Water slicks James's biceps, his skin muted beneath the surface, fish-belly pale. Each stroke burns through his muscles, his shoulders tense as he rounds off his final lap.
He flips. Everything dissolves into a barrage of bubbles. Then he's off again, free, cartwheeling through the Palm Woods pool.
Kendall's waiting there in the shallow end, too fair to stand the constant barrage of the California sun. His cheeks grow pinker the minute. Man-made waves lap at his calves, deep blue and foamless, and more than anything James wants to reach out to him. To pull him underneath the waves and kiss his neck, the pudge of his belly, his scrawny thighs.
But he restrains himself, because Kendall's completely absorbed in conversation with one of the Jennifer's, animated beyond the point of exuberance. James doesn't want to chase that ridiculous smile away.
Kendall's been kind of…tense, since the announcement that they'd be working with Jett. He's usually so cocksure, so quick to grin. Now he looks like a rescue dog prior to adoption; always waiting for the next slap.
James, on the other hand, is anticipating it. He needs to talk to Jett about sex.
Which are words he never thought he'd have to think about. Ever. Like in all of history.
James ducks his head back under the water, trying to block out the noise; except most of it is his brain. It's not something he's used to, or likes very much. He blows bubbles out of his mouth, frustrated as fuck. He never should have let Diana talk him into this.
Ever since the night before, his convoluted feelings about leading Kendall on have evolved into full on, complicated anxiety. He's fretted over Kendall's admission about liking James forever one too many times, re-analyzing every interaction they've ever had. What's worse is now James wonders why he never noticed, or if he did, and just pushed it away.
Because he's beginning to feel like maybe he has always wanted Kendall; it's like he's rewriting his own memories, painting his history so that there was never a day when he didn't want his best friend with his whole heart.
But he can't trust it. He doesn't know if love is honestly what he's experiencing. Maybe he's projecting these feelings onto Kendall because of how very scared he is to lose him. There's no way to find out until it ends.
And god, James is terrified that it will end in the worst possible way. The problem, of course, with turning friends into lovers is that if you fail, you end up with no friends. He never thought losing Kendall was an option when he went into this. Not even in his wildest dreams.
He also never thought Kendall could seriously be into him. James has been wrong about a lot of things, lately.
He breaks the surface of the pool, gasping for breath. Overhead, the summer sky stretches long and watery blue, streaked through with wispy yellow-tinted clouds. The air tastes like smog and ash and the sickening sweet of too many flowers. They line the Palmwoods, tucked between cabanas and skeletal palms twisting spindle-like up, up, up.
James inhales and exhales. He shuts his eyes against all this California.
No more guilt.
No more wondering.
They're meeting Jett at the studio in an hour. He'll get to talk to him soon. After that, he'll get Kendall to say those three little words, and then, Diana will be his. This will all be over.
It's such a relief, James thinks.
He's not sure why he's dreading it so very much.
There is steam around his feet, and James isn't sure how much of it is just back-splash from the light rain and how much is actual condescension from how hot the pavement has been lately. Carlos, Logan, and Kendall walk jauntily beside him, pushing and shoving and jostling each other.
James is beside them, but separate, wrapped up in his own thoughts.
Kendall bumps their shoulders together, asking, "Nervous?"
"What? No. Never."
"It's just Jett."
"Yeah," James says. "Just Jett."
Inside, he's thinking about what Jett and Kendall's first kiss must have been like; sloppy and reckless, full of anger and passion. He imagines the monuments of Washington D.C. standing vigil while Jett pushed Kendall back onto a hotel bed.
It burns him up from the inside out. The air conditioning inside Rocque Records is a blast of cold air, shaking him out of his envy-filled reverie. The sight of Jett standing next to Kelly pushes him right back into it.
Breezily, Jett walks right up and hugs Kendall. Hugs him. Pretty tightly, too, muttering something under his breath that either makes Kendall blush or turn red from rage. It's hard to tell.
Then Jett turns on James, exclaiming, "James! I'm still better looking than you!"
"In your dreams, Stetson." James ignores the air kiss that Jett tries to give him, acknowledging, "You're even more obnoxious than I remember."
"Jealousy gives you wrinkles, James."
He makes the rounds with the other guys, insulting Carlos and Logan in turn. After the pleasantries are out of the way, Kelly shepherds them into Gustavo's office. True to form, Gustavo yells at them for no less than forty-five minutes straight. At one point, James is pretty sure his face starts turning blue.
The duet sounds like it's going to be a hot mess, but that's how Gustavo works. He creates magic from chaos.
They spend two hours memorizing the lyrics, which is harder for Jett than anybody else, because James is convinced Jett barely knows how to read. Say what you want about James Diamond's IQ, but he's at least literate.
He'd never be able to read his lifestyle magazines, otherwise.
After they've got some semblance of the song imprinted on their brains, they pile into the sound booth, where Jett enchants them all with his voice.
"I can't take it," Carlos yells over the noise, "It sounds like a cat is murdering a manatee!"
"Why would a cat be anywhere near a manatee?" Logan smacks Carlos across the helmet. "Cats hate water."
"Or maybe manatees hate land," Carlos counters.
"Manatees live in the water."
Carlos blinks. "No they don't."
"Yes they do."
"No they don't."
"Yes they do! Idiot."
James glances over his bickering friends' heads towards Kendall, ready to share a conspiratorial look, like do you see this shit? Only Kendall is busy watching Jett yowl with a mixture of amusement, horror, and fondness that James hasn't seen since he taught Jo to drive.
This isn't going to work at all.
James waits until Gustavo calls a break, exhausted and possibly bleeding from the ears, and then he drags Jett bodily from the sound booth, ignoring Kendall, Carlos, and Logan's protests. One hand on the back of Jett's collar, the other forcibly pushing at the small of his back, James guides him down the maze-like halls of Rocque Records, searching for a quiet, private space.
They round a corner and skid to a halt, because okay, yeah, this will work.
Jett jerks away from him, incensed. "Enough with the manhandling! You're not my masseuse. Although I am feeling tense, if you'd like to really give it a go."
"No," James says flatly. "I need to talk to you."
"I'd assumed that is why you keep making mouth noises at me." Jett slings himself across one of the plush leather couches in the distant corner of the Rocque Records that James has herded them into.
Squeezing his eyes shut, James sighs. This is going to suck. "Advice. I want advice."
He doesn't actually want advice, per se. But there's no other way to tell Jett that he's a man with a plan, and that plan is quizzing him about his sex life with Kendall.
"You want advice. From me?" Jett cocks an eyebrow. "That shirt needs to go."
"Not that kind of advice," James says hastily.
His shirt is ah-mazing.
"Lady trouble?" Jett practically purrs.
"As if." James wrinkles his nose. This is a terrible idea. He knows it's a terrible idea. He just can't think of a single time something being a terrible idea ever stopped him. "You slept with Kendall."
For a beat, Jett's eyes widen, white all around a ring of iris.
He recovers quickly. "So he's bragging about it."
"Yeah, no. Not so much." James snorts.
"I'm not surprised." Jett completely ignores his objection. "I'm fantastic in bed."
"I'll take your word for it."
Smugly, Jett retorts, "Take Kendall's."
James disregards his dark impulse to slug Jett in the jaw, because you can attract more flies with honey, or so he's told. Instead he says bluntly, "That's the part I want to talk to you about. Kendall and I are together, now."
Jett stares at him.
Barreling on, James says, "When I fuck him, I want it to be better than anything he's ever had. Tell me what you did, the first time."
"So you can make it better?" Jett quirks an eyebrow.
James folds his arms across his chest. "Exactly."
For at least a second, he thinks that he and Jett are seeing eye to eye on this. Then Jett opens his big, fat mouth and says, "See, the problem with that is Kendall is mine."
"I licked him, he's mine. Man Code dictates this to be true."
"He's not food."
"You've clearly never licked him," Jett replies knowingly. "And I bet he's never licked you."
James abruptly thinks that he doesn't want to stick his dick anywhere Jett Stetson's has been, but the thought comes with too much guilt, because this is Kendall, and he wants him with a depth and flavor that he didn't know was possible.
"Jett, come off it." He runs his fingers through his hair, sticky with product. "I'm serious."
"You think I'm not?"
"I think you're trying to fuck with my head."
"If I was trying to fuck with your head, I'd tell you exactly what you want to know. I'd tell you what kind of noises Kendall made when I was inside him, and how he was begging for it. I'd tell you we tried every position we could, and that he always came. Every. Single. Time." He pops his lips for punctuation. "But I'm not messing around. Kendall's mine."
"Don't you think maybe that's something he would have mentioned when he agreed to date me?"
"Please. He has no idea what he wants, or what he's doing." Airily, Jett waves his hand through the air, brushing away the very notion that Kendall could have something like free will. James hates him so, so much. "Kendall wants me."
"I want you to…do what, exactly?"
James glances sharply to the left, where Kendall is casually leaning against the corner, arms crossed in a perfect imitation of James's defensive stance. His expression is obscure – James can't tell if he's unhappy or just curious.
"Private conversation, Kendork."
"It's about me, Stetson." Kendall frowns at James. "Gustavo wants us back in the sound booth. What's happening here?"
James opens his mouth.
James closes his mouth.
"He was asking me for tips on fucking you," Jett inserts smoothly, with the appearance of someone who is thoroughly enjoying himself.
Kendall doesn't yell. He doesn't say anything at all, other than, "Jett, you should go check with Kelly. I think she wants to change part of your solo."
James hopes she wants to cut part of Jett's solo. Or all of it, preferably.
"If I go talk to Kelly, I'll miss all the exciting things that are about to happen here," Jett replies brightly.
"That's pretty much the point." Kendall grits his teeth. "Go, Jett."
He does, but only after making a real show about it, moaning and groaning and begging Kendall to tell him every single detail later, waggling his eyebrows at James all the while. When he finally vacates the quiet little nook, James tells Kendall, "You were naked with that."
"I'm repressing the memory," Kendall says calmly. "What the actual hell do you think you're doing?"
"Trying to figure out why you would ever want to be naked with that," James retorts, his temper blazing.
"You really want to know?"
"I really, really do."
"The first time? Because I was drunk. And stupid. Is that what you want to hear?"
"You were drunk and stupid," James mimics. He knows it's a mean thing to say, because he himself hates getting too drunk. He hates the way it makes him loose-lipped and open, the way he can never remember what he's said or what he's done. He hates having vulnerabilities he's never fully aware of until later, when people joke about it with a light elbow to his ribs, an arm around the shoulder like suddenly they're buds. And he hates hates how he never knows if he's done something wrong until later, until it's too late.
James is a little bit of a control freak, in his own way.
But that doesn't stop him from saying, "And all the times after that?"
"All the times after that it felt good, and I was lonely." Kendall doesn't drop his gaze. His green eyes flare with rage, but his voice is icier than a Minnesota sidewalk in midwinter. He says, "And it's none of your damned business anyway."
Now James is really and truly mad. He retorts, "Sor-ry for wanting to make it good for you! Whatever, you're right. It's not my business." He can't stop himself from adding, "Maybe you shouldn't be my business, either."
Kendall's mouth falls open, a perfect little pink 'o'. And then he snaps it shut, recovering his wits too quickly for James to even feel bad. Dead level, he says, "Okay. Then I won't be your business."
And then he turns on his heel and stalks back towards the sound booth.
This is so not how James wanted any of this to go.
They go hours without talking.
It's not the first time that's happened; James and Kendall butt heads at least five times a week, and in some of those cases things escalate so badly that they'll go a week, or two, or more. There was one time, a freak period between sixth grade and seventh, where they didn't talk for six months. Not once. Not at all.
They played on the same hockey team, went to the same school, but they didn't say a single word to each other. And it all started with James's parents, with the divorce, which Kendall called a good thing. With James telling him that he had no idea what he was talking about, because he didn't even have a dad.
Parents fuck up your life.
But even then, during those six insufferable months, James knew that they'd gravitate back together again. He felt it in his bones. This time…he's not so sure.
He knows what he said really hurt Kendall. This is different from taking a jab at his family in retaliation for being hurt. This is a personal attack against the way he feels, the way he opened himself up to James. He trusted that his best friend wouldn't handle his heart so haphazardly, and now James has just acted like it's the easiest thing in the world to throw away.
James is swallowing against guilt all through dinner. He barely touches his dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets. Mrs. Knight keeps feeling up his forehead, asking, "James, honey. Is everything alright?"
Then she looks at her son and murmurs, "I wonder if something's going around."
"Yeah. Idiocy," Logan mumbles under his breath. James hears him, but he doesn't even bother trying to punish him for it. Like he is in most things, Logan is completely, one hundred percent correct.
It really sucks donkey balls.
Kendall's silhouette graces James's doorframe just as he's getting ready to go to bed. He asks, "Can we talk?"
"It's a free country," James replies, shrugging a ratty t-shirt over his head. He was about to dive into bed naked as the day he came, but his birthday suit probably isn't appropriate attire for whatever discussion they're about to have.
Kendall's shoulders sag. "I'm sorry."
"It was sweet. You asking Jett for advice. Wanting to make sex good for me. It was really sweet." He cocks his head to the side. "Weird, too, but. It's you. I expect weird from you."
James wants to tell him that he wasn't trying to be intrusive, but he's not as stupid as everyone thinks. He knows what he did was wrong. "I hate that there's this big part of your life that you had to hide from me. We talk about sex with girls all the time, but this is a total mystery to me."
"I know." Kendall strides into the room, taking a seat atop James's bed. After a moment's hesitation, James joins him. Their combined weight makes the springs creak in protest. "We share everything, and it sucks that I didn't share this with you."
"You said you were ashamed."
Kendall winces. "There's that."
Perceptively, James asks, "What else is there?"
"I was scared you'd be jealous." Kendall takes a deep breath. "I was also scared you wouldn't be."
Third grade, James thinks again, for what must be the thousandth time.
He admits, "I can't remember ever being so jealous in my entire life."
Kendall gives him a rueful smile. "You make me feel that way, sometimes."
"When?" James asks, thinking of all the times he's regaled the guys with stories of his hijinks, dates and bad kisses and good kisses and sex. He's been throwing every single one of his romantic endeavors in Kendall's face without even realizing it, for ages. It can't have felt very good.
"I felt like you were fucking with me. At the club. When I kissed you. I was so sure you were just trying to get a rise out of Diana."
James swallows. "I wasn't."
"I know that now." Kendall squeezes his hand. "I should have run away from you."
Like that's even important. James's heart is wide open, exposed, too vulnerable. He pulls his hand away, but only so he can throw his arms around Kendall's neck and murmur against the skin of his throat, "I'm sorry I told you that you weren't my business. You're my best friend, man. You're always going to be my business."
Kendall's hands come up to clutch at James's back, and oh. God.
Everything with Diana was a storm. It sizzled through him.
But this is a different kind of love to fall in, daybreak on the horizon and warmth that never quite leaves his bones. That's what he has with Kendall.
He feels safe in the circle of his arms.
That's such a huge problem.
James never realized that safety was a thing he needed to feel, because there's never been a moment when Kendall wasn't by his side. But now, just a few minutes past the fear that Kendall might never be a part of his life, ever again, he realizes that it is.
And that it's something all too easy to lose.
Choking on a sob, he tells Kendall, "I'm so sorry. I'm so, so sorry."
"Hey. It's okay. I promise, it's okay."
Kendall rubs soothing circles against James's shoulder blades, completely unaware that what he's apologizing for hasn't yet come to pass.