“Come on, boy.”
Panting, Nate Arturi reached past the rust-red rain gutter and took hold of the rooftop edge with his fingertips. Rough, dark shingles dug into his palm like sandpaper. He was officially sweating now. And also officially at the part of the climb that scared the living shit out of him.
“Come on, Copernicus,” he pleaded. “What are you doing up here, boy?”
A few yards ahead, at the peak of the angled porch rooftop, Copernicus the corgi turned and barked a chipper greeting, wagging his stumpy little tail as if to say, Ah, good, you made it! Thank you for coming.
Despite everything, Nate couldn’t help but smile. “Do you know why I gathered you here this morning, boy?”
By way of reply, Copernicus barked once more then resumed his winning doggy smile, tail-a-wagging.
“Is he talking up there?” someone asked down below. Then, much louder, Emily’s unmistakably exasperated voice called, “Are you talking up there, IT Guy?”
With a sigh, Nate adjusted his already tenuous footing and leaned out just far enough to see that a small crowd was gathering in Emily’s front yard to watch him flounder.
Emily Atherton herself was scowling up at him in her skimpy pink bathrobe, looking like she’d been interrupted midway through an epic battle with her makeup and hairdryer—and admittedly still looking like a brunette goddess despite the fact.
“Will you be careful up there?” she called. “I don’t wanna pay for you breaking something!”
Him be careful?
“Yeah, sure!” he called down, shooting her a thumbs up before turning back to the roof to mutter, “As soon as you be careful letting your dog run away every goddamn morning while you pretty up. Not that I blame you, boy.” He added when Copernicus cocked his head curiously, his tail stopping in place at Nate’s irritated tone. “You’re just an adventurous little spud, aren’t you?”
At that, Copernicus resumed his tail wagging with gusto. Down below, in the Land of the Careless Assholes, Nate was pretty sure he heard someone murmur something along the lines of, Oh my god, why is he such a weirdo?
He did his best to ignore it and turned his attention back to the coming rooftop mount—the coup de gras of the little climb he’d already made three times too many in one lifetime. It was the part where he took the plunge, thrust off of his last footing, and pulled himself up onto the rooftop like a professional rock climber. If professional rock climbers were scrawny, uncoordinated Penn State information and technology majors with hearts of gold, that was.
Whatever. He’d done this just enough times now to know he needed to move before he could psych himself out and really give the peanut gallery below something to laugh about.
With that in mind, he tightened his grip, tensed his legs, and—
And psyched himself right the hell out, a second too late.
It happened like one of those stupid cat videos where the little guy goes for a jump—a jump he clearly could’ve made if only he’d followed through—and instead falls adorably into the chasm between the bed and the dresser.
Except that Nate wasn’t a freaking cat.
He had a single instant to register that alarming fact, right along with the gut-wrenching understanding that he’d just made a fatal error, and that there was nothing his shocked brain could do about it.
Then the world lurched.
He caught one last glimpse of Copernicus, sprinting down the angled rooftop toward him. Cloudy gray sky replacing dark shingles in his vision. Voices crying. Something thumped into his chest. Then the Hand of God itself punched him in the back about eight thousand times harder.
The ground, some numb corner of his brain pointed out as the world began to resolve from the singular sensation of dark, overwhelming impact into sights, and sounds, and the deep, breathless ache of whatever had just broken inside him.
“Oh my god, Nate!” a familiar voice cried. The same voice that’d just made him slip.
So he hadn’t imagined it. Gwen was here. And just in time to watch him break his own spine trying to save another girl’s corgi.
It just got better and better.
Something shifted on top of him, digging into his chest on pointy claws. He blinked down past his nose, scared to move his neck at all, and found Copernicus hovering over his face, panting excitedly.
“Good boy,” he rasped, wincing at the fire the effort woke in his lungs.
Copernicus barked and gave his face a friendly lick. Tail-a-goddamn-wagging.
Then someone plucked the dog carefully off his chest, and the next second a blonde angel appeared over him, her blue eyes wide with concern, and no less radiant for the throbbing pain at his core or the gloomy morning sky overhead.
“Fancy seeing you here,” Nate forced out past his stunned diaphragm, hoping he could still somehow manage to sound cool. Even if he was paralyzed now.
“I think I’m dying,” his traitorous mouth added of its own accord.
And that pretty much nailed it for the sounding cool part.
“Is he alive?” someone called.
Gwen rolled her eyes at the heckler, not bothering to answer and instead leaning in closer to inspect the damage.
“Are you okay?” she asked, laying a gentle hand on his chest. “Can you feel this? And what the hell were you thinking, by the way?”
“I think I broke something,” Nate said, remembering the sickening crunch he’d felt on impact and not sure where else to start with her rolling questions.
Her eyes widened a little. She looked so worried. So worried that, for a second, it almost felt worth it all just to see her looking at him like that. At least until his mind drifted back to the way his hips and back seemed to be laying horribly misaligned, as if…
As if he’d landed straight on his backpack, he realized, finally lifting his head enough to look down. The same backpack he’d set down before beginning his heroic ascent, right where he’d been sure it’d be out of the way.
Score another win for Nate.
“Come on, babe,” called a voice that instantly set Nate on edge. “He’ll be fine. This algebra test isn’t about to study itself.”
Freaking Todd. Of course he was here too.
“Just a minute,” Gwen called without looking back. She leaned down and pinched Nate’s ankle. “Can you feel that?”
“I’m fine,” Nate huffed, trying to sit up and immediately regretting the decision as his nerve endings dutifully shouted a full-body damage report.
“You’re not fine,” she said. “You just fell off a roof. I should probably get you to the hospital.”
“I don’t know,” Nate grunted, trying more carefully this time to get an arm under himself and work his way up. “Sounds like you’ve already got a pretty serious situation over there. I didn’t realize they even taught algebra in college.”
She narrowed her eyes at him, but he didn’t miss her grin as she took his arm and helped him up into a sitting position. “Well, at least you’re feeling well enough to mock the troglodytes.”
He looked up at her, and his mind went blank. Her face was only inches from his. Close enough that he could smell the lavender. Close enough that he would’ve taken a roof dive a day to stay in this place another few seconds.
“Did you, uh…” he heard his voice mumbling somewhere in the distance, “… just call your boyfriend a troglodyte?”
Why for the love of the Sith would he say that?
And more importantly, why was Gwen’s lip suddenly quirking in that clever little cockeyed grin that drove Nate crazy every time he saw it?
“Pretty sure I’m just repeating your words,” she said, backing up a few inches to give him space.
Nate tried to let out his built up breath calmly.
“That doesn’t sound like something I’d say,” he mumbled quietly, glancing over her shoulder at the crowd, and at the troglodyte himself.
Todd Mackleroy was pretty much the spitting image of the stone-jawed Prince Gallant from every fairy tale under the sun. Except with way better abs. And way more Greek-lettered tank tops, apparently. He and his surgically attached bundle of frat bros were mingling with the crowd, most of them looking bored.
Except for Todd, who was chatting up a suddenly quite friendly-looking Emily, practically undressing her with his mindless grin and his hungry eyes. Not that her bathrobe left much to undress.
“Are you going to be okay?”
Gwen’s voice snapped Nate back to the moment. She was watching him with that concerned look, apparently oblivious to her shining knight’s wandering eyes.
“Seriously,” she said. “I’ll call Kells and get us to the hospital right now.”
Nate tried to run through a quick mental inventory but instead found himself searching Gwen’s perfect face, wondering how anyone could ever be distracted by another face again when they had this one giving them smiles and kisses and…
He swallowed against a dry throat and shook his head. “I’ll be fine. Thanks, though.”
He made to stand, and she scrambled to help him, stabilizing him on the way up and then holding on after the fact, not trusting he wouldn’t fall straight back down.
“Okay,” she said, glancing uncertainly back toward Todd and the rest of the crowd.
She turned back to him, eyebrows raised, her face attentive.
“It was… good seeing you.”
“Yeah,” she said, frowning at the rooftop. “We’ll have to do it again sometime.” She took his hand and gave it a squeeze. “I’ll text you later, okay?”
Nate nodded and bent to scoop up his backpack as she left to rejoin her group.
Todd slung an arm over her shoulders like it was mechanical reflex, like she simply belonged there, nestled in. It turned Nate’s stomach, watching the grinning mountain of man muscle pull Gwen in for a kiss even as Emily stood there, all but baring herself for him.
Gwen said something to Todd, and next thing he was looking over at Nate, throwing him a sleeveless salute like they were old pals. “Yo, party tonight, IT Guy. Come drink it off.”
Todd didn’t wait for a response. Just turned and sauntered up Allen Street with Gwen, his posse trailing faithfully behind.
Part of Nate wished he’d had the courage to at least flip the mindless barbarian the bird behind his back. The rest of him, though, was too preoccupied wishing he could be the one sliding his well-muscled arm around Gwen’s slender waist, swaggering off to greet the day. And probably to fail an algebra test. But who gave a shit about that? Class was…
He needed to get to class.
Still moving tenderly, Nate slung his backpack over one shoulder and limped toward the dispersing crowd. Copernicus, whom no one had seen fit to keep track of, trotted in from the sidewalk and looked up at him with his winning doggy grin.
“Oh, Copernicus,” Nate said, bending carefully down to pat the corgi’s head. “That’s twice this week,” he added to Emily, who was watching Todd and the rest of the Alpha-Sig-Sigs saunter off.
“Yeah, thanks I guess,” she said, like she’d barely heard him.
“Maybe you could get a collar he can’t slip out of.”
“Or block off wherever he’s climbing up,” Nate added, frowning at the bars on Emily’s window above and wondering, not for the first time, how the hell the little corgi kept managing to get up there at all.
Nate turned back and realized Emily was on her phone.
“Or,” he said, ninety-five percent sure she wasn’t hearing a single word he said, “you could, you know, just keep an eye on him or something.”
She let out an explosive huff and whirled on him. “Dude, I said thanks. What, you want me to blow you or something just because you stopped to help again?”
Nate actually recoiled a few inches. “I—What?”
“Whatever,” she said, shaking her head and looking off after Todd’s retreating bro-fest again. “Whatever.”
And with that, she turned and headed for her door at a brusque march.
Beside Nate, Copernicus watched her go in silence, then looked up at Nate, his tail picking up in a tentative wag.
“Go on, boy,” Nate said, waving after Emily. “Go tell her how good she looks or whatever the hell she does with you.”
Nate wasn’t sure if he imagined the corgi’s ears drooping slightly, but the dog certainly didn’t look happy as he slunk across the yard after his half-primmed owner. Emily slammed the apartment door closed as Copernicus reached the porch steps.
The corgi looked back at Nate, head cocked quizzically, tail picking up. Then the door opened, and Emily called, having finally remembered her dependent companion. Ears definitely drooping this time, the corgi marched into the apartment and disappeared as the door swung shut again.
“Goddammit,” Nate muttered to no one in particular.
He turned to retrieve his bike from the tree he’d leaned it up against, positive that he was not up to riding it the rest of the way to campus right now. He was already going to be late to Structure and Design anyway. But that was okay. Professor Hillman probably wouldn’t give him much grief, as long as he turned in his…
How had he forgotten?
With a sickened feeling, Nate slid his bag off his shoulder and dropped to one knee. He reached for the middle zipper, already knowing what he’d find, and trying to hold on to hope anyway.
The zipper rumbled across shiny black teeth, parting the middle pocket open until Nate could see the intricate wood, wax, and wire model he’d been working on all week. The model he’d spent hours and hours shaping and carving and shaping some more. More hours still with the paint, until it was perfection. Until it looked like an honest-to-god little alien Promethean dude, ready to spring to life and conquer Earth, one ant hill at a time.
And now the ten-inch figurine was smashed to hammered shit at the bottom of his bag.
He looked up, not knowing what to do, which way to even turn. Looked up and found Copernicus watching him from Emily’s window, the curtain draped over his smiling little corgi head, his upper body visibly shaking with the energy of his no-doubt-wagging tail.
“Goddammit, boy,” Nate sighed, turning for campus with his bike in tow. “Someday, we’re both gonna get away from this bullshit.”
Across South Allen Street, in the rooftop nook of an old, creaking gray house that was currently the residence of no less than five of Emily Atherton’s neighbors, an old man shifted beneath his threadbare blanket and reached into his robe for his cup, watching as the lanky child below mussed his dark hair, gathered up his pack and bicycle, and limped off up the hill, toward the university.
“Am I hallucinating again,” the old man croaked in a voice that suggested long bouts of disuse even beyond the troubled sleep he’d just been yanked out of by the commotion across the way, “or are you referring to that jittery runt down there?”
He glanced up at the overcast sky, back down to the boy in question, then smirked, as if someone had said something amusingly naïve.
“You do remember what they are meant to do, don’t you?”
He cocked his head, listening, but no one was there. Just an old, ragged-robed man, and his cup of ale, mysteriously full, though he’d only just pulled it from his pocket.
“Very well, very well,” he grumbled, taking a long pull from the cup and shaking his mangy gray mane in reserved exasperation. “Insufferable spirit.”
He stood, and very nearly pitched off of the rooftop when his head went spinning harder than expected. He sniffed, gathering his balance and taking another swig. Something told him there’d be significantly less commotion were he to go falling from a rooftop. No lovely blonde lasses pampering him. But then again, he also wasn’t quite so fragile as to worry about a little fall.
“Are you certain about this?” the old man asked, watching the boy limp out of sight in the distance and knowing even as he spoke the words aloud that it was pointless to question the way of things—that this was exactly why her infernally unerring whispers had led him here, to this happiest of valleys.
He listened intently to the silence, and added his own sigh to the stirring wind once she’d made her reply. It was time, then.
“Very well...” He downed the remainder of his ale breakfast. “But I’m going to need a drink first, M’lady.”