Vance checked his watch a third time and nursed a glass of water. Quang wasn't full because it was past lunch rush and they weren't open for dinner on Sundays. It was exactly why Vance had chosen the restaurant, why he'd chosen a fairly shadowed booth in the back corner, because no one would pay them much attention. Vance toyed with a crack in the plastic upholstery, running his finger over the white cotton strands that puked out against the dull red, and it reminded Vance of Noel's hair. Soft and fine and almost white.
Vance sighed in annoyance - twenty three and a half minutes late - and wondered how desperate he'd seem if he sent a text or called. But this wasn't about him, no, he'd merely agreed to go along with it, so he shouldn't appear so eager, so desperate.
He was about to send a text, mid-way through tapping out where are you?, when a softhey drew Vance's attention and he was looking up into Nick's golden eyes. His lips were pulled into a hesitant smile.
"You're late," Vance frowned, gesturing for Nick to take a seat opposite him.
"Sorry," Nick answered. He looked like he was trying to suppress a smile - they both were - but it showed through like sunshine on his tanned lips. Vance let his mouth turn up at the corners too. "You look good. You cut your hair."
Vance chuckled. "Yeah. I grew up." He took a breath and concentrated on it, so he wouldn't burst with joy or compliments or... or accusations. A waiter glided to their table and saved Vance, momentarily, from trying to make small talk with Nick.
"We'll have egg rolls to start," Vance ordered and Nick buried his face in his menu, trying to pick something. "Hu tieu bokho for me and... Nick, soup or rice?"
Nick looked up, his shaggy, dirty blond hair in spirals on his cheeks. "Rice, I think."
"Then Banhoi nem nuong for him." The waiter took their order and their menus and Nick stared across the table, a look of almost-awe and disbelief and happiness on his face. "It's like what we had in India."
"Your food," Vance clarified. "Vietnamese meatballs. You like those."
"Oh." Vance stared back and wondered why he'd agreed to meet in the first place. He was happy to see Nick but it just didn't feel right after everything that had happened.
"It's been a while, Vance," Nick murmured. He rested his bronze forearms on the table and Vance remembered a time when the color alone sent a thrill through his body, how Nick's skin tasted of chocolate and spice, and maybe... maybe it still did. "What are you doing with your life?"
"I teach," Vance answered.
"U.S. and World history. To sophomores and juniors."
Nick's brow quirked. "Wow, a college professor. You said you'd never be a teacher."
"High school, actually," Vance corrected. And it was true - he had told Nick that he'd never become a teacher. Not after his reckless behavior and everything he put his teachers through in college, Nick being right there by his side. But Nick remembered and that was fantastic and disturbing because it happened years ago.
"Kind of ironic, yeah?"
"Yeah, I guess. What about you?"
Nick smiled. "I graduated last year, Vance. Barely gotten on my feet. But I found a job at the city library. It's nice."
"You can read?" Vance asked teasingly. A grin spread across both their faces and it seemed to grow a lot less awkward.
"Of course I can read."
Their appetizer came and Nick couldn't decide whether he liked fish or duck sauce better. Vance watched him with amusement, already reacquainting himself with Nick's natural childishness. He'd always been like that: beautiful, exuberant, young and innocent. And in college, Vance had practically worshipped Nick. He was the epitome of everything Vance cherished in the world, everything he wanted but went against his nature. Vance was careful and calculated while Nick was wild and careless. And that smile. There was a time when he held those cheeks between his hands and cradled those lips until they twitched to a grin.
"I missed you," Nick admitted through a full mouth. Vance's eyes flickered up but Nick didn't want to elaborate on the subject so they continued to eat with a little small talk.
"Hey, remember when you got your palm read at that festival?"
"Yeah, that lady stole money out of my wallet," Vance answered. Their main courses came and Nick stared happily wide eyed at his rice and pork.
"Well, she told you love would be in your future," Nick finished before filling his mouth with rice.
Vance's mind immediately went to Noel, remembering those love-starved eyes, and whether what he felt for the boy was real. The kid had awoken something in Vance he didn't know he had - a feral lust for the forbidden, the desire for carnal pleasure. But what he'd had with Nick was so much more... delicate. So much more real and possible and... and if Vance held the steaming, flat spoon in front of his face, the steam obscured Nick in a way that he kind of looked like Noel if the boy had a tan.
"She told the same fortune to dozens of other people as she skimmed their wallets," Vance assured. "Remember when you drank water instead of soda like the professor told you, and you puked in the street?" And I held you and caressed your hair and made sure you were all right.
"Yeah, good times." Nick grinned. "I was so sick of that syrupy flavor. Ick. And you shaved your..." Nick gestured to his face and Vance chuckled.
"There wasn't much time for shaving in India," Vance answered amused. "I usually don't let it grow."
"I liked it."
The restaurant started closing down and they finished their meals. Vance paid and Nick thanked him as they made their way to the door. Vance pretended like he didn't notice how Nick deliberately brushed against him, but he was hyper-aware and Nick's skin on him was so warm and passionate and when they stepped outside to the cool, early spring chill, Nick rounded on him.
Vance supposed that's why he had been attracted to Nick in the first place - he was free-spirited and did what he wanted - but there was something different about the way Nick regarded him. Vance's back was against the pale lead paint of the restaurant and Nick stared with something like... like desperation and need and starvation and everything Vance felt as well.
"Come home with me," Nick said in a rush. His hands were fisted in the fabric of Vance's shirt - he was reminded of a fleeting image of how his clothes looked rumpled on Noel's floor. "I-I miss you and... and I'm sorry, Vance."
Vance sighed and brought his hands up to Nick's. He gently removed them from his shirt. "I'm kind of seeing someone."
"But..." Nick's eyes started to swim and Vance hesitated because there were so many good memories. So many times he'd kissed those tears away and skipped class just to lay in bed with Nick, held the kid in the face of adversity. "Vance..."
"After everything you put me through?" Vance's brow furrowed. Sure, he'd held Nick, but where had the boy been when he'd torn Vance's heart out? What comfort had there been for Vance's tears?
"Vance, please," Nick pleaded and he looked pathetic, hands frantically scrabbling for a grip on Vance's shirt, for his attention. "I was young and... and stupid. And I didn't know what I had and oh, God, I fucking miss you!"
It all seemed so familiar, the desperation and begging, and Vance vaguely wondered why he attracted needy people like this because there seemed to be a lot of them. Nick grew more frantic when Vance didn't answer him.
"Look, I... We don't have to get back together or anything, I just... give me another chance, please?" There were those tears again and the begging and Nick just looked sosmall and vulnerable and how was Vance supposed to say no to that? He wondered briefly when he started taking in strays as he laced his fingers into Nick's.
"All right." After all, he was just a man.
Nick had taken the city bus and shared an apartment with some friends - only friends, Nick assured him - so their plans quickly changed to a place a little more private.
"You have your own place?" Nick asked and Vance nodded. "Jeez, I forgot you're like, really old."
Vance cast him a sideways glance. "I got lucky. Private schools don't require a teaching license. I interned and earned money, ended up teaching public school."
"There aren't many job opportunities," Nick continued, "for a humanities major. I guess I shoulda thought about that."
But their chat didn't last very long and Vance wasn't sure what he was doing because... because how else was this going to turn out? They didn't even make it into Vance's doorway before Nick kissed him, deeply, and Vance kissed back as he pocketed his keys. His hands were already on Nick's hips and Vance shoved them both against the far wall, taking a little bit of sadistic solace in the way Nick's head connected with the drywall. There was pain in both their eyes, more than physical, and Vance sank his teeth into Nick's lower lip as he clawed at Nick's clothes. Because this was Vance's opportunity to make up for lost time. Because, if he wanted to, he could break Nick so much harder and deeper than Vance had felt in college.
"Ah." He heard Nick's discomfort, the way his golden boy tried to shift so Vance's knee wasn't so abrasive, or whine against the violence of Vance's prying and invasive hands. But he didn't care. Nick's belt came off and Vance had his tight pretty-boy jeans around his ankles. Nick was hard, tremblingly so, and Vance wasn't sure whether it was from fear or heady anticipation.
Vance threw out a hand and pushed some books off an end table. They landed on the floor in disarray and he laid Nick over it instead, hands kneading Nick's backside. There was something like a choked sob from beneath Vance but when Nick turned his head and they locked eyes, he was smiling.
Vance ran a hand through his hair and sighed. What was he doing? Pounding Nick into the furniture wouldn't get his point across any better than a marriage proposal. Nick liked it rough anyway.
"What are you doing here, Nick?" Vance asked. He kept his hand against the kid's back to keep him in place, but he was getting distracted with how much his light skin contrasted with Nick's caramel color.
There was hesitation. "Because I miss you and... and aren't we gonna fuck?"
Vance trailed his fingers down Nick's back and traced the crack between his legs. "No. That'd be too easy."
"But this is easy," Nick whined. He reached his hands down to pull up his pants and shrugged from under Vance's touch. "It doesn't have to be complicated because I... Look, I've had a lot of time to think in college and I knew that I had to find you again." Nick settled onto Vance's bed and Vance could see a thin strip of his caramel stomach where his shirt rode up. "I know this is really sudden and all, and you said you were seeing someone and everything..."
Nick trailed off and Vance wondered if it was deliberate. He stood his ground and silently urged Nick to continue.
"But I..." Nick fell backwards on the bed and stared up at the ceiling. "I love you."
Vance groaned and rubbed his head because he knew this would happen and he went ahead and invited Nick over anyway. "What the hell do you want me to say to that?"
Nick glanced up hopefully and Vance had to look away because he was sick of seeing desperation hang between him and whoever he wanted to sleep with. "I was hoping you would say you love me back."
Vance shook his head and almost laughed outright. Nick's face fell a little. "I don't love you, Nick. I did for a time and you threw that away."
"I thought you might say that," Nick said with a sigh. "I didn't really expect you to welcome me back with open arms, but... but I'm here and that says something, right? Do you think you could give me a chance? To prove to you that I've changed?"
"A cheetah doesn't change his spots."
"What is this?"
Vance turned around and Nick was toying with a kitchen appliance. "It's a coffee maker."
"Yeah but, what does it do?" Nick was fiddling with some buttons.
"Are you serious? It makes coffee."
Nick scowled. "Well, I know that. But like, how does it work? There's nowhere to put the coffee grounds and you don't even like lattes so why do you have something so expensive?" Nick had succeeded in turning it on and was looking for its further function. "Oh this is one of those Keurig things. Don't you need- oh shit, I'm sorry!"
Vance saw Nick jump back before he heard the machine's angry hiss. His arms reached out instinctively and Nick twisted, confused and pleased to stare up at Vance. Then the steaming water hit the counter top and Vance forgot about Nick as he rummaged through the cupboards for a mug, which he promptly slid under the flow of water.
"I'm sorry, Vance."
He turned around and Nick was seated at the table looking a little less than helpless and Vance sighed. He was having dinner with Nick and there was pasta on the stove. "S'fine. Just water. I was actually craving some tea anyway."
Nick's face screwed up. "How can anyone crave tea? You have the weirdest taste."
"Have you tried it?"
"Well, we had bubble tea that one time but... Tea is gross."
"Well, if you tried it, you might change your mind," Vance murmured as he steeped a small mesh bag. It swirled yellow patterns into the water.
"Hah, I don't think so."
Vance sighed, wondering if this was going to be a repeat of Noel. Or weirder yet, if Noel was just a repeat of Nick. A ghost of his past relationship with Nick. They certainly acted the same.
"Alfredo," Vance presented after he'd transferred the contents of the pot into a bowl. He brought it to the table and it all seemed a little too... domestic to Vance because he'd never done this before. He didn't know if he even wanted this, or if he was a content bachelor. But Nick's eyes gleamed and didn't seem to catch Vance's hesitation.
"Bon appétit!" Nick declared.
Vance knew this had to stop. He knew he had to kick Nick out, tell him that their relationship would never happen, or at the very least send him home. He kept telling himself he'd do it after the next episode of House but he couldn't because Nick's position, with Vance's arm casually around him on the couch, was so familiar and comforting that Vance almost thought he could forgive Nick.
"D'you think House is in love with Wilson?" Nick asked, and it was the way his little bronze statue tilted his head back against Vance's shoulder to ask it that had Vance restraining himself.
"Yeah. Wilson's his emotional crutch, I guess."
Nick nodded and didn't further his thought until the commercial. "Even though House pushes him away all the time?" he asked. Nick sighed and Vance hoped, prayed, that there wasn't anything behind it.
"I suppose so. I guess he's a bit like a dog chasing a car. It's how Wilson's marriages have all gone, and House is always there to pick up the pieces," Vance elaborated.
"You think Wilson loves him back?"
Vance laughed and shook his head. "I don't know, they're not real. But they did share an apartment for a while."
"So if they like each other, why don't you think they just go for it?" Nick asked. He'd turned himself completely around and smiled challengingly. Their legs were touching. Vance could feel the soft breeze of his breath. He shifted uncomfortably.
"What are you getting at?" Vance needed to get Nick out now. Out of his apartment and out of his life because he wasn't willing, wasn't ready, to take Nick back.
"I'm saying that if two people like each other," Nick leaned even further in and Vance stood his ground because he needed to be firm about this, "then there isn't anything standing in their way of happiness."
"There is, though." Vance put a hand on Nick's chest and pressed him backward so they weren't so dangerously close to brushing lips. "I think you should leave."
Nick suddenly looked panicked. "But it's true though, you still like me. We can... We can..."
"But we can't, Nick." Vance stood up and Nick hesitated, looking like he wanted to stay rooted to the spot, like if he didn't get up then he wouldn't have to leave. "I..." He wanted to say something like I'm seeing someone, but when it came down to it, he wasn't dating Noel. Nothing meaningful could come out of it. He liked the kid, wanted to be there for him, but as far as meaningful relationships went...
"Please just leave." Nick stood and averted his gaze. Vance walked him to the door. "I can give you money for a cab if you need. The buses don't pick up for another mile or so, and-"
He didn't have time to react before his back hit the wall next to the door and Nick's lips were moving against his. The reversal of roles had Vance's head reeling and Nick's hand was on his crotch which was quickly hardening because he was being dominated and Vance always thought that was hot. Nick's lips moved with urgency - they had to be - they were his last pleas before Vance would turn him away. Vance's jeans were being pushed down his thighs and he let out a groan because this wasn't right, he had to get Nick to leave, but then Nick did that thing with his hand that Vance liked so much andmaybe just one fuck...
Vance was kissing back and Nick was stripping off his clothing and tugging severely to get them back into the living room, barely breaking the contact of their lips in the process. Vance's shirt crumpled to the wood floor and then Nick was on his back on the bed, Vance between his legs as he tried to kick his tight jeans the rest of the way off. Nick didn't say anything when Vance reached for the lubrication, wouldn't even meet his eyes when he rubbed the sticky semi-liquid against the puckered bud of his ass. But Nick's mouth fell open and his eyes rolled back a little when Vance started to probe along the inside of his muscle.
He didn't waste his time. Nick was an adult and Vance didn't need to be as gentle, as careful as he was with Noel. Vance rolled Nick onto his stomach, who braced himself on steady knees and thrust backwards eagerly before Vance was even in position.
"God, I've missed this!"
Nick's voice squeaked when Vance thrust himself inside him and a shudder wracked through Nick's body and ran up Vance's groin. Vance adjusted himself as Nick bowed his head between his arms, elbows propping himself up, and he started to sink into Nick fast and deep. Just one fuck.
One thing he missed about Nick was how vocal the man was. A screamer, which made their college escapades that much more exciting. Vance wondered faintly if his neighbors were home as a particularly throaty call escaped Nick's mouth, as Nick pressed back against him to meet Vance's powerful thrust. He leaned forward so that his stomach touched Nick's lower back every so often and concentrated on the sex, on making it an outlet for his frustration with Nick and Noel and his own position between them. Vance pumped harder and both their breathing was labored. The little hairs at the base of Nick's neck were wet and Vance ran his tongue over the beads of sweat on the man's golden back, tasting sandalwood and musk and... and chocolate.
He snaked his arm around Nick's front and gripped the base of the man's very excited and very wet penis. Nick threw his head back and Vance had to jerk backward, almost getting a mouthful of hair and skull because Nick responded so beautifully and sensitively to his touch. And while he wasn't about to admit it out loud, he kind of missed this too. Real sex.
Vance jerked Nick off in time to his own movement. The golden flesh beneath him started to quiver and Nick's moaning faltered so Vance flicked the pad of his thumb over the head of Nick's erection and he just about bucked Vance off. He chuckled breathily and Nick's moans took up a different pitch, clipped and ragged and Vance's thrusting was becoming erratic...
The muscle contractions of Nick's orgasm just about ripped the cum right through Vance. Nick collapsed and Vance went down with him before climbing off his back and listening to their unsteady breathing. Nick's mouth was open, eyes closed, and lay spread against the mussed sheets of Vance's bed and looking utterly spent and beautiful. It occurred to Vance if he should have worn a condom, switching between partners like that, but Nick would have told him if there was something wrong. Right?
Nick rolled onto his side and grinned, still catching his breath. Vance was laying beside him, watching.
"That... That was great," Nick managed. He reached up to wipe the sweat off his forehead. "You're great."
Vance grunted in assent and tried not to focus on just how much he'd screwed himself over. But, Noel aside, Vance had to do what was right for himself. The sex didn't change the way he felt about Nick. It hadn't changed the way he'd felt about Noel either. But it changed other people and Nick probably wouldn't leave him alone after this. Especially now that he had something to hold over his head, and knowing Nick-
Music blared from the floor next to Vance and he reached to pick up his jeans and fish his cell phone out of the pocket. The screen read Noel and he stared at it a moment, not knowing what to do. He answered it.
"Vance!" It was Noel's shrill voice. He sounded happy.
"H-hello," Vance greeted. He brought a shaking hand to smooth back his sweaty hair and there was a pause on the other end of the line.
"You're breathing hard again," Noel pointed out. Vance panicked and tried to even his breath out.
"Sorry I was..." Vance stared at Nick who just grinned, stretched out and naked and still covered in the pleasures they'd just shared. "I was running."
"This late at night?"
Vance looked at the clock. It was well after eight. "Yeah, well..."
"Anyway, I was wondering, 'cause my mom's gonna be out of town over the long weekend 'cause she has some friends she wants to visit, and I don't want to go because they're boring and have kids way younger than me and that's no fun 'cause I'll be stuck babysitting, if you, you know, wanted to get together." Noel took an audible gulp of air. "If you wanted to, like, spend the night or something. Or I could come over there, whatever."
Vance stared at Nick and found himself unable to answer Noel. It finally hit him, the full force of his actions, and Nick just grinned and waggled his hips a little. Vance reached for Nick's clothes - he found a shirt and some underwear - and threw them at him.
"Oh, yeah. Um." Vance rested his forehead in his hand and tried to think. "We'll see."
There was a frustrated sigh from the Noel's end, teenagerish and angsty. "I knew you were going to say something like that. I'm not..." A pause and Vance wondered what Noel was doing. "I'm not like, asking for us to, you know, be official or anything..."
Vance rolled his eyes. Not this again.
"I just... I like you, Vance."
"I like you too, Noel." But I don't love you. Vance sighed impatiently. He didn't want to do this again. His eyes flickered over to Nick who was watching him curiously, hands in his pockets and fully dressed.
"Good, 'cause I was, I don't know..." worried. "I can't sit down properly." Nervous laughter. "I..." want to see more of each other. "I..." love you so much. "I guess we'll see, right?"
"Yeah, we can work something out."
"Okay. Bye." The dial tone met Vance before he said his own farewell and Vance set his phone on the table with an exhausted sigh.
Vance looked up and Nick was waiting. Curious. Expectant.
Vance's silence answered Nick's question but he didn't look upset. Not even jealous. "He must suck in bed then, with the way you jumped me."
Vance scoffed. "You jumped me."
"Once," Nick laughed. "You threw me against a wall and bent me over an end table. Then I kissed you and you fucked my brains into the mattress. That's twice. So, does he suck in bed or not?"
"No." Vance's mind flickered to the pretty way Noel had looked up at him earlier, with half-closed eyes and that precious smile. He felt a pang in his stomach for ruining such innocence, but he had to remind himself that Noel was the one that wanted it. That Noel was ruined from the start.
"Then there has to be another reason this happened." Vance suddenly felt very naked and gathered his pants to put them on. "Is he... I don't know, ugly, then?"
Vance smiled ironically and shook his head. "No, he's... Noel's cute."
"Cute? Since when d'you ever call anything cute, Vance? Unless..." Nick's lips parted a little and his eyebrows raised. "Unless he's... How old is Noel?"
Vance blanched. "I... he's old enough."
A knowing smile spread over Nick's expression. "When you got in my pants, I was barely legal," Nick pointed out. He crossed his arms and sat back down on Vance's bed. "How old is he?"
"I told you, he's old enough. This isn't... I'm not..." He trailed off and turned to stare out at the street below them as several cars drove by.
He remained silent.
"Vance James Barker, how old is Noel?"
"He's..." Vance pursed his lips and considered lying. He could go to jail if Nick turned him in. But his golden boy wouldn't dare. Vance meant too much to him and he knew that. "He'll be sixteen before the month's over."
"Jesus Christ." Nick fell against the bed and the room was filled with hoarse laughter. "You're..." a pedophile. "That's..." illegal. "Man, that's fucked up."
"Yeah, I guess it is," Vance admitted softly.
"So you're dating a fifteen year old? One of your students?"
"We're not dating."
Nick shook his head in disbelief. "Noel sure seemed to think so. And you said you'reseeing him, so that counts for something, right? That's dating, Vance."
Vance turned away and bit his tongue, confused as to what emotions were floating through his head at the moment. Disgust? Shame? Irritation?
"So what's cradle-robbin' like?" Nick asked.
Vance spun. "Get out."
"Why? You don't want to throw me out. Not with information like that. Explain." Nick folded his hands in his lap and stared up at Vance, whose fists were balled in something like anger and fear and guilt and everything else.
"Noel's different. It's not like that, like what you think." His hands were shaking because Vance knew he was lying. Lying to himself more than anyone else.
"Then what is it like?"
Vance took a deep breath to steady himself. "He came on to me. I just... he kissed me when I was helping him with homework and... and I kissed him back. I tried. I tried to stop it." But not hard enough. "But he threatened to tell if I didn't go along with it. And now..."
"Do you love him?" Nick asked. His head was tipped to the side and he stared, genuinely curious.
"Don't be ridiculous."
Nick huffed. "I'm not. Do you love him?"
"I..." Vance swallowed, brows furrowing and palms sweaty. Did he love Noel? "I don't think so. He's just so hard to say no to."
"Because he's young and... he doesn't have anyone. I felt like that when I was his age too, but Noel..." Vance furiously scrubbed at his face and massaged his eyes. He was absolutely not, under any circumstances, going to cry. "If I'm not there for him, he'll turn to the wrong person. He'll make a mistake."
Nick was quiet for a while and Vance sat stewing in his own misery. "Why not let him?"
"Excuse me?" Vance asked, jerking his head in Nick's direction.
"Let him make a mistake. That's how kids learn. That's... Vance, that's how we all learn. I'm speaking from experience here."
They sat like that for a while staring at each other. Nick was right, of course, but what was Vance supposed to do? He couldn't just break the kid's heart. But, perhaps more than that, Vance felt a spark of respect ignite in him for Nick. Nick was apologizing; for cheating, for the betrayal and lies that had plagued the end of their relationship. And what was more, Nick admitted that he'd learned a lesson from it.
Nick was kissing him again but it was marked and gentle. "It's okay," Nick murmured.
Vance nodded. He couldn't say anything. Didn't want to say anything, because if he did... if he did then the dam he'd been building for the last four years would break and he'd cry. And Vance would absolutely not let that happen. Nick wrapped his arms around Vance. "We all make mistakes."
"Stay," Vance forced out hoarsely. "The night, I mean."
"Whatever you need."