about not judging people by appearances could keep Rob from reacquainting himself with the location of the panic button underneath the counter.

Charlie seemed to feel the same way, because he clutched his plain black plastic bag to his chest and scurried out without a word.

A few minutes later, ERASE RACISM guy sauntered up to the counter with a big grin, put down a DVD case, and pulled the hood from his head.

Hood down, he transformed into a teddy bear with a round face and twinkling black eyes. His wet bangs flopped forward until he peevishly raked them back again.

Oh, it had been raining outside. Thus the hood. Duh.

Rob spared a passing thought for Charlie in his slippers. He hoped the guy had a car somewhere nearby.

“Didja get a load of that guy?” ERASE RACISM said, and handed over his membership card. Dylan Ford, age twenty-three.

“Um . . . Not really . . .” Rob mumbled, and turned for the filing cabinets before Dylan could see the flush on his face.

He hoped the conversation would end there, but it didn’t. “Not like I can talk, right?” Dylan laughed. “Guy my age coming to a porno store for anything but a prank, weird, right?”

“I don’t know. Maybe. I guess.”

“Is it bad that I feel the need to justify myself to you? Do you get that a lot? Dudes just coming in here giving you all these excuses for why they gotta rent porn? I bet you’ve heard some pretty good ones. Even though you probably don’t care, right?” Got it in one, buddy, not that it’s going to stop you, I’m guessing. And sure enough, Dylan continued, “Well, anyway, mine is that my parents get a copy of my credit card statements. This way I can pay cash.” He gestured to the crinkled five dollar bill he’d put on the counter next to his DVD case. A gay DVD. Rob supposed that was a good reason to keep it from your parents . . . beyond just the embarrassment of having to explain the eighty-dollar charge from STR8 BOYS GONE GAY, INC. on your statement. “Not that I’m some closet case or something!” Dylan added with a scandalized expression, as if waiting to come out was some unheard-of thing, too sad and old-fashioned to comprehend. “Mom and Dad know I’m a homo, but doesn’t mean they need to know the details of what I jack off to, right?”

“Um, right,” Rob said. Although apparently it’s fine if know what you jack off to.

Well, duh, because it’s your job, you judgmental jerk. Feeling sorry, now, Rob managed a genuine smile for the guy. Just because Dylan’s overfamiliarity made Rob feel embarrassed as hell didn’t mean he had the right to be a douche about it.

Dylan smiled back, encouraged, and put both elbows on the counter as he watched Rob process the rental. “And my sister does porn in California so I’d feel bad pirating it.”

God, was that supposed to be small talk? Did this guy not have a filter? All of Rob’s goodwill washed away in a tidal wave of fresh awkwardness. He hummed a noncommittal “Mm-hmm,” in response, hoping it would satisfy.

“Would feel like stealing the food off of her table, you know? Not that I’d watch porn with her in it.” Dylan laughed again, oblivious, totally unashamed. “God! Not that you’d think I would. Shit.”

“I’d hope not,” Rob said. Please let the roof fall in on our heads. He rang Dylan through and handed him his change. “Due back next week. Thanks for coming in.”

Now please go away.

Thankfully, after pulling his hood back over his head and stuffing the DVD into his front pouch pocket, Dylan did, calling out, “See ya next week!” as he went.

Maybe Rob should trade this shift for one of Max’s.

Although God knew how that was supposed to help.

CHAPTER TWO

His last night of freedom before the start of winter semester, and Rob wasn’t going to waste a single second of it. At eleven-thirty, he locked the front door to Rear Entrance Video, gave the store one last once-over, and stomped up the sidewalk toward the bus stop. At least the rain had stopped.

After giving the wet bench a swipe with his sleeve, he plopped down to wait for his bus and pulled out his cell, which had bleeped with a text.

His sister. Going out for drinks with some girlfriends, u wanna come?

Bernice’s club of choice was Celebrities, one of Vancouver’s venerable old gay bars. Which, naturally, was a scant five or six blocks up from Rear Entrance Video—not that Bernice knew Rob was in the neighbourhood.

Rob hadn’t come out to his family, but he had a feeling Bernice knew anyway and was too kind to ask. She was always inviting him out with her girlfriends: shopping, drinks, lunch at the local salad bar, all activities he had to assume were meant to be nonthreatening to his inner gay. Not to mention the yoga.

Or maybe she just knew how badly intimidated he was by other men his age and was hoping girls would be easier. It wasn’t like Rob was at all skilled at reading people, even his own sister.

Either way, in the end it didn’t really matter. He wasn’t sassy or bitchy or well dressed, and yeah, maybe he was a little “obvious,” but not in that ideal swishy, theatrical way women seemed to love so much. He was just awkward and mousey and too much of a nerd. Bernice’s friends would want to hear his opinions on Ryan Reynolds’s godlike abs, and he’d wind up complaining to them about how disappointed he’d been in Reynolds’s turn as Deadpool—a wasted opportunity if there ever was one, because Reynolds had been perfect for the part; it was too damn bad about that nightmarishly terrible script.

He thumbed in a quick reply: Sorry, still busy w/ roommate thing. Perhaps not strictly true, but hey, maybe when he got home there’d be some Xbox going. At the very least, Austin was good for an all-nighter playing first person shooters (and at least open to the possibility of some survival horror) when he wasn’t out with his jock buddies.

Bernice’s reply was quick in coming: Boo, you whore. 😉

Yeah, she definitely knew Rob was gay.

# # #

He arrived back at the old house a little under an hour later. The rain had started up again, so he ran the rest of the way home and up the front path with his arms over his head, wishing he hadn’t foregone his umbrella. He stood under the leaking porch overhang—God, why was rain dripping from a structure so much colder and grosser than the same rain coming from the sky?—and fumbled with shivering hands through his pockets for his keys. The fucking lock stuck, of course, but at last he got the thing to click and suddenly he was falling through the front door in a pile of wet, teeth-chattering Asian kid.

The house was quiet. Dead silent, actually, the lights low.

Rob poked his head into the living room. The place was . . . Holy shit, immaculate. The throw pillows Christian had insisted on buying were actually on the couch. The coffee table was swept free of Doritos residue and takeout containers. No beer bottles scattered around Max’s usual spot.

Absurd as it was, Rob felt the weird urge to creep through the house. He kicked out of his sneakers, picked them up, and snuck back to the kitchen, which was the only room with a light on. Their Formica kitchen table was draped with a cloth that Rob hadn’t even known they had, and topped with a couple of emergency storm candles stuck into wine bottles and two of their only matching plates.

Noah stood at one of the counters, and the rhythmic sound of his quick, precise knifework filled Rob’s ears. He felt his body weirdly tighten, not sure why he was responding this way. Well, he knew why: he liked Noah, liked liked him to be precise, but even then, watching him cook was an odd thing to fixate on. But then, Rob was an artist, a future sculptor if the universe looked kindly on him. Maybe he just admired seeing that same focus and artistry reflected in another man, even if it was for food instead of clay or stone or paint. Or maybe he just liked the fact that Noah was clearly good with his hands.

The apron cinched tight around his waist and the soft well-worn jeans hugging his ass probably helped too.

Rob cleared his throat, and Noah startled. Turned. He was wearing a button-down shirt underneath his apron.

“Oh, Rob! Hey, buddy,” Noah said, still somehow knocked off balance, then shook his head and turned back to his chopping. Onions. A wave of sweet pain hit Rob’s eyes the minute he saw them, like some kind of vegetable—or were onions herbs?—placebo effect.

“Hey yourself. Where is everybody?” Rob forced himself to enter the kitchen, fighting that urge to stay back, stay away, avoid imposing himself. Old habits died hard, sure, but Rob had really meant his promise to himself that he wouldn’t act that way around his roommates, and really, wasn’t six months living with them enough time to get over it? Even so, Rob had horrible visions of himself as the weird kid who never left his room or spoke to anybody, but who paid his rent in full, on time, so nobody could come up with a good enough reason to make him move out.

“Out. I kicked them all out. Austin’s crashing at some meathead’s, probably drunk off his ass by now, and Max and Christian are at Christian’s auntie’s until no earlier than 2 a.m.”

The way Noah phrased that . . . To Rob, it sounded like Noah had been the one to set that timeline. Reverse-curfew?

“Uh, any particular reason?” Rob asked.

“I’m having a girl over. The hostess from my restaurant, actually. Which I know is a totally stupid idea, but I just can’t help myself. Her name’s Jenny Chan, her parents are from Hong Kong.”

A stab of jealousy hit Rob right in the gut. “Aha. Oh. Um. Do you want me to clear out too?” He could always call Bernice, he supposed. Get changed and pack a bag and show up at Celebrities after all. She’d be pleased.

“Nah, it’s cool. I can trust you to keep quiet and out of the way.” No question in it, no implied Can’t I? If there was one thing Rob was very good at, it was keeping to himself.

“Definitely. When’s she coming over? What are you making her?”

“Winter squash risotto. Can you believe she’s never had risotto before?”

If Austin had been there, he’d have made some borderline racist but toothless comment about Asians and rice, but thank God he wasn’t.

“Oh, and she’s coming over, um . . .” Noah checked his white plastic watch. “Shit, she’s supposed to be here—”

The doorbell rang, making its sickly busted up noise that was more like weee-aung than ding-dong.

“Now?” Rob finished helpfully.

“Shit!” Noah wiped his hands off on the towel he had draped over one shoulder. He nearly fled the room, but then stopped and spun, giving Rob a breathless look. “Do I look okay?”

His hair was messy and sticking up in places, damp with steam from the pan of sautéing squash, his apron spackled with God-knew-what from God-knew-when and God-knew-how-many-washes-ago. And his face was a little flushed.

Yeah. Hot as hell.

“You’re good, man. Go.”

Noah grinned at him. The doorbell wailed again.

“Go,” Rob insisted, half laughing. God, Noah was nervous, and there was that jealousy again.

“Oh and, um, Rob?”

“Yes?” God, why was Rob’s heart pounding like this?

“You may want to put your headphones on tonight. Just, uh, in case.”

Rob wrinkled his nose. He wasn’t one of those Ew, girl parts kind of guys (or gays, he supposed); he just didn’t want to know about Noah’s sex life unless that sex life involved him. “Gotcha. Have fun. Be respectful.”

Be respectful? Jesus, Rob.

They both walked to the front hall together, Rob taking a turn for the stairwell that took up most of the hall, and Noah heading for the front door. Rob was still on the stairs when Noah finally let Jenny in.

She was beautiful and petite, holding a Burberry-plaid rip-off umbrella, and when she closed it, Rob saw the glitter of a Swarovski hairclip in the shape of a big, girly bow tucked just behind her left ear, sweeping her bangs back. “Hi, Noah. Glad you decided not to leave me on the porch all night,” she teased, eyes flicking to Rob and then quickly determining he was of no consequence to her. She beamed at Noah like it was their wedding day, and Rob just knew that Noah was beaming right back.

Jenny Chan, five-foot-something and probably a hundred pounds sopping wet, wearing pink patterned tights underneath her trench coat. Absolutely gorgeous, and, unlike Rob, if she was shy then the trait would be as intoxicating as a dab of expensive perfume.

Rob felt that pang of jealousy again. That could be me. Not only when it came to dating Noah, but—

No, it couldn’t, and we’re not going there. Not tonight, not ever.

There was no point in waving good-bye. He was under no social expectation to say, “Nice to meet you,” since Noah hadn’t introduced them. So he just turned away and carried his wet shoes up the stairs.

# # #

Big, noise-cancelling headphones settled over his ears, Rob booted up his Kingdom of Elves account and selected his level-83 dark elf in her comically un-protective string bikini armor.

His guild-mates were quick to greet him, their scratchy masculine voices sounding in his ears.

“Hey, sweetie!”

“Evening, cutie!”

He hit the microphone button on his mouse, purring back, “Hi boys, how are you?” Okay, so he did a (surprisingly passable) girl voice over Teamspeak to match his sex-kitten avatar.

So sue him! If he had to choose between the shit he got for being a girl versus the shit he got for being a gay guy, he’d pick the girl anytime. At least the quaint chivalry of dudes hoping for eventual webcam shots or cybersex had its perks. Dubious ones, okay, but perks nonetheless. And maybe this was just his insecurities talking, but he preferred “Sweet Tits” over “Fag-boy” as far as nicknames went, as well.

He picked up some mindless grinding mission: collecting twelve eyeballs off orcs who were apparently mostly blind, considering only one in fifty he killed seemed to drop an eyeball for him to pick up.

Sadly, teen-appropriate cartoon fantasy violence didn’t do much for getting his frustrations out. His mind kept straying back to Jenny Chan and Noah downstairs, probably nibbling off each other’s forks and trading little giggles and blushes. And Noah would be telling self-deprecating stories about himself to make her laugh, and openly staring at her pretty eyes and pretty smile, which she’d notice but wouldn’t say anything about, unless she was the type of person to say something about it, of course . . .

Rob would probably be the type not to point that kind of thing out; instead, he’d just smile more and blush more and bat his eyelashes more, slowly baiting Noah into making a compliment. Or maybe not. Maybe he’d get a coy, mischievous smile instead, and he’d say, Earth to Noah, did you even hear what I just said? whether he’d just said something or not. And then Noah would blush back and maybe he’d own up to it—Sorry for staring, babe, but you’re just too beautiful to resist—or maybe he’d be a little embarrassed at getting caught, and a little flustered, but Rob would soothe his hurt ego by reaching out for his hand and lowering his eyelids and saying, I didn’t tell you that you had to stop.

“Hey, Bobby,” a male voice called in his ear, knocking him out of his Noah fantasy.

“Hi!” Sex-kitten Rob (also known as Bobby) replied. Funny how she sounded so much less mousey than nerdy boy Rob ever could. “How are you doing, Mike?”

Mike was a college student from down in New York, doing some science or another that had him in class all day. And since he seemed to game all night, Rob wasn’t exactly sure when the guy slept.

The orc Rob was in the middle of slaying suddenly started taking massive DPS, his hit points withering away, and Mike’s muscular Centaur wizard strolled in from one side of Rob’s screen. One more hit from Rob’s enchanted bow and arrow and the orc fell. Rob tapped the microphone button. “Thanks, babe. I’ve been at it all damn night.”

“I bet you have, you bad girl!” Mike chuckled at the double entendre. “Eyeball quest?”

“You know it.”

“How many you have?”

“Like, six?”

“Want some company?”

Rob pulled his legs up under him in his chair and readjusted his headset. “Sure, maybe after we get the last of these, we can get a dungeon group together, run one of your lower-level characters through the Goblin mines?”

“Sounds great. So, hey, uh . . . I’ve been practicing magic crafting and uh . . . I made this new bow and arrow that boosts your accuracy stats. You want it?”

A trade alert popped up on his screen.

“Holy shit, Mike, that thing’s worth two hundred gold. Why don’t you sell it?”

“Oh, uh, I was, uh—I was going to sell it, I mean, but I don’t really need gold, so I was thinking maybe you . . . I mean if you don’t need it, I’ll just sell it . . .”

“Mike, be honest, did you specifically make this for me?”

“Are you going to think I’m a total loser if I say yes?”

“Of course I’m not, you goofball.” Rob hadn’t quite perfected his girl-laugh, so he turned off the mic, as if entirely by accident. Then he accepted the trade.

Dubious perks, indeed.


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