A single stroke can change your world.
Xander Fairchild can’t stand people in general and frat boys in particular, so when he’s forced to spend his summer working on his senior project with Skylar Stone, a silver-tongued Delta Sig with a trust fund who wants to make Xander over into a shiny new image, Xander is determined to resist. He came to idyllic, Japanese culture-soaked Benten college to hide and make manga, not to be transformed into a corporate clone in the eleventh hour.
Skylar’s life has been laid out for him since before he was born, but all it takes is one look at Xander’s artwork, and the veneer around him begins to crack. Xander himself does plenty of damage too. There’s something about the antisocial artist’s refusal to yield that forces Skylar to acknowledge how much his own orchestrated future is killing him slowly…as is the truth about his gray-spectrum sexuality, which he hasn’t dared to speak aloud, even to himself.
Through a summer of art and friendship, Xander and Skylar learn more about each other, themselves, and their feelings for one another. But as their senior year begins, they must decide if they will part ways and return to the dull futures they had planned, or if they will take a risk and leap into a brightly colored future—together.
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The painting, three by four feet and propped on an easel in the center of the room, arrested Skylar Stone, emptying every thought from his head, save one. This piece of art was the most incredible thing he'd ever seen.
He paced a semicircle around the canvas, unconsciously hooking his index finger into his collar to loosen his tie, as if looking at this painting required more room to breathe. It assaulted his senses and made him too dizzy to think. How did it possess so many colors and yet seem kind of purply blue? There was gold in there, somehow, and red, and ... God, everything. What was the figure in the foreground? A man? A dog? A boulder? Somehow it was all three. A hulking mass of darkness looking out at ... stars. Or perhaps it was someone lying on a blanket. Or it was a gargoyle looking over a city. A city on fire.
Or maybe it was a city being formed?
It looked like a child had painted it. Or a grand master. It took Skylar's breath away.
"I said, can I help you?"
Blinking, Skylar turned toward the speaker, a mousy, scrawny, hunched male student with a permanent glower stitched on his face. He wore a dark-blue apron stained with paint, several brushes sticking out of the right-side pocket. The plaid shirt the apron protected was frayed at the collar and cuffs, and it fit the man so poorly it looked like he'd dressed in his father's closet. His jeans were equally worn, and his tennis shoes sported soles flopping open at the toes.
The man glared at Skylar with dark-brown eyes peering from a shag of slightly curly, too-long bangs as he waited for Skylar's reply.
Skylar cleared his throat and struggled to find his usual confidence, feeling clearer with the artwork out of a direct line of sight. "Sorry. That painting is so gorgeous it knocked me off my game a little." Digging his smile out of his stupor, he crawled back into what his fraternity brothers called Silver Stone Mode and stuck out his hand. "Skylar Stone. I'm the risk manager for Delta Eta Sigma. I'm looking for Mr. Xander Fairchild. Can you tell me where I might find him?"
The mousy guy didn't accept the handshake, and if anything, his scowl deepened. "What do you mean, the painting is gorgeous?"
Skylar turned back to it, rubbing the smooth line of his chin with his thumb and forefinger. "I mean that the painting is gorgeous. I feel like I could look at it for hours."
"The paint is too thick, and the brushstrokes are a mess."
"That's kind of what I like, though. The thickness. The roughness. It feels almost 3-D. I don't know anything about art, so I wouldn't know a brushstroke if you hit me with it, but I love this painting. Do you know who did it?"
Scowling Guy snorted. "Me."
"Wow. Really? That's fantastic. I can see someday I'll be forking over an arm and a leg for the right to hang your work in my living room."
The artist hunched his shoulders and glared harder. "What do you want?"
Right, no more compliments. Skylar got down to business. "Like I said, I'm here to see Mr. Fairchild. Do you know where I can find him?"
"You already did. Now tell me what you want, so I can tell you no and get back to work."
"You mean — you're Xander Fairchild?"
"Yes. And you're one of the frat boys who spray-painted penises all over my mural."
Here, finally, Skylar found his groove. "No. I'm one of the officers of the fraternity where three members are on probation for vandalizing your work. I'm here to apologize on behalf of Delta Eta Sigma and see what we can do to make amends for our brothers' inappropriate behavior."
"There's not much you can do. It can't be replaced. I'd have to repaint the whole thing, and it'll never be the same as the first time. It'll always be a copy, which means it's going to suck. I told the dean to take it down and forget it. I'll do another mural somewhere with less chance of roving drunken monkeys. Or I won't do it at all. I have my portfolio and BFA project to think about."
That news disillusioned Skylar on multiple levels. He'd assumed he could sentence the freshmen to eons of community service beginning with cleaning, but hearing the mural was ruined meant things were more serious than he'd been led to believe. Also, he'd liked that artwork. It was on the wall of Gama Auditorium, which meant he passed it every time he walked into school, and he walked almost every day. It made sense, he supposed, that he'd liked the mural so well, since it was by the same artist as the painting in front of him. He liked the painting so much better, though. The mural had been stylized, designed to represent Benten College more than being art. It depressed Sky to think it would be removed, not repaired.
He realized he was woolgathering, not focusing on his mission, and he cleared his throat. "I'm sorry to hear the mural is ruined. That will change our punishment of the offenders, though I can't imagine that's much recompense for having your work destroyed. At the very least, I'd like to apologize on behalf of Delta Eta Sigma. As someone who enjoyed your mural, I will miss seeing it every day."
Xander turned away and wrestled the lid off a paint can. "Whatever."
Normally Skylar would enjoy the challenge of someone so difficult to smooth over, but he wasn't on his game today. "Are you sure the mural can't be saved? Because believe me, these two have days of community service ahead of them. If that can't be done, maybe there's some particularly grueling work they can do here in the studios?"
"You think I want them in here? Anyway, why are you asking me? I did the mural as a sophomore special project. I don't have any authority over what happens to it. That said, if you try to stick me in a room full of frat boys grousing about their punishment —"
Skylar held up a hand. "Hey — first of all, I'm asking you because you're the artist. Yes, we're in discussion with the head of the art department, and the Interfraternity Council, as well as campus security, but your thoughts on this situation are also important. Second of all, no one will be sticking you with anything. These two are facing all manner of charges and suspensions, and at this point they're doing nothing but groveling. We take this seriously. That's why I'm here, asking how Delta Eta Sigma can make it up to you."
Xander had the lid off the paint can and waved it angrily at Skylar. "Nothing. Thanks for the effort. Talk to the building secretary about donating money for paint or something, but don't let your goons clean any of my brushes. Meanwhile, I need to get back to work." After dunking a fat, wide brush in the can, he wiped it on the rim and aimed it at the canvas.
Skylar frowned at him. "What are you doing?" When he realized the brush was about to slide across the top of that night sky, he didn't think, only knocked it out of Xander's hand, sending it clattering to the floor.
"Christ!" Xander faced down Skylar with his fists clenched. "What the hell is your problem?"
Skylar felt queasy and slightly shaky. "You were going to paint over it."
"Yes. It's a piece of shit, and I need the canvas."
Piece of shit? "It's stunning. If you don't like it, sell it and buy a new canvas."
Xander's nostrils flared. "Like I said, you can leave now."
Skylar should have. He'd done what he'd come to do — he hadn't succeeded, but if he wanted to achieve his goal, he'd need to leave, regroup, and try again another day. But he couldn't leave and let the painting be ruined, so instead of walking out the door, he reached for his wallet. "How much do you want for it?"
This only enraged Xander further. "I said, get out."
Skylar thumbed through his bills. "I only have forty-five on me, but I'll go to the nearest ATM and get the rest of whatever price you name. I want to buy the painting, Mr. Fairchild."
"I'm not letting you take this back to your stupid frat house so you and your brothers can use it for a dartboard."
Skylar lowered his wallet and swallowed the impulse to give in to temper. "I have no such intent. I would never use a piece of art so callously. I gather you don't have a high opinion of Greek life, which I'm sorry to hear." Gears turned, and Silver Stone Mode ground back to life. "You don't seem to have much regard for your own skill, either, if you're so unwilling to sell your work. As far as I'm concerned, you belong in a gallery."
Xander blinked at Skylar. For a moment he looked vulnerable, almost eager, his veneer cracking at last. Just as quickly, however, his owlish demeanor was back. He set his jaw as he picked the brush up from the floor. "This is my painting. I can destroy it if I want to. I can paint over it, use it as a coffee table, chuck it against the wall. It's not going to hang in a gallery. The closest thing to that I'll be seeing anytime soon is my senior art show, and there's no way in hell I'm letting that get laughed down."
"What's to laugh at? I love the painting. The idea of a room full of your work sounds perfect."
"Oh yeah? Tell me why you like my work, then."
Skylar turned to the painting. The power of it hit him every time he looked at it, and he felt self-conscious attempting to articulate why when Xander was so derisive. He considered giving up and leaving. He'd delivered the apology and started trying to engender goodwill. The rest of his work would be done with research and carefully orchestrated gestures. But he really did hate the idea of this painting being covered up.
"I don't know. It gets me, right in the gut. It's so many things at once. It makes me feel aching and lonely but not desolate. This guy who has lost everything and retreated from the world, maybe even hates it, still has hope he can find his niche." He sighed and gestured with his hand. "I don't know anything about brushstrokes or forms or whatever. All I know is I'd hand over a lot of money to take this home with me. I wouldn't use it as a dartboard. I'd hang it in my room, and I'd stare at it while I lie in bed." He rolled his eyes at himself. "Now you'll tell me how off my interpretation was. But it's why I love it."
Xander looked pale, almost trembling, like someone had slapped him in the face. He stared at Skylar with that same vulnerable, aching expression. Then he turned away. "Take it."
Skylar frowned. "Take what?"
Xander made shooing motions at him. "The painting. Take it. Take it and go."
The painting? Skylar pulled out his money again. "Here, let me pay —"
"Just take it." Xander put down the paintbrush, hauled the painting off the easel, and thrust it at Skylar. "It's yours. Go away."
Skylar struggled to accept the painting without dropping his wallet. "I really would pay for it. I want to pay for it." He needed to.
"We don't always get what we want. You have the painting, and you've apologized for the frat. I accept. There, see? Everyone's happy. Go have a kegger or something."
Xander didn't look happy. He looked upset. Skylar was too. It bothered him to pay nothing for the painting. He didn't like that Xander was so dismissive of Delta Sig, as if they were some reboot of Animal House. Though he supposed with the mural incident they looked like it, dammit. Skylar wanted to tell Xander about the two friends who had founded Delta Eta Sigma while caring for the sick, about Delta Sig's connection to the Boys & Girls Clubs of America and how much service they did a year. He wanted to talk about how his housemates truly were his brothers, how the social network the Greek life provided was as fundamental if not more so than his own family upbringing.
He would have, but Xander took off his apron and disappeared out of the studio and down a hallway. The door closed behind him with a quiet snick.
Skylar stared at the place where he'd disappeared, letting the quiet ring in his ears. Pulling his business card out of his wallet, he spied a backpack at the foot of the easel and slipped the card into an open flap. Then he tucked his wallet into his pocket, the painting carefully under his arm, and wove his way out of the building and down the hill toward Delta Sig.
The last goddamned thing Xander Fairchild needed was a frat boy interrupting his studio time.
His day had been packed tight as it was, and Pretty Boy's interruption had basically shot everything all to hell. Xander's plan had been to paint over the shit painting, letting it dry while he finished the last panels due for Lucky 7. The chore of recycling the canvas so he could paint tomorrow should have taken him a quick ten minutes, and inking only another forty, leaving him time to get the pages across campus to the magazine offices in Tori Hall on his way home. Instead, he had to stretch a new canvas over a frame, and he was priming it and grumbling under his breath when Sara came looking for him.
"I'm so sorry." He put down the brush and wiped his hands on his apron. "I haven't even started. Something came up, and I'm completely behind."
She waved a hand at him, indicating he should stay where he was. "You have the panels drawn, right? I can do the inking, if you don't mind."
Xander did mind, in fact, but he didn't want to sound like a controlling ass. "I have to tweak a few things. Sorry." He washed his hands briskly in the sink. "It won't take me long. I swear."
"No worries. Oh — and Jacob wanted me to tell you, he's not sure when, but he wants to get the guys together to move the last of the boxes to storage until they give us our new space assignment for the fall. He says make sure you either answer your phone, check your messages, or read your email this time."
Xander's cheeks burned, but he nodded, keeping his gaze on his hands as he washed them. "Got it."
She hiked herself onto a stool at the table where Xander had his manga materials spread out, her actions indicating she intended to watch him finish. He suppressed a sigh, knowing damn well he couldn't ask her to leave on several counts. One, he was the one late with his work. Two — he glanced over his shoulder at Sara's leg braces. He was an asshole, but he wasn't that much of an asshole, to send her away after coming all the way over from the Lucky 7 offices. If it had been Cory, Jacob, or Zelda, he might have.
Which, he suspected, was possibly why they'd sent her. Damn it all.
He dried his hands and took up a stool across from her, opening his folio and his ink supplies. "I'm sorry you had to come all this way to find me."
She shrugged. "I texted you as a formality, but then I started walking."
Pausing with his Zebra G nib in hand, Xander winced. He hadn't even brought his cell phone today. "I'm sorry."
"It's all right. Nice day out." She rested her chin against her wrist, which was also in a brace. "Do you have a lot of screentone to add?"
"A bit, but it doesn't take me long." Less time if he wasn't watched, but there wasn't much helping that now.
Damn that frat boy anyway. Xander would already be on his way home, if not for him.
Xander tried to focus on inking the characters in front of him, but all he could see was the way what's-his-name had stared at his shitty painting.
And called it gorgeous.
"Seriously, I can help, if you want."
Xander snapped out of his stupor and glowered at the paper, hunching deeper over it. "No. I'm fine. Thanks."
He worked diligently after that, giving life to the manga. Lucky 7 had existed as a student magazine since the college was founded in 1899, and The Adventures of Hotay & Moo had been a serialized story since day one, but the format had morphed along with the magazine. The name Lucky 7 was of course a riff on the Japanese seven gods of fortune, though The Adventures of Hotay & Moo were almost entirely based on one of the seven gods, Hotei, and Fudo Myoo, who was a god and one of the five wisdom kings but not one of the gods of fortune.
In the 1940s the short stories had become comics, and in the 1990s a resurgence in the college's Japanese cultural roots had inspired the editorial board to turn the comic into a manga, going so far as to flip the printing order so that the magazine opened to what westerners would consider the back.
Xander was the manga artist for the magazine and had been since his sophomore year, having apprenticed to the senior mangaka his freshman year and been a coartist that first year. Sara had been, theoretically, his apprentice this year, but he had been a shitty mentor. Which he felt bad about, but not bad enough to change his ways.
Excerpted from "Antisocial"
Copyright © 2017 Heidi Cullinan.
Excerpted by permission of Heidi Cullinan.
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