*A/N - This one started out as a one shot from a Tumblr prompt by the awesome jakeyjohnson - however, it started some cogs turning at the time about making a multi chapter fic. So I started outlining and thought i'd give it a go, see how it turns out! There will be several big time jumps throughout the fic, that's kinda the idea - each chapter set further on from the previous one. To follow them through their lives from high school onwards. I hope you like it, feel free to send me suggestions lol*
Shadows and Tall Trees:
The sun was a hot yellow ball in the sky, blasting heat downwards on another day of the unrelenting summer. Nick shrugged off his bag and let it fall to his feet as he sought solace beneath the bleachers, removing his cap and running his fingers through the damp hair of his head. Sitting down in the shade, he watched his classmates filing towards the school doors knowing that the bell would ring out soon to signal the start of their last week as high school students. As he waited for Jess to join him in their usual meeting place, a tight ball of nervousness began to form in his gut, and he found his fingers playing with the peak of his hat just for something to do to distract himself. In the two years since their first kiss up high in the branches of what had now become 'their' tree, Nick and Jess had almost become inseparable.
On paper, they were a somewhat unlikely couple, but in reality they just clicked.
She'd helped him learn to become slightly less angry at the world and her limitless heart encouraged him to open up slightly and allow himself to be vulnerable now and again. He accepted that feeling things was how you grew, even if sometimes it hurt. He was a work in progress, but Nick knew he had a safe harbour for his thoughts in Jess. Likewise, Nick had enabled her to loosen up a little. He'd opened up Jess's world to see that life was more than just studying and organising everything to the last minute detail. Sometimes flying by the seat of your pants was exciting and thrilling and the memories to be made from embracing spontaneity far outweighed the potential risks.
They bought out the best in each other and there was an unspoken understanding between them that was on a level even their other best friends couldn't quite match. It was like they'd found a missing part of themselves that they couldn't be without – and thus, their unconventional quartet of Nick, Jess, Winston and Cece and been formed.
Two years of hi-jinks, laughs, a few short lived tears, and a whole lot of mess-arounds had flown past in the blink of an eye.
Nick knew what he was about to tell Jess was going to change everything - it was why he'd waited three weeks to speak to her. He didn't want to burst this perfect little bubble of happiness they'd all been enjoying, but Nick had learnt the hard way that life had a way of kicking you in the nuts when you least expected it. He'd carried his news around like a stone in his pocket every day, waiting until he could find the right time, but it never came. He couldn't bring himself to crush her happiness.
Closing his eyes and sighing heavily, Nick let his chin drop to his chest as he forced himself to take some slow, deep breaths.
Knowing that today had to be the day, and running the unwelcome words over in his head, as he had done thousands of times in the lead up to today, Nick jumped suddenly as he felt two small arms land around his shoulders from behind.
"Hey, Miller!" Jess exclaimed, her perkiness as abundant as ever, landing a tender kiss on his cheek as she placed her head next to his.
"Hey…" He nodded, resting his hands over her fingers and squeezing them gently, forcing out a smile for her benefit.
"Can you believe this is our last week of school?" She asked excitedly, slipping her bag from her shoulder and dropping to her knees beside him, leaning her weight against his arm the same way she always did, waiting for him to lift it up and around her shoulder so she could sink into the space he created.
"Yeah, I know…crazy, huh? Just like that it's all over."
Nick dropped his chin to place a kiss on the top of her head, the smell of her shampoo fogging his senses and making him wish they could just stay sat under the bleachers like this forever. Where nothing could reach them and they could stay in a perfect, happy little bubble of denial.
"So, I was thinking… " Jess laced her fingers through his and stroked her other hand across his back, until it tucked itself into the waistband of his shorts "…that maybe we could take a little road trip to the coast after graduation?"
"Yeah, just the two of us on a little adventure over the summer in your car - it'll be so much fun. I've already drawn up a mini list of must-dos…" She started to reel the items off on her fingers "…number one: sleep under the stars, number two: watch the sun rise, number three: paddle in the ocean, number four: fly a kite, number fi_"
"Sure, maybe…" He cut her off, somewhat distracted by the bile he could taste rising at the back of his throat.
"Gee, don't sound too enthused!" Jess laughed, pinching the flesh above his waist. When it didn't have Nick squealing in his usual girly fashion, she frowned and sat back from him slightly "What's up, buttercup? Why so glum?"
"Nothing, I'm fine…it sounds great – really. It's just…" Looking away from her gaze, Nick reached up to rub anxiously at the back of his neck before taking a deep breath to finish his sentence "…you know, I might not have as much free time in the summer as I thought."
Staring up to the metal framework overhead, he swallowed hard and got to his feet. Reaching for her hands, he tugged gently and bought Jess up to meet him then forced himself to look at her. The blue of her eyes was as bright as ever, even out of the daylight. It caught him off guard for just a second, and he opened and closed his mouth silently several times before finally admitting the truth.
"I'm moving house, Jess…"
Her eyebrows rose in surprise, but a smile remained upon her face, so Nick continued hurriedly before the reality set in, when her face would darken and she would punch him in the gut. At least, that's how he always saw it panning out, anyway.
"Uh-huh. My parents have been thinking about it for a while, apparently. It's a bigger place, more rooms…nice garden…" Nick trailed off.
"Well, that's cool I guess." Jess offered brightly.
"It is?" His face contorted in confusion. She was taking this far better than expected – perhaps he had been worrying for nothing.
"Sure! At least you won't have to share a bedroom with Jamie anymore..."
"Yeah, finally." He nodded slowly "And you know, you can come visit whenever you want, I swear..."
Her eyes shot up to his at lightning speed, head tilting slowly to the side and Jess was sure she must have misheard.
Please, God. Let her have misheard.
"Wait...I can what? What do you mean 'come visit'?" Jess swallowed nervously, her stomach starting to squirm as she saw Nick close his eyes in regret.
All too late, she realised that she had completely misunderstood.
This was not going to be a move around the block, or even the next town over – the look on his face alone told her that much. The apology in his eyes scared her, and Jess felt her blood turn cold despite the sweltering heat of the sun outside.
"Nick…wh-where are you moving to?" Her voice faltered slightly as she tried to suppress the sudden panic that was worming its way through her gut.
His eyes fell to his feet and he scuffed his shoe along the dusty ground a few times in silence.
"Nick?" She pleaded.
There was a long pause while he chewed helplessly on his bottom lip, wishing there was some other option ahead of him.
But the decision had been made, and contracts had been signed – he was moving away, whether he liked it or not.
And he did not.
"Chicago..." Nick whispered.
For the first time in his life, Nick had actually seen what it was like to witness the colour drain from someone else's face right before his very eyes, and it made his heart seize up his chest. He was still holding her hands, and felt the way her fingers had instinctively held on tighter at the news. The school bell rang out loud over the grounds, and the crowds of kids milling around outside began to file into the school building, but the two of them remained stood in complete silence.
"When?" Her pained voice finally broke the void of sound.
"A couple days after graduation…"
Nick felt her hands slip from his grasp as Jess backed away from him with an expression on her face that made him feel sick. He never thought in a million years that he would be the one to put it there.
"No…" Jess croaked out, barely loud enough to register as
"Jess, wait…" He begged.
Reaching for her, his heart sank in his chest as she forcibly shrugged him off . Turning on her heel, Jess knelt quickly to gather her things, not noticing her biology book fall from her bag as she hurried away from Nick as fast as she possibly could.
Cece was sitting on the little wall by the entrance doors, the same as every other day - swinging her legs back and forth in the sunshine and adjusting the oversized sunglasses on her nose while she waited for her best friend. She let her eyes drift across the grounds, trying to spot the dark head of hair accented by some colourful bow or other as it bobbed towards her, but there was nothing on the horizon. Checking her watch and knowing that they were cutting it very fine to reach registration on time, Cece stood to try and see what the hold up was. Jess always met Nick under the bleachers before school – but she was never late to class, ever.
Suddenly, a flash of bright green caught her eye as a figure hurried towards her.
A concerned look appeared on her features as Jess got closer, tears evidently streaming down her face and her smudged mascara becoming more noticeable with every stride nearer.
"Woah, woah, woah - what's wrong?"
Cece was nearly knocked backwards as Jess piled into her open arms, the crying loud in her ear as she bent forward a little to squeeze her friend tightly. As the sobbing continued, she gently prised Jess away from her by the shoulders.
"Babe, what's happened? Talk to me Jessica, you're scaring me here!"
But Jess could barely speak through her upset, and the only noises being produced when she opened her mouth were little hiccupy sounds as she gulped at the air.
"Ni-ni-nick…" She cried, fresh tears tumbling down her cheeks.
"Nick?!" Cece scrunched up her nose.
The sounds of someone running towards them made both girls turn their heads towards the sound. As soon as Jess realised it was Nick frantically making a bee line for them, she swiped furiously under her eyes with the back of her hand and grabbed Cece's elbow.
"He can't…see me…like…this" She begged, eyes wide as saucers "Can you…please see what he wants? I can't talk to him…not right now…I can't!"
"Okay, it's fine - you're fine. I got this, honey – you go wait for me inside. I'll be through in a second, alright?" Cece pulled a tissue out of her bag and pressed it into Jess's hand, guiding her towards the double doors to their left and turning to face Nick as his footsteps pounded louder against the pavement in front of her.
"You…" She pointed, her face so contorted with anger it stopped Nick in his tracks a few feet away "What did you do?"
"Not now, Cece…" He panted, his hands resting heavily on his knees as he tried to get his breathing back to normal "…I really need to talk to Jess."
He tried to sidestep her and move towards the building, but felt her fingers grab his elbow with a death grip. Her freakish strength had always scared the heck out of him, if he was honest.
"Yes, now." Cece spoke through gritted teeth "That girl is my heart, and I won't let you treat her badly, Miller. Don't make me kick your ass. Start talking. What the hell is going on?"
"My family is moving back to Chicago after graduation." Nick's voice cracked and he spoke quickly, like the words caused him physical pain to repeat "Happy, now?"
Cece's face softened immediately, and she released her hold on his arm.
"Yeah, 'oh shit'." He sighed "Look, can you please just let me through so I can find Jess before registration ends? I'm not trying to upset her, I just need to give her this…" Nick held up Jess's biology book weakly "…it fell out of her bag when she ran off, so…"
"Listen…" Cece smiled kindly "Jess is having a tough time processing the news right now, Nick" She squeezed his shoulder, a move that neither of them was quite comfortable with, but one she felt he needed in the moment "I think you kinda blind-sided her, she just needs a little space to get her head around it, you know? But, I can take it to her for you?"
Nick's chin dropped to his chest in resignation and he shrugged sadly as he handed the textbook over before burying his hands back in his pockets.
"Sure. If that's what she wants…I gotta go meet Winston and break the news to him anyway."
As Cece walked away and reached for the door handle, she heard him call after her.
"Hey, Parekh? Can you maybe give her a message from me?"
A little smile curled her mouth as she turned back round and nodded in agreement.
"Can you ask her to meet me here after school?"
"I think I can do that, yes."
"But, like, right here. In this spot. Not the bleachers. After school, okay?
"I got it." She rolled her eyes, then paused for a moment with one foot across the building threshold and called after him "Hey, Nick?"
"I'm sorry. You know, about your shitty news."
"Me too…" Nick replied with a pained smile.
Rubbing his palms nervously down the front of his shorts, Nick leaned back against the wall outside the school building as students filed out passed him. Yelling, shouting and laughing at the top of their lungs, Nick watched on in envy at their carefree mood and curled his lip at his own shitty luck.
He should be used to this by now, knowing that the good things in his life never lasted – but some part of him had always hoped that would change, had always clung to the hope maybe Walt could just get a normal, steady 9-5. Nick dreamed of a life where his Dad would be there at dinner every day so that he wouldn't have to stare at the empty seat at the head of the table, or see the cutlery sitting forlornly that his Mom laid out so carefully 'just in case'.
He hated never knowing if they were going to be able to meet rent that month, or if Nick would have to go and plead with the Landlord to give them an extra week yet again while his Mom somehow found the cash by pawning off family jewellery - only for Walt to swan back in through the front door a few days later laden with a new dress for Bonnie and baseball mitts or some other guilt gift for Nick and Jamie. What he hated the most was the way his Mom and Jamie always welcomed Walt as if he was some returning hero. Nick was old enough now to know that simply wasn't the truth, and the constant excuses and avoidance of responsibility from his father were starting to wear thin.
But still he ended up having to go through with this stupid move – because he knew that if he didn't, Jamie and his mother would have no one in their corner once Walt inevitably disappeared again once his past starting catching up with him. Someone had to look out for them - and more often than not, that role fell squarely at Nick's feet.
Blowing out a long, low breath, Nick removed and replaced his cap several times as he waited hopefully for Jess to turn up. He was counting on Cece to have passed the message on, and although he had no reason to doubt her, the fact that the crowds of students had already started to dwindle was making him twist his fingers together in that way he did when he was feeling anxious. With only the stragglers left ambling their way out of the exits on to the school grounds, Nick couldn't get rid of the sinking feeling in his stomach. Pushing himself off from the wall with his right foot, he scooped up his bag with a sigh and reluctantly stepped away from the building.
"Giving up on me already, Miller?"
His heart flew to his mouth as he span on the spot to see her standing there holding on to the door handle, as if she wasn't quite strong enough to look at him without support, worrying her bottom lip between her teeth and looking ridiculously adorable as she quirked a brow at him in question.
"No!" He rushed to close the gap between them, hands outstretched "No, I swear…I waited ages_"
"It's okay…I had to speak to Mr Weller before I left, I'm sorry I wasn't here on time."
"You came. That's all that matters." Nick smiled.
Jess swallowed nervously and walked the few steps out of the doorway, stopping when she reached Nick and lowering herself down to sit on the top step, tucking her skirt under her legs before patting the concrete next to her. He nodded, taking a seat and leaning forward to rummage loudly through his bag.
"Ah, damn it!" He exclaimed, thumping his fist against his thigh in frustration.
Nick grunted, removing a very battered and wilted red rose from the depths of his bag. Grimacing at how pathetic his gesture now looked, he shook his head.
"I picked this for you on my way here. I wanted to apologise for earlier and now I've messed it all up." Nick frowned, shoulders slumping "I'm sorry, I should never have put it in my bag…I don't know what I was thinking. I'm such a dumbass."
He lifted his gaze to see Jess looking at him, a little giggle escaping as she took the rose from his grasp.
"I love it." She insisted with a scrunch of her nose.
"You don't have to lie." Nick rolled his eyes and pouted, spinning his cap backwards on his head and scrubbing his hands down his face.
"Have I ever lied to you, Nicholas?"
Well, she had him there.
She hadn't, not once. Jess was big on honesty – good or bad (like the time she pointed out that the pimple on his forehead looked angrier than Mrs Young after discovering her car had been TP'd by the football team because she gave the quarterback detention).
She didn't shy away from the important stuff, and it made Nick feel even worse that he hadn't been able to bring himself to afford her the same courtesy.
"Look, Jess…I know I should have told you about Chicago earlier. I'm really sorry – I swear I didn't mean to upset you. I just didn't know how to break the news, so I kept putting it off…the last thing I ever wanted to do was make you cry. You know that, right?"
Jess had nodded her head and tried to smile, but Nick saw her swallow hard when he mentioned Chicago – as if she had momentarily forgotten.
"I know…" She said quietly, her fingers tentatively reaching for his and linking their hands together "…I just wasn't expecting the news, and it really caught me off guard."
"If it makes you feel better, I didn't tell Winston until after first period…?"
"Is that why he was crying in the library at lunch?"
"He was crying in the library?!"
"Oh, damn…no wonder I couldn't find him. Looks like I need to pick another flower before I go see him later." Nick laughed wryly, and Jess gave his fingers a little squeeze, knowing that it wasn't any easier on him seeing their reactions than it was for the rest of them to hear the news that he was leaving.
"I'm sorry I ran off this morning. I knew I was about to cry, and I didn't want you to see me like that…"
"I should have let you explain. I just got scared." Her voice started to wobble again.
"I promise I'll tell you everything I know about the move at dinner tonight – that is, if I'm still welcome?"
"Of course – my Mom hasn't stopped talking about it since the weekend!" Jess sniffed, taking a deep breath and wiping a thumb under her eyes.
Leaning herself against Nick's side, his arm draped itself over her shoulder and held her close.
"I missed hanging out with you today…" He sighed into her hair.
"Winston's cool, but he's no Jessica Day."
They laughed, cuddling closer together on the top step outside the school. Sitting quietly, they watched as the playing fields and school car park emptied and the sun began to get lower in the sky.
"So, what happens now?" Jess asked sadly, turning to face him.
Bringing the back of her hand to his lips so he could press his mouth hard against the soft skin there, Nick got to his feet and tugged Jess upwards into his body so he could wrap his arms tightly around her. He felt her weight relax against his chest as he dipped his chin to kiss her on the temple.
"Honestly? I don't know..." He admitted.
*A/N - Hope you liked, hopefully i'll be able to update again soon :) Feedback is super helpful!*