A/N: Hello! I received a PM notifying me of a "semi-official BTR oneshot day" and figured, why not? I've had this fic lying in my fanfic folder for months, and this little event gave me incentive to finally get it finished. I hope you like it. Reviews are much appreciated :D
How the World is Now
Once, when James was eight, he fell off his bike.
He wasn't exactly sure how it happened. One moment he was cruising down the sidewalk and making a turn onto Kendall's driveway, and the next he had flipped off and landed hard on the pavement.
He scraped his knees and cut the heels of his hands. It hurt, though it was really the surprise of the crash that triggered his tears. His cheeks burned hot as he stared down at the blood smudging his skin and the tiny pebbles wedged in the wounds. He hardly noticed Kendall had darted into the house to get help. It wasn't until Carlos and Logan each grabbed one of James's arms to yank him to his feet that he snapped out of his initial shock.
"Ew, you're bleeding," Carlos remarked, his plastic helmet lopsided on his head.
Logan frowned. "James, are you okay?"
As James was attempting to stifle his sniffling long enough to vocalize a reply, a blond rushed out of the house and bounced down the front steps with a redhead close behind. Mrs. Knight carried an abnormally large first aid kit that was probably stolen from the trunk of an ambulance rather than purchased at a drugstore. The case was tight in her grip as she hustled over to James with her trademark look of maternal determination. Carlos and Logan, confused and unsure of how to be of assistance, nonetheless refused to let go as Mrs. Knight revealed a bottle of disinfectant and ushered James into the house.
Kendall saw James's tears. "Don't worry," he assured with a soft smile. Then, with words only an eight-year-old could sincerely say without any abashment or red face, he added: "We'll take care of you."
"There you are."
James immediately winced, irritated that the voice made him relieved. The only company he'd had in the past hour was the constant breeze that pushed his hair in his eyes, and the empty swing beside him.
He didn't acknowledge Kendall, but behind him he could hear his friend's approaching footsteps crunch over the playground gravel. James sighed, aware of what was coming, but not quite knowing how to deal with it.
Kendall probably knew that, though. Kendall was good at knowing those kinds of things; that was why it was dangerous to be near Kendall during these situations.
The footsteps stopped. James could feel Kendall's gaze on the back of his head, and he wished his friend would either move into sight or go away so he didn't have to continue feeling like there was a hole burning through his skull. With all the hairspray James used, he figured he was probably flammable. Although combustion sounded pretty pleasant at this point.
Finally, a figure appeared in his peripheral vision. James turned his head the opposite direction, but could still hear the rusty squeak of the metal chains to his right as Kendall seated himself. An invisible push caused James to rock forward. He didn't bother to swipe away the bangs hindering his vision. He instead allowed the swing to sway and his feet to dangle a few inches above the pebbles below. He felt hollow, like it was a great possibility he'd be just another piece of debris getting whipped and spun around by the stupid, relentless wind that seemed to just be there for no reason other than to bother him further.
"Everyone's looking for you," Kendall said casually, like he was announcing the sky was blue or the grass was green. He could do that—make serious statements seem like friendly remarks. It was much easier to have a light conversation than one weighed down with emotions. Kendall may have been skilled at flawlessly concealing his subtext, but James knew all the tricks and was determined not to be fooled.
Sometimes, though, Kendall was just too good.
James had been prepared to keep his mouth closed, maybe even for the rest of his life. But there was something about Kendall that welcomed James to speak, whether James wanted to or not.
And he definitely did not.
His response was out of his mouth before he had a chance to consider his friend's sly tactic. "How'd you know where I'd be?"
Kendall didn't miss a beat. "This is where you always go."
James averted his gaze and stared at his feet. He dug the toe of his shoe into the gravel, which suddenly looked a little blurry. He blinked hard to fight away the stinging in his eyes. That seemed to happen a lot lately, especially when he didn't want it to.
It was Kendall's fault, James deduced, because Kendall always assumed he could fix things and make everything better. But James was no fool. Thinking Kendall could remedy James's problems only resulted in disappointment. The bottom line was Kendall was just like everyone else in his life. They told James things would get better, not to worry, and everything would be okay when it wouldn't. Nothing would ever be okay, because the only two people who could possibly make things better wouldn't even try.
The old swing set creaked as Kendall sighed and shifted positions in his seat.
James shot off the swing with an unexpected burst of emotion. His wind-blown hair still hung over his eyes, but he nonetheless narrowed them into the most vicious glare he could manage when he finally whipped around to his friend. "Don't," he snapped, pointing a finger at Kendall. "Don't say anything, okay, Kendall? Just don't."
He was so worked up and convinced Kendall was just like them that he hardly noticed he was quivering with repressed rage. James gasped in his attempts to calm himself, but his throat was achingly tight and his vision was so cloudy he could barely see the stoic and collected composure of Kendall, rocking with the breeze and loosely gripping the metal chains with his long, calloused fingers.
"I wasn't going to." His green eyes were soft and truthful, and they spoke everything his mouth couldn't.
James turned his back and faced the jungle gym. He wouldn't look at Kendall. He couldn't look at Kendall.
His chest became heavy, filling with something that diminished the hollow feeling but wasn't any more pleasant. It hurt; a weight pressing against his insides, a churning feeling of trepidation in his stomach. It built and built itself until it could manifest no more, and erupted from his mouth in the form of a despairing sob.
He wasn't sure how long he stood and cried. It was a pathetic and absurd amount of time, but when he was finished James figured he had expelled every tear pent up behind the black wall in his heart—or wherever it was tears came from.
The wind changed directions for the first time all afternoon; it dried and caressed his flushed cheeks. The breeze reminded him of his mother's hand, but he wished it didn't. James rubbed at his eyes, sucking in shaky inhales as he settled down.
Behind him, there was a crunch of gravel. Then, Kendall's voice, somehow both airy and understanding: "Let's go."
They walked the several blocks to Kendall's house. The air was heavy and thick. Somewhere beyond the treetops and housetops the sun fought for the last hour of the day. A pumpkin orange sky poked through the grey storm clouds and lit the walk to their destination. James didn't feel like talking, so he stayed quiet and followed Kendall until they reached the front steps. He was glad his friend didn't prompt conversation, but not necessarily surprised. Kendall seemed to know when the best thing to say was nothing at all.
It was Saturday, which meant when James entered the quaint home Carlos was bouncing on the couch with a makeshift cape tied loosely around his neck and his mouth stained the shade of purple only a grape popsicle could produce. Logan sat cross-legged on the carpet with a bag of potato chips in his lap as he watched a rerun of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
"Bam!" screamed Carlos, karate-chopping the air. "Logan, did you see that? He just got punched by Raphael!"
Logan, with a mouthful of sour cream and onion, began a reply, but stopped when he noticed the two boys standing in the doorway. He smiled at them, but James didn't smile back.
"Mrs. Knight!" Logan called. "Kendall's back!"
"Yay!" Carlos flung himself from the couch and stuck a landing. His blue cape, which was actually a bathroom towel with ends fastened together by a safety pin, fluttered behind him like a careless ocean wave. "I told you Kendall would find James."
James blushed and looked at his shoes.
"Carlos, shut up," Kendall warned, sending a glare in the direction of the Latino.
"What? I didn't say anything," defended Carlos. "You just told me I couldn't mention James's parents getting a divorce, which I didn't."
Logan and Kendall simultaneously smacked their foreheads, and James turned redder.
Before the conversation had a chance to become more awkward, it was rescued by Mrs. Knight hustling into the room. Her auburn hair was swept back into a loose ponytail, and the apron covering her front was dotted in powdery white smudges.
"Hi, honey," she greeted with a warm smile only mothers could make genuine. "Are you alright?"
She spoke not to her son, but to James, who deeply regretted not resisting Kendall at the park. All the guys knew Kendall could persuade without words and console without touch. James had been too focused on personal problems to remember his friend had an indirect way of getting others to do what he wanted.
There was concern in Mrs. Knight's voice, but James wasn't sure if that was a good thing or not. He ultimately shrugged his shoulders and did his best not to meet her eyes.
"I'm making cookies," Mrs. Knight said. Like her son, her words were nonchalant, but the way in which she spoke suggested her cookie-baking was an act of sympathy. Normally James was oblivious to subtleties, but his parents had unintentionally taught him to be aware of that minute change in pitch adults produced when they were trying to be careful.
"And you're welcome to stay the night. I talked to your parents on the phone; they said it was alright." Mrs. Knight wiped her hands across her apron. "I'm sure Kendall will let you borrow a pair of his pajamas for the night."
"Sure," Kendall said, as if he'd reached the decision hours ago.
Mrs. Knight disappeared into the kitchen, motioning for Kendall to follow. Kendall did as he was silently instructed, but not before reminding James that TMNT was on.
The mention of his parents had James's stomach flip-flopping, but he appreciated the fact Mrs. Knight hadn't lingered on the subject. It came and passed without a wavering in her voice. Still, it made him uneasy. Everyone knew about his parents' divorce. Surely every time Mrs. Knight, Kendall, Logan or Carlos looked at James they remembered the drama unfolding at the Diamond household and chose their words carefully.
Well… maybe not Carlos. But Carlos was Carlos. That was to be expected.
James politely removed his shoes at the door and found a seat on the L-shaped couch, as far away as he could manage from his helmeted friend's incessant bouncing. He tried to watch TV, but the animated characters fighting on screen didn't seem as appealing as they did a week ago when he'd last managed to catch a rerun. James preferred to stay in his room after school—that way he wouldn't hear his parents downstairs, and wouldn't have to worry about the guys trying to decipher his new behavior.
He knew he was acting differently. He could feel the change within himself; he didn't need others to point it out. Choir practice wasn't as enjoyable, hockey seemed like a chore, and all those nights spent camping in Kendall's backyard were suddenly a little childish. Kendall of all people should understand what it was like to grow up in an instant. Still, Kendall was the last person James wanted to talk with. Kendall could figure him out, and James just wanted to be left alone.
"Hey," Logan suddenly said.
James snapped from his thoughts and looked down at his pale friend, who was still seated on the floor.
"Want some chips?" He held out the bag and gave it a shake.
James muttered a "No," and continued to stare at the cartoon turtles with hopes they'd become less blurry.
Aside from the noise of the television, Logan's crunching, and Carlos's shrieks of delight when something violent happened on screen, muted voices were heard in the kitchen. James strained his ears to listen. Mrs. Knight spoke, pausing every so often before starting up again. Once in a while Kendall's voice jumped in. She was on the phone, James guessed. And he knew exactly who was on the other line.
James ceased attempting to listen when TMNT hit a commercial and Carlos piped up. "How come Kendall wanted all of us to have a sleepover today?" He flopped onto the cushions of the couch and fiddled absently with his helmet strap. "I thought we were waiting till his birthday to do that."
Logan cast a pointed glare in the Latino's direction that James noticed, but Carlos didn't seem to register. "Maybe he thought now would be a good time for all of us to get together."
Carlos, obviously not understanding what Logan did, frowned. "It's not his birthday, though."
"It doesn't have to be someone's birthday for us all to have a sleepover."
"It always was before."
"Well, now we broke the tradition."
Carlos grinned. "Cool. My mom always gets mad when I break things."
Logan rolled his eyes. James pretended not to pay attention.
Kendall returned to the living room a few minutes after the end credits of the cartoon began to roll. He switched off the TV, ignored a whine of protest from Carlos, and addressed the group. "Let's do something."
"Like what?" Carlos chirped.
Kendall shrugged. "We could go play outside."
"But it'll be dark soon," reminded the ever timid Logan, sneaking a nervous glance toward the windows.
"Then we should go now before Mom says no," Kendall deduced. A characteristic smirk curved the corners of his lips.
Carlos ripped off his cape before giving his helmet an enthusiastic rap. And because Logan was a sucker to peer pressure, he needed no more convincing.
"Come on, James," Kendall urged when he didn't budge. "It'll be fun. It's gonna rain soon."
"I love playing in the rain!" Carlos shrieked excitedly. He grabbed Logan's arm and tugged Kendall's sleeve in encouragement, intent on pulling them to the back door. "Let's go let's go let's go—"
"Only if James wants to," said Kendall. He yanked his arm away from his friend. "We should do something we all can agree on."
"Then we'd never do anything," Carlos pointed out.
Logan smacked the back of his helmet-protected head.
James rubbed his neck. He was uncomfortable with all eyes on him, wanting him to be the one to make the decision for once. It was one of the only forms of attention he didn't much care for. Ultimately he agreed, figuring he could at least try to make his friends happy. Just because he was upset didn't mean they had to be, right?
Kendall, Logan and Carlos tore through the kitchen so fast they were practically a blur and hopped out the sliding glass door leading to the backyard. Mrs. Knight was stooped over a bowl of cookie dough and smiled at the boys as they scampered past. James brought up the rear of the group, his heart not feeling right enough to rush out like his friends.
It had grown significantly darker since James had been at the park not thirty minutes ago. The twilight was brought on earlier due to the impending storm. James slowly closed the door behind him and remained on the deck as his three friends collapsed onto the lawn in a tangle of flailing limbs.
They began to wrestle, with Kendall pinning down Logan's shoulders and Carlos proclaiming something about coming to Logan's rescue before launching himself atop the pile.
Thunder rumbled somewhere nearby. James jumped slightly and crammed his hands into his pockets. He envied how much fun his friends were having, but knew he couldn't join because his chest felt as heavy as the stormy air.
"James, help!" Kendall laughed. Carlos had somehow managed to free Logan and the two had Kendall flat on his back and unable to get up.
But James didn't move. He opted instead to lift his head to the sky to feel the familiar breeze push back his hair. A particularly strong gust made all motherly sensations vanish; leaves rustled loudly and violently, and another clap of thunder sounded right above.
Then, there was a drop of rain.
When it rained in Minnesota, it poured. It took only a few minutes for the one drop to become a million. During that time the sky decided to turn black with night as any ray of sunlight finally sank below the horizon.
He was soaked to the bone by just standing on the deck, and peered down at his clothes in dismay. Mom and Dad didn't like for him to get his clothes dirty or wet. He turned around and faced the house. It was easy to see inside the windows; it always was, when it was nighttime. Mrs. Knight slid a sheet into the oven and closed the door with her hip. From merely peering inside he could imagine the warmth of the house, the smell of Mrs. Knight's cookies wafting through the air. He suddenly longed to be anywhere other than in the storm.
James was about to leave the downpour and retreat inside when something smacked against his back.
Immediately he turned around and saw Carlos, grinning broadly, and Logan, looking horrified.
"Carlos!" Logan scolded. "Why'd you do that?"
"James should come play with us," Carlos declared. He held up his hands. The sleeves of his shirt drooped down from wetness, but in Carlos's hands James could see what had been flung at his back.
"Did you just throw a ball of mud at me?" James questioned incredulously. He felt something thick and sticky clinging to him, and when his fingers came back from touching the assaulted area he saw that they were, in fact, muddy.
As he examined his friends and where they stood James could see that the center of Kendall's backyard had quickly become one giant sea of mud. The ground had already been soft and wet from several days of rain, and the current storm made it into a puddle of mush. Carlos's hands and shoes were coated with earth, Logan had a few stains on the knees of his jeans, and Kendall, who constantly had to push his sopping hair from his eyes, had clumps stuck to the front of his shirt.
"I can't believe you just did that," James growled at Carlos. Something bubbled in his chest that wasn't quite heavy like the other things, but just as thick and kind of hot.
"What're you gonna do about it?" Carlos challenged.
More thunder rumbled. The bubbling in James's chest suddenly exploded like the lightning in the sky, and with an angry cry he bolted off the deck and leapt at Carlos. He had every intention to start strangling the boy, and even started to once Carlos fell backwards into the mud. But when flecks of sludge splashed onto James's arm, something strange happened.
He fell off Carlos, not caring that his expensive jeans would be ruined, and began to laugh. It was a laugh so genuine that after only a few moments his stomach began to ache. The noisy thunder and the rushing of whipping wind and rain drowned out most of the sound, but even if James couldn't hear it, at least he could feel it.
A handful of mud was thrust into his face before he could pull himself to his feet. He wiped the offending substance away, ready to return fire at Carlos, but was surprised when it was Logan standing with the dirty fingers.
Logan grinned deviously, then took off running. James laughed and chased after him armed with two soupy handfuls of mud. He was about to fling them at Logan when a tackle from Kendall cut him off. He landed and slid a few feet on the slick ground all while being assaulted by more mud-balls from his blond friend.
When he didn't think it could rain any harder, it did. It fell from the sky in nothing short of torrents. It poured refreshingly into his eyes and his mouth and helped clean away the earth that covered his slippery skin.
The four boys wrestled on the ground, splashing mud and rainwater until they ran the risk of drowning. They chased each other through the night, stomping heavily each time they came across a puddle just to watch the dirty water spray against their jeans. The rain was cold and his body was hot, and James didn't think he'd ever felt a sensation better. His mom always told him to stay inside on rainy days. People didn't want to get wet; it was the reason umbrellas and rain boots and plastic coats were invented. But the person who made rain gear obviously considered the weather a force that destroyed instead of healed.
The wind that had been his company shook the tree branches hanging above, sending another spray of water to blind the boys. They laughed like they'd never laughed before, and this time they were louder than the thunder.
Mrs. Knight called to them ten long minutes later, and James was certain it would have been one of the rare occasions they disobeyed her if it hadn't been for the promise of chocolate chip cookies waiting inside. After a vigorous game of tag, James panted hard from exertion and trotted up the deck with his friends. The four were about to step inside when Mrs. Knight held out a hand to stop them.
Her eyebrows were narrowed crossly, but one corner of her mouth appeared to be slightly raised. "You are not coming into my house covered in mud."
James suddenly felt a little guilty. His hair was so matted down that the wind no longer sent it flying, and upon further examination he noticed Logan, Kendall and Carlos were completely brown.
Kendall offered his mother a sheepish smile. "Maybe we can just stay out here a while longer so the rain will wash it off."
"Yeah," said Carlos, weakly. "What he said."
Logan ducked behind James.
Mrs. Knight shook her head. "If you stay out here any longer you're going to catch a cold." Then she thoughtfully tapped her chin while the four boys stared at their feet. "Hang on."
She spun around, leaving them on the deck outside, and disappeared down the hall. They eagerly watched for her return, pressing muddy palms against the glass door.
Mrs. Knight emerged from the bathroom with an armload of folded towels. She spread them out in a long line across the floor starting from the doorway and leading all the way through the kitchen, down the hall, and eventually ending in the bathroom.
"It's like the red carpet," Carlos happily remarked once the boys were finally allowed to enter. "Except it's not red and it's a bunch of towels instead of a carpet."
Even James giggled as the four followed the line of towels Mrs. Knight laid out. He always imagined himself being famous, and walking down a real red carpet—one that was actually red, and not spotted with brown footprints.
Mrs. Knight forced the boys into the tub in the bathroom. She was trying to look angry, James noticed, but was failing to hide the amusement threatening to blossom across her face.
The four stood shoulder to shoulder, just barely fitting into the large basin. In the light it was easy to see how sopping and filthy they truly were. James couldn't stifle a giggle.
James, Kendall, Logan and Carlos all shrieked in laughter once Mrs. Knight turned on the water. The shower head was removable, and she used it to spray across the boys' bodies. It was warm, unlike the rainwater, and for the first few moments it felt uncomfortably strange when the hot water washed away the cold.
Mrs. Knight even joined in on the mirth and playfully sprayed them all across their faces; Carlos opened his mouth and swallowed some water. Down below, the mud and grass ran off them in dark brown swirls, staining the white tub. Logan put his hands up so the water could rinse under his arms while Kendall furiously ran his fingers through his blond hair to clear away the chunks of earth that made it look brunet.
"Now use some shampoo," Mrs. Knight said between laughs. "Scrub your hair and pass around the bar of soap."
Fully clothed, they lathered up their bodies as instructed until the water spilling down the drain was clear and soapy. Mrs. Knight did one final rinse, then left the room to pick up the least soiled towels that made up the red carpet. She returned with one for each of them.
James ran the towel through his hair first, making sure not to be too vigorous with his drying to prevent breakage. A good deal of the mud had rinsed out of his clothes, so James was pleased. Mrs. Knight found the boys' pajamas (and a pair of Kendall's for James to use, as promised—even though they were a little small) and told them to change.
Carlos was the first to race out of the bathroom and into the kitchen. He was clad in his superhero sleepwear and still as energetic as ever. "Since we didn't make too much of a mess, does that mean we still get cookies?" he asked Kendall's mom.
She chuckled and ruffled his damp hair. "Sure thing."
James's body felt somehow lighter as he took a seat at the kitchen table next to Logan and across from Kendall. The kitchen was warm and bright and smelled almost like a bakery. The homey atmosphere made the heavy pressure in his chest melt.
Outside it was still raining, and every so often a white flash of lightning would precede the thunder. Storms could be frightening, but tonight they didn't seem so scary.
Each boy was delivered a tall glass of milk and a plate with two cookies before Mrs. Knight gathered the boys' wet clothes to bring them to the laundry room. It was an easy way to calm down for the evening. The chocolate chips were still warm and gooey; it was probably the best thing James had ever eaten.
Logan yawned and rubbed some chocolate away from the corner of his mouth. "When are we gonna go to bed?"
Kendall glanced at the clock. "It's only nine," he said. "It's a sleepover. We can stay up as late as we want."
"Or maybe we could just stay up all night and never go to bed," suggested Carlos. "That way we can keep having fun." Despite his words, he too let a yawn escape him.
Kendall downed the rest of his milk, then pushed the glass aside. "Remember when we'd camp out in my backyard?"
"Yeah," James mused with slight nostalgia, "and remember how Logan would always show us the constellations but no one knew what stars he was pointing to?"
Logan frowned and kicked James's foot under the table.
"I wish we could do that again," Carlos sighed.
Kendall pursed his lips in thought for a few moments. His bushy eyebrows raised when an idea struck him. "We still could."
"Um, did you forget it's raining?" said Logan.
There was no argument or question, because usually when Kendall had a plan, it was a good one. Plates and glasses were placed in the sink and chairs were pushed in before the boys scurried off to Kendall's bedroom. James saw that Logan and Carlos's sleeping bags and pillows were piled in one corner beneath a Minnesota Wild poster. Kendall walked to his closet and retrieved a stack of blankets from one of the shelves.
"This can be our tent," he said, smiling mischievously.
They hadn't made a blanket fort in years, but no one objected. Yesterday, anyone other than Carlos making the proposal would have been taunted for being childish, but today, it seemed, there were no rules.
James figured that was okay sometimes.
Sleeping bags were spread across the floor in a circle; an extra for James had been located in the back of Kendall's closet. Pillows were in their designated spot, and Kendall managed to swipe some extras from his mom's room and from the closet in the hall.
Kendall and Logan each grabbed an end of a thin purple sheet and draped it over Kendall's desk. The other end managed to reach the bed, leaving a perfect crawling space below. Once the tent was finished, Kendall's bed posts had become tent poles, and the entire room was one large tunnel. Carlos giggled and quickly darted underneath, wanting to be the first to try out the fort.
"It's dark in here," he called. He poked his head back through the entrance. "We need candles."
"That would be a serious fire hazard," Logan reminded. "Plus, everyone knows what happens when you play with fire while unsupervised."
"It's not playing, it's keeping the dark away."
All eyes turned to Kendall, who, of course, had a solution. "Be right back."
As the blond left the room, Carlos motioned for Logan and James to join him in the fort. The eager boys excitedly ducked under the suspended blankets. James sat cross-legged and peered at the darkness above. Knowing Carlos and Logan were giggling beside him made James feel not so alone, but the black canvas shrouding the fort was a little unnerving. He located the pillow Kendall let him borrow and hugged it close to his chest.
"It's like a cave!" squealed Carlos. He playfully rolled on top of Logan, wanting to start a wrestling match. "We can be explorers."
Logan laughed and pushed him off. "Scientists discover new species in caves all the time," he pointed out. "Maybe we can find one, too."
"Way to make it boring, Logan. You know what'd be way more fun? If there was a cave monster in here."
"There's no such thing as monsters."
"Maybe one hasn't been discovered yet."
Even in the dark James could see Logan's eyes widen at Carlos's revelation.
"James can be the cave monster!" cried Carlos. He flung a pillow at his friend and chortled when it tousled his hair.
James grabbed the pillow and started to throw it back, but froze when something was tossed atop the cave roof. The blankets sagged down a bit, making Logan yelp in surprise.
"What was that?" Carlos whispered. He scrambled to sit upright and cautiously examined the roof. "You don't think it's a cave monster, do you?"
"If it were a cave monster wouldn't it be in the cave with us instead of outside?" Logan whispered back.
"Maybe it had to leave to get a snack."
"Maybe we're the snacks."
The two unconsciously huddled closer together, frightened by their own imaginations.
"Guys, relax," said a voice from outside. "It's just me."
James let out the breath he'd been holding when Kendall parted the purple blanket and poked his head into the fort, proving he wasn't a monster.
"Did you get some flashlights?" James wondered.
Kendall smiled and shook his head. "I got something better. Check it out." He disappeared back into the dark.
The three boys sitting in the cave exchanged glances and waited patiently for Kendall's surprise. From somewhere in the room there was a tiny, almost inaudible click, followed by a delighted shriek from Carlos. A million multicolored lights illuminated the cave roof, which was no longer a stretch of dark rock, but a beautiful night sky decorated in rainbow stars.
James's mouth hung open in amazement. Every little light cast a colored shadow through the fabric of the blanket, covering the boys below in splotches of white, red, orange, green, blue, and purple. Carlos giggled and fell onto his back, reaching out to the stars with his hands.
"Kendall, what is this?" Logan asked as the blond climbed in.
"Christmas lights," he replied simply. "I found them in the closet in the hall. It's cool, right?"
"So cool!" Carlos cried. "Look, Kendall, look! Do you see that? See them two green ones over there, the ones close together? Don't they look cool?"
"Yeah, Carlos, I see it."
James noticed the sparkling reflection in Logan's brown eyes as Logan flopped onto his sleeping bag and rolled next to Carlos. "Wow," he marveled. Like Carlos, he reached up and grazed his fingertips across the fabric, grinning when the lights twinkled.
Kendall crawled around the two on the floor and over to James. He didn't say a word— didn't ask James if he appreciated the lights, didn't ask James if he was feeling alright. Thankful for Kendall's considerate silence, James too nestled into his sleeping bag. He stuck out his hands and watched colorful shadows dance across his skin. He always thought shadows were strictly black, but he seemed to be discovering a lot of new things today.
Carlos, Logan and Kendall seemed entranced by the alluring colors, unable to peel their eyes away. James stared up at the starry sky and questioned whether or not this was better than the real thing. Thunder rumbled somewhere outside, but no one flinched or even seemed to notice.
"Maybe this could be a ship," suggested Carlos. His voice was hushed, as though he feared raising it more than a loud whisper would shatter the tranquility around them. "Like a pirate ship. And outside is the ocean, and right up there is the sky."
"I like that idea," said Kendall, thoughtfully.
"And we can find galaxies and stars and planets and stuff with our telescopes." Carlos curled his fingers and thumb and held his hand to his eye. "There goes a shooting star," he declared when one of the purple lights flickered.
Logan gestured to a cluster of blues and whites. "That can be the Milky Way."
"And that's Osiris," Carlos decided, locating three adjacent orange lights.
"You mean Orion?"
"Yeah, the guy with the belt."
"You know, Osiris was actually an Egyptian god who they believed ruled the underworld and passed judgment—"
"No one cares," Carlos interrupted with an annoyed sigh.
Kendall broke in swiftly and fluidly, as though he'd been apart of the conversation the entire time. "Those purple ones kind of look like the Big Dipper."
"Actually, the Big Dipper isn't a constellation. It's an asterism of Ursa Major—"
"Logan!" everyone shouted, James included. Carlos whacked the smart boy with a stray pillow, making Logan angry. But it wasn't long when Kendall tossed a pillow over too, and any cross remarks morphed into fits of giggles and mock battle cries. Even James laughed when one of the pillows tore and large clumps of feathers billowed into the air. They sailed down like snow, lightly swaying in and out of patches of color. The jostling ceased almost immediately as all four boys silently watched the remaining feathers fall to the deck of the pirate ship. One landed on Kendall's nose, and he let out a small puff of air to shoot it back upwards.
James briefly shut his eyes and tried to picture it—the gentle rocking of the ship as ocean waves carried it in the direction of the wind; a salty sea breeze tossing his hair; this kind of sky lighting the darkest hour of the night; the feeling of being warm and secure; knowing that it was just him and his three friends alone, and no one could catch them.
Rain was heard pattering Kendall's bedroom window. Thunder echoed in the black shadows beyond the blanket walls. But, somehow, the storm outside didn't matter. James was solely concerned on their own world, contentedly secluded from the darkness—a world they had created from blankets and pillows and feathers and Christmas light stars. A world that could be a simple fort, a cave, or a pirate ship. A world where the sky above was worth looking at, and nothing could ever be wrong.
His head sunk into his pillow as the feathers settled and the boys' bodies stilled. The first light snore emitted from Carlos, who was comfortably snuggled in a wild tangle of sheets and pillows. Logan was quick to follow; the eyes which had sparkled brightly at the splendor of Kendall's creativity finally fluttered shut.
James's body relaxed. He turned his head to look at Kendall, who seemed to be sleeping with a smile on his face. A couple feathers stirred and rolled about the pillows. One tickled Logan's nose, and he sneezed softly in his sleep before rolling over and hugging a blanket to his chest. Then the ship fell silent, and the world outside produced no more noise.
Once, when James was eight, he fell off his bike.
And afterwards he was led into the Knight household with his three friends by his side intent on making his injuries stop hurting. He had gone into the house thinking he wasn't okay, and came out knowing he would be.
Kendall always promised they'd take care of each other. James never doubted his friends would try, he just doubted they'd succeed. He knew exactly how Kendall and the guys operated. His only mistake was failing to realize they knew him just as well.
In the morning, he wouldn't voice his appreciation. He'd stay quiet, like the world was now, and know their smiles meant, "You're welcome."
With the heaviness in his chest gone, James nestled into his soft cocoon of blankets. The Christmas light stars sparkled and bathed their world in a warm glow of colors. The display of brilliance wanted to hold his attention, but the calm atmosphere eventually lulled him into sleep.
He slept soundly, and dreamt of faraway galaxies spotted from the high seas.