Hi! So it's been a while since any update from me. I've been super busy with homework and stuff. But I've done this for the lovely nifflertilldeath on Tumblr for her birthday! I am so sorry for how long it's taken to get this done, but it's finally finished and up - in all its messy, weird glory :)
So this is just popular!Jeff and semi-nerdy!Nick (who also attempts to be a sassy bitch) who hate each other's guts but, as they start to learn secrets about each other, end up falling for each other. Sweet Niff goodness!
(I should be ashamed at how much I based Nick on myself :/)
Warnings - swearing, blink-and-you'll-miss-it crudeness, mentions of self-harm and suicide, my potentially awful attempts at sassiness and complete lack of knowledge about anything.
Enjoy! And happy belated birthday Emily!
You'd think that at the prestigious Dalton Academy for Boys, there wouldn't be silly things such as cliques or a social hierarchy. Especially since said prestigious academy also has a strict no-bullying policy. You'd think that would stop all that public school nonsense.
But it appears that terrorising nerds and praising dumb jocks is something you just can't get away from, no matter how hard you try. It's pervasive, a disease that exists wherever you have a large group of kids all forced to share the same space. And unfortunately for me, Dalton is exactly the same as all the other schools – the places I wanted to avoid like a cliché.
At Dalton, you've got your popular guys, the sports players and the ones who are so genetically blessed they look as if they just stepped off a runway in Milan. They're as stereotypical as they come, particularly the sporty guys. The only way I'll get out of being harassed, pushed around, tripped up and verbally abused is if the whole football team ups and dies.
If only that would happen. Because that would mean Jeff Sterling would be dead, and I for one would not be crying at his funeral. I'd probably laugh and dance on his grave. Jeff Sterling is as popular as you can get. He's the captain of the football team and the best player – not that I would know; sport is the strangest concept I've ever heard of and understanding it is impossible – and he's also apparently the best looking guy at Dalton as well. Girls and guys fawn over him like he's the greatest thing since One Direction – something else I don't understand. So what if the guy looks like an artist's masterpiece come to life? He's as dumb as anything, and an asshole to boot. It doesn't make any sense to want anything to do with someone whose vocabulary consists of growls, shouts and horrendously bad pick-up lines and insults. The only thing that could possibly redeem him would be the fact he can sing – but match that with an ego the size of China and being a part of Dalton's glee club along with some of the nastiest people on the planet, and suddenly not even his ridiculously good voice could save him.
I probably should have introduced myself before ranting. You know after the jocks, you get the people lower down in the hierarchy, like the guys who hang out at the back of the school and smoke weed or whatever, and the guys who hang out in the library all day to avoid getting their asses handed to them by the jocks? And then you get the nerdy, geeky people, who just try to slip by unnoticed so they can get home without having their head shoved down a toilet, or their books thrown all over the floor, or their face planted into the ground?
Well there's them. And then there's me.
Nick. Nick Duval. And apparently there's something about me that the popular guys, and Jeff Sterling in particular, just hate. The only thing I can think of that really separates me from them is they're all filthy rich and I'm at Dalton on a scholarship – and it doesn't sound like much, but people have been killed for less than that.
My life has been made a living hell because of that guy. I want to walk down the hall to my locker? If Sterling says no, I get slammed into said locker by his moronic goons. I want to be able to do my homework in peace? I don't think so. Sterling would rather toss my work on the floor and then have me kicked when I'm down. He never does any of the dirty work himself, of course. He just stands there and looks so damn smug about everything. Like I haven't just eaten dirt because I had the crazy notion that I should be able to walk between the school blocks of Dalton without being harassed. Or like I haven't just had the contents of my bag thrown out of a third floor window for me to go collect because I had the even crazier idea that I should be allowed to leave a classroom without permission from his Royal-freaking-Highness of Dalton.
So yeah. Me and Sterling. We don't get along. We never have. And if there's one thing I'm sure of, it's that we never will.
You'd think I'd be able to get away from all the crap at home. But no, not with an asshole of an older brother and a mother who couldn't give less of a shit whether we killed each other or not.
"Nick!" Travis has a habit of screaming at me, particularly when he wants something.
"I'm busy!" And I was – trying to finish my extremely different and complicated Math homework. But Travis has never seen the merit of studying – he dropped out of school and still hasn't gone anywhere – and he shouted at me again.
"Nick! Get your ass over here!"
There was no way he was going to give up, so as I contemplated ways to kill my brother, I got up and went to find him. He was in the kitchen, leaning on the fridge. In the background I could hear the muffled sounds of whatever TV show our mother was addicted to at the moment.
Travis glared at me. "We're out of milk."
I glared back. "Your point?"
"Go get some."
I stared at him, confused. "Now? It's like, nearly midnight! Why the hell do you want it now?"
Travis narrowed his eyes and crossed his arms over his chest, pulling himself up to his full height; which was a lot taller than me. It was his go-to response when I refused to do something.
"Go get me some milk," he growled.
I sneered. "Make me."
Travis just smirked before shouting, "Mom! Tell Nick to go get some milk!"
I rolled my eyes. It was so pathetic and childish, but it worked every single time. Mom, distracted by whatever she was watching, never paid attention to what Travis wanted and just agreed to everything. Right on cue, her reply came just as loud as Travis – he had to get it from somewhere.
"Nick, do what your brother wants! I'm busy!"
"Thanks Mom, you're the greatest!" I yelled, wondering if the sarcasm was lost on her. With another eye-roll in Travis' direction, I grabbed my keys from the kitchen table, ducked back to my room to grab some money (like he was going to pay for it), and stormed towards the door, making sure to slam it just to piss them both off.
There was a twenty-four hour gas station a block away and as I started the car and backed out of the driveway, I cursed my stupid brother and my stupid mother and my stupid life. I hated them. I hated having to do everything Travis wanted. I hated doing my homework at midnight. I hated Dalton. I hated being smart enough for the damn scholarship. Honestly, there were times I wished I was as dumb as Travis or, God-forbid, Jeff Sterling.
I pulled into the gas station a minute later. I shut off the engine and opened the door. I immediately regretted my decision – my anger must have blinded me earlier to how freaking cold it was. Wrapping my arms around my chest, I ran for what I hoped would be the warmth of the station. I was right – it was beautifully warm inside and I sighed in relief as the doors closed behind me.
I had to get back and finish that Math work, so I quickly grabbed the milk Travis apparently desperately needed and headed to the counter to pay. Except there was no one there. I looked around, but there was no one around. Great. Just what I need.
"Hello?" I called impatiently, not in the mood to be kept waiting. I had three pages more of Math homework, and the Literature essay could technically wait until tomorrow, but it would be good to at least get a start on it…
I heard someone call out in reply – a voice I recognised instantly and made my whole body freeze up.
"Sorry! I'm coming!"
A second later an incredibly familiar person appeared at the other end of the store and as soon as he noticed me he stopped dead. And we just sort of stood there like that for a good few minutes, staring at each other and trying to work out what to say.
What in God's name was His Royal Highness doing working in a gas station?
Maybe I should rephrase that.
What in God's name was he doing working?
Did I mention that Dalton is a very prestigious school? That absolutely everyone who goes there is incredibly, disgustingly rich and likes to flaunt it? Except, of course, the scholarship kids, of which there's only one in my year. Me. And did I mention that the Sterlings are ridiculously loaded? It was just another reason the dumbass was so popular.
Another important note – rich kid plus a job equals intense humiliation. Don't ask me why. It's a rich kid thing. But having a job at Dalton was like having a death wish. The last kid that had gotten a job had been driven out by the sheer amount of bullying heaped upon him.
A whole world of opportunities opened up right in front of my eyes. This was everything I'd ever dreamed of; finding dirt on Sterling, ruining his life the way he constantly ruined mine, and then getting to sit back and enjoy his torment. There was no way I was going to let this go.
"What the hell are you doing here?" Sterling asked, shoving his hands deep into his pockets and looking thoroughly ashamed of himself. I snorted. "What am I doing here? What are you doing here? Do you seriously have a job?"
"Shut up," he muttered, hanging his head.
I laughed. "Oh my God. This is amazing. I finally have something over you."
Sterling's gaze snapped up to meet mine and did I detect a hint of fear? Oh yeah. There was fear. In seconds he'd crossed the room and grabbed me by the front of my shirt, pulling me up close to his face.
"Don't. Don't you dare tell anyone at school."
But I held the power now. I knew his dirty little secret. I smirked. "You're going to have to make me, Sterling. You think I'm going to let you scare me into giving up the best opportunity I'll ever get to see you humiliated? It's not happening."
He let go of me, pushed me away. The fear in his eyes was more pronounced now and when he spoke it sounded on the verge of desperation. "You can't. Please, you can't tell anyone."
I raised an eyebrow. Please? Sterling didn't ask me for anything. Whatever he wanted, he took – my things, my blood, my dignity. How I even had shreds of that left was a miracle.
"Why not?" I challenged, grinning maliciously. So this was what it felt like to be Sterling. King of the world. In charge. Having all the power. Sterling worked his jaw in frustration. "Because… look, I don't have to explain myself to you. Just don't tell anyone, and there won't be any trouble."
"And who are you going to get to beat me up?" I shot back "The friends that are going to turn on you once your secret is out and put you down at the bottom of the heap?"
He didn't have a response for that. Instead of saying anything, he chewed on his bottom lip roughly and ran a hand through his hair. Finally he managed to think of something and turned on me.
"I'm not kidding, Duval. You can't tell anyone."
I shrugged. "Make me."
Sterling groaned. "This is why I hate you. You're fucking mouthy. You can't just shut up and listen."
"Listen to you?" My jaw dropped. "That's likely. I don't have to take orders from you."
"It'd be in your best interest."
"What's in my best interest is making you pay for all the crap you and your moronic friends put me through and watching you suffer through the same thing."
"You're a vindictive little shit, you know that?"
Sarcastically I replied, "That's such a big word for you, Sterling. I'm so proud."
He wrinkled his nose in annoyance. "And you wonder why you get your face punched in every day."
I crossed my arms over my chest. "Not for much longer. It's going to be your face they're punching. And you'll deserve it too."
As soon as I spoke, Sterling let out a noise of frustration that sounded like a mix of a growl and a shout. There was no doubting he was pissed off. I expected him to yell at me, threaten me again, maybe even hit me for once. But I was surprised when he just looked at me despairingly and sighed, sinking back against the counter and sliding to the floor, head in his hands.
"What's with the dramatics?" I said, raising an eyebrow "You'll live."
"You don't understand," Sterling muttered through his hands "This can't get out. It just… can't."
I wanted to ask why, but my question was cut off by Sterling looking up at me, hope practically shining in his eyes, and spoke again. "What do I have to do?"
"What?" I frowned.
"I can't believe I'm saying this to you, but what will it take for you not to tell anyone about this?" he asked, gesturing around us vaguely.
I blinked. I clearly hadn't heard him correctly. It sounded as if Sterling had just asked me how I could blackmail him. "What?"
"I thought you were supposed to be a genius," Sterling sighed, annoyed, as he got back to his feet "What do I have to do in order for you to keep all this a secret?"
"No, I got that," I said "I'm just surprised you'd rather be blackmailed, particularly by me, than deal with being a loser. It's honestly not that hard. You just grit your teeth and try to resist the urge not to punch someone else's teeth out. It gets easier…"
"Duval!" Sterling shouted "Answer the fucking question!"
"Alright!" I glared at him. He expected me to come up with some conditions for my secrecy on the spot? Give a guy a break. I had to think about this. What could I get from him that would still give me the satisfaction of knowing I had him beat?
It didn't take long to come up with a few ideas.
I smirked, and immediately Sterling's face dropped. He swallowed and bit his lip, and it only made everything that much more fun. I waited a moment before revealing my answer.
"There's two things you have to do for me, Sterling. If you do them, I'll keep your secret."
Another pause for dramatic effect – you can never underestimate the power of a good long silence. Only when the blonde jock was getting visibly antsy did I say anything else.
"First of all, I want you to get down on your hands and knees and beg me not to tell anyone. Properly, too. I don't want any half-hearted pleading."
The look on the guy's face was priceless. First blankness, then confusion, then disgust and shock. Finally he stuttered, "A-Are you serious?"
He didn't move. He just stood there, glaring at me as if he were hoping he could kill me right there. But I just nodded my head in the direction of the floor and waited expectantly. If this secret was that important to him, he'd do it. If it wasn't, I'd probably get my head kicked in. But, just as I was starting to wonder if anyone would notice if my face was suddenly rearranged, Sterling did it. He actually did it. That surprised me more than anything. It was slow, and the hatred in his eyes was burning and intense, but he got down on his hands and knees and stared at the floor as he said quietly, "You're a fucking asshole, but I'm doing it. I am begging you not to tell anyone." The words were filthily tainted with hate and anger and resentment, but I couldn't have cared less. I had just made Jeff Sterling get to his knees and beg for something. And if that wasn't a victory, I didn't know what was.
"Can I get up now?" The blonde pulled himself up onto his knees "Or is there something else you'd like me to do while I'm down here?"
I didn't miss the innuendo. I rolled my eyes. "You're disgusting. Get up."
He was smirking when he was back on his feet. I made sure it didn't last long as I gave him my second demand. "The other thing you have to do is stop being such a dick to me."
"I can't just stop ruining your life," Sterling shrugged, like it was an especially boring topic "People would know something was up."
I was seriously starting to get pissed off now. I growled through gritted teeth, "Fine. Stop messing with my stuff then. Is that fair enough for you?"
Sterling nodded first and then a split-second later, looked at me strangely. "You could have asked me not to beat you up so much, but you'd rather I stopped tearing up your homework?" He sounded incredulous. I sighed. "Some people actually need to hand in their homework or they get kicked out of school. I guess you don't understand what that's like, considering your family could pay to keep you in Dalton regardless of how stupid you are."
I was surprised when Sterling flinched back at my words and looked away from me. I'd said the same sort of thing to him a thousand times before when he'd had his friends attack me – call him stupid, insult him – and he'd never reacted like this. But I didn't really have the time to think about it. I had places to be getting to, victories to gloat over.
"I'm going home," I said, turning towards the doors. I stopped for a moment. "I promise I won't tell anyone, as long as you hold up your end of the bargain."
"Fine," Sterling replied, and he sounded smug "But I think you're forgetting something."
I glanced at him and he gestured to the milk still sitting on the counter top.
I sighed. Damn Travis. At least he'd done something good for once in his life. He'd given me this opportunity to make my life suck a little less. And if Sterling kept to the deal, then the rest of my senior year was looking a whole lot more positive.
He did keep to his promise. The first day back at school after the incident, I was prepared for Sterling to come at me with everything he had. I was ready to let everyone know about his dirty little secret. But he took one look at me (one very evil look, may I add) and walked the other way. I did get shoved into a couple of lockers and one of his minions tripped me up in the hallway, but none of my things were destroyed, ruined, or even touched. So I kept my mouth shut.
It carried on for the rest of the week. I wondered if Sterling was going to keep it up for the rest of the year – then we'd both graduate and be out of each other's hair. For the moment it looked promising. But when the weekend rolled around, I couldn't help myself. I knew he was just a block away from my house and I couldn't resist the opportunity to annoy him further. So, once everyone was asleep, I slipped out and headed for the gas station.
He was at the counter this time, and his face when he saw me walk in was worth the cold wind that was blowing outside.
"What the hell are you doing here again?" he snarled, making no attempt to be polite. I shrugged. "I thought I'd drop in. Congratulate you on being smart enough to keep to the deal. Gloat over my victory. Ruin your life a little. Whatever takes my fancy."
Sterling rolled his eyes. "You're taking way too much pleasure in this."
"Can you blame me?" I chuckled "For the last three and a half years, you've made my life hell. I'm just enjoying what I have while it lasts."
"Do you have to be here?" He was bordering on growling now, gripping the counter as if physically holding himself back. I smirked and leaned against the wall casually, making a point not to answer him. He huffed, annoyed. "I could kick you out, you know."
I glanced at him. "Well, if you're going to be like that…" I pushed myself off the wall and made for the door, laughing a little. "See you next week!" I called over my shoulder as I left.
I probably shouldn't repeat what he said in return.
Every week I went back to the gas station. Same day. Same time. By the third week Sterling was waiting for me with a scathing remark the moment I walked through the doors. I usually only hung around for five or ten minutes, just long enough to annoy him. It was the only good thing that happened in my life and I enjoyed it to no end. But then everything had to change, didn't it? Just when I thought everything was finally going alright, life decided to throw me a big 'fuck no' and then sat back and laughed.
It started perfectly normally. I walked through the doors, waiting for Sterling to tell me to fuck off, but it didn't happen. I couldn't even see him. And then I heard it – someone crying, behind the counter. Naturally I was confused and I walked over, and lo and behold, Sterling was hiding there, practically sobbing into his arms.
I'll admit, I kind of stood there like an idiot for a minute. I mean, what was I supposed to do? This was my worst enemy, whose life I'd been messing up for weeks, and now he was sat in front of me crying. So I just stood there, and when I finally realised I should probably say something, all that came out was,
His head jerked up so fast he could have given himself whiplash. He stared at me, eyes red, for a moment before rubbing at his face and muttering, "You just can't l-leave me the fuck alone, can y-you?"
For the first time, my automatic response was to apologise, and as soon as 'I'm sorry' left my mouth, Sterling laughed at me. "Yeah, whatever."
I bit my lip as I dropped down to sit beside him, crossing my legs and staring at the floor. "Are you okay?"
The look Sterling gave me was utter bewilderment. "Since when are you so nice and helpful?"
I snorted. "Apparently I'm a sucker for crying."
We both fell silent – he'd stopped crying for now. It was strange, really, to be sat next to this guy and not wanting to kill him, but even though I didn't know what was going on with Sterling, I felt kind of bad for him. I had never seen him cry before, and he didn't appear to be the type to cry easily. So whatever it was had to be bad, right?
Eventually Sterling spoke. "Are you just going to s-sit there all night?"
I glanced at him. "Are you?"
"Maybe. Maybe I'll just leave and fuck the consequences."
I sighed. "Why do you even work here? It's not like you need to."
"What the hell do you even know?" Sterling muttered. I stared at him. "Your parents are disgustingly rich. Why would you need to work?"
"Just shut up."
I expected him to get mad or something. Shout at me. Tell me I was an asshole. But I didn't think he'd just sit there, looking defeated, and ignore me. That wasn't the Sterling I knew, who took every opportunity to tear me down.
"Seriously, what's wrong?" I asked. Sterling huffed. "Of course. I'll just spill all my secrets so you can go and blackmail me with them."
"Hey," I frowned "You were the one who came up with the blackmail."
"And if I hadn't said anything, you'd have told the whole school. Which is worse?" he snapped, glaring at me. I glared back, pissed now. "Hey, I already told you. I wasn't going to waste a chance to screw you over. You're a complete dick, particularly to me and it makes absolutely no sense why you hate me so much, but I hate you just as much in return, and if I have something on you that's going to make my life a whole lot easier then I'm going to take it! You'd have done the same thing to me if you'd found out something bad about me! Except you wouldn't have agreed to blackmailing me. You would have just gloated and told everyone and ruined my life even more. So now who's worse?"
I had to breathe after my rant, and Sterling didn't say anything for a long while. Finally, just when I started breathing normally again and stopped sounding like a hippo who'd just run a marathon, he turned to me and said, "You don't know anything about me, so stop assuming that you do. Now, it'd be great if you just left right now. I have a job to do and I'd like to not look like I've just been crying."
I got up and stormed towards the doors, angry and indignant. Just as I was about to leave, I heard Sterling call my name and I stopped.
"Just so you know," he said, having stood up "If I ever found out something about you, I wouldn't tell anyone. I'm not actually a bad guy."
"No, it's just to me," I shot back "And that's why I don't believe a word of what you just said."
As soon as we were back at school the next week, I started harassing him. Getting in his face, taunting him, practically asking him to do something to me. I didn't believe his crap about being a decent guy at heart and I wanted to catch him in a lie. I wanted to prove to him that he was as bad as I knew he was. But it just seemed to keep backfiring in my face. Every single time I tried to rile him up, he'd just walk away, and then his goons would get it in their heads to punish me for my insolence. So I ended up going home every night covered in bruises. It wasn't fun, and by the end of the week I stopped trying.
But it wasn't soon enough.
"What's wrong with your face?" Travis said as he leaned in the doorway of my room. I rolled my eyes. The footballers had decided to give me a nice black eye and split lip and finally my dense brother had noticed.
"None of your business."
"Well, it's an improvement," he laughed. I swallowed hard and tried to concentrate on my homework. This was classic Travis behaviour, and almost every time he managed to drag me into a fight. I wasn't going to fall for it this time. But then he opened his mouth again.
"I mean, it would have been nice if they'd given you two nice, matching black eyes, but I suppose it'll do. Couldn't they manage it though? Were you…"
"Shut up!" I shouted, getting up and turning on him "Can't you ever just shut the hell up?!"
"Ooh, touchy, aren't we?" Travis smirked "Get over yourself, Nick."
"Get out." I tried to shove him out of the way but he just pushed back. I lost my balance for a split second and Travis grabbed my shirt and half-threw me out of my room. I fell in a heap on the hallway floor, wincing as the pain from the footballers' beating started to return.
"You're so pathetic, Nick. What's wrong with you?" Travis sneered, walking past me.
I staggered to my feet. "I'm better than you!"
My brother looked back at me with disdain. "Really? Who's the one Mom can't stand to look at? Who's the one that Dad left because of, for being gay? Which, by the way, is why Mom hates you – because you made Dad leave."
Every word hit too hard. It was all true and as much as I wanted not to have to hear it, I knew it was true and I deserved it. Dad had left because I'd come out, and Mom couldn't cope with it. She sided with Travis on everything. She barely spoke to me. She hated me. Travis hated me. Everyone just hated me.
It was a while before I realised Travis had gone and I was just standing in the hallway alone. I had to force myself to move and I didn't really know where I was going until I'd grabbed my keys and was out the door. I don't even remember starting the car or actually driving anywhere. The next thing I knew, I'd stopped on the side of the road and was crying my eyes out.
It was all my fault. I really did deserve everything I got – at school and at home. I'd come out to my parents thinking they'd be alright with it, that they'd love me regardless – what a stupid idea that was. My father hadn't said anything at the time, which should have warned me, but the first I knew about his true feelings was when he was walking to the door with his bags packed, telling my mother that he couldn't live with a gay son, that he was leaving. And after that, everything had gone downhill. Mom stayed glued to the TV rather than deal with the real world, she only really talked with Travis (if she was even in a speaking mood at all), and she tried to pretend I didn't exist. And my punishment was being beaten and bullied at Dalton. I deserved it.
I practically jumped out of my skin when I heard a tap on the window. I looked up, confused, to see a familiar face staring down at me with what appeared to be concern.
Great. Because my day couldn't get any worse. Fucking Jeff Sterling had to show up.
His voice was muffled by the door between us as he said, "Are you okay?"
No, I was not fucking okay. But I didn't say anything. I just dropped my head into my hands, wondering if Satan would be kind enough just once to suck me down into Hell so I didn't have to face this. I heard the door open and the light hand on my shoulder made me flinch.
"Are you okay?" Sterling asked me again. I stared at him. "W-What are you do-ing here?"
Sterling frowned. "Do you know where you are?"
I shook my head and looked over his head to see. My heart thudded to the pit of my stomach. I could not be more of a loser. I'd managed to have a breakdown across the street from Sterling's stupid gas station. He must have seen me and… what? Come to help? Laugh in my face? He didn't look like he was enjoying my misery – he looked downright worried.
"I'm s-sorry." I wasn't sure what I was apologising for. Everything? Sterling just patted my shoulder and asked, "Do you want to come inside?"
Nothing really made much sense – Sterling was being nice to me. I was nodding before I really realised I was, and by that time Sterling already had me out of the car and across the road. He kept an arm around me and I was half-glad for it, because it was freezing.
When we got inside he led me behind the counter and sat me down on the floor, right where I'd been the previous week when it'd been him crying and me yelling at him. Thinking about that only made me feel worse, and I planted my face into my knees and started sobbing again. My whole face hurt, my ribs were killing me, and I just couldn't stop. I felt Sterling put his arm around me again and I leaned into him, trying to control myself. This really was pathetic. I was a useless, pathetic human being.
Eventually I stopped crying so much and I was just hiccupping and trying not to choke on my own shaky breaths. Sterling asked quietly, "You feeling any better?"
I sniffed. "N-Not really."
He was quiet for a while, until finally he said, "You don't have to by any means, but if you want, you can tell me what's going on."
I looked at him, rubbing the tears from the eye that wasn't bruised. "Why a-are you being s-so nice to me?"
Sterling ran a hand through his hair. "I said before, I'm not actually a bad guy." He paused. "Not anymore."
I didn't know what to say to that. But Sterling didn't seem to notice, because he carried on talking and I just sat there and listened – and began to understand Jeff Sterling.
"I know I used to be an asshole. I mean, I was a grade A asshole. I used to hurt people all my life and for some reason, it made me feel good. I got to fit in and I had friends because I bullied others, so I guess that's why. And when I got to Dalton, you were just there, the perfect target. Everyone had practically already agreed to hate you, and if I wanted to fit in, I had to hurt you, so I did. And all those other kids too. The only reason anyone likes me is because… because I'm an asshole. And a football player. And in the Warblers. And I'm not smart. They all love the good-looking dumb jock. And it's really fucking stupid."
I just nodded as he spoke, not wanting to interrupt. It seemed as if he'd been wanting to say this stuff for a long time and I wasn't about to stop him. I understood needing to vent.
"Last summer, just before we came back for senior year, my mom… we were having dinner, me and her and Dad, and she just looked up and said, 'Once I finish I'm going up to my room, collecting my things, and leaving'. Just like that. I-I didn't even see it coming."
Sterling rested his head in one hand, sighing in defeat. I assume it was unconscious on my part, but I shuffled a little closer until our sides were completely pressed together. His arm was still over my shoulder and I could feel him shaking slightly.
"And she did. She got up and went upstairs, and Dad followed her. I could hear them arguing about it, and when they came back down they were still fighting. Mom was saying she didn't want anything to do with a 'deadbeat money-sucker' like him. "Cause he doesn't actually have any money, it all comes from my mom's side. She's the one who's filthy rich. But then she came and found me, and she asked if I wanted to come with her. And I…"
Sterling turned and looked at me with such desperation in his eyes, I wondered if he realised who he was talking to. But all that flew out the window when he said, "Nick, I didn't know what to say. What was I supposed to say? It was just... it was happening so fast… and I obviously didn't give the right answer in time, because she glared at me and said if I wanted to live with Dad then she didn't... she didn't want anything to do with me."
He was starting to squeeze my shoulder really hard now, and it kind of hurt, but I didn't want to stop him. I couldn't. Because I understood exactly how he was feeling – worthless, pathetic, useless. I knew just how much it hurt to have one of the two people you're supposed to be able to trust rip everything away from you and make it your fault.
"Dad and I had to move out," Sterling continued "He's working two jobs now. Everything for Dalton's been paid for, I'm safe for the rest of the year, but money's really tight, so I figured I'd help Dad out and get a job."
"I'm sorry," I said quietly "I didn't know."
Sterling gave me a kind of half-smile. "It's okay now. We're doing alright. But I was planning to go to college next year, and now… there's only one way I'm going to get to college now, and that's a scholarship."
I bit back the urge to say something about the irony of the situation, but he obviously saw my expression and laughed a little. "I know. It's weird. But there's no way I'm going to get good enough grades for a scholarship. That's why I'm hoping football can save me."
It made sense. He was apparently brilliant at football, and it would be the perfect thing to manoeuvre his way into college. And suddenly it all started to make sense. Why he'd been so desperate for me not to tell anyone about his job.
"I get it now," I said "If I'd told anyone at school about you working, they'd have ruined your life. They'd probably force you off the team out of shame or something. And then you wouldn't be able to get the scholarship and you wouldn't go to college."
"Exactly." Sterling sighed and looked down at me. "So that's my story. Feel free to spread it around and make my life miserable. I probably deserve it."
I ducked my head. "I'm sorry. I was the one being a grade A asshole when I blackmailed you. Even if it was your idea. And you don't deserve it. At least, I don't think so."
"You don't think so?" Sterling smirked.
"Well, not at the moment," I shot back "But when you're being a dick, then maybe I might change my mind."
The blonde sighed again. "I should tell you… When I got back to school after she left, and saw you walking into class, I kind of just stared at you. You were smiling like nothing could possibly be wrong with the world and… I hated you for that."
"You were… jealous of me?" It didn't sound right on my tongue. But Sterling nodded. "Yeah, I guess so. I resented you for being happy when everything in my life was falling to pieces. So this year, I've wanted to be a good guy; I wanted to be better than my mom was when she hurt me, but I couldn't get past the fact that it all seemed good for you and it was all bad for me."
"Well, it wasn't good," I sighed "It was pretty crap, actually."
"I figured, since you were practically a puddle of tears on the floor."
I nudged him in the ribs. "Shut up."
He laughed. "Sorry. Are you going to tell me? You don't have to."
"You told me," I shrugged "May as well return the favour."
I didn't say anything else for a while, trying to psych myself up to it. But the moment the first words were finally out of my mouth, nothing could have stopped me – they just poured out, and I kind of realised what Sterling must have felt just minutes ago.
"My dad left last year. It was my fault. I'd known for a long time that I was gay, and I finally got the courage to tell my parents. I thought they'd be okay with it. Mom was a little freaked out, but my dad didn't say anything. It probably should have been a warning sign, but I didn't see anything. Not until he was at the door a few days later with his bags, telling my mom that he couldn't live with a gay son. He just walked out. Didn't say anything to me. He said goodbye to my mom and my brother, but just walked right past me like I didn't exist. And now my mom blames me for him leaving, and she pretends I don't exist. And I'm pretty sure my brother's a psychopath, because he gets off on making me feel like shit and telling me it's my fault. So yeah, we're not really a happy family, but I guess I deserve it. All the stuff you throw at me at school, I mean. I was stupid and I broke something when I could have just left well enough alone. I deserve what you do to me. It was my fault."
I could feel another wave of tears coming on so I shut my mouth and stared at the floor. But then Sterling patted my shoulder again and said quietly, "It wasn't your fault. I can tell you that. Your dad should love you no matter what. That's what parents do. And he didn't. It's his own stupid fault that he walked out on something good."
I looked up at him. His tone sounded sincere but I still couldn't quite believe it. But there it was in his face – complete and utter sincerity. He wasn't joking around. He meant it. And he barely even knew me.
"Are you going to tell anyone?" I asked, my voice starting to crack a little. He frowned. "No. Just… don't tell anyone about what I said?"
We sat there for a few minutes in silence. Sterling still hadn't moved his arm from around my shoulders and it was nice and warm and heavy, in that comforting, it's-okay-just-stay-here-you're-safe kind of way. It probably shouldn't have felt like that, especially when we were going from long-time enemies to… well, maybe not enemies anymore. I probably shouldn't have liked sitting so close to this guy, who had just spilled some of his most hurtful secrets to someone who used to hate him all of not that long ago, who was being nice to me and was probably the only person who ever would be. I shouldn't have liked being curled up next to him, pressed against his side with his arm around me, feeling like for once I was okay and maybe I was actually going to stay okay.
But I did.
"I guess we're both pretty messed up, hey?" Sterling said suddenly, softly. I nodded. "Yeah. But we're going to have to go back to being enemies again."
Sterling swallowed hard. "I guess so. I don't want to. I hate the way I am."
"But you want to get out of here," I said "And I get that. It's okay. You can do what you like at school."
He opened his mouth to say something but I beat him to it. "I never asked. What do you want to do at college? Just play football?"
Sterling shook his head. "No. To be honest, I kind of hate it. I…" He trailed off and looked away. "What?" I was curious now.
"You'll laugh at me."
"I won't. Promise."
Sterling smiled. "I want to be a teacher. A dance teacher. Music. Something like that."
I couldn't stop the small smile that spread over my face. "Really?"
"Yeah. As much as the Warblers bitch and lord over everyone else, I really love the music we do. I want to teach kids about music and help them discover how great it can be. How great they can be. Is that stupid?"
"Not at all," I smiled "It's awesome, especially compared to what I want to do…"
Sterling raised his eyebrow questioningly and I rolled my eyes. "Journalism."
"That's cool too. You could change the world or something, help people see the truth."
My smile widened. I hadn't really thought about it like that. I just wanted to get out of Ohio and see more of the world. Journalism had seemed like a good option – I was supposedly a good writer and I would get to go places far away from this shitty place.
"Oh." Sterling suddenly lifted his arm and tucked it into his side, shifting a little away from me. "Sorry. I didn't realise I was still… doing that."
It felt strange now not to have that support around me, but I nodded. "It's okay. I should go home anyway. And try not to drive myself off the road before I get there. I suppose I can't die yet if I'm going to do all this world-changing."
The comment was half-sarcastic, half-'fuck this shit, I don't even care anymore'. But Sterling surprised me by grabbing me roughly and staring at me in a panic.
"Don't," he said quickly "Whatever you're thinking, don't."
"Just… don't hurt yourself, okay? It… I know it doesn't work. Not really. And killing yourself won't fix anything either."
I couldn't look away from him – he sounded so scared, like he actually cared if I drove myself off the road tonight and didn't make it home. Or took all my mother's anti-depression medication if I did get home. Or took a pair of scissors and scrubbed the blade up and down my arm until it bled because I was too afraid to cut and I just wanted to stop crying. He sounded as if he knew what it was like to feel that desperate. And I just couldn't imagine, even hearing what had happened with his family, that Jeff Sterling would ever feel that bad.
"Here," he said, reaching up to the counter top and searching for something. He found it quickly and ten seconds later a piece of paper was pressed into my hands. "Call me if you need to?"
I stared at the phone number for a moment before switching to staring at Sterling. "… Why? You hate me. At least, you don't like me."
"I don't hate you," Sterling said honestly "And even if I did, I would still do the same thing. I don't want anyone to ever hurt themselves."
I blinked, thought about it, and then decided to just go with it. I mumbled a thank you and unsteadily got to my feet. I didn't want to know what time it was and I was exhausted from all this crying and emotional stuff. Sterling let me walk to the door on my own and I stopped there for a second. But before I could say anything, he beat me to it.
"You said before we'd have to go back to being enemies. Does that mean we were friends tonight?"
I stared at him. I didn't want to call the look in his eyes 'hope', but it was awful close to it.
"I don't know. Were we?"
Silence. I closed my eyes for a second. "See you at school, Sterling."
"Call me Jeff?"
I frowned, but then the smile started to creep up on me and I just couldn't stop it. "If you'll call me Nick."
"I'm pretty sure I already have, but okay," Sterling – Jeff – smiled.
I shook my head. "See you at school, Jeff."
I walked outside, wrapping my arms around my sore ribs to protect against the fiercely cold wind. As I headed back to my car, I pondered the question Jeff had just posed. Had we been friends, at least for that short while behind the counter?
Perhaps we were.
This was starting to get really confusing.
It shouldn't be. Everything should have just gone back to normal – Sterling being a bully, me hating him, both of us just waiting for the school year to end so we could get out of each other's lives. But now Sterling was Jeff and we'd both told the other some of our deepest secrets and I really didn't know what to do with myself. As the weeks passed, I continued to drop in at Jeff's work and instead of tossing insults at each other, we'd actually manage to have a grown-up, proper talk without wanting to kill each other. I learned so much about Jeff that I never would have guessed had we still been enemies – he took dance classes, called the Warblers out on their shit every other practice because he hated their superiority complex, knew how to cook. He told me about a girl he'd once dated who'd tried to push him in front of a bus when he dumped her, and a guy he'd asked out without knowing he was straight.
I told him stuff about me as well. Stuff I'd never told anyone before, about how I used to go on camping trips with my dad and brother when things were better, about my old dog Jessie that was put down when I was little, about how I hadn't even realised I'd gotten the scholarship to Dalton until it was almost too late to accept it.
It was nice. It was really nice, finally having someone to talk to and sort of hang out with and really, just have a friend. I never thought that I would ever call Jeff Sterling a friend, but it was kind of true. It was a little messed up that my first real friend was also my enemy at times and had to send his football buddies to occasionally beat me up to keep up appearances, but I liked the idea of talking with someone and having them not hate me.
The confusing thing though, was how all those feelings of friendship started to twist until even I didn't know what the hell was going on with me anymore. One minute Jeff and I would be chatting over the counter at his work about next week's homework, and the next I wouldn't be able to look away from his eyes; I'd be completely lost. Sometimes I wouldn't be able to follow the conversation because I was too caught up with thinking about how sweet and amazing Jeff really was. One day after school I found myself actually watching the football team practice, when I had absolutely no interest in the sport at all.
I didn't know what to do. I had no idea what was even happening. Jeff, not long ago, had been my mortal enemy and now… now I liked him. That thought alone was terrifying. I'd had crushes on a couple of guys before, but if any of them had ever asked me out, I would have said no. I didn't want to be around them like that. But Jeff? I knew this was different, and it scared the crap out of me.
I knew I probably should have started avoiding Jeff. I almost did. I was fully prepared not to go visit him at work on the weekend. But then Jeff smiled at me as I was leaving class on Friday – secretly, of course – and I knew I was going to be there the next night.
And I was. I showed up at the same time I always did, sneaking out after Travis and my mother had gone to bed. The moment I walked through the doors, Jeff looked up and smiled at me again, and I just stood there and stared like an idiot.
"Hey," I managed to reply. Jeff's face switched almost instantly to confusion. "Are you alright?"
I tried to smile. "Yeah."
"Are you sure?" he asked "Because you don't sound alright."
"I… I'm fine."
Jeff moved out from behind the counter to stand closer to me. "You know you can tell me, if you want."
I swallowed hard. Why did he have to be so observant? Or was I just being obvious? "I know. I'm okay."
The blonde bit his lip (fucking stop that). "If you say so." Then he jumped up to sit on the counter in a move that was more graceful than I would have given him credit for. He started talking, but as soon as he opened his mouth I was gone in my own world, horrified that I could have given away the fact that I had a major-enormous crush on him. There was no way I was going to lose the only friend I had. But I just couldn't keep my shit together, because suddenly Jeff was shaking my shoulder.
"What?" I blinked.
"You were pretty spaced out. Just tell me what's going on." He sounded a little hurt, like all the progress we'd made from 'god-I-hate-you' to 'wow-we-can-actually-talk-to-each-other' had just gone out the window.
I couldn't speak. I couldn't tell him. No way.
Fuck, but when he looked at me like that, there was no way I could hold anything back from him. He was pouting, eyes sad, his whole body language screaming why won't you talk to me, it hurts. My head was screaming too – Jesus fucking Christ, let me lay here and die.
"I… you wouldn't… you wouldn't understand…" I was shaking now.
"I can try."
"But I know what you think of me, and that's not how I think of you, and then it'll be really weird and you might hate me again and oh my God, please shut me up…" I dropped my head into my hands in shame. Please God, let me die right now.
"I don't really understand what you're saying," Jeff just looked confused, so I sighed and attempted to explain. Well, the cat was half out of the bag, and there was no way it was going back in.
"We're kind of like friends, right?"
"I thought so."
"Well… that's not quite how I think of you. Shit, that's not what I mean. I… God… I think of you differently – but better! Definitely better… this isn't making any sense, is it?"
"You don't think of me as a friend?" And there was that hurt again, though he tried to hide it. I realised as he spoke – it hit me pretty hard – that I might have been the first friend Jeff had that he could be himself with. He didn't have to pretend to be someone else around me; he didn't have to hurt anyone for me to like him. And now he thought I was going to throw that back at him.
"Not… yes, but… I think…" Fuck, why was this so hard? "I think of you as more than a friend."
There. It was out. Finally. Jeff stared at me blankly for a few moments, confusion melting to realisation and then – "Oh."
Way to stab me through the heart and rip it out and kill me. Oh. Oh, well, that's awkward. Oh, that's not good. Oh, I don't like you, we can't be friends anymore. I bit my lip. "I'm going to go before I embarrass myself anymore."
I turned towards the door but before I could even take a step, Jeff jumped off the counter and grabbed my arm. I whipped my head around to stare at him, heart pumping fast. Was he going to hit me? I wasn't sure, but he looked scared too.
"Nick, what if I didn't think what you obviously think that I think?"
I blinked. "What?"
"Well, you think that I think a certain way, but what if I told you I didn't think the way you think I think?"
I was still lost. Jeff sighed. "You think I don't like you like that. I don't think that at all."
Shit, was he saying what I thought he was saying? Hell no. Back this shit up and get me the fuck off this train. There was no way that Jeff Sterling, his Royal Highness of Dalton Academy, was telling me that he liked me the way I liked him. No. Way.
Clearly my silence was freaking him out and he was getting desperate. "I like you. And yeah, it's probably a bit weird considering not long ago we used to hate each other, but I feel like I kind of know you now, or at least better than I did before, and I like that person. A lot. And if you like me too then… that's sort of awesome."
"You… like… me?"
Jeff wasn't smiling – he was beaming in relief. "Yeah."
"You like… me?"
"Yeah, stupid. I don't just share all the stuff I've told you with anyone."
"Wow…" I grinned stupidly "I… wow."
Jeff laughed. He was still holding my arm, but he shifted his grip until he was loosely holding my wrist, taking the other one as well. All of a sudden my stomach exploded with jittery, self-conscious butterflies and I looked away from him. I had never done this before, and no one had ever made me feel this way before. It was scary. And then I realised – I didn't know what I was doing, how I was supposed to act, what I was supposed to say – what if I fucked it up? Of course I'll fuck it up. I fuck everything up.
I pulled out of Jeff's light hold and tucked my hands behind my back. His own hands settled on my upper arms and my skin felt like it was burning under his fingers.
"What is it?" he asked.
"I don't know," I admitted, and as soon as those words left my mouth it was like a dam had broken and Exorcist-levels of word vomit suddenly exploded out of me "I don't know what to do. Unlike you, this is the first time anyone's ever shown attention to me like this. I don't really know what it means – like, what happens now? What if I fuck this up? God, what even is this? Are we together or something? Are we… boyfriends? And what about school? We can't just go back to school and say, 'oh by the way, we're dating'. The guys will kick you off the team, and then you won't get your scholarship and there's no way I'm going to be at fault for making someone live in this godforsaken town forever. And don't think this is all about you! They'll probably kill me if we started dating – Jesus, do you even want to date me? Like, are we dating or do we actually have to go on a date first? What if we do start dating but then I say something stupid and completely ruin everything? I don't think I can handle that kind of pressure-"
I barely even noticed that the whole time I was talking Jeff was just standing there smiling at me. I only shut up when he pressed a finger to my lips and chuckled. "Shh."
I glared at him. I was so not done with everything I had to say. Didn't he realise that I was completely out of my depth here? Did he not understand the sheer terror that tried to squash me when I realised that someone (he) liked me and I had no fucking clue what I was supposed to do? But then it was a bit hard to glare when he asked in a ridiculously soft voice if it was okay to kiss me.
Fact: It is incredibly hard to glare at someone when you're a terrified, shaking, melted puddle of 'oh God kiss me but please actually don't' on the floor.
"I-I um… No?"
Jeff blinked. Probably the first time someone had ever said no to him. I quickly tried to explain – Jesus Christ you're already fucking this up.
"I just… I don't think I'm… comfortable with it… yet"
"Oh," he smiled "Okay. That's cool. Are you calmer now?"
"No," I replied honestly.
He laughed. "You need to stop worrying. None of that's important."
"Not important?" I frowned "Of course it's important. Weren't you listening? I don't know what the hell I'm doing."
"To be honest, neither do I."
I scoffed. "You've dated heaps of people."
"I haven't dated someone like you."
I really wasn't sure what my face was doing anymore. One minute I was annoyed, the next gaping like a fish, and then grinning like an idiot again. I thought about getting myself under control but then Jeff slid his hands down my arms until he'd coaxed me to stop hiding my own hands, just so he could hold them. Control was at the bottom of my list of priorities right now.
"What do we do now?" I asked, feeling a little dazed. Jeff shrugged. "We can sort it out tomorrow. Right now, I'm going to do something I've been wanting to do for a while now."
I was not prepared in the slightest. Jeff let go of my hands and without warning, grabbed my ass (holyfuckinghell) and lifted me up to sit on the counter. I tipped forward and had to grab his shoulders so I didn't faceplant into him, and yes, I may have squealed. Loudly. And it wasn't even a cute little squeal – it was more like a high-pitched 'oh my g-ahh!'. Once I was settled on the counter I stared down at Jeff – finally taller than him for once – and managed to say,
Jeff smirked. "I was expecting some snarky remark about how I just wanted to grab your ass. Which is exactly what I wanted to do, in case you were wondering. You have a great ass."
It was slightly embarrassing that I was reduced to stammering, but Jeff Sterling can have that effect on some. "I-I bet you say that to all the girls… and guys."
I smiled. I could probably get used to this.