Until The Devil Turns To Dust

Chapter Four

A/N: Yeah, I know, over a year later than promised. Good news though: this is the end! I've actually had it in hand for a really long time now, but I've been really wary about publishing it because...yeah, like I said, closure not one hundred percent achieved. Fortunately for you all (and unfortunately for me), this verse's biggest fans, fleetofblimps and jblostfan16, have coerced me into writing a direct sequel to ASYR. So, you guys actually are going to hear about what happens with James and Logan, despite my reservations, and probably learn some more about Kendall and Carlos going forward. Because this is the verse that just won't die, apparently.

I want to thank anyone who has actually managed to stick with this story/verse for however long it's been going on (forever, it feels like?). I hope you guys aren't too disappointed with this chapter - bonus points to me if you even go so far as to like it. I really am sorry it's so late; between nerves and then the past year at grad school, I haven't been writing much. This was mostly already all done, but it needed a few more paragraphs and some tweaks. Enjoy?


30.

Carlos has grown up allowing his best friends to be strong for him. So now he can do this; he can be strong for them. Even when he resents everything they've done. Everything they've let happen. They were brave and proud and beautiful, and they let love break them into pieces.

If Carlos allows himself, he will break too.

It would be so easy to fall apart, with Kendall curled up in his arms. He's crying, fucking finally, under the guise of being really super-sad that the unicorn princess is dying on screen. It's subtle, honestly, the wetness against Carlos's shoulder. He wouldn't even notice it if he hadn't been waitingwaiting, waiting forever for it.

He tells Kendall quietly, "It's okay."

Kendall doesn't say anything, sniffling in a very stoic and manly fashion. It's only once the credits are rolling that he manages, "It's not. I could have said more, done more, been more."

Carlos grapples with anger and agony, both aching through his chest. He wants to tell Kendall it wouldn't have made a difference, because Carlos kissed him, Carlos did, and Kendall blew him off completely.

That's what trying gets you. Nothing.

He's been trying to make his life about hockey and music and the things he used to like before LA, but they are flavorless now that he's been shot down by the only person he's ever honestly wanted. Thanks to Carlos's sucktastic timing, he is walking in ashes and struggling to pretend that his whole world hasn't burned to the ground.

Kendall must feel eight thousand times worse.

The part of Carlos that is a good friend cringes. "You can't think that way."

"But I can…I do." Kendall is wretched, the admission taking something from him. "All the time."

He mumbles his words through his hands, but still. His voice is a sob, sadness turned to sound.

"Could I have done something different.?" Kendall asks, "Could I have? Carlos? Could I?"

There are things to say, so many things that people are supposed to say in situations like this, but none of them are the right things. When Carlos manages a trite, "It'll get better," that sounds wrong the moment it stumbles out of his mouth. "It'll get better, I prom-"

"Don't." Kendall chokes out adamantly. "Promises don't mean anything."

"Dude, don't say that-"

"You're not listening." Kendall looks at him, and for the first time ever, Carlos doesn't recognize his best friend. How many times has Kendall been kicked when he was down, but managed to get back up again? Why is this time, James, so very different?

Carlos thinks of every moment back in Minnesota or the Palm Woods that he missed, all the song writing sessions and buddy bonding he wasn't privy to. He wonders what solemn vows put the first cracks in Kendall's heart, whether they came from James or a simpler place, a promise to love and honor that never made it past Kendall's formative years.

Kendall continues, "I wasn't enough. I'm never enough, and that's…I get it now."

Carlos curls his hands into his best friend's hair and murmurs things like no and that's not true. But the problem is, it is true.

In Kendall's mind, he's never measured up. It's why he tries so hard. It's why he breaks down, ready to throw in the towel, whenever he thinks he's failed.

His dad and James haven't helped anything. Jerks.

"Nothing matters, Carlos," Kendall says, "I've tried- and I can't make anything matter."

Carlos doesn't take offense, or presume he falls into the category of nothing. He knows that Kendall means something pivotal inside himself has ceased to work, the same way he knows Kendall is lying when he pushes up off the couch and announces, "I didn't mean that. Why are you letting me be so dramatic, dude?" He swipes his knuckles rough over his too-bright eyes, looking anywhere but Carlos. "I should- school work."

"You're allowed to be-"

"What? I'm allowed to be what, exactly?" Kendall asks, trying too hard to be steely when all he can really manage is a pathetic shadow of strength. Except then he says, "Please don't, okay."

"Don't what?"

"Don't treat me like a victim."

Treat me like I'm still strong, is what Kendall obviously wants to say, because maybe then he can remember how to be. And so Carlos does.

He lets Kendall pretend dying unicorns were what got him melancholy, but when Kendall tries to bounce off to his room, he tugs him back down onto the couch. They watch the DVD menu shower sparkles over the words Play and Special Features, Kendall resting his head against Carlos's shoulder, Carlos mulling over if he'll ever find a way to say what he needs to; that Kendall is enough for him.

The assurance probably won't be any kind of comfort, but Carlos wants to say it all the same.

He strokes his hands through Kendall's hair, and the two of them stare at the TV screen long after it goes blank.


31.

Becoming strong is a process.

At first, it's nothing more than one breath at a time. One foot in front of another. Getting out of bed when the daylight seems too bright and it feels easier to hide. This is how healing begins.

It's not fun or exciting or an adventure.

It just is.

The public display is the first to go. Kendall learns how to hide it in front of friends or family or random strangers at bus stops. He has to bury his face in pillows when he needs to let it all out and the very act makes him feel tragic about it all the while, but it's better than the blatant humiliation of freaking out to a random stranger.

Eventually, that part stops completely. The pain is still there, though, so the next step is smiling. All the time, fucking smiles. He pretends and he pretends and he pretends that he's fine. He starts to convince everyone around him that he's okay.

Kendall's not okay. Love isn't the kind of thing you get over. Past, maybe, with enough time. But over?

Never.

It's like a physical illness. It is achy bones and achy muscles and an achy brain, not to mention any other important internal organs. Kendall only drags himself up out of bed every day because not doing so isn't an option.

He isn't going to punish his friends and family by acting like a depressed douchebag. He can't be that person, even if he feels a lot like it. He has to consciously choose, every day, to hide his broken heart. One step after another. One breath riding the tail end of the last.

One choice one step one breath.

That is how he makes it through the day. Even when it feels like the Earth is chained to his feet and the sky weighs heavy on his lungs and his mind is clouded with an entire ocean of self-hate, doubt, and worthlessness.

He tries to call Logan, a few times. Dialing his number is one of the hardest things Kendall has ever done, but it doesn't matter. Logan never takes his calls. Ass.

(Kendall would judge Logan for it, except Kendall ignores James every time he calls, so.)

One step.

One breath.

One turns into two turns into three, and walking and breathing and living gets a little easier. Not ever the same as it was before. Never as reckless or wonderful or simple. Just easier.

There are days when he wants to make a very different choice than moving on. But he doesn't. It's not strength, it's not bravery. It is simply this; a conscious decision not to give up.

A conscious choice to survive.


32.

Their new situation is delightfully domestic, or it would be, if Kendall wasn't a gigantic bag of mope-and-wallow.

He has a good thing going with his hockey team. His job, not so much. It's a long way to fall from stadium stages to book clerk. Regardless, Kendall handles it with quiet grace, used to hard work and suffering in silence. Suffering being the key word.

Carlos does what he can to supplement their income, taking odd jobs where he can get them, but he's working his own way slowly (so slowly) through a college curriculum. They'd both plump up their wallets with residual BTR royalties if they weren't both funneling most of it back to their families.

More than one Instant Ramen Evening, Carlos finds himself seething with envy at his long lost best friends, who've never had to provide for anyone other than themselves. But he's sick of holding grudges, so the thoughts flee as quickly as they come.

Gustavo calls on a monthly basis, under the guise of offering Kendall a job.

Kendall won't work at the same label as James, but Carlos doesn't think the job offers are in earnest these days anyway. Gustavo's a good man, beneath all his bluster. He wants to make sure Kendall is okay.

Carlos would like to know that too, actually.

He's trying really hard not to let his best friend slash roommate slash the ultimate sadsack extraordinaire exist as the centerpiece to his life any longer. Carlos gives dating a try – for a given definition of dating – because college girls (and boys) are way more receptive to his strange than high schoolers ever were. He makes new friends. He spends entire nights away from his apartment.

Then he comes home and wonders why he bothered.

The worst part isn't that Kendall's funk is contagious. It's that even in the midst of it, Kendall remains the only person Carlos really wants to be around.

So Carlos drags him out snowboarding, swimming, camping, and paintballing. He forces Kendall into movie theaters and restaurants, street fairs and frat parties. Forced normalcy turns into legitimate normalcy. In the middle of all that, it's easy to forget everything. Right up until it isn't.

Carlos brings a girl home for the first time halfway through his second year of college. She's his tutor, and she's tipsy, but so is he, and when he kissed her she didn't turn him down. He ends up between her legs, the muscles in her thighs tight at his hips, the heat at her core right there, a single lacy layer away.

Carlos is older now, he's fooled around, but his main source of experience is still mostly Logan. He's definitely not past the point where he thinks sticking his hand down a girl's panties is basically the most thrilling thing since the invention of corndogs.

His fingertips brush against this crazy, damp heat, and-

"Uh."

The sound is loud, unexpected, and definitely came from Kendall.

In retrospect, the couch was not the best place to get the party started. Carlos falls ass-first on the floor, his date having shoved him away to grab for her jeans.

He grumbles, "You're home early."

"I can leave." Kendall enunciates the way he only does when he's flustered, loud and precise. "In fact, I am going to do that."

"No," Carlos protests immediately.

"No?" His tutor demands, whipping her head around to glare at him.

Oops.

"I mean, yeah," Carlos says, glancing back and forth between this pretty, pretty, half-naked girl and Kendall, who is staring at Carlos so inscrutably that Carlos isn't sure what to make of it. More firmly, he tells Kendall, "You should…go."

He must not sound like he means it. Sighing, his tutor finishes adjusting her clothes and announces, "No, it's alright. I've got an early lecture."

She has tiny ankles beneath the hem of her jeans. Carlos remembers them digging into his butt, and that's about when he realizes he's still in his boxers, sporting a boner that isn't exactly waning beneath the steady intensity of Kendall's gaze. He stutters out, "Okay. Yeah. Yeah. Okay," and then clamps his mouth shut, unsure what to do with himself.

Carlos's date kisses him on the cheek, more bemused by the situation than anything else.

Once the door swings shut behind her – and Carlos takes a minute to mourn the loss of the sexual encounter that never was – Kendall makes a face. "Man, I did not ever need to see that."

"Now you know how I used to feel," Carlos replies mildly, crossing his legs and trying to hide the evidence.

It helps not at all. Luckily, Kendall is too busy wincing. "Sorry."

"Why are you apologizing? It's done. It's over."

"Yeah. It is." Kendall drops his hockey bag and meanders closer to the couch. "She seemed nice."

"She is nice," Carlos agrees.

Kendall is too close, looming over him with his shock of gold-blond hair and the penetrating green of his eyes. He's got a hole in the knee of his jeans, a scrape peeking out red from behind frayed edges of denim.

Carlos could press his mouth there, lick away the pain and work upwards. He could take Kendall in his mouth, feel his weight, taste his bitterness. He could suck him off in the middle of their living room, until Kendall got so desperate with it that he'd pin Carlos to the rug and – wait.

No.

He peers up at Kendall's face, the black circles and pinched lines. He hears Kendall say, "Whoa there, partner. You okay down there on the range?"

He can't find his footing, drunker than he thought. Kendall's smirk is annoying, and endearing, and the idea of kissing it off his face floats at the edge of Carlos's awareness.

Shaking it away, he announces, "I need help getting up."

Kendall continues to smirk down at him, but at least he extends a hand.

His palm is warm, his fingers cool. He takes on Carlos's weight as easily as he ever has.

With the ground beneath his feet, Carlos has a better view of Kendall's grin. He's calmer now, in the downstairs department, but his skin stays feverish, burning up from the inside out. A cold shower and thoughts about his grandma are definitely in order, here.

Kendall doesn't move out of Carlos's personal bubble, their hands linked. He asks, "Is she your girlfriend now?"

"She might've been, if somebody wasn't such a cockblock. Cockblock."

Carlos jabs Kendall with his free hand pointedly, distracting himself from how Kendall's breath smells like winterfresh gum and soda pop. Standing was a terrible decision.

Stupid sparkly green eyes dancing in a stupid and sparkly way, Kendall says, "Maybe next time you'll try out your bedroom."

"Or maybe we should have a code," Carlos retorts impetuously. "Sock on the door? Hockey jersey? Rubber duck?"

Kendall snorts. "You're not defiling an innocent rubber duckling just so you can sexile me."

"Hey, who says it's going to be me? You can take advantage of the Fuck Duck too," Carlos protests, even though Kendall's made a habit of pursuing his few and far between conquests out of house.

If Kendall were to bring somebody home, Carlos isn't sure what he'd do, but the concept doesn't fill him with ecstasy.

Like he can read Carlos's mind, Kendall steps in even closer, every exhale tickling Carlos's ear. He murmurs, "There's no one I want to bring here."

"Oh." Carlos feels like he should have guessed that. Every time he thinks Kendall is healed, he turns around and realizes that he's wrong.

Kendall puts up a good front, a great front, even. He laughs and he moves and he perfects the art of acting happy, but it's clear he's not. That same night, Carlos dons his pajamas and brushes his teeth and thinks maybe he should talk to Kendall about…about anything. There's a sick twist in his stomach, like when he's done something wrong, but he hasn't, and Kendall never implied he did, and none of it makes any sense at all.

Only, he finds Kendall in their shared living room, staring at a picture of the four of them.

Carlos doesn't think anything of it – he's about to step into the room and say hi. Maybe reminisce. Then Kendall reaches out and touches the pictures, strokes his index finger over the frame, and Carlos doesn't even have to see to know whose face Kendall is touching.

In the middle of the empty room, Kendall breathes, "I'm so sick of missing you."

Carlos backs away. Awayawayaway.

Who a person is cannot simply be the mistakes that they've made, but so often, he feels like the past is the only thing that makes them both real. For now, they are fake boys, boys in stasis, when only a short while ago they were boys who filled the world with noise.

Kendall isn't the only one who misses things. Carlos spends whole minutes debating retreat.

But he doesn't. He clears his throat and says, "Hey," because what else is he supposed to do? Steadfast and loyal are virtues Carlos is accustomed to in others, in his siblings who tolerated his weirdness or his friends or Kendall, but that's the point. Kendall is loyal and steadfast. Kendall has always been there when Carlos has needed him.

Holding on hurts when he knows that there is a very good chance he will never live up to James, but Carlos owes Kendall this, someone who stays.

(Best friends forever the four of them said when they were eleven and too young to know better. They swore on their pinky fingers, on spit and on blood.)

More than anything else, Carlos owes Kendall the fact that not all promises get broken.


33.

Carlos is golden-brown, ochre and earth tones.

Kendall can't stop thinking about him with that girl, the back his thighs against the deerskin hue of their couch, the darker flesh behind his knees and his toes. He wonders if anyone's ever tongued the rim of Carlos's asshole, taken him apart wet and filthy with their mouth until Carlos begged to come.

(Carlos has the best voice, more unassuming than James's, prettier, in a way. He'd beg so nicely, drag his lips wretched across the syllables of Kendall's name. He can image the exact hoarse notes, his bossy whimpers of Kendall, more, please.)

Kendall slips his hand down around his dick without actually thinking about it, the waistband of his pajama bottoms tugging tight across his wrist. He brings himself off in a sleepy haze, each stroke radiating down his legs, up his ribcage, curling his fingers and his toes.

The sticky, cooling mess in Kendall's lap brings him back to reality, where there's a knockknockknock on his door and Carlos continues to be completely off-limits.

"I'm not decent," Kendall yelps, pulling his comforter over his lap.

The retort of, "I've seen it before," is expected.

The person the voice belongs to is not. James barges right in, a year and a half after Kendall's last seen his face, and he doesn't even bother to apologize when his weight settles into Kendall's bed. He says, "We should, uh. Talk. Or something."

He is different. His hair is shorter. His teeth are whiter. He walks with a strut that is more self-assured. It's like he's growing into his own skin.

Kendall clutches his comforter tighter and demands, "What is there to talk about?"

He hoped this would happen, that he'd see James again. He imagined it eighteen different ways.

Funny how none of them were like this.

"Please don't hate me," James pleads, sharp and needy, if not entirely unexpected.

Just like that, his wet dream about Carlos is a distant memory. He's nearly two years younger and so intensely in love that he can feel those words tremble inside of him, entire body a tuning fork on James's exact frequency.

He is not strong.

Logan is the one who was able to walk away, while Kendall just keeps running himself into the ground over and over again, even knowing that it won't end up the way he wants it to.

"I…" Kendall would like to tell James that he can't hate him, because of everything they've shared.

Because believing in love is supposed to be more important than anything.

Because if he stops, he has nothing left. All the things he has faith in have been stripped away, except this; whenever Kendall was lonely, or whenever he was sad, James was there. He was like one of those fairytale heroes, a white knight, a prince.

And he didn't even know it.

Voice cracking, Kendall asks the one thing he's always wanted to know the answer to. "Why wasn't I good enough?"

He dreads the response almost as much as he needs it.

James treated Kendall like he was the one who had any kind of power in their relationship, and Kendall let him, because he was so scared that if he didn't, James would leave. The second he ever lets a person know that they're in control, they book it straight out of town, starting with his dad and ending right now, right here.

He told James he loved him, and James left.

There's an equation in there somewhere, and it ends with Kendall Knight standing apart and alone, playing make believe that he can handle it.

Caught somewhere between proud and apologetic, James replies, "I wanted more."

He doesn't regret it, Kendall can tell. He's always known every inflection of James's voice better than his own.

Swallowing down his bile and spit, Kendall says, "Yeah," as if that's even an answer. His stomach clenches harder than his jaw.

"Do you forgive me?" James asks, working up a charming smile. He cuts his eyes towards Kendall. They bore into his flesh, drilling past his defenses.

James's presence is an open wound. He is everything, was everything, is something in between; all of Kendall's love and hope and dreams wrapped up into a single perfect package of a boy. He's all Kendall has ever wanted or needed, until now.

But to James? Kendall isn't any of that. He is just a boy, and maybe, if he had less pride, he would be okay with it.

He isn't.

He never will be.

Kendall wants more too. He deserves someone who will see him as more. And it doesn't even matter, because he can't stop wanting James.

Maybe that's his fault, because he's never tried wanting anything, anyone else, not for real. Kendall's not even sure he knows how.

That's fucked.

He's fucked.

Kendall bunches his fingers into the down of his comforter, ignoring the congealing mess underneath. He says, "Not yet."

James slumps. He rakes his fingers through his hair, forcing it to stand on end.

He says, "You hurt me too."

"I thought you realized," Kendall tells him quietly. "I loved you. Of course I loved you. You were supposed to know that – me – better than anybody."

James's laughter is harsh, wrecked. "I barely knew myself."

Through the thick down of his blanket, Kendall taps his fingers against his own knee. "Be honest. If I'd said something earlier, would it have made a difference?"

He hates himself for asking. It's not like he wants to be the awful, clingy ex, but if he loosens his hold on his anger and the rage, what's going to be living beneath it?

Kendall used to think that at his core would always be the loyal, sweet little boy who believed in fairytales, but that kid doesn't exist anymore.

James made sure of it, or maybe Kendall made sure of it, or maybe everyone in California had a hand in it.

No matter what, that kid is gone. All Kendall is now is this flux of hatred and sorrow that simmers so deep in his bones. Maybe that's all he will ever be.

Besides, his question might be crazy, but it's genuine. He cared too much about James to tie him down, was too afraid of losing their friendship to mess it all up, but maybe if he'd cared more about himself he would have tried.

Logan did. Logan was braver than Kendall could ever be.

James inhales sharply. He wants to lie. Kendall can tell that much. But he understands little else – about his body language, about his eyes. He used to hear James's voice in every album he owned, but he's spent so long trying to forget that maybe now the edged nuance when he speaks is more cryptic than it should be. "At first, maybe. In the long run? Probably not."

At the very least, he understands it's not a lie. James is taking the high road, because he really has changed. How weird is that? Kendall's best friend is becoming a stranger.

Kendall still doesn't know how to let him go.

"That's what I thought," Kendall replies, and he means it.

He can't imagine what it's like not to be let down.

James hurries to cover, to slap a Band-Aid over the hurt. "You know, you're brilliant, right? You're the best friend I've ever had."

"I'm not Logan," Kendall retorts, staring James down.

His expression softens in a way that pierces right at the center of Kendall's heart, chokes at his lungs and blacks at the edges of his vision. His heartbreak is visceral when James says, "No. You're not."

Hearing it out loud isn't pleasant.

It doesn't herald the apocalypse, either.

Kendall sits in bed for a long time after James bolts, if only as far as their pull-out couch. His pajamas are still rucked down around his hips, dried cum flaking against his thighs. He's hiding, probably, but that only works out for as long as it takes Carlos to saunter in and ask, "Are you okay?"

He's so careful around Kendall, so tentative and un-Carlos-like. Ever since that one night, that one kiss.

Kendall hasn't forgotten that. He thinks about it more than he should. Obviously.

It would be so easy to throw himself into the deep end again, to pretend that healing is as easy as basking in the lust for and love of another person.

Pretend being the operative word. Love destroys, and Kendall wouldn't be able to stand it if anything ever destroyed Carlos. That's why he can't. That's why that dream, his thoughts, everything about them are never going to happen.

James coming around only drives that point home.

"Dunno." Kendall replies, and he really doesn't.

"I tried to tell him he couldn't come in," Carlos explains frantically, watching Kendall with big, brown eyes. "He pushed right past me. He never listens."

"It's okay. It's alright."

It's not, but whatever. No way is any of it Carlos's fault. Kendall instructs him to watch their wayward superstar and skips out, because James's presence in their tiny apartment makes it hard to do anything but stew.

He walks to the lake and stands at the edge.

He spent a million summers here. Laughing. Smiling. James, Logan, and Carlos at his side as they splashed into the water, racing each other out to the middle.

Kendall would swim so hard, so fast. He always won. But now he wonders if maybe that was his fatal flaw; he left his friends in the dust so many times that the distance between them became impossible to cross.

He tells the empty air, "I love James Diamond," and the words make him wince, too loud, too true, forever and ever true.

But then he changes tack, tries, "I'm in love with James Diamond," and those words sound hollow, not right, not completely, not anymore.

There is still a distant ache in his limbs when he says it, still a lining of hope in his heart, but. It's not as bad as he remembers. He can breathe through it. He almost feels like he could smile.

Kendall will always love James, because first loves are like that; immutable, unforgettable.

But he will not always be in love with James, and for the first time in ages, the idea fills him with a different kind of hope.


34.

James's semi-annual, often unannounced ninja visits don't actually change anything. Carlos never figures out if Kendall has forgiven him, or if he's secretly plotting to slit James's throat while he sleeps. The end could come any day now.

That doesn't stop Carlos from trying to repair his own relationship with James. Because. Well. It's easier now, not hating his best friend.

Of course, it helps that he knows James is taken.

That's what makes it particularly awful when Kendall waltzes into the bathroom while Carlos is simultaneously trying to conference call James and Logan as well as brush his teeth.

Carlos stares at him in abject horror while James babbles happily over Logan's smart-people jargon. He jabs his finger into the end call button before Kendall can hear anything incriminating, but his water slick finger slides along the surface of his smart phone, fucking dumb smart phone, and he can't quite manage to shut them up in time.

"Are they together?" Kendall asks bluntly, his big green eyes making Carlos feel so terribly guilty, especially because this huge part of Kendall probably doesn't want to know the answer. But the part of him that's always been sturdy and courageous and accepts that ignorance is not bliss, it's torture; that's the part that asks.

Carlos crosses his arms, toothbrush dangling between his fingers, foaming at the mouth. "I don't know. I think they're trying to focus on being friends again. If they're doing anything else, they're taking it really, really, really slow."

Kendall waits, because Carlos has to know more than that.

He does.

He shifts from foot to foot, guilty. "They, um. I heard there was a kiss. But since then, Logan's been making James grovel. Does that make you feel better?"

"No." Kendall grips the edge of the sink and exhales slow. The set of his shoulders is rigid, the pallor of his face is pale. And Carlos feels stupid, because yeah, how could that possibly make him feel better?

James would never grovel for Kendall. It's one more disparity in a long list of them that lead to the end.

Only Kendall surprises Carlos by saying, "But. I want Logan to be happy. And James. I guess. Probably. So. Good for them."

Happy is the last thing the beast that still rages inside him obviously wants for James, but somewhere underneath the storm is the Kendall Carlos knows, the boy who loved James Diamond more than he ever thought possible. The loyal kid Carlos that thought he'd lost.

Carlos can see that boy wanting James to be radiant with happiness, to outshine the stars with it. So, Kendall's trying again. That's a victory, in a way.

He claps Kendall's shoulder and says, "I don't get you sometimes, man." Then he pauses. "Want to go break shit?"

"Absolutely," Kendall's fingers twitch, his mouth curving, cheeks dimpling.

One day, maybe Carlos will stop thinking he is beautiful.


35.

Kendall picks up the phone. He spends a fair amount of time glaring at the receiver.

Placing blame on inanimate objects is way easier than what he thinks he needs to do.

The missed call symbol stares accusingly up at him from the corner of his cell's screen.

Finally.

This is ridiculous. It's just a phone call. A phone call he's been waiting for, even.

Kendall mumbles words like courage and honor and duty in his head, and does not cringe away when they call up memories of camouflage. He has never forgiven his dad, and maybe he never will, but that doesn't mean Kendall resents the things his father stood for.

No matter how many horrible things a person has done, it does not negate the good they've put out into the world. It doesn't erase all the times he twirled Kendall in the air when he was a kid, the world spinning into a blur, the both of them caught in a vortex of wind and laughter.

That memory, more than any confirmation word is what spurs Kendall into pressing call.

Remember the good parts, or let the bad parts consume you; it's rule nine hundred and eighty three in learning how to live again.

He waits through three rings.

"Hello?"

His heart forgets it is not made of lead, but Kendall breathes through each stutter and stop.

He says, "Hey, Logan."


36.

How Carlos and Kendall feel about James has defined them both for so long. So basically, Carlos likes this brave new world, where they are both able to redefine themselves.

He invites Kendall to his friend's engagement party because he invites Kendall to every event he ever goes to. Kendall accepts less than half the time, because Kendall actually has a pretty busy life for a guy who has spent the past two and a half years for all intents and purposes, miserable.

He agrees to come out this time, though, because it's a Saturday night and, "I've got nothing better to do than witness the beginning of what will one day be a spectacular trainwreck."

"Dude, you're so damaged." Carlos tugs at his starched white shirt. He hates dressing up. For some reason he thought being an adult would involve more leather jackets, but apparently that's only true if you're James Diamond.

Kendall looks equally uncomfortable in his own get-up. "Are you sure you don't want to do something else? We could go out, cause mischief, get matching tattoos."

"The last time I took you into a tattoo parlor, you tried to get a Carebear." Carlos places a hand at Kendall's back instinctively, guiding him towards the door. "Come on, you can get drunk and toast the happy couple about the inevitability of heartbreak."

"Why are they even getting married?" Kendall begins plaintively, and Carlos is so very sick of this speech.

"Love's real, Kendall. Just because it fucked you over once doesn't mean it doesn't exist." He's digging his fingers into Kendall's spine harder than necessary, pulling him into shared airspace, his cologne heady on Carlos's tongue. Low and rough, he vows, "Love exists."

Kendall visibly swallows, his Adam's Apple bobbing uncertainly. "Yeah. I was actually going to say they're kind of young."

"Right. Of course." Carlos falters, taking a step back. "I didn't mean-"

Kendall grabs for his shoulders and ropes him into a hug.

"I know what you meant." Against Carlos's collarbone he keeps going, the words half muffled, Carlos's heart too tight. "And I keep wanting to tell you – thanks."

"For what?" Carlos asks, astonished. He breathes hot against Kendall's ear and wonders mostly if it would be wrong to cop a feel, weirdly touched by absolutely everything about this.

Touched and a little turned on. He's not sure which is sicker.

Kendall tells him, "For not giving up."

"No pro-"

"You're right, you know," Kendall interrupts levelly. "Love is real."

His words are rocks tied to Carlos's feet, but his eyes are blazing, a lighthouse for Carlos to swim towards. Standing by Kendall's side all this time was never about getting him to see Carlos in a new light. Not at all, but.

He hopes.

He wants.

He prays.


37.

Carlos jams out to pop demo tracks that James sends in the mail. He wiggles his hips and shimmies his chest, slick from the shower, browned from the sun.

Countless years of choreography and he still throws down like a dork.

Kendall folds his arms across his sternum, caging his heightened awareness of his heart before anyone else notices its thudthudthud.

Carlos drops down to the floor, kicks out his legs and takes out their coffee table, all in one smooth move. A snort of laughter bursts from Kendall's lips of its own volition.

Head snapping up, Carlos says sheepishly, "I think I'm out of practice."

"I dunno why. It's easy." Kendall's muscles are stiff and achy from a hard day of stocking bookshelves and getting his ass handed to him by his teammates. But he can still do this, execute the same move with perfect grace.

"Showoff," Carlos bites out, sweat pricking against his temple.

Kendall considers licking it away, imagines the taste of it on his tongue.

He chases the thought off with tired recognition.

"Always have been," he agrees instead, and it's true. Kendall keeps waiting for the day he'll outgrow his fifteen year old self, but it never comes. He's still a little prick.

Older now, wiser, sure. But still the same kid who likes hockey and hates schoolwork and loves his friends so much it hurts. He still wants to be the best, still relies on zany schemes to get him through the day, and he's still holding onto this image of a boy, of James, like it's the only thing that keeps him standing.

Only the image has gone fuzzy around the edges, replaced with something softer, someone kinder. Somewhere along the line, Kendall has found himself thinking about Carlos the way he used to.

Not that it means anything for them.

It's completely possible to love other people and despise yourself, but Kendall thinks that unless he gets to an okay place again, he won't ever be able to love Carlos the way he deserves. James needs to stop plaguing him completely, a constant presence in his brain. He needs to stop wincing every time Logan calls.

And even then, he needs to work past this idea, this thing he can't let go – that love exists to rip people to shreds.

Besides, he knows better than anybody else that liking your best friend doesn't actually mean your best friend likes you back. It's gross never stops ringing around the back of his brain, even if Carlos would never say that now.

"Cocky bitch," Carlos spits at him without any vitriol, and then he tackles Kendall into the couch, because he can.

And that's. Erm. Probably a bad idea on his part.

See, Kendall's really big on this suffering silently thing, this strong, stoic martyr routine he's got going, but that doesn't mean he's like, inhuman. Carlos wiggles his hips, getting his fingers up in between Kendall's ribs, tickling him ruthlessly. Kendall's laughing so hard that it's painful, squirming underneath his best friend, who is brilliant, sun-brown, sweaty but sweet smelling, and he doesn't expect the way his body reacts, he doesn't, he's not fucking fifteen anymore. But something about the heat and the bubble of happiness filling his chest and the pressure of Carlos all up over him is enough that his dick takes an interest, and Carlos isn't dumb. Not the most observant, a lot of the time, but not dumb.

He notices when Kendall stops laughing.

"Hey, did I hurt you?" He settles back on his heels, dark eyes searching, "Are you oka- uh, what's that?"

Pajama pants aren't great for hiding like, anything, and Kendall's so hot under his skin he feels like he's gone nuclear. When he swallows, it's dry and loud. "It's a while since I've-" He makes a motion with his hand that's supposed to be explanatory but mostly looks careless.

Fuck. He's perving on his best bud and he can't even give him a half decent explanation for it.

He expects the look of total surprise that breaks across Carlos's features. That's pretty much a natural response to your best dude friend popping wood, arguably because of you. What isn't so much is the way that Carlos licks his lips, says, "That's. That's –" and then kisses him.

Kendall arches up into it immediately, the heat of Carlos's lips the only thing he wants to feel like, forever, the play of his skin underneath Kendall's fingertips basically better than anything he expected. He takes what he can and waits for Carlos to push him away, but instead Carlos pulls him closer, slotting their bodies together, licking out into Kendall's mouth.

They fit together in a way that Kendall had always known they would, maybe, hearts racing in tandem, their hands wandering freely.

Carlos's knees bracket Kendall's hips, the both of them sinking into the cushy brown of their sofa cushions. He moans helplessly against lips so plush and red that all he wants is to feel them wrapped around his dick, to feel those fingertips branding Kendall's hipbones right on his cock.

Carlos nudges a thigh between Kendall's legs, shivering friction up the length of him, and oh, fuck.

Kendall presses against him, the heat and the weight of Carlos's cock insistent and there, and Carlos whimpers, rough and pleading. The few people he's screwed around with since James – they were nothing like this.

His blood did not call to them, but it thunders Carlos's name.

Carlos says, "I want you," and shoves his hand straight down Kendall's pants, Kendall's head so clouded with agreement that it's all he can do to pant yes, to groan Carlos's name.

And then Carlos shakes his head, pulls his hand back so quickly it's like he's been burned.

He says, "No. This is wrong. I can't-"

"What? But you just-"

"Not like this." Carlos's face is twisted, angry and a little annoyed. "You don't get to use me to forget about James."

James is literally the last thing on Kendall's mind, but shame burns his cheeks all the same. "I didn't mean to-"

"I know you didn't." Carlos scampers off his lap, onto solid ground. He crosses his arms defensively against his naked chest and says, "Kendall, you don't know how to handle being alone. You never have. I think maybe it's time you figured it out."

And it's funny, because it's Carlos, who has always had a mom or a dad or a sister or a brother or a friend at his side. He's got endless amounts of friends. What does Carlos even know about being alone?

But when Kendall meets his gaze, he thinks maybe Carlos knows a lot more about loneliness than he's ever let on.

"One day-" His voice breaks, like he's saying something that he never meant to give voice to, this deep dark secret. Since when has Carlos had those? He juts out his chin and barrels on, more steady now, "One day, you're going to want me more than you ever wanted James. And until then…" Carlos shrugs. "I can wait."

Kendall watches Carlos's heaving chest, aching a little, but also bizarrely delighted. "Wait. Do you like me?"

Rolling his eyes, Carlos replies, "You're lucky you've got a good slapshot, because you're real slow at everything else.

Despite himself, Kendall grins. Because that's – an interesting development. Yeah. He can definitely work with that.

Carlos retreats to his bedroom in a rush, a flush riding high on his cheeks now that his declaration is out there, real and ringing. Watching his retreating back, Kendall thinks that love involves a lot of patience and waiting.

But it's okay.

If Carlos is willing to wait, then maybe Kendall should be too, because this time, this thing, whatever it can be…

It's something worth waiting for.


Coda.

It takes years, because pain and love are not the kind of things a person can recover from in an instant, or a day, or a handful of months. But it happens eventually; every day, it gets the teensiest bit easier. Carlos makes Kendall smile like no other, when James only knew how to make him sad.

In a way, that's tragic, that Kendall ever valued one feeling over another, but he is not a nineteen year old boy any longer.

It's June, or maybe it's October, May or December. All Kendall knows is that he turns around and sees Carlos, laughing at something with his brilliant, ridiculous grin. He remembers how much he used to love this boy, back before love made him a needy, desperate thing.

More than that smile alone, it takes Kendall knowing that he's sure, that he's not using Carlos because he's lonely or hard up. It takes endless movie nights and bar karaoke and Carlos cheering him on at so many hockey games that Kendall loses count. It takes trips to Carlos's marketing firm and afternoon lunches in familiar cafes, and being reminded of all the things that used to belong to the two of them before James came along and ruined it all.

Still, Kendall waits, because he does not want Carlos to think he's second best. Carlos has never been second at anything in Kendall's eyes, but how can he tell him that? He has spent years talking his ear off about one thing, one person only.

Now everything is different.

Kendall knows more now. He's stronger. But he's still Kendall. And he's beginning to think that's never going to change.

He's also beginning to think he's okay with that.

What he feels for Carlos never becomes the thing that he felt for James, the intense heat and focus and need that overwhelmed him. But it does turn into something equal in measure, a kinder desire that consumes him all the same.

And one day, far in the future, Kendall even lets Carlos know.

This is how it happens:

The trees towering above them are huge. The wind shakes them, rakes the leaves from their branches. They spiral down, a slow snowstorm that Kendall watches, watches, for minutes on end. He loves when spring finally hits in Minnesota, with its fresh paint and bouquets of dogwood blooming overhead. It's the creak of old houses, the sun growing too hot, and the memory of him, beating vibrant in his veins, turning the muscles between his shoulders taut. Years later and James does still exist in the primavera stars and sunwarm concrete. He is the wooden support beams in pubs Kendall never visits, the laughter of the carefree college students he never completely got to be, the golden hue of microbrews and the specter of a kiss he can no longer taste. Kendall misses James when he shouldn't; this place screams of the lives they could have lived.

But here, now, it is also the future. James might be prevalent, but Carlos is everywhere.

He's the arm around Kendall's shoulders, piloting the remote control on Netflix nights. He's the funky smell in the kitchen, because he tried cooking, again. He's the musical dictator in the car they both share, the chooser of hole in the wall restaurants rich with the scent of dirt. He's the glarer of pretty girls who deign to flirt with the former leader of Big Time Rush, the one who comes running when Kendall's dad calls. He's the scent of the wildflowers he just trampled over like a raging bull, the sheen of sunlight that soaks both of their skin. He's leaning into Kendall right now, his mouth open and wide and unsuspecting.

"Beat you," Carlos crows, their race to the lakeside fast and ruthless, and he's panting a bit.

Kendall shrugs off the heinous accusation that he could ever lose at anything, and thinks. He thinks, and thinks, and then he leans in.

They've both waited long enough.