by Chris J

"Fucking poser," said Justin, and rolled his eyes and tossed his books in his locker. His history text landed spread open with half the pages folded over, but Justin didn't seem to care.

"Who?" said Nick, looking back over his shoulder. But when he did, it was obvious who Justin was talking about. The guy in the skirt, which was what Nick had been calling him in his head since he'd first seen him outside the school, leaning against the brick wall and reading a battered paperback. "How do you know he's not for real?"

Justin snorted and slammed his locker shut. "Is anyone who looks like that for real? He thinks he's so edgy, looking like that. I hate people who are fake."

"Do you know him?" Nick asked, looking away again as soon as Justin looked at him. "He looks interesting."

"Know him?" said Justin. "Not likely. Do we look like we have anything in common? He's not the kind of person our friends hang out with anyway. So are you ready to go to lunch? They're saving us seats."

"Whenever you are," said Nick, and closed his own locker and followed Justin down the hall. And didn't look back at the guy in the skirt again.

He may have been the new kid in school, but he was the new kid in school with a popular cousin to take him under his wing, and that made all the difference.

* * *

"I have practice," Justin informed him importantly as Nick slung his backpack over his shoulder, heavy with books and other things. "You should stay, there are going to be a bunch of people hanging around. You could watch."

"I have a lot of homework..."

"It's only the second week of classes," scoffed Justin. "I don't know what it was like in your old school, but around here no one worries about homework 'til maybe a month in. You should stay, people will be wondering where you are if you don't."

In Nick's old school, he'd hung around with his friends after school. And maybe they hadn't been as cool or as popular as Justin's friends were, but they were fun. But now Justin's friends were his friends, kind of, and he wasn't gonna rock that boat because Justin's friends were way better than no friends at all.

"Okay," he said. "I can do it later."

"Good," said Justin. "There's this girl who's gonna be there I think you'd like...Manda?" He paused, like Nick should know how that was. "You should totally play up the parents divorcing thing, and how you had to move here. Her parents split up last year so, like, you'll have something in common."

"Uh huh," said Nick, and waited for Justin to get his things together. He was pretty sure it wasn't the right time to tell Justin he wasn't really much into girls. He wasn't sure the right time was going to come at all.

"Then you can ask her to Joey's party this weekend, and won't have to feel like a fifth wheel, coming with me and Brit. She'll totally say yes. She's already into you, I think."

"Uh huh," said Nick again, and tagged along behind Justin as he finally headed through the corridors towards the back field. He hadn't really realized he was going to be a fifth wheel until Justin brought it up.

The guy in the skirt was standing to the side of the back stairs, talking softly to a guy with blue hair and tattoos. Justin walked right by them without even looking, taking two stairs at a time on his way down.

Nick followed him halfway, then paused and looked back over his shoulder. "Hey," he said.

The guy in the skirt looked up, dark eyes smudged round with even darker eyeliner, and he didn't smile but he did say "hey" back.

* * *

"You finished?" Nick's dad was already clearing the table, two plates instead of seven and Nick was having a little trouble getting used to that, but staying with his dad had been his choice.

Nick nodded and cleaned his own plate before putting it in the dishwasher. It took three or four days to even fill the thing now. His mom used to run it twice a day. He used to go home for lunch, too, but now his dad just left him lunch money before going to work.

"You finish your homework?"

"Not yet," said Nick. "I was gonna do it later."

"No going out until it's done," said his dad, but without any feeling behind it. He was tired, Nick knew. He worked long hours, and came home to just Nick, and sometimes not even that.

"I wasn't gonna go out anyway," said Nick, refilling his drinking glass with tap water and draining that before sticking it in the dishwasher, too.

"Didn't your cousin call earlier?"

"Yeah," said Nick, "yeah, but he just wants me to go hang out with him and his friends again and I just don't feel like it tonight."

"He's just trying to be nice, Nick. He just wants you to make friends here. He knows it's not easy being new."

"I just don't want to tonight," said Nick again. "I'm going to this party with them on the weekend anyway. I know he's just being nice, Dad, he's been great. I just got things to do tonight."

His dad didn't ask what things, which was good because Nick didn't have an answer for him other than 'things by himself', because hanging out with Justin and his friends was like work and sometimes he just didn't need that.

"I'm gonna take the garbage out, okay?" he said, and didn't wait for an answer before tying off the bag and heading out the back door. The night was cool, the breeze almost making him chilly, but it wasn't dark. It never really got dark here.

He sat down on the steps of the crumbling back deck and reached underneath and pulled out the pack of cigarettes he kept stashed under there. His dad probably knew about them, but as long as Nick didn't smoke in front of him he didn't bother him. Nick's mom probably would have confiscated them and thrown them in the trash.

Nick lit the cigarette and stared across the back yard and wished he could see the ocean.

* * *

"You sit here, Nick," said Manda, patting the seat next to her. Justin gave him a knowing grin and sat on his other side. "Did Ms. Albrecht give your class a pop quiz, too?"

Nick made the requisite face and nodded his head. "Right after she closed the door," he said. "Like once she had us trapped inside she was going to skin us alive."

Manda laughed and unwrapped her sandwich, and Nick looked anywhere but at her. The lunchroom was filling up quickly, but ever since his first day of class he'd never had to worry about a seat. He was even starting to be able to pick out who people were, and what classes they were in, after Justin had pointed them out more than twice.

The guy in the skirt was a senior, which Nick had only found out when he'd mentioned him to Lance in his first period math class between the pop quiz and the killer problem set. Lance had said something about him being a wannabe goth punk boy spending daddy's money to look like he was broke, and Nick hadn't pursued it any further than that. Lance wore polo shirts and designer sunglasses and clearly had a very good idea how to better spend daddy's money.

"What, you got a crush on the lunch lady?" said Justin, elbowing him in the side, an edge to his voice.

"Yeah," said Nick, dryly, looking at him as an acceptable alternative to giving Manda attention that he knew she would take the wrong way. "I dig hair nets."

"I knew you had to have a dirty little secret lurking behind that sweet fašade of yours," laughed Justin, and it was all okay again, that brief moment of tension over but not forgotten.

The guy in the skirt came into the lunch room with a metal lunchbox -- lunchbox, Nick hadn't seen one of those since grade school -- and sat down at his usual table, with the guy with the blue hair and the girl who...who was probably his girlfriend. Nick allowed himself a lingering look anyway.

* * *

"What's with you, anyway?" Justin asked him as they pushed their way through the students streaming out of the classrooms. "You hardly even said two words to Manda."

"I was eating, Justin," he said defensively. "I don't talk much when I'm eating."

"You talked plenty to everyone else," said Justin. "Don't you like her or something?" Nick just shrugged, not really saying one way or the other. "She's really nice once you get to know her, you know."

"I'm sure she is," said Nick finally. "I'm just, you know, getting used to how things are here. I don't know if I'm ready to be seeing anyone yet."

Justin looked at him suspiciously; Nick had known Justin all his life, he knew that look. "You're gonna be at the party tomorrow, though, right?" he said. "You aren't going to blow that off?"

"Looking forward to it," Nick assured him. "You said there's gonna be lots of people there?"

"Everyone's coming," said Justin confidently. "Joey's parents are out of town. I gotta go to class, meet you at our lockers after?"

"Of course," said Nick; they always did. Justin fled in one direction as Nick turned and headed in another. The halls were emptying again, students slamming lockers, arms loaded with a fresh set of books. The guy in the skirt had a locker in this hallway; Nick could recognize him by the jacket he always wore, even though he wasn't in a skirt today. "Hey," Nick said when he got close, slowing then stopping altogether.

There was an awkward moment when Nick wasn't sure if he should just keep going on not, then the guy lifted his head out of his locker. "Hey," he said, and waited expectantly.

"Uh, I'm Nick," he said, shifting the books in his arms so he wasn't carrying them quite so much like a seven-year-old schoolgirl. "I like your jacket."

He looked down at his jacket, then back up at Nick again. Nick could see the black wires from a set of headphones snaking down from his ears and disappearing into an inside pocket somewhere. "Thanks," he said finally. "You're Justin's friend, right?"

"I'm his cousin," said Nick. It was about as suave as 'I carried a watermelon'. "So. I've seen you around."

"I've seen you around, too," he said, closing his locker. He hadn't taken anything out. "I'm Kevin."

The silence grew awkward again, and Nick looked down at his shoes. Meeting people was harder than he remembered. Finally he looked up again and tilted his head to the side. "So, you going to Joey's party tomorrow?"

Kevin gave him a hint of a smile. "Not really my crowd," he said.

Nick didn't recognize the faint music that was coming out of his headphones, but he would bet that the name of the group was something The Acid Burns or Blind Plumber or something way more kitchy cool than he could come up with on his own.

"Yeah, me either," he admitted, looking back over his shoulder like someone might be listening. "But, you know. I'll be there."

Kevin just nodded. "I've got class," he said finally. "I'll see you, Nick."

"Yeah," said Nick, shifting his books again. "Yeah, you too."

* * *

"Can you at least pretend you're having fun?" said Justin in his ear, making Nick laugh again. He'd already just about spit punch on the back of Britney's white top; doing it again was just tempting fate. Justin cracked up too, and slapped him on the back. "I think I'm gonna disappear soon. You're good on your own?"

Nick just waved him off with a flick of his wrist. "I'm good," he said. "I'm great. I'm just gonna have some more punch, I think." He'd only had three glasses so far, which was just enough to feel it, just enough to loosen up and have some fun with these people.

Justin clapped him on the back again, then took Britney's arm and they were moving through the crowd away from him, towards parts of the house Justin hadn't explored. There were people everywhere -- in the living room, in the dining room, spilling out onto the back deck and the darkness of the yard beyond. "Everyone" wasn't there, if everyone meant all kinds of people, but everyone who mattered to Justin and his friends was there, and that was a whole lot of people.

Nick let Manda caress his arm when he got himself more punch, and watched Lance-from-math-class dance for a little while, eyes lingering on that finely curved ass.

Until he saw Kevin appear in the doorway.

"Ohmigod!" said Manda, clutching his upper arm for a moment. Nick didn't believe for a second that it was in surprise. "What's he doing here?"

Nick just shrugged. "Cause it's a party?" he suggested, his heart beating a little faster. "I dunno."

"Weird," she said, not letting go of him. "He's such a freak. What's he trying to prove anyway?" Nick shrugged again, and didn't even look at her. Kevin didn't look like he gave it shit what any of these people thought of him. "Nicky, baby, I gotta use the little girls' room. You'll be here when I get back?"

"Of course," Nick told her. The moment she was out of sight he got up and poured another glass of punch and propelled himself to Kevin's side. "Hey," he said.

Kevin took the drink before speaking. "Hey," he said, and took a sip. He didn't seem at all surprised that Nick appeared there. "This music really sucks."

Nick snort-laughed. "Well, it's good for dancing, or something," he said. He didn't mind it, really, even if he wouldn't listen to it on his own or anything. "It's, uh, quieter outside?"

"Hope so," said Kevin, draining the rest of the drink Nick had brought him and leaving the plastic cup on top of a speaker, next to a stack of half a dozen others. He seemed to know the way outside already; Nick wondered if he'd been here before.

Kevin's black pants were baggy, but Nick had no doubt he was hiding a pretty fine ass of his own under there. The skirt clung to his ass much better than this.

"So, uh, I guess you don't come to stuff like this much?"

"Not really," said Kevin. He let them right off the back desk and around a walk of concrete slabs to the wooden side fence. There had been flowers there once, but they were obviously dead. Which was good, because Kevin didn't seem to have any qualms about stepping into the flower bed, his heavy boots leaving deep imprints in the soil. "I mostly do other stuff."

"Like what?" said Nick, stepping into it with him and then leaning against the fence, too. Though he was careful not to make the same pose, that would just be creepy.

"Stuff," said Kevin. "Some clubs, some different kinds of parties. Sometimes nothing. Sometimes photography, or reading."

"I paint," Nick told him, latching onto that. Part of him desperate to seem cool to Kevin, another part of him equally desperate to just be himself again. "I haven't much, since we moved here, but I used to."

"Yeah?" said Kevin. "You should keep doing that."

"For sure," said Nick, shifting position. "Yeah, for sure."

They fell silent for a moment, but it didn't feel as awkward as before. Finally, Kevin spoke again. "So are we here to make out or not?" Nick's mouth fell open for a moment. "That is why you asked me, right?"

"Um, kind of?" said Nick, because what else could he say to that? Then Kevin kissed him and 'kind of' turned into another 'for sure'. Before they'd moved, Nick'd had a good friend he did this with, just made out with sometimes when the urge struck them. Kevin felt like that, just that comfortable with an edge of illicit excitement. "Oh."

Kevin let him just take a breath, then he was kissing him again, tugging Nick's shirt out of his jeans and sliding a hand up underneath it. Nick couldn't remember the last time he had been kissed this breathless, made this hard, and that was before Kevin started undoing his belt, undoing the buttons of his jeans.

At least Nick had the presence of mind to return the favor, though he fumbled like he'd never done this before. And he had, lots of times, so he could only hope that Kevin didn't hold his clumsiness against him. Then again, Kevin hardly even seemed to notice at all, especially when he was finally holding Kevin's cock and Kevin was holding his and they were still kissing.

Nick felt sure his lips would be swollen after this but he didn't care, it was the best thing that had happened to him since his dad had decided to pick up their lives and transplant them somewhere new. Kevin's hand was sure and his mouth...Nick was sure he could do things with it that would make his toes curl.

Thank god this corner of the yard was dark, in the shadow of the tool shed, and that everywhere else was noisy, because shit, this was public and Nick had never done anything this public before. He wasn't sure if it was that or the handjob that was making him tremble. Either way, he was just a few jerks away from coming, and his gasp into their kiss was the only warning Kevin got before Nick was spilling over his fingers.

Kevin let out a soft chuckle but he didn't stop kissing and Nick didn't stop stroking him, able to focus a little more once the lingering orgasm finally cleared out of his brain. This he knew how to do, and finally a couple minutes later Kevin came with a soft moan, pulsing under Nick's hand. Nick had no idea what to do for a moment, then finally wiped his fingers off on the hip of his jeans. He hoped his untucked shirt would cover any wet spots.

"Well, that was a bit inelegant," said Kevin when they finally stopped kissing, finally were able to speak again. He pulled a ratty kleenex out of his pocket and wiped his hand off. "Next time, we'll have to pick our location a little better. I'd like to see your painting."

Nick had no idea what to say to that. Except, inevitably, yes.

* * *

Justin's family had Nick and his father over for dinner every Sunday. Or at least, they had since they'd gotten to town; Nick had no doubt that the tradition would fade after a while, when they ran out of things to talk about, and the get-togethers would become limited to birthdays and holidays like they used to be.

Justin pulled him aside after dinner, before anyone could rope them into cleaning up, and dragged him upstairs.

"I saw you with Kevin at the party," he said quietly.

"You... what?" said Nick, feeling cold sweat bead up on his spine. He was an idiot. He knew they could've been seen.

"You were chatting with him. You even got him a drink."

"Oh," said Nick, and tried not to make his sigh of relief too obvious. "I...yeah. He's interesting to talk to."

"He's...how did you even meet him?" said Justin. "I don't even know anyone who's friends with him."

"I just talked to him," said Nick. "Why does it have to be such a big deal? I just talked to him and he's interesting. We have stuff in common."

"You do, huh?" said Justin, making a face that was somewhere in between understanding and frustrated. "Look, I know you're a little...different. I've always known that. But, like, don't you like the people I've introduced you to? You're one of them already, Nick."

Nick bit the inside of his cheek and exhaled through his nose. "It's not that, Justin. They're fine. They're just...they're your friends."

"They could be your friends too, Nick. They want to be your friends."

"But I'm not...I'm not like you guys, Justin. I get along with you all fine, I just...why does it have to be a big deal if I'm friends with Kevin? I like him."

"You don't get to have both, Nick. That's just the way high school works."

* * *

Justin drove them to school, getting use of the car for the first time since they'd started the school year. Nick knew he was saving up for wheels of his own, though he would never have the kind of car that some of his friends' parents bought them. It was a nice change from the bus.

"I have practice after school again," said Justin, swinging his bag up on top of the car as he checked his hair in the side mirror. "Are you gonna come watch?"

"Probably," said Nick, waiting beside the car for Justin to finish. "I told Manda I would be there, so probably."

"Good, good," said Justin, and looked up and grinned at him. "We have our first game next week. You've gotta come to that, too."

"Miss your first game?" said Nick, feigning horror. "Perish the thought!"

As Justin checked his hair one last time, Nick let his eyes graze over the parking lot. Over by the shop doors, Kevin was sitting on a fence, chatting with the blue-haired guy again. He looked up and, just for a moment, his eyes met Nick's.

"I'm gonna meet with Britney before class," Justin was saying beside him, just standing up again. "I'll see you for lunch?

"Sure," said Nick. "I'm just gonna go inside, find my notes or, uh. Something."

Nick could feel Justin's eyes on his back as he left.

* * *

Nick exited the lunch line behind Justin, the way they always did. And started weaving through tables to the other side of the room, like they always did. But he paused part way this time. Justin knew right away, turning to face him. "Are you coming?" he said, angling his head toward their usual lunch table. Nick hesitated, then looked Justin in the eye and shook his head. Justin bit his lip, then finally nodded at him. "Okay," he said softly. "Good luck, Nick."

"Thanks," said Nick sincerely, then veered right and headed for Kevin's table.

For Don We Now Our Gay Apparel 2003, for MI

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