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Three months after rumors started to spread that there was some Year 9 who fancied boys attending their school, and one month after they realized that the “some Year 9” was an actual person by the name of Charlie Spring, Charlie and Tao start dating.

Actually— Scratch that.

They start fake-dating.

It’s either the smartest or dumbest thing Charlie has ever done.

Jury's still out.

-

The night that the whole fake-dating scheme is decided is one of the worst ones Charlie’s had in a while.

The gossip mill about Charlie and his “sexual provocations” had still yet to die down. Whether it was rumors about him taking looks at people in the locker room or, in one case, actively trying to make moves on a straight boy, the whole school had no qualms in talking about it either behind Charlie’s back or right to his face.

Mr. Ajayi was kind enough to let him hide out in the art room whenever he had the chance, but Charlie, no matter how much he wanted to, couldn’t rely on it all the time.

The day is particularly bad, each remark getting under his skin just enough that Charlie felt like he was about to explode with it. He nearly runs out of school and all the way home just to avoid it. Instead, he has a panic attack in the bathroom and refuses to leave the stall until Tao has to drag him out at the end of the day.

Tao doesn’t even bother asking for permission when he brings Elle and Isaac with him to Charlie’s house right after the school day is over.

Charlie has yet to stop feeling numb. Honestly, he hasn’t not felt like this since he was outed. One month in and he’s still trying to pretend like it isn’t happening. His brain feels like static on most days, and his chest is like a tangled ball of yarn that keeps tangling itself around his heart over and over again. He barely registers when they follow him through the door. He just follows the motions to his bedroom, sits on the bed and stares at the wall. His stomach cramps a little from having skipped both breakfast and lunch, but he ignores it all.

Tao is the one to move first, taking a few hesitant steps towards him. “Charlie?”

Charlie doesn’t say anything, not until Tao closes the distance between them and sits down on the bed next to him. Until Tao wraps an arm around Charlie and brings him closer until Charlie’s head is resting right against Tao’s heart.

And then he breaks.

He sobs wordlessly into Tao’s chest for what feels like hours. Elle comes and leans against his back, holding Charlie’s hands in her tight enough to make his fingers go numb. Isaac sits in front of them, leaning against Charlie’s leg in silent support.

For a long while, it’s just the four of them. No outside world to worry about, no Truham, no bullies, no anything.

Just them.

-

Charlie’s still calming down from his outburst when Tao’s emotions turn to rage.

Honestly, Charlie had been expecting it sooner.

Tao paces back and forth the small width of Charlie’s bedroom. “This is such bullshit. Ugh, fuck. I want to hit something.”

Charlie watches him, clutching a pillow to his chest. “It’ll be okay,” he says. He doesn't quite believe the words coming out of his mouth, but Tao looks like he’s one breath away from actually hitting something or collapsing to the floor in tears.

Tao’s eyes shine with frustration when he talks again. “You always do this, Charlie! Why do you always hide how you’re feeling? How can you care more about us feeling like shit when you’re going through the worst of it?!”

Elle frowns. “Tao, deep breaths,” she tells him, before turning to Charlie. “And you Charlie, Tao may be a hot-headed idiot sometimes, but he has a point. You don’t have to comfort us,” she agrees softly.

Charlie doesn’t say anything, only holding the pillow tighter. What can he even say?

That this was the worst four weeks in Charlie’s entire life?

That he thinks that maybe if he begs on his hands and knees, his parents will consider letting him switch schools halfway through the term?

That he feels like he’s just making it worse on their small group when Elle is already facing so much shit from everyone every single day?

That sometimes, and especially now, he wishes he didn’t wake up when he goes to bed for the night?

It’s nothing the three of them don’t already know, or at the very least, haven’t guessed.

“You know what,” Tao says, sniffing. “I’ve decided. If you have to go through this, then I’m going to do it with you.”

Charlie looks at him. “What?”

Elle frowns. “Yeah. What? I don’t know if you noticed, but you're already doing this with us.”

Tao shakes his head. “It’s not the same.”

“It doesn’t have to be the same,” Charlie says. “It’s not like we want you to go through any of this.”

“And besides, how exactly were you going to go through it with us in the first place?”

“Easy.” Tao claps his hand together. “Me and you,” he says, gesturing between himself and Charlie, “should just go out. I can’t fight them and make it hurt, but at least I can take some of the attention off of you, Charlie.”

Charlie blanches. “Wait, pause. Pause. Are you asking me out?”

Tao purses his lips. “Uh, yeah?”

“No way,” Charlie says immediately. “What the fuck? Why on earth would you think that that’s a good idea?”

Even Elle looks stunned, staring at Tao like she has no idea how A + B = C in Tao’s head.

Charlie’s inclined to agree.

“It’s like in the dramas, you know? They’re always pretending to be together to solve their problems,” Tao says, as if that explains everything.

“And then they fall in love with each other,” Charlie points out. “That’s like, the whole point of the trope. So I have absolutely no idea what you’re trying to imply here between us, but it won’t work.”

Tao sighs like Charlie is the one being ridiculous and snaps his fingers in front of Charlie’s face. “You’re losing the plot, Charles. Isaac, back me up here.”

Isaac raises his hands into the air in surrender. “I choose to stay out of this.”

Charlie frowns, still unconvinced. “Wouldn’t it make more sense if it was Elle, since she’s a girl and all? Wouldn’t the plot here be to make people think I’m straight?”

“That would require people at school to look past the transphobia,” Elle points out. “And good luck getting them to do that.”

“That’s fair.”

And,” Tao adds. “The point of this isn’t to make people think you’re straight. It’s not like being gay is anything wrong. Why should you have to hide that?”

Charlie doesn’t say anything in response to that.

“The point of this,” Tao continues, “Is so you don’t have to feel alone while it happens. People already think we’re gay and together, especially after all this, so we would just be... embellishing on that, a little.”

“I don’t know. And besides, I couldn’t ask you to do that,” Charlie says. “I think I’d feel worse if I knew all this was happening to you, too. You’re not even gay. Unless there’s something you’d like to tell me now about your sexuality,” he tries to joke.

Tao softens, not taking the bait. “I know how you’re feeling, Charlie. I know that you probably hate the idea of me going through this. But don’t you think that, even a little, that’s how I feel knowing you’re going through the same thing?”

Charlie bites his lip. Just because he can understand where Tao is coming from...

“Please,” Tao finally begs. “I can’t help you the way I want without things just getting worse for all of us, and I can’t get suspended and leave you guys to go to Truham everyday by yourselves so... please. Let me at least do this.”

“Can I think about it?” Charlie pleads.

Tao exhales, probably realizing that this is the best he’s going to get out of Charlie for now. “Yeah. Think about it and let me know. But don’t take too long or else I’m going to have to sweep you off your feet with or without your permission.”

Charlie nods. “I’ll take it.”
-

Charlie ends up not taking long at all to make a decision, and the entire blame for that falls onto one Ben Hope.

Ben approaches him in the music room, taking Charlie out of the deep and peaceful mindset that he goes into when he’s playing the drums. Ben starts spilling about how brave Charlie is for coming out, which Ben seems to have forgotten wasn’t by choice, and how he’s always really liked Charlie, which Charlie thinks is strange because there’s been no indication of any sort of attraction before this very moment.

In fact, Charlie was more likely to be ignored by Ben than noticed by him on any given day.

“Maybe we could... kiss, sometimes. You’re really cute,” Ben finishes with a smile.

And for a short moment, Charlie feels something close to flowers start to bloom in his chest. He’s never gotten a compliment from someone interested in him like this. Then again, Charlie’s never had someone be interested in him in the first place.

“You just can’t tell anyone,” Ben says then, and just like that, the flowers in Charlie’s lungs start to wither.

“What? Why not?”

Ben looks at him incredulously.

“I’m still just figuring things out,” he explains, which Charlie, in another life, might have actually believed and been okay with, if Ben hadn’t followed up with, “And who would you even tell? It’s not like anyone will believe you.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Exactly what I said. No one except your little friend group even wants to be close to you right now, and you expect them to believe you over me?”

Charlie squints. “Do you want to find out?”

Ben rolls his eyes. “You don’t have to be so dramatic.” He leans in. “I have better things we can do with our mouths than fight.”

Charlie freezes. Was this guy... Was he serious?

Ben’s decent looking for sure, but Charlie still has his pride. Tao had told him that there was nothing wrong with being gay, and while Charlie believes him on that front, fully coming into the fact that he was gay before even being a teenager, being gay at Truham was a different story.

Ben was walking proof of the consequences.

And Charlie realizes: He doesn’t want this. Not with Ben.

“I have a boyfriend.”

Ben just looks at him, completely disbelieving. “As if. Don’t you think if the only gay guy at Truham was going out with someone, the whole school would know by now?”

“We were trying to keep it lowkey,” Charlie lies. “It’s new.”

“Yeah? Prove it then,” Ben says. “Give me a name.”

Charlie stays silent. He still doesn’t want to throw Tao into the limelight like this, even if Tao had spent every waking hour since coming up with this plan assuring Charlie that he doesn’t care, that as long as it keeps the bullying off Charlie even a little, then he’s fine with it.

“See? You can’t even do it,” Ben says softly. “You don’t have to lie to me.”

Ben leans closer, his eyes dropping to Charlie’s mouth. Charlie stiffens, and he can feel his heartbeat quickening. “You want this too, don’t you?” Ben says.

Just as their lips are about to touch, Charlie scrambles back, nearly falling off of the drum throne. He takes a few steps backwards for good measure. Charlie doesn’t want to do this to Tao, but he’s not sure how to get Ben away from him otherwise.

“It’s Tao,” he says quickly.

Ben’s expression drops. “Tao? Like Tao Xu? Isn’t that just a rumor?”

Charlie shakes his head before he can think twice about it. “No, we’re uh. We’re going out. For real. So I can’t kiss you. Yeah.”

Ben’s expression does something then. It’s like the carefree, nice aura he’s had was a breakable mask, and Charlie had shattered it with the blunt edge of a hammer. His expression screams annoyance.

“Deal’s off then,” Ben says in disgust. “Like are you fucking kidding me? Why wouldn’t you say that from the beginning? Unless you’re that sick and wanted to make a move on all the guys at Truman without your boyfriend knowing.”

Charlie snaps, “Don’t talk about him like that.”

“Overprotective isn’t a good look,” Ben sneers, getting off the drum throne and fixing the lapels of his uniform.

God, Charlie didn’t even know people this horrible could exist.

“I’m leaving,” Ben says. “And if you mention this happening to anybody, it won’t be pretty for you. If that wasn’t already clear.”

“You’ve made your point,” Charlie says, stomach still twisting itself into knots.

He waits until the door slams shut again and he hears Ben’s footsteps get quieter and quieter before he slumps straight onto the floor.

Charlie rubs a hand across his face and takes out his phone to text Tao.

Looks like they’re ready to take the next step in their relationship.

-

Nothing changes between them.

Charlie and Tao, that is.

It works because, like Tao said, half the school had already assumed that Charlie was “being gay” with Tao in the first place. They’re both also naturally cuddly people, opting for hugs and cuddle piles over... Charlie doesn’t know what other people do. Handshakes? Fist bumps?

It’s just never been the Charlie Spring and Tao Xu Way.

Charlie will never admit it to Tao, still trying to hold the weight of the guilt involved with putting Tao in this situation in the first place, but ostensibly being with Tao... helps.

When word gets out that Charlie Spring and Tao Xi are actually dating, a lot of the worst jokes lose their impact. No more jokes about Charlie’s apparent desire to jump half the student body, or freaked-out stares from the younger boys that the next one on the list would be them.

Also, Tao is just a good distraction, always baring his teeth when people get too close and talking to Charlie about anything and everything whenever they’re together.

Maybe they’re the “gay freaks” now, but at the very least, they’ve always been the outcasts in this school.

(Charlie had once asked him, after Elle and Isaac had already fallen asleep in their crumbling pillow fort. “Aren’t you... mad?”

“I feel like we’ve talked about you not just asking me questions and expecting me to know what you’re talking about.”

Charlie hits him with a pillow. “Shut up. I’m talking about us. Like, aren’t you upset that everyone thinks you’re gay when you’re not?”

Tao gives him a strange look. “Not really.”

“Why?” Charlie doesn’t know what has him so curious, but he finds himself needing to know.

Tao shrugs. “I don’t know. I guess the same thing I told you applies to me. It’s not like there’s anything wrong with being gay. And I couldn’t care less about what these losers think of me.”

Tao doesn’t offer anything else after that, and Charlie doesn’t ask anything further.)

Charlie thinks he could have dealt with this until university, where he could start fresh. That way, right before graduation, he and Tao could fake some amicable breakup (aka: Do absolutely nothing and let everyone make the assumptions they were going to anyways) and Charlie could start looking for a boyfriend proper.

Tao had no complaints, claiming that if either of them found someone they were interested in before that point, then they could deal with it then.

Charlie had agreed, secretly thinking that it would be Tao who would be the one to want to break up first.

That maybe, especially now that Elle was going to start at Higgs for her eleventh year, Tao might just realize the crush he has on Elle that Charlie had noticed forever ago.

Needless to say, Charlie was wrong on all accounts.

-

“Hi,” Charlie says, feeling a little bit like he’s been punched in the gut at the sight of Nick Nelson, the sun from the window surrounding Nick like a halo.

“Hi,” Nick responds, mouth half-quirked up.

Charlie feels his heart start to pick up. It’s the opposite feeling of when Ben had tried to kiss him against his will. And Charlie’s not an idiot. He knows immediately what feeling it is.

Yeah, nope. Absolutely not. Not happening.

-

Except it is most definitely happening.

Nick Nelson is officially ruining Charlie’s life.

Tao makes a weird face at him, pointing between him and where Nick is, a distance away on the field. The two of them sit side-by-side on the picnic table, Isaac having claimed that he had something else to do and missing out on having lunch with them this time around. “I have no idea how you’re friends with him. He is such a stereotypical rugby player it makes me want to die a little.”

Charlie sighs wistfully, looking off towards Nick. “Just look at him.”

“I quite literally refuse to do that,” Tao says with a pained voice. “You’re so gay.”

Charlie turns to look at him. “Why do you sound like you’re surprised by that? I have a boyfriend, after all,” he says, exaggeratedly pouting his lips and leaning forward to kiss Tao’s cheek.

Tao tries to push him away. “Ew, gross! Get off me! Charlie, don’t you dare!”

Charlie pulls back and laughs.

Tao just looks towards where Nick is again. Charlie does, too. He can barely say what’s going on in the rugby game itself, but he has a sneaking suspicion that Nick is winning.

“I can’t believe you have a crush on him,” Tao says. “Let alone that he’s Nick Nelson, but he’s also, like, the complete opposite of you.”

“I don’t have a crush on him,” Charlie denies. “And we have some similarities! He’s different from the other boys on the team. And I just... I don’t know. I think he’s nice.” And sweet. And handsome. And all-in-all very lovely.

“Sounds like a crush to me.”

“Don’t say that so loudly,” Charlie says mildly. “People will think I’m cheating on you or something.”

“I have two things to say to that. First of all, you didn’t deny that it’s a crush. Second of all... aren’t you?”

Charlie leans his whole body weight against Tao’s. “I’m going to pretend you didn’t say that.”

Tao just wraps an arm around him. Charlie doesn’t have to look up to know that Tao is rolling his eyes.

-

The first time that Charlie hangs out with Nick, properly hangs out with him, without the setting of school and rugby looming over him, is when Nick invites Charlie to his house.

Playing in the snow, with Nick and Nellie, is like something out of a dream. The whole thing happens in slow motion for Charlie, from the moment Nick’s hands play with his curls at the door to making snow angels and taking photographs outside.

Time only starts to go back to normal in his brain towards the end of the day, when the two of them change out of their snow-wet clothes and decide to watch a movie.

Charlie does his absolute best not to remember how it felt wearing one of Nick’s jumpers. He fails miserably, but that’s beside the point.

“What should we watch?”

Charlie looks at the movie listings on the screen. “I’m good with anything, really.”

Nick groans. “Thanks for giving me one of the worst responses ever.”

“Well, excuse me for being open and amenable to anything like a proper guest.”

“Then you won’t complain if it’s Iron Man, is what I’m hearing.”

Charlie makes a face. “And you call me a nerd.”

“You are a nerd.”

“Better than being a Marvel fan,” Charlie retorts as Nick hits play.

“I resent that, you know,” Nick says, flicking the lights off as he makes his way to the couch.

The two of them settle in, a single blanket draped over both of their laps and two cups of hot chocolate on the table in front of them.

Charlie doesn’t know when he falls asleep, some time between being hyper-aware that he can literally feel Nick’s body heat from how they’re seated and trying not to freak out that if Nick asks him anything about the movie afterwards he won’t be able to answer because he’s not paying attention

All this to say, he doesn’t know when he falls asleep, but a loud bang from the screen is what startles him back into awakeness. He does his best to reorient himself quickly, rubbing a hand down his face and glancing at Nick.

Nick’s arms are crossed over his chest like they usually are. Except... it's a little different. Nick’s brows are drawn together, and his jaw is clenched. If Charlie had to say, it looks like he’s stressed. What the source of it is, though, Charlie has no clue.

“Sorry I fell asleep,” Charlie ends up saying. “I think being in the snow tired me out more than I thought.”

Nick nods, eyes focused on the television screen. “Yeah. Uh, yeah. No worries. None at all. We can just watch it again another time.”

“Hey,” Charlie says, voice quiet. “You okay? Did Iron Man die or something?”

The question seems to snap Nick out of it. He glances at Charlie, raising an eyebrow. “I’ve brainwashed myself to believe he never dies, I’ll have you know. And besides, why would that happen in this movie? This is the first one he’s in!”

Charlie smiles, feeling accomplished as Nick delves into a passionate rant on how Iron Man defeats all odds and actually lives to the end of his storyline.

“I’d pay you to talk to Tao about Marvel movies,” Charlie says, “Seeing the both of you fight over this would make my day I think. He’d absolutely hate you.”

He regrets saying the last sentence immediately when he catches Nick wincing. “You think so?” Nick asks.

“I didn’t mean it like that,” Charlie corrects hastily. “He just hates Marvel movies with a passion, that’s all.”

Nick nods. “Right. Right, I knew what you meant. Sorry, I didn’t mean to take it so literally,” he says with an awkward laugh. “I just want him to like me, I guess.”

“Really? I didn’t realize it mattered to you,” Charlie says honestly. “Have you ever talked to him before?”

Nick rubs the back of his neck. “Well, no. Not really. But l I mean, he’s your boyfriend and all, right? And you’re seriously like, one of my best friends at the moment. Isn’t it kind of logical to want him to, you know, not hate me?”

Charlie nods slowly. “I guess that makes sense. But you don’t have to worry. I don’t think he hates you.”

“If you say so.”

“I’m serious,” Charlie insists. “Tao can be a little... rough around the edges when you first meet him, especially to people who are on the rugby team. For obvious reasons. But once you get to know him, he’s actually just a huge softie.”

Nick nods, but still looks unconvinced. “If you say so.”

“Trust me on this one,” Charlie says. He takes a look out the window. “I should probably get going. My mum said she wanted me home before dinner.”

“It might be a little late for that,” Nick says sheepishly.

Charlie waves a hand. “It was my fault for falling asleep. Come walk me out like the good host you say you are.”

Nick rolls his eyes but does as Charlie says, walking him to the front door. Charlie shoves his feet into his shoes and looks up at him. “I’ll see you tomorrow?”

“I’ll see you then,” Nick agrees, smiling. Charlie fumbles with the door locks, which makes NIck laughs. “Here, let me get that for you. Like a good host.”

“Don’t make fun of me,” Charlie grumbles. Nick laughs again.

He waves goodbye as Charlie walks down the steps and onto the sidewalk.

Charlie will never admit to anyone for as long as he lives, but he stands around a little once Nick’s closed the door and Charlie’s walked just far enough to be out of viewing distance. Honestly, he still only half-believes that this day even happened.

His phone vibrates against his pocket. When he pulls it out, he sees that Nick’s sent him all the pictures they’ve taken that day. Charlie is only a little embarrassed to say that he scrolls through all of them right then and there.

He gets home eventually.

Somehow.

-

Charlie gives up. It’s a crush. It’s a real, literal crush and he has absolutely no idea how to deal with the fact that it keeps getting bigger.

He slams his hands down onto the picnic table, where Tao and Isaac are already waiting. “We need to break up.”

Tao doesn’t break a sweat, and only gives him a deadpan look. “So you can chase after the straight guy?”

“What— No!”

Tao stares at him.

“You know, you’re a straight guy too.”

Tao keeps staring.

Charlie groans. “There’s a chance he could not be straight.”

“Right.”

“Is that a yes?”

“Do you have something picked out for our year-and-a-half anniversary yet?”

Tao.

-

Joining the rugby team was at least fifty percent a smart decision.

For one, he has to be gaining at least a little muscle mass now, no matter how much Tao tells him that he is just as much of a twig as ever.

Charlie also feels just a bit more confident in himself when it comes to playing rugby. He still can’t play well per se, and he’s still very firmly set in his position as a reserve player, but the progress is definitely there. Nick’s told him so.

And now, Nick and Charlie are having running lessons. It’s a new thing. Nothing official, and absolutely nothing Charlie has any experience for, but Nick had insisted.

(“You beat all our times by literal minutes! It just makes sense for you to teach me!”

“What would I even do? Just run around while you run after me?”

“Come on, Charlie. You could at least give me tips on how you run faster,” Nick says.

Charlie groans. “Just because I’m good at it doesn’t mean I know how I do it.”

“Just once a week,” Nick pleads. “After one of our practices or something. We have some big games coming up so I just want to be in the best shape possible, you know?”

Charlie puts his hands on his hips and shakes his head. “I can’t believe this. There is a jock talking to me right now. A full-fledged bonafide jock.”

“And that jock is hoping for a yes to his request.”

“Ugh. Fine.” )

And besides, joining the rugby team led him to this very moment, so he can’t complain.

Nick is tightening up his shoelaces, bag slung over his back. They already have plans to work on some homework at Charlie’s and watch a movie if they still have time in the end.

Charlie pokes him in the shoulder, a half-baked idea forming in his head. “Do you wanna race? For practice, of course.”

Nick’s jaw drops. “To your house? We literally just ran like two miles!”

“And? Don’t tell me you’re already accepting your loss.”

“Now hold on,” Nick says. “I didn’t say that, did I? I just meant that overworking your body isn’t good for you.”

“Uh huh. It’s okay, Nick. You can just tell me you’re scared to lose next time.”

“Like I said, that’s not it—”

“So you do want to race home?”

“I didn’t say that either—”

But Charlie is already running, laughter bubbling in his chest and a sense of happiness growing in him that he doesn’t know if he’s felt in his entire life.

He can hear Nick calling from behind him. “Charlie! Wait— Let’s talk about this! At least give me a head start!”

“If you want to talk to me, you have to catch me first!” Charlie shouts back, laughter ringing in the air.

They barely even make it halfway before Nick gives up, yelling that he surrenders and sitting down right there on the sidewalk to catch his breath. Charlie grins and turns around, jogging to where Nick is.

He’s sweating just as much as Nick is, but at the very least he still has his breath. “Can I jot that down as my win?”

“I can’t believe you’re gloating right now. I feel like I’m going to pass out. Or die.”

Charlie grins. “Don’t be so dramatic. We can walk the rest of the way to cool off,” he says, and holds out a hand.

“Ugh, I’m going to smell like sweat in front of your mum. That’s embarrassing, Charlie.”

“You’ll live,” Charlie says with an eye roll.

The feeling when Nick grabs his hand to pull himself up lingers, but Charlie decides to save the memory to think about in extremely close detail later.

They spend the entirety of the walk joking and laughing with each other, taking pit stops to look at houses with interesting colors and giving each person in their form group a superlative. Maybe it nearly doubles their time in getting home, Charlie can’t find it in himself to be upset about it. Even if the sun is practically setting by the time they’re on the block that Charlie’s house is on.

Charlie pulls his phone out and checks the time once they’re inside his room. “Oh shit. We have to start homework like, right now if we want to do anything else after.”

Nick blanches when Charlie turns his phone around to show him. “Yeah. That’s a good idea.”

They dissolve into silence, the two of them lying down on the floor, a mix of both of their assignments scattered around them.

Charlie doesn’t know how much time passes until he realizes that he hasn’t been hearing the noise of Nick’s pen clicking for a while, because Nick is an absolute heathen and clicks it constantly whenever he’s stuck on a problem.

“Do you need help?”

Nick snaps his head up. “What?”

Charlie gestures to him. “Your homework. I thought you might be stuck or something.”

“Oh uh...” Nick stares at the papers in front of him for a moment. “No. No, I’m good.”

“Are you sure? Because it kind of looks like you need help.”

“Nah, I’m just lost in thought, I guess.”

Charlie frowns. “You’re sure? Is it not homework-related? I’ll still listen, you know.”

“Well...”

Charlie raises an eyebrow.

Nick nods to himself. “Yeah. Yeah, actually. There is something. So uh,” He says, clearing his throat. “You and Tao are a thing, right?”

“Wha— Oh. Uh, yeah. I guess so.” Charlie puts his pen down and faces Nick fully. “Where did that come from?”

Nick shakes his head. “Just curious. It’s been in my head because I, um, remember the rumors a bit. From last year. But now I like, really know you. Outside of the rumors. So I just thought I’d ask about it.”

Charlie flushes. Right. It would have been weird for Nick not to have heard of them, especially when most of the jeers that left Charlie shaking with humiliation and anger afterwards came from Nick’s own friend group.

Nick continues, somehow not noticing the redness on Charlie’s face. “I just wanted to say sorry you had to go through all of that. The both of you.”

“It’s okay,” Charlie says, shaking his head. “It’s not like you were the one who said stuff to us.”

Nick makes a complicated expression. “Yeah, but— Yeah. Right. Is it better now?” He asks, and immediately winces. “I mean, I know it’s not that great, with Harry and all. And Ben. But I guess I was just wondering if... it was... a little better. Marginally. I hope it is.”

Charlie shrugs. “For the most part, it’s fine. Tao helps, for sure. But... I don’t know. I’m used to it, I guess.”

“I’m glad Tao helps,” Nick says earnestly. “But I wish you didn’t have to be used to it.”

Right then, Charlie wants to tell him.

But he knows Tao would be vehemently against it.

He can hear Tao’s voice now: “Tell me you’re joking. The bullying has literally just died down, and barely even that. And now you want to reveal everything to someone on the rugby team, the team that literally hosts the bullies? Do you know what they might say to you? Or do? Be smart about this, Charlie.”

He stops his own thought process and hides a grimace. He’s gotten a bit too skilled at replicating Tao’s voice in his head. It’s scaring him a little.

Charlie pushes the thought of Imaginary Tao’s lecture away. He doesn’t really agree with it, but he can still respect Tao’s decision on this front for now, even though Charlie knows deep in his bones that Nick is different.

So instead of confessing what he wants to, he just sighs. “Yeah, I guess that would be nice.” He takes a look back down at their worksheets and decides a change in subject is in order. The mood has gotten way too serious for his liking. “You got number four wrong, by the way.”

Nick’s mouth falls open, eyes dropping to his homework. “You’re lying. I worked on that for twenty minutes!”

-

Study dates become common from that point on.

And then, there are movie dates, Mario Kart tournament dates, shopping dates, and—

... Charlie really needs to stop calling them dates.

-

“It’s our date night, and you’re too busy talking to Nick Nelson to pay attention to me. I can’t believe I’ve let you get away with this for months. Is this my life now?”

“Date night, my ass. Just because you call our movie nights a date doesn’t make them one. And you can’t even get the Netflix set up.” Charlie picks up a few pieces of popcorn and throws it at Tao, who makes an affronted noise.

“You can’t throw the popcorn at me! It’s literally my popcorn!” Tao takes the popcorn bowl and moves it closer to him. “Now if you want any, you’ll have to ask for my permission,” he says haughtily.

“Good thing I don’t want any,” Charlie says, half-distracted at the picture Nick just sent him of Nellie. Charlie screenshots it immediately. The phone buzzes again with a text.

nicholasssssz: You wanna know something weird

charlie_spr1: always
charlie_spr1: unless its gross
charlie_spr1: if that’s the case then respectfully, no.

nicholasssssz: Dork
nicholasssssz: I was just gonna say it’s weird we've been friends for.... Like 3 and a half months now and I still don’t have your number?
nicholasssssz: Like why are we still talking on Instagram LOL

charlie_spr1: hold on...
charlie_spr1: points were made.
charlie_spr1: ill send u mine and you can text me a picture of nellie so i know that i got it right
charlie_spr1: maybe two pictures
charlie_spr1: justttt to be sure ykwim

nicholasssssz: .........
nicholasssssz: You know
nicholasssssz: You’re not as subtle as you think you are

charlie_spr1: i have no idea what you’re talking about?

Charlie knows he’s smiling like an idiot, but he can’t help it. He sends his number to Nick without much fanfare.

Nick: AS PROMISED:
Nick: [ image.jpg ]

charlie: thank you for your service

Nick: :P
Nick: What are you doing rn??? Do you want to ft haha

charlie: date night w taooooo.. here look:

He takes a picture of Tao sitting in front of his laptop, a look of deep concentration on his face, and sends it to Nick. He can see the checkmark that shows that Nick reads the message almost immediately, but weirdly enough, there’s a pause in the conversation that seems to go on forever.

charlie: did the pic not send?
charlie: LOL sorry taos wifi is ass sometimes, but it’s just a pic of him trying to figure out who’s using his netflix

Nick: Oh yeah haha i didn't get it
Nick: But im sorry
Nick: Didn't mean to interrupt date night
Nick: He isn’t bothered by me talking to you rn is he??
Nick: Sorry again.. I’ll leave u guys to it!

charlie: nah dwai tao is VERY concentrated on figuring out who leaked his netflix pw
charlie: we can still talk if u want to!!!

Nick: Haha its seriously okay, have fun at date night
Nick: I’ll see you at school tomorrow

charlie: sounds like a plan, gn!!

Nick: Goodnight!

Charlie sighs. And then when Tao pretends to ignore him, sighs louder and more dramatically.

“I’m begging you,” Tao says finally, looking up from his laptop screen. “I’m begging you to stop.”

“No,” Charlie says, and reaches over to throw more popcorn at him.

-

Two weeks later, Nick scores the winning point of the rugby match. A given, but it still makes joy course through Charlie’s veins when he sees the stunned expression on Nick’s face when he realizes they’ve won.

Charlie has been on reserve standing this entire match, which he isn’t complaining about at all. He sees Nick run over to him, and opens his arms.

Nick laughs and nearly topples Charlie over with the tight hug he gives him. Charlie lets out an embarrassing noise when Nick tilts back, lifting him off his feet completely. “Nick!” He shouts, laughing, “Let me down!”

Nick grins, face flushed with the exertion of running around the field for the entire match. “Did you see me win?!”

Charlie nods as he’s let back down. “Obviously. I was standing right here the whole time, you know,” he teases. “Not that you’d remember, mister all-star. Too focused on scoring every Truham point, huh?”

Nick flushes, but Charlie can tell he’s pleased when he bends to hug Charlie again.

“You’d think that Nick Nelson of all people would be used to winning,” Charlie teases.

“Yeah, but you’re cheering me on, so it’s different.”

“Your whole entourage standing over there will get insulted if you say something like that,” Charlie says, doing his best to keep from blushing. Sure enough, the rest of Nick’s friends that aren’t on the rugby team are standing a short distance away.

Nick opens his mouth to say something, but then Harry Greene calls for him from the center of the field. Nick glances back for a moment, and he ends up not saying anything at all. Just looks at Charlie.

Charlie gestures to the rest of the rugby team still shouldering off the elation from their win, fistbumps and cheers still going around. “Are you all going out to eat again this time?”

Nick smiles. “I think so. But actually... I wanted to see if you wanted to come with us this time.”

“You want to invite the reserve player who did nothing this whole time to your post-victory celebrations?”

“Hey, don’t say that! I couldn’t have run that fast without our lessons, you know. And our reserve player was my moral support this whole game! My— our safety net if anything went wrong! Our Hail Mary, our last hallelujah, our—”

Charlie giggles, much to his own mortification. “Alright, alright, I get it. No need to suck up.”

Nick smiles, so wide that Charlie wonders if it hurts his cheeks at all. “So, what do you say?”

Charlie smiles back. Butterflies. So many fucking butterflies. Not even the thought about Harry Greene and Ben Hope near him for an entire meal time can distract him from Nick’s smile right now. “I—”

He’s interrupted by a shout. “Charlie, did the game finish?!”

Charlie spins around. In the distance, he sees Tao waving a hand. “My mum is asking if you want to come over!” He shouts from across the field.

Charlie turns back to look at Nick, who’s lost his smile and is suddenly making an expression Charlie can’t quite decipher. “I’ll tell him I’ll go with you instead,” he tells Nick. “Just give me a second to text him. I don’t feel like yelling back at him right now...”

Nick raises a hand up, smiling again. Smaller this time. “Oh, actually, I just... I, uh, realized I promised to help my mum with something right after the game. So it wouldn’t have worked out anyways.”

Charlie looks at him suspiciously. Nick is a really bad liar, he’s learned. “Oh, that’s... random.”

“Isn’t it?” Nick says. “But you should get going. Tao’s waiting for you.”

“...Right. And nothing’s... wrong, or anything?”

“What would be wrong? We just won!”

Charlie nods. “If you’re sure.”

Nick smiles again, and claps Charlie’s shoulder. “I’m sure. I should probably go call her or something.”

“Alright.” Oh well, Charlie thinks. They’re close enough now that he thinks Nick will just tell him when he’s ready. “Do you want to hang out this weekend?”

“Sure! I... I’ll check if I’m free, but I’d definitely be down to see a Charlie-Nellie cuddle pile again if you want to come over.”

“I won’t say no to that,” Charlie agrees.

The two of them wave goodbye, and Charlie can’t help but think that Nick almost looks a little sad.

Did he really want to go to the rugby team lunch that badly? With Charlie?

He shakes the thought out of his head just as quickly as it comes.

The sun is shining right into Charlie’s eyes. He probably just didn’t see it right.

-

Things are a little weird after that. Charlie just wishes he had any idea why.

...Well. That isn’t quite true.

Charlie has a teensy, small, hypothetical, and probably-not-true idea why.

Because on the surface, nothing’s changed between them. There are just… some things.

Like, there’s this one time just a few days ago where Charlie had caught him staring at him. It could have just been unfortunate timing, where Charlie had looked up at the exact time Nick did, but Charlie doesn't think so. Not with the way Nick had immediately looked straight down at the table like he hadn’t realized he was staring.

Another time, Charlie’s fingers accidentally touch Nick’s, and Nick jumps so hard his legs bang against the table. Charlie’s cheeks had gone hot too, but the way Nick had responded just...

It makes Charlie wonder.

All the signs were kind of, maybe pointing in a certain direction and Charlie was having a harder time than usual ignoring it.

“I think I’m delusional,” Charlie tells Tao during one of their sleepovers.

“Finally he realizes it.”

“Not the time.”

Tao ruffles his hair. “Alright, then. Tell your loving, kindest, most caring boyfriend in the whole world what has you thinking you’ve lost it.”

Charlie drops his head into his hands. “It’s Nick.”

“Isn’t it always?”

“I know we’ve been saying Nick is straight, like, this whole time. And I get it. Even he’s told me he’s straight. I just, lately... I’ve been getting the feeling that he’s interested. In me. In more than a ‘best mates’ kind of way.”

“Even if I can humor that, I hope you can understand that Nick Nelson showing interest in someone who, in his eyes, is already in a committed relationship, isn’t the best look.”

Charlie sighs. “Come on, he isn’t like that.”

“A homewrecker, you mean?”

“Just listen,” Charlie insists. “It’s not like he’s making a move or anything. He’s not like that,” he repeats.

“Hm.”

“And because he’s not like that, I’m just going off the little things. Like, the looks and... the touches. And stuff.”

“…The looks and the touches and stuff.”

“And so, it’s either he might like me back and isn’t showing it more obviously because I’m dating you, or I’ve completely lost it and no one will ever love me for as long as I live.”

“I’m hard-pressed to believe that these are the only two options.”

“Come on, Tao, I’m being serious.”

Tao sighs. “Look, Charlie. I want to believe you, I do. You’re my best friend, and a catch at that. If Nick is even the slightest bit not-straight, of course I want him to like you as much as you like him.”

“But?” Charlie prods.

“But how can you be sure? Maybe he acts like this to all his friends.”

Charlie can’t imagine Nick acting like this to someone like Harry Greene, as hard as he tries.

“You’ll just have to trust me on this one,” Charlie says eventually. “I don’t know how to explain it fully, but the way he treats me compared to them.... It’s different.

Tao purses his lips. “You already know I trust you on a lot more than that. I just don’t want you to have to go through what you went through last year again, you know?”

“You helped with that a lot,” Charlie says honestly. “Don’t erase your own efforts from this.”

“And while I’m glad I could help a little, I don’t hear an answer to my question.”

Charlie smiles. He doesn’t know where he would be without Tao. “Yeah. I know. Thank you for looking out for me.”

Tao nods, seemingly satisfied with the response. “Always. I know I can’t stop you. But it would make me feel a bit better if you would just... I don’t know, wait for a sign, or something.”

“Another one?”

“One that’s more clear than ‘looks and touches and stuff’.”

“Fine,” Charlie agrees. He tries not to bury his head in the pillow, and does his best to imagine what that clear sign would look like.

-

The next day at school, when Mr. Lange turns his back on them, Nick leans over to poke Charlie in the arm.

“So,” Nick whispers.

“So?” Charlie whispers back.

So, uh.”

Charlie raises an eyebrow. Nick looks strangely flustered. His hair looks like he’s ran his fingers through them dozens of times.

Not that Charlie has ever imagined what that might look like.

“So...?”

“SO.”

“Nick and Charlie,” Mr. Lange says. “Whatever it is can wait until lunchtime, don't you think?”

They both nod and mutter out apologies. Charlie waits a few moments before whispering again. “Nick, you’re going to have to give me just a little more than that.”

“There’s a party this Saturday,” Nick blurts out. “Harry Greene’s birthday party actually. I, uh, wanted to see if you would come to it with me. Tao can come too, if he wants. As your date. I could bring... both... of you,” Nick finishes, wringing his hands out in front of him.

Charlie gives him a half-smile, heart thumping in his chest just a bit harder. A sign, he remembers. A clear sign, he promised Tao. He wonders if this is it. “I don’t know. Harry Greene is a bit... and parties aren’t really my thing anyways.”

He sees Nick’s face fall, and the twist that puts in his chest is enough to get him scrambling to backtrack. “But… But if you wanted to, then I guess it might be fine. And I’ll be with you the whole time, right?”

“Right,” Nick quickly confirms. “And, Tao. Of course. If he wanted to come.”

Charlie shrugs, already knowing he’s going to insist on Tao not coming. “I’ll ask. It’s not really his scene, either. Especially if Harry Greene is involved in any way.”

“Oh. That’s... that’s okay. But I don’t want to make it weird for the both of you if only you go with me. I don’t want to uh, I don’t know.”

Charlie huffs. “What? You think Tao will go green with envy or something?”

Nick’s face scrunches up, which is sickeningly cute. “Why would you say it like that?”

“Isn’t that what you meant?” Charlie asks with a smile.

Nick rolls his eyes. “I’m serious.”

“I don’t need his permission to go to a party. Promise.”

“I know that, but I don’t want to cause anything negative unnecessarily. Do you know what I mean?”

Charlie would get it, if maybe he and Tao were actually dating. But yeah. He can see where Nick is coming from. “He’s not really that kind of person, but I’ll let him know. But I don’t think he’ll have a problem with it.” Not if Charlie has anything to say about it. “Do you want me to meet you there?”

“Yeah,” Nick says. “It starts at seven, but I probably won’t even get there until seven-thirty or something. How about… we find each other whenever we get there. Just text me.”

“I will,” Charlie says.

Like a good, normal, sane person, Charlie waits until he is home and safely inside the bedroom before he starts punching the air in victory.

-

It’s 1:30 AM and Charlie can’t sleep. At all.

So again, like a very good, normal, sane person, Charlie decides to tell his friends everything.

There’s no real reason why he couldn’t have done this at the perfectly acceptable time that he got home from school. Charlie’s only excuse is that it didn’t process in his head what Nick had asked him and all its implications until literally just now. Personally, he thinks this is a pretty valid reason.

But he digresses.

charlie: EVERYONE
charlie: WAKE UP
charlie: RN
charlie: I HAVE NEWS
charlie: WHO WANTS TO HEAR IT

elle: king i am literally in bed. it can most definitely wait

isaac: i’m up too

charlie: THIS CANT WAIT

elle: fineeee let’s hear it
elle: nvm ur already typing. see if u were just going to tell us anyways

charlie: NICK INVITED ME TO A PARTY

elle: then you should have just told us from the start
elle: anddd there he goes

isaac: lmfaooo

charlie: (and tao). BUT ME! HE INVITED *ME*
charlie: DLKAJSDLKASDJLAKSJD
charlie: THIS IS THE SIGNNN..
charlie: WHERE IS TAO
charlie: I HAVE TO TELL HIM RIGHT NOW
charlie: AND BREAK UP WITH HIM

elle: he’s most definitely asleep rn
elle: and as one of your best friends in the whole world i have to remind you what happened the last time you tried to wake tao up in the middle of the night

charlie: i’m choosing to ignore your sage advice

elle: don’t come crawling back when you realize i'm right

It takes two whole calls and four dials before Tao picks up.

What.

“Tao! Are you awake? I’m breaking up with you.”

“Charlie, it’s two in the fucking morning.”

Charlie is too nervous-excited-panicked-ecstatic-terrified-thrilled to care. “Can I break up with you in the morning then?”

“I’m going to kill you.”

“Can you read the group chat before you do?”

If Tao was a cartoon character, Charlie is sure Tao would be steaming out of the years. He feels a little bad about waking him, but the whole going-to-a-party-with-Nick thing has him filled with so much nervous excitement that the thought only makes him stifle laughter.

tao: @elle @isaac you couldn’t try just a little harder than that to stop him

isaac: you know he was going to do it anyways don’t you...

elle: yeah literally
elle: and besides
elle: charlie spring with a crush vs. lil old me
elle: unstoppable force versus VERY movable object
elle: tbh i’d break up with him if i were you

tao: only if it’ll get him to stop blowing my phone up when i’m trying to SLEEP
tao: he’s lost his mind. genuinely and truly lost his mind

elle: oh charlie spring
elle: our little freak of nature

charlie: u guys know i’m still here right
charlie: like u guys know i can see you shit talking me right
charlie: i need to make sure you guys know that

“I think you don’t quite understand how much I hate you right now,” Tao says over the phone.

“You love me,” Charlie says. “But just to be clear, we are officially broken up right now, right?”

Tao simply hangs up, which Charlie decides to take as a yes.

-

“You’re officially a single man,” Tao says, watching him mess with his curls. Charlie rolls his eyes. He already regrets his decision to get ready for the party at Tao’s place instead of his own. While Tao is doing what he had hoped he would and is helping him shake off all his nerves, he’s been dealing with Tao’s teasing for at least an hour now. “All grown up and ready to face the music.”

“You’re so annoying, did you know that?”

“It’s my favorite compliment, actually. And just for the record, I was the one who dumped you, got that?”

“Whatever,” Charlie says. “I’m not even going to mention how that is literally not true.”

“You can’t prove it either way.”

“Elle can.”

“Uh, if I remember correctly, the only proof Elle has of our breakup is when she told me to break up with you.”

Damn it. Tao was right. “What-ever,” Charlie stresses.

“So what’s your plan tonight?” Tao asks him. “Are you going to woo his pants off?”

“I don’t know where you learned to talk like that,” Charlie says.

“From my ex-boyfriend, clearly. But seriously. Are you just going to see where things go? What’s the plan?”

Charlie’s thought about this a little too much to be healthy. So of course he has a plan already in place. Still, he fakes a pause as if he’s actually contemplating it. “I’m going to try and bring up that you and I were never dating. And explain why we lied about it. And then... yeah, just see where it goes.”

...Charlie never said that he had a good plan.

He pats down his sweater, turning to face Tao. “So? How do I look?”

“Like a nerd.”

Charlie rolls his eyes. “That doesn’t help me.”

Tao leans off the bed to reach over and mess with Charlie’s hair. Charlie shoves his hands off and stares back into the mirror. Ugh. His curls are all off again.

“Your confession outfit looks just fine, Charlie.”

“I will pay you real money not to call it that.”

“Just calling it like it is.”

Charlie glares. “I’m not confessing to him.”

“No, but you’re pretty much confessing that you’re ready to make moves, in your own words. Or that you’re ready for him to make some. Which is still a confession in my book.”

“It might not even happen, you know,” Charlie feels the need to point out.

“But you want it to.”

“...But I want it to,” Charlie acquiesces.

Tao crosses his arms over his chest. “Look. If he does or says anything even slightly off, you call me, okay?”

Charlie pretends to swoon. “My knight in shining armor.”

“I’m serious,” Tao says. “I know he could probably knock my lights out without trying too hard, but I think I could at least hold him off long enough for you to get away.”

“Even if it's two in the morning again?”

Tao pretends to shudder. “I’d rather it not come to that, but if you have to, then I’ll pick up. You might have to call a couple of times, though.”

Charlie smiles at him. “I love you,” He says, the feeling overwhelming him for a brief moment. “I know I’ve been ditching everyone for Nick lately, but Tao... You’re one of my best friends in the whole world. I don’t ever want you to feel like I’m leaving you behind or anything, you know?”

Tao waves a hand dismissively, but Charlie catches him biting back a smile, too. “Yeah, yeah, love you too and all that. And sure, I was a little bit pissed at first about the whole Nick thing, but I get it. Kind of. It’s like Elle said; Movable object and all that when it comes to you liking a guy. Just, have a good time, alright? Even if it’s Harry Greene’s party. Don’t feel pressured to say anything to Nick if you still don’t feel sure, okay?”

“I won’t,” Charlie says. “It probably won’t even come up in the conversation, if I’m being honest. I’ll only say something if it does. Or I’ll just find some other time to tell him after the party.”

Tao looks at him carefully. “Right. You said Nick’s a good guy and doesn't treat you like all his rugby friends, yeah? Well, this is his chance to prove that.” He checks the time on his phone. “By the way, is your dad picking you up from here? It’s almost seven already.”

Charlie shakes his head. “I have to head home first.”

“You know the way out,” Tao says, falling back into bed and tapping something on his phone.

Charlie scoffs. “What, now that we broke up there’s no need for appearances?”

“Exactly.”

Charlie rolls his eyes. He looks in Tao’s mirror one last time. He’s managed to fix his curls as best he can. He’s still not totally happy with how he looks, but Tao’s right. He’s already running late.

The doorbell rings from downstairs.

Tao whistles. “Good timing,” he says. “I changed my mind. Because you are my loveliest, dearest ex-boyfriend, I will walk you to the door.”

Charlie laughs as the two of them make their way down the stairs. “Piss off. You just want to see Elle.”

“You do, too. You haven’t seen her in weeks. Which wouldn’t be the case if you, you know, stopped hanging out with Nick Nelson.”

“You already forgave me for that,” Charlie says with a raised brow.

“Don’t remember, didn’t happen.”

Charlie rolls his eyes, and goes to open the door.

Elle’s face lights up when she spots him. “Oh my god, Charlie!”

“Am I dead to you?” Tao asks, throwing his arms up in the air. “It’s literally my house and I am the least important person in this room right now. I can’t believe it.”

Charlie ignores him, grinning as he hugs her. “Hi Elle! I missed you so much!”

“Me too, you don’t even know.” She pulls back and looks at his outfit “You’re looking all spiffy for this party of yours, aren’t you?”

“Ha ha,” Charlie says dryly. “First Tao calls me a nerd, and now you’re using words like spiffy.”

Elle laughs. “We’re rubbing off on each other, I guess. But have fun, Charlie. I hope it goes well.”

“It will,” Charlie says, and pretends like he doesn’t see the looks Tao and Elle give each other. “Have fun at movie night. Eat some popcorn in my name.”

Tao rolls his eyes. “Get out of here, already.”

So Charlie does.

-

For better or for worse, Charlie is actually having a good time.

The party is already underway by the time Charlie’s dad pulls into the lot outside of the literal mansion Harry had decided to rent out, but he finds Nick easily in the middle of the dance floor.

Nick walks forward to him with a smile on his face, reaching up to grasp Charlie’s arms. Just as abruptly, he lets go like something shocked him into doing it, but Charlie wasn’t focused on that part too much. “You made it!”

Charlie smiles widely. “I did!”

Nick looks at the space next to him. “Tao didn’t come?”

“Oh, uh.” Surrounded by other people isn't the best place to say anything about him and Tao, Charlie concludes. “No, he couldn’t. He said he was busy with something.”

Nick nods in understanding, and that’s that.

The two of them find themselves sitting on one of the extremely fancy sofas off to the side. Charlie really is enjoying himself, even though he isn’t dancing or partying like crazy like some of the people on the dance floor right now.

Listening to Nick tell funny stories from his childhood is more than enough for him.

A voice comes from around the corner right before Nick can finish telling him what his mum did when she found him trying to steal seaweed from the ocean to take home when he was five. “Nick!”

Nick’s face falls flat. “Harry.”

Harry eyes Charlie. “Why’re you hanging out here? A bit boring, isn’t it?” His friends behind him laugh at the implication.

“Harry, don’t. I’m having a good time right here,” Nick says, glancing at Charlie out of the corner of his eye.

“I didn’t come here for nothing,” Harry says, pushing Charlie roughly until there’s enough space for him to sit in between them and throw a hand around Nick’s shoulder.

Nick glares at Harry, who doesn’t seem to notice. “Look, Nick,” Harry continues. “I had to tell you. Tara Jones is here.”

The boys jeer around them.

Charlie... has no idea who that is. He tries to surreptitiously catch Nick’s eye for an explanation.

Harry catches the movement and smirks. “Didn’t know about Tara Jones, did you, Charlie?” He laughs. “Tara and my boy Nick here are destined to go out. Don’t worry, Nick. She’s only gotten hotter since the last time you kissed her,” He says mockingly, and Charlie’s heart falls into his stomach.

Harry drags Nick up and off the seat.

Nick protests. “Hey, Harry—”

“Come on, Nick. Don’t back down now. She’s right there waiting just for you,”

Nick gives him a helpless look for a moment, before following Harry down the hall and out of sight.

Charlie runs a hand through his hair. Great. He gets up, brushing the non-existent dust off his trouser legs, and leaves the area before Harry can get the bright idea to come back.

Doubly great. Because down in the opposite hallway is Ben.

Of course. Because when things get bad for Charlie, it’s like every bad thing in the universe decides to come for him at the same exact time.

“Charlie.”

Charlie makes a face. “I’d rather not talk to you right now, if you don’t mind.”

Ben doesn’t take the hint, cornering Charlie until he effectively has him up against the wall.

“Get off me.”

“Come on now, Charlie. Is Tao even here?”

Charlie squints. “Don’t you literally have a girlfriend?”

Ben scoffs. “Are you obsessed with me or something? Because I don’t remember telling you that.”

Charlie rolls his eyes. “Very funny how you’re acting like you don’t make out by the school gates every morning. And the point still stands. You shouldn’t be acting like this when you’re dating someone.”

“So what? Who’s going to stop me? You? And you have a boyfriend, unless that’s changed since the last time you came onto me,” he says, like he wasn’t literally the one to come onto Charlie. “I wonder what would happen if word got around to him that you were getting awfully cozy with me at this party?”

“Oh, fuck off,” Charlie says, using his whole weight to push past Ben and walking off.

Charlie’s never been a recipient of blackmail before, but that has to be the worst attempt he’s ever seen. Like, seriously? Even if he and Tao were a real and official couple, in what world would Tao trust Ben Hope? Especially over Charlie.

He looks past the dance floor and tries to find a quieter area. Again. Preferably somewhere to sit, while he’s at it.

Ben, thank god, doesn’t follow him. Maybe this time he’ll get the hint. Second times the charm, and all.

-

Nick finds him minutes later.

“I feel like I’m always looking for you,” He says apologetically, sitting down next to him again.

Charlie smiles, already feeling the tenseness of confronting Ben wash away with Nick’s arrival. “Don’t worry. All you missed was me telling off Ben.”

(Nick only knows about the whole thing with Ben when the three of them had intersected in the hallways once. Charlie had tried being polite, offering a hello, and Ben had returned it with a glare, stomping off before Nick could even get a word in.)

“Oh my god, Charlie! That’s amazing!” Nick says, and it genuinely sounds like he’s proud of him.

Charlie flushes under the praise. “Yeah. I know, right? It was kind of awesome.”

“I’m really happy for you, Charlie. Ben’s such a dick.” Nick looks around. “Anyways, uh, do you wanna go somewhere a bit quieter? I feel like I can’t even hear myself think.”

Charlie perks up. “Yeah, I do, actually. Race you?”

“You just want another win.”

“You caught me.”

“Not yet I didn’t,” Nick grins, making grabby hands towards him.

Charlie grins and starts springing through the main hall, finding a staircase off to the side and bounding upwards until the music’s quieted down. He runs through the hallways, only stopping when he sees a large unused room on the other side. Like the last time they’ve raced like this, it fills him with such a euphoria that he can’t help but to laugh from it.

Nick follows him in as he clutches the fabric of his shirt near his chest. “Jesus, Charlie,” he starts, panting. “I can’t breathe right now.” He collapses against the wall, using it as leverage to slide down onto the floor.

“Are you telling me my running lessons were useless?”

“Don’t even joke about that right now,” Nick wheezes out.

Charlie laughs and sits next to him, close enough that their shoulders are only a hair's-width apart.

“So… “ He starts, when the two of them have calmed somewhat. He shifts so that he can bump their shoulders together. The uncomfortable feeling when Harry had mentioned Tara Jones is back. “This Tara Jones... You really fancy her?”

“No! No, I really don’t,” Nick says quickly. “I mean, uh, she’s sweet and really nice but… yeah.”

Relief floods through Charlie at the confirmation. “Then... Why does everyone seem to think you like her?”

Nick shrugs. “We kissed, like once, back when we were thirteen or so. Then we dated for a little bit but it didn’t last. I’ve been over her for years but the guys won’t let me forget about it.”

“Wow. That’s… rough.”

Nick gives him a half-smile. “I told Tara that I wasn’t into her like that too, when Harry took me to her. I mean, he pushed me into her, really.”

“How honest of you,” Charlie jokes. He clears his throat when a pause comes between them. “So...” Be smooth, Charlie.

“So...?”

Charlie coughs into his hands. Suddenly, his throat feels like sandpaper is in it. “You don’t have any crushes now then?”

Nick’s smile freezes in place before faltering slightly. He looks down at his hands and shrugs. “I... well, it’s not that I don’t have one.”

Charlie is suddenly aware that his heart is pounding out of his chest. Because this isn’t just any opening; this is the opening. There’s a chance Nick could be talking about anyone. He could be talking about Harry fucking Greene for all Charlie knows, but he could also be talking about Charlie and he...

He...

He needs to tell Nick about Tao. He absolutely can not listen to what Nick has to say until he gets this off his chest.

“I have to tell you something,” Charlie says, sounding like a complete idiot.

Nick nods, adjusting himself so that he’s sitting straight up and setting his shoulders. The perfect picture of putting on airs. Charlie mimics the movement. “Right. Yeah. Me too.”

“You do?” Charlie asks. He couldn’t say what’s going on in his head right now, other than the fact that it is something along the lines of: ALSK#%#$?%DJLS@AKDJ#?@?^!#!.

... Or something.

“Yeah,” Nick swallows, looking uncomfortable. “But you can go first.”

Charlie furrows his brows. Nick’s lost the carefree, fun air that’s surrounded him when they first started racing to this room. “Are you sure? If you want to get it off your chest, you can go first.”

“No! No uh, it’s not that big of a deal. Definitely something that can wait.”

“You’re sure?”

Nick nods resolutely. “Yeah. I’m super sure. You can tell me anything, Charlie.”

...In that case. Here goes nothing. Time to rip the bandaid off.

“Me and Tao... We’re not together,” Charlie says after a beat.

Nick’s eyes widen. “You guys broke up? What happened?”

Charlie looks at him from beneath his eyelashes. “That’s kind of what I wanted to talk to you about.”

He doesn’t expect what happens next.

“I’m sorry,” Nick says suddenly, getting up with a haste that Charlie’s never seen in him. Charlie is just able to catch a glimpse of Nick’s expression. He looks devastated.

Charlie, on the other hand, has never been more confused.

“God, fuck. Charlie, I’m so sorry.”

“Wait, Nick—”

“Just, fuck. I’m sorry. This is my fault. I’m so sorry, Charlie. Shit. Shit.”

And Nick leaves. Runs, if Charlie is being honest with himself. Doesn’t turn around once. Just leaves like he can’t even stand to be in the same room as Charlie anymore.

A small part of Charlie thinks (read: wishes pathetically) that it could have been something else. Like maybe someone was calling for him. Or he realized he had a curfew that he was already late for. Or maybe the room was fucking haunted and Nick saw a ghost out of the corner of his eyes coming for him.

But no, the remaining halves of Charlie realizes. Nothing like that. Just him in here.

So there’s no way the problem was anything other than Charlie himself. Like it’s always been.

Things happen quickly after that:

Charlie calls his dad.

He goes to wait outside, letting the thump-thump-thump of the bass music fall away completely.

He doesn’t see Nick on his way out.

His dad arrives.

And Charlie goes home.

-

Surprisingly, Charlie doesn’t cry.

Sure, he feels a little empty and hollow, like someone conducted an archeological dig inside every cavity in his body and forgot to put everything back together in the end, but he doesn’t cry.

At least, he doesn’t cry while he’s telling Tao, Elle, and Isaac what happened over the phone. An abridged version, because he’s not sure he’ll be able to hold back if he really does do a play-by-play.

“So, yeah,” he finishes lamely. “It was all my fault. I’m just... going to go to sleep. I don’t know.”

“I’ll kick his ass,” Tao promises. “I’ll kick it so hard. Like, what the fuck? He didn’t explain why he would run like he was on fire?”

“He didn’t, but it’s fine, guys. I think I read everything all wrong. I probably made him really uncomfortable.” Charlie swallows. What was he even thinking, bringing up him and Tao when Nick was obviously trying to get something else out? Charlie just had to make the situation all about him, didn’t he? “I told you. Nick’s not like Harry or Ben. It’ll just be a little awkward at form from now on.”

“Charlie,” Elle says sternly. “I thought we already established that it’s not okay for you to just dismiss how you feel like that. Unless you were, like, forcing him to kiss you while he was saying he didn’t want it, I am finding it really hard to believe that this was your fault.”

“It was!” Charlie insists. “I think I forced him into saying some stuff he wasn’t ready for, and now he probably doesn’t even want to talk to me anymore.”

“If I know anything about you,” Elle starts gently. “Is that you would rather do anything than push someone like that.”

“And if he thinks you did, then he has another thing coming,” Tao says.

“Tao.”

“Elle.”

“Guys,” Charlie butts in. “Thanks for listening, but I’m really tired. I’ll call you tomorrow?”

There’s a short pause before Tao asks, “Do you want us to come over? My mum just went to bed, so I think I can sneak out if you need me to.”

“No, not right now. I’ll text you if anything changes,” Charlie says.

“I’m holding you to that.”

Charlie hangs up once they’ve all said their goodbyes.

Despite exhaustion pulling at his lids, Charlie finds himself staring at the ceiling. It’s a long time before he actually falls asleep.

-

Charlie doesn’t want to get out of bed.

The weather matches his mood completely, stormy and rainy and windy all mixed together in one horrible package. His headache only worsens with every clap of thunder.

Tao had said something about their situation being just like the dramas. Charlie’s starting to believe he might have been on to something.

He’ll call Nick, he thinks as he brushes his teeth. He’ll apologize for putting him in such an awkward and uncomfortable situation, and try desperately hard to maintain their status of polite acquaintances in the worst-case scenario where even being friends isn’t an option anymore.

The door pounds downstairs.

“Charlie, can you get the door? It’s probably the postman,” his mum calls from another part of the house.

“Yeah,” Charlie calls back.

He finishes washing his face. Jesus, he thinks when he makes eye contact with himself in the mirror. His bags are more than apparent on his face. It would be obvious to anyone that he didn’t have a good night. Even his curls look sad, flopping limply against his forehead.

The knocks on the door come again in quick succession.

“Charlie! The door!”

“I’m going now!” Charlie goes down the stairs to open the door, already a hand out to accept whatever package the postman will hand him.

Except...

On the other side isn’t the postman.

Instead—

“Hi.”

Charlie almost rubs at his eyes to make sure his vision isn’t failing him. “Nick? What are you doing here? Come inside, you’re going to catch a cold!”

Nick shakes his head, already completely soaked, and takes a step backwards into the rain like a lunatic. “Charlie. I... I probably deserve it, to be honest.”

The rain is pouring so hard Charlie strains to even hear him. He reaches out to try and grab Nick’s hand to yank him inside. Nick takes another step back. “What on Earth are you talking about? Just— Come in, already!”

“Wait, Charlie. I can’t yet. I feel too— Just listen for a moment?”

“...And you won’t come inside until you say it?”

Nick shakes his head. The image of a wet golden retriever flashes in Charlie’s mind.

He sighs, knowing a lost cause when he sees it. “Make it quick. I’m serious, Nick. You’re going to get sick, and then I’ll have absolutely no one to talk to at form.”

Nick nods. “Right, so I...”

Charlie tries not to give in to the urge to try and forcibly drag Nick inside. Instead, he does his best to stay patient and not lose his mind at the fact that Nick is outside his house after the mess that was last night.

After a deep breath, Nick says: “I like you.”

Charlie blinks. What?

What?

“What?”

Nick nods, once, then twice. “In... more than just a friend way.” And the floodgates open. “I’m so sorry. I know I’ve been, like stupidly obvious about all this, and you probably figured out ages ago that I had this... crush on you, I guess. And I didn’t mean to, like, pressure you or manipulate you into breaking up with Tao, and I really, really don’t want to make it awkward between us or ruin our friendship or anything, so I completely understand that you don’t feel the same way. I just... wanted you to know.

“I’m so sorry if this makes things awkward with Tao, or if Tao really does want to beat me up. I’ll let him! I, I’ve been feeling so guilty that I had these feelings, and a few nights ago I dreamt that me and you were together instead of you and Tao, and so yesterday I, for just a moment, I wanted that so badly, but Charlie. You have to understand. I would rather die than hurt you, or do anything you didn’t want to. And I absolutely don’t want to come between you and Tao at all so I. I need a little time. To get over you. But I couldn’t do it without letting you know how sorry I was. And— I’m sorry. Really sorry. Yeah. That’s all.

“I should get going,” Nick says, body tense. “Before the rain gets any worse.”

A crack of thunder spurs Charlie into action. “Oh my god, get in here,” Is all he can manage to say, and drags Nick into the doorway once and for all.

Nick stumbles in, rainwater dripping off his clothes and the ends of his hair. “Look, Charlie—”

Charlie raises a hand to stop him. “Come on, let’s go to my room. I’ll give you a shirt.”

“Oh, it’s uh. It’s fine. I’m wearing a shirt under this,” Nick says, gesturing to his jumper. Belatedly, Charlie realizes that it’s the same one that he wore when they were out in the snow that one day months ago.

“And that one’s probably just as wet now that you’ve been standing out here for like, five whole minutes. Let alone how wet it got in the time that it took for you to walk here.”

Charlie leads him to his room, picking out his largest pajama shirt and handing it over to him.

Nick accepts it gingerly, pulling off his jumper.

God, Charlie takes it all back. He gained no muscle mass at all if even his largest shirts were getting stretched out by Nick’s arms like that.

Charlie swallows. That, combined with Nick saying he likes him... Focus. He needs to focus. “Nick, about last night. I’m really—”

“I’m so—”

“I was going to tell you—”

“I was just so scared that I was—”

The two of them break off awkwardly.

Charlie nods. “You first.”

“No, it’s fine.”

Charlie shakes his head, offering Nick a small smile. “I went first last night. It’s only fair.”

Nick presses his lips together tightly, but nods in the end. “I’m so sorry. I don’t want to repeat everything I said outside and waste your time, but it’s all true. I didn’t know how to hide my crush on you at all. And now I’ve gone and put you in such a weird position between me and Tao, haven’t I?”

“You didn’t. I promise. I... outside. You said you manipulated me? Like... Nick. What?”

“By hanging out with you all the time,” Nick says weakly. “I thought, I don’t know, like I was convincing you that I was better than him. I was trying really hard not to, but sometimes I would wish that... Instead of him. It was me. And I’d try so hard not to show it because, like, obviously you’re with him because you like him, you know? And I’m so happy being your friend, you don’t even know. Like, Charlie. You’re seriously one of my most favorite people in this whole world, my mum included. I just... I didn’t want to get in the way of what you and Tao already had, even though everyday it felt like I was doing exactly that.”

Charlie doesn’t know where to start. “You thought that hanging out with me convinced me to break up with Tao?”

Nick nods, looking like the definition of the word miserable.

Charlie shakes his head in disbelief. “Nick. Oh my god. What on earth are you talking about?”

Nick sighs, running a hand through his wet hair, making it slick back. “Yeah. I felt like shit pretty much everyday over it. I thought I was coming on to you, and you were just trying to humor me. And then I thought I was coming between you and Tao, especially when you started hanging out with me more and more. I thought about, you know, creating distance between us or something, but I couldn’t bring myself to stay away from you. Because... like I said. I like you. And that kind of just made me feel worse.

“I thought I was making you so uncomfortable with how I was being. So I was going to confess to you at the party, so that you could reject me and I could actually be a proper best friend to you and not this... weird thing I am now.”

Charlie feels something claw at his heart at the sheer self-loathing in Nick’s voice. “God. That’s... That’s so horrible. I’m so sorry you had to go through that.”

“Not your fault,” Nick says.

“It’s at least a little my fault,” Charlie disagrees. “If me and Tao never fake-dated, then this wouldn’t have happened at all.”

Nick stares at him. “Fake-dated?”

Charlie nods. “Fake-dated,” he confirms, and starts to explain everything. “It wasn’t real. Ever. We started going out after the whole thing with me getting outed happened. Tao thought it might help lighten the bullying, and he was right, kind of, and it’s not like we like each other like that or we were worried about falling in love or anything because Tao is like, completely straight. And it didn’t really matter what we did anyways, since the whole school thought we were dating each other to begin with. We kind of just played along ever since it... worked, I guess. So, I didn’t dump him to be with you. Breaking up with Tao was always in the plan. It was just a matter of when.”

He pauses to take a deep breath. “I guess what I’m trying to say is... Nick. You weren’t manipulating me or coercing me or whatever else it is that you’ve got in your head about me and Tao. If anything, I was reciprocating just as much. Please don’t feel guilty for something that literally wasn’t happening.”

“Charlie, I...” Nick falters, before seemingly steeling himself. “You’re— You’re really not dating Tao?”

Charlie shakes his head. “I never was, technically. He’s had to deal with my trying to break up with him for months. But he’s really protective, you know. So he didn’t want to risk it and have all the bullying come back. I finally quote-on-quote broke up with him right before the party. Because I wanted to tell you everything. About me and Tao, and also how I felt. About you. Because I like you, too.”

“And that’s what you wanted to tell me last night?”

“Yeah.”

“And I don’t have to get over you?” Nick asks quietly. Hesitantly. Hopefully.

Charlie shakes his head. “I’d really, really like it if you didn’t, actually.”

Nick’s mouth opens and closes a few times. “You—” Then, it seems like he gives up on finding the words altogether. He surges forward instead, placing his hands firmly on Charlie’s cheeks, and presses their lips together.

It takes a second of alarm bells ringing in Charlie’s head — KISS BACK YOU IDIOT— before he does what his mind tells him. He closes his eyes and kisses back with just as much intensity, moving his mouth in time with Nick’s and grabbing the fabric on Nick’s shoulder and stretching his shirt out even more.

It’s nice. So nice. In fact, Charlie doesn’t want to do anything else other than kiss Nick Nelson. Forever preferably.

Nick, unfortunately, doesn’t have the same idea, pulling back slightly, but still not letting go of Charlie.

For a moment, the two of them look at each other. Charlie’s lips tingle.

Then, Nick takes a few steps back, detaching himself from Charlie completely. As if only now realizing what he’s done, he sits down on the bed with a lost expression on his face.

“Oh god. I feel so stupid,” Nick says, voice rough, and Charlie sees his eyes grow wet with tears. “I can’t believe I left you alone there last night instead of just listening to you.”

“Hey, Nick. No. That wasn’t your fault. We already established that it was mine.”

Nick talks like he didn’t even hear him. “I was just so, so confused. About you, and Tao, and feeling like such shit that I liked you when you already had a boyfriend, and liking boys in general, and you were the one that had to face the effects of all that. I can’t explain how sorry I am.”

“Nick. Nick. It’s okay. I swear on my life. It’s fine. I can understand where you were coming from completely. Really.”

Nick doesn’t look at him. “I don’t know what to do right now, if I’m being honest.” When he laughs, it’s shaky and thick with tears.

Charlie goes to sit next to him on the bed. “It’ll be okay,” Charlie says softly, guiding Nick’s head to his shoulder and holding him as Nick dissolves into true, proper sobs.

Charlie thinks that the last time he’s been in a situation like this, the roles were reversed and he was the one crying into Tao’s chest, feeling hopeless and like every path forward was a complete dead end.

So, he thinks he can understand where Nick is coming from.

And just based on his own experiences, he doesn’t think he’s lying when he promises that everything will be alright.

-

“So, are you... gay, do you think?” Charlie asks, later. They’re still sitting on Charlie’s bed together, Nick’s head still on his shoulder. Charlie’s arm has gone a little numb by now, but he’d die before he said anything to get Nick to move away. And he’s sure it’s not super comfortable for Nick either, but Nick hasn’t said anything about that, either. “There’s no need to answer that, by the way,” he adds on. “I’m just curious.”

“I, uh,” Nick swallows. “I don't know. I did like, the bare minimum of research. I’ve been pushing it off. I was scared, I think.”

“That’s okay,” Charlie says. “There’s no need to rush this sort of thing.”

Nick nods his head against Charlie’s shoulder. “I mean, like, I definitely liked Tara, at least back when I was thirteen. But I definitely like you now, you know? It’s just... ugh. I’m so confused,” he whispers.

“We’ll figure it out,” Charlie promises.

“We?” Nick asks, voice tinged with awe.

Charlie smiles, feeling warm. “Yeah.”

-

-

-

-

The next day, Nick does, in fact, catch a cold.

Nick sends Charlie a selfie, staring at the camera with an exaggerated pout, sick-reddened cheeks and tired eyes. Ugh. He’s so cute. He’s so, so fucking cute without even trying. Even when he’s literally bedridden with a fever. Charlie has no idea how he’s going to keep this a secret.

“Why are you blushing so hard?” Tao asks suspiciously. All Charlie had told him was that the two of them had resolved things, but nothing more than that.

“No reason,” Charlie says.

“You’re such a liar. I already know it’s about Nick. But because I am the best ex-boyfriend ever, I won’t ask.”

Charlie rolls his eyes. “Can’t you just say you’re my best friend like a normal person?”

Tao looks at him in fake shock. “But that would be lying, Charlie. I’m not like you.”

“Whatever you say,” Charlie says, voice drenched with sarcasm, and spends the rest of their lunch break figuring out what to say to Nick in response.