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  Under Glass

 

This is primarily for Georgina, to add to her smart!Nick file, with complimentary Christina for Hnix, and huge giddy thanks to Adam for his contribution of, like, all their intelligence.

For the record: Nick modelling their school uniform. Really quite inspiring.


[1]

Nick is one of the boys that sit crowded at the back of the maths room and banter with Mr Joy, while JC is one of the boys that sits at the front, sometimes by the window, and always gets his homework in on time. That's just the way it is.

Mondays and Fridays, they have one of the old-style classrooms, with one huge wall of blackboard and proper wooden desks. Wednesdays, they've got one of the newer rooms complete with whiteboard and plastic-topped tables and windows through to the corridors, and JC knows for a fact that on Wednesdays he always gets a good view of Nick and his cronies as he walks along the corridor from French. Not that he has a crush on Nick, or knows his timetable, or anything.

JC does actually have a tiny crush on Mr Joy, but obviously keeps it to himself. Mr Joy has surprisingly short hair for a teacher, like a rather handsome ex-marine, and he's tanned and laughs easily and rubs chalk off the board with his fist and then wipes the dust off on his thigh. Jeans, of course.

"You've got a choice this morning," Mr Joy says, tapping the board with one knuckle to get their attention, and JC presses on his calculator and checks the screen's not smeared. "Easy, or rock hard?"

"Rock, what else?" Nick calls, from the back, and Mr Joy beams, which gives him dimples.

"Suits me. You're all happy with matrix algebra?"

"Yeah," comes the chorus. JC just nods, and Mr Joy catches his eye, all warm approval. JC smiles and then, the moment Mr Joy looks away, gazes studiously out the window. It's chucking it down outside so there isn't actually a view, but this is his best tactic to avoid being called on.

He can fuzzily see the stone paving curving away, and to the left, the jut of the courtyard, but the mist's swallowed up the entire lawn, and most of the sky to boot, and the stonework that's left is completely distorted by the lashing rain.

JC's been at this school six years, though, so it's not like he's curious.

"Then we'll have some fun," Mr Joy promises, a pleasant cruelty in his voice, and rubs his hands together. A few of the boys jeer a little, and someone throws a screw of paper; Mr Joy cups it out the air, to general laughter, and cocks his head.

"Nice catch, sir."

"It was pretty smooth, wasn't it," Mr Joy agrees affably, and his gaze zeroes in and fixes on somebody near the back. JC braces himself for hearing Nick's lazy, cocky drawl, then relaxes when Mr Joy says, "Wilson, you've got time to make cruise missiles - how about inverting this matrix."

"Hold up," Wilson says, and JC scribbles in his workbook, tries to remember which bit gets multiplied by what, and eventually ends up with his own new grid of numbers. "One, two, three, minus one, zero, one, minus one, minus two, minus one, all over two," Wilson hedges, exactly like JC's got written down, and Mr Joy squints at his piece of paper for a moment, lips moving, then shakes his head.

"Almost," he says, "good try, but you forgot--"

"One, minus two, three, one, zero, minus one, minus one, two, minus one, over two," Nick calls, in the sexily irritating manner of one certain they are right, and Mr Joy breaks off his sentence and grins and then jabs his finger in the direction Nick's voice came from.

"Nice one. And the extra step you took?"

"Flipping the signs to change the minors into the cofactors."

Oh yes, the matrix of cofactors, JC thinks, hearing the lads at the back putting Wilson through the wringer, incredibly glad he hadn't been called on. He can't think of anything less fun than drawing attention to himself in this crowd. A discouragement of throwing little bits of paper, if ever he'd needed one. Of course, now a couple of the girls near the back are cooing indulgently over poor Wilson, and the lads are hooting obscenely about extra tuition, but that's still not JC's scene.

"All right, settle down," Mr Joy calls, and the air is promptly thick with a hail of paper twists. JC winces, then makes it into a grin when he realises Mr Joy is visibly struggling to keep a straight face. "Or," Mr Joy says slowly, brushing the paper off his sleeves with great dignity, "we could waste even more of our school supplies."

"Wahey!" some lad at the back calls, "Supply wasting! Cool!"

"Shut up, Dover - don't you know we're here to learn?" Nick drawls, with breathtaking insincerity, and Mr Joy gives him a look of utterly charmed irritation, and folds his arms.

"Thank you, Carter."

"Any time, sir," Nick says, and the air fills with soft catcalls, because Nick's voice absolutely invited them.

Mr Joy looks at JC. "Some day," he says confidentially, his voice pitched for the whole room, "I'm going to get it put into my contract that I never have to teach A-level maths on a Friday afternoon."

JC laughs, but quietly, with an eye to shutting up the moment Mr Joy actually wants to get on with some work. The rest of the class laugh long.

Mr Joy heaves a dramatic, manful sigh, then turns and starts writing on the board. JC watches as if he's not aware of the noise behind him, because it's true: Friday afternoons always start rickety, and it takes all his concentration to get the requisite work done.

"By Monday's lesson," Mr Joy says eventually, tapping the board of problems with his hand. "Mess around now if you like, as long as they're done. Any questions, I'll see you individually now - which I hope you'll take advantage of, since this is the last chance before the weekend."

"Aw, but sir, I thought you were coming to my house this weekend, personal tutor style," one of the girls purrs, and the laughter reaches new heights, and Mr Joy gives her a surprised, crooked smile that JC covets.

"Fraid not," he says, then jerks his thumb at the board. "Okay, go." The class quietens down immediately, and the air rustles with scribbling noises. Mr Joy underlines Monday in crumpling red chalk, then wipes off his hand, leaving a streak of crimson across his thigh, and sits down at his desk.

"Thought you'd say these'd be rock, sir," Nick teases, after a moment, and JC swallows.

Okay. Maybe JC actually does have a tiny crush on Nick, as well.



[2]

The first time JC can remember seeing Nick - that is, following him with his gaze, tracking his progress down the length of the room, rather than simply being aware of his somewhat belligerent existence - was when they had a detention together for turning up late to R.E., and because neither of them had coloured in their Plague of Locusts.

They were, perhaps, twelve.

"Just because it's not a core subject," the R.E. teacher snapped, scowling over his half-moon glasses, "doesn't mean you don't have to take it seriously. You don't not have time to do it. You find time."

"Sorry, sir," JC said obediently, face burning, and then glanced at Nick's silence in surprise.

There was a pause.

JC swallowed.

"You know why I didn't have time to colour in the locusts, sir?" Nick asked eventually, a tight anger to his voice that made JC flush tense all over.

The R.E. teacher frowned. "I don't much like your tone, Carter--"

"It's because my little brother, sir, he's in Juniors now. He's in Y3, and the classes are bigger. And someone almost broke his arm today, some new kid, and so I spent lunchtime over at Gleadless, making sure it won't happen again."

"Fighting?" the R.E. teacher demanded, and JC was watching Nick openly now, taking in the redness round his mouth and the way he kept his hands in his pocket, and had to remind himself not to gape. He wasn't supposed to be hearing this, he was pretty sure. "If you were fighting again, Carter-- wait, you weren't even on school grounds?"

"No, sir," Nick said deliberately. His eyes were half-closed, flinty, and he was focused on the middle distance. JC followed his gaze to a crayon-drawn poster of a green-blue globe with the banner, An Eye for an Eye and the World would be Blind. He suspected Nick wasn't seeing that.

"I'm reporting you to your head of house," the R.E. teacher was growling, "now sit down, both of you."

Nick turned and stalked to the back of the class, flung himself down in one of the black plastic chairs, and that, JC remembers, with startling clarity, was the first time JC's gaze tracked him across the room.



[3]


"Skim-read chapter ten," Mr Joy says, levelling his finger at the back of the class, especially restless for a Wednesday, "and then do all twenty exercises, okay?"

"Sir, six to thirteen are really stupid questions," Nick complains, and JC stops reading number one and hastily flips the pages forwards. "They're all identical. It'll take ages."

"Okay," Mr Joy says equitably, "do two of those eight, any two, but I'll expect to see all the rest. I'll be ten minutes, tops."

"Where're you going, sir?" some boy calls, suggestive, and JC tries to tune it out, focusing on the first question. Eigenvalues, corresponding eigenvectors thereof.

"Oh, I'm bored of teaching you lot, so I thought I might grab a cup of coffee and put my feet up for a bit while you slave away in here."

"Bring me a coffee, sir," Nick says, and JC shivers despite himself. That tone of voice, used on a teacher, is almost worthy of prosecution. "Please?"

"Not a chance," Mr Joy says warmly, and gives them all a small wave as he wanders out, heading off down the corridor, letting the door swing slowly behind him. JC smiles to himself, turning to the beginning of chapter ten and smoothing down his page, giving his retractable pencil two clicks. The rain on the window is soothing, rolling shiny in the corner of his vision, blotting out the distracting green-grey English countryside. Right. Eigenvectors.

The door finishes its slow weighted glide and finally clicks shut, and a quiet hell breaks loose.

"Okay," Wilson's hissing, amongst a frenzied bustle of papery noise, "quick, quick--"

JC looks round, startled, to see Nick lift his chair one-handed and gleefully twirl it round, setting it back down on the wrong side of the table, facing the wrong direction. He's not the only one, and a dull shrieking of chair and table legs breaks out, along with semi-hysterical giggling from what feels like all corners.

"C'mon, guys - all of you, you've got to," Dover urges, reaching for a spare table and rearranging it without even looking, "it's not going to work if half of you don't--"

JC looks around at the rest of the kids still sitting down - about four of them, already stirring uneasily and putting their pencils away - and then reluctantly folds the corner of his page down and closes the book. In the time he takes to do it, Dover's converted four more seats.

"Poor Joy," someone's chuckling, and then Aguilera pipes up,

"Oh, I'll cheer him up," and they clearly planned this, because now the whole Back Row Team are advancing down the tables, grinning and coaxing the unwilling out of their seats with much the same subtlety as a tornado.

"I bet you will, and you'd cheer his wife up, and all," Dover leers, and Aguilera gives him the finger while flipping round a desk with her other hand, and suddenly Nick's by JC's table, fingers closing on the back of his chair.

"C'mon, Chasez," he says, grinning from ear to ear, and JC stares at him for an embarrassingly long heartbeat before nodding and grinning on automatic and shuffling out, pushing his chair back as he stands up.

He has a feeling he ought to be able to orchestrate a full-body press as he squeezes past Nick to free up his chair - but he doesn't. Nick spins the chair neatly, hands it over to him, and looks about to dash off down the new front of the classroom when JC sits down again and hears himself say, "Why don't you move the whiteboard?"

Nick freezes, then grins down at him, and waves over his shoulder. "Wilson, heel," he calls, and Wilson bounds down, Dover in tow. Nick jerks his thumb at the front of the classroom. "Whiteboard," he says.

Dover and Wilson stare at him a moment before beaming and giving each other a quick hi-five, then leaping over a couple of straggling chairs to jostle the whiteboard off the wall.

Nick claps JC's shoulder, says, "nice one," then strides over to direct Wilson's backwards progress down to the new front of the room. The whole class is chortling to itself, even as books start being opened and calculators slid out their sheaths again. This isn't the Further Maths class for nothing. Wilson and Dover prop the whiteboard against the wall, then Dover kneels down to draw what quickly turns into a series of random matrices which look nothing like the answers to any of the questions.

JC finds he's now, if only temporarily, one of the boys in the back row.



[4]


The storm that's been lurking on the horizon in clouds shaped like smudged bullets is finally, finally driving up the field. JC scrabbles, horrified, in his bag, and closes his fingers round his rain coat in time to realise it's not going to make a blind bit of difference.

He wrestles with the contents of his bag a little as the first drops hit him, managing to squash most of his textbooks into a makeshift cagoule pocket. Stuffing in his sheet music at the last minute, he starts to run towards the courtyard, his bag bumping rhythmically against his knees.

He's been waiting for his mum, of all things; waiting for a lift to orchestra. He makes probably the fifth mental note this week to get driving lessons just as soon as he can. He cuts across the margin of squelching grass, then pelts across the wet paving on mud-slippery soles, ducking into the courtyard, under the sheltering ledge of stonework, and pushing hopefully at the door to the language department.

There is a complete lack of give to the door. JC frowns, then sighs. Ah, yes. Past 4pm, so the security system's on. He could stay here in the rain, he thinks, or he could walk round to the front of the school and get himself let in by the receptionist and then run round the music corridor and then cut through the common room and open the door from the other side so he can watch for his car.

Not exactly worth it. He leans against the door, trying to stay precisely perpendicular to the stone ledge above him, so that his bag stays almost as damp-not-sodden as his body.

He squints through the rain at the road, deciding that if a red car draws up, he'll be able to see it, and if a red car happens to be already waiting for him, then logic suggests that eventually someone'll come find him.

He's not exactly inconspicuous, he thinks, what with the yellow fluorescent cycling stickers on the back of his rucksack, and then he sees Nick walking through the archway opposite, framed and enrobed and drenched in falling water, and hopes desperately that he is, against all likelihood, invisible after all.

He shifts backwards until his bag hits a column, trying to look chameleonic. Nick's rucksack is riding low on his back, and his hair's flat against his forehead, and he's walking quite purposefully through the rain towards the gate. JC checks his watch - 16:08 - and guesses that Nick's probably been in detention.

He looks at the wall, concentrating on a pale skeletal weave of ivy fused to the dark stone, and then it occurs to him that the chances of Nick looking up are really small and yet he's nevertheless passing up the opportunity to watch him all casual and wet.

So.

No harm, he thinks, imagining what could happen if Nick did see him, if he maybe walked over, maybe stroked a knuckle down his chest, maybe hooked his fingers down the front of JC's grey uniform trousers-- and then Nick notices him, looks up for some reason and spots him, his head turning curiously as he walks.

JC ducks back against the pillar, then finds he's no less visible and realises how foolish he must look, all damp and cowering, jammed in a doorway. He lifts his hand in a little wave.

To his horror, Nick slows down, stops, then cocks his head. JC's pulse speeds up, and he wonders how much Nick can actually see through the pouring rain, if he looks like anything more than a fuzzy schoolboy-shape lurking in a doorway. Waving.

Shit.

He smiles nervously, and his stomach twangs in terror as Nick apparently reaches a decision and wanders over to investigate, pulling out his earphones with a deft little yank on the wire. The most potent image in JC's mind right now is that of Nick with his shirt open, his tie pulled wantonly loose, leaning back against the stone wall, tugging JC closer with one strong, wet hand.

Nick reaches him and stops, still in the rain. "Oh," he says, pushing his wet hair up out his eyes and standing squinting with his hand flat on his head, rain falling over his face and making him blink a lot, "it's you."

"Hi," JC agrees, trying not to be aware that Nick's raised arm pulls his shirt collar wider. Water is shining on Nick's throat, and JC thinks about licking it off, about ducking his mouth to Nick's skin and tasting the fresh February Englishness of icy rain slinking beneath a schoolboy collar. "How's it going?"

"Wet," Nick says, and his gaze flickers to JC's backpack and then chest and then back up. "What are you still here for? Weren't in Richardson's detention."

"Waiting for my lift," JC says, and nods in the direction of the road. "Um, orchestra."

"Right," Nick says, and that amuses him for some reason JC doesn't really understand. There again, JC is just trying to remember to keep his mouth closed, to not watch the wet slip of Nick's lips around his words, so his understanding capability feels severely limited right now. "What do you play?"

JC tries valiantly to find a context for the question. Um. "What?"

"In orchestra," Nick says, like JC's stupid, although in fairness, JC thinks wryly, well, yes. "You know, instruments?"

"Oh, yes," JC says, nodding. He does know of instruments. Brilliant! "Um. Piano."

Nick frowns. "You're their pianist?"

"...no," JC admits, then rallies. "Well, maybe some day, but they've got a man right now. After him, I might get it. He's actually being paid, though, so he's hardly likely to move on soon."

"People should play because they want to, not for money," Nick says dismissively, and JC opens his mouth to agree and then feels a little bad for the pianist, because that wasn't what he meant, really.

He just isn't doing very well on the conversation front right now.

It doesn't help that Nick's shirt is turning transparent.

"Well," JC says doggedly, "actually, he's playing because he wants to, as much as the rest of us. The money's a perk." He makes it into a tiny bit of a challenge: "I don't have any problem with that - just wish they'd have me on the piano as well."

"Instead of...?" Nick says, sweeping back to his earlier question, though his eyes - well, JC's biased, but he thinks they're a little approving. He guesses not many people contradict Nick, given everything.

He wishes he had another contradiction to offer, but sadly he's not that good at ignoring outright questions. Instead, okay, what instrument. He always hates this moment, but he can't exactly lie. "Flute," he says, wishing it was guitar, or drums; wishing it was from any family but the wimpy woodwinds.

Nick doesn't look very impressed, and behind him, JC catches sight of a red blur pulling up at the curb. "I play guitar," Nick says, and JC thinks, gosh, big surprise.

The car's horn cuts between them. "That's my lift," JC says, stupidly. He shifts his bag more comfortably onto his shoulders, feeling miserable. It was better when Nick was just a soaked, sexy boy wandering past and off in the other direction.

Nick tilts his head. "You going along Mildred street?"

"No," JC says, then backtracks, "but, that is, we could, it's not too far out of our way." He imagines sitting in the back of the car with Nick, their backpacks a damp jumble on the middle seat, not even a threat of touching. He wants it anyway, despite everything.

"Nah, I'll walk," Nick says, turning, and JC wonders for a moment if he's supposed to walk next to him or behind him, then tells himself not to be so fucking wet - ha - and hurries to catch up.

Nick has long legs, takes long easy strides across the paving. Matching him step for step, JC feels the fabric of his trousers rub with unfamiliar tension against his thighs, and reaches the unpleasant conclusion that he must scuttle everywhere, if this is what proper walking feels like.

He discards that. Nick's strides are excessive, he decides, in a mental tone that borders on the embarrassingly paranoid. Stupid Nick, he thinks, staring at the shiny ground roving hypnotically fast beneath his feet, letting his mind run and run. Stupid, wet, guitar-playing Nick.

In an ideal, movie-flavoured world, JC thinks irritably, Nick would redeem himself right now. He'd glance at JC and say, "well, good talking to you," or "actually, maybe I will take that lift," or "my favourite classical artist is Johann Stamitz, actually," and then JC would be able to point out that he can actually play Stamitz's capriccio-sonata in A-major quite well, and Nick would look deep into his eyes and murmur, "really? You'll have to let me listen, some time."

In silence, they reach the car.

"I'll see you tomorrow," Nick says, with a short, decisive, not-unfriendly nod.

It's enough. And god, JC thinks frustratedly, he is pathetic, but he just nods happily and gets into the car and pulls on his seatbelt and watches Nick wander on towards the bus stop through the rain, and then gives Nick a little wave through the window when they pass him as they drive off.

Nick pauses in putting his earphones back in to lift his palm in acknowledgement, but it doesn't look voluntary. JC tips his head back against the seat and wonders what music Nick likes, how good he is on the guitar, what his fingers taste like when he's been playing all evening.

"Who was that?" JC's mum says, and JC rearranges his legs in the pitiful space he's got, and shrugs.

"A guy I know. He's nice."

"Oh good," JC's mum says, and JC doesn't know if she means good that JC's getting friends again, or good that he's not some big blond stranger. Doesn't really matter, he guesses. It's not like he'll ever be bringing Nick home to dinner.

"Was there any post for me?" he asks, as he opens his bag, pulling out his creased sheet music and starting to assess the damage.

"Not today," his mum says gently, and JC pretends that doesn't matter at all.



[5]

"Have you got the time?" JC hears, waiting in the bus shelter by the sandwich shop, spending a pleasant few minutes thinking about Nick's stomach and the sounds Nick would make if JC licked it. He looks round, sees a small familiar blond boy wrapped in a big plastic puffa jacket, his hair cut so short he looks bald. Even though it's gloomy in the bus shelter, his jacket is brightly shiny with rain.

A pint-size skinhead, JC thinks, amused, reaching for his phone, trying to juggle his brown-paper wrapped sandwich into his other hand without spilling mayonnaise-slippery crabsticks all over the place. "Twelve forty-five," he says, checking absently for messages-- no messages. He doesn't know how much it costs to text from America, but still. Vaguely annoying.

"Give me your phone," the little skinhead says, and JC looks at him in surprise.

"What?"

"Give me your phone or I'm going to kick you in," the skinhead repeats, and his voice pitches on the last couple of words, and he goes slightly pink and presses his lips together and glares.

You and whose army, JC thinks, then realises that three other boys are slinking into the bus shelter, and that this, probably, is the army in question. Damn.

JC looks from boy to boy, then back at-- Mathers, he thinks he's called. Year below, nasty little thing, clear doll-blue eyes in a belligerent face, one shaved stripe across his left eyebrow.

Prat, JC thinks, putting his phone deliberately back in his top pocket, buttoning it. "No."

Mathers slides his hand in his own pocket, and JC thinks nervously, knife, knife. Still. He saved up for this phone. "We'll kick you in," Mathers promises, and JC realises he's now in danger of puncturing his sandwich bag with his fingernails. His heart rate's high.

This is ridiculous - and it's worse because Mathers is a spoilt little rich brat who doesn't need JC's phone, doesn't actually need anything, and he's younger which makes it frankly embarrassing, and JC decides, squaring his shoulders, that no.

Not today.

"I'm amazed you're not asking for cigarettes," he says, then fakes a realisation. "Oh, wait, you turned sixteen last month, huh? You can actually buy your own these days!"

"Fuck you," Mathers spits, and JC gives him a sneer he stole from Lance Bass.

"You're not very big," he says. "Fuck off."

One of the boys lurches forwards, and Mathers snaps, "no, wait," whipping his pale hand out of his pocket to hold the lad back. JC relaxes a fraction. No knife, and also, no reason to hold back if they're serious. Far easier to pull a phone out the pocket of someone crumpled up on the floor, after all.

"Give us the phone," one of the other lads says, and JC knows the bus is due any minute now, and if he can just--

"Give it a rest," he says, and the world is swimming round the edges, adrenaline pulsing against his nerves. He ignores it. "Better luck next time - if you find someone your own size, you never know, they might not laugh in your face."

"You're not gonna be laughing," the other lad promises, drawing himself up to his full height of perhaps five foot four. He's stocky, and probably has the measure of JC, but doesn't need to know that; JC's relying on the fact that height is the important feature right now. "When we're through, you're not going to laugh for a long time--"

"Look, fuck off," JC says, trying to make it sound weary, which is oddly difficult right now, and then Mathers is growling, moving closer, getting in his face.

"You don't fucking tell me to fuck off," he hisses, breath hot on JC's chin.

"Oh, come on," JC says, resisting the urge to shield his sandwich, and backs up against the wall of the bus shelter, hoping the cheap blue paint won't rub off on his bag. No point standing his ground, not with the outnumbered factor. Best he can do, he thinks, is put them off until the bus arrives. "What the hell are you doing?" he asks, concentrating on Mathers. "As if you don't all have trust funds."

"Don't get anything til I'm 21," Mathers says, somewhat smugly, then his eyes flash angrily, narrowing.

Caught conversing with the enemy, JC thinks snidely, annoyed that he can't fold his arms without compromising his sandwich. "So you get such a tiny allowance you can't afford your own phone?" he says, raising his eyebrows, and resists adding, "sounds like Adler's inferiority complex raising its ugly head, if you ask me. "

"Maybe I just like teaching you a lesson," Mathers says, and JC lets his indignation show.

"Since when have I bothered you?"

"Right now," Mathers says, which is pretty weak, and JC feels contempt flow into the set of his mouth and eyes before he can stop it, and Mathers throws a punch at his jaw. JC ducks back, his arm shoving against Mathers' wrist, and Mathers' knuckles glance off his teeth; it doesn't hurt much but it's fucking outrageous, and JC sinks his fist into Mathers' stomach, making the damp puffy plastic squeak and hearing Mathers grunt in surprise.

"Fucking faggot," one of the other boys hisses, and they all pile on, and JC isn't a fighter but he knows how to dodge a blow, and in dodging he manages to make two of the others growl in pain so he can't be too dreadful. He's holding the sandwich behind his back, which is fucking stupid, but also, well, crabsticks. And he's hungry.

He ducks and lets the sandwich fall the rest of the way to the floor behind him, and feels the heel of his hand connect satisfyingly with Mathers' nose. Mathers curses loudly, and someone cracks JC hard in the ribs, and someone else knees his hipbone with a force that surely hurt them more than it hurt JC-- and then the bus hisses and steams and pulls up by the other end of the bus stop, and JC shoves every limb he can get hold of as hard as he can, snatching up his sandwich as he kicks Mathers ankles out with all his strength, and races round to the curb.

"Thirty-five, please," he pants, groping in his pocket for his bus pass, and the driver scowls at him for not having the right change and lurches the bus forwards as soon as JC's paid. JC walks carefully down the bus, holding the handbars at all times.

Someone just tried to mug him.

Some little kids just tried to mug him.

He finds a free double seat and feels safe, and then hates himself for that. He was buying a sandwich. He went alone to a different shop than usual because he remembered they did good crabsticks, and some horrible little Year Elevens thought they could steal from him. Worse than steal - thought they could intimidate him into giving it away.

Sometimes, he really wishes his best friend hadn't gone away to America.

All the time.

Slowly, he opens the brown paper bag, uncurling the corners, then tearing it down one side. The sandwich is dented, but it's a good solid white roll, stuffed with chunky pink-white crabsticks and lettuce and silky tangy mayonnaise, and although he takes the first bite with some trepidation that it won't have been worth it, soon he's smiling.

Tastes good.

Makes his mouth hurt to chew, and he realises Mathers' punch did some damage after all, but it does taste good. He eats it with trembling fingers, staring out through the drizzle-sprinkled window at dreary identical red-roofed houses and car upon car upon car. He wonders what commuting is like in America, what the view is, if it's raining there too.

His stop approaches, the school buildings visible at the end of the road. JC licks his fingers and wishes he had another sandwich, then screws up the paper bag, folding it first to avoid the slippery patches, and stuffs it in the side pocket of his rucksack.

Inside school, he pushes against the crowds of bell-summoned children and makes for the toilets, hiding in one of the cubicles, waiting for all the other occupants to leave. The air tastes of smoke and deodorant, and he sits on the closed toilet seat and reads the graffiti.

It mostly seems to concern the Beautiful People (LB gives great head!!, and then, in a different colour and hand, duh, and a third, oh right as IF he's the one on his knees) and generic insults, as well as a somewhat plaintive query, so am I allowed to sometimes split infinitives or not? and a whole wall of increasingly small-print discussion. Some people need to get out more.

JC reads it all, despairing as he finishes that there are still a couple of boys outside. He should just leave, he thinks-- except that it's a good idea not to turn up to maths looking like he's just been part of a ruckus, especially since he thinks he's just made himself late anyway.

Some of the boys are talking about girls, and some of them are talking about football. JC tries to remember the last time he cared about either, and comes up with a loss, which maybe, he thinks acidly, explains the fact that he just went for a sandwich on his own.

When he hears the door bang for the fifth time, a tissue-rustling silence descends; he shuffles out and tries to assess the damage in the mirror. He was right to come here, he decides: he looks roughed up. He smoothes his shirt and hair, and shakes his trouser legs, and straightens his tie, and leans close to the mirror, poking his jaw to see how noticeable the bruise is.

Not very. He's fine, he decides, splashing cold water on his face anyway, then patting it dry with green paper towels. Fine, and his hands have stopped trembling too, and he's going to be really bloody late for maths if he doesn't get going soon.

He's ten minutes late, actually, and Mr Joy holds up his palm and says, "wait there, just a minute," and JC freezes in the doorway.

"Sorry," he starts, and Mr Joy gives him a quick look.

"I just have to give you some sheets," he says, not angry, and JC breathes out. Mr Joy looks back to the class, and JC loiters by the door, shifting his weight to his other hip, trying to get the gist of the lesson so far.

The whole class is fixed on Mr Joy, and at least half of the back row is taking notes. Could be serious. JC folds his arms, shifts his weight again, then grits his teeth as the damp ridge of his waistband digs hard into the bruise on his hip. He can't quite believe four snotty little wannabe-punks managed to inflict actual damage, but here he is, late for his favourite lesson, undeniably sore.

His mouth feels hot, like the nerves are grating against each other, rubbing up a friction storm. He lifts his hand cautiously, brushing the pads of his fingers surreptitiously over his jaw and lips, convinced the area is swelling even though it feels the same. He presses the line of his lower lip gingerly, where it's hottest and rawest, and then notices with a start that Nick is watching him.

He looks quickly away. It's all he can do to not snatch his hand back down and lean nonchalantly against the door and whistle. He resists, though, and lowers his hand in his own time, and when he glances back Nick is still watching. It feels like assessment, like Nick's a man looking at a house that he's thinking of buying, critical but without malice, and JC meets his gaze for three... four seconds, then buckles and looks away.



[6]

One day Nick's not in school, and Aaron's got a detention for being surly, and JC's got a detention for answering back, so JC spends the whole of the half-hour staring moodily at the back of Aaron's scruffy blond head. Afterwards, they stalk through the corridor together, carefully ignoring each other, and then they reach the main door and JC sees that it's wet outside and promptly swings his bag off his shoulders and pulls out his cagoule.

"Shit," he hears, and looks sideways to see Aaron peering at the grey sheeting rain, one hand fingering his collar like if he turns that up it might keep him semi-dry, and so JC sighs, and offers his raincoat, and says,

"No problem, just give it to your brother," when Aaron tries to say he can't keep it.

Of course, JC never really imagined that Nick would bring it back.

"Um," he says, looking at the piece of blue canvas folded neatly in Nick's tanned hands, brain fizzing because he was pretty sure he'd never told Nick his address and yet voila, personal delivery, "thank you?"

"Yeah, well," Nick says, "teaching him, y'know. Family values," and JC thinks he's never heard such rubbish, but keeps his mouth shut because hello, still at least vaguely sane.

"Good luck," he says instead, and Nick squints at him slightly and tips his head sideways, and JC feels for a moment like he's being observed by the biggest, most passively inquisitive baby bird the world's every seen. He ducks his head, then tries not to blush when he peeks back and realises Nick's still looking.

"You're alright," Nick says eventually, and JC wants to laugh, because that's just the most-- ridiculous, and then Nick's passing over the raincoat, tucking it into JC's hands with his deliberate firm fingers, and pressing the whole bundle into JC's chest. He nods, turns on his heel. "Bye."

"Bye," JC calls helplessly, and Nick raises one hand in acknowledging farewell, without looking back. "Right," JC says, to himself, and nods some. "Yes. Better put this inside." He stares after Nick a little longer, then nods again, and reminds himself not to talk to himself like that, 'cause it's not cool.



[7]

JC hurries to his Friday afternoon lesson, shaking raindrops out his hair. He's late, but everyone else is usually later, so that's alright-- and then he gets to the classroom door, and freezes. He's the only one here, sure, great, but the relief fades as he notices the blackboard: module P6 mock examination.

The room is decked out like an exam, a wealth of sheets of paper on each desk; graph paper, tracing paper, pink-blue printed answer booklet, the works.

The tables have been separated, and when JC sits down in his usual window seat, he finds he's faced with a completely different set of graffiti from last lesson. This time it's someone with an awful lot of interesting spirals under their belt, who also seems to be the type to play 3d noughts and crosses with themselves.

The desk last lesson had an entire corner of coded formula carved into the wood with a compass, and JC had spent several happy minutes deciphering it. He looks at the exam paper, ominously official, and sort of wishes they'd left it.

Through the window in the door, he watches the rest of the school surge by oddly muted; a moment later, there's a change in the average height of the pupils outside, and the rest of his class and a lot of noise start to spill in. It's almost funny, watching them notice the exam stuff, but not very. He picks Nick's voice out the hubbub, and carefully looks away. Nick pushed into him in the corridor yesterday, a whole hot armful of musty damp woollen boy, JC's backpack getting squashed into a brick wall with the force of it. Nick, forging on past through the crowd, didn't seem to have noticed him.

"He split us up," Wilson yelps indignantly, and JC glances over to see a damp Nick giving a damp Wilson a friendly shove, then bouncing into the middle of the now-admittedly-separated back row and staking his claim.

By unspoken concord, no one makes a move to turn over the papers. JC slips his hand into his bag and fingers the envelope he snatched up from the mat when he went home to grab his calculator; it's blue handwritten airmail paper, and it's got an American frank. He didn't dare open it on the way to school, because of the wet.

He's just deciding he has time to read it now before Mr Joy comes in, has just got it out, slipped his finger under the tight flap and started to tear, when Mr Joy comes in and he finds himself sliding it quickly back into his bag. Later.

"Sir, what's this nonsense," Nick calls, and Mr Joy takes a sip of coffee from a polystyrene cup and winces before nodding at him.

"P6 module exam," he says, and then his eyes widen indignantly at the expressions of horror. "Oh come on, I told you there were going to be a few practise papers."

"But sir, it's Friday," Nick says, somewhat emphatically, and the rest of the back row nod in fervent protest.

"And of course, an exam would never fall on a Friday," Mr Joy says smoothly, then shakes his head. "Come on. Places, please." The class grumbles into their seats, and Mr Joy adds, "hey, just be glad I didn't put you in alphabetical order like I'm supposed to, bring you lot down to the front," and JC knows from GCSEs that he's sat next to Nick when things are alphabetical, and nods a little. Yeah, thanks, sir.

"Small mercies," Dover agrees, and JC looks back and then jumps because Nick's watching him, and for a moment the eye contact is sheer and bold.

"Yeah," Nick says, and it's like he sends a little spark right into JC's stomach, and then he's looking at Mr Joy and smirking sulkily. "You wouldn't dare though, would you, sir?" he calls, his voice all young sleek challenge. "You know it'd ruin my concentration, being up front."

"Oh absolutely, I'm sure it would," Mr Joy agrees mildly, setting his coffee of his desk, his attention ebbing fast. "Wilson, if your chair gives way, you know we're just going to stand round and laugh, don't you?"

"Better that than an exam," Wilson retorts, but he rights himself anyway, all four feet of the chair plonking back on the floor.

"Honestly, stop moaning," Mr Joy mutters, rolling his eyes. "Forty-five minutes, A's in the bag. You're all on form, no reason you shouldn't breeze through."

"It's formal though, this," Aguilera says dully. "It's like it's June already."

Mr Joy blinks, then very carefully sits down at his desk, steeples his fingers together. "Okay," he says, and suddenly JC remembers he's a grown-up. "It's February, not June. You do this paper, and I talk you through anything that goes wrong. Then you do a practically identical module exam, and then you never have to think about matrices or Argand diagrams again."

JC shivers, and sort of wants to curl up under Mr Joy's arm, or something. From the silence, he has a feeling the rest of the class feels the same, and then Wilson pipes up, "I will, when I'm a world-famous mathematician, sir," and the tension splits like a pregnant cloud, and the room rains with laughter.

"Glad to hear it," Mr Joy says, picking up his cup, then sips and wrinkles his nose. "Okay, I'm going to go get a real coffee with actual milk," he says. "You guys have forty-five minutes."

"Get me a coffee, sir," Nick wheedles, and Mr Joy gives him a slow, measured look. JC thinks helplessly that he'd love to be in a Joy-Carter sandwich.

"Okay," Mr Joy says, eventually. "First person to finish gets a coffee, and my undying approval. Exam conditions, mind. Go."

There are a couple of whoops, and as one, the class turns over the paper and shuts up. JC gives his pencil a couple of clicks, and gets to work. He imagines he can feel Nick watching him, for the first couple of minutes, and then he gets confused as to whether that little minus one means inverse or reciprocal, and his concentration takes over once more.



[8]

A casual observer would be forgiven for suggesting that it rains an awful lot at JC's school.

They're doing benchball instead of outdoor sports, and this is normally called a sissy game because it's what weak girls are rumoured to play - as opposed to strong girls, who wield hockey sticks and sometimes, indeed, deign to play hockey rather than just sock people round the back of the knees.

Today, JC thinks benchball doesn't deserve its title, or else maybe weak girls are still a good match for him, because he's just been slammed by a basketball for the third time - once in the head, twice in the stomach - and now he has to stand, waving desultorily, on a bench. Not his idea of fun.

The remaining crowd of boys surge forwards, the whistle gets blown, and it's all back on the floor to begin again. This time, the first ball thudding into his temple takes him down to commune with other people's plimsolls.

"Wuss," someone mutters, and JC readily agrees, and the former-hockey-enthusiast gym ma'am takes one look at his wrecked body and declares him unfit to play.

"Never a truer word was spoken," someone else calls, and JC nods blearily and staggers out into the corridor and thuds down in the plastic chairs outside the changing room and hello, Nick. Whoa.

Nick slouched in shorts and a tank top, no less.

He glances at JC with moderate interest. "You out?"

"Ball," JC whispers, "got me in the head four times," and it's only a tiny lie. Stomach, head: both part of the same nervous system.

"Ouch."

Silence sprawls between them for a minute, then JC, finding that he can now blink several times in a row and not reel with his vision full of sparkly bits, clears his throat. "How 'bout you?"

"Unsafe on court," Nick says, with a tiny lift to the corner of his mouth that JC only sees because he's, er, watching.

"Ohh."

"Mmhm," Nick says, and cracks his knuckles. JC winces appreciatively, and the silence unfolds again.

It doesn't seem like a long time before boys come hurtling, ant-like in their singular determination, out the gym and through the corridor and into the changing room. The air tastes nasty suddenly, and JC doesn't even want to know why.

He picks himself up, and Nick gets to his feet behind him, bouncing a little on his toes. JC makes an obsequious after-you gesture, and Nick doesn't appear to notice and just bounds ahead of him, some measure of apparently unlimited energy crackling into the floorboards.

Somewhat less Tigger-ish, JC follows him.

"Oi, wanker," some guy calls, affecting a broad east london accent, and JC concentrates very hard on measuring his steps back to the peg and small pile of clothes he calls his own. "You lost us the game."

It's not a big deal, JC thinks, what with it being benchball and a wussy game and not even real teams anyway, but apparently it's a big enough deal for him to be snatched off the floor by about half a dozen half-dressed young men and carried, log-like, through to the showers. There's a brief, sickening spiral through the air before he's dumped on the floor curled around some guy's fist.

He hisses at that. He hisses again at the next blow, and they should really make P.E. longer if boys have this much energy to burn, and then there's no sensation where the next fist should've been and a definite return of daylight, and he looks up to find Nick's got a collar in each fist and one of the boys is turning purple.

"Um," JC manages, and Nick's looking down at him from this weird angle of about ten thousand metres above JC-level, and then Nick shakes the boys and lets them scatter out of view.

"Okay?" Nick says, and toes JC's thigh experimentally.

JC nods, trying to control his breathing, ignoring the steady rumble of pain from his stomach. There's no point. Nick reaches down all that way to grab JC's collar and pull him up by it, another hand under his armpit.

JC struggles and pitches to his feet, and then gasps because Nick's hands steady him right against a spreading bruise, and Nick raises his eyebrows.

"I'm okay," JC says, which just makes it sound pathetically like he's not. He straightens his shoulders, and Nick frowns at him.

"That hurt?" he asks, flattening a hand on either side of JC's ribs and pressing, and thankfully it's not over a place someone got earlier and JC can just wet his lips nervously and shake his head.

Nick smiles, and JC wants to run away, and resigns himself to thinking incessantly about this moment for the rest of the week. Nick's hands are still on him, and Nick's still looking down, and Nick just pulled about six of his friends - or whatevers - off JC's twitching, defeated body and now they're in a deserted dripping shower room, alone. Bears thinking about.

"Might want to watch yourself round them," Nick says gruffly, and JC nods fervently, because yes, he certainly will. He's not sure what good it will do, but watching is definitely on the agenda.

"Sorry, I. um. Thanks," he says faintly, deciding that it must've been, yeah, payment due for keeping his brother dry that one time, and then Nick's running his hands up JC's complaining back and tilting his head and nudging his mouth an impossible-to-ignore fraction closer to JC's.

The air blazes with tension.

Possibly, just possibly, it's about something more.

"Any time," Nick says, and JC almost loses his balance and can't begin to process that.

He closes his eyes helplessly, then feels drastically paranoid and opens them again.

The corner of Nick's mouth has crunched into a little smirk.

"Well," JC says, magnificently. "I have. lessons?"

"Lunch," Nick corrects, and JC nods quickly.

"Yes. Lunch."

"I have to meet Lance." Nick's hands are settled at the nape of JC's neck, and the insides of his elbows are resting against JC's ribs, and it's undeniable imprisonment, and neither of them are breathing a word about it.

"I imagine he likes punctuality," JC says, sensationally inane. Lance Bass is blond and acidic and beautiful and so far above JC in the highschool hierarchy that lunching with him seems as unlikely as with Prince William or Marilyn Monroe.

"Mmhm," Nick says, and his eyes are half-closed.

JC thinks that if he were to struggle, Nick would let him go, but if he keeps up this persistent non-struggling, he'll get kissed sooner or later. Or someone will come in, and Nick will shake him reflexively and wander off.

Adrenaline is pulsing so thickly in JC's blood that his veins ache.

"So," he says, desperately casual, "what's--"

Nick presses lightly on JC's shoulderblades, and JC abandons his question and leans in, tilting his head helplessly, and then he gets intensely scared that Nick's going to laugh cruelly while spying boys from the back row take photos, and then Nick's tongue brushes JC's lower lip.

There aren't going to be photos, JC decides.

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