When James arrived at biology class Monday morning, Chris was standing at Mrs. Martin's desk, having a quiet and seemingly serious conversation. After a moment, Chris returned to his usual seat, and James went to join him, but he was stopped by Mrs. Martin as he passed her desk.
"Oh, James, you'll be working with Michael from now on," she said.
James glanced to the corner of the room where Michael, as usual, slept at his desk. Alyssa, his old lab partner, perked up at the news and excitedly shuffled over to Chris's table, relieved to be rid of her useless partner.
"Great," James muttered, reluctantly taking his new seat.
He certainly didn't blame Chris for not wanting to work with him anymore. He was surprised he hadn't seen it coming, to be honest. Even still, it served to make him feel even worse for what he'd done. He didn't even bother trying to pin any of the blame on his team anymore – sure, it had been their idea, and their fault Chris found out, but James could have stopped all of that.
The first thing he had to do was apologize, he knew that. However, the odds of Chris letting him speak to him for more than three seconds didn't seem very good. The only way he'd be able to get to Chris was through his friends, he decided. Even if that didn't work, they would at least offer some insight on how to go about apologizing.
Connor was his best friend, so James decided to go to him first. He knew the boy had free seventh period and usually spent it in the library, because it was almost always deserted at that time of day. James bit his lip – he had history that period. But class wasn't as important as Chris, he decided.
So seventh period that day, instead of heading to history, James found himself standing awkwardly in the empty library.
The librarians eyed him suspiciously; wary of any unfamiliar faces wandering around their library. James tried not to feel intimidated as he looked around for the redhead.
He spotted a backpack sitting at a table and recognized it as Connor's, but no Connor to go with it. He sighed and figured he must be in the bathroom or wandering the shelves, so James decided to browse them as well.
James slowly paced up and down the rows of books, slyly peeking into each aisle to see if he spotted the boy. After a few minutes, he heard someone speak softly, but knew the voice wasn't Connor's. He ducked into the aisle next to the one he heard the sound come from and peeked through the space left by a few checked-out books.
Kevin and Connor were sitting on the floor, leaning against the wall at the end of the aisle, Connor's arm wrapped around Kevin's shoulders. "But what if the guys just laugh and suddenly I'm an outcast on my own team?" he heard Kevin softly mutter.
"I'm not gonna lie," Connor replied gently, slowly rubbing Kevin's arm, "that could happen. But if it does, then you know what? Forget them. Those guys aren't really your friends. If they don't accept you, then they don't deserve your time."
Kevin glanced around. "You're sure nobody comes in here this period?"
Connor nodded. "I've only seen one other person come in to return a book since the beginning of the year," he reassured him.
"Good," Kevin said, visibly relaxing into Connor's side. James suddenly felt slightly guilty for spying, but held his position. "What about my parents? How am I supposed to tell my dad that his star football player likes guys?"
Connor sighed. "I don't know. It's different for everyone. It took my dad some time, but he eventually came around. I know yours will too if he loves you." Kevin still looked unsure, so Connor smiled at him. "Hey, I do know one thing for sure, though," he said gently.
Connor took Kevin's chin and slightly tilted it up. "You worry too much," he said, barely a whisper, before softly pressing a kiss on Kevin's cheek.
James's eyebrows shot up. Practically everyone knew that Connor had a "secret" thing for Kevin, but James hadn't even thought Kevin might feel the same. Hell, he had no idea Kevin was gay.
Now, he felt much guiltier for listening in on their conversation, and decided it would be best if he left them alone. He snuck away as silently as he could and briskly left the library. Obviously Connor wasn't in any position to give him apology tips.
James glanced at the clock on his way out, trying to leave as quickly as possible to escape the burning gazes of the librarians, and noticed that the period had barely begun. He leaned against the wall outside of the library and sighed. It was late enough to get him into trouble, but not nearly late enough to warrant skipping the rest of the class.
So James reluctantly headed to the nurse's office, exaggerating his limp as much as possible to be allowed to wait out the rest of class there.
While he sat on the plastic bed, allowing the nurse to poke and probe at his knee, James tried to figure out his next move. From what he could remember, Arnold and Nabulungi would usually meet up at the flagpole after classes. He figured he'd be in for one hell of an earful if he approached Nabulungi, but she was his last hope.
He tried to plan out what he'd say to her during his eighth period English class. "Hey, I'm too much of a wimp to apologize myself to one of your best friends, do you think you could do it for me?" He certainly wasn't going to say that. Everything he thought of either sounded wrong, or was phrased in Shakespearian English as he tried to devote some of his attention to the copy of Macbeth he was supposed to be reading.
Finally the bell rang, and he soon found himself leaning against the brick wall by the flagpole, subtly scanning the crowd of students for the couple he needed to speak with. He checked his watch periodically, more than willing to be late to practice if it meant getting help.
Eventually he spotted them, holding hands and heading into the parking lot. He hobbled after them as quickly as possible until they were within hearing distance. "Hey," he said, getting Nabulungi's attention, but earning only a glare and a turned back. "Wait, I need to talk to you," he said, catching up with the pair.
"About what?" she asked bitterly, and Arnold instinctively wrapped an arm around her to try and calm her down.
James nearly winced at her incredibly protective tone, unfamiliar with that side of her. "Just listen for a second, please. I can't even begin to explain how awful I feel about what happened, and I need to apologize to Chris."
"That's for damn sure," she muttered, crossing her arms, her eyes still locked in a stern glare.
"Right," James said, rubbing the back of his neck. "But - and you probably already know this, being one of his best friends and all - he's probably not exactly itching to talk to me."
"With good reason," Nabulungi interrupted.
"Well… Yeah. But I was just wondering if there was any way I could get him to let me talk to him, just for a few minutes, so I can explain myself? Then, if he doesn't want to see me ever again, I… I'll try not to mind."
Nabulungi continued to glare at him, ready to turn around and leave, but Arnold nudged her softly. "Come on, give him I chance. I think he's being sincere."
Finally, the girl sighed, and her face lost its bitter, distrusting look. "There isn't some special way to go about doing this. I wouldn't apologize in school, because you couldn't blame him if he assumed you were just attempting round two. Just don't make it seem like you're trying to cover your own ass, and actually let him know that you're apologizing because you care. Not just to clear your own conscience."
"Woah," Arnold said. "That was deep." Nabulungi smiled at him.
James nodded. "I really, really appreciate this, Nabulungi."
She started at him, her face expressionless. "Just remember that if you hurt him again," she began, glaring and poking him in the chest, "you will be sorry."
James was tempted to ask her what she might do were that to happen, but the look on her face told him that was a very bad idea. So he just gulped and nodded, not daring to look away until she turned around and began to lead Arnold off with her.
"But," she glanced over her shoulder, looking less angry, "good luck."
The soft knock on the door roused Chris out of his daydream, and he sat up suddenly, startled by the noise. He tried to rearrange the objects on his desk to appear as though he was busy doing something, but Emma had already peeked her head in through the door.
"Chris?" she asked softly, shutting the door behind her. The teen didn't look up from his desk, and instead shuffled around a few random papers. "Can I talk to you?"
"Can it wait, Em? I'm," Chris began, drawing out the word as he glanced at the textbook sitting closest to him, "doing economics homework."
Emma approached the desk slowly, glancing at her brother skeptically. "But that paper says history, and it already has a grade on it," she said, pointing at the sheet Chris was pretending to study.
With a sigh, Chris set down the papers and got to his feet, slumping down on the bed. Emma sat at the end and leaned against the footboard, staring expectantly. "What is it?" he finally asked.
Emma shrugged. "I just wanna see how you are."
"I knew you would say that. But you still look sad." Chris shut his eyes and leaned back against the headboard, but remained silent. "Do you wanna talk about it?" Emma asked quietly.
Chris shook his head.
Emma wasn't sure where to go from there, so she crawled towards her brother and sat down next to him. They sat in silence for a moment, before she piped up with, "I'm sorry I picked on you about your friend," she said, and Chris thought back to the very first time he'd had James over. How polite and kind and sincere he'd been…
He felt his eyes well up and he blinked the tears back. "He's not my friend," he said dully, choosing to pay attention to the closet door rather than look at his sister.
"And that's why you're sad," Emma said. It wasn't a question.
The accuracy of his sister's words was surprising, and a few tears slipped down Chris's cheeks before he could stop them. "Yeah," he finally muttered, his voice sounding weak.
Emma felt around for his hand and held it firmly, her small hand fitting delicately into his. "It's okay to be sad," she said softly, staring up at him. "But you know that I love you a lot no matter what, right?"
Chris mustered up a small smile and wrapped an arm around Emma's shoulders. "I love you too, sis," he replied.
"So if you wanna cry, I won't make fun of you."
A few more tears silently fell. "You're way too mature for such a little girl," Chris said, smiling down at Emma.
"Is that bad?"
Chris shook his head. "Nah. Just don't grow up too fast, okay?"
Emma nodded. "I won't if you won't."
Mrs. Thomas opened the door with her usual welcoming smile, ready to greet whoever had come knocking. It fell, however, when she realized it was James Church standing on the porch, leaning on his crutch. "Hello, James," she said tentatively.
James tried to smile, but felt intimidated under Mrs. Thomas' protective mother stare. "Um, hello Mrs. Thomas," he greeted politely. "May I come in?"
"If you're looking for Chris," she began, sounding more concerned than anything, "he doesn't want to talk to you. He's been spending most of his free time locked in his room."
James sighed. "I figured you'd say that. But I really need to see him. I came to apologize."
Mrs. Thomas stared at him for a moment, debating whether or not it was safe to let James see Chris. All she knew was that James had done something to hurt her son. She had never seen Chris so upset before, and certainly didn't want to make it worse. Finally, she sighed and nodded. "He's upstairs. Don't even think about doing anything to make him upset again," she said sternly.
James nodded. "I won't, ma'am, I promise. And thank you," he said, before heading up the stairs.
Chris mumbled something into his pillow when he heard a knock at his bedroom door. He turned to glance at the visitor as it opened, expecting it to be his mom or Emma. When he saw James slowly enter the room, he held back an annoyed groan and rolled over again, preferring to face the wall than face the other boy.
"Can I come in?" James asked slowly.
"You already have," Chris replied bluntly.
James paused. "Oh, yeah, right," he said, his sheepish smile going unnoticed. "So, um, hey."
"Hey," Chris answered through a huff. "And how are you on this fine day?"
He'd meant it sarcastically, but James took it upon himself to answer. "Not so good," he began. "I did something really, really stupid and probably lost one of the best things I had in my life."
Chris sat up on his elbows and finally looked at James. "Oh really?" he offered skeptically.
"Uh huh," James began, slowly making his way towards the bed. He tentatively sat down on the edge, turning to keep eye contact with Chris and leaning his crutch on the bed. "It all started in first period advanced biology, when we were assigned lab partners. My lab partner was a little squeamish, so he wasn't much help with dissections, but he pulled more than his weight with the written parts, so I liked having him around."
Chris seemed less angry and more interested at this point, so James continued. "My football teammates liked having him around too, but for different reasons. They thought it would be funny if we led him on, and outed him at a dance. And, because I was a stupid asshole, I agreed.
"At first, I was just going along with the plan, telling him I liked guys, complimenting him, trying to get him to like me. And I guess it was working, because one night, in the locker room, he kissed me."
Chris turned his head away, cheeks warming up. James bit his lip and continued.
"As far as I was concerned, I only liked girls. But after he kissed me, I couldn't stop thinking about him. About how much I really liked spending time with him. I did a lot of thinking that weekend, and realized that he was the first person to really care about me.
"Sure, there had been plenty of girls in the past, but I'd realized at some point that all of them were just with me because 'Wow, he's James Church!'. Not because they actually liked me, but because they liked who I was supposed to be. Some popular, football playing jock.
"But this one guy, my lab partner, he saw me as more than that. He liked me even when I wasn't putting on some macho, tough-guy façade. He cared about my well-being when I was too afraid to tell anyone else about my problems at home.
"And after all that thinking, I realized two things: One, I really, really liked my lab partner. More than I'd ever liked someone before, even though he was a guy. And two, I was about to completely and totally ruin everything."
Chris was silent through the whole explanation, trying to keep his face emotionless while his heart slammed in his chest. "So what did you do about it?" he asked slowly.
James bit his lip. "I tried to get out of the plan, because I finally realized just how wrong it was. But somehow, the guys pulled me back in. I guess I was afraid that if I backed out, I'd be rejected by some of the only guys who I called my friends. I was afraid of what would happen if I didn't do what they wanted me to. I was too weak to stand up for myself."
"You're not weak," Chris cut in softly before he could stop himself.
James smiled. "Maybe, but I was being a total asshole."
"I can't argue with that," Chris replied, a slight smirk tugging at his lips.
"So anyway, at the dance, I tried to stop the whole thing from happening. I guess I kind of did, but that was really just from luck. But my lab partner still found out about the plan and was, understandably, incredibly upset. He didn't want to see me afterwards, and got himself a new lab partner. To be honest, I'm surprised he's even letting me speak to him right now.
"I guess I didn't really realize what a terrible mistake I had made until he was gone. And now that he is, I feel like I've lost one of the only really good things I had going for me. And it's all my fault. And I'm so sorry, that I feel stupid saying 'sorry' because that word doesn't even begin to explain how, well, sorry I am."
There was a long pause after that, Chris staring at the floor, James desperately waiting for him to say something. Finally, "I bet your lab partner would have loved to have known all that before you ruined everything," Chris said softly, the slight edge back in his voice.
James sighed. "I know. And I wish I'd been able to realize all of that before I ruined everything, too. But I didn't, because I'm an idiot, and if he never wanted to see me again, I would understand."
"I don't think he never wants to see you again," Chris began, "because even though you're a total asshole, he probably still really likes you, and is just really, really confused about what he should do now."
James felt his chest tighten. "Well, maybe… Maybe someday, he'd think about forgiving me?" he asked hopefully.
Chris was silent again, but soon sat up and looked at James, eyes shining, a soft smile playing at his lips. "Why not today?"
Relief washed over James, and he couldn't contain his wide smile. "So what happens now?" he asked, slowly inching closer to Chris, as much as his bad knee would allow.
The distance between them was significantly decreased as Chris scooted closer to James. "Well, that depends. Is there anything else you would want to say to your lab partner?"
James bit his lip, trying to hide his smirk. "Just that I'd really like to kiss him right about now. If he's okay with that."
Chris grinned, his face only inches away from James'. "I think he would be more than okay with that," he whispered, closing the gap and crushing their lips together.
James inhaled slowly through his nose, making sure to savor the kiss this time, should it end as abruptly as their last. It definitely felt different, better. He could tell that this time, it was something Chris wanted, not just something that happened on an impulse. That, he decided, was a feeling he could get used to.
Chris pulled back, and James immediately noticed his eyes were downcast, just as they'd been after their first kiss. "What're you thinking about?" he tentatively asked, his head still spinning from the kiss.
The blond shrugged. "I'm just…" he began, glancing up to look James in the eye. "You'd understand if I wanted to take this slowly, right? I'm still not really…"
He lost his train of thought and trailed off when James wrapped an arm around his shoulders, and Chris let his head rest on James's shoulder. "Of course. This time, you take as much time as you need, alright?" he asked with a smile. "I promise not to interfere this time around."
Chris grinned. "What about you? Aren't you worried about what the guys will say?"
James rolled his eyes. "Them? Nah. I'll just lay it on them gently, in terms they'll understand."
"So you'll tell them that you're playing for the other team now?"
"That's one way of putting it."