Tradeline was sneaking up on him. Josh had forgotten how quickly the months could go by when preparing for a convention, and he didn’t even have a panel to worry about this year. Yet, this time he had a couple of guests that he wanted to bring along. Rebecca was hoping that she’d be able to join as well amid the wedding events for her friend, and Josh was preparing as if she were a definite yes. Not to mention how his friends from the west coast were going to be flying out and staying with him…
“This guest room seemed so much bigger when I first moved in,” Josh muttered as he stood in the threshold.
A twin bed – currently occupied by Peanut – was perpendicular to the left wall. Nestled between it and the two windows on the far wall was a small desk that Josh couldn’t remember ever using. It was more decorative than functional, and Josh rattled around the drawers to see if he had ever used the space for anything. Other than a few forgotten office supplies, the desk was empty.
A closet took up half of the right wall, one that Josh had used for extra storage, while the other half of the wall had his old entertainment center. Considering he had used it in an apartment, it was more tall and skinny, having only had the room for a television and space to store a few video game consoles below it.
“Maybe Linda and Grace can share this room,” Josh said, using his arms to measure out whether the bed would fit flush against the wall to give more room for an air mattress. “Unless Linda shares with Ethan…”
He was rather proud of himself that his stomach merely tripped rather than tumbled at the idea of those two sleeping together. Apparently time really was helping his crush disappear. He just hoped it wouldn’t come back in full force upon seeing Ethan in his house.
“Then where would Grace go? Doubt she’d wanna bunk with Calvin and Chris in the living room.” He looked at Peanut as if she would have an answer. She meowed at him when they locked gazes, but it wasn’t very helpful.
Still, Josh continued to talk to her. “It’d make sense for the girls to have the room, if the guys decided to be gentleman, but I have no idea how far along Linda and Ethan are together… I mean, they could suck it up if they weren’t together for a few nights, I’m sure. Maybe I’ll just throw a couple of air mattresses around the house and let them sleep where they want. I bet you a new catnip toy that Calvin will ask if he can move his air mattress to the bathtub.”
“Alright, well, assuming that an air mattress will go in here…” Josh braced himself and pulled the small desk out of its corner. He grimaced at the sound of it scrapping against the floor, but at least the old legs didn’t leave any marks. Peanut ran as soon as he started moving furniture, which was a blessing in disguise, for as soon as the desk was hauled into the hallway and out of the way, Josh began to shove the bed flush up against the windowed wall. It just barely fit without touching the edge of the entertainment center.
He sneezed and realized that he probably should dust the guest room more often. Glaring at the dust bunnies that had populated under the bed when he wasn’t looking, Josh trudged back downstairs to get some cleaning supplies.
His phone buzzed in his pocket as he rummaged in the closet. Deciding it was much more important to answer a call than to clean his guest room that wouldn’t be used for another month or so, Josh dumped the cleaning supplies on the counter and picked up.
“What’s up, Bec?”
“Sarah wants to try this new frozen yogurt place in the town’s center,” Rebecca said. “Wanna come?”
Josh glanced at the broom set up against the counter and said, “I’m in. What time?”
“In a few minutes?”
“Perfect. I’ll walk down to your house.”
After ensuring that the cleaning supplies were put enough away and shutting the door to the guest room so Peanut wouldn’t get into anything – for he really didn’t want to come home, see his cat covered in dust bunnies, and attempt to give her a bath – Josh jogged his way down the street and met with the girls just as they were coming out of the house.
Sarah was all but bouncing in the front seat of the car. “This frozen yogurt place better be good, I mean, they got rid of that other shop a couple of years ago, so it’s about damn time they put in another frozen yogurt shop…”
“I thought you were more of an ice cream person,” Josh teased, poking the back of the younger sister’s head.
She swatted at his hand, missing completely. “Oh, ice cream is amazing,” she said, “but frozen yogurt tastes better at this time of the year.”
“Oh, okay,” Josh said, his nod serious, but his smile trying to hide his laughter. “It’s a seasonal thing.”
“That’s right.” Sarah gave a decisive nod. “Remember that for next time. There’ll be a quiz.”
“You two are ridiculous,” Rebecca said, her eyes on the road as she tried to find a parking spot in the lot that she had turned into.
“But you love us,” Josh said.
“For some strange reason, yes,” Rebecca said. Her tone was resigned, but she had a gleam in her eyes when she glanced at Josh through the rearview mirror. He merely grinned.
The frozen yogurt shop – Sprinkles on Top, it was called – was a nestled little spot on the corner of a shopping plaza in the middle of town. Rebecca parked in what Sarah affectionately called “No Man’s Land,” an area in the far section of the parking lot without too many other cars around. Josh didn’t mind the walk with his friends, taking the extra time to continue to tease them and discuss frozen yogurt flavors and toppings.
“You’re both wrong,” Rebecca was saying as the three reached the shop. “Chocolate is always the best flavor.”
“Chocolate is fine once in a while,” Josh said, “but a nice fruity flavor really cleans the palate, like strawberry.”
“You’re both crazy,” Sarah said, bouncing ahead of them. “You can’t do anything without a little coffee in your system!”
“You have too much coffee in your system,” Rebecca remarked, giving the amused employee behind the counter a nod for a greeting. “I think you should just get a small cup of basic vanilla.”
Sarah turned back to her sister, her nose scrunched and her tongue sticking out. “No way, that’s probably one of the most boring flavors.”
“I resent that.”
Josh glanced behind him at a smiling black young man lounging at one of the tables by the windows. His hazel eyes were darting around at all three of them, lingering the longest on Josh, as he pulled his dreadlocks into a small ponytail.
Sarah backtracked to stand next to Josh and, with her hands on her hips like Wonder Woman, stared at the guy and asked, “You dare to challenge me?”
“Oh, I dare.” A chuckle accompanied the reply and the guy stood up from his seat – all six and a half feet of him, Josh was sure – to give Sarah a little bow. “Vanilla, while basic, is the best flavor as a base for your frozen yogurt treat. Everything goes with vanilla. The gummy worms, chocolate chips, raspberries, pistachio nuts—”
“Pistachios?” Rebecca echoed incredulously from just behind Josh.
The guy either didn’t hear or didn’t mind the interruption and continued talking. “Vanilla is the perfect canvas in which to paint your frozen yogurt masterpiece.”
“Ah, but coffee, or anything with an actual flavor,” Sarah countered, “can create a more in-depth picture, one with more meaning and taste. There’s an art to crafting the perfect blend of harmonious flavors to set your test buds into a delighted frenzy—”
“Alright, what’s with the art metaphors?” Rebecca asked, cutting Sarah off.
“I was interested in them, actually,” Josh said.
“And I’m interested in meeting the friend of my friends,” the guy said smoothly. “Bec, Sarah, either of you going to introduce us?”
“David, this is Joshua Kent,” Rebecca said. “Josh, meet David Fletcher. He was in the graduating high school class in between Sarah and me. He was on the yearbook team with me during my senior year, and Sarah joined the yearbook team during his senior year.”
“Nice to finally meet you,” David said, extending his hand to Josh. “I’ve heard about you from the girls. Shame we haven’t met up until now.”
“Likewise.” Josh hoped that his palms weren’t sweaty with nerves as he looked up at David. Josh himself was taller than the girls, with Sarah barely reaching his shoulder blades. To see them standing next to David was rather comical. “So, uh, what do you do–?”
“We’ll socialize in a few minutes,” Sarah said, running by the rest of them. “But first, frozen yogurt!”
David chuckled and made room at the table he had claimed, shoving a shoulder bag under his chair and tossing out his trash, as the other three went to get their cups of frozen yogurt. Josh opted for a simple strawberry frozen yogurt with M&Ms and chocolate sauce, while Sarah went crazy with coffee frozen yogurt, peanut butter cups, crumbled bits of s’mores, and pieces of cookie dough. Rebecca was a bit in between the pair, with her chocolate frozen yogurt, brownie bites, chocolate chips, and a little caramel drizzle.
“What brings you here, David?” Rebecca asked as they all joined David at his table.
“Just relaxing after work, really,” David said with a half-shrug. “The office was a little crazy today, what with bills being due and all this week, so figured I deserved a treat.”
Rebecca paused. “Did I pay the tax bill?”
“You did,” David assured her, another chuckle escaping him. Josh enjoyed how often he seemed to laugh and smile. Turning to Josh, David added, “I work right in City Hall in the building department. Help out with the contracts and building permits and things like that. Contractors can’t get building permits if the owners still owe taxes, so many of them were trying to come in and pay. I should just post a sign on the door with the directions to the collectors department.”
With David’s physique, Josh would have guessed that David was a contractor himself rather than someone sitting at a desk all day.
“What about you?” David asked, keeping his focus on Josh. “The girls mentioned that you write?”
“Yeah.” Josh nodded, probably a bit too quickly. “I write for a few gaming websites, mostly on a site called Boss Mode.”
“‘Fraid I only know that site because of the girls,” David said, gesturing to Rebecca and Sarah. “I usually get my gaming news from the magazine and site Warriors and Mages. It caters to sci-fi and fantasy outside of gaming too.”
“That’s one of my favorite sites,” Josh said, glad that there was something he had in common with David.
“Really?” David angled his body more toward Josh. “Have you ever read the articles on tabletop gaming? Like Dungeons and Dragons and shit?”
“Uh, a few,” Josh said, making a mental note to do so later that night. “Do you play D&D?”
“I used to play it a lot more in high school.” David turned and gave Rebecca a grin. “Even got her into it during her final year there. Sarah played a little, too, when I was a senior, but I ended up getting too busy with college prep and stuff to keep up with it. I’d love to get back into it, but not too many people I know around here would be willing to play again.”
“Ever been to Tradeline, David?” Rebecca asked. With a nod in Josh’s direction, she added, “Josh is hosting a few of his friends from the west coast and they’re planning on going. Sarah’s going to tag along, and I’m hoping I’ll be able to as well after Wendy’s wedding. Tradeline’s only a day after it.”
“I haven’t been to Tradeline in years,” David said with a deep sigh. Biting his lip, he paused in thought a moment before saying, “Maybe I’ll go again this year, assuming I can still get a ticket.”
“I have a couple of extras,” Josh said. “I bought about a dozen because I wasn’t sure how many of my friends were flying out here, plus the girls, and… Yeah, you want one?”
“Shit, really man?” David laughed. “Yeah, why not? Bec, what time is the wedding? It’s right in the next city over, right?”
“It’s in the afternoon,” Rebecca said, “around three if I remember correctly. Think the reception starts at five-thirty, so I have no idea what time I’ll get home. I know Josh, Sarah, and company are heading to their hotel for Tradeline that night, so I don’t know if I’ll be able to meet them the next morning.”
“I’ll drive,” David said. “I’ll pick you up bright and early the day of the convention and you can sleep in the car. We’ll meet up with Sarah, Josh, and Josh’s other peeps at the hotel before Tradeline officially opens.”
“That sounds great!” Sarah said. “That way I won’t have to worry about Rebecca falling asleep at the wheel.”
“Way to be optimistic,” Rebecca said dryly. To David, though, she nodded. “That does sound like a great plan. I’ll help pay for gas for the trip.”
“Oh, please.” David scoffed. “It’s not that far and how many times in high school did you haul my ass around to meet up with everyone when I didn’t have my driver’s license yet? Considering this payback. Speaking of payback, though…” He glanced over at Josh and added, “What do I owe you for the ticket?”
Josh briefly wondered if it would be weird for Josh to say that the ticket was his treat since David seemed like such a nice guy, one who was obviously good friends with the girls, and one who had a fantastic smile, but figured since the pair just met, Josh would be honest. “It was seventy-five dollars. No rush, of course.”
“And the hotel room? Is there room for me to bunk with anyone?” David asked.
Josh tried to figure out how they had split up the rooms. “Think we booked three… You’ll be the ninth person… I’m sure we’ll find room for you somewhere.”
“You can just bunk on the floor of our room,” Sarah said. Turning to Josh, she asked, “Unless our room is going to be all the gals? Linda and Grace won’t mind, right?”
“I’m really not sure yet,” Josh said.
“We’ll figure it out,” Rebecca said. “Besides, David and I won’t even be there for the first night.”
“Yeah, if anything, Bec and I will bunk together on someone’s balcony.” He nudged Rebecca’s arm with his elbow, chuckling.
“Sure,” she agreed. “Only if you’re willing to snuggle.”
“But of course. I’ll snuggle with anyone!”
Josh chuckled and Sarah from across the table smirked at him. Josh glanced down at his half-melted bowl of frozen yogurt and occupied himself with taking another bite.
“That was really good,” Rebecca said, indicating her empty frozen-yogurt cup.
“So was mine.” Sarah stuck her tongue out at David before adding, “So much better than boring vanilla!”
“You’d change your mind if you would try it,” he said, giving her a crooked grin.
“Nope.” Sarah shook her head and gathered up her empty cup and Rebecca’s to toss into the nearest trash can.
Rebecca stood up as well and said, “I’m going to go wash my hands. Got a bit of caramel sauce on them, I think. You coming, Sarah?”
“Yep!” Sarah led the way over to the restrooms, Rebecca murmuring that they’d be right back.
As soon as the girls disappeared, David sighed. A light smile was on his face and he was shaking his head in what Josh could only guess was fond exasperation. Suddenly, David asked him, “So, you interested in guys?”
Josh nearly choked on an M&M.
David laughed. “Shit, sorry, man. You okay? Didn’t mean to shock you like that. It’s just that the girls up and leaving me with a new person usually indicates that they think I should try to make a move. They’ve been doing that since I came out as bi.”
“O-oh.” Josh coughed and caught his breath, hoping his face wasn’t too red. “I didn’t realize that they would be that interested in setting you up with someone.”
“I don’t really know if they are, to be honest,” David said with another chuckle. “I think it started as a semi-joke once when I was moping about breaking up with someone back in high school.”
Josh paused before asking, “Sorry if this is too personal, but have you ever gone out with Rebecca? You two seem to get along well.”
“Bec’s like the older sister I never had,” David said, “and Sarah a younger one. I’ll admit, I had the hots for Bec when I first met her, but we were also friends with a guy named Arnold who I know really liked her, so—Man, what’s that face for? You know Arnold?”
“Ah, yeah.” Josh wasn’t sure what kind of face he had made, but thinking about Arnold wasn’t something that Josh wanted to do. After the fiasco at the movies months ago, the guy had made repeated attempts at calling Rebecca again for the next couple of weeks. They eventually fizzled out, but Rebecca said they hadn’t started slowing down until the night that Arnold had shown up at the girls’ house uninvited and, since he was there, Josh had answered the door.
Arnold had turned crimson, sputtered out a few angry curses, and marched back down the driveway. He had hit the back of his Jeep on the girls’ fence before tearing off down the road. Josh hadn’t said a word and merely watched from the front door as Arnold stomped away. Rebecca had apologized for Josh getting involved, but he had assured her it wasn’t any trouble for him. He had volunteered to answer the door, to face Arnold – it had been one of the best ways he could think of to help protect and stand up for the girls.
“You’re the new boyfriend.” David caught Josh’s attention again as the black man snapped as if he had just solved a particularly perplexing puzzle.
“What?” Josh’s brows furrowed. “No, no, I’m not anyone’s boyfriend.”
David waved Josh’s words off. “Nah, I know, but that’s all Arnold kept telling me.”
“Oh.” Josh frowned slightly. “You still talk to Arnold regularly?”
David shook his head. “Not really. I’m kind of taking a couple of steps back from him because all I’ve been hearing about lately is him badmouthing Bec, which I cannot stand, and her so-called new boyfriend. Arnold’s not a terrible guy, really, he just ended up crushing hard on someone who didn’t feel the same way. He was like that back in high school, too, just not as, uh… extreme.”
“Badmouthing Rebecca?” Josh glanced over in the direction to the restrooms, half-wondering what was taking the girls so long while also finding it completely bizarre that anyone would have anything bad to say about the sisters.
David grunted as he leaned back in his seat. “Yeah, it’s just a bunch of shit. S’why I’m starting to back off from our friendship too. Feel a bit bad about it, since I don’t think the guy really connected with anyone else after high school, like at college or his job, ya know?”
“I know what you mean,” Josh said, “but Arnold needs to grow up.”
“Bluntly spoken,” David said, “and true. Just hope the guy realizes that before it’s too late.”
Josh merely hummed in agreement, pausing to mull on their conversation. After a few long minutes, he said quietly, “I am interested, actually…”
“Hm?” David turned back to him from looking out the window. “Interested in what, man?”
Josh coughed. “Men. Guys. I’m interested in guys, like you asked.”
A slow smile curled on David’s lips. “Good to know. Ah, there you two are! What happened, did you fall in the toilet?”
“Very funny,” Rebecca said, glaring at her phone. “Sorry, I stayed in that hallway to take a call, that’s all. Sarah was amusing herself with the automated hand dryer.”
“Is there one in the guys’ bathroom?” Sarah asked. “We’re able to turn ours in any direction we want, and I accidentally sent a pile of extra paper towels flying across the room. Took a few minutes to clean up.”
“You guys ready to go?” Rebecca asked, her gaze darting back and forth between the two men.
David chuckled at the girls’ explanation as to what took them so long. “All set. It’s fine you took your time. Josh and I had a great talk.”
David turned his grin to Josh. Josh’s stomach flipped, and he knew he was in trouble.