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A One Time Thing (or Why Teenage Boys Are Pussies)

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"You can't do it," Justin says.

"The shorter half of the Dark Lords," Justin says.

"I'll bet you a hundred bucks," Justin says.

And yeah, Nick is pretty much the king of the goddamn school, but he's got four kid siblings and an addict for a mother, and being co-captain of the basketball team means he's got fuck all time for a job. He's shit at construction work anyway, so yeah. He could use the extra money.

Plus, a hundred bucks to screw with the school hierarchy? Walk in the park.

Or it should have been. Only now--

His cell phone buzzes in his pocket, a momentary distraction from his solo pity party. It's a message from Howie. 'how's it going? '

Nick sighs. 'Still @ his house.'

It's freezing out, too, and instead of drinking eggnog and eating turkey at Brian's with the rest of his teammates, he's stuck here, shivering and starving and goddamn lovelorn. Fucking Justin and his fucking bets.

It's like Howie can read his freaking mind. 'can't blame justin.'

Nick glowers at the screen. 'Fine,' he texts back. Twenty thousand miles away, and Howie's still playing Jiminy Cricket to his Pinocchio. 'I h8 u so much.'

Howie takes all of two seconds to reply. 'merry xmas to you too.'

Nick groans, and sinks into a crouch outside AJ's front door. If someone doesn't come soon, he's going to eat the fucking Christmas wreath.

Approaching the Dark Lords is a hell of a lot harder than it sounds.

For one thing, Kevin Richardson has eyebrows the size of giant mutated caterpillars, and the heavy eyeliner? Does not make him any less intimidating. AJ McLean pulls off the whole emo-goth look a little better, but Nick's pretty sure recycled curtains aren't flattering on anyone.

Nick waits them out by their lockers, hands tucked casually in his jean pockets, one ankle folded over the other. He doesn't straighten when they show up. "Hey."

AJ looks at him, raises an eyebrow. "Yeah, sure," he snorts. "Where's the hidden camera?"

Nick frowns. "What?"

AJ slams his locker shut and turns to Nick, head cocked expectantly. He plasters a smile on when Nick doesn't budge. "Move."

"All I said was hey," Nick points out.

"And all I said was are you done fucking with the high school social order," AJ bites out. It's not a question. Beside him, Kevin glares.

Nick raises his hands in mock surrender, and watches as the Dark Lords stalk away. Halfway down the hall, AJ pauses, glancing over his shoulder with a frown. Nick smiles, snapping off a quick, two-finger wave, and AJ's scowl darkens.


Unfortunately, Nick spends the rest of the week being shot down. He memorizes AJ's timetable, plans his course so that they bump into each other at every possible opportunity. At break, after his basketball practices, before AJ's drama class, during Biology.

He's four days in, and they haven't even had a decent conversation yet (which, okay, was kind of intriguing at first, and Nick's always up for a challenge, but getting people to like him has never been a problem, and the charm of having to work for it is starting to wear off). Nick's just starting to appreciate the six billion ways there are to say "I think you're an asshole".

Justin somehow manages to catch the tail end of all the action, too. Every time AJ walks away, he flashes Nick that stupid mega-watt grin and mouths, "Looks like somebody's slipping."

To make things worse, the twins need new stuff for school, so it would not suck if AJ decided to cooperate and just have sex with him already.

It's not like Nick's a bad lay.

Nick flops onto his bed with a groan, and pulls out his cell. 'Wht do guys want, Howie?'

'why don't i like the sound of that?'

'Coz sex talk makes u squirmy?'

Nick can practically hear Howie sigh. 'why are you texting me?'

'Need an in w/ sum1 & can't get it.'

'and you thought i'd have good advice for you because...??'

Nick actually pauses. 'Dammit,' he texts back eventually. 'Yd u have 2 go so far? It's just educatn.'

'yeah, nick. i'm sorry i picked harvard over you too. go talk to brian.'

As it turns out, Howie was totally the right person to text, because Brian is secretly a genius evil overlord. Or something close to it, at least. Nick explains the situation with AJ, and Brian just grins and kind of rolls his eyes. "Amateur," he says.

Which is how Nick ends up being shoved into an empty janitor closet, with AJ right behind him. Nick stumbles into a mop, and AJ ends up on top of him, one elbow planted in Nick's gut and the other all but jabbing him in the face. None of that bodes a good start, except it gives Nick a good chance to really look AJ over, eyeliner and all, and wow, yeah.

Then AJ pushes away from him, and Nick discovers that the body hiding beneath the curtains is lean. Limber. He feels his interest spike again. He can totally do this.

"What the hell is this?" AJ hisses, as he rolls to his feet.

Nick's a little slower to stand. "I'm guessing this is Brian's idea of a practical joke."

By then, AJ's already at the door, jerking uselessly at the knob. He looks back briefly at Nick, at the statement. "A joke?" he sneers. He slams his fist against the door, once, then gives up when it doesn't budge. "His sense of humor needs work."

Nick laughs despite himself. "That's what I keep telling him."

AJ doesn't look amused when he turns around. His eyes are hard, his arms folded. "What are we doing in here?" he bites out.

Nick tries to look contrite. "Look, it's not Brian's fault. He's just - he was getting sick of hearing me talk about you all the time. He said, and I quote, grow a pair and fucking talk to him already. He probably figured this was the best way to make it happen."

"Uh huh," AJ snorts. "Try again."

Nick gapes as AJ turns back to the door. Because the thing is? Nick's not actually an asshole, okay, and he totally doesn't buy into the myth that that's how popular jocks have to behave - that's Justin's territory - and it's not like he's been anything but friendly so far. They were only supposed to be in here long enough for Nick to convince AJ to have sex with him, but that plan's pretty much moot at this point. Hell, Nick even dressed up today; a pair of snug, faded jeans, a soft, gray, collared sweatshirt, and this is the reception he gets? This is insane. "What the hell is wrong with you?" Nick demands, hotly.

"Me?" AJ asks, incredulously. It's the first time Nick's gotten anything other than disdain from him. "Your friend just fucking barricaded us in a closet!"

"What else was he supposed to do?" Nick argues. "You've been acting like I have the plague!"

"Yeah," AJ retorts, as he folds his arms. "Which is no different from the way we've treated each other the last three years. Why is that suddenly a problem?"

That catches Nick completely off-guard. His self-righteous anger evaporates, and he flounders for a second. "Okay, fine," he says, finally, spreading his hands. "Fine. You want the truth?"

That seems to get AJ's attention. He pauses reluctantly in his attempts to escape their enclosed space. "I'm listening."

"Good," Nick says, too vehemently. Dammit, he's never been any good at back-up plans. "Uh, okay. The truth. It's, um. The truth is - is that I? I'm failing English." Nice. "Yeah. I need to keep my grades above a B or they're going to kick me off the basketball team. So I'm supposed to do this extra credit thing for class, like a skit or something, and I heard you're the best there is in Drama." Nick shrugs. "Figured I'd ask for some advice."

"Advice," AJ repeats, clearly unconvinced, but his shoulders relax, just a fraction. "Acting advice."

"Yeah," Nick says easily. "Sure."

AJ eyes him warily. "How long would it take?"

"Couple of lessons," Nick promises. The relief and hopefulness is his voice is all real. Justin's not going to keep the money on the table forever. "Quick and painless."

AJ looks at Nick a moment longer. "And if I say yes, you'll stop fucking stalking me?"

Nick raises a hand solemnly. "Scout's honor."

AJ turns back to the door, contemplatively, then drops his forehead against it with a long-suffering sigh. "Fine."

Nick very nearly cheers, and he sends up a quiet 'thank you' to whoever's listening.

AJ glances over his shoulder, then. "If you're done celebrating," he deadpans. "You think you can get your friends to let us out now?"

Nick rolls his eyes as he raps on the door to get Brian's attention, but there's barely a trace of animosity in AJ's voice, so he'll count that as a win.

"If you tell me not to fall in love with you," he warns, laughingly, once they're out of the room. He's only half-teasing; it's an open secret at their school that Nick Carter is into tall, dark and slutty. And if the rumors he's heard are any indication, there's no way AJ's virtue is intact.

"You're no Shane West," AJ retorts, then, with a roll of his eyes. "So I really don't think that's gonna be a problem."

Except, you know, you never say that unless it is .

All things considered, Nick is kind of expecting their first session to be a disaster.

It isn't.

AJ's surprisingly patient, and he doesn't even comment when Nick jogs into the music room ten minutes late in his basketball gear, hair still damp from his shower. "Practice ran long," Nick says, by way of explanation, as a trickle of water slips down his neck and into his jersey. "Sorry."

And, okay, he may have left his hair more than a little wet on purpose.

AJ shrugs and spreads his hands. "So let's get started."

Nick blinks as AJ steps around him and reaches for his backpack. He doesn't even pause to give Nick a second glance. Dude. Then AJ pulls out a bunch of animal masks from his backpack, and any thoughts Nick's been having about attempting small talk promptly vanish. "What the fuck are those?"

"Drama 101," AJ replies, as he begins sorting them out. It's almost smug. "If you want to learn movement, this is the best place to start."

"Movement?" Nick objects. "Have you seen me on the court?"

AJ thrusts a pig's snout at him, effectively shutting him up. "No," he says candidly. "And unless you're willing to commit, I'm probably never going to."

Nick inspects the snout cautiously, sighing when AJ makes a low, impatient noise. AJ's not wrong. If he wants the money, he's going to have to commit. He's pretty sure he's not going to get AJ to have sex with him today, for one thing, not if they actually have to go through with this. He puts on the mask, rolling his eyes when AJ coughs into his hand. "You gonna laugh at me all day, or are we gonna get some actual work done?"

"Fine," AJ says. It still looks like he's about to smile, but then he clears his throat, and his trademark indifference slides back into place. "Get down on all fours."

"You've gotta be kidding me," Nick mutters.

They spend the rest of the afternoon going through different animals. Monkeys, lions, zebras, cows. Gerbils. Nick can't shake the feeling that AJ's laughing at him whenever he turns his back. "You're not all bad," AJ says, when he finally calls an end to the torture.

Nick's sprawled out on the floor, face-down, and he tugs off the yellows gloves he'd been wearing with a flourish. "Right," he says, without getting up. "Because caterpillars are so hard to imitate."

AJ's definitely stifling a smile as he takes the props from Nick. "I had to make sure you'd be ready for the more advanced lessons," he says, easily.

"Yeah, okay," Nick agrees, finally pushing himself upright. He studies AJ as he crams all the masks back into his backpack. After a moment, he says, "So when's our next lesson?"

Clearly, AJ isn't expecting that. He freezes. "Next lesson?" he repeats.

"Come on," Nick laughs. "I know a drama lesson when I see one, and that wasn't it."

AJ hesitates, then frowns, looking at Nick as though he's trying to puzzle him out. "So you know I wasted two hours of your time today."


"Huh," AJ says. "And you want a second lesson."

He sounds so dubious that Nick sighs. "Look, I really need the ca--um, character help. Or whatever it is you call it in Drama. You don't like me, I get that, but I don't wanna be kicked off the team. So yeah, okay, the first lesson's a wash, I'll take it. But you gotta give me something eventually."

"Eventually could be a while," AJ points out.

"Hey," Nick protests. "Throw me a bone, here. I'm trying."

AJ cocks his head thoughtfully, then shrugs. "Fine," he says. "I'll help you." Nick shoots him an uncertain look, and he rolls his eyes. "And we'll lose the animal movement."

Nick grins. "Admit it, I'm not the scum you thought I was, either."

AJ shoulders his backpack, then turns to raise an eyebrow at Nick. "It's like this," he says. "Are you scum? No. But are you someone I'd voluntarily spend time with?" He eyes Nick speculatively, then shrugs again. "I'm reserving judgment on that."

Nick counts that a win, too.

His cell phone vibrates almost as soon as he and AJ part ways. It's Howie - duh. 'so how's your brilliant plan working out?'

Nick nearly groans. 'Animal movemt, Howie. 2 freakin hrs. & he made me OINK!'


Nick glowers at the screen. 'Fuck u. & it's cool, coz I'm sooo close! ' Which is maybe a bit of an exaggeration, but Nick's confident it'll happen.

' know i'm not going to congratulate you, right?' Howie sends back, a second later.

'But it's $100!'


Nick huffs. 'Aww man, y u gotta b a h8r?'

True to his word, AJ's a much better tutor the next time they meet to discuss their schedule.

Nick grabs every last romance novel he can find in Leslie's bedroom; Austen, Shakespeare, Arthur Miller. He hasn't read most of it, but if there's one thing he knows how to do, it's skim.

AJ eyes the pile of books Nick's brought in with a fair amount of doubt. "Okay," he says, evenly. "Every single scene you've marked out involves the leads making out--"

"I'm supposed to be talking about passion," Nick interrupts. "I need to get into the right frame of mind. You know, let loose."

"Yeeeeeah," AJ drawls. "Just so we're clear, you'll be practicing on your own."

So there goes that plan.

But Nick keeps at it, pours his soul into the fucking sappy melodrama, and every time he takes on a new role, he hopes it's going to be the role that makes AJ turn the lock to the fucking classroom door and just have sex with him already.

Days go by, and Nick runs through Macbeth, Romeo, Darcy, Edward Ferrars, Rodolfo, even Eddie fucking Carbone.

AJ's amused, surprised, and grudgingly satisfied, in turn.

But other than that?

Nick gets nothing.

Justin slings an arm around his shoulders the day after Nick attempts Frederick Wentworth, during basketball practice. "So," Justin says, past a grin. "Haven't sealed the deal, huh? It's been two weeks, man. You slipping, is that it?"

Nick's good mood vanishes. "Shut up," he says, sullenly.

"What's the game plan, Carter?"

"I'm working on it," Nick grits out. "I can't do that with you yapping in my ear all day."

"Well, step on it," Justin commands. He squares his shoulders. "I'm gonna give you another two weeks. If you actually see it through, I'll double the bet."

"Double the--two hundred dollars?"

"That's what I said."

Nick stares at Justin in disbelief. It's two hundred fucking dollars. He would hate Justin if he wasn't depending on the bet to tide them over next month's water bills. What the hell is wrong with you? he wants to ask. "What the hell did he do to you?" is what comes out, instead. "Why do you have it out for him?"

Justin's expression is ominous. "Let's just say I've got a score to settle."

Nick shakes himself. "Fine," he says. Justin's need for attention doesn't really concern him. "Deal. Two hundred bucks, and I get two more weeks."

"Glad we cleared that up," Justin smirks. He starts jogging away, without turning his back on Nick. "Have I mentioned he's notoriously picky about the people he fucks?"

The look that accompanies the statement sets Nick's teeth on edge. He glowers darkly at Justin. "Thanks for the tip."

The thing that really pisses Nick off?

Justin's right.

It's like he's a .45 and AJ's a fucking bulletproof limo.

He needs heavier ammo.

"Hey," he says, during their next rehearsal. "I'm starving. You wanna wrap this up? Grab a bite?" There's a pause. "What?" Nick asks, off AJ's look. "I'm hungry, and it's one meal. I know being seen with me is probably going to ruin your lack of street cred, but try to pretend that it's my way of saying thank you for the tutoring."

It takes a moment, but eventually AJ says, "As long as we're not mobbed by your adoring public."

They wind up at a tiny diner ten minutes away from school, where the food is amazing but dirt-cheap, and Nick doesn't have to worry about shelling out the rest of his weekly allowance to pay for the meal. The signboard at Lucy's swings crookedly from the only screw left hinged, the letters "L" and "c" still blinking on and off. The interior is almost worse, run-down and tired, the tiles on the walls faded with age, the floorboards creaky, the waitresses as withered as the décor.

AJ eyes the place, the edge of his mouth curved in amusement. "So this is my net worth as a tutor."

Nick flushes. "We can't all be Justin Timberlake," he says, bitterly. Fucking rich, spoilt brat.

"Thank God for that," AJ mutters, as they slide into a booth. The leather's already peeling from the seats.

Nick's curiosity is enough to overcome his fleeting embarrassment. "Did I miss World War III?" he asks. "What the hell's the story here?"

AJ buries his face in the menu. "So if I get a burger, do I want beef or turkey?"

AJ looks more relaxed here than Nick's seen him in the two weeks they've spent together. It's a nice change. He's willing to go with the new subject. "Depends," he says. "How do you feel about raw meat?"

For a second, AJ looks so scandalized that Nick can barely catch his breath, he's laughing so hard.

They both end up getting burgers and beer, which - on hindsight - is totally the smart thing to do. They're in the one place in the state where they don't card you, as long as you tip well, and the drinking loosens AJ up, as the night wears on, till he finally starts talking to Nick like they're both human beings actually capable of communication on the same intellectual level. Then again, it could just be the alcohol.

"Okay," AJ says, smirking. "Favorite action hero."

"Please," Nick retorts, without missing a beat. "Indiana Jones."

AJ actually laughs. "Should've figured."

Nick pulls a face. "Let me guess, you're more a Jason Bourne kind of guy. Brooding and angst-filled and then wreaking vengeance on the people who don't speak theater."

"Oh, fuck off," AJ says, punching Nick in the shoulder, but he's grinning as he does it. "Just because you can't pull off the eyeliner..."

"No one does Dark Lord like you do," Nick declares.

AJ's startled into another snort of laughter. "Jesus, do people actually call us that?"

"Unfortunately," Nick tells him. "Your highness."

AJ growls, then threatens to push what remains of Nick's burger into his lap. Nick's cackling too hard to protest.

It's like a whole new side of AJ has suddenly entered the picture.

It's a side Nick really, really likes.

He drops AJ off, much later that evening. They take a long, slow walk, and they never seem to run out of things to talk about. Classes, books ("I still don't believe you read," AJ says.), football ("You're just fucking clueless," Nick retorts.), the latest films. The forty minutes it takes to get to AJ's place feels like much less.

"You can stop right there," AJ says, dramatically, when Nick makes to follow him up the front porch. AJ fluffs his hair with a hand, and rests the other on his hip. "Come any further, and I'll have to kiss you, which would be inappropriate, since I'm not the type of girl who puts out on a first date."

Nick grins. "Pity," he quips (although... is it a quip, if he means it?). "What about on the second?"

God, he's flirting. And AJ's flirting back. Nick isn't sure which surprises him more.

"Guess you'll have to wait and see," AJ says, smirking. And then he disappears inside.

It's the best night Nick remembers having in a while.

They end up going for dinner again the next night, but AJ doesn't put out then, either. Or the night after that. Or the one after that.

It becomes a routine thing, having dinner out after their mini-rehearsals. AJ's surprisingly easy to be around, once he warms up, and they go back and forth shooting the shit like they've been doing it all their lives. Nick doesn't realize how much he's missed having someone to do that with, since Howie left.

He kind of wishes they'd started hanging out earlier.

"Was it the colored shirts?" he asks one day, in between mouthfuls of burger.

AJ doesn't even look up from his fries. "Say that again, in normal speak."

"Was it the colored shirts?" Nick repeats. He grins when AJ raises an eyebrow. "You know, you're like something out of the Addams family, and I'm more... rainbow-friendly. Is that why were you playing the jackass hedgehog role around me before?"

AJ rolls his eyes. "No," he says, but his mouth twitches. "Freak."

"Creative," Nick corrects absently, as he leans in. When AJ doesn't go on, he adds, "So what was it, then?"

"What was what?"


AJ's sigh is put-upon, but the smile that comes with it is kind of wry. "You remember the Christmas play sophomore year?"

"Um." Nick says. "Vaguely?"

AJ snorts. "Yeah, well, we were doing Pippin." He aims a look at Nick. "It was my first leading role, by the way. It was going pretty well--"

It's Nick's turn to snort. "Uh huh."

AJ glares. "It was going really well," he continues, "Until I started milking the cow halfway through 'Extraordinary'--"

Nick actually pales when the memory comes to him. "Oh, God," he breathes.

His expression must register with AJ, because all AJ does is laugh. "Yeah," he says. "And let me say that getting chocolate blood in your face? Not as fun as you'd think."

"Oh my God," Nick says again, cringing at the thought. "AJ--"

"I was booed offstage," AJ recalls, although, to his credit, he's still grinning.

Nick groans. "When we dumped the blood in that tank, I swear we didn't know--"

AJ lobs a fry at Nick, stalling the apology. "Quit sniveling, Carter. It's not a good look on you."

"Who's sniveling?" Nick demands, even as a sudden wave of relief unknots the growing tension in his shoulders. "That's it? I ruin one play--"

AJ grins and elbows him, hard. "You could've ruined my career, asshole."

Nick hooks his chin over AJ's shoulder with a laugh. "Pretty sure you'll always be a drama queen."

"Shut up," AJ shoots back, his smile softening. "Your homemade blood tasted pretty good, though, I'll give you that."

He doesn't pull away.

Nick grins back, and something warm curls at the bottom of his stomach. Time slows. They're so close now that if he tilts his head just right--

There's a sharp rap on their table, and Nick jerks back. Their waitress is watching them, her eyes hard and sharp, mouth pursed like she's sucking on a lemon. Her tone matches her expression. "Can I get you boys anything else?"

AJ turns back to his fries, frowning in concentration. Nick swallows, hard. Jesus. "Just, um," he says, hoarsely. "Just the check."

In any other circumstance, their next rehearsal would probably be - should probably be - awkward, but Nick walking in on AJ while he's running lines on his own pretty much takes care of that. He's hesitating at the door, and he reaches for the handle about a dozen times before he actually takes it and pushes down.

The first thing he notices is that the tables have all been crowded together, pushed into the center of the room. The second thing is that AJ is standing on them, his own private stage, calm and casual, reciting lines from a scene between Algernon and Jack from The Importance of Being Earnest.

"By the way," AJ's saying, in a fucking amazing English accent, as Nick closes the door noiselessly behind him, "Did you tell Gwendolen the truth about your being Ernest in town, and Jack in the country?"

Nick watches, fascinated, as AJ makes an about turn, practically shedding Algernon's skin with the movement to transform into an entirely different person altogether. "My dear fellow," he says now, and Jesus - even his voice sounds different. "The truth isn't quite the sort of thing one tells to a nice, sweet, refined girl. What extraordinary ideas you have about the way to behave to a woman!"

AJ pivots, again, and Jack disappears behind Algernon's wicked grin. "The only way to behave to a woman is to make love to her, if she is pretty--"

"And to someone else, if she is plain," Nick interrupts, as he takes a step forward. He breathes out a quiet, stunned laugh as he shakes his head. "God, AJ. You're fucking amazing."

AJ startles as he looks up, caught unawares. But he seems to shake himself when he realizes it's just Nick, grinning as he shrugs. "I know. And your accent needs work."

Just like that, Nick's uncertainty fades. They're okay. "The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain," he says, primly. He doesn't flinch when the accent doesn't come out any better.

AJ snorts. "At least you know your George Bernard Shaw," he concedes. "And your Wilde."

"I've been reading up," Nick admits, as he shoves his hands into his pockets.

AJ's attempt to bite back his snicker is unsuccessful.

"What?" Nick retorts, waggling his eyebrows. "A jock can't appreciate literary genius?"

"You're right," AJ nods. "You're a regular Austin Ames."

"You really know your chick flicks," Nick observes, as he comes further into the room.

"You're not missing any of the references," AJ points out.

"Well, yeah," Nick agrees. "But I play basketball. My masculinity is totally intact."

"Mmm," AJ says, sagely. "That's just like you jocks. Always worrying about your balls."

Nick gapes. "You did not just go there."

AJ's grin doesn't even waver.

"Oh, it's on," Nick declares, as he reaches for AJ and yanks him off the tables. "You and me, right now. Race to eleven."

AJ falters for a second. It's the first time Nick's seen him at a loss. "What, right now?" he says.

"Come on," Nick wheedles. "A challenge like that? No way I'm going to be able to run lines. You've already had two weeks to mock me. Give me a chance to reestablish my self-esteem. "

AJ rolls his eyes, then, but he lets Nick drag him out to the basketball court at the far end of the school, the one that's been left to dilapidation after the installation of the indoor gym. It's completely empty, and Nick barely waits for AJ to get his bearings before he takes off for a quick sprint around the quad.

When he gets back, AJ's stripped down to his jeans and a wifebeater (black, of course), and Nick looks away when he catches himself staring. One of these days, he's going to tell AJ to lose the fucking drapes he calls clothes.

"Showoff," AJ snorts, when Nick doesn't say anything, but there's a note of admiration in his voice that Nick's pretty sure he's not imagining. "You ready to actually play?"

Nick drops into a low crouch as he waits for AJ to take his place, the thrill of the game pushing everything else into second place, bringing a high flush to his cheeks. "Okay, tough guy," he says, with a feral grin. "Let's see you put your money where your mouth is."

It takes twenty minutes, flat, and AJ's only up to four points when Nick lines up for his final shot. "Hey," Nick says, teasingly, "At least you scored, right? It's not that embarrassing."

"I wouldn't count me out of the game just yet," AJ shoots back, loftily.

Nick just grins, feints a feint and doubles round when AJ falls for it. He's right under the net when he jumps, and the ball grazes the tip of the hoop before AJ fucking attacks him, just slings an arm around his waist and tugs him down.

"I am so getting a free throw for that!" Nick protests, loudly, as he goes down. AJ's laughing too hard to respond when he lands up on top of Nick, arms braced on either side of Nick's head. This close, Nick can feel everything, the scratchy pull of the fabric of AJ's jeans, the way his chest rises to meet AJ's chest when they breathe. The way AJ's moving even closer as his laughter fades, the heat of his breath curling against Nick's mouth like a prayer.

Up close, AJ's eyes are dark, darker still with the eyeliner, and he's watching Nick, hungry and intense. Nick's stomach rolls. AJ's kind of fucking gorgeous.

Nick has a flash of himself reaching down to tear AJ's wifebeater off, of shoving a quick, dirty hand down AJ's jeans and just taking - and AJ would let him--

Nick makes a sound caught between a moan and a sob, and he reacts so fast to it all that he knocks AJ off-balance trying to get away, dusts himself off and backs away from AJ, shaky and confused. Jesus, this was supposed to be easy.

AJ seems completely bewildered when Nick says he's going to have to give their dinner a miss, that something came up at home. AJ just looks at him, hard, and the smile he shoots Nick when he nods and says, "it's cool, another day, then," is insincere, at best. Nick jogs back to his house, after, his heart pounding so violently the whole way that he's almost afraid it'll give out on him.

He can hear Jane screaming from around the block, and he slows as he covers the final couple of yards to his front door. "Aaron!" Jane screeches. "Get the fuck out of the kitchen, Aaron! You touch my stash again and I'm gonna fucking kill you, you goddamn lying shit!"

Nick sags in the doorway, pushing the thought of AJ aside for a moment. He scrubs a hand over his face. God, to not have to come home to this, just for one day--

"BJ won't come out of her fucking room," Leslie mutters, as she tries to push her way past him. "Mom's been high as a kite all fucking day, Aaron's driving everyone nuts, I don't even know where Angel's hiding. I need to get out of here."

Nick clenches his jaw, then grabs for her arm before she can leave. "Les," he says. "Come on. I need you here. You know that."

Leslie only relents for a second. "Nick, I'm sorry," she says, pained, as she tugs herself free and backs away. "I just - I can't be around this goddamn family anymore."

"Les!" Nick yells after her, but she's already too far to hear him. Goddammit.

And then Aaron's flying at him, diving just in time to latch onto his legs, and Nick has to grab at the door so he doesn't fall over. He takes a deep breath, tossing his books aside before picking Aaron up. Jane's already left the room. "Hey, buddy," Nick says, quietly. "You've been kind of a pain today, huh?"

"No," Aaron denies, voice small. "Mommy tried to hit me."

Jesus fuck. Not again. Nick wets his lips. "Okay, kiddo. We all know she's not supposed to do that, don't we? I'll talk to her, okay?"

Aaron presses his face into Nick's neck, his small hands warm on Nick's skin. "Okay," he says, hiding a sniffle in Nick's shirt.

Nick's fingers curl into tight, angry fists at the sound, and it takes a moment before the hitch in the back of his throat fades.

Nick knows that AJ's a good person. He knows that. But this is his family.

He has to remember that.

He has to remember how much he needs this fucking money.

Nick's pretty sure he's not being subtle about his aggression on court when Brian comes up to him after their next practice, looking concerned. "Hey," he says, watching as Nick towels himself off. "The team's heading out for a little down-time. You wanna come with?

Nick tosses his towel aside as he shakes his head, rummaging in his bag for his clean jersey. "You guys go ahead. I'm just gonna head over to the auditorium to meet AJ."

"What for?" Brian asks, guardedly.

"What for?" Nick repeats tersely, as he shoves the rest of his gear into his bag. "We're supposed to be rehearsing, remember?"

"For a project that doesn't exist," Brian points out, trying on a grin. "Come on, you've been spending too much time indoors. What's missing one lesson gonna do to your grades?"

Nick shuts his eyes, and takes a deep breath. Counts to ten and does it again when he feels his temper still threatening to flare. "Next time," he promises, eventually, before turning back to his packing. "You should just go on without me today."

When he looks up, Brian's still there. "Seriously," Nick says, reaching to clap Brian quickly on the shoulder. "I'm good."

"Uh," Brian says, glancing off at the clock on the wall. He's fidgeting.

"Brian," Nick starts, exasperatedly. He cuts himself off when he realizes the rest of the team is already gone. "Wait. Why are you still here?"

Brian hedges.

Nick's eyes grow wide. "You're not here about the teams," he snarls. "Howie sent you to fucking spy on me!"

"Uh," Brian repeats, sheepishly. He doesn't deny it.

Seconds later, Nick storming into one of the bathroom cubicles, barring the door before he whips out his cell. His fingers are shaking so hard he has to type the message twice. 'Did u tell ur bf 2 keep an eye on me?'

Howie's immediate response: 'brian is not my boyfriend!'

'Is that a yes? Coz I don't need 2 b bbsat.'


Nick huffs. 'Stop avoiding the qn.'

He has to wait five minutes for Howie's next text. 'fine. i'm away at college and i figured it wouldn't hurt to have someone there looking out for you. so yes, okay? yes.'

Nick reads it over a couple of times, feeling his anger subside despite himself. This is their dynamic, has been since they became friends in the fourth grade, lasted even after Nick grew taller and leaner and more popular, and dammit, it's impossible to stay pissed at Howie. He hesitates for a second. 'yes, brian's ur bf?'

'shut up! you know what i mean.' Howie sends back, immediately. And then, two seconds later, 'did he say something to you?'

Nick laughs past the sudden heaviness in his chest. God, but he wishes Howie was here. 'Freak.'



It's half an hour later before Howie's next reply comes through. 'miss you too, nicky.'

The culmination of the past couple of days, of the things he's starting to think about, makes Nick feel guilty about everything. He needs a break, needs to get some perspective on the whole damn mess, so he leaves AJ a voicemail, canceling their session for the day, and heads home instead. It's not much of an improvement, but the yelling and the fighting there makes it easier to remember that morals aren't going to get any of them fed.

The house is in complete pandemonium when the doorbell rings, later that night. Jane's snorted so much Coke off their dining table that Nick half-thinks she's going to go into cardiac arrest. Leslie's still gone, and BJ's screaming at him about human rights from her room. Nick has to answer the door with Aaron clinging to his back, and BJ's cell phone clasped in his free hand. "I'm fucking confiscating it because you managed to rack up a hundred fucking dollars in phone bills in a month!" he yells back, over his shoulder, before he finally turns to see who it is.

"Oh," he says, when it finally registers. Then his brain kicks in, and he shakes Aaron hard enough to dislodge him. "Oh, God, AJ. Hi. What - what are you doing here?"

AJ makes a valiant effort not to look around. "I, uh. With the big presentation coming up, I figured you wouldn't wanna miss too much, so..." He holds out a stack of papers. "I come bearing notes."

Nick stares blankly at him for a moment.

"Nicky," Aaron whines, before the silence spreads itself too thin. "Who is he?"

AJ shoots Nick a half-smile, clearly amused.

"Uh," Nick says. He swipes a hand over his face, once, trying to find his footing. "AJ, this is my brother Aaron. Aaron, this is my - uh. This is AJ. We go to the same school."

"Oh," Aaron says. "'Kay."

Nick looks away from AJ long enough to frown at him. "Aaron, what do you say when you meet someone new?"

"Okay, okay," Aaron sighs, clearly put-out. He extends a hand then, and parrots, almost mechanically, "It's nice to meet you."

AJ cracks up. "It's nice to meet you too, little man," he says, as takes Aaron's hand. Aaron beams for a second, then ducks back indoors.

Nick lets out a quiet, quiet sigh of relief, and he carefully shuts the door behind him as he steps out over the threshold, towards AJ. His shoulders feel a little looser, now that they're outside, and for the first time, he realizes that AJ's in actual clothes, jeans and a dark green turtleneck. Despite himself, despite everything, Nick grins. "So what happened to the Dark Lord outfit?"

AJ laughs. It's almost, almost a little shy. "It's just a role I play," he admits. "I'm not the same person out here."

Nick tries for a smile. "Yeah."

AJ tilts his head then, studying him. "Kind of like the Nick I've been introduced to so far, I guess," he says, quietly.

Nick's pulse spikes, then, actually skips a fucking beat. Dammit, there's no use trying to keep them separate now, the guy he is at home and the guy he is in school. AJ fucking sees right through it. "I guess," he replies, roughly.

AJ nods, and the hand that brushes Nick's arm is gentle. "I got a car and some beer from Lucy's. You wanna go somewhere?"

"Hell yeah," Nick agrees, with a quiet, wet chuckle. "Just - I'll go inside and let them know."

Inside, Angel's huddled in a corner of the room, a schoolbook in her hands. Nick goes to her, and sinks into a crouch by her side. "Hey, baby girl," he murmurs. "Homework going okay?"

Angel looks up at him from where she's coloring in the picture of a half-eaten apple. She smiles. "Uh huh."

Her color pencil's broken.

Nick only just manages to return her smile. It fades as he leans in to kiss the top of her head, his chest so tight he can barely even breathe. "I'm headed out for a while, okay? Think you can keep the peace till I get back?"

"Uh huh," Angel repeats, still beaming.

Nick looks up at that, and sees AJ's slouching in the doorway, hands tucked in his pockets and a small, sad smile on his face. It's like a fist closes around his heart. "That's my girl," he whispers, and buries his face in her hair again.

They walk to AJ's car in silence.

They buckle up, and AJ revs the engine, and it's only fifteen minutes later, when they're parked along some deserted children's playground, that AJ finally says, quietly, "Nick."

Can we just get wasted? Nick wants to say. "My family's kind of fucked up," slips out, instead. AJ's mouth snaps shut. "My mom's a junkie, my sisters are either trying to run away from home or bankrupt us for real, and the twins have no idea how to handle it."

"That's rough," AJ says, after a moment, passing a can of beer over without having to be told. Nick downs half of it at a go. It's none of the bullshit sympathy that he's tired of hearing; it's something else entirely, something he isn't ready to pinpoint.

"I manage," he says, with a smile he doesn't feel. He takes another swig of beer. "You get used to it, after the first couple of years. And I mean, I pretty much have to, you know? They'd fucking fall apart if I wasn't looking out for them."

"Yeah," AJ nods, still watching Nick with that dark, intense gaze. He doesn't have to say who's looking out for you? for Nick to hear it.

At least he had Howie, before. Now? Now he gets by on daily text messages and the basketball court. But there lies a dangerously depressing path, and Nick isn't feeling up to walking it.

"We've seen worse, you know," he says then, as casually as he knows how. "I used to draw, before, just sketches, watercolor, sometimes photography, but film and paint - the good stuff, at least - it's pretty expensive these days. So." He runs his hand over his mouth. "But whatever, you know? Now that money goes to the things we really need."

He tips his head back, then, swallows the rest of his beer. When he grins, it's hollow, and he holds up his empty can. "I'm done talking. Wanna play spin the bottle?"

AJ just watches him for a second, silent. Then his mouth curves up, and his eyes are soft, and Nick's stomach flips as AJ leans over the seat to close the distance between them. He exhales, shakily, when AJ reaches for the can, and he shivers when his thumb skims AJ's wrist. For a second, he feels AJ's pulse fluttering beneath his skin.

AJ's voice dips when he murmurs, "Let's skip the bottle."

When AJ finally kisses him, it's like seeing fucking fireworks. AJ's hands are hot, and his mouth is even hotter, and he coaxes Nick's lips apart like he's been thinking about it for a while, hands slip-sliding up under the hem of Nick's shirt, scrambling for skin. This is why they couldn't before, Nick realizes, hazily. It needed to happen here, now, the heat in AJ's kisses burning like fire in his veins and on his skin.

They sit in AJ's car for hours, touching and teasing till they're breathless with it, till they're so caught up in each other that Nick thinks he might finally understands how Jane feels. He never wants to stop. AJ fits a hand to Nick's cheek, swipes the pad of his thumb over Nick's lower lip. "Tomorrow night," he murmurs. "There's a place I wanna show you."

Nick doesn't even have to think about it. "Yeah, okay," he says, and then he's reaching for AJ, pulling him in again.

The next day goes by in a bit of a haze.

Nick's jittery the whole morning, which is kind of fucking stupid, considering everything that AJ knows about him. Brian doesn't know half those things, and they've been taking the same classes since middle school.

He turns up at their usual classroom five minutes early, and he's about to walk in when he realizes AJ's already there.

With someone else.

AJ's laughing, a little fondly, when Nick leans towards the door. "Kev, would you stop? This is why people think you're thirty."

"Look," Kevin says. "I'm just saying - you've known him two weeks. So he isn't an asshole. Wonderful. That doesn't explain why you're writing him fucking love sonnets in your sleep--"

Nick clears his throat, loudly, and raps quickly on the door. His rubs his palms over his jeans, and tries to ignore the way his heart is suddenly pounding in his chest. It's stupid; AJ can't be - because if he is--

"Hey," AJ says, then, appearing in the doorway with a grin. "You about ready to be wowed?"

He's dressed in actual clothes again, fitted jeans and a dark brown hoodie, and Nick smirks despite himself. "Well, I gotta admit, I was expecting something a little less... underwhelming," he says, as he gives AJ an exaggerated onceover.

AJ sighs, and says, "Shut up," and Nick grins.

Right now, everything else can wait.

The big surprise turns out to be the hugest underground warehouse Nick has ever seen. The shelves are stocked full of paints and brushes, easels and oil pastels; it's every artist's wet dream.

Nick never saw it coming.

"Oh my God," he breathes, as he does a slow pivot around the room. The awe he can hear in his own voice would be embarrassing if he'd had the capacity to care. "Oh my God." His heart is in his throat. "AJ."

"I take it you're wowed," AJ laughs.

This is too much. This - all of it, everything.

Nick shakes his head, speechless. "AJ," he says, again, full of wonder, and he drops his head when his voice cracks a little.

"Hey," AJ says, gently, as he tips a hand against Nick's cheek. "Hey, c'mere."

Nick goes blindly, willingly, and when AJ touches his mouth, with those same gentle hands, Nick's stomach flips, so suddenly it leaves him breathless. He makes a low, helpless sound at the back of his throat, parts his lips when AJ's fingers brush against them again.

AJ steps closer, then, so close that Nick's skin hums with the proximity. "Okay," AJ murmurs, and Nick says, "yeah," and, "I brought condoms."

AJ grins at him, lightning-quick, the need in his eyes tied up with affection Nick's pretty sure he doesn't deserve. But all AJ says, is "flavored?" and when Nick pauses to think, he wraps his hand in Nick's hair and yanks him down, crushes their mouths together like this is the last chance they'll get.

Nick can't hear a thing past the blood roaring in his ears, and AJ doesn't stop, never fucking stops, even when Nick hoists him up and backs him into a shelf. The room is suddenly full of blank canvases, fluttering in the air, to the ground, like the snow the weather reports promised this week that never came, and AJ just laughs against Nick's mouth, lets Nick push his shirt off with trembling fingers, breathing, "easy, easy, God, Nick," into his skin.

Nick only pauses for a second when he sees the tattoo. It winds over AJ's chest, cuts right across his heart; The world is a stage, it whispers, before it disappears, over his shoulder.

"But the play is badly cast," AJ fills in, when he catches Nick looking.

Nick touches his fingers to it, then his lips. "Shakespeare?" he asks, when AJ tilts up to meet him.

"Wilde," AJ supplies, breathlessly, as he curls his fingers into Nick's back.

Nick grins a little, then, because yeah, that's what this is, what this entire fucking thing has been, and isn't that exactly like AJ to have figured that out before it had even happened?

Nick smiles into AJ's skin, and kisses him, and kisses him some more, and when he lowers them both to the floor there's nothing but white, empty canvases everywhere, and he makes AJ laugh, and moan, and arch up above it, like the perfect painting Nick never finished.

Later, after, when they're sweaty and worn out and half-asleep, draped over each other like they're never going anywhere else, Nick says, "I want," and stops. Tries again. "Can we--"

"Yeah," AJ says, before Nick can finish, one hand still warm on the small of Nick's back. "Yeah, I think I'd like that."

Nick kisses him again.

Brian approaches Nick the next day, during their lunch break. "Hey," he says.

It's the first time they've spoken since their last practice.

Nick grins. "Hey, Rok." He motions at the seat beside him with a nod. "You gonna sit or what?"

Brian cracks a hesitant smile. "You sure?" he asks.

Nick laughs. Nothing's fixed, nothing's even really different, but Nick feels the change all the same. "I'm sure," he says. "It's all good."

"And you and Howie," Brian adds. "You're - because you know Howie's just looking out for you, right?"

Nick nods. "I know," he says, before nudging Brian's arm. "Would you quit worrying?"

Brian frowns, lightly, as Nick picks up a napkin and doodles a little sketch on it with his ketchup. "I didn't know you drew," he says, then.

Nick shrugs, still grinning. God, he must look crazy. "I haven't for a while," he tells Brian. "I'm thinking I might start again."

"Okay," Brian says, slowly. He still sounds confused, but Nick can see the exact moment it hits him. "Nick!" he says. "AJ--"

Nick catches himself before he starts smiling again, and ducks his head.

"Okay," Brian repeats, only now he's laughing too, rolling his eyes as he claps Nick on the back. "I should probably let Howie know."

They have their first official post-sex date that night. It's at Lucy's, which is pretty lame, all things considered, but AJ doesn't seem to mind. Nick thinks he should probably be nervous, but he isn't; the butterflies only come when he sees AJ there, already sitting at their usual booth, and like a moth to a flame, Nick's first instinct is to lean in.

"Yeah, no," AJ snorts, presses two fingers against Nick's lips. "I don't work unless I'm fed."

Nick grins, and is just about to retort when he sees Justin come through the front door. His smile vanishes, immediately, and there's a sudden, sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. "AJ--" he croaks, desperately, grasping for straws, for anything to make this better, because oh, fuck, he should have seen this coming--

It's too late.

He feels rather than sees Justin arrive at their booth, and then Justin's arm is around his shoulders, and he flinches. Across him, AJ's gone completely still, his shoulders tense, eyes darting from Nick to Justin, and back again. For a second, he looks trapped, and something twists in Nick's gut.

Justin smirks down at them both. "Well, looks like you can get anyone to spread their legs for you, Carter." He tosses a stack of bills carelessly on the table. "Here's your money."

Nick's rooted to the spot. His pulse is racing. He can't make himself look up.

AJ doesn't say a word.

"Are you gonna split the profit 50-50?" Justin adds, casually, like this is all a big fucking joke. "Is that how you got him to fuck you?"

AJ makes a quiet, involuntary noise, and Nick balks, his hands clenched into fists underneath the table. Oh, God, he's going to hurl.

Justin glances at AJ, then. "Hope he was good enough for you," he sneers. "For two hundred dollars, I hope he lived up to your fucking standards."

AJ's knuckles are white where they're gripping the edge of the table. His jaw is clenched. The silence is terse, so brittle that Nick's sure one of them is going to crack.

They don't.

Justin says, "I'll see you at practice, Carter," after a second that runs on forever, and his steps echo as they fall away. When Nick's head stops buzzing, it's like Justin was never there at all.

AJ doesn't speak. He's looking at his hands, at the table, the menu. The world around them disappears, condensed to this place. This moment.

Nick opens his mouth.

AJ beats him to the punch. "Is that what this is about?" he says. His voice is hard, and his smile is oddly crooked. "Some kind of bet?"

Nick flinches. "AJ--"

"No, hey, I'm hot enough to play Rachael Leigh Cook," AJ says, with that same, flat smile. "It's pretty flattering." He pushes away from the table, then. "You can keep the money," he adds, calmly, and then he's turning away.

And then he's walking.

And then he's gone.

Nick's eyes are burning, and he blinks, hard, again, until his vision clears. He feels the bile rise at the back of his throat as he swipes the money off the tabletop and shoves it in his pocket.

Nick sits inside the diner for what feels like years. His coffee is cold by the time he ambles outside, hands jammed in his pocket, fingers still curled around the stack of cash.

He stops short when he sees AJ still there, sitting on the sidewalk. Nick can't help himself. "Problems?" he calls over, unsteadily.

Even with the distance between them, Nick can see the way AJ tenses. "Fucking Kevin," AJ snarls, without looking up. His voice sounds raw. "Learn how to use the fucking technology, retard."

Nick stands there another moment, so awkwardly it's almost physically painful. "AJ," he tries.

"I'm going to fucking walk," AJ snaps, then, too-loud. He gets to his feet.

"AJ!" Nick says, but it comes out shaky.

AJ keeps walking.

Nick's throat closes up. "AJ, wait! I'm not - I know I fucked up," he rasps. "And I'm not - but you're in love with me." AJ does pause, then, recoiling sharply, and when he turns around Nick almost can't go on. "Can we just - I want to--"

For a second, an edge of sadness masks AJ's face. Then he hardens, and Nick watches, heart pounding, as all the fucking walls slam back into place, all the progress they'd made wiped away in an instant. "Well," AJ says, with a casual shrug, as he turns away again. "Guess you're not the one who needed the acting lessons."

So that's his answer.


Except Nick doesn't fucking want to hear it.

He still remembers that he needs the money. He still remembers why. He just doesn't know if that reason measures up anymore.

Nick runs out of options pretty quickly. AJ's not returning his calls, probably not even reading his messages, and there have to be secret passages beneath the school grounds that Nick doesn't know about, because he doesn't see AJ around school at all, either. People are buzzing about the missing half of the Dark Lords, speculating, talking about sex bets and broken hearts and how easy it is to get AJ McLean in your bed like they have any fucking clue.

Kevin's Nick's last resort.

He's waiting by the lockers again, when Kevin appears. "Hey," he says, quietly.

Kevin doesn't look up. "You can keep the notes," he says flatly. It sounds restrained.

Nick licks his lips, shoves his hands in his pockets. "I'm not here to - I just -- how's he doing?"

Kevin lets out a short, rough bark of laughter. "You're hilarious," he says, as he slams the locker shut. "Looks like the tuition paid off."

Nick thinks he's going to be sick. "Wait, no," he blurts out, when Kevin just shakes his head and makes to leave. Kevin swings around, eyes dark and dim, and Nick exhales shakily. It's like the room goes completely still. "I don't - I just want to talk to him."

"You know, I told him," Kevin spits the words out like venom. "I told him something like this would happen, and he just wouldn't fucking listen."

"Kevin--" Nick's coming dangerously close to pleading.

Kevin's eyebrows twitch. His hair falls in his face, shadows half of it, and for a second, he looks much older than his seventeen years. "I'm gonna make this real clear, here," he says, each word a slow, measured drawl. "I'm doing you a favor this time, talking to you like the gentleman you're not, but you fucking come near him again, and I swear to God, I'm going to punch your face in."

Nick's stomach is in knots. He knows that look: Howie used to look just like that, whenever he tried to talk to Nick about Jane.

"We clear?" Kevin snaps.

Nick nods, dumbly, and Kevin turns and walks away. Nick doesn't stop him.

Someone says, "Guess only one of them fucks anything that breathes."

People titter, and Nick flushes as he twists around to face them, his throat tight.

He doesn't know who said it, doesn't know who laughed, doesn't even know who put the rumor out there, but it still feels pretty fucking good when he lands the first punch.

He ends up on the basketball court with Brian, after, burning through an hour of conditioning like it's nothing. Brian's breathing hard by the end of it, doubled over with his hands on his knees, but when Nick says, "Eleven points to win?" he just nods, and meets Nick at the center of the court.

Brian's a good, solid player, but today Nick's better, forcing Brian into all the dead spots, making clever feints and sinking every single shot. When he hits eleven points, Brian's barely made three, but they keep going till Nick can't make another jump shot, and the only thing he can hear is the sound of his heartbeat, throbbing frenzied in his chest. He collapses along one of the benches, face down, his hair damp with sweat, jersey molding to him like a second skin.

The first thing he does, after chugging his water bottle, is grab his cell phone. 'Howie, I fckd up.'

'are you talking about your two month suspension from the team?'

Nick gapes, and he lifts his head to glare at Brian, who's sitting on the floor, head tilted back against the head of Nick's bench. His phone buzzes again before he can make any accusations. 'i know you. you don't get into fights. what's going on?'

Nick sighs. 'I fcked up w/ AJ.'


Nick frowns. '& he won't talk 2 me?'

'nick, i'm not saying i condone it, but it's been a week, and aj's not the first person you've done shitty things to. i mean, does it really matter?'

Nick wants to say, of course it fucking matters! He wants to say, this isn't the same damn thing! He wants to say, how do I make this better? How do I make AJ see that I--

Nick's train of thought grinds to a halting stop. "Oh, fuck," he moans. Panic and exhaustion are a shitty combination. He drops his head between his knees, and tries to keep breathing. "Oh, Jesus, fuck."

Brian's been quiet the whole time, just watching him, and he takes Nick's cell phone now, gently, and taps in a quick message. Then he claps a hand over Nick's shoulder. "Okay," he says. "So here's what you're gonna do."

Which is how Nick ends up on AJ's front porch on Christmas eve, shivering and starving and goddamn lovelorn, waiting for someone to show up so he can apologize or profess his undying love, or something equally dramatic.

So really, this whole thing? Is totally Justin's fucking fault.

Nick doesn't know when he falls asleep, but he must have dozed off, because he wakes up to AJ's fingers, curled warm around his shoulder, voice quiet and almost gentle. "Nick? Hey, Nick, come on. Get up."

He lifts his head, blearily, then snaps to attention when he remembers-- "AJ?" He's suddenly conscious of the wet smudge of drool across his cheek, and he swipes at it awkwardly.

"Yeah, that's attractive," AJ mutters, as he backs up to put more distance between them. The only thing that gives Nick a sliver of hope is the fact that AJ sounds like he means it. "What do you want, Carter?"

"To apologize," Nick says, earnestly. He gets up from where he's been leaning against the banister and dusts himself off. "I just -" he spreads his hands, "How do I fix this?"

AJ's face is impassive. "You used me," he says, evenly, and Nick flinches like he's taken a physical hit. "There's no fixing that."

"Then how do I make this work?" Nick asks. His voice is strangely thin.

AJ folds his arms. "What if you can't?"

Nick shakes his head. "I'll keep trying," he says. He means it.

AJ snorts, derisively. "Go home, Nick," he says, and makes to walk away.

"You know the play is badly casted!" Nick calls after him, on a burst of desperation. His hands are clammy, but at least AJ pauses, then. "I'm not an asshole," Nick tells him. "I just play one."

"You were pretty damn convincing," AJ says. He doesn't turn around.

"I'm working on that," Nick promises, fervently.

AJ pauses. "Being an asshole?" he asks.

"No!" Nick exclaims. "No, just -" Goddammit, he's never been good with words. He tries again. "Fuck, I - I'm working on acting less like one, I guess, and I can't -- on my own, I'm never going to get there. I need - AJ, I need my rehearsal partner back."

There's a beat of silence on AJ's end, and Nick holds his breath. Then, slowly, AJ turns back around, till they're face to face. He watches Nick for a long, hard moment. "The money," he says eventually. Neutrally. "What did you do with it?"

Nick has to fight not to wince. "My mom took most of it, and then I gave the rest of it to the kids. Aaron got the books he needed for school, and Angel got a new pencil case and a bookbag. BJ took some of it for a field trip, and Les got a dress for the school Christmas dance." He hears the pleading note in his voice when he adds, "It's not an excuse, but they needed it. I couldn't give it back."

AJ looks at him for another long moment. "What about you?" he asks, finally. Quietly. "What did you get?"

Nick's throat goes dry. "I, uh." He ducks his head. Fumbles with the words. "I guess I was hoping I'd get you." AJ doesn't react, and Nick rushes to continue. "AJ, look, I know I messed up, okay? And Kevin's promised to kill me with a wooden stake through the heart if he sees me anywhere near you, but." Nick shakes his head. "I just - I want this with you. I want whatever the hell it was we were doing in that classroom, and in my car, and--"

"Jesus fucking Christ," AJ interjects. "Stop wooing me. I'm not the goddamn prom queen."

It's progress, and Nick can't help himself. "You sure about that?"

AJ's smile flickers, a little, and Nick's pulse jumps, twice, his blood roaring in his ears. Then AJ shakes his head. "What do you want, Nick?"

It's all suddenly, blindingly simple. "I already told you," Nick says. "I want you. I want to fuck you again, a lot, all the time, for reasons that have nothing to do with money, or Justin Timberlake, and I want - in our spare time, in between our awesome sex, I want us to hang out. Eat, talk, maybe even work on your basketball."

AJ snorts.

"It's not a lost cause," Nick adds, and AJ pauses, looks up carefully. Nick's stomach clenches as he wets his lips.

It's a small eternity before AJ finally inclines his head. "Maybe," he says. "But I'm reserving judgment on that."

"Okay," Nick agrees. His heart jackhammers against his ribs as he straightens. "But could you maybe do that while I kiss you? Because we're standing under mistletoe."

AJ doesn't say yes, but when Nick steps closer, he doesn't back away. He lets Nick rest a hand against the back of his neck and leans up when Nick dips his head. Lets Nick's fingers graze his cheek, and brushes his knuckles along the curve of Nick's shoulder. Lets Nick lick into his mouth, hot and needy, and nips Nick's lower lip when Nick tries to pull away.

Nick's pretty sure that translates to a positive verdict in AJ-speak.

'Ur bf is a genius. I owe u BIG. Mistletoe fuckin rox.'

Chapter Text

howie's always been a worrywart. people have been telling him to chill or take it easy, man all his life, but no matter how many classes he takes on relieving and managing stress (and he aces them all), it doesn't work out so well in reality. the thing is, it wouldn't be half so bad if howie didn't feel like nick justified his being concerned all the time, even from a million miles away - maybe especially then.

which would entail not doing things like making sex bets and then, failing that, falling in love with the target of said bet, and failing that, allowing said target to find out about the aforementioned bet.

howie pinches the bridge of his nose, only looking up when his cell phone buzzes. it's brian. 'it's 1/4 2 xmas! u need 2 stop working on ur thesis!'

despite himself, howie grins. it's eleven fifty, and he's been staring at the same page of his thesis for the last hour and a half. he sighs as he shuts his book.

'tell your minions to stop spying on me,' he sends back, and then, after a moment of consideration, adds, 'happy christmas.'

brian's reply comes in a minute later: ':-*' and howie laughs and flushes and is at a loss for what to do for all of five minutes.

his cheeks are still red when he decides it's probably time to check in on his dumbass best friend and his love exploits. nick could probably use the moral support. 'how's it going?'

howie's not even the slightest bit surprised when, a few seconds later, nick texts back, 'Still @ his house.'

howie sighs. this is typical nick behavior - he probably didn't even take a jacket with him. he's probably spending his time on aj's front porch cussing justin out for this whole thing, too. 'can't blame justin,' he types, before hitting send.

nick takes a little longer to reply this time. 'Fine,' he says eventually. 'I h8 u sfm.'

howie rolls his eyes when he catches himself grinning. they used to spend hours texting, even when they lived practically next door to each other, but nick's text lingo will never stop amusing him. god, but howie misses him sometimes. 'merry xmas to you too.'

maybe he'll be able to make a trip home during spring break.