Nick's always tried not to want things he can't have. This isn't for any kind of sensible, practical reason – because honestly, he's never going to be either – more that he can definitely be happy with what he's already got.
He has his best friend (the best in the whole world), a sizable stack of sketchpads both blank and filled, and at least two young siblings who seem to think he hung the moon. He goes through most days smiling, and if sometimes his mom – if sometimes things get to be too much, he knows he's not alone. Whether he can go tuck his head into Howie's shoulder or immerse himself completely with his pencil and paper somewhere (anywhere), he's not alone.
It's only sometimes that he watches the basketball practices from the top of the bleachers and tracks the number five jersey move around the court, like it's somehow going to make a difference how hard he stares.
"Wait. Wait, so." Howie's eyes are wide behind his glasses. "So he's been dead the whole time?"
"Yep," Nick says, popping the ‘p.' He tosses a french fry into his mouth and nearly chokes on it because he is the smoothest in all the land.
"Huh." Howie stirs the spoon around in his soup in a very slow, thoughtful manner. "That's actually really cool."
"Seriously, you should've come with me," Nick tells him, trying to sound blasé about it, because he knows that being editor of the school newspaper is important and Howie can't hang out with him as much anymore now. He's really, really proud of him.
There's a loud "whoooooop!" coming from the near the entrance of the cafeteria, and Nick jerks his head just in time to see That One Guy From The Basketball Team (god, he's terrible with names) jump out of his seat to clap a fresh-from-PE-class-because-his-hair-is-still-wet-from-the-shower-which-is-obviously-why-Nick-apparently-knows-his-timetable Justin hard on the back. Justin's grinning and ducking his head as That Guy hollers for the whole place to hear, "this motherfucker is gonna land us a spot at the nationals, bitches!"
"Ugh," Howie says somewhere over his shoulder. Justin's cheeks are flushed now, but he looks happy. Really happy. Nick feels that odd jolt in his stomach that mostly makes him want to hide in an empty classroom somewhere and stick his headphones firmly over his ears.
"Yeah," he says quietly, watching as Justin gets herded by the entire basketball team to a nearby table. He laughs at something that Nick can't hear and tucks a hand through his ridiculously thick curls. Nick's whole chest aches.
"Nick?" Howie asks, sounding very far away before Nick snaps back to himself. "What-?"
"What?" Nick asks too quickly as he twists back around, cheeks already warm, not really looking anywhere for a while. He fiddles with his fork, stabs it absentmindedly into his soggy salad.
When he does look up, Howie's gaze is flickering somewhere over Nick's shoulder. He shifts his attention back, gives him the barest of smiles and shakes his head. "Nothing," he mutters.
It's another year before Nick ever talks to Justin. First day of sophomore year and Nick's sitting outside the school entrance, cross-legged and his sketchpad propped in his lap. The wind's blowing hard in the trees today and Nick's at that part of his drawing where the shadow he's making is almost right, so he doesn't hear the footsteps approaching him until it's too late.
"You mind?" a voice asks, and Nick freezes immediately, pencil digging into an awkward point on the poor sketched cat's paw. When he glances up from under his bangs, Justin's making a small ‘can I?' gesture towards the spot on the bench next to him, eyes expectant.
"Uh," Nick says intelligently. Justin's chewing on gum, and there's a strand of hair curling particularly strongly right behind his ear. "I-" he says, almost positive he doesn't usually sound so croaky, and now Justin's looking at him with a slight confused frown, "I, um, yeah – sure, of course, of course-"
He scrambles to jerk his backpack off the bench, and it lands on the ground with a dull thud of bookish defeat. Justin gives him a half smile of thanks and sits down on the opposite side of the bench the way strangers do.
"Thanks," he says, not unkindly but tired, and Nick mumbles, "sure, no problem," to his feet. His heart is suddenly making a valiant effort to pound right through his ribcage.
They sit there in silence until a car rolls by to pick Justin up and Nick's left letting out a long, shaky exhale.
He's walking down the hallway on his way to Spanish class when Justin comes out of one of the bathrooms, wiping his hands on his jeans.
"Hey," he says to Nick, nodding in recognition and adding a small smile as they pass each other.
Nick is most definitely sure that his eyes are bugging out of their sockets. "Hi," he replies a tad too loudly, but Justin's already halfway down the hallway, getting swallowed by a massive swarm of people who all touch him at least once.
A month later some guy from the theater group sticks a flyer in his hand and says, "Party at my house on Friday, come along, dude."
Nick blinks at least twice, because while he knows this guy a little from when he helps out with sets for plays, this has still never happened before. "'Kay," he says out of sheer surprise, and the guy gives him a thumbs up and turns around. "Who's gonna be there?" Nick adds for no reason that he knows.
"Dude, everyone," the guy says, walking backwards for a few steps before he's off.
Oh, that's – that's. Right.
So when Friday rolls around Nick goes rummaging through his closet and finds a black shirt that his dad gave him once when he didn't want it for himself anymore. It's sleek, and when he tries it on he doesn't look quite as lanky as usual.
He doesn't ask Howie if he's coming too, or even tell him that he's going, because Howie's busy anyway and … he just doesn't.
It's a complete gamble, but when he turns up at the party an hour after the time on the invitation it doesn't actually take him long to spot Justin. Mostly because Justin's sprawled across a table, head dangling off it and chugging hard from a beer bong with the entire party crowd cheering him on.
"Heeeey," he says an hour later, when he stumbles into Nick's path from the kitchen. "Hi!"
Nick grins nervously. He's nursing his second beer and has mostly been standing by the staircase, occasionally getting invited into conversations with students from the art department. "Hi," he says, because Justin said it first, and because he's looking at him with squinty drunken intensity.
To add to Nick's misery, he even tilts his head. "I know you," he says at last, slurring surprisingly little from how much he's been drinking. Not that Nick's keeping track. "You're the – you watch practice sometimes, right?"
"Uh," Nick breathes, feeling his blush starting at his goddamn toes. "I guess."
"Yeah," Justin says. The music's loud, so he leans forward with a hand braced on Nick's shoulder. He murmurs into Nick's ear, "Yeah, I've – I've seen you."
Nick shivers hard. He's not drunk, not really, or he'd attribute all this to a really fantastic hallucination. Justin smells like he took a bath in beer and Nick still wants him to breathe on him all day if he wants to, that would be really very okay. "I hope I-" he starts, and has to clear his throat when Justin pulls back just a little to look at him, "I mean, I hope I haven't been getting in the way. Sorry?"
Justin grins lazily at that, his eyes hooded and unfocused. "Nah," he says in a low voice, and Nick wonders if it's normal to want to lick someone from head to toe just because of one tiny syllable. "S'good. I want to impress."
Nick laughs, surprised. "That's - you impress me all the time," he blurts out before he has any time to think about it. Maybe he's a little bit drunk after all.
Justin hums in a pleased way. He steps forward so Nick is forced to back up against the wall, and he feels the bass of the music pound all the way along his back. "You have nice eyes," Justin muses, studying his face. "Couldn't tell from where you sit, like, all the way up – bleachers are high." He stops at Nick's mouth for several seconds, just watching. Nick wets them self-consciously, sucking in a sharp breath when he hears Justin mutter something that sounds like, "I've never – I mean, a guy – maybe I should-"
Nick's first kiss happens when he's fifteen and a half, with the most talented and most popular basketball player in any high school in the state. Though Nick just thinks Justin and doesn't give a shit about trophies or newspaper articles when he gets squashed against the wall of a near stranger's house by Justin's weight. He remembers it for years after, how it feels when Justin slips a hand into his hair, angles his head and catches his lower lip between his on a dazed exhale.
It's sloppy for a few minutes, because Justin's drunk out of his mind and Nick has no idea what he's doing. Then Nick's brain catches up to the events and his whole world spins. He grabs Justin's head in his hands, catches the edge of his teeth on the corner of his mouth and works so hard to make the kiss good, pours a year's worth of repression into it. Justin moans like he's surprised, and Nick thinks, yeah, yes, I can, and runs his hand down Justin's back, sinks his teeth lightly into his lower lip on pure carnal impulse, catching Justin's sharp exhale like he's been doing this all his life.
Justin pulls back barely an inch when someone hoots especially loudly in the background, dark eyes meeting Nick's. He looks intent and distracted both, his gaze gliding down to Nick's mouth more than once, and Nick feels his breath catch in his throat so hard it hurts. The hooting becomes distinguishable then, slipping itself out of the streams of conversation and laughter around them.
"Whoo yeah, Timberlake! Guys, Justin's deflowering Picasso boy!"
Nick has a second for that to process before Justin rolls his eyes, still so close that Nick mostly just sees a flurry of eyelashes, and he lets go of Nick with one hand. Nick drags his eyes away briefly, and when he sees that Justin's flipping off the room in general behind his back he tips his head back and laughs until Justin starts mouthing at his jaw and the sound goes uneven in his throat.
"He – it was," Nick breathes, hugging his knees close to his body and beaming into them. "He just kept going, Howie. I don't even know how long we – but he – we didn't even stop after that. It was amazing."
Howie makes a sound, this strained, quiet thing from the back of his throat that Nick doesn't understand. He doesn't have time to ask before he sprawls out across his bed and says, "That's – wow. That's great, Nicky. I'm really – are you happy?"
Nick thinks his face is going to just shatter from his grin any second now. "Yeah," he nods, and keeps nodding until Howie sighs and gently asks him to go to sleep.
He should've known, though. Honestly, he should have. He comes walking down the hallway with Howie on Monday morning and Justin's leaning against his locker, talking quietly to another one of his teammates. He looks amazing, Nick thinks frenziedly, and now he knows exactly how it feels to kiss that small indent on his lower lip that he's been obsessing over for far too long.
"Want me to leave?" Howie asks once he spots him too.
"No, no," Nick says in one quick breath, grabbing onto Howie's forearm but keeping his gaze firmly ahead, smiling helplessly. He's flushed once they get close enough, and he calls a soft, "hey, Justin."
Justin looks over at him, head still tipped back against his locker. He frowns a little, and looks at the guy next to him. "Hi…?" he says carefully, and Nick's stomach promptly drops to his feet. Through the floor, probably.
"Oh," he says, to no one, dully feels Howie's hand tighten around his wrist, keeping him walking now. Justin's still looking at him as he walks away, brows furrowed in what looks like a mixture of concentration and confusion. Nick can barely put one foot in front of the other, and he turns back around quickly when a lump rapidly appears in his throat.
"C'mon," Howie murmurs a few times as they walk, "c'mon, c'mon," making sure they don't look like they're rushing because Howie remembers to think about things like that. He keeps glancing at Nick, but Nick keeps his gaze firmly locked on his shoes. "Nick," he tries, and Nick remembers that tone of voice from nights when he's choked stupid words into Howie's pillow that won't change anything. "Nick, I'm so sorry."
Nick just shakes his head vehemently until Howie stops talking.
He's sitting in the empty Art classroom, hunched over the stupid painting of Aaron and Angel that he just can't get right, when Justin finds him.
"It's Nick," he snaps, drawing a vicious stripe through Angel's hair. He didn't even know he was angry until now. He hardly ever gets angry. "Just so you know. That's my name."
"I know," Justin mutters, jamming his hands on his pockets. He hovers in the doorway for a second before he steps into the room. "I know your name," he tells him.
Nick snorts and reaches for a sponge, starts blotting at the new colors he's added to the background. "Look, it's not – I get it. No hard feelings or anything."
"No, come on, let me apologize, okay?" Nick's intently focused on his painting, intently, but he hears Justin take a few steps closer anyway. "I practically impregnated you against that wall and then I forget that you were at the party at all. I was hammered, okay? I'm really sorry. I'm not the guy who – I don't do that." There's a pause. "Okay, sometimes I do that, but I didn't – I was really, really drunk."
"Yeah," Nick murmurs, with a sigh. He takes a second to brace his hands on his knees, then starts packing his things away. "I know."
Before he knows what's happening Justin's sitting down next to him on the floor. Nick's pulse spikes, and he suddenly realizes that he's been saying actual sentences to this guy for a good few minutes now. So that's something to take away from this, at least. "It's," he starts, then has to swallow when Justin's knee bumps into his on accident, "it's nice that you're here and everything, but I don't really know why you bothered, I guess? So thanks for, you know, acknowledging, but-"
"You wore a really big sweatshirt the last time you watched us practice," Justin says to the ground. Nick goes absolutely still. "It was like – wasn't it a Stanford one? I didn't get it, ‘cause it was, like, September, and I was thinking you must've been dying, but you just sat there with your notepad and chewed on your pen a lot." He shifts a little, uncomfortably, and adds, "the time before that you didn't have shoes or socks on." He shifts his gaze to Nick's shoulder. "I know your name," he says quietly.
There's a shiver traveling slowly down Nick's spine. "Sketchpad," he says dumbly, and promptly wants to crawl into a hole. "I – it's a sketchpad."
Justin gives him a half grin. "Sorry," he says.
"S'fine," Nick exhales on an incredulous laugh, fingers twitching. "I – you have practice later, right? Maybe I'll – I could come by."
Justin finally meets his eyes, but he doesn't look surprised. More pleased, and he smiles like this is something he was hoping for. "Yeah, you should do that."
The first time Nick goes to see Justin practice, (really, it's probably the thirtieth), that same afternoon, he and Justin hang out on the bleachers for an hour afterwards, flipping through Nick's latest sketchpad. When Justin hunches over to study the drawing of Howie reading in his favorite armchair, Nick feels his throat tighten up at the faint mingled smell of sweat and cologne and tries to come off like he talks to people he barely knows all the time, like he regularly lets people into his tiny, reliable little world.
The second time, Justin coaxes him out on the court after everyone's left. He laughs so hard he doubles over when Nick actually trips over the basketball, and Nick can actually laugh at it too instead of wanting to die on the spot.
The third time, Nick brings soda bottles (and okay, two cans of beer, he's with Justin Timberlake, no one's going to reprimand them) and all the candy he could carry, and they sprawl out on the empty court with litter all around them and map out a chart for all the greatest Bee Gees hits, ranging from Jumping Off A Cliff Voluntarily Before Listening To This to Would Actually Get It On To This.
The fourth time, Justin takes his wrist and pulls him under the bleachers before the rest of his team arrives. He backs Nick up against the metal rail and kisses him so deeply and for so long that Nick's lungs feel like they're caving in, but when Justin hears his choked noises and pulls back to hurriedly whisper, "sorry, Nick, I'm sorry, are you-?", Nick actually whines in desperate protest and closes the space between them faster than anything. They kiss open-mouthed then, breathing hard and rapid, both so hungry for it that their hands keep bumping trying to touch each other everywhere.
Justin's at least ten minutes late for practice, leaving a panting and overwhelmed Nick in the semi-darkness of their hiding place, kissing him over and over before he goes like he can't physically tear himself away.
He takes Justin to meet Howie fairly early on, because there's no way he can be with someone and not have Howie like them. (Not that there's any chance that Howie isn't going to like Justin – Justin's amazing; smart and funny and keeps kissing Nick for these ridiculously long stretches of time so lips feel raw and insanely incredible – although Nick recognizes that Howie probably isn't going to judge Justin's qualities on that last one.)
They go to Howie's house and walk so close they brush up against each other from shoulders to knuckles. They all play Scrabble together and Justin entertains Howie for ages with all the dirt he has on the basketball team ("totally off the record," Howie says in a choked voice, eyes wide behind his glasses), and when Nick goes to get more dip Justin corners him on the way from the kitchen. They kiss in the empty hallway until Nick can't stop smiling and Justin mostly ends up kissing his teeth.
"He's great," Howie says quietly, while Justin's in the bathroom. Nick grins hard and flings his arms around Howie's neck, squeezes tight. Howie chuckles into his neck, touches Nick's back briefly. "Really great, Nick. And he's so into you."
Nick makes a tiny sound of uncontainable happiness into Howie's shoulder and throws them onto Howie's bed, still hugging, Howie yelping in surprise and then laughing warmly in his ear.
Nick didn't think he was going to be particularly nervous once the question of sex happened in his life – he never gave it much thought, really – but he didn't expect that he'd want it so badly. He also never, ever expected to end up dating Justin for longer than two weeks, because if he had he would've checked himself into the nearest mental asylum.
"Justin," he groans, sinking his teeth into his collarbone to hear Justin snap for breath again. Justin's so strong, and there's so much of him, and Nick can't stop – his hands are everywhere, and Justin's hands are all over his body too, running down his sides, fisting into his hair, and Nick's so fucking turned on all the fucking time. "I want to – I want-"
"What, what?" Justin says like he's not even hearing, propping up on his elbows so they can kiss again, filthy kisses that have so much tongue, fuck. They're supposed to be watching a movie, but the DVD menu's been looping for ages now and Justin's parents' couch is about to get seriously defiled, Nick knows it.
"I want," he moans against Justin's mouth, then his jaw, "I want, I want," and he's slithering down, mouthing at the center of Justin's chest (fuck, he's shirtless, Nick gets to see him shirtless, fuck) and then he's yanking hard on Justin's jeans, fumbling with the belt and then the zipper.
"Oh, shit," Justin breathes when Nick scoots down between his legs. He throws an arm over his eyes and just keeps going, "shit, shit, shit, shit," his whole upper body flushed and heaving.
Nick's a virgin and Justin isn't, but they haven't talked about it and it doesn't actually matter. Nick feels Justin's hands shaking as they weave into his hair and he's not nervous, god, he just wants.
People at school have been calling him Picasso boy for ages now, since junior high even. Nick supposes they mean it as some sort of insult, but he's never been bothered by it. Justin's never called him that, though, not once, but then Justin never called him anything until a month ago.
"I don't know," he says thoughtfully, as they stand over Nick's latest finished painting. It's a man facing away, looking down a dark green corridor at a shadowed figure far away. "I'd go with Monet, myself." He glances over, ducks his head when he grins. "More than meet the eye and everything."
"So cheesy," Nick says, because if he gives in to the fluttering in his chest and the way his fingers itch to hold now, they're not going to be leaving this room for a long, long time.
It's nearly Christmas and Justin gives Nick his gloves when they're walking back from school. Nick stops in his tracks, and stays there until Justin turn around and looks at him.
"What?" he asks, smiling very lightly.
After a few seconds Nick ends up just shaking his head. "Nothing," he croaks, and slips them on. They're soft, and he flexes his fingers slowly as he catches back up. They walk back to Justin's house together, and after two blocks they're holding hands, bare fingers and gloved ones intertwined.
That night Justin settles on top of him very carefully, shifting his weight around as he watches Nick's face. Like he's trying to memorize it.
Nick's heart is pounding furiously, so much that his voice wobbles with it when he asks, "Have – have you ever, you know – before?"
"Not – not with a guy," Justin says just as unsteadily, reaching into his nightstand drawer for the condoms and lube they bought a while back. "Have you?"
"Not with, um, a human," Nick says, and then promptly goes red when Justin splutter-laughs and buries his head in his neck. "I mean-"
"You're ridiculous, god," Justin gasps, and Nick relaxes a little at the fondness he hears there. He trails his hand down Justin's side, the planes he's slowly learning, and Justin sighs a little. "We'll be fine," he murmurs, his stubble scratching against Nick's skin.
A while later they're so heavily tangled together that Nick barely understands where the pain he's feeling is coming from, because Justin's everywhere, breathing hard against Nick's jaw as he moves, and Nick is just as out of breath and all that exists is sweat and skin and aching.
He grits his teeth hard, but when Justin moves inside him wrong he can't hold back the pained grunt in time, and Justin whispers in one long, gasping breath, "I know, god, I'm sorry, I'll make it good later, next time, I promise, I promise, Nick, I'll," and Nick tilts his face up and kisses him because he already knows that.
"Nick," Justin moans into his mouth, twists his hips so Nick gasps without meaning to, wraps his legs harder around Justin's waist and rasps, "yeah, I, this is, it's already, it's you," and Justin moans a little louder at that and brushes his lips over the corner of his mouth and this is the most amazing fucking thing that's ever happened in Nick's life.
Nick still eats lunch with Howie every day, because it never occurs to him not to. Howie's been complaining about his assistant, Rob, for a few weeks now, but Nick never minds hearing about it, because Howie never complains like he's the one person who suffers most on the planet, unlike most people. He makes everything funny, but then again everything Rob does is really stupid. Howie's almost finished telling him how Rob somehow got the front page headline to read, Possible Rotten Dick Meat in Last Friday's Cafeteria Menu, and Nick's laughing so hard he's nearly falling out of his chair when a very familiar hand settles on his back.
"Hey," Justin says, eyes warm when Nick looks up in surprise. He nods at Howie too. "Can I join you guys?"
And just like that, Nick smiles so wide his jaw aches. "'Kay, okay," he says, stumbling over the words, and tries to ignore the way his heart is pounding at breakneck speed.
Justin kisses him when he gets up to head for PE class. Nick kisses back out of reflex and then reels back and says, "whoa," eyes completely round.
Justin laughs at him and brushes his bangs carefully away from his forehead. "I'll see you later," he murmurs, and heads towards the exit, passing his usual table of people who are all staring from him to Nick and back again like they've just seen the second coming.
In the first few months after New Years, there is so much sex.
No, seriously, there is so much sex.
Nick's basically walking around with a dopey grin permanently etched on his face all through February.
They even hold hands when they're walking through the school now. Justin's the kind of guy who likes to dote on whoever he's with, Nick's found, and every time Justin kisses his temple or leans against his back when they're waiting in line for food, Nick feels that bubble of happiness in his chest get bigger and bigger until it doesn't seem possible that he's holding all of this inside him. He's just one small person.
Justin's friends have never given him a hard time about being with a guy, about being with Nick, but they don't acknowledge Nick either when they stop by Justin's locker to tell him a story or give him a high-five.
"They don't know," Justin says fiercely, and Nick just shakes his head with a small smile. "No," Justin says, even more firm, pinning Nick up against his locker and putting both of Nick's arms around his own back so they circle him. "They don't know," he repeats right behind Nick's ear, then kisses him absolutely thoroughly until the bell rings.
It takes a long time before Justin wants to bottom. Nick's fine with that, because he loves it and gets off on it in a massive way when Justin pins him to the bed or the wall and just has his way with him. (And when it's slow too, when Justin makes sure that he feels everything, until Nick's just moaning long streams of unintelligible nonsense and his hair is matted to his forehead and the pillows from how long they've been going at it.) One day, though, he just sort of ends up under Nick and looks at him with big, questioning eyes, and Nick nearly swallows his tongue in his hurry to get to the nightstand.
The first time is awful. Really, it's completely awful, because Justin's clenching his jaw the whole time and Nick doesn't know what he's doing wrong and he's hurting Justin. So he frets the whole next day, and when they talk on the phone that night it's mostly awkward, so Nick just gives up and goes to the library. The library, for fuck's sake.
But then, after the second try, when Justin's gone hoarse from moaning so loud and Nick can't move, can't think, and they're a sticky, sweaty mess and Justin says, "oh my god, that – why didn't you tell me that's what it's like?" Nick just bursts out laughing against his neck and feels totally entitled to think of himself as a sex god.
Nick really likes Justin's family. Lynn, especially, is incredible, and clearly loves Justin a whole lot. She's invited Nick to family dinners and game nights right from the start, and after he got off the phone from calling home once, she'd tucked some hair behind his ear and said, "oh, honey."
Sometimes though, even when he's tucked into Justin on the living room couch, both of them wrapped up in the same blanket, Justin and his mom sing along loudly to The Facts of Life theme song, and Nick has to hide his face discreetly in Justin's collar so they don't notice.
"It's not," Nick sobs, hugging his knees close to him, because even though it's the middle of the night and it's dark, it still feels like too much. "She's just always – I don't know why they even had children, they – she makes an effort sometimes, with the twins, but I'm – I stayed over at Howie's once for a week and she didn't even notice, she-"
"Nick," Justin says, too strained, and even if Nick can't see him he can feel him. Nick's shaking all over, and it doesn't stop when Justin arranges himself carefully against his back, legs and arms going around him, and they just sit there like that and Nick talks and cries until he physically can't keep going any longer.
Nick desperately wants to have sex when they wake up the next morning, but Justin just pushes him back into the pillows with a shushing sound and goes to make them flapjacks to eat in bed.
Later on Nick licks the strawberry jam off the corner of Justin's mouth, and then they just lie there kissing for god knows how long, on their sides so they can whisper brief touches over each other with their fingertips.
Justin smiles warmly at him whenever they make eye contact, different from how he's done it before.
Howie goes away for an internship that lasts the entire summer vacation. Nick feels like someone's cut off his arm and shipped it on the 8AM plane to Washington.
Justin hugs him a lot, and holds him a lot the first few days, and when Nick talks to Howie on the phone and Howie sounds so excited, Justin's right there to wrap an arm around his shoulders and nuzzle his throat while Nick musters up a smile in his voice and reminds himself over and over not to ask Howie to come back.
"I give up," Nick exclaims, throwing his sketchpad on the floor with thump. He pinches the bridge of his nose and groans. "Seriously. They're gonna-"
"They're not gonna flunk you," Justin says calmly, flipping through the TV channels without really looking. He pokes Nick in the thigh with his toe. "You're awesome, there's no one in the arts department more talented – seriously, don't give me the raised eyebrow – and people need to start worshipping the ground you walk on. Really, you're dating me, I don't know why they're not doing that already."
Nick sighs, scrubbing his hands over his face. "Maybe if I just-"
"It's summer, Nick," Justin whines, rolling onto his back. He's only wearing a pair of very loose, very low hung sweatpants, and now Nick is very obviously staring. Justin smirks, and stretches languidly, so each and every one of his million and one muscles move under his skin. Nick's throat is really, really dry. "Nick," he drawls with a grin, keeping his arms over his head. "Draw me like one of your French girls."
Nick finally laughs, so hard he has to lean forward and quash it against Justin's hipbone. "I hate you so much," he chuckles, already shifting over so he can kneel between Justin's lazily spreading legs.
Justin tugs a hand through his hair and smiles. "That's what they all say."
Justin isn't smiling anymore when they end up with charcoal smeared in blurry, rubbed-out lines over them both, mostly because Nick makes sure that he can't.
"God, Nick, I-" Justin breathes, tipping his head back, and Nick bites hard at his hipbone, licks the skin there before he paints it black.
They break up towards the end of July, over something as stupid as socks. Nick tries to call Howie five times, but Howie's away, he knows, they're on some stupid team-bonding trip in the woods, so it goes straight to voicemail every time.
It's the strangest feeling, like his lungs are stretched beyond their capacity at every second and no matter how slowly he breathes, it still feels like he's choking. He's home alone for once and he just sits in his room, in complete darkness, and concentrates on breathing in and out.
There's an indistinct sound that eventually morphs into the doorbell, and Nick looks up blearily, blinking like he's underwater. The ringing doesn't stop, and at some point Nick pushes himself to his feet to answer, mostly because the noise is starting to hurt his ears.
Justin's at the door when he opens it, and Nick has to blink at few times because he's kept the whole house dark, so he can't be entirely sure – but Justin's there, eyes sunken in and heavy, biting his lower lip hard for a long time before he finally gets out, "fuck, I can't," and lurches forward.
They kiss so hard that Nick tastes blood, and they're clawing at each other in a way that'll leave long scratch marks, but Nick is beyond caring, Nick wants that. He's pressed face first into the wall before he registers that they've moved, and Justin is tearing his clothes off, his harsh panting drowning out of the sound of Nick's quiet, quiet pleas.
They're loud though, once they get going. Justin bites him all the way along both his shoulders and the nape of his neck, and Nick can't stop shivering, can't stop moaning and fumbling behind him to get a hold of Justin's hips and pull him closer.
"Nick, I, Nick, Nick, I," Justin pants, biting behind his ear, and Nick groans hard into the wall. "God, throw your socks anywhere, I don't care," Justin growls, and Nick has just enough breath left to laugh as wildly as he ever has before before it gets taken away from him again.
"I met someone," Howie tells him the same day he gets back, when they're sitting on his bed and Nick can't stop touching him, has to make sure he's tangible again. He stops at that though, and Howie ducks his head to hide his smile. "He, uh – his name's Jeremy, and-"
"Oh," Nick says. It takes a moment, but then he feels himself make a smile, feels the elasticity in his cheeks. "That's – how?"
"He was an intern, too," Howie tells him, biting his lip. He looks flushed and happy, and Nick doesn't know why he isn't happy for him. "He, um – I kissed him first, and it was…"
Nick nods along, smiles again and swallows against the dry feeling in his throat as Howie keeps talking. There's a sinking feeling in his stomach that he tries to push aside.
"What do you want for your birthday?" he murmurs, eyes hooded with sleep as he watches Justin open the buttons on Nick's pajama shirt one by one.
"Dunno." Justin bends down to kiss Nick's exposed collarbone and fiddles idly with another button. They haven't gotten out of bed all day. "A private jet would be nice."
"'Kay," Nick says, dusting his thumb along Justin's cheekbone. "What else?"
"An anything-goes, get-out-of-jail, nothing's-too-freaky twenty hours sex pass."
Nick laughs at that. "What do I not let you do at this point?"
"Fair enough," Justin grins. He props up on an elbow and gets the last button open without looking at it. There's a careful smile on his face when he asks, "you'll be here?"
Nick smiles lazily back. "Yeah," he says, nodding.
Justin turns his head a little and scrapes his teeth over Nick's wrist. "Okay," he mutters. "Good."
Justin has a solo performance with the choir just before their break in the fall, and he doesn't stop freaking out over it for days.
"I mean, I know I can do it," he says, and Nick can't help but roll his eyes. "I'm awesome at this, but there's – it's a lot of people, Nick."
"You'll be fine," Nick says, tucking some curls behind his ear. He used to daydream about doing that all the time. "Think of it this way, you can probably add more people to your adoring fanbase afterwards."
"Ooh," Justin says, perking up immediately.
When the night of the performance rolls around, everyone's there. Everyone. Howie's even there with … with Jeremy, which is – okay, it's weird, but Nick can deal with that. He has to focus on Justin anyway, who comes jogging out from behind the curtains five minutes before the show's about to start.
"What are you doing?" Nick whispers as he stands up from his seat in the front row, fitting his hand around Justin's elbow on instinct. "Professor Chasez is gonna have your head if you're-"
"I know, I know," Justin says, out of breath, and then he moves to lean his forehead against Nick's, right there in front of everyone and their parents and uncles and aunts. Nick's breath catches oddly, a stuttered sound that only Justin can hear, but it doesn't take long for him to rest his hands on Justin's forearms and rub there soothingly.
"Okay," Justin exhales, after a while. He nods against Nick's forehead. "Okay. Okay, that's better. I'll just-"
"I love you," Nick whispers, closing his eyes so he doesn't have to – he doesn't want to see it if—
But he hears Justin make a tiny noise anyway, and a second later he's kissing him hard, in a way that can only be described as deeply possessive. People are still chatting quietly among themselves, no one's paying them all that much attention, but Nick feels stupidly overwhelmed anyway, too big and clumsy to be this person that Justin is holding and kissing and then kissing some more and then really kissing, like they're alone, like no one else is there.
Justin breathes shakily against the corner of his mouth, says in one awed breath, "wait till later and I'll show you how much I-" and kisses him so, so deep, so Nick has to wrap his arms around his neck or he'll honest-to-god fall. He pulls back to look Nick in the eye, all disbelief and adoration, then gives Nick a few brief, hard kisses before he actually tears himself away and moves swiftly back behind the curtain.