As the weather grew colder, Cyrus began to lose track of Hayden for long periods of time. Some days he would excuse himself after dinner, citing some “things he needed to get done,” and not make it back to the dorms until late at night. Other times, he wouldn't show up to dinner at all, opting instead to disappear right after class was finished.
“Where are you going?” Cyrus had asked one day as Hayden made to leave.
He had shrugged. “I’ve got a project to work on. I’ll be back soon,” he had said easily. Cyrus let it drop for the time being; he didn’t want to be the annoying, nagging friend who was always prying into Hayden’s life. They still saw each other plenty, though, for they were roommates, after all. Nevertheless, Cyrus couldn’t shake his curiosity, nor the sinking feeling that maybe Hayden was getting tired of him. He couldn’t say he hadn’t seen it coming; it always did. At least it was fun while it lasted.
Towards the middle of December, Cyrus and Hayden were walking along one of the snow covered paths on the way back from their last class of the day when the subject finally came up. “You wanna see if we can get some of the guys to come out and have a snowball fight?” Hayden asked, his voice bright. His cheeks were red from the cold, but he was in such a good mood that it didn’t even seem to matter. “The snow’s nice and wet.”
“Aren’t you busy tonight?” Cyrus questioned, giving him a sideways glance.
Hayden looked at him, his face a mask of innocence. “Why would I be?”
Cyrus shook his head. “It’s just that you’ve been busy a lot lately, that’s all.”
“Oh, yeah, sorry about that. I’m just working on something,” he said, then glanced away. After a pause, Hayden seemed to change the subject, “Hey, are you going to that winter concert thing on Friday?” he asked, looking at Cyrus through a few stands of hair that flopped down in front of his eyes, heavy from the snow.
Cyrus studied him. He looked almost nervous, but that was probably just from hiding whatever it was that he was hiding. “That Winter Showcase? It is any good?”
Hayden didn’t immediately reply, but seemed to contemplate his answer. “Not really. Just a bunch of crappy Christmas songs and whatever. You’d probably be better off skipping it.”
“Alright,” Cyrus agreed, and Hayden’s eyes flickered with an unidentifiable emotion.
“Come on,” Hayden said, walking faster. “Snowball fight!”
They glimpsed their friends through the tall windows that made up the walls of the student center, and just as Cyrus was about to walk in, Hayden put a hand on his arm to hold him back. “Wait, I’ve got a surefire way to get them to say yes.” He bent down and scooped up a handful of snow.
“You’re going to throw that indoors?” Cyrus asked, giving him a disapproving look.
“It’s just water,” Hayden said. “Come on.”
As always, Cyrus followed Hayden inside. He watched his friend wind up his arm, then chuckled as it splattered against the back of Parker’s head. Parker froze, turning dramatically. “You. Did. Not,” he growled, wiping the dripping mess off of his curly black hair.
Hayden grinned and spread his arms. “What are you gonna do about it?”
Parker gave a wicked grin, and within seconds the whole group of guys were charging outside yelling, “SNOWBALL FIGHT!”
“Wait, wait, wait!” Parker said, skidding to a stop. “We need teams.”
“And a prize!” Lee added with a sly smile.
“Fine, Hayden’s team wins and they get a package of my mom’s homemade fudge,” Parker offered. The effect was instantaneous. Apparently his mom’s fudge had a reputation, for some of the boys inched closer to Hayden, hoping to be on his team. “We win and we get first shower privileges for a week.”
Another good incentive. With around twenty guys on one floor, it wasn’t uncommon for the hot water to run out before everyone had gotten a shower. Guaranteed hot showers were something to be desired.
“Deal,” Hayden agreed. “You pick first?”
“I want Tim,” Parker replied. The tall boy grinned and trotted over to Parker’s side.
“Cyrus,” Hayden replied without hesitation. Cyrus’s heart warmed so much that he forgot how cold it was. He had never been picked first for anything in his life.
“Fredrick,” Parker said next, pointing to the kid with the mousy brown hair.
Hayden smiled at Rich, the last one left. “Awesome,” he said sincerely. Rich didn’t look happy at being the last one left until Hayden leaned over and whispered, “I was banking on the fact that he’d underestimate your aim. Glad you’re on our team.”
Rich brightened after that, and Cyrus smiled. Having been in that position once or twice, Cyrus could appreciate what it meant for Hayden to spare a few kind words. With the teams separated, Hayden signaled to Parker. “You ready?”
“We were born ready,” Parker replied. Hayden snorted, probably because the line was so painfully cliche.
“Let’s go, then!” Hayden called back. “I want some fudge.”
“Five minutes prep?”
“Yep.” It was obvious that they had done this before; they almost had it down to a science.
Since they were in the commons, a flat, open field, there was no high ground. Hayden waved his group over to one side while Parker’s team set up camp opposite them, some thirty feet away. Hayden pointed at Lee and Rich, “Okay, you two start making snowballs. Cyrus, help me build a wall.”
They got to work, and by the time the five minutes were up, there were two small piles of snowballs and one waist-high lopsided wall. “I give the wall three hits,” Lee judged.
“Shut up,” Hayden replied. He glanced at his watch. “It’s been five minutes. Ready, get set, go!”
On his signal, they all rose up from their crouches and fired snowballs at the other team, who were still in the construction phase. They were caught off guard for a moment, but snowballs came flying back in no time. Cyrus ducked and a snowball went sailing over his head and right into Lee’s face.
“Ugh!” he exclaimed, wiping the snow out of his eyes. “Dude! You were supposed to be my shield!”
“Since when?” Cyrus demanded, lips quirking into a smile. He raised up to throw another snowball at the opposing team and felt something cold hit him hard in the back of the head. “Hey!” he cried.
Lee was doubled over in laughter, scooping up more snow into a ball. “Now we’re even!”
“What?” Cyrus exclaimed. “I did nothing to you!” He picked up a snowball and whipped it at Lee, catching him in the gut. “There, now we’re even.”
“Not cool!” Lee replied, sweeping a hand through the powdery snow and sending it right into Cyrus’s face.
“Hey!” Cyrus said again just as Hayden turned around to glare at them in disapproval.
“Guys! Can we focus? We don’t need a civil war right now, we need fudge,” Hayden said. He scooped up another handful of snow and turned around to throw it.
Cyrus shared a conspiratorial glance with Lee and gathered a handful of his own. He surged up behind Hayden, pulling on his coat collar and dropping the snow down the back of his shirt. Hayden stiffened with a gasp. Cyrus couldn’t stop the grin from spreading across his face as Hayden turned with exaggerated slowness.
“You little…” he trailed off as he sprung at Cyrus, causing them both to topple into the snow. They wrestled for a few minutes, each trying to shove snow in the other’s face. Lee watched, crying with laughter, and Rich kept on throwing snowballs.
“Uh, guys,” Rich said after a minute, his face red and hair matted with snow. “Little help here?”
“Eh, we’ll just concede,” Lee shrugged. “This is so much more entertaining,” he said, gesturing towards the two in the snow.
Hayden pinned Cyrus to the ground and looked up. “No! No, we’re not conceding.”
Cyrus took advantage of the moment of distraction to rub a handful of snow in Hayden’s face. “Why not? We obviously lost.”
Blinking, Hayden’s eyes appeared as dots in the mask of snow. He shook his head like a dog, spraying Cyrus in the face with snow and water, then grinned, his face inches from Cyrus’s. Cyrus grinned back, having more fun than he’d had in weeks. All of a sudden, the distance between them didn’t seem so far - not only in the literal sense, but also in terms of their friendship. Maybe Hayden had just been busy lately, because laying there on the cold, wet, ground, it seemed like nothing had changed between them.
Hayden pushed himself off of Cyrus and cleared his throat lightly. “Okay, fine. We surrender!” he shouted to the other team, who let out a whoop of triumph. “Ugh, Parker is going to be so smug.” He turned to give Cyrus a half-hearted glare. “This is all your fault, you know.”
“Blame it on Lee; he started it,” Cyrus protested.
Hayden smoothly transferred his glare to Lee. “This is all your fault, you know.”
“I know,” Lee said with a grin. “It’s so easy to rile you guys up, and it’s so freaking hilarious too.”
Hayden rolled his eyes. “Yeah, think about that when you’re taking a cold shower tonight.” Lee looked a little chastised. “So, hot chocolate now?”
Cyrus didn’t begin to feel his toes again until they were halfway through their second cup of hot chocolate, sitting around a circular table in the dining hall. Parker had finally stopped teasing them about their loss, and talk had turned to Christmas break.
“I don’t really want to go home,” Rich admitted. “My aunts are coming to stay, and they’re like top-notch insane.”
“I’m thrilled to be going home,” Parker said, his dark skin crinkling in a broad smile.
“Why’s that?” Cyrus felt obliged to ask.
“Girls, Cyrus. Girls,” he replied, a gleam in his eye. “My cousin has a party on Christmas Eve and invites all her friends from school. And man, does she go to a good school,” Parker added with a wink.
Laughs and smiles spread around the table, but Cyrus couldn’t help but notice Hayden looking a little uncomfortable. Conversation carried on for a little while, but the group soon broke up, opting to go back to the dorms and change into dry clothes. Cyrus walked with Hayden, who was still quieter than usual.
“You okay?” Cyrus questioned. “You seem quiet.”
“Sorry,” Hayden replied, looking down. “Just talk of everyone going home and stuff… Well, I stay here over break, so holidays aren’t always the most exciting time of year, you know what I mean?” he asked, glancing at Cyrus.
Cyrus nodded. “Yeah,” he replied, then paused. “Do you mind me asking why you stay?”
Hayden looked away. “It’s complicated.”
Thinking back to the snippet of Hayden’s conversation with Will that he had overheard, Cyrus let it go. He was fairly sure he knew the reason anyway. “I wonder what we’re going to do for two weeks,” Cyrus said, keeping his tone conversational.
“I usually marathon a TV show- Wait, we?” Hayden asked, frowning at Cyrus.
“Yeah,” Cyrus replied. “I’m staying too.”
For a moment, Cyrus wished he had his sketchpad on him, for he had never seen Hayden’s face so bright. “No way!” His eyebrows raised in pleasant shock, then fell as his face eased into a broad grin. “Maybe this Christmas won’t be so bad after all.”
“Yeah, my mother’s in Spain at the moment on business,” Cyrus explained, “so I don’t have anywhere to be.”
Hayden looked legitimately excited now, and his brown eyes shone. “At least now we can be lonely together,” he said. “The best part about everyone being gone is that the showers are always hot. Oh, and there’s never a line for ice cream,” Hayden chattered. “Though it is kind of cold for that. But whatever, I’m sure we can find something fun to do while the campus is empty.”
Hayden’s happiness was infectious, and Cyrus found himself smiling back. “Sounds like a plan.”