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21 December 2009 @ 06:22 pm
Original fic: She Wanted Storms (Part II)  

Part I

Nick knew he should find an undoubtedly paralytic Padraig, and rescue Jack from an irate female, and thank his hosts, and bid them all goodnight (or early morning). Instead, he followed Robbie like an enchanted lamb out into the still cold night. The sounds of revelry diminished abruptly as they stepped out of the foyer. Robbie puffed out a frosty breath and tucked his hands into the pockets of his leather bomber. Nick fished for his toque in his peacoat. Padraig had nearly died laughing when he first saw that coat, and still told everyone that Nick had bought it in Oasis. Nick didn't care - or rather, he cared, but he liked his coat more.

Robbie brushed a palm across Nick's wool-covered elbow. "Nice coat," he said. Despite the chill, Nick flushed with warmth.

As they turned on to the street, Nick asked uncertainly, "Which way are you going?" Robbie glanced up at him with bruised eyes.

"I'm hurt you have to ask," said Robbie. "I'm going with you. To defend you from all the dastardly terrors of the night."

"Like muggers?" They were in fairly short supply in Blackrock.

"I was thinking dragons," admitted Robbie, "but whatever you're having yourself."

Nick looked down at Robbie's wiry frame. He could practically fit under Nick's arm. "Do you, like, know jujitsu?" Maybe Robbie had hidden thug-bashing skills.

"No," said Robbie, looking disgusted by the very prospect. "But I have a sword and I've seen Lord of the Rings about five hundred times, so."

"A sword?" Nick was interested. "On you?"

"Why, yes," leered Robbie. He grabbed his crotch. "A huge sword."

"Shut up," laughed Nick. "Like that'd be a great help in a fight."

"Sure it would be," said Robbie. "I'd just have to tell them that gay is catching."

After a beat, Nick said, "No, it's not."

"Are you sure?" Robbie bumped into Nick rather hard.

Nick thought about the strange jumping feeling he used to get in his belly when Finbarr was around. At first he'd blamed Finbarr for making him that way, with his hands and his guitar and the way his laugh made Nick smile. Over the past few years, though, he'd realised that other boys did that to him too. If he'd caught anything from Finbarr, it was a key that unlocked a hidden side of himself.

"Pretty sure, yeah," he said.

Robbie appeared to digest this. "Yeah. Explaining bisexuality to knacks is probably a wasted effort, anyway."

"Usually they just want money," said Nick. "Of course, you might have the upper hand if you really had a sword..."

"I do have a sword!" protested Robbie. "Look, I'll prove it."

"No, that's okay," said Nick - hastily, and too late. Robbie's hands were on the buckle of his glittery belt, and he was going to flash Nick on a deserted leafy street at three in the morning. Nick wheeled away to stare at a wall, heart beating so fast it crushed his lungs. He didn't feel jumpy so much as cloud-light and dizzy.

"Look, dammit," said Robbie. He grabbed Nick's wrist and spun him around.

Robbie wasn't naked. He'd pushed the waistband of his jeans over one jutting hipbone, under which was tattooed a tiny, intricate sword. The clean black lines stood out starkly against his pale brown skin. The crinkly line of hair under his navel stood out even more starkly, to the point where Nick had to drag his eyes away from it and concentrate to breathe.

"That's cool," said Nick, honestly, although he'd only got a fleeting glimpse. Robbie shook his head sadly. The chink of his belt dragging through the loops echoed against Nick's skull.

"It's so sad, the way you doubt me," he said.

"Do you have any other tattoos?" Nick had a vague idea that you had to be eighteen to get them, but he figured minor details like that never hindered anything in Robbie's life.

"Yes," said Robbie demurely, "but you don't get to see those until we're better acquainted."

"Why - oh." Nick blushed. Robbie smirked, and grabbed Nick's hand. Nick didn't mind this too much, even though Robbie's palm was a bit sweaty - at least until Robbie pushed him into a hedge.

"Ow!" Nick began to protest, only to have the wind knocked out of him when Robbie jumped into the hedge as well, toppling them both. "What are you doing?"

"Shh!" Robbie mimed zipping his lips shut, then proved how singularly ineffective that was by adding, "They'll hear you."

"Who?" Nick was pretty sure the only people likely to hear them were the owners of the house a hundred feet or so from the hedge. They probably wouldn't take kindly to finding two tipsy boys in their greenery. Nick and Robbie were lucky that it was a better off part of town, meaning the houses weren't flush with the pavement. Nick was still disinclined to linger.

Robbie crouched down lower as the purring crunch of wheels became audible. Nick tried to shift to a position that didn't involve Robbie lying across his lap, only to have Robbie shush him angrily. A pair of headlights floated lazily along the road, followed seconds later by a large car. From Robbie's horrified hisses, Nick expected to see sunglasses'd mafiosos in the front seat at least. Instead, he saw a middle-aged couple. The woman was yawning.

Nick figured it was better to let the car pass completely before speaking again. He judged correctly, because Robbie went floppy with relief as soon as the engine sounds faded away.

"Well done," said Robbie, voice muffled by roots. "You're very good at hiding from demons."

Nick began to think that Robbie was severely unhinged. That didn't stop his heart fluttering when Robbie rolled back out on to the pavement and pulled Nick up by the hand. He didn't let go until they reached the pool of light under the next lamppost, when he dropped it like a used condom.

"My house is just up ahead." Nick massaged his wrist where Robbie had seized it earlier. "Do you, like, wanna come in?"

"It's practically dawn." Robbie smiled up at him through downcast lashes. "Don't you think that would impugn your manly virtue?"

"No," said Nick vaguely, having very little idea of what Robbie meant.

The light was on in Nick's kitchen when they crept round to the back, but it was deserted and - as they discovered when Nick unlocked the door - cold. It looked like someone had been having a midnight snack, because there were crumbs on the table and a plate in the sink. Nick opened the fridge to get a drink.

"Wow," breathed Robbie over his shoulder, standing on tiptoe. "You have, like, every liquid known to man in here."

Nick shifted his balance to the foot farthest from Robbie. "Not exactly," he hedged. "No liquid nitrogen, for one."

But Robbie was closer to the truth than Nick. Mrs Hedges attempted to cater to her guests' every whim, and because she had so many at such unexpected times it was easier to keep everything possible on hand. Nick decided to keep Robbie away from the pantry.

"Would you like something?" asked Nick. Robbie made a 'hmm'ing noise and bounced up high enough to rest his chin on Nick's shoulder. He had to stretch a lot to get there; Nick could feel the tug of their shirts sliding together.

"What's that?" Robbie pointed under Nick's arm at a glass bottle containing dark liquid.

Nick repressed a shiver before he replied, "Sarsparilla. Tastes like Coke, sorta."

"Hmm. And that?" This time, Robbie stretched across Nick's chest to prod a luridly pink container.

"Creaming soda. That one is totally gross."

"I'll have it," Robbie decided.

"They're your tastebuds," said Nick. He grabbed tropical juice for himself. He had to shuffle around Robbie to close the fridge door: Robbie was far too interested in examining the contents of his silver can to make way. It reminded Nick too much of their first meeting in the men's room, especially when Robbie jabbed him accidentally with a bony brown elbow. Despite the cold night and the even colder kitchen, he had already shed his leather jacket in favour of a t-shirt proclaiming its allegiance to the Mighty Boosh.

Robbie finally took a sip of the creaming soda; Nick watched in interest as he winced before he swallowed. Robbie tilted his head to one side, sucking on his lips, and asked, "Got any straws?" Nick tripped over a chair on his way to the drawer.

"I can't get over your fridge, man," Robbie marvelled. "Why do you have so many drinks? Do you guys run a speakeasy?"

"Yes," said Nick. "Bootleggers just go wild for that creaming soda."

Robbie smacked his lips. Nick wished he wouldn't. "I can see why," said Robbie. He smiled at Nick, possibly for the first time. His teeth all seemed to veer wildly towards the middle.

"Nah, it's just my mother." Nick swirled his carton of juice. "She believes in having whatever the guest wants in the house."

"So do you keep vinegar in the fridge?"

"No - why?"

"It's Jesus' favourite drink," said Robbie. He hooked a chair leg with his foot and dragged it towards him. "And according to many people his second coming is due any day now, if he isn't already here. He might just rock up to your house demanding a drink and a room at the inn. No, wait, that was his mother."

"Jesus likes vinegar," echoed Nick, scepticism drowning out his confusion at the way Robbie sucked up soda through a straw. Or rather, confusion at why that made him confused - and hot and shivery, too, like he was developing a twenty-four hour fever. It was probably just the beer. "And you know this how?"

"Read the Bible if you don't believe me." Robbie swung gracefully into the chair and knocked another one in Nick's direction. "Sit down, you giant, you're making me feel Lilliputian. Yeah, vinegar. Mohammed, on the other hand, he liked mai tais."

Nick assumed, from the way he wasn't being struck down by two completely different brands of lightning, that Robbie knew what he was talking about. He sat down carefully, so as not to spill his drink. "What about Buddha?"

"Don't be stupid -" scathingly. "Buddha didn't drink."

"Right," said Nick, "of course." His hands and feet felt numb, while the rest of him was burning up. He wondered if he had swine flu.

Their chairs were pulled out from the table in such a way that Nick was sitting at right angles to Robbie, their knees brushing. Robbie jumped a little at the contact, which gave Nick an amazing, terrifying idea. He set his drink on the table in case he spilled it and, ignoring Robbie's concerned question, put his own hand on Robbie's knee and kissed him full on the mouth.

Which was, of course, when his father walked in.

+++

Mr Hedges was dressed in his usual crisply-pressed pyjamas, old man slippers and a quilted dressing gown. The day-old stubble was a new feature, but one Nick didn't have much time to dwell on. For one thing, his father looked angry, which was about as common as seeing a violent duckling. For another, Robbie had jumped away - before Mr Hedges came in - and was sipping at his creaming soda like he had no other ambition in life.

"Ah," said Mr Hedges, surveying his son, "you're back. Late."

"Ma said -"

"I think you should go to bed now," said Mr Hedges with finality. "Particularly if you want to live to see your eighteenth birthday, let alone celebrate it."

"But Robbie -"

"Will be taken home by me," said Mr Hedges. He squinted at Robbie. "Are you new?"

"To Nick or the planet?" asked Robbie. Remarkably, Mr Hedges' mouth twisted in what he considered to be a smile.

"How far away is your house?" he asked.

"Oh, just down the road. I can walk."

"If you're sure," said Mr Hedges, who had once driven along beside a complaining Padraig the whole two miles to his house to make sure he got there safely and, more importantly, without detours.

"He can't walk alone," protested Nick, "it's the middle of the night. There could be -" Nick thought of Robbie's concerns about dragons "- bad people," he finished lamely.

"I'll be fine," said Robbie. Nick nearly jumped at the brusqueness in his tone. "See you around, Nick."

He slung his jacket around his shoulders as he slalomed to the back door, every step like dancing. He does know my name, was all Nick could think.

"Who was -" his father began, then shivered his head. "Never mind. Aren't you in bed yet?"

"I'm just going, Dad," said Nick meekly. He filched the half-empty can of creaming soda on his way.

+++

On Monday, the school was abuzz with talk of Nick's eighteenth. He was one of the first to have his birthday in the year, and as his parents were among the richest in the class, everyone was sure it was going to be a huge hit. Everyone, that is, except Nick, who'd had the least hand of all in planning it. He'd managed to veto Padraig's idea of a stripper cake, and prevent Jack from mentioning the idea in front of his mother - but the rest was out of his hands. Half the invitation list was made up of strangers, both friends of his mother's and those to whom she owed favours. He'd caught a glimpse of the invites before she'd posted them, all blue swirly decorations with brushings of gold, and the dress code was black tie. Nick didn't own a black tie; but he supposed, as the nominal reason for the party’s existence, he could get away with wearing his blue one.

He met Padraig near the vending machines, their habitual hang-out. Padraig was in the middle of outlining his plan to secrete some of Mrs Hedges' party drinks into Nick's room so they could have a little celebration of their own, but he happily began again from the start so Nick could hear it all. Nick interjected a few 'hmm's, with the occasional 'hmm!' for variety, to keep Padraig occupied while he scanned the yawning crowds for Robbie.

Flocks of girls passed by, discussing what dresses they'd wear on Friday and sending drifts of dried mascara Nick's way. A number of boys from his class clapped him on the shoulder. Nick was probably the most popular kid in school right then, yet the only person he wanted to talk to wasn't around.

Or was ignoring him, Nick thought with an unhappy flash, as he caught a glimpse of brown fists and string bracelets battling their way through the crowds. He left Padraig and Jack mid-debate over the merits of Coors versus Bulmers and pushed his way towards the lockers. His height and general standing would usually have guaranteed him a swift passage, but today yet more people wanted to congratulate him on the magnificent achievement of having stayed alive long enough to throw them a party.

Nick was glad to see Robbie still at his locker when he got there, even though the first bell had rung. Nick's first class was a free study period, so he wasn't too bothered about being a few minutes late. Robbie, on the other hand, might be a stickler for punctuality: he had a pile of books in the crook of his arm as he rummaged in his locker for more. Nick stifled a laugh as he saw the biro stuck into Robbie's stiffly gelled hair.

On closer inspection Robbie looked tired. His eyeliner was smudged, like he hadn't reapplied it since Saturday, and there were crinkly bits in his otherwise straight-ironed hair. Just seeing him gave Nick a stupid sense of joy, though, so he tapped Robbie's arm and said, "Hey," nursing the most ridiculous smile.

Robbie started, smashing his wrist into the locker door. "Oh, hey," he said, without enthusiasm. Nick's smile dimmed. He'd wondered if Robbie was mad at him, but told himself he'd just imagined it.

"I was wondering," he said slowly, "if you wanted to come to my birthday party on Friday. It's at the house, so you know where that is. If you'd been here longer you would have got an invite anyway, so..." His voice trailed off as Robbie kept his eyes fixed on the messy stacks of books in his locker, as if they held a thrilling fascination for him.

"Friday - yeah, I don't think that'll work for me," said Robbie. "I have a family thing."

"Oh." Nick stepped back, feeling a gulf widening between them. "Oh, I guess that's - well, if you change your mind."

"This thing is sort of iron-clad," said Robbie. He looked at Nick for the first time and Nick wished he hadn't. "Thanks, though."

"Okay." Nick's suddenly-numb lips didn't move properly, so he didn't trust himself to say anything more. He gave Robbie an aborted head-nod and turned away. His locker was at the other end of the hall and he manoeuvred to it blindly. He smiled at half a dozen people with a sprained motion of the lips, but none of them seemed to notice anything out of the ordinary.

Beside him, a girl's phone went off, the dulcet tones of Katy Perry announcing that she'd kissed a girl. Nick groaned and thumped his head against his locker. That was one of Laura's favourite songs - Laura who Nick hadn't spared a thought for all day yesterday. He was so, so screwed.

+++

Laura and Nick always had lunch together. They didn't share any classes and their lockers were at opposite ends of the building, so lunch was the only time they were guaranteed to see each other. Padraig, Jack and one or two of Laura's friends usually joined them.

Nick, the only one of them taking Honours history, didn't spy any of his friends when joining the queue for the school dinner. After being served with an unnameable and indescribable slop, he made his way to their table by the window. He rested his cheek in one hand and spooned up his lunch without taking much notice of it, while he stared out the window at the matching grey street and grey sky. November, not April, was the cruellest month, he decided, forgetting all the times he'd enjoyed November most of any month because it meant everyone making a fuss of him on his birthday.

He looked up at the clatter of a tray hitting Formica and dropped his spoon. Great brown drops splattered the front of his white shirt. Swearing, he grabbed a wad of napkins and tried fruitlessly to sponge away the stains.

"Here, let me," said a brisk voice, and Robbie reached over the table. He'd wetted napkins from the bottle of spring water on his tray. Nick was pretty sure they didn't sell that in the school canteen, but he was distracted from the thought by the scientific way Robbie pulled Nick’s shirt taut by the collar and started massaging the stains. The cold water soaking through to his skin smarted. Nick hissed through his teeth.

"Better," said Robbie critically, "but you still look like you dribbled on yourself. Which, essentially, you did. Do you have a spare shirt with you?"

"No," Nick forced out. He'd refused his mother's urging to do so since he was twelve years old. Up till now, he'd proven her wrong.

Robbie shrugged and sat down. "You'd better put your jumper on then," he advised. As the heating in the school was having one of its rare but furnace-like on days, Nick was extremely reluctant to comply. Robbie's own jumper was knotted across his shoulders, so he looked like a method actor penduluming between Danny Zuko and Sebastian Flyte. All the other boys had their jumpers tied around their waists, like Nick.

As Robbie picked at his lunch - from plastic boxes, clearly homemade - separating his salad from his couscous, he looked the picture of unconcern. Nick, whose appetite had gone the same way as his shirt, eventually blurted, "What are you doing here?"

Robbie looked up in surprise. "Performing the intricate mating ritual of the Watigami tribe. What does it look like?"

Nick refused to examine the implications of the words 'mating ritual' in this context. At that moment Laura arrived, Padraig and Jack arguing at her heels. Laura planted a kiss on Nick's hair and said happily, "I invited Robbie to eat lunch with us. Have you been chatting? Isn't he gas?"

"Absolutely," muttered Nick, refusing to meet Robbie's eyes. On the other side of the table, Padraig pushed Jack so he had to take the seat beside Robbie. Jack gave Padraig a hurt look and rubbed his arm before sitting down.

"What are you eating?" Jack asked Robbie. "It looks nice. It must have been all gone when I got there."

"Just a Greek salad," said Robbie. "And I brought it from home. You want some?"

"Yeah!" Jack was instantly cheered as Robbie tipped half his salad and a few cubes of goats' cheese on to Jack's plate. Nick loved goat's cheese. He resolutely pushed his plate away.

"Are you finished already, sweetie?" Laura looked concerned.

"Yeah, I gotta go - stuff." Nick replaced his usual goodbye kiss with an awkward pat and stumbled off towards the bathrooms.

The damage was worse than he thought. His usually maroon tie was now polka-dotted with gravy. Smears of it swirled, snail-like, all the way to his belt. With a sigh, Nick pulled his shirt over his head. In spite of the tropical heating it was still fairly chilly in the bathrooms, where the windows were perpetually open to clear the choking scent of bleach and other, less salubrious odours. He shivered a little as he ran water into one of the two sinks not filled with sodden paper towels and started scrubbing.

A few weary minutes later and the stains began to dissipate slightly. Nick rested his hands on the sink and stared at himself in the mirror. Red-faced with effort and his hair hanging limply in his eyes, his reflection stared back. "Beautiful," Nick told himself sardonically.

"Agreed," said a voice from the door. Nick spun around so fast he almost slipped on the wet tiles. Robbie leaned against the jamb, arms crossed in an unwelcoming manner. Nick scooped up his dripping shirt and held it before him like a shield. Robbie switched his gaze to the mirror and he walked forward to investigate his own face. He twirled a lock of hair around his finger and added, "Laura sent me to look for you. She's worried about you."

"I'll text her," said Nick automatically.

"You do that," said Robbie. He smoothed his eyebrow with his little finger and turned to face Nick. "That shirt won't dry itself, you know," he said, with the faintest hint of amusement. Nick shoved his wet bundle under the hand driers. Robbie shook his head. "You're extremely useless, you do know that," he informed Nick, taking hold of the end of the shirt and stretching it out under the heat. "Does your mammy still do your washing or something?"

"No, our maid does that," said Nick unthinkingly. Robbie raised his eyebrows and hit the button to restart the drier.

"This party of yours is all everyone's talking about," said Robbie, talking loudly over the asthmatic wheezes of the drier. Nick shrugged. Robbie's eyes were level with his collarbones, and all he wanted to do was hunch away from Robbie's thoughtful gaze. "You're not the only one who's invited me to it. Jack seemed to assume I was coming, and Laura asked me too. Nice girl, your girlfriend."

"Look, about before -" began Nick.

"I think this is dry," said Robbie. He pushed the shirt at Nick. It felt a little damp, still.

"Robbie," called Nick. Robbie halted midstride but didn't turn around. "I'm sorry," said Nick, more softly.

Robbie's chin twitched. "Yeah? Me too," he said, and left the room.

+++

Nick wasn't by nature a sneaky person. It was hard to keep track of Robbie amongst the hordes of yammering students, but Nick had to hold back so he wouldn't be seen. Getting on to the same bus as Robbie without Robbie spotting him had been a feat worthy of 007, but Nick felt he'd nearly used up his meagre store of ingenuity.

Nick got off a stop early in order to follow Robbie, keeping behind a swarm of primary school children who insisted on pressing the buzzer multiple times, in case the driver should somehow mistake their intentions. Robbie walked quite slowly with his head bent, making him easy for a budding spy to track. Nick could see his own estate glinting yellowly in the distance when Robbie turned down between two faux-marble pillars, one bearing a brass placard and the inscription: 'Maple Grove, 1-10'. Nick ducked down behind the nearest pillar and watched as Robbie went into number two. Nick remained there in nail-biting contemplation of his options until a number of the buzzer-happy primary school children stopped to look at him suspiciously. Spurred into action, Nick shoved his hands in his pockets and nonchalantly wandered towards what he assumed to be Robbie's house, as if that had been his intention all along.

The houses of this estate were red-brick clad in a particularly searing shade, adorned with over-confident square windows set asymmetrically into the frontage. All the front doors were encased in mini-conservatories of extreme ugliness. Robbie's had a pretty windchime hanging from the ceiling, made of wooden birds with blue glass eyes. It tinkled against Nick’s shoulder as he slid open the outer door and rang the bell.

Nick played with the handle of his schoolbag to distract his hands while he waited for someone to answer the door. He'd been expecting Robbie and was rehearsing casual ways of saying, "So I stalked you just now," so he was caught on the hop when a woman answered the door.

She couldn't be anyone but Robbie's mother. She had the same dark hair and eyes, only her hair had coarse strands of grey twined through it and her eyes were sunk in a pit of wrinkles. She was even wearing a housecoat, which Nick thought only happened in Father Ted. Her smile was warm, however, even though Nick was very conscious of his dirty tie.

"Hi," he said, and coughed out the high note in his voice. "I was looking for Robbie?"

"Oh! You must be from St Vincent's," said the woman. "Come in, come in. Robbie hasn't brought home any friends yet. Well, actually," her brow darkened, "he said he'd never met such uncouth louts in his life, but - anyway! What's your name?"

"Nick Hedges," said Nick. "I live in the Queenway estate down the road. Are you Robbie's mother?"

"Yes, of course." Robbie's mother had a habit of pressing her chest when she laughed, as if she were trying to hold in the sound. "Forget my own head if it wasn't stuck on. I'm Frances Kincaid - but please, call me Frances. Mrs Kincaid is my mother."

"Sure - Frances." At the end of the hallway Nick could see a kitchen. On either side two glass-pannelled doors opened on to a living room and appeared to be a gym. Nick didn't recognise half the equipment, though. There was one piece that looked like an extra-long treadmill with handrails. Robbie hadn't struck him as a gym bunny, but then again he could have ten siblings who were all fanatics. Nick hardly knew him.

"Robbie!" called Frances up the stairs. There was no reply. "Probably listening to his music," she said to Nick, in the same way someone else would say, 'Performing Satanic rituals on goats.' "You might as well go on up - he'll never hear you otherwise. It's the second door on the left."

"Thanks," said Nick. Frances disappeared into the kitchen. Nick carefully deposited his bag by the stairs and began to climb them, hyper-aware of every creak. As he rounded the turn he could hear the faint sound of thudding base. Every so often the insipid Lalique figurines on the landing window jumped in four-four time.

There was no mistaking which was Robbie's door. The others were open, revealing a master bedroom in cream and blue and another with a bed so heaped in frills it was practically spherical. Robbie's door was painted black with green and white zebra stripes. A yellow triangle declared 'No entry'. It was a pretty forbidding sight, but Nick knocked anyway.

"I'm busy!" came Robbie's irritated voice.

Nick decided holding a debate through a closed door was not the best way to resolve things. The handle, when he tried it, was unlocked, so he pushed open the door. Robbie sat on the bed, one leg tucked underneath the other, cradling a bright blue guitar. It wasn't the one he had played on Saturday night. Nick had time to take in the three other instruments standing by the wall before Robbie looked up.

The expression on his face caught fast between horror and surprise. Before he could say anything, Nick launched in with, "Look, I wanted to talk to you. I wanted to explain -"

"There's nothing to explain," said Robbie chillingly. "You were drunk and reckless and you decided to mess around. Unfortunately for you, I don't do messing around. I value myself a bit more highly than that."

"Yes, you should," said Nick. Robbie looked taken aback at his eagerness. "I wasn't - I mean. I didn't plan on doing that."

"If by that you mean cheating on your girlfriend, who by the way is far too nice to deserve that," said Robbie, "then lack of forward planning does not absolve you."

"Look, I came here to apologise and see if you wanted to be friends," said Nick. "Clearly you don't, so - whatever." He flung his hands into his pockets. "I'll see you around."

He put his hand on the door handle but felt reluctant to open it, to step outside the room and leave Robbie behind for good. There was a pause while Nick willed himelf to press down.

He'd just about managed it when Robbie said, quietly, "Friends?"

+++

Nick pulled his aching fingers straight. They'd been so long in one cramped position he was afraid they'd frozen that way. "This is hard," he complained to Robbie.

"How strange," murmured Robbie. He lay on his back with the blue guitar on his chest. "Usually learning an entirely new instrument from scratch is stupidly easy."

"Shut up," said Nick, and biffed him on the head with one of the throw pillows he was sitting on. Robbie sat up, all outraged dignity, and Nick fell about laughing at the state of his hair. He looked like an affronted parakeet, so Nick couldn't resist hitting him again.

"Hey, hey, mind the guitar -"

Nick subsided long enough for Robbie to carefully set aside his guitar - and to grab a pillow to smack Nick right in the head. Nick howled, more in surprise than pain.

"Serves you right," said Robbie smugly. "God, it's already half five."

Nick sat up straight. "I'd better go. Marita will be expecting me."

"Your curfew is that early?"

"No, but Marita gets hurt if I don't show up for dinner," Nick explained, hunting around for his tie, which he'd discarded early on in the proceedings. Robbie discovered it under a corner of the duvet and Nick beamed at him. "I'll see you tomorrow?"

"Or I could call around later," suggested Robbie, the image of casual except for the drumline he was beating on the mattress. "My mother's making chocolate cake and she always forgets there aren't five of us at home anymore."

Nick's eyes lit up. "Cake? Yeah, yeah, come over."

"I can see which of us is more welcome," observed Robbie. He got to his feet with a wince and rubbed at his left knee. He’d been favouring it all evening.

"Are you okay?" Nick was always alive to the possibility of high impact knee injuries in his basketball career, though it was doubtful Robbie had any such way of incurring them.

"Fine, fine," Robbie brushed him off. "I'll see you about eight, then."

"I'll be waiting," Nick promised.

+++

Nick went one better than waiting. He kept a lookout from his bedroom window, in between making half hearted stabs at an essay on the Dreyfus affair. His house was built on a slope, so his third-floor bedroom provided a substantial view of the surrounding roads and next door's gardens, if that was your idea of a good time. (Once, Nick had seen his two elderly neighbours cavorting in the garden, well past midnight, wearing matching bloomers and nothing else - apparently in celebration of the Joyce centenary. But that was definitely not Nick's idea of a good time.)

Robbie's head came into view; he was walking slowly up the path. Nick jumped from his seat and raced out into the winter night, heedless that he was dressed in only bright purple basketball shorts and a singlet. He met Robbie at the gate.

"Oh, hi, Ryan Atwood," said Robbie. "Is Nick around here someplace?"

"Ha," said Nick. He swiped at his arms, trying to ward off the cold. "Come in. Did you bring the cake?"

Robbie held up a Tupperware container as proof. "I kept some back for tomorrow's lunch, too. Jack might fancy a piece."

"Jack's got three stomachs like a cow, he'd eat anything," said Nick, cruelly insulting Mrs Kincaid's culinary skills.

"There's a really fancy car just outside your gate," said Robbie, as Nick fumbled with the icily slick latch on the side gate.

"There's really fancy cars all over this area, in case you hadn't noticed - ow!"

"Here, let me." Robbie handed the Tupperware box over the gate and expertly flipped the latch through the bars. He came prepared for the weather with matching navy gloves and a scarf, although his ears and nose were triplet rubies. "What you say is true, but I've never seen a red Ferrari before. Do you think it belongs to a crimelord?"

"There are no politicians living around here," objected Nick. He stepped through the gate, clutching the Tupperware box like a muff.

The red sports car stood out like a clown's nose at a funeral. Nick was right when he said most of the people in the neighbourhood drove expensive cars, but they were usually black or blue or grey - subtle. Subtle wasn't the first word that sprung to mind on seeing the Ferrari, unless it came preceded by ‘extremely un’.

The car sat low on the ground, protected from the elements by what seemed a flimsy leather hood. The seats were occupied by two people engaged in what looked like a spirited argument.

With a shock that was like an electrical jolt, Nick realised the man in the passenger seat was his father - but his father with his features moulded by anger and his hair in his face, gesticulating wildly. Nick looked past Robbie, peering in to see who his father's opponent was, and got a flash of silver rings.

All of a sudden Nick felt over-exposed and very, very cold. Robbie had long since lost interest in the car and was waiting on Nick's front stoop with admirable patience. Nick crept back through the gate before his father could see him.

+++

Robbie caught up with Nick at his locker as the last bell was fading to nothing more than an irritating buzz behind the eardrums.

"Come down town with me," said Robbie, in his best wheedling tone.

"I can't," said Nick, half-laughing, half-regretful. "I have basketball practice."

"Come down town," said Robbie. "We'll get hot chocolate at O'Conail's and laugh at the skateboarders and pretend to be pretentious art students in the Crawford and then -" he brandished two white slips of paper "- we'll go to a concert."

"On a Tuesday night? Who good would play on a weekday?"

"Oh, I don't know," said Robbie. "Maybe Fred are playing an underground gig. Maybe they have even more secret special guests. But you'll never know, because you're not coming."

"I could come later," said Nick. "But I have to go to basketball practice first..."

Robbie walked away backwards, fanning the tickets against his lips. "I'll wait by the bus stop for ten minutes."

"Robbie!" pleaded Nick, through a laugh. But Robbie shook his head, grinning, and dived into the crowd, leaving Nick in a welter of indecision.

Robbie was staring at the sides of his shoes when Nick walked up, dragging a bag heavy with his basketball gear. He felt a tear of guilt at missing practice, for the first ever time. It was only made worse by the lie about a ‘sudden illness’ he'd text messaged the coach. He turned his phone off before he tapped Robbie on the shoulder.

Robbie’s sudden start and face-cracking beam told Nick that he hadn't been as sure of Nick's coming as his cocksure attitude would suggest. Robbie didn't say anything about it, just hipchecked him hard as the bus pulled up.

"No, no," said Robbie, as Nick went for his pocket. "This one's on me."

+++

They both got a choclatier's at O'Conail's. Robbie insisted on paying, with the excuse that he'd just got his allowance. Nick wasn't happy with it, but there was an enchanted air hanging over the crisp, slatey evening, and he didn't want to break it with an argument. It gave the whole thing the air of a date, but Nick wasn't going to mention that either.

Robbie had worn jeans into school, flouting regulations but getting away with it by the strength of his charm (according to him) or the fact that he was so small teachers barely saw his head, let alone his legs (according to Nick). He had a black t-shirt on under his school shirt, which he stripped out of in the shadows of the upstairs nook of O'Conail's. Nick stared hard at the bottles of handmade boiled sweets to avoid watching the flex of Robbie's arms, the way his bracelets acted like curtains to reveal and conceal spots of skin as they slid up and down.

"Here." Robbie tossed a heap of cloth at Nick. It landed on his face, smelling of dusty cinnamon. "Your pants are a bit tragic, but hopefully no one will notice."

"I - thanks." Nick nearly upset his glass when he stood up to change in the bathroom. Then he nearly had a heart attack when Robbie barged in on him not five seconds later, when Nick had his nose and half an arm into the shirt.

Robbie inspected his hair while Nick hurriedly struggled to clothe himself. Robbie appeared extremely concerned with one particular strand that didn't look any different from the others to Nick: he kept pulling at it as Nick smoothed down the shirt and arranged his peacoat over it.

"You done there, Mr Vanity?" asked Nick, amused.

"Not quite," said Robbie, and proceeded to smush both hands across Nick's head, ruffling up his hair so it fell haphazardly and far more greasily than before.

"Thanks?"

"You're welcome," said Robbie. "C'mon, let's finish our drinks."

When they returned to their benches, a group of rowdy college students had taken the empty seats behind them. Robbie moved his stool closer to Nick's - so close their knees touched, and Nick, at least, felt a strange thrill every time the fabric rustled. Robbie leaned forward to whisper in Nick's ear just as Nick raised his glass to take a sip. The thick, hot liquid gushed down his throat the wrong way as Robbie breathed, "Will you help me put my ring in?"

"Your what?" said Nick, when he could force air into his lungs again. Robbie produced a fine silver ring, which he proceeded to push through his lip with practiced ease. He touched it with his tongue, and Nick suddenly felt like a whole tub of hot chocolate had been poured on his head.

"Can you just - close the clasp?" asked Robbie. He took Nick's hand and guided it to his mouth. Nick imagined he could feel Robbie's pulse through the soft round edge of his lip. His hand was shaking too much for him to exert enough force to close the two ends, so he steadied himself with his other hand on Robbie's chin. Finally, finally, the two silver points slotted together and Nick whipped his hands away, feeling the burn of stubble on his fingertips.

Robbie ran his tongue along the ring. For once Nick was helpless to look away. Why, he wondered miserably, did he so want to just put his mouth where the metal bit into the flesh - not even to kiss Robbie, not even to press their lips together the way Nick had forced them to a few days ago? Why, when making out half-naked with Laura didn't work him up half so much? If he were single these feelings would have been disturbing enough, but as it stood -

"Are you finished yet?"

"Huh?" Robbie frowned at him. He had chocolate on his chin from stealing Nick's mini-buttons. Nick had to sit on his hands to stop himself wiping it off.

"I thought you wanted to laugh at stupid skateboarders, or something?" Nick tried to modulate his tone, with evident success. Robbie's face lit up in an evil grin.

"Let's go," he said.

+++

A function of some kind was being held at the opera house. Attendees streamed in from the quays and from Opera Lane: an incongruous mix of long satin gowns held carefully above the damp cobbles versus the determinedly disinterested attire of the skateboarders, their caps pulled low over their ears to ward off the cold.

Robbie and Nick sat on the low wall outside the Crawford Gallery. The light hovered between dusk and dark, casting a filmy glow over everything. Robbie was currently absorbed in texting, bent over his phone so low Nick could see the back of his neck. Nick wondered who he was talking to, what he was saying. He wondered what the skin just above Robbie's collar felt like.

"Tonight is going to be awesome," said Robbie gleefully, at last putting away his phone. "Fin might be there, he was just saying -"

"Fin?" repeated Nick. His chest felt sort of hollow, like something vital had just been scooped out.

"Yeah," said Robbie. "He's the one that hooked me up with tickets. Anyway, apparently there's a chance that -"

"Are you and Fin, like -" after blurting this, Nick lost the will to finish the question. "- You know?"

Robbie looked utterly mystified. "No, I don't know."

"Are you, are you," Nick waved his hands around, then smacked his palms, hard, "together?"

"Well, yeah," said Robbie. "We're in the band, remember? I know sportsmen are prone to head injuries, but I didn't realise your short term memory was this bad -"

"Dating!" shouted Nick. One of the skateboarders fell off mid-trick and shot Nick a resentful glare.

Robbie stuffed his fist to his mouth, just like Nick's toddler cousin when he was trying to be quiet. Robbie, however, was making no effort to conceal his laughter. "Dating!" he gasped. "Dating Fin! No, stop, I have to picture that." He spread his hands beatifically for a few seconds, before convulsing in laughter again.

"What's so funny?" Nick felt irritated. "Fin's not that hideous. I had crush on him once."

That had the effect of sobering Robbie up instantaneously. "What?"

"Um." Nick had never told that fact to a living soul. Who could he tell? Padraig, Finn's brother? Jack, who thought that being gay meant you had to become a priest? Fin himself? "It's no big deal."

Robbie stared at him with saucer eyes, which at least distracted Nick from looking at his mouth. "Did you ever - do anything?" he said in hushed tones.

"No!" Realising this was a shade too vehement considering all the thoughts he'd been harbouring about Robbie, Nick amended with, "I mean, he never knew. It was a completely one-sided ... infatuation. But what are you saying, my taste is terrible?"

Robbie shifted a little on the ledge, tucking his hands between his knees as if for warmth. Nick didn't miss the way the movement brought them elbow to elbow, hip to hip, knee to knee. "No," said Robbie, quietly. "I think your taste is just fine."

No longer interested in what Robbie had found so funny compared to the smooth curve of Robbie's cheek, the distracting way the line was broken by tiny spikes of stubble, and how much he wanted to press his lips to it, Nick stayed silent. Robbie gave an exaggerated shiver, although the night wasn't terribly cold as November went.

"Let me in," he said. Nick, distracted by his thoughts of how distracting Robbie was, gave him a confused look. Robbie curled up his hand and burrowed it between their knees, sighing happily when it was pressed tight into the relative warmth. "That's better," he said. "I have very bad circulation. Cold hands, cold feet."

"Warm heart," Nick completed the old saying. Robbie didn't seem to have heard it before, for he looked puzzled, then delighted. As if by accident, his fingers curved around and under Nick's knee, pressing slowly into the tender hollow there.

"Did you ever watch Ally McBeal?" asked Robbie.

"What? What's that? No." Nick took a deep breath, as if that would disguise the fact that he was almost gasping.

"Never mind." Robbie smiled without showing his teeth. His fingers pressed in, deep and soft.

+++

Nick was feeling quite wobbly yet at peace with the world when they eventually set out for Child's on Half Moon Lane, where the gig was on. They walked close together, laughing over nothing and brushing knuckles every second step. Nick was careful to make sure it looked like an accident from his end. Robbie limped a little with his left leg, but he blamed it on a cramp when Nick asked.

A compact knot of people barred the door to Child's. Nick and Robbie joined the outer layer - "like penguins, trying to get to the inner circle," joked Robbie - and eventually were admitted. The disaffected doorman didn't even ask to see their IDs. Nick was relieved; he usually tried to get away with his height and (theoretically) charm, but he much preferred it when the pubs broke the law for him.

"D'you want a drink?" yelled Robbie. It was early, yet the atmosphere crackled. Noisily.

Nick didn't want a drink. His parents were fairly lax, but even they would notice if he came home smelling of beer on a school night. He had one brief vision of a drunken Robbie and a drunken Nick, walking home together by the river, inhibitions dissolved in ethanol - but it passed, and he shook his head.

"Thank god," said Robbie, leaning in close. "I thought I'd have to act all macho and get us matching double whiskeys. Coke good for you?"

"Thanks," said Nick, relieved beyond measure that Robbie didn't judge him for abstaining. He watched in admiration as Robbie, using his lack of height to advantage, squirrelled between burlier patrons to pop up right in front of the bartender.

The bar was fairly traditional, with carefully aged wooden beams, tatty red velvet furnishings and enough brass horseshoes and paraphernalia to outfit the racetrack at Kildare. There were even murky, badly printed hunting scenes. Nick rolled his eyes. At the far end of the roughly square room, a small raised dais formed the stage, on which a group of techs were swiftly assembling amps and a drum kit. Nick grew so absorbed in watching them that he didn't even notice Robbie's return, at least until a cold wet glass bumped his elbow.

Nick smiled and clinked glasses with him. Robbie tilted his head towards the stage, and Nick followed to take up two spare barstools at the end of the bar closest the stage. Some more enthusiastic fans were already moshing along to the canned DJ music.

"Did you find out who's supporting them?" asked Nick. Robbie made a face and pointed at his ears. Nick shuffled his barstool closer to Robbie's and put his lips right up to Robbie's ear to repeat the question.

Robbie turned around fully to do the same to Nick, which seemed excessive when all he had to say was, "No." But Nick wasn't complaining. He wriggled his shoulder so that it fit against Robbie's, making it especially comfortable when the crowd thickened.

When there was barely breathing room left - and Robbie had slipped his fingers around Nick's waist so they took up even less space - a man jangling with all the piercings hanging from him mounted the stage. He tapped the microphone to a scream of feedback and smiled. Nick watched in horrified fascination, sure one of his piercings would split his skin open if he used too excessive a facial expression.

"Ladies and gents," he said in a C4 accent, "are you ready to hear one of the greatest musical sensations of the twenty-first century?"

There was a disconcerted chorus of 'yeahs' and 'bring it on's. Nick grinned to hear Robbie's 'Pray do' vibrate through his spine.

"Well, that's too bad," said the announcer, "because first, you're gonna hear one of the greatest musical sensations of the twentieth century. You all are a bit young, but if you know music you should have heard of these guys. Here's Polo Byrne and Danny Head of the Shamrockers!"

"Oh my god!" Robbie pulled Nick's head around so he could catch Robbie's hysteria full on. "Oh my god, oh my god. This is the secret act! It's amazing!"

"Who are they?" said Nick blankly.

"Who - jesus, Nick, they're only the biggest Irish band since U2! They broke up years ago, but Polo Byrne is one of the biggest producers in LA. Or is it New York? Wow, I wonder if they're reuniting?"

"Like Take That," said Nick, and got a dig in the side for his irreverence.

"Shh," said Robbie, unnecessarily. The audience was plunged into darkness and silence as all the lights bar one naked white circle on the stage were extinguished. Two men appeared through the backing curtain, their faces in shadow. The first thing Nick recognised was the galaxy of rings under knuckles ringed with stars, clasped tight around the neck of the lead guitar.

The second thing Nick recognised was his dad.

Part III
 
 
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