D-Day in a House of Cards

The best thing about Olivia Peters was that she had long shining masses of hair. It waterfalled down her back, a deep, deep black that was almost blue. Struck by sunlight, it threw up streaks of burnished gold. It was always a pleasure to stand behind her in an agonising long queue or sit beside her in Economics, where the only thing worse than opting for the elective class was the endurance of it. Her shampoo smelled like newly toasted biscuits and something deliciously fruity. It was as if woodland fairies lived in her hair and entwined orange blossoms among the strands.

And now you've killed the fantasy. Sapient beings living in a girl's hair were the least sexy mental image anyone could have. Especially when you had your fingers buried in Olivia's tresses. In real life, hair-dwelling sapient beings were less likely to be fairy and more probably lice. Nathan involuntarily glanced down to double-check. His thin comb had made hundreds of minute furrows into her wet hair, but all was well. Olivia smiled at their reflection in the mirror before them, oblivious.

The two of them were in the big rec room on the ground floor of the boys' dorm, the only university-sanctioned co-ed space of the dorm. Even the mess hall was discrete building, and the girls' dorm was patrolled by a contingent of very strict beady-eyed wardens with photographic memories and registers. The rec room was furnished with big couches, beanbags, a flat-screen mounted on the wall, a billiards table and cheerful sunshine-yellow wall paint. There was a full-length mirror in an alcove, and Nathan often commandeered it when his services were called upon.

Earlier, Olivia had accosted him during breakfast. She sashayed up to his table as he was shovelling maple-syrup-laden pancakes into his mouth, and fluffed her shaggy blown-out hair.

"Needs a trim, don't you think?" she'd asked.

"Of course, not. It's brilliant." Truthfully, he might have been thinking of the pancake melting in his mouth instead. "No, wait. What about layers? Yours grew out so much they look like a hackjob now."

Olivia, the nicest girl on campus, just laughed a little self-consciously. Anyone else would have flipped him off. His guilt overrode his business sense and he promised her a fifty percent discount.

Now, she'd come to claim it. The plump upholstered chair she sat on was amply covered in white sheets, and she was swathed in a second one as if he was trying to mummify her. He was grateful that she sat very still and patiently; most people fidgeted, wondered what was taking so long, wanted to plug in their earphones and tune out, or worse: they talked. Incessantly. Olivia was such a breath of fresh hair that he fantasised on the verge of psychotically keeping her bound to that chair forever.

"Ready?" he asked her.

She just nodded.

Nathan expertly snipped at the air with his long-handled scissors, and gently threaded his fingers through Olivia's hair. His skin tingled and familiar warmth shot up his arm in an electric current. Olivia's hair seemed to glow—not the usual inky blue, but gold sparks roiled down her hair so fast that they looked like a continuous wave. We're eight and it's the first time Mom's not cutting our hair The beauty parlour smells lemony; next to the big wall-to-wall mirror is a poster of elegant women in new and glamorous hairstyles Maybe we'll look like that, too, when this is done Can't wait can't wait can't wait the French bob the pixie cut oh oh oh the pixie makes her look like the pictures in that Enid Blyton book we love won't that look so great The hairdresser keeps a firm grip on our shoulder and holds our head in place ouch ouch ouch that hurts just keep looking at the lady with the pixie cut butterflies are exploding in our stomach we feel like we could bounce out of our seat

Balloons are wafting to the sky, a helium-filled cloud of floating candy Sid puts his arm around our shoulders, he's always joking about how mismatched we are Goofy and Minnie Mouse I'm a real dawg babe all man rawr He wears Winnie the Pooh boxers we're in love with an overgrown boy so sexy We'd watch birthday balloons take off with him all year round anyway, boyfriends can be sweet and adorkable and wear sneakers with formalwear, they don't have to be smooth and throaty-voiced and look tousled like they rolled off a futon they were kissing Ricky on everyone says he has a futon

The mention of his sleeping arrangements broke the spell. Nathan expertly ran a lock of Olivia's hair between the blades of his scissors. A metallic click preceded a blue-black ribbon curling on the floor. He felt Olivia shudder at the sight of how much he'd cut off.

"Don't worry," he murmured to the top of her head. She really was tiny. Well, petite. Technically speaking, tiny. He had to bend down to whisper, his lips accidentally-on-purpose brushing against the shell of her ear, "You're not going to look like a shorn sheep."

Olivia let out another one of her self-conscious little laughs and wriggled in her seat. Nathan inched back, but flicked the tip of her ear. "Careful," he warned. "These things are sharp. You don't want to move too much, or they'll be calling you Skinhead for a really long time."

"I thought you were supposed to be good at this," she replied. He was. "Everyone's always raving about your so-called skills." They were. "The reviews just didn't mention your terrible lack of professionalism."

The gold sparks made each strand of her hair light up. Naturally, no one else noticed. Other people milled about the rec room, but no one (presumably) gave them a second thought beyond how lucky he was to have an excuse to cosy up to girls like this. It was no secret that he had more female customers than male, and each time he touched their hair, he found out why. His ego loved the brief dive into their thoughts, the complete, utter certainty that girls thought he was hot and wished he was working them over with his hands in other ways.

Nope, Nathan had never thought of himself as a freak. Never broken into a cold sweat and thought he was losing his mind. Clichés were for losers. He'd never been worried that he'd pushed himself to a new level of grandiose delusion, something hallucinatory and obviously not real, except the proof was in the shiny goldenness that only he could see and the bone-deep stomach-turning feeling that he was reliving the other person's memory at the same time as they thought it. All because he was touching. Someone's. Head. And the award for the Gayest Thought Ever goes to… Nope. Being his wondrous, fantastical, commonsensical self, his first reaction had been: how do I make money out of this?

Soon, Olivia's hair started to take shape under his ministrations. Short layers framed her face, falling in steps down to her shoulders. Finally satisfied, he dropped his scissors into the plate-doubling-as-a-tray, and started to brush away the stray hair. Olivia bit her lip as she stared at her reflection, and he had the irrepressible urge to run his fingers through her hair. Just for a second. Just a peek.

Olivia's hand brushed against his as he reached for a silky strand. Hers was definitely an accident. "It looks amazing," she gushed, but she'd withdrawn her hand a little too sharply. "You're practically a pro."

He didn't miss a beat. "I work the evening shift at the roadside barbershop outside college, didn't you know? That's why the mushroomcut is my speciality."

"Mm, I knew I should have gone for that one. Everyone would have been so envious."

He whisked the sheet off from around her, finally satisfied that he'd done a decent job. "Hey, if I've made it happen, then it's guaranteed to be a hit."

Olivia fluffed out her now-drying hair and did an appreciative twirl in front of the mirror. "Perfect." She stood up on her toes and flung her arms around Nathan in the briefest most minimal contact hug. "Thanks so much. I'll see you around, okay?"

With that, she walked off, her new layers bouncing behind her. The only part of her that does.

He set to work, sweeping the rubbish into a plastic bag. The broom was his enemy, scattering manageable clumps of hair into individual strands. He tried to pinch the strands between his fingertips, trying to pick them up. He was down on his hands and knees to gather handfuls into the bag when a pair of high-tops stopped right before his field of vision.

"What's up, Cinderfella."

The sound of Tim's voice was like a comb being dragged over his bones. Nathan rocked back on his heels, adopting a negligent pose as he slowly looked up at his personal nemesis. "Come to check on me, ugly stepsister?"

"You bet. Clean my room before you can go to the ball."

"Go screw yourself." Tim extended a hand, and Nathan grabbed it to haul himself to his feet. "Come for a cut?"

Tim glanced over his shoulder to ensure that no one was paying attention to them, before he rubbed two fingers together in the universal gesture of money. "How's the, uh… special project going?"

And people wondered why Nathan didn't like this guy.

"It's going great." He shoved his hands into his pocket and leaned back against a wall of the alcove. It gave him a great view to watch the rec room for— and scope out his nearest exit. "Come by room 507 in fifteen minutes. I didn't forget that it's D-day, I just got…"

"Side-tracked by that totally hot piece of ass Sid's dating?"

For a second, he was about to protest things with Olivia were strictly PG-rated. She was absurdly in love with her boyfriend, and she was too sweet to dismiss as Sid's property. But Tim was winking at him like burying his hands knuckle-deep into a pretty girl's hair was the most R-rated experience that made porn classics like Dare to Hair pale in… And Award For the Best Innuendo does not go to…

Tim guffawed. "Oh, dude, you're totally thinking about her right now, aren't you?"

Nathan just smirked like he knew a secret. It was an effective technique that let the other person draw his own conclusions, whatever they were… Even if it wasn't to Olivia's benefit. But then again, you couldn't please everyone.

"C'mon," said Tim. "There's a whole crowd outside your room already." He made a dramatic flourish in the direction of the exit. "Your clamouring public awaits you."

Nathan glanced down at the mess at his feet. Fuck it, he thought. He'd kept the others waiting long enough. Room 507 was the hub of everything, the Mecca of babes and profits. Then, he had a mental image of Bikram, the magnificently moustachioed cleaner whose job it was to sweep the rec room. He was always complimenting Nathan's handiwork and never said anything about finding stray bits of hair wedged in the most impossible places of the building.

"You go on ahead," he said aloud instead. He glanced down irately at the pieces of hair that Tim's footfalls had scattered even further. "I'm going to be a while."

When Nathan strolled into his best friend's room, Owen was standing on his bed and ramming the wooden handle of a broom into the ceiling. "Shutupshutupshutup," he was chanting fervently under his breath, as if someone was listening.

The cacophony from the room directly above filtered down into Room 407. Nathan could almost make out individual voices and their jitteriness was both palpable and contagious. It was making Owen's face scrunch up and his neck suffuse with blood. He generously attributed this spike in blood pressure to why Owen was taking so long to notice that someone was lounging in his doorway.

"Hi," he said. He dropped the broom in his embarrassment. It clattered to the floor and he nearly tripped over it when he jumped off the bed.

In response, Nathan unfurled his palm expectantly.

Although he didn't like to admit it, Owen's room was preferable to nearly anywhere else on campus. There was a hot plate and a dearth of visitors, and a bookshelf filled with all their favourite video games. Owen had raided the kids' section of the supermarket to stick glow-in-the-dark stars on his ceiling because he was scared of his own Darth Vader bedsheets. The geek explosion was partially why Owen scared girls away twice as fast as he attracted them. He was of average height and his waistline was imperceptibly thickening, but his face was all cut-glass cheekbones and Hugh-Grant-level-floppy bedhead. He looked like he could advertise Paco Rabanne cologne, except his painful niceness and naïveté was plainly visible. Standing next to him, Nathan was often reminded of that line from Pride & Prejudice: 'There certainly was some great mismanagement in the education of those two young men. One has got all the goodness, and the other all the appearance of it.'

Owen rummaged through the depths of his closet, pushing aside a wad of rolled-up blankets to reveal the secret compartment. This was just an unfortunately deep fist-sized hole in the wall that they covered up with a sheet of craft paper the same shade as the paint. It wasn't a secret so much as hiding in plain sight. The hole was just big enough to hold their smallest treasures: a packet of weed, a list of passwords because Owen's memory was shit, and the all-important pen-drive.

He retrieved the latter now, handing it to Nathan, who tucked it into his back pocket and smiled for the first time.

"Ready for D-Day?" asked Owen, glancing up sourly. It could have been because he was still put out about the noise or because not a single person in Room 507 would be happy to see him.

"You bet." Nathan's smile pushed sideways into a smirk. "I love the smell of fifty-dollar bills in the morning." Having got what he wanted, he headed back out the door, pausing only to throw over his shoulder: "You coming or what?"

Owen didn't hesitate. He didn't even end up closing the door in his haste to trip out after Nathan.

They took the stairs two at a time, racing past the underwear drying on the banister and the graffiti-spattered walls. Nathan's fingers were twitching, aflame with the old pins-and-needles sensation. His own heart was thudding with the thrill of rule-breaking and he knew Owen was, too. He wanted to touch his friend's hair (gay gay gay very super-duper gay) and feel their melded excitement blitz through him.

Except he had a deal with himself: Owen's thoughts were off-limits. All his friends' were, if he could help it. Girls, maybe not so much. Teachers right before the exams, definitely not. Owen: non-negotiable. After all, he wasn't prepared to dive into the hero-worshippy geekfest uncool mess that was his best friend's head. He had standards.

"Heard you were giving Olivia Peters layers," said Owen as they stopped at the top of the stairs to compose themselves.

Not sensing a question in that, Nathan turned his attention to more important matters. He patted himself down and flicked back his hair into its usual calculatedly dishevelled state. He tugged down his jacket and made sure his T-shirt was half-tucked-half-out just so. When one looked like a bit of a freak (all natural red hair and scrubby pale skin), grooming was important. The nickname 'Ron Wealsey' had chased him all through fourteen years of school, when he'd rather be Sirius Black instead: the motorcycling leather-jacket-wearing cruel-streak-flaunting rebellious jerk with a heart of gold. Maintaining the perfect appearance was second nature to him.

A little perturbed, Owen pressed on. "Did you—with Olivia—you know—" He petted his own hair meaningfully.

Nathan involuntarily glanced up and down the stairs to ensure the landing of the fifth floor was deserted. Subtlety was completely lost on some people; it was almost enough to make him regret confiding his secret in one other human being. "Yeah," he said shortly. Then, the grin broke through. "She's into me. It was like those girls at One Direction concerts, she's so into me."

"Doesn't she have—"

"Trust me, her boyfriend doesn't stand a chance against this." He ran a hand down his side in emphasis, and Owen burst into appreciative laughter.

"I believe you, Casanova."

For a minute, they were just two dorks having a chuckle over their pet fantasies. But Nathan didn't want to be a dork, so reality reasserted itself.

"Let's go," he said, jerking his head in the direction of the corridor ahead.

The fifth floor was apparently deserted that Saturday noon, when the occupants were still burrowed in their beds, sleeping off the effects of the Friday night parties. Someone had forgotten their dirty dinner dishes in the communal sink, and a towel lay crumpled like a doormat outside the shared bathrooms. The faint noise of fifty gorillas bellowing all at once was the only proof that people lived behind the closed doors of the rows of rooms. As they turned the corner, the noise became louder.

Maybe it wasn't fifty people, but the queue was massive. It spilled out of the unlocked Room 507 and took over the corridor. Tim was the first person to spot Nathan; his gaze skipped right over Owen.

"There he is!" he crowed. "Guys, look who's here."

Welcoming hands grabbed at Nathan as he sidled through his fellow students and into his room. The only really valuable object (his MacBook) was perennially under lock and key, so there was no point applying the same to his front door. The single-occupancy room was decorated rather Spartanly. The standard-issue desk and chair were still there, but the bed had been swapped out for a futon. A whiteboard on the door was the only other personal touch. There were no photograph collages or posters; even his red-poppy-printed bedsheets were sent from home in a care package.

Nathan swept the mountains of books and tinned food off his desk, and climbed atop it. It gave him a great view of his subjects. He was swarmed by freshmen students, all of whom had a big midterm coming up. Nathan knew the first rule of business: there's always going to be scalpers. To maximise his profits, he assembled the largest possible number of punters, distributed his goods, collected his fee, and let them re-distribute to their hearts' content. After all, he was more interested in covering his costs than a monopoly.

And of course, Tim, the number one wholesaler on campus, was there at the back to get a cut of the action.

Speaking of… where's… And there was Owen, stuck on the fringes. He was still struggling to get into the room, blocked by waves of hopped-up freshmen who didn't recognise the lordly fourth-year amidst them.

"Oi!" Nathan barked from his elevated position of power. "Move aside, let him through. That's my manager, my cash-counter, people."

Several heads turned to see what he was talking about, and Owen waved back weakly. Tim rolled his eyes and gave him a hard shove from behind to propel him out of the throng.

"Can everyone kindly assemble in a straight line?" said Nathan. "Just make a file. Have your money and hard drives ready and approach this desk one by one, got it?" He snapped his fingers in Owen's direction. "Here's the cupboard key. Fetch my laptop. It's time to begin distribution."

Still standing on the table, he slouched against the wall, pleased to see how quickly they listened to him. Owen presented the Macbook to him with a flourish and Nathan inserted the pen drive. It took less than a second for its contents to be transferred, and by then, it was the turn of the first hapless student.

This one certainly fit the studious stereotype. At any rate, the boy wore horn-rimmed glasses and a neatly ironed buttondown. There was no reason why he couldn't hit the books and score an A, instead of buying test papers from his seniors. Nathan's motto was ask us no questions and we'll not pretend we care.

One by one, his punters came forward and he swapped cash for soft copies. It was almost automatic, his hands working with mechanical super-speed. His heart rate had slowed down, the thrill of flaunting the rules smoothed into a careful calculation of not getting caught. Leaning nervously against the same desk was Owen, trying not to hyperventilate.

Nathan caught his friend's eye and tried not to ooze triumph. He touched his fingers to his temple, wishing he could share someone else's lens to see his coup d'état with.