Word spread quickly. In a shockingly short time, the whole gang had assembled, forming an impromptu welcoming party outside the dorm. Roy was the last to arrive, racing across the courtyard at a pace I hadn’t known his bulk capable of attaining. He slammed into me full-force, and I was pretty certain he’d cracked a few ribs and possibly knocked some teeth loose. He swept me off my feet and swung me around in a grip that finished off the few ribs I had left intact. He dropped me to my feet with a toothy grin and ruffled my hair affectionately.
“Welcome home, Jake,” he said merrily.
“Thanks, Roy. After that greeting, I may need to go to the hospital for some x-rays.”
Roy gave me a concerned look. “Why? Did I squeeze you too hard?”
I laughed and hugged him. It was good to be back.
“How ‘bout if we get all my crap out of Toshi’s car so he can spirit it away to its hiding place,” I suggested, and everyone quickly fell into unloading his car and carting my belongings upstairs to my room. I ran ahead to open the door, which is where my big welcome back celebration ended.
When I opened the door, Foster glared at me in indignant disbelief. “I thought you left,” he said accusingly.
“I did. Now I’m back.”
“Yeah, I missed you too.”
I looked around and saw he’d already spread his junk all over my half of the room. I frowned. “You need to move your stuff.”
“You move it,” he growled just as Roy came up behind carrying a large box.
“No, you move it,” Roy rumbled threateningly.
Foster’s head snapped up. His expression darkened, but he got up off his bed and resentfully cleared his stuff from my side. Apparently, he remembered his last run-in with Roy—or more specifically, Roy’s fist. Roy sat his load down on my bed and left to get another load. I followed after him, but we met a caravan of friends carrying the rest of my stuff coming up as we started down. We piled everything on my side of the room, and I eyed it with dread as my stomach grumbled.
“I’ll unpack it all later,” I announced. “I’m too hungry right now.”
“Let’s all head down to the Coop,” Erin suggested.
“We can make it a welcome home party,” Miranda added brightly.
“I’m always up for a party,” Alex said with a contented smile.
As we walked across campus to the Coop everyone chattered excitedly. Their delight in having me back was palpable, wrapping around me like a hug. I felt a warm glow inside my chest that, for a moment, I thought might overflow into tears. A hand slipped into mine and I looked over to find Kody watching me with a huge smile.
He leaned over and kissed me on the cheek. “I love you.”
“I love you too. Thank you for coming after me.”
“My pleasure,” he said with a wink.
I squeezed his hand then released it. “Hang on a sec. There’s someone else I need to thank.” I hurried to catch up with Toshi. “Hey.”
Toshi looked over and gave me a shy grin. “It’s good to have you back.”
“It’s good to be back. I guess I have you to thank for that.”
He made a face. “I think Kody gets some of the credit.”
I laughed. “Yeah, but he couldn’t have done it without your car. Thanks for letting him and Nick use it.”
“You’re welcome. I really am glad you came back. You guys make a great couple.”
“Thanks.” I felt a warm glow at his words.
“Now, if only I could find somebody. You’ve got Kody, Nick has Steve, Erin has Carlos, and even Roy has been talking to that girl Jen.” He threw an arm across his eyes dramatically. “I’m all alone in the world.”
Miranda, who had been walking in front of us, stopped and turned around. “Hey, I’m single too. Maybe we should date, Toshi.” Everyone else stopped to catch Toshi’s response.
Toshi made a show of looking her up and down. “Sorry, babe, but you’re just not my type.”
Miranda cocked a hip and raised an eyebrow. “What? You’re not down with the brown?”
“I don’t give a damn about the color of your skin,” he said with a grin, “you’ve just got the wrong equipment.”
“Obviously you’ve never heard of a strap-on,” Miranda said with a suggestive leer. Everyone burst into laughter at Toshi’s startled expression.
Kody sidled up next to me, and his hand found its way into mine once again. We walked into the Coop, still hand-in-hand. Everyone piled in around us as we looked for a couple empty tables we could move together to accommodate our sizeable group. As I scanned the room, my eyes fell on someone I would have just as soon never seen again. Becca sat at a booth facing the doors. The expression on her face was pure hate as she stared at me and Kody. My hand tightened on Kody’s and he quickly followed my gaze.
“Ignore her,” he said softly.
“She almost broke us up.”
“But she didn’t, so forget about her.”
I nodded. He was right. I broke our eye contact just as Carlos said, “There’s a couple tables.” He, Nick, and Roy quickly moved across the room to the corner where the two tables had just opened up.
“I’ll go put an order in for a couple pizzas,” Toshi said and headed for the counter.
I turned to go to the table Roy, Nick and Carlos were preparing and found myself face to face with Becca. She was going to make ignoring her as difficult as possible.
Kody’s hand gripped mine tightly as I moved to step around her. She placed a hand in my chest.
“Don’t touch me,” I said through clenched teeth.
She ran a finger down my chest and I smacked her hand away. Her eyes flashed.
“Your little plan to break us up didn’t work,” Kody said evenly. “So why don’t you just get lost and leave us alone.”
Becca’s eyes never left mine. “It’s just a matter of time,” she said loudly. Several people sitting nearby turned to see what was going on as she continued. “Everyone knows faggots can’t stay together. Besides, he was a whore, and once a whore always a whore.”
My hand itched to smack the smug expression off her face, but I restrained myself with great effort. I tried to think of a suitable comeback, but my brain was completely blank. The hammering of my heart drowned out coherent thoughts.
“You don’t know anything about Jake,” Kody said, coming to my defense. I was amazed at how calm he was.
“I know he’s a dirty little faggot, just like you—and I know faggots burn in hell. I hope you both die of AIDS.”
My hand flew up of its own accord to strike the bitch, but Kody tugged me sharply aside. “She’s not worth it,” he said and started pulling me towards the corner where the guys were watching us with horrified shock. Pretty much the entire place was now watching the drama unfolding before them like a live soap opera.
I couldn’t resist looking back at Becca, and saw her start to follow us, but Erin and Miranda quickly stepped in front of her. I yanked Kody to a stop. This was one showdown I had to see.
“You’ve said and done enough,” Erin said in a dangerously low voice. “Get lost and stay away from them.”
“Or what?” Becca spat. “You think I’m afraid of you? You’re just a pathetic, ugly fag hag who can’t get her own man so she has to hang out with faggots.”
Carlos made a move towards his girlfriend, but then thought better of it. We all knew Erin was more than capable of taking care of herself.
“For your information,” Miranda chimed in, “she has a man, which is more than your skanky ass can say. You’re the pathetic one, chasing after someone who obviously isn’t interested in you and then attacking them for no reason when they find someone else to be happy with.”
“Who asked the token black girl?”
Erin raised her hand to hit Becca, but Miranda caught her wrist. “You’re an RA. You can’t hit her.” She released Erin, then quickly backhanded Becca across the face. “But I can,” she added with satisfaction as Becca head snapped back.
“You fucking cunt!” Becca seethed.
“Look, you little twat tassel, you can call me whatever you want,” Miranda shot back and several people giggled, “but the truth is everybody here knows exactly what you are—a no-good piece of trash that somehow thinks the world owes you because you’re rich and pretty. Well guess what, honey? The real you shines through quite clearly, and no matter what you look like on the outside, you’re ugly.”
Becca reared back and spat in Miranda’s face, but before Miranda could react, Erin pulled back her fist and plowed it right into Becca’s nose. Becca stumbled back with an enraged scream and both hands over her nose. She pulled her hands away to find blood.
“I’m going to press charges,” she screeched. “I’ll have you removed as an RA. I’ll have you kicked out of the whole damn school.”
“I didn’t touch you,” Erin replied calmly.
Becca actually stopped screaming and stared at Erin in surprise. “I have a room full of witnesses. You can’t deny it!”
Erin turned to Alex who was staring at Becca as if trying to figure out why she was bleeding all over the floor. “Did you see anything?” she asked.
“Nope. What happened?” Alex said.
“I didn’t see anything either,” someone piped up from a nearby table.
“Me either,” someone else said.
“I think she ran into the door,” I heard Carlos say from behind me. “Clumsy bitch.”
“Did anyone see anything?” Miranda asked, wiping the last of Becca’s spittle from her face with a napkin someone had handed her.
“No,” everyone in the room roared in unison.
Erin faced Becca with a look of grim satisfaction. “You should really be more careful,” she said warningly. Her words obviously carried a double meaning. “Stay away from my friends.”
Becca sputtered for a few more seconds, then turned suddenly on her heel and ran from the room. A round of applause rippled through the room.
“No, really,” Alex said after a few moments of silence. “What happened?”
Everyone in the room started laughing and the mood was broken. Erin turned to Kody and me with a grin. “Well, we provided the evening’s entertainment. Dinner is on you two.”
We finally sat down around the two tables the boys had pushed together, Kody sitting in my lap.
“Damn, babe,” Carlos said with a note of awe in his voice. “I knew you could take care of yourself, but that was some punch.”
Erin rubbed her fist. “Growing up with three older brothers had some advantages.”
“Yeah, you just had to show me up,” Miranda said. “I only backhanded her, you had to go and throw a punch. And I’m the one who has to go and get shots now. The bitch spit on me!”
“I’m really sorry, guys,” I said suddenly.
Everyone including Kody spun to look at me. “Sorry for what?” Roy asked.
“That all of you got dragged into this. This was between me and Becca and it ended up involving everyone I care about.”
“Oh please,” Miranda said dismissively.
“Jake, we’re your friends,” Erin said. “We didn’t get dragged into anything. We got involved because we love you and friends look out for each other. Trust me, it was my pleasure. I’ve wanted to hit her for a long time now.”
I looked around the table, making eye contact with each and every person. Each looked steadily back and nodded in agreement with what Erin had said. I felt tears pricking behind my eyes. These were my true friends. They really did care about me. Enough to stand up for me, enough to drive over three-hundred miles to bring me back.
Kody snuggled into me, reminding me of my best friend of all. I still couldn’t believe I was lucky enough to have someone like him love me. After all we’d been through I knew we’d be able to face anything together.
I felt the tears spill over as I squeezed Kody tight and bent my head to give him a soft kiss. I looked up to find everyone watching us with contented smiles.
“Thanks guys. Thanks for everything.”