AJEST

"Will I need my hazmat suit again this year, Sir Huge?"

"Aw, my lady, you wound me. This time, in honor of the auspicious occasion, I actually cleaned the place." With a courtly bow and a cavalier grin, graduating college senior Hugh Brand stepped aside.

All-business, Ria, his hall's RA, swept into his dorm room for her Resident Assistant's end-of-year inspection.

The last one...if his sweeting overlooked a few minor plumbing infractions. Say, a toilet that only flushed after every other usage. He wasn't admitting to anything definite, but could be that empty pizza box he'd stuffed down the pipes last week screwed up the works.

The City of Boston frowned on such petty health code violations.

Not so in medieval times. Back then, sanitation faux pas were an everyday occurrence. Take the Normans. Castle residents routinely visited the garderobe, a hole drilled in the keep's stone wall through which privy contents emptied out into a water-filled moat below. As a double-major in Medieval Lit and Early English History, he was something of an authority on obsolete shit like that.

Too bad these were not Norman times. Would school let him graduate with a malfunctioning latrine?

Nope. Probably not.

All was not lost. Even if his abode didn't strictly pass muster, his old man would make everything all right. Not that his absentee parent was a plumber or anything useful like that. But, as an investment banker, his father did know how to cut a check. A generous endowment contributed to this prestigious institution's scholarship fund would flush the pizza clog problem right down the drain. An application of money could fix just about anything.

Weird how a hot mess like himself had always defied such easy repairs.

C'est la vie! And no big deal. So what if he didn't graduate with the rest of his class. Where was his hurry to leave this Ivory Tower? It wasn't as if he had someplace to go, like a job, for instance.

Unlike his working stiff best buds, all of whom had to actually support themselves upon graduation, he could afford to take academic courses that interested him. For four years, he'd cracked the books, ancient tomes all of them, reading the dusty pages into the wee hours. Just for the hell of it, he'd wallowed in all kinds of esoteric trivia, medieval toilets included.

Of course, the course work had prepared him for absolutely nothing. Well...teaching. Some private prep academy, he supposed, where snooty people with money dumped the burden of their kids in a socially acceptable manner.

Fuck that. He'd already served a twelve-year incarceration in a boarding school, summers and holidays included. No parole, no early release for good behavior, no getting out on a prison...school...furlough, and few inmate visits.

Not that he was complaining. Divorced parents had other things to do besides visit their only child. Remarrying again...and again...and then again...sprang to mind.

Recidivism?

Not a concern. He was never going back inside, not even to teach lonely rich kids like his former self.

That left grad school. And then on for his Ph.D. But...wouldn't that compound the issue? He was already obsessed with everything medieval. Wouldn't advanced studies further enable him?

Bare-chested and wearing sagging sweats, he looked soulfully over at Ria. "I should've known, right?"

His RA's head snapped up from her check-list. "What are you talking about, Sir Huge? Should've known what?" She frowned darkly. "Sometimes, I just don't get you. You're always so dreamy, walking around with your head stuck in the clouds..."

Ria was just being kind. She meant to say his head was up his ass.

"Unlike yourself, my lady, I've got no plans for my future. I mean, my Old Man will give me a limp-dick, no-show position at the bank and pay me an excellent salary not to come into work. But, ya know, I don't think I want a career ladder without rungs to climb. Would you?"

"No. I'd never whore myself out, do something I didn't want to do, just for the money."

So true. His sweeting worked amazingly hard. Here on a financial-aid grant, she had to inspect twenty private rooms on this floor as part of her work/study package, all of them pits like his. Then, she had the side hustle - her craft beer venture.

Once upon a time, she'd been the heiress to a beer brewing empire, considered royalty in the business. But then her parents had both died under suspicious circumstances, possibly organized crime-related arson in a warehouse. Some whacky bachelor uncle too decrepit to know anything about beer, never mind raising a kid, had brought her up. She'd blanked out on most of what happened. The trauma, he guessed. End result:

She'd lost everything in that blaze, including her childhood memories.

At least, Ria might've said something like that. Caught up in her pretty brown hair and the cute way she had of tossing her head so the strands sort swished with a life of their own, he'd gotten distracted when she'd been explaining.

Recently, she'd done something to her look. Bleached her hair, maybe. The strands were all-shimmery, the new color bordering on silvery-white. Crazy! Especially when she added feathers, which she did from time-to-time...

"I'm not qualified to do anything," he said morosely. "For sure, no tech company will hire me. Employment-wise, that's the only show in town."

In a digital world, he used pencils.

Who was he snowing?

Not even pencils. He was nowhere that advanced. His preference in writing implements?

Plumed quills. He was addicted to their scratch on parchment. Better yet on vellum. But calf skin was damn pricey. And over-tapping his allowance smacked of spoiled rich kid syndrome, something he did not want to be guilty of. Plus, he was a wanna-be vegan. And definitely into animal rights. So, the whole calf hide thing - definitely not cool.

"You could join me, Sir Huge."

He scratched his head. "Huh?"

"My startup craft beer company! Not much money in it yet, so you'd be working for practically nothing. But I think we could make a go of it together. I could use a partner. We'd make an awesome team..."

Not really listening, he answered with a shrug.

She might've sighed. Then again, maybe not. His thoughts were otherwise occupied.

"Wake up, Sir Huge!"

"You say something, sweeting?"

"What's that under the bed?" Ria maybe repeated, gesturing to the metal frame, the stained mattress left embarrassingly exposed without its extra long sheets tucked messily in place.

Shit.

How had he forgotten about the bed?

Every year during these inspections, Ria always invaded his manly privacy there first. And he kept his stash buried beneath the dust bunnies!

Ria ducked under. He stooped down low to join her.

Kind of wonderful, finally doing something together with his lady love, almost like they were on a date or something. Too bad they were under the bed, not on top of it.

"Um...dunno what that is, sweeting."

"Yeah, right." Ria came out from under and stood. Smirking, she marked her check list in a neat slash of damning red ink. "Whatever you say."

"Aw, girl," he teased. "Sure you mean whatever I say? Cuz that's not my recollection of our history."

He'd wanted to get with Ria just about forever, but she always shot him down with various distancing maneuvers. For instance:

His name. A real bone of contention. His birth certificate said Hugh. Not Sir Huge, a title that originated because of his double major and size. And not Baby Huey, a cartoon duck.

Maybe if he ever got up the nerve to tell her his preference, she might reconsider the nicknames.

His chronic hard-on in Ria's company getting in the way, he dropped to his knees before her, supplicant to his queen, and reached under the bed for the box under discussion.

Dope did nothing for him. Neither did pharmaceuticals. To relax, he self-medicated with role-playing games. His drug of choice was emblazoned in gold:

DAMSELS in DISTRESS.

Not even a thick layer of filth hid the medieval font.

"I'm not heavy into it anymore, Ria. Honest."

He'd kicked the habit when she entered his life. But in his nerdy adolescence, he used to immerse himself in that world all the time. Anything that included archaic terminology held his rapt attention. A smattering of Latin - gotta love those Latin root words - produced even better results. High as a kite, he'd toss the dice for hours, while assuming the identity of a larger-than-life, brutish mercenary:

Ajest. Not exactly hero material, the warrior wasn't a total prick either. In the end, Hugh's alter ego usually did the right thing without too much prodding.

The Ajest identity had once been his sanctuary.

Then, came puberty. Testosterone kicked in, its pollution growing him some unanticipated inches. Everywhere. Not to brag or anything, but the Lil' Fella suddenly woke up and got mighty impressive. Daily sessions at the boarding school gym bulked up his inner wimp. Eventually, other pursuits took the place of role playing:

Girls.

In particular and for the last four years, a certain go-by-the-rules RA who wouldn't give him the time of day.

His outward appearance had changed from geek to giant. He now looked hard and tough, intimidating as any street thug. But he had a soft, gooey center. Courting Ria suited him better than hooking up.

Crap's sake! He was six-five and a solid two-forty on the scale. And he still wanted to be a knight when he grew up...if a dude his size could squeeze into the tight chainmail. In secret, he used those quill pens with plumage. Bar none, Ivanhoe, a romance with a 12th-century English setting, was his favorite novel. Though, he'd never admit to having read it. More than once. Okay, five fucking times.

The thing was though...giving up the badass stance was hard. Necessity had taught him to play to his strengths.

In the process of transforming himself into someone else, he'd made plenty of mistakes, had his share of Boston brawls. He'd gone a few bare-knuckle rounds on the sidewalks outside bars. Before the cops arrived to break things up, there'd been plenty of TKO's, where he'd body-slammed his opponent into the pavement.

He was just so fucking big. And so fucking pissed. At everything and everyone. But mostly at himself.

For Ria, he'd drop the swagger.

What then, though?

Girls always went for the cock-sure types. Suppose he did the big reveal, whipped off the mask, explained his insecurities to his sweeting - would she go for the hidden him?

He couldn't risk it. Digging deep and freeing his true self, the one buried beneath layers of defensive rubble, could lead to heartbreak. Because odds were, she wouldn't buy the updated version of himself, Hugh-21st century, featuring all the new tweaks to his operating code. He was still no prize, what with graduating with a worthless degree and no career prospects in sight.

"Get real, Sir Huge." Ria's knowing brown eyes held steady on him.

"I'm down with real, sweeting. I'm being plenty real right now."

She tilted her jaw in that cute, concentrative way of hers. "Then, trash the game. Dumpster's out in the hall." Helpful as usual, his RA - she'd never been his girlfriend but at least she'd been his something - pointed the way.

With her middle finger.

Uh-oh. She was wicked pissed at him now.

"Chill, Ria. 'kay?"

The box in his massive grip once contained his whole entire world, and he carefully lifted the game's musty cardboard lid. Just for a peek. Just for old time's sake.

A pair of grimy dice, sentimental favorites, lay inside.

Climbing back up to his feet, he whimsically tossed the cubes, his keys to a fairy-tale kingdom.

Then, he took off at a sprint. Hey, he wasn't proud of his behavior...

"Always running away, that's you. Where're you off to now, Sir Huge?"

Ria's husky-sexy voice followed him out the dorm room and into the hall. Her question echoed from a distance far, far away...

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