It took Nick a long time to figure it out.
Not that there was anything wrong with that. It wasn't like it was the sort of thing anyone would expect to have happen. It wasn't like it was something that really, truly happened to people. It certainly wasn't like Nick was the sort of person it happened to, not with his actual life the way it was, not with the way his parents were always fighting and there was never any money and he wasn't doing great in school and his family was just...
So it wasn't Nick's fault it took him a long time to figure it out.
But things kept going unexpectedly right. Or, at least, right enough that he could deal instead of so fucking wrong that he didn't have a chance to catch his breath or keep his temper before everything went to hell.
The first time—okay, maybe it wasn't the real first time, just the first time he noticed, and it might not even have been the first time, except looking back, he was pretty sure it must have been—he was trying to do his homework, only Aaron kept calling for him to play, and bouncing on the bed—Nick's bed, of course, not Aaron's own—and Nick said no a dozen times because he really had to get this Chemistry figured out because there was a test tomorrow, and Aaron ignored him and just kept on and on, and Nick stared at his notes and pretended not to hear Aaron shrieking and whining and bouncing on the bed, even though it was practically impossible to do any actual work with all that noise, only he suddenly realized that everything had gone quiet and when he looked around, Aaron was flat out and fast asleep. On Nick's bed, but Nick was so grateful for the peace and quiet he didn't even care.
He thought that was the first time.
He'd scraped a pass on Chem test, only one mark over the line but still, better than he thought he would. Mr Marshall had even noticed, had nodded at him and said he was improving, it was good to see him making an effort and he'd set Nick up with one of the honors students to tutor him, which wasn't exactly cool but it was okay. At least it'd get him out of the house. And he did kinda want to pass Chem.
So it was discreet, and it was no surprise Nick didn't notice for a while, even if it things did go unexpectedly right.
Lance spotted a tall blond in an ancient gray hoodie. "Carter?" he called. "Nick Carter?"
The tall blond turned, revealing a slightly worried face with bright blue eyes. "Yeah?"
"Mr Marshall told me you needed a tutor for Chem?"
"Oh, yeah, right. Uh, I can't pay you or anything." Carter looked uncomfortable, but Lance waved it away. Mr Marshall had hinted that the Carters didn't have a lot of money for tutoring, but Lance wasn't so worried about saving any more, not since he bought his car. He was still tutoring the Smallwood kid, after all.
"No problem. I get to put down tutoring on my college applications, it's all good. So, when and where do you wanna do this? You wanna come over to my house?"
They negotiated briefly, and ended up with an arrangement for the following day.
Lance had heard a few rumors about Nick Carter, but the guy had seemed okay yesterday, and he was waiting on the steps when Lance got there, so it looked like he was reasonably serious about studying. Lance enjoyed tutoring if, and only if, the person he was tutoring actually cared enough to make an effort. There had been that lunkhead from the football team last semester, who never turned up on time and often didn't turn up at all, and even when he did, kept expecting Lance to just do his assignments for him. Which Lance was not going to do.
"You have your own wheels? Nice," Carter remarked as Lance led the way to his car. He grinned. Lance was immensely proud of his car—he'd saved for two years, and his parents and grandparents had matched his savings (Dad had grumbled a bit about how much he'd had to pay up, but it was the kind of grumbling that someone did when really they were pleased with you) and he'd researched makes and models and prices, and gotten himself a real bargain. It wasn't new, of course, but it was a Camaro Coupé, solid and stylish, and he loved it.
"It's nice not to have to take the bus any more," he said, casually.
Not just nice. At times, he was enormously relieved not to be on the bus. Prolonged and heated arguments with... well, with himself, as far as anyone else was concerned, would just be embarrassing. At least in the car there was nobody else around to hear.
Nick seemed to be impressed with Lance's home, too, which was kinda nice. Some of the kids in Grove Hill High came from families with a shitload of money. Cordelia Strafford had been patronising whenever she deigned to show up for her Math sessions with Mom. Lance had had to stifle a lot of cutting remarks along the lines that his mother might not have time or money to dress in designer clothes and have her hair and nails done every week, but on the other hand, she actually had a brain. But Mom would not have been pleased, so he'd just given the Strafford girl his biggest, fakest, toothiest smile every time they met.
"Okay, then," Lance said, setting down his backpack next to his computer desk. "Let's set up here. Mr Marshall said you were doing molecular structures, is that what you want to look at today?"
"I can't seem to get them to stick in my head," Nick said, apologetically.
So they opened a couple books and Lance set about finding ways to explain bonding and such.
About thirty minutes in, his mother knocked on his bedroom door with milk and cookies.
"Wow! I mean, your mom made these? They're awesome."
"She's an amazing cook," Lance said, pleased.
"My Mom doesn't really cook," Nick admitted. "I mean, she works late a lot," he added, defensively.
"Here, you have the last one," Lance said, passing him the plate. "And we can take another look at those patterns. Is it starting to make sense?"
In the corner, his private problem was making faces at him.
Lance ignored it pointedly and concentrated on Nick's work sheet.
After three weeks, Nick was starting to feel a lot more confident about Chem. And Math, because Lance had asked him if he needed help with any of his other subjects. It was cool having Lance tutor him, and not just because Lance's Mom provided great snacks and had even once asked him to stay to dinner, which had been the best fried chicken and mashed potatoes Nick had ever eaten. Lance was really helping. He'd listen to Nick, and he wouldn't mock, and he'd think up different ways to explain stuff that Nick just didn't get, and Nick was already getting better grades than before. Just today, there'd been a surprise Math test, and he knew he hadn't gotten everything right, but some of the problems he'd actually been able to do.
He told Loretta about it during recess, but she only stared at him like he'd grown green pimples on his nose. Loretta was planning on going to beauty school, and thought Senior year was soon enough to worry about not flunking Math, and she didn't see why Nick should care, either. Nick, though, really wanted to go to college, to art school, and he was going to need to conquer pre-calc if he was going to make it.
Still, Loretta's Math skills weren't exactly why he wanted to spend time with her. They made out for a while behind the girls' shower block, and then after school walked to the games arcade for a soda, and made out some more.
So Nick was feeling pretty good about life by the time he got home. Aaron was... wherever, at least he wasn't bouncing on the bed, and Nick did his English homework with comparative ease and made a bunch of notes on his history project. He really wanted to work on the Art project, but he could do that even if everyone in the house was screeching about something. He had to do the hard stuff while things were quiet.
Things were really quiet. Things were... Nick stopped writing, though he didn't raise his head from his book. It felt, it felt like—
"Look, I know you're here. I know you've been helping me. So how about you let me see you?" He paused. Nothing. "You know, it's not very nice, spying on a person. Not very... angelic."
There was a kind of shuffly sound, and Nick knew, he knew, that all he had to do now was look around and he'd find out what a guardian angel actually looked like. He hoped there'd be wings, wings would be cool. Someone tall and handsome and imposing in a long flowing robe, with wings, and light, and—oh. Not so much.
The guy sitting on the bed behind him was slender and small, definitely shorter than Nick, and he wasn't pale and blond, he was more, like, tanned and his hair was brown. And soft. It looked really soft. And he had big, brown eyes that—well, they were way prettier than any eyes Nick ever remembered looking into.
"Hi," said his guardian angel, tentatively.
"No wings," Nick said, and felt stupid, but really, he had been hoping for wings. "I thought you'd have wings."
"Er, no. They're not, um, I don't get those yet."
Nick considered. "So are you, like, an apprentice angel?"
"In a way," his angel answered, cautiously. "It's not quite—it's a bit more complic—I guess you could call me an apprentice angel, if you like."
"Is that why—" Nick said, and stopped. It would sound kinda ungrateful to say, Is that why you don't really do anything good for me, you just stop the really bad stuff from being totally bad? Because he was grateful, he really was. Still. "So, how come I get to have a guardian angel?"
"Oh, sorry, no, I can't tell you that. And that's not exactly—I don't actually know why They picked you for me to work on. With. Work with."
A lot of people thought Nick was stupid. And maybe he was, about stuff like Math and Chem and History and—well, most of the stuff he had to do in school. But he wasn't. He could tell that his guardian angel—because he wasn't going to think of him as the totally cute guy who just materialized in my bedroom—had not been given Assignment Nick Carter just for Nick's benefit. It sounded like he was learning the job. Maybe it was like Driver's Ed for angels, you had to practice on something, someone insignificant first before you got to go out and guardian angel for important people. And have wings.
Because Nick was not stupid, he didn't say any of this. What he did say was, "What's your name? What should I call you?"
"I—I don't—you don't need to call me anything."
"Sure I do. What if I, like, need your advice, I can't just start yelling for—well, I need a name."
"I don't think I'm supposed to come when you call," the angel said, dubiously.
"Sure, okay," Nick agreed at once, not that he wasn't going to call, but that could wait. "But it's way friendlier if I can say, Hi, um, Harvey, isn't it?" Wait, no, Harvey was that giant rabbit from that movie his Dad made them watch last Christmas.
His angel looked pained at the idea of being called Harvey. Fair enough, 'cause it was a crappy name. "I don't think I want you to call me Harvey," he said.
Nick was seized with the urge to be contrary, just because, so he said, "No, okay. I'll call you... I'll call you Howie, then."
His angel frowned slightly, tipped his head to one side, and appeared not to be able to find an argument against that. "Howie," he said.
"Howie," Nick repeated.
Lance read through his essay on the computer screen, and decided it would do. "Okay, Pepe, any comment from the cheap seats?" he said.
"What? Oh, you mean me?" His Personal Problem scooted across the bed—leaving the sheets in disarray, naturally—and looked narrowly at Lance. "What's with the Pepe label? You think I'm from down Mexico way? Because I'm from way, way further south than that, if you know what I mean."
"P, P," Lance explained. "It's short for Personal Problem, which you are. Of course, I could call you Bo instead."
"Bo? What kind of a wimpy Southern name is that?"
"Stands for Body Odor. A Personal Problem, you see?" Lance maintained an absolutely straight face while his Personal Problem shrieked with outrage.
"I see a guy who wants to ding his front fender on a fire hydrant," he singsonged. He was capable of it, too, Lance thought. How many times had Lance been distracted while parking? He couldn't even count. It was a good thing Lance was stubborn—as stubborn as his Personal Problem, he hoped, but so far it was a close call. He loved that car.
"I guess," he said, "it's no use asking you to be somewhere else while I finish my assignment."
"Nah," and Pepe lay back on the bed looking smug, only to bounce back up a moment later and rub his rough cheek against Lance's smooth one. Lance cringed and tried to escape. His tickle reflex was one of the things he could not control. And of course Pepe took full advantage, nuzzling at his vulnerable neck, blowing raspberries, and getting his pesky hands to Lance's waist to tickle more, until his chair overbalanced and they crashed to the floor.
"Sorry, Mom," Lance explained, embarrassed, when his mother appeared at his door and asked if everything was okay. "I overbalanced."
"Well, don't lean back on your chair. You know I've warned you before."
Behind her, in the corner of the room, Pepe was making lewd gestures.
"It won't happen again," Lance said, and Mom retreated. "It really won't," he repeated for the benefit of his Personal Problem, who just grinned at him and made tickle-tickle motions with both hands. "Uh uh. Your fault. You made a racket, so no more tickle time for you."
It was a pity he had such an engaging grin. But Lance knew better than to give in. No matter how much he secretly enjoyed it.
Howie was very respectful. He wouldn't materialize until Aaron was asleep and Nick had finished his homework, or at least, as much of it as he could do in one night. Then Nick would feel that weird shift in the air and he'd turn around and there would be Howie, sitting on his bed, smiling in that sweet, shy way he had, and asking him if he wanted to talk about anything.
And they'd talk. Well, mostly Nick would grumble about his life and Howie would say encouraging things like, You have talent, and, you work really hard, and, Lance is really helping, though, isn't he? And funnily enough, Nick would feel better.
"Let's face it, I have so many problems," Nick murmured, lying back. He kept the bedside light on so he could see Howie—once Aaron was asleep nothing woke him, and Nick did so like to look at Howie's gentle brown eyes and beautiful smile. "My family's not exactly, well. Do any of them have a guardian angel? 'Cause I think they could all use one, seriously."
"I'm not supposed to discuss that. You're not really meant to know about me, and I definitely couldn't tell you if someone else had a, a companion."
"I don't think my parents do," Nick said. "I mean, if Mom had someone like you around to talk to, I bet she wouldn't get so angry at everything all the time. And maybe Dad would, like, be more like a Dad. Mom says he's trying to be twenty-one again."
"Do you think it's just that she's angry at him?"
"Well, sure she is, but I guess... she could be right. I mean, it's like, yesterday when he met Loretta, he was like, he laughed at all her stupid jokes and kept telling his own, and it was a bit creepy. I mean, all his jokes are about blondes and women with big tits, the kind of jokes the guys in school tell in the locker room. I don't think he should do that."
"It isn't very respectful," Howie agreed. "Why do you think he does that?"
"I guess he thinks she's cute." Nick was actually not sure he liked that his father thought Loretta was a cute girl. His father had married Mom, so he obviously had crappy taste. "She didn't seem to mind, though."
"Maybe she doesn't get much respect from other people either."
"I guess not. Well, I'm going to treat her better than that," Nick resolved. Loretta might not be his dream girl, but she didn't deserve that people tell dirty jokes around her. He was pretty sure Lance's Dad would never do that with Lance's girlfriend. "And there's a problem at work. Ricardo, one of the barmen, keeps saying I'm lazy and I don't work fast enough. It's really bugging me." Washing dishes at Tonelli's restaurant was a shitty enough time without one of the staff picking on him, but talking to Howie definitely made it easier to cope with. He might even be able to take Howie's advice. It couldn't hurt.
It was nice, talking with Howie every night before he crawled into bed, and having a nice, warm, comfortable feeling inside him before he went to sleep instead of being all tangled up inside like he used to.
It was the best part of his day.
In his head, Lance had given his Personal Problem a much nicer name.
It was extremely weird, having his very own guardian demon around. As far as Lance could tell, Chris—he'd always kinda liked the name Christopher, it felt vaguely grasshopper-ish, and Chris reminded him of a grasshopper with all the twitching and leaping about and the incessant noise, only if Lance ever slipped and said it out loud he was going to pretend it was short for 'Christian', and his Personal Problem could howl as much as he liked about it—Chris was some kind of apprentice demon, whose mission in life right now was to irritate Lance into doing something downright evil so that he, Chris, could get... what did demons get as a badge of office? Maybe a pitchfork. Chris would so love a pitchfork.
Why he had been singled out to receive a demon of his very own, Lance had no idea. He speculated sometimes that his life had been too easy up to this point, and he was due for some testing. It seemed reasonable, on a cosmic scale. It was a pain in the butt on the scale of his own bedroom, where Chris seemed to manifest most of the time.
"Bass, Bass," he would croon, bouncing on the bed. "Play with me! All study and no play makes Lance incredibly boring!"
Sometimes, Lance did.
Other times, Lance was busy tutoring Nick Carter, and doing his damn—his very best to ignore Chris's antics. It wasn't easy.
"La-a-a-ance," Chris would whine. "La-a-ance, I'm bored." And Lance would have to find some way to talk to Chris without Nick's noticing.
"I know it's dull," he'd say, and Nick, who was a pretty good guy, would hurry up and reassure him that no, he was making it interesting, really. And Lance would say, "The sooner we get this done, the sooner we get back to our computer games, right?" Which would, if he was lucky, keep Chris the Personal Problem quiet for, oh, thirty seconds.
For some reason, on this particular evening Chris seemed to have decided that he wanted to scare Lance with the threat of imminent discovery. He kept prowling around the room, picking up small objects from the bedside table when Nick wasn't looking, tossing them about, and threatening to drop them. Then he sidled up close. Lance twitched mightily when he felt Chris's hot breath in his ear, and had to pretend to sneeze, aiming the fake blast at Chris's face. It took mighty facial control not to laugh aloud at the expression of outraged disgust on his demon's face.
So Chris hovered over Nick instead. Brushed against his back—Lance actually saw Nick shiver—and puffed at his hair to make him jerk his head.
"Sorry," Lance said. "A bit of a draught in here tonight. Don't forget the other side of the equation. Everything gets paid back equally." He shot a glare at Chris, who smirked back and mouthed 'payback' at him.
"Oh, my God," said Nick. He was staring at Lance. "I thought you did, and you do! You have one too!"
"You have one too! A guardian angel. This is amazing!"
"You mean, you have a guardian angel?" Lance asked, astonished.
"Yeah. He's the sweetest—he comes to see me every night and we talk about stuff."
"This is kind of amazing," said Lance. Because seriously, it was almost a relief to know he wasn't the only person in town being... afflicted. "Yeah. There is a, a guardian."
"Does yours have wings?" Nick asked, in an odd voice that Lance couldn't quite interpret.
"I'm not qualified," Chris said with a gleeful smile which Lance knew better than to think of as angelic.
"No," Lance said. "No wings. I think he's, like, on probation or something."
"Wow! Just like mine! Seriously, this is so cool. I never used to believe in guardian angels, and I never thought I would get one. Do you think everybody has one, only mostly people don't notice? What made you notice yours? Does he have a name? I call mine Howie. I wouldn't have noticed him either, he only does small stuff, like, he made my brother fall asleep so I could study, and this one time my sisters were arguing about some nail polish and he just, like, rolled it out from under the bed, and—all little stuff, but, you know. I think he's a learner angel like yours, he doesn't have his wings yet."
Chris was making retching gestures and rolling his eyes, and it was all Lance could do not to laugh out loud at this bizarre interpretation of his Personal Problem as an angel. But Nick was sweet and totally sincere, and heck, if Lance could get a demon, why wouldn't someone else have an angel?
Eventually he managed to get them back to focusing on Chemistry again, but Nick was still pretty buzzed when Lance gave him a ride to work. It would have taken him at least a half hour to get there by bus, and Nick was a good person, he was a real trier. He probably deserved a guardian angel.
In the back seat, Chris made disparaging remarks about blonds.
"Guardian angel, huh?" Chris said, and batted his eyelashes fetchingly as Lance walked back into his bedroom.
"Yeah, 'cause I'm gonna believe that," Lance said, but he couldn't help grinning.
"What, you can't see my halo?" Chris was standing on the bed with his head between Lance and the overhead light, giving him a very eerie glow.
"Just get your feet off my bed," Lance ordered. So Chris jumped up and down, mussing the sheets and making the springs creak. Lance sighed, then tackled him and bore him down onto the floor with a thump. Chris fought back, tickling all of Lance's vulnerable spots with a ruthlessness that was definitely demonic, and left Lance gasping for breath and squirming in a way that—a way that—wasn't exactly angelic either, Lance thought, managing to pin one of Chris's legs with his own thigh, and making a grab for a wrist.
He had the wriggling creature pinned and wasn't quite sure where to go from here, when Chris licked him—obviously expecting a recoil. But Lance had fought too hard for the advantage to give it up just because his neck was now wet. "Oh, right, that's where we're at, is it," he muttered, and fisted a hand in Chris's hair, silky dark hair, not so short he couldn't hold on to it.
"Serves you right," said Lance.
"You want me to howl loud enough to bring your Mom running? I will!" Chris threatened.
So Lance shut him up. With a kiss.
"So, I discovered something interesting today," Nick said, casually. "Somebody I know has a guardian angel, just like me."
He'd never seen Howie look startled before.
Nick grinned. "Yeah," he went on, "I could tell from how he was talking that there was someone else there, and you know what, his angel doesn't have wings either."
"Are you sure he wasn't just kidding you? Most people don't believe in guardian angels."
"He wasn't kidding. I felt it brush against me. It touched my hair."
Howie's face darkened. "That's cheating! I mean, we're not supposed—it's against the rules."
Nick didn't care. "Doesn't matter. It's not like I don't already know you're real. Oh, I meant to say, I took your advice about Ricardo, you know, the barman who was piss—er, bothering me at work." Left to his own devices Nick would have preferred to square up and slug Ricardo, except that it would have meant losing his job and he needed the cash, but it turned out all he had to do was agree that Ricardo was right about a bunch of stuff, and he'd go away and stop bugging Nick. "So, thanks for that."
"Anytime," Howie said, absently.
Nick told him about this evening's shift, how boring it was even though he was busy practically all the time and how much his shoulders hurt when he got home. "Maybe you could come keep me company? It's only me in the back room, most of the time. It's kinda lonely."
"Sure," Howie said, and from then on, Nick's work shifts weren't quite as boring any more.
Poke. Poke. Pokepokepoke.
"Will you fucking stop doing that?" Lance growled.
Chris cackled as he bounced away from Lance's warding hand. Damn, Lance thought, I shouldn't react. But Chris was being extra, extra irritating today, and Lance had to hand in his assignment tomorrow.
"I said, stop that."
Chris moued his lips and made kissing noises.
Lance stared at him in astonishment.
Chris stared back, his brown eyes dark, mysterious, and giving nothing away. "You know it works."
"You want me to kiss you," Lance stated, just to be clear.
"See, it furthers my evil agenda." Chris had long since stopped pretending he didn't have an evil agenda.
"No, no, no. That's not how it works," said Lance, stifling a grin. "You don't get a kiss unless you deserve it."
"Last time, I got a kiss when I pissed you off. So—"
Lance caught his hand before the extended finger reached his waist. "No. There will be no more poking. You want a kiss, you earn it."
Chris bridled. "How?"
Lance checked his watch. "You leave me in peace—totally, no interrupting, no sighing, no playing with my stuff, nothing—until ten o'clock. You do that and I'll kiss you."
"Huh," said Chris. "My evil plan is working." And he vanished.
"Evil plan, my ass," Lance said quietly. That was probably next on Chris's list, he thought, and grinned to himself. Then he settled in to his Math homework. The right incentive was a wonderful thing.
At the very instant his clock rolled over to ten, Chris reappeared, sitting on Lance's bed with lips puckered and eyes closed. Lance heaved a fake sigh and dropped the lightest of kisses onto those lips, and predictably enough, Chris's arms came out, lightning-fast, and encircled his waist. They tipped backwards onto the bed.
"Oof, you're way heavier than you look," Chris grumbled.
"All the better to squash you with." Lance made no attempt to move. The evidence suggested Chris was pretty happy with the situation.
"You should be on our team, if all I get for being good is a miserable little peck. That's a demonic bargain if ever there was one."
"Hmm," said Lance. "I suppose it won't be much of an incentive for next time if you don't get a better reward this time." He lowered his head and put everything he'd got into kissing Chris. He might not be very experienced, but he could learn real fast when he put his mind to it.
He was not at all surprised, after a while, to feel a hand on his ass.
Even on Sunday nights, when he and Loretta went out somewhere on a date (the restaurant was closed Sundays), even when they got to make out and he undid her bra and touched her breasts and put hickeys on her neck and she undid his pants and jerked him off with one manicured hand, it was still the midnight talk with Howie that Nick really looked forward to.
"See, I don't think she exactly gets me." It was hard to explain. "I told her I want to go to art school, but she just looks at me like I'm crazy. She wants to work in a nail salon, so." He shrugged.
"But you do like her?"
Nick thought about it. Loretta was okay. She wasn't as cool as a couple of the girls in his AP Art class who admired his drawings and seemed like they maybe thought he was cute. But they weren't the kind of girls who would ever date someone like Nick, someone who lived in the wrong part of town and whose family were—well, his mother had backhanded him once when he'd said they were white trash, but that didn't mean he was wrong. Loretta's family lived in the wrong part of town, too.
"Sure," he said. "She's nice. And she does, she lets me, we, uh." He didn't think he should talk to an angel about that stuff. Howie was way too nice to tell about how Loretta let him put his fingers inside her... or how it made him feel weird, like he should be enjoying it loads more than he actually did. He couldn't tell Howie that. "And it's not like—I mean, when I go away to college, we won't be together any more. I don't think I'm the kind of guy she wants, not really." Actually, he was almost sure of it, but it was too difficult to think about.
"There's no law says you have to stay with your high school sweetheart all your life," Howie said calmly. He was very calm, Howie. Never got riled, or stopped listening, or anything like that.
"She wants us to go to Junior Prom together."
"And do you want to go?"
"I... I'm not really a prom kind of guy, you know? But you have to do nice stuff for your girlfriend, right? And I guess it'll be a nice party. Practically everybody else is going."
"So it's expected."
"And it's so expensive!" Nick burst out. "I'm saving for college, and Mom already takes half my wages because she says Dad never pays child support, which maybe he doesn't, but no way is he helping me through college either, and neither is she. And just, having to rent a tux and stuff, and she says we should get a limo and I just—no. I mean, Jesus."
"Sorry," Nick said quickly. He kept forgetting. "It's like, there's all these things you're supposed to do, only I don't really want to do them. Like, get married."
"Do you mean, married to Loretta?"
"I dunno," Nick said. "I guess I have to marry someone."
"Because it's what people do. Normal people, they go to prom and they graduate high school and they get a job and they get married and have kids."
"You don't sound as if you want to do that."
"Mmm," Nick muttered. "Well, look at my parents. It didn't exactly work out for them." He was pretty sure he wasn't going to marry anybody. If his parents were anything to go by, it would be miserable. They didn't seem to get along any better now they were divorced—they were still always pissed at one another even though they didn't live together. Mom complained about how mean Dad was and how he was a useless waste of space who couldn't keep a job and had never made anything of himself. Dad called her a selfish bitch and slept with as many women as he could, just to prove that it wasn't his fault. Marriage was for suckers.
Turned out he'd said quite a lot of that out loud.
"It doesn't have to be like that, you know." Howie looked disapproving. Nick felt a little bit bad about that, because Howie had such a cute serious face, and such a cute smile, but frowns didn't suit him at all. "You know, Lance's parents aren't like your parents."
That was true. They actually seemed to like each other, and there was never any shouting when he was there. Of course, that could just be company manners. Lance had explained the concept, which was totally new to Nick as his family never thought twice about screaming abuse at one another no matter how many house guests they had. But Lance had looked at Nick in surprise when he'd asked if they fought. Maybe Lance's parents were happy.
"Maybe it depends on the girl," he said, leaning back against the wall and closing his eyes.
"They say men marry women like their mothers," Howie said. Nick's eyes flew open. Howie didn't look like he had meant anything by it, but Jesus, what a terrifying thought that was! And now he had the idea in his head—
"Loretta is totally like my mother!" he gasped, sitting up in horror. "No, she really is! Oh, my God!"
Nick flashed him a look of apology, but continued, "That settles it. I'm definitely not going to marry Loretta."
Howie's head tilted sideways for a moment, and then all of a sudden he smiled, a wide, beautiful smile that made Nick catch his breath."I think that's a wise decision," Howie said.
"Oh, shit," Nick said in sudden realization, and muttered "sorry" before Howie even managed a frown line. "It's just, there's the prom. We can't break up yet."
Howie's face lost that happy glow, and worry lines formed over his eyebrows. "Surely she could go to the dance with someone else."
"I can't dump her right now, it wouldn't be fair. Everyone's got their prom dates arranged."
Loretta would be humiliated, and he had no reason to do that to her. "It'd be cruel," he insisted.
"You're a good guy, Nickolas," Howie said, though he didn't look happy.
Nick, still scared at the prospect of a future with somebody just like his Mom, couldn't help but agree. But it was just prom, and then the summer break, and it'd be easy to do it then.
The new arrangement was working one hell of a lot better than before. No more close calls with fire hydrants, adjacent vehicles and lamp posts. No more interrupted tutoring sessions or homework. Lance would say goodnight to his parents, wash, brush his teeth, put on his pajamas and lie down on his bed. A few moments later, Chris would arrive and insinuate himself alongside. And then...
It wasn't like they were hurtling towards what Lance thought of as the advanced stuff. Mostly they'd kiss, slippery and sweet, deep and hot, and it was so good kissing Chris, it was almost enough. Except then Chris's hand would slide under the cotton pajama top, across Lance's belly, tempting as a snake. Or down over Lance's back, there was a sensitive patch above the base of his spine that just tingled when fingers traced over it. And Chris made such appreciative noises when he stroked Lance's ass through his pajamas, Lance couldn't bring himself to object when his hand went under the waistband instead of over. Because he knew how good it felt to have Chris's skin under his own palms.
Lance did feel a twinge of guilt about the situation, which, theologically speaking, was at best ambiguous. Also he would have preferred not to be doing this in his parents' house—why couldn't Chris have waited until Lance was away at college? Lance had all kinds of plans for when he was away at college, which included not letting his parents find out about any of them.
Meanwhile, though, here Chris was, and his hands were surprisingly tentative over each new inch Lance let him touch, and if Lance hadn't had a feeling it was the wrong way to deal with Chris he'd probably have asked for more instead of rationing himself.
"Who'd have thought seducing someone over to the dark side could be so much fun?" Chris said, looming over Lance and leering horribly. But there was a hint of something in his eyes, something like worry, or, no, like regret, and Lance smiled up at him.
"Your big mistake," he said, "is thinking that sex is evil."
Chris spluttered. "Of course it is! Everybody knows that!"
"Except, they don't. I think you're wrong. I'm counting on it. You see, when my Dad gave me The Talk, there was all sorts of stuff about circumstances and all kinds of advice about girls which it turns out I'm not gonna need, but the most important thing of all was, if you love and respect your partner, then sex is a good and wonderful thing. A gift from God, even. And if my Dad says so, it must be true."
"Yeah, but—wait. I thought we were just making—I mean, I'm seducing you with my irresistible wiles. Are you saying you love and respect me? You? Love and respect—me?"
"I'm not using you just for physical gratification. I don't think any less of you for, uh, getting sweaty with me. I'd want you around even if we weren't doing this, although that probably means there's something wrong with me since you are the world's greatest pest. So I think that counts as, I respect you, doesn't it? And yes," he planted a soft kiss on Chris's lips, "also, I love you."
Chris stared at him, confusion and desperate hope shining in his beautiful brown eyes. It was as though he couldn't bring himself to believe, didn't dare to believe, that Lance was telling the truth.
"Prove it," Chris said.
To Nick's astonishment, Dad had put down a deposit on a rental tux for him. Mostly—he was sure—to annoy the hell out of Mom, who said he shouldn't waste his money on a stupid school dance, but Dad had said he'd pay, and he'd slipped Nick a twenty to get some flowers for Loretta. There was definitely an upside to Dad thinking she was cute, even if it did remind Nick how Loretta was a lot like Mom, with the brassy blonde hair and the fixation on how much money he was going to spend on her. Nick definitely had no plans to marry Loretta.
But for now, she was his girlfriend and they were going to Prom together. Nick had to have a girlfriend. It wouldn't do for anyone to think that he—that he couldn't get a girl. And making out was good. Nick was pretty sure she was planning to let him go all the way, after the party—she'd outright told him she was on the pill, so it wasn't exactly an unreasonable assumption—and a part of him was really interested in that because hey, sex! Of course, there was the other part of him, the secret part deep down inside, that kept whispering to him that she wasn't what he wanted at all. Overall, though, Nick was pretty sure that even the wrong kind of sex with the wrong person was better than no sex at all.
So the Junior Prom might not be such a bad night.
There was no way he was going to spring for a limo, though, no way at all. Some of Loretta's friends talked about sharing one, but even a sixth share was way too much money for Nick, and he thought the others probably dropped the idea anyway. Some of them had cars of their own. He'd hoped Mom would let him borrow the car, but she just said a few acid words about Prom not really being the best night of anyone's life and refused to give him the keys.
Dad wouldn't let him drive, either, but he said he'd be their chauffeur. Not much of a chauffeur, driving a beat-up Ford with Dorito crumbs all over the seats, and Dad was embarrassing when they went to pick up Loretta, bowing as he opened the door for her and calling her Princess. Nick just rolled his eyes and kept quiet. At least he didn't have to pay for a cab.
"You look great," he told Loretta as they sat primly side by side in back. He hoped for her sake the other girls would be dressed like that, too, practically spilling out of the top of her fuchsia pink dress (raspberry would have been a better color on her), and way too much makeup. But she'd made a big effort, and he had to be nice.
"You, too," she said. "Very handsome."
"Here, I got you..." he handed over the florist's box. "It goes on your wrist."
She was delighted with the flowery thing, whatever it was called, and admired it for the rest of the drive to the restaurant. When they got there, Dad insisted on bowing Loretta out of the car again, admiring the flowers and kissing her hand, which made her giggle and Nick cringe.
"I'll pick you kids up from the school at midnight. No dawdling, now! No taking this pretty thing behind the rose bushes!" Dad guffawed at his own, what was that, wit? "You're sure you don't need a ride to the dance after dinner?"
"No, Dad, it's fine, I told you, we're meeting a bunch of people for dinner, Phil and Julie said we can ride with them." He'd rather walk than have anybody else witness his Dad bowing and making a fool of himself.
"You guys have a good time," Dad said, and got back into the car. Nick hoped he wasn't going to spend the evening at a bar someplace. But there wasn't a lot he could do about it.
Dinner was... actually kinda fun. There were a dozen of them, all self-conscious in their fancy clothes and trying to be sophisticated. Nick got a lot of kudos for getting them a discount off the bill, a staff perk—he'd been amazed when Mr Tonelli had offered it. Tonelli's was a bit out of the way and didn't get much of the Prom night business, so it was good for them to have the extra custom, he supposed. So they ate pasta and pizza and ice cream, and then spilled out into the night and piled into a motley collection of cars to get along to the dance.
There was a bit of a crowd by the entrance, and then Loretta's floral wristband fell off, not surprising after how much she kept fiddling with it, so they waved the others on while Nick carefully re-tied the silly thing for her. Which was why Nick and Loretta were still outside when the motorbike arrived in a growl of bass vibrato and came to a halt by the kerb. The two riders got off and removed their helmets. One was—holy shit, that was Lance Bass! How come he wasn't driving his Camaro—and who the heck...
The dark haired guy with the short goatee put the helmets away in the box on the back, undid the top stud of his leather jacket, and took Lance's hand.
Oh My God! thought Nick.
Lance had a boyfriend. Lance had a boyfriend and had brought him to the Junior Prom.
Nick was filled with bitter envy, a twisted feeling deep down in his gut, a wish that he'd been able to do that, to come to the Prom with someone he really, really... except nobody else could see Howie, and in any case he wasn't—
"Oh my God," said Loretta, her voice carrying shrilly across the path. "Two guys? They're holding hands? They have got to be fucking kidding."
"Shut. Up." Nick's hissed command didn't do much to stop her outraged commentary. He wrenched his arm free of her clutching hand. "He's my—he's my Math tutor, and he's a decent guy. Don't say that stuff."
Loretta stared at him in disbelief. "I'm going inside," she stated, and stomped towards the door.
Lance looked like he actually owned his tuxedo instead of having to rent one. And his boyfriend was seriously cool. They moved up the path toward Nick, and he braced himself to hide his envy and act normal.
"You can't do this!" a voice burst out from beside him, where nobody had been a moment ago. Nick jumped.
It was Howie, looking oddly out of place in his usual outfit of drapy white shirt, jeans and flipflops.
"Hey, Nick," Lance said. Obviously he couldn't see Howie. "Uh, this is Chris. Chris, Nick—he comes to my place for tutoring."
"Nick, nice to meet you," Chris said, grinning and extending a hand. Nick shook it. Chris seemed oddly familiar, but Nick was sure he'd have remembered meeting him—Chris seemed like a memorable kind of guy. He had a really pretty smile.
"This is against the rules!" Howie said, fuming.
Chris grinned wider. "Rules are made to be broken, right?" He made a face right at Howie, and he and Lance, holding hands in a way that suggested they hadn't done it very much but right now, at least one of them needed a hand to hold, went on towards the entrance.
"Howie! What are you doing here—and how come he could see you?"
Howie looked furious. It kinda suited him, Nick thought, all flashing eyes and muscle tension. "He shouldn't be here like that, not visible! It's not allowed!" Oh, Nick thought. That was why Chris seemed familiar. "Also—Nick, I checked, and he's not, he isn't on my program. He isn't an angel." He leaned in and hissed, "He's on the other team."
The staff all seemed too stunned to react to Lance's prom date. Good, because he really didn't want to start the evening with an argument about whether he was allowed to bring a date who wasn't a—a student. He was quite terrified enough without that. The room was nearly full, and it felt like everyone was staring. "Let's go get some punch," he suggested to Chris, who flashed him a wicked look.
"I should check my leathers first," Chris said. Turned out he was wearing a perfectly respectable tux underneath, though it was a bit crumpled now and his bow tie—a proper one—was coming undone. Of course Chris would saunter in wearing his leather jacket, just to wind Lance even tighter than he already was.
It had been scary enough telling his parents just a week ago. They had been so confused, so worried, and Mom kept giving him puzzled looks as if to say, What did we do wrong? But it might have been so much worse, and at least it was done without any shouting, and nobody had walked out or been thrown out. And now, tonight, everyone else was going to know. If Chris wasn't willing to believe him now, then... he wasn't going to think about that. He was going to make like there was nothing weird about bringing a boyfriend to the Prom, and hope he still had friends by the end of the evening. And whatever happened, he wouldn't have to hide any more.
"Hey, Rosie!" he said, seeing a familiar face. "You look lovely tonight."
To his enormous relief, she smiled.
"So is that why you're here? To warn Lance?"
"No, no, I'm not allowed to interfere."
"Seems to me you should be more worried about doing the right thing than about what you're not allowed to do," Nick said. "Shouldn't an angel be a good person, even if he's only learning the job? I'm going inside." He should find Loretta.
No, damn it, he shouldn't, Nick thought, striding into the decked out gym with its balloon spirals and festive banners. He didn't want to listen to her going on about Lance and Chris. He'd much rather... he'd much rather talk to Lance and Chris, actually. Except by the time he got inside they already had quite a crowd surrounding them. It looked a bit worrying at first, but it turned out to be mostly girls and they seemed friendly enough. Loretta was over on the far side, with Phil and Julie and some of the other guys from dinner. Oh, screw Loretta. Nick made for the punch, hoping someone had slipped something in it by now, but no luck.
It didn't hurt that Chris was turning on the charm like it was coming out from a fire hose. Lance kept smiling. He was good at people, he knew he was popular, but he could see several of the people he'd counted as friends crossing firmly to the other side of the room. Well, he'd known that would happen. And a few faces he only vaguely recognized had come up to say hello, obviously making a deliberate statement. Which was kinda nice. At least he wouldn't be a total pariah.
The crowd from choir were lifesavers, Lance thought, relaxing just a little bit as they all moved onto the dance floor together. Lance wasn't much of a dancer, but it was easier to shuffle about than to try and answer all the questions his well-intentioned friends kept asking, and in the group, nobody was exactly dancing with anybody, so he felt way less conspicuous. The dance floor was divided into two distinct groups—him and Chris in the middle of one, then a gap, then everyone else.
Chris danced up to him, shaking his tush like he was born to it. "Don't worry so much!" Chris yelled. "This is going great."
Why was Howie even here? Nick didn't want to be caught talking to an invisible guardian angel.
Why couldn't Dad have bought him some liquor? He'd be expecting Nick to be at least half-drunk by midnight, but if nobody else had gotten any alcohol past the staff chaperones, this evening was going to be really grim.
It was Lance's demon boyfriend, making drinky gestures. Nick took himself and his plastic cup of fruit punch over to where Chris was grinning at him, and received a generous slug of something which certainly livened up the punch. Nick coughed and blinked a bit. Well, if you couldn't get a demon to give you alcohol, what was the world coming to?
"So, we kinda met already, didn't we?" he said. "Only I was mish—mish—taken. A bit."
Chris grinned. "Your angelic friend tell you about me? Oh, hi, sweetie, how's tricks?"
Howie was once again at Nick's elbow. He scowled at the demon. "Leave Nicky alone! He's not yours."
"Oh, you two know each other?" Nick said unguardedly, and got a strange look from the girl on the other side of the table. Damn Howie for being invisible—Nick was going to look like a lunatic if he kept this up.
"We were, uh, acquainted a while back," Chris explained. "It didn't work out too well."
"Right," said Howie, "because you—"
"Nice talking to you, Chris," Nick interrupted. "I'm—I'm going to ask Loretta to dance." Howie looked scandalized, then worried. Nick was pleased. Howie wasn't playing fair. He didn't wanna talk to Howie right now. It wasn't fair to make him talk to an invisible person.
He took himself over to where Loretta and Julie were talking, and asked her to dance. Offered her a sip of his punch, too, only to find she drank it right off. Chris'd probably give him another shot later, if he asked.
Slow dancing was a different matter, but Lance was feeling reckless now, what with the relief and the spiced rum Chris had been pouring liberally into his drinks. So, what the hell. He pulled Chris in close. There was a rustle of comment at the other end of the room, but other people were pairing up.
"Don't worry about it, babe," Chris murmured into his ear. "They probably never expected to have such a great prom. All the stuff they knew they were gonna get, plus some awesome gossip. They'll be talking about us for days."
"I don't even care," Lance muttered, and tightened his grip around Chris's waist. "But you have to stay. If you go away now, if you leave me to face all this shit without actually getting a boyfriend out of it, that'd be—that'd be a really demonic thing to do. Please. Stay."
Chris was silent for a bit, and they swayed together comfortably until with a warm tickle against Lance's ear, Chris said, "I don't know how this happened. I was sure I was supposed to tempt you into evil ways, but it doesn't feel like it worked. Only, how come I get you? I shouldn't get a reward for failing."
"Idiot," Lance whispered, and kissed the nearest available inch of skin at Chris's temple. "You weren't sent here to tempt me over to the dark side. You were sent here so I could tempt you into the light. And, newsflash, good guys won."
"No buts. I love you. You believe that, right? Since I came out for you, which by the way is a huge deal. And the way I feel, that could never be evil. Not possible."
Chris shifted and resettled, somehow more solid in Lance's arms. His cheek against Lance's face seemed a little rougher, his steps a little heavier. More... real. "I don't understand," Chris said, "but I believe you." He laughed. "Seems like I got a second chance. Maybe I can get it right this time. Help me, okay?"
"Of course." Lance smiled against Chris's silky hair, and hung on tight. He didn't exactly understand either, but somewhere deep inside him it made sense. Chris hadn't been learning to be a demon, he'd been learning to be a person. And Lance was keeping him.
Nick was relieved when the last dance of the night was announced, and even more relieved when it was over. He was swaying a bit, and sweating a lot, he felt sticky and icky and a little bit sick. Chris hadn't offered him any more of his amazing firewater, but someone had gotten to the punch anyway, and he'd had more of the stuff than he really wanted, just to have an excuse to move away from either Loretta, who kept wanting to cuddle up, or Howie, who kept catching his eye and scowling.
"Maybe we could get a ride with Phil and Julie again," Loretta suggested. "We can call your Dad, tell him we're okay. They're going on to an afterparty at Rocco's place, it's really close to my house, but we can go have our own party, hmm?" She rubbed suggestively against him. "My Mom will be out with her new boyfriend. Nobody home..."
Nick looked across the floor to where Lance and Chris were dancing—well, Lance was doing the standard manly shuffle, and Chris was gyrating like a maniac. Both of them looked incredibly happy, and Nick was hit by another wave of envy. He wanted... he didn't want Loretta, and she didn't want him, not really. "Come on," he said. "Let's get out of here."
"But what about—we have to talk to Phil."
"No. We're not doing that."
She didn't like that, not one bit. By the time they'd reclaimed her coat and were out in the parking lot, she was really pissed, and screaming at him so loud he didn't notice Dad arriving.
"What's going on? Nick, what did you do? Hey, honey, is my boy not behaving like a gentleman?" Dad wrapped his arms around Loretta and she wailed into his chest. Her eyeliner was a mess.
"I didn't do—" Nick began, but nobody was listening.
"Never you mind him, honey, I'll take care of you. You just come get in the car. Nick, you can walk home!"
Three blocks along, Nick realized he was no longer alone. "I'm not actually pleased to see you, you know," he said, but it wasn't really true. He could never not be pleased to see Howie. "Appearing like that when nobody else could see you, what was I supposed to do? It's not fair."
"I'm sorry. You're right. I shouldn't have been there. But Nick, it was really important."
"What? Making sure I didn't get to enjoy prom?"
"I didn't mean for you to be miserable. It's just, there's a higher purpose."
"Oh, right. A higher purpose in bugging me, I totally get that."
"I'm not supposed to tell you."
"Oh, of course, you would never break the rules," Nick burst out. "You wouldn't even break the rules to tell Lance his boyfriend was a bad person, except I don't see it, Chris was nice, and they seemed really happy together and it was incredibly brave what Lance did, and I just wished—" He stopped.
"Nick, wait. Please."
Nick stopped, with a theatrical sigh just to make it quite clear he was still pissed.
"It was the mission, Nicky. I had to make sure you got the right future. There was—tonight was a crucial moment for you. If you went home with Loretta, you'd end up having to marry her and never go off to college and you'd always be miserable."
"Why would I have to marry—you mean, she'd get pregnant? But she's on the pill, she told me so."
"She told you that, yes. But—anyway, that's why I showed up tonight, that's why I didn't dare let you alone, I didn't know what I could do to change that future but I had to try. I had to be here."
Nick thought about that. "I didn't want to sleep with her anyway," he said.
"Oh," said Howie. They walked along in silence for a while.
"It was nice of you to try, though," said Nick.
When they got back to Nick's house, he paused on the driveway to say goodnight. Howie smiled, more beautiful than ever. In the air behind him shimmered a suggestion of wings.
"I guess this is goodbye," Nick said. He felt like he was going to cry, and bit down on his lip so that the pain stung him out of it.
"I'll always..." the sound slid away into nothingness, and Howie was gone. Nick never saw his guardian angel again.
Nick survived Senior year, even though missing Howie was an ache that never seemed to get any better. He re-took the SATs that Autumn and went up thirty two points, so totally worth it. He compiled the best portfolio he could, and sent off college applications and got back rejections and acceptances in equal measure including, to his total joy, an acceptance from his first choice school, far, far from here. He got a scholarship offer, not full tuition but a big help. He was promoted from dishwasher to busboy, and even got a few shifts as an actual waiter, with real tips, so his secret savings account got quite healthy. And, he'd be able to work when he got to California. Mr Tonelli gave him a great reference letter.
Loretta dropped out. He heard a rumor she left to have a baby, but nobody seemed to know whose kid it was. He hung around a lot with Chris and Lance (who founded an LGBT after hours club and became its president) and since they accumulated a small but select group of cool friends, found himself part of a really nice crowd. They went to Senior Prom as a group, celebrating Lance and Chris's first anniversary with gusto and vodka-spiked punch. And high school was over.
Early fall, and a whole new life. It was his first full day on campus. Nick had a list as long as his arm of stuff he had to get through, but before he got started he just stood and stared. Mountains in the misty distance made him want to get out his sketchbook. Another time, maybe. His hands shook with excitement and nerves as he got out his campus map and tried to orient himself.
A quiet voice beside him said, "Hi."
It couldn't be.
"I returned the wings," Howie said. "I didn't really deserve them, and it turned out I didn't even want them. A BFA in Photography and Media sounds like fun, though." They stared at one another. "What I really wanted, I mean, I was hoping, maybe, I could hang out with you?"
Nick beamed. "I'd like that. A lot."
"Can we break the rules?" Howie said. "I'm told the best people do that, sometimes."
"We're in college now," Nick said. "We can do whatever we want."
"So can I... can I hold your hand?"
"You know what?" Nick said. "I don't think that's even against the rules."