It was eight PM when a knock came on my door. It took me a moment to place the sound, because it was so rare here in the dorm. As Jesse had said, people usually just entered uninvited.
"Come it," I called out.
The door opened and Jesse stepped into the room. He wore some casual pants and sweatshirt which was forbidden outside the rooms, but he probably didn’t expect to run into any teachers at such hour.
I stared at my laptop, not quite seeing it.
"Not even saying 'hi'?" I heard his light steps behind my back. "Don’t be childish."
"I'm doing my homework."
"Yes, and I've been doing mine. Alone. For the first time in, like, two weeks?" His hand touched my shoulder and I restrained myself from shaking it off—that would really be childish. "I grew kind of used to your help."
"To having a minion doing your work for you, you mean? Perhaps it's time to break the habit."
"So, you won’t be coming anymore?" He sounded playful, which rubbed me the wrong way. He owed me an apology for what he did. Yet the sensation of his fingers on my shoulder was already softening my resolve, pushing me to turn around, to face him, to forgive what he had said in the Dining Hall even without him asking for it.
"Maybe I won't," I muttered. "Wouldn't want to look too obsessed with you."
He squeezed my shoulder lightly and then let go.
"Look, what I said last Friday, I didn't mean it." He paused. "I didn’t really think you were obsessed with me, or pathetic, or anything. But you saw them. Crowds are like that. They would have turned on me."
"So you preferred them to turn on me instead?"
"They were already on you." He moved to face me, leaning with his lower back on my desk. I looked away.
"We both stand out," he said, "In different ways, perhaps; but those who stand out pay for it, unless they're really careful."
"So you were being careful? By throwing your friends to the crowd to save yourself?"
"You're not my friend—you're my minion, remember?" I looked up and he met my eye, unperturbed. "There are always the strong who impose their will on others, and the weak, who can either make themselves useful to the strong ones or get trampled under their feet. Did you know that Elliot pays some of the guys, literally pays them to leave him alone, so that he could play his role of a prefect in peace? And I don’t have that kind of money." He shook his head. "So I have to be careful not to piss them off and, well, be useful to them in all kinds of ways."
His blue-grey eyes watched me seriously, and I wondered if he knew that I knew about how exactly he paid. I also wondered if he had met Owen today, too, at their usual hour, in the utility room, and whether he'd allowed Owen to hurt him again. Wasn't the payment too high?
Suddenly, I wasn't angry with him anymore. I just wanted to hug him and protect him.
"I love you," I said.
He rolled his eyes. "Don't start with that nonsense again. I'm talking serious stuff here."
"But I do."
"You don't," he snapped, his voice suddenly sharp. "Nobody does. You're attracted to my looks, like the others who get what they want and then dare to call me names."
I shook my head. "No…I like your personality."
"You don’t know my personality!" He pushed himself off the table, glaring at me. "You were obsessed with me before we even spoke once! Don't you --"
Before he could finish, the door opened and Mathew walked in, looking particularly smug. As his eyes fell on Jesse, his smile grew wider.
"Oh, look who's here! Chatting up my roommate?"
"Shut up." Jesse turned around and stormed past him and out of the room.
"Bye bye horsey," Mathew said him before closing the door and walking over to the bed.
"Horsey?" I said.
"Yeah." He grinned at me briefly before climbing up onto his bed. I heard him stretch out on the mattress. "Good little horsey." He made clicking sounds with his tongue.
"What're you talking about?"
"Nothing." He chuckled. "It's just that my brother sometimes lets me play with his toys, ride his toy horses, you know?" He glanced down at me. "Ah, forget it. You won’t understand."