We Trudged Along Through The Mud (And We Tried To Call It Home)

A/N: Uh. I am forever late at posting everyone's birthday fic. Anyway, thiiiis one is for teh_emowaffle, who is the best. Like, the actual greatest. She drew me this fabulosity of a picture of Jack and Bunny from Rise of the Guardians that I'm still trying to form a coherent thank you for because I LOVE IT SOOOOO. Meanwhile, I repay her by taking forever to post because I am a failure at all things and still trying to catch up on b-day fic from pre-Sandy times. But, uh, she asked long, long ago for a fic based on Maybe Memories by The Used, with parameters of kames and angst. WHERE I LIVE! I...have no idea if this fills those parameters because my fingers sometimes write things without consulting my brain. I have to give credit to breila_rose, who, when I whined ANGST PLOT NOW provided me with James being famous and Kendall being sad - weirdly enough, not something I've written before? Even though it is the fandom cliche? gjapegkjaps I'm so nervous about posting it. I hope you like it, dude!


"Hang up."

"But-"

"Hang up," James repeats through gritted teeth, words forceful and loud in the tiny dressing room.

Buttercup's eyelashes flutter over wide eyes, fear prematurely wrinkling her brow. She mumbles into the receiver, "Mr. Diamond isn't available at the moment. Can I take a message?"

James's fingers curl, itching to smack his cell straight from her hand. He doesn't want a message. He distinctly remembers briefing her on this ages ago, or maybe that was Buttercup 2.0.

This is version three, James's newest personal assistant, and he might have forgotten to give her his blacklist.

She hangs up, avoiding James's dark glare. "Mr. Knight says-"

"I don't care."

For a moment, Buttercup's temper flares, pupils blackening, knuckles tinged white. But the outward signs of anger dissipate after several deep, calming breaths. She pastes on a smile so obviously fake that James knows why she failed as an actress (or was that Buttercup the First?); he does not think he'll keep her on much longer. "Of course. You're on in twenty. Is there anything else you need?"

"Peace and quiet would be nice."

James knows better than to pitch a Diva Fit in front of his PA. She holds his cell phone in her capable hands, along with his schedule and his Twitter account. She could easily make James's life hellish before he could lift a finger to fire her, but if she's going to be accepting calls from people who shouldn't even be calling, then she's already begun dredging up brimstone.

"Absolutely," Buttercup agrees, her face blank and professional. She makes to step out of the dressing room, only to be foiled by a solid body blocking the doorframe.

"You need to stop ignoring my calls."

The frenetic pre-concert energy in James's stomach stills, coalescing into stone cold dread. He raises his eyes to the mirror, and yeah, Buttercup 3.0 isn't the only person on his managerial and security team who's going to be looking for a new job tomorrow.

Kendall's sex on long legs, leaning in the doorway with an illicit VIP backstage pass dangling from his throat. No one wears grunge-chic better than he does, no matter how many Hollywood boutiques push the look. California-culture just can't pull off unwashed woodsman, but Kendall never assimilated the way he should've, and it's the curl of home around his biceps, the Minnesota chill lining his expression that makes it work.

James bristles, spinning his makeup chair. "How did you get in here?"

Kendall's bushy eyebrows shoot up into his hairline, adding a sardonic tilt to his tsavorite eyes. James knows how he got in here, obviously. He's Kendall Knight, and he might not be an internationally famous pop singer anymore, but everyone in this damn town still knows his name. He's Gustavo Rocque's pet project, the music production prodigy, the hit-maker who just can't miss. There's not a bouncer in the nearest five counties who would deny Kendall entrance to anything. His disdain burns straight through James's chest, but James stands his ground.

Kendall asks casually, "What if I actually had something important to tell you?"

James perks up despite himself. "Do you?"

He doesn't. Kendall's as easy to read as a Magic Eight Ball, has been since they were kids, and James watches the flicker of yes-no-maybe consolidate into a response that is a definite negative, drawing Kendall's lips tight into a smile that hurts.

"Nah, I came here to call you an ass."

Right. This is about that, exactly like James thought it would be when he told Buttercup to hang up the damned phone. Carefully, James says, "You could've said it to the press. It would've gotten back to me eventually."

"Too impersonal."

The glitter-glass edge of Kendall's impending rage blackout is only apparent in the set of his shoulders, but James recognizes it as clearly as the wail of a tornado siren.

"Buttercup, leave." Buttercup stands there dumbly, clutching her clipboard to her chest. James glowers at her. "Buttercup."

She startles, and then, unwisely says, "My name is-"

"Did I ask?" James snaps. Kendall's body language goes rigid. He's about to pull a White Knight, James can tell, and he really does not want his PA front and center on this battleground. He tries on his bossiest tone and commands again, "Leave."

This time Buttercup listens, skirting around the blockade that is Kendall and hightailing it down the hall. James and Kendall are alone, oh, joy.

When this all started, they were filled with joy, standing on the brink of something great. Kendall's skin crackled like dying starlight, cupped in James's hands. The ridges of his spine protruded beneath his thin t-shirt, white salt mountains James could take between his lips, if he wanted. Kendall stumbled forward, and.

Kendall steps into the room, not stumbling now, and shuts the door softly behind him, the click of the lock smothered beneath his ragged breathing. "You shouldn't talk to her like that."

"You should mind your own business," James retorts, because apparently he's still in his formative years. Kendall balls his hands into denim, a nervous gesture he never quite outgrew.

"Fair enough. I meant to bring balloons."

"Balloons?" James has got less than fifteen minutes 'til he needs to be on stage, and this conversation is giving him whiplash.

"For your coming out party."

"I'm not gay," James replies automatically, and who does he think he's talking to? Kendall snorts, a bull gearing up for the rodeo.

"No. But you're not straight, and now everyone knows it." He digs a folded up page from the front pocket of his jeans, the recycled gray paper easily recognizable. It's the cover of Starspotter, the tabloid nonentity that skyrocketed into the stratosphere when some novice paparazzo snapped that photo. The grainy but recognizable shot is of James and another guy, lip-locked and half naked, stupid enough to get caught with their metaphorical pants down in public. It's all of James's carefully constructed plans crumbling into dust, and he has no choice but to live with it. "You really fucked this one up."

Things weren't supposed to turn out this way.

Kendall's skin crackled like dying starlight, cupped in James's hands, and he stumbled forward, throwing them both off balance. James staggered to hold him upright while Kendall coughed and hacked and spit, his lungs ashen with smoke.

"That's disgusting, how can you even?" Kendall demanded, voice ragged from shouting over the noise of the concert and the cigarette, his first, ever.

"Guess I'm naturally cooler than you," James replied, taking a long drag off the butt he saved from Kendall's flailing hands before dashing it out beneath his boot. In front of the auditorium, the band rocked on, and Kendall grinned, the dopily fond one he saved for James.

"Smoking isn't cool," he'd said, and then he leaned in close, mouth against the shell of James's ear. "You're a terrible role model."

James never meant for things to turn out this way.

He snaps, "Thanks, man. I'd never recognize my mistakes without you to point them out for me."

"Somebody's got to do it. Jett, really, James?"

Kendall's pissed off, a vein in his jugular jumping irregularly, in time to the discordant grind of his teeth. He bunches his fingers again and again, a black eye waiting to happen. Sulkily, James mutters, "I wanted to see what all the fuss was about."

"The fuss?" And now Kendall is shouting. There's probably not a single person backstage who can't hear him. But that's okay. There's nothing left to hide anymore. "You mean my relationship?"

"Please, you guys hooked up on every available surface this town has to offer," James snipes, turning back towards the mirror so he doesn't have to match the intensity of Kendall's gaze. Neither of them has ever been great at hiding their wounds, and right now they're both bleeding out all over the carpet. "That's hardly a relationship."

The words are double-edged and somewhat hollow, echoing back, back, back.

Kendall called him a bad role model and James teased him in turn, and bass guitar reverberated beneath their ribcages. Kendall's laughter flashed like heat lightning, interspersed by bouts of coughing, the dead embers of the forgotten cigarette nipping at James's heels, and.

Kendall winces and answers, with less volume this time, "Yeah. You've made that part perfectly clear."

Someone yells out a five minute warning, and James can't keep staring through the mirror as if it's a secret portal to Wonderland. He rearranges a stray tuft of hair and stands, guilt clinging cobwebby to his frame. Behind him, Kendall says, "You fucked my ex and the secret's out. Does it feel like you thought it would?"

Weariness laces James's bones. Nothing ever feels like he thinks it might. Poor little rich boy, everyone used to say, and as a kid James liked to pretend it wasn't true.

He'd go to the trailer park on the outskirts of town, sit in the dust in front of the dirtiest, most decrepit structure he could find (because trailers often had the habit of being nicer than he thought they should be), and there he would concoct stories about his history.

His parents were together, he'd say, impoverished, but happy.

They loved him the best they could.

They wanted him to live his dreams.

He prepared a thousand lies for all the interviews he'd give Rolling Stone one day. Poor little rich boys did not sell, but a Minnesota tragedy, turned small town success story? Yeah, that was public relations gold.

But he never ended up telling those stories in the long run, because Kendall was there, teaching James how to shine without changing anything about himself, past or present.

James asks mournfully, "Being out or being alone?"

Kendall hesitates. His eyes squeeze shut, blond lashes sprinkling golden starlight across his cheekbones. He murmurs, "You didn't have to be alone," before he walks out the door.

Poor little rich boy, he had the very best of friends.

Then he lost everything.


The worst part is how no one's even all that surprised.

James got the call from his publicist and thought the apocalypse was finally sitting pretty on his shoulders. Childhood taunts were always ringing in his ears. If James was queer, then those guys were right to slam his head into the lockers in fifth grade. If he was a fag, then the thing written inside that one bathroom stall was the truth. If he was a cocksucker, an ass bandit, a fairy boy...

James had grown big and strong and the taunts stopped, at least to his face, but the scars never faded, and he never stopped waiting for someone to hit the target between his shoulder blades.

The day the tabloid was published, James waited for his record sales to drop, his label to give him the axe, for an entire adult world of bullying and rejection. He was not expecting the support that would be volleyed his way, the outpouring of love and generosity, or the fans telling him how courageous he was.

Courageous, ha. James resented everything about how people reacted. Life was not supposed to troop effortlessly onwards, or things with Kendall wouldn't be so acerbic.

Acid-touched and storm-tossed.

Kendall had looked between the cigarette and James, his face clouded with reckless joy. He ruffled James's hair, curled his fingertips until they brushed against James's scalp. "I'm never letting you talk me into anything ever again."

The carcinogens in James's lungs made it hard to breathe, or maybe that was the music, pounding, a living thing between his heart and his spine. He slouched against Kendall's side, burying his face in the crook of the shorter boy's neck. Lava pulsed through Kendall's veins, burned against James's tongue.

Storm-tossed and acid-touched. Everything James has turns to thunderheads and poison.

The real scandal when the story broke was the rumors about his boyfriend-stealing, with Kendall and Jett's breakup in its infancy.

Did James cause the breakup?

No.

Did he seek out Jett of his own volition?

Yeah, maybe.

Things with Kendall have gotten so complicated, enough so that they've barely spoken since James's solo career took off two years before. James…missed him. He saw pictures of Jett and Kendall online and wondered if he could still taste his best friend on Jett's mouth.

This is why James is famous for his voice and not his decision making.

"You looked great out there, Mr. Diamond," Buttercup tells him, equipped with a smile and a damp towel to wipe the sweat and grime from James's face.

"Of course I did. Call the car around, will you?"

The best thing about doing charity shows, other than the warm and fuzzy feeling of giving, is that he doesn't have to race off to a tour bus afterwards. He can settle into the leather seats of his chauffeured town car and watch old episodes of The Valley until the driver pulls up in front of Camille's apartment building.

The doorman lets him in without any trouble, but Camille is a different story. James has caught her coming off a date, the scent of strong perfume assaulting his nose, her long curls, spiky shoes, and perfectly lined eyes offset by a pair of faded sweatpants and the reading glasses she refuses to wear in public.

She folds her arms over her chest, and James is mildly gratified to find she's wearing a James Diamond Tour t-shirt with no bra. "I don't remember inviting you over."

"I've had a long night," James says, his eyes lingering in her chest-al region.

Right up until she unfurls her arms to slap him. The stinging of his cheek reminds James how very little Camille has changed in the past few years. They used to date, for the briefest of whiles. It was certainly an adventure.

He whines, "That's not the way to treat a friend in crisis."

Camille rolls her eyes. "Idiot." She steps back to let him in, visibly restraining herself from beating James to death with a stiletto the whole while.

James doesn't bother admiring Camille's place, which is actually incredibly admirable, from the Rococo walls to the plush sofa near the foyer that James flings himself upon. Camille curls up beside him, kicking her legs up on his lap. The scowl on her face is terrifying.

James demands, "What's got you in a mood?"

"You're not the only one who's had a long night," she mutters darkly, crossing and uncrossing her legs over his thighs. She's wound tight as a guitar string, but she's wearing her Do-Me lipstick, which means…

"Didn't get laid?"

"He insists on being a gentleman," Camille grumps.

James shrugs, wrapping his fingers around her thin ankle. She's so tiny, bird-boned; when they were together, James felt like he could accidentally break her as easily as any twig. "I could help you out."

Camille narrows her eyes. "You've got problems of your own. I take it Kendall came to visit?"

James's lips slacken, mouth forming the universal shape of what-the-fuck? "How did you know?"

"He told Carlos he was going to. Carlos told Logan. Logan told me." She grabs an abandoned glass of pinot noir off her side table and sips it nonchalantly.

James shoves her feet off his lap.

"And you didn't think to warn me?"

"I thought about it." Pointedly, Camille shoves the heel of her Jimmy Choo into James's elbow before curling her feet underneath her. "Was he upset? Wait, no, don't answer that, I know he was. Can you blame him? If you stuck your dick in one of my old boyfriends on the front cover of Starspotter, I'd be homicidal."

James considers making a gay joke about Logan, but in light of the bruise forming on his arm, he decides against it. He grabs for the wine instead, taking a long gulp off the top.

Fruity or oaky? James can never tell. He stares at the delicate stem of the glass and confesses, "I don't know what he wants from me."

"Other than to watch you squirm?" Camille smirks, far too satisfied with her role as divine interventionist. "Gee, I don't know, James, what could he possibly be after?"

James's fingers tighten on the glass.

He had no idea, and Kendall had. Kendall had…Oh god.

Heated flesh scorched James's tongue as he licked out, tentative at first, before latching on, and Kendall had moaned. Backstage, it was dark and much too loud, but Kendall's delight rumbled in James's ear, breath as hot as his blood. He tasted of sweat and sweetness and cigarette ash, of home and the soap they both used and the salty California breeze. He lifted James's face with deliberate care, pupils yawning wide, lips bitten red. Kendall did not hesitate, didn't waste time meditating upon what it would mean. He kissed James bar-brawl filthy, dirty as the trailer park James wished he had come from, sliding tongues and lips and the tight fit of their hips. Their mouths were firebrands against each other. The world fell to flame.

It never stopped burning.

"I think he wants to see me suffer," James decides resolutely, aware of how quickly Camille catches onto the sad edge in his voice. She was there way back when, she saw everything that happened.

Maybe not the part where James rutted against Kendall's leg until he creamed his pants, but the after effects. He and Kendall hooked up at that Kat's Crew gig, and it was supposed to be a one-off. For James, the future trembled on the horizon, an earthquake he was only beginning to feel. He knew the aftershocks would haunt him long after he'd spanned the distance, when that day was barely a memory, a bittersweet brush of lips he couldn't quite recall.

But James and self-control aren't best friends, and he despite himself he fell captive to all the charms he hadn't realized his best friend had. It was hard to keep his hands to himself when he was nineteen and hard up, intoxicated off the taste of Kendall's lips. Once became twice, became three times, became a relationship, or not one, because having sex everywhere did not mean they were dating.

Every time, James came to the ghostly echoes of fag and fudgepacker, a hundred miles an hour to a full stop in seconds. He never even tried to touch Kendall back.

Guilt tied his stomach in knots, but Kendall, being Kendall, never pushed the issue. He nodded along when James told him No More, and opened his arms wide every time James broke that vow.

James finally ended it the only way he knew how.

Cold turkey.

He got his own place once BTR amicably broke up, stopped picking up calls, stopped dropping by Rocque Records, stopped having anything to do with his old life, at least voluntarily. He had a future and a reputation to uphold. He had to prove everyone wrong.

Logan and Carlos called James stupid, but they didn't get it. Kendall was never supposed to be gay. He was never supposed to accept James's advance for what it was. James could live with their friendship when Kendall was beautiful from afar, uninterested in the self-indulgent, wanting glances James cast his way.

He couldn't handle it when Kendall wanted him back, when he fell to his knees at a whim, hands fidgeting with the front of James's jeans.

Camille bares her teeth, not very nicely. "Don't be a moron. He loves you."

"Didn't look that way."

"Bet my bottom dollar he was checking to see if you were okay."

"I wonder if he could tell, you know, in between yelling at me."

Camille sighs. "If you're going to be this much of a baby, I'm going to need more wine."

"Bring another glass," James instructs.

Maybe if he drinks enough, he can forget how much Kendall hates him.


The second time, when there wasn't supposed to be a second time, they were shooting a music video in Venice Beach. There were these tents set up on the dunes, completely isolated from everything else.

The sun hit the sand in concentrated puddles, striping the beach with pure, white light. A bank of fog towered like a cliff off on the water, threatening to crash down on California. It would all evaporate before it ever hit the coast. With the notable exception of the extremely early hour, James loved mornings like these, when the world was sleepy-eyed except for the waves spotted with surfers and the film crew buzzing around him.

He and his friends piled into the tents, Carlos and Logan in one, James and Kendall in another. They kept bumping into each other as they shimmied into too-tight jeans. Kendall got tangled in his, falling to the blue tarp that served as a floor, laughing and cussing as he tried to figure out where his legs had gone wrong.

James towered over him, watching as Kendall squirmed, shirtless and disheveled, pants half-unfastened, belt hanging loose, and suddenly nothing was funny anymore. Heat curled beneath his skin. He didn't know if it was from the sun or inspired by the tilt of Kendall's smile. His heart contracted uncomfortably, crushing the breath from his lungs.

He should've been braver, he thinks now. He never meant to hurt anyone. All James ever wanted was to outrun the demons dogging his every step, and hey, he'd done a great job of that. Now when they smiled, sharp-toothed in his memories, they all had dimples and mossy green eyes and blood on their claws from digging into James's skin.

He needs to stop this. Wallowing doesn't look good on anyone, and the pain is addictive. Sometimes it's easier for James to feel sorry for himself, to hurt, than to aim for happiness. And that's what he's got to do now. He's out. The past is over.

James has got a life to live.

Like any self-respecting celebrity, he has an agent, a manager, a stylist, his PA, a public relations specialist, and/or other members of his extensive entourage fluttering around his house at any given time. Mostly they are there to reinforce his ego or provide him with a strongly worded bitchslap in the event that he's done something wrong. The former gets the peons a grin and an ice cold beer, the latter usually has James pitching a Diva Fit and kicking them out on the street. Despite the occasional tantrum, he pays an unhealthy amount for the flattery and the censure, so everyone keeps coming back for more.

Today, it's his manager, who is desperately trying to coerce James into managing his Twitter account in the absence of Buttercup. Posting updates is now a part of her job, even if the damn thing is in his name, so James doesn't see any reason to bother.

"I've got things to do," he informs her prissily, even though his plans for the day are limited to sunbathing and a dip in his Jacuzzi.

She takes his sass in stride, rolling her eyes good naturedly. "It'll take you a minute."

"Then it'll only take you a minute too," he argues, because it's not like he has anyone else to bicker with anymore. Logan's always off busy being smart, Carlos is filming some place where they have yet to invent cell phone reception, and Kendall remains so beyond off limits that it's ridiculous. James has other friends, kind of, but they're all a little unnaturally focused on kissing his ass.

"It'll take me longer than that," his manager sniffs. "Friendster was so much easier to use."

James blinks. "What's Friendster?"

"And now I am old." She sighs. "I'm old and outdated and you are a pain in my ass. Go, if you're not going to help, be young, be free, get out of my hair."

James does as instructed.

He has a pretty great house. He's not sure if his favorite part is the infinity pool, the soaring view of the Hollywood Hills stretching straight out to the coastline, or the convenient In-N-Out within walking distance; it's all pretty great. Bougainvillea blossoms have conquered his roof, and the plate glass stretching across his living room shines with the color of mid-afternoon skies. Everything is beautiful. Everything is good. Intent on enjoying it, he strips down to his boxers because he can and stretches out on one of the lounge chaises by the yard.

It's not often he gets a day all to himself. He gets lost in it, in the heady scent of orange trees, eucalyptus and jacaranda, the bark of distant dogs and the soft lap of the water against concrete. Shadows dance across the back of his eyelids, white light and brine, carried by the wind.

Kendall had said, "About the other night," but he was distracted by the way that James's hipbones sloped out of his jeans. He had clambered up to his knees, pressed his mouth against the angles, and James had let him, compelled by his staccato heartbeat and the fervor that glittered in the depths of Kendall's eyes.

It was a mistake, yes, absolutely, but that didn't mean James wanted hear it out loud. The golden treasure trail of hair tracking down his belly bristled against the side of Kendall's mouth, and James twined his fingers in blond hair, an enthusiastic noise falling from his throat.

After a moment's hesitation, Kendall agreed, "We can talk later," and began to work James's pants down.

Kendall never agrees with James now.

His weight dips the lounge chair, startling James out of his reverie. His face is cast in the shade, but his hair catches the last rays of the sun, dipping low on the horizon. He glimmers gold. The air tastes thick with Kendall and home.

Meanwhile, James feels sort of sticky and he can smell his own sweat. Stupendous. He growls, "Stop charming your way through my security team. Please."

Kendall lifts one shoulder in a half-hearted shrug, his crooked grin mirroring the act. "Can't help it. I'm naturally charismatic."

James glares. "Your charisma is about to meet my fist. Why are you stalking me?"

Ignoring the plaintive note in James's voice, Kendall examines the back of the house. "Nice place. Classic lines. Your mom must be proud."

"She is," James says.

Now.

When he was younger, and his career was trembling on the cusp of success, all his mother wanted was for James to give it all up. His mom is a shark, an oceanic blue-tip, and she's always wanted James to be just like her. She got over it, eventually, but James isn't sure that he ever did.

He keeps waiting for the stiletto heel to drop, for that phone call demanding he come home.

James is scared that, if she asked, he'd have to go. He's used to getting everything he wants, but how much of it has ever been on his own merit? Sometimes he thinks the only reason he's made it this far is because of his mom and Kendall.

Kendall, who doesn't look like he plans on leaving.

"Seriously, why are you here? Torture is illegal in America. I Googled it."

Kendall snorts. "Good thing I left my manacles at home," he snarks, and James admires the shape of his mouth when he speaks.

That day, at the beach, Kendall learned how to give head. He wasn't any good at it, sloppy, his lips stretched red, but he got the result he wanted. James ended up doing the music video with drool and dried cum crusting off inside his pants. He messed up more steps than anyone there, tripping over his own feet every time he licked his lower lip and found traces of Kendall, sharp and bitter against his skin. But he wanted more. He wanted it to happen again.

That was the moment when everything spiraled.

"Just leave me alone."

"Relax." Kendall holds up his hands, and if he sounds upset, James is probably imagining it. "I'm here on official business. Gustavo wants you to do a duet with one of his artists."

James grimaces. "He might not have noticed, but I'm not part of his label anymore."

"Come on, James. You owe him this." Kendall's shoulders slump, too thin under flannel. James wonders exactly how hard Gustavo is working him. His first instinct is to deliver a hug, to wrap Kendall up tight and try to do anything to conjure up a smile.

His second, more selfish impulse is to work to make that scowl stay. "I don't owe anyone anything. That was the point of my leaving."

"Really?" Kendall snaps, tilting his head down so that James can see his eyes, blazing green wildfire. "I thought the point was to get as far away from me as possible."

The accusation hangs in the air between them. James looks for an escape, only to find none waiting. He is being smothered by the fragrance of exotic flowers and the sight of ostentatious architecture and the overpowering, oppressive heat. He feels half naked and exposed, too vulnerable to Kendall's barbs.

The two of them never should have left Minnesota, probably. Things were easier there.

"I don't understand why you had to come. Gustavo's got lackeys for this, doesn't he?"

Kendall shifts uncomfortably. The back pocket of his jeans presses in imprint into James's thigh. The small touch creeps up on him like surprise, like lust, clenching tight in James's stomach and making his thigh muscles jump. Kendall hasn't fucked him in a long, long time, but it doesn't mean James can't remember the way his dick felt inside of him.

Jett was different. His shape, his length, his girth. The noises he made and the press of his mouth against James's neck. Jett was not Kendall.

Maybe that's why James touched him back, the way he never could with Kendall. There was nothing to ruin. There was nothing to break.

Kendall says, "You're right. I shouldn't have even bothered."

James is barely ever right. Doesn't Kendall know that? He sits up, even though his muscles protest lethargically, his flesh trying to grip the chair. The lights blinking on in the city loom like a warning, but James doesn't pay them any attention. He's got more important things to focus on, the fight or flight signals Kendall's giving off tensing up the pit of James's stomach.

He doesn't actually know what he's going to do before it happens; James is just tired of waiting and wanting and longing without ever doing anything about it at all.

Kendall's mouth tastes bittersweet and tangy, of soft drinks and enchiladas, but he makes James's lips tingle with a champagne bubble fizz. He's a shock to James's system, sun-warm and hard muscle and this startled noise that reverberates through James's ribcage. It's easy to take more, to open his lips and lick out with his tongue, to inhale and exhale and wait for it to end.

Seconds tick by, and James keeps waiting, but Kendall doesn't pull away. He kisses back. Like he doesn't know how not to.

It's hard, bruising, wet. Kendall bites out at James's lower lip, draws blood, but doesn't stop, because there's anger here, simmering right beneath the surface of everything. He scrapes his teeth against James's tongue, then soothes away the hurt. He lets James manhandle him down until their bodies are pressed together in one long, hot line, the inseam of his jeans marking dashes of Morse Code along James's skin.

It's broad daylight, in full view of James's manager if she decided to come outside, but there aren't any secrets to be kept anymore. James has to constantly remind himself of that, when the tide of panic takes over. He's out. He's free.

Kendall nudges James's thighs further apart with his own, snaps his hips insistently up and forward until James's vision blacks out at the edges. He hasn't wanted anything so desperately in a very, very long time, but Kendall is a hard habit to kick. All it takes is a taste and James becomes this awful, quivering mess in his arms. He digs his fingers into Kendall's back, kneads the muscle right below his shoulder blades and revels in the way it makes Kendall's whole frame go slack. He thinks, yes, this, forever.

James draws his hands down, around to Kendall's sides, fists the fabric of Kendall's shirt and tugs at it with one goal in mind; Kendall's skin, now, all of it. Kendall appeases him, groans, grunts James's name, his palms caressing over the flesh of James's belly. He sucks a bruise right beneath James's throat, prods it with his tongue until it twinges. Their ankles twine together, the rough leather of Kendall's boot slipping beneath James's toes. He begins toying with the waistline of James's boxers, and then.

Then…

Then there is a wet touch of lips on the corner of James's jawline, right beneath his ear, and Kendall freezes. "I can't do this."

Happy is not a word that describes how Kendall sounds, but he pulls back all the same, expression ravaged, the sun highlighting every miserable detail. He pushes up and away from James, finding his footing on the carefully constructed layout of James's patio with grace. His lips, bitten raw, open wide.

If there's an apology perched there, James doesn't find out. Kendall closes his mouth and backs away, stumbling and frightened. He watches James the whole time, like he's seen a ghost.

James stares at his own knees and the tenting in his boxers, because he can't meet Kendall's gaze. Chaos broils somewhere between his spine and his sternum, but on the outside he is sanguine, serene, still. James will not give away how he feels right now; like a trainwreck, like trouble, like ticking time bomb. It's only when he's sure that Kendall's gone that he lets his head thunk back against the lounge chair, breathing strained, his eyes squeezed shut against the blue, blue sky.


So. James fucked that up.

He's better off this way. It's time to get back to basics, to focusing on the really important things. Like his career and how very awesome his hair has been this week.

James would rather be doing the focusing at home, of course. He's had a shitty week and sucking up to bigwigs can be a lot like whoring himself out on the best of days, but skipping out tonight wasn't exactly optional. It's Camille's birthday party.

She's having a real shindig later, once the old fogies from her current studio have evacuated the premises, but for now it is all about casual elegance; crab cakes and remoulade and Manhattans in frosted glasses. There isn't a sushi bar in sight.

James mourns the commercialization of raw fish.

He can rock an industry party with the best of them, because this is how he grew up. In a big, empty house with unassuming wait staff catering to his every move. Even in the middle of his sour mood, James knows how to turn on the charm, the smile, the voice. He basically invented the slick user interface.

Is that what roped Kendall back into James's life? How big and shiny and fake James is?

He tries so hard to outrun the truth, but the end of the day, James never stops feeling like a fraud. He lied and he cheated and he stepped all over his best friend to get here, at the top, with his name up in lights. Kendall deserves more than that; inevitably, he'll figure that out again. They'll go back to the being completely incommunicado, because Kendall is clever and Kendall is quick.

Maybe they could have made it work, back at the beginning, but it would've been selfish to ask him to wait around until James was comfortable with…whatever James is. Gay or bi or Kendall-sexual.

No. Gay. He's gay. In all the ways that matter to the ghosts in his head. James knows that now.

He always knew, honestly. When things were good, he was already long gone. Kendall had eyes cut from peridot and a mouth made for kissing. James would stare at his lips under the pretense of listening to whatever the topic of the day was, but mostly all he heard was white noise overlaid with the exuberance of Kendall's voice. He wished he could make out actual words, but the English language turned to gobbledygook in the face of Kendall's smile. James had never felt that way before.

At the time, he was reasonably certain he wasn't enjoying it.

Kendall must have been devastated when James cut all their ties. James never even bothered saying a real goodbye.

The other day, when Kendall flinched away, between the pink-red of his mouth and the sweat beading his hairline, James could see it. Laid bare, in those mossy eyes of his.

Pain. Hate, sure. Rage. But most of it was agony, plain and simple.

James did that. He's such a completely unsalvageable example of humanity.

"You're moping." Camille appears at his arm in a dress that spins out light like a disco ball. "It's really unattractive."

"I'm never unattractive," James objects loudly, and with an accompanying sassy pose. Buttercup-the-Fourth rolls her eyes from her perch near the bar. She's worse than her former incarnation, about five Manhattans in and completely ignoring her job. James isn't sure why he hasn't fired her yet. "Never."

Camille makes a noncommittal noise that indicates she isn't interested in making it to her next birthday, because James is always pretty, okay. "Are you ready to blow this popsicle stand? I'm bored."

"Oh thank god," James exhales through his teeth, his pearly white smile firmly pasted in place. He mutters, "I thought I was going to die of old age here."

"Get your perky ass to the car." Camille swats at him, her faux-grin equally as dazzling. "I'll be out in five."

Camille's out in ten, but James doesn't nag her about it. She instructs the driver to hit up the after party at a trendy, downtown bar that's got decent music and a lot of privacy. New Buttercup ignores them both, punching away at her cell with vigorous joy. She's updating his Twitter. Probably with vicious lies, like that James is impossible to work with.

Or, you know, that's he's emotionally unstable and in love with a member of his former band. Because James does very little to dispel that truth when the town car pulls up beside a curb where Kendall, Carlos, and Logan are waiting.

"You invited them?" He hisses, clutching at Camille's forearm.

She frowns at his nails, even though they're perfectly manicured and not at all besmirch-able. James totally got dolled up for her. "Time to face your fear."

Buttercup raises her head from the glowing white screen of her phone.

"Kendall's not even your friend!"

Buttercup gets bored and decides Facebook is way more entertaining than their argument.

"Sure he is. People who figure skate together stay together. And sometimes watch figure skating movies together, but don't tell him I said that," Camille replies sunnily. "Stop being a wimp."

James is not a wimp. He is one of the top solo recording artists in the United States. He came out on the cover of Starspotter. He can handle one guy, even if that guy happens to be his oldest friend whose heart he broke and who he'd still kind of really like to have a second chance with.

He gets out of the car.

Kendall looks at him like he doesn't even know how to spell forgiveness.

James tells Camille, "You are an awful person."

Camille beams. She loops Carlos and Logan into each of her arms and pulls them along after her, instructing, "You two stay out here. Work out your differences. Don't tongue kiss in front of the paparazzi."

Glaring at her retreating back becomes a team effort, the first one that James and Kendall have shared in years. But they can only keep it up for so long, and James is forced to do exactly what Camille wanted. He's confronting his fears.

His fears are oddly beautiful.

Kendall's pupils reflect neon, the bar signs buzzing behind them. He says, "I shouldn't have pushed you away. That was wrong."

"Nah. I shouldn't have-" He doesn't know what he shouldn't have done. Kissed Kendall? Fucked Jett? Fallen for his best friend? "I just shouldn't have."

Inside the club, the music pounds. James knows Camille's already at the center of it, dancing up a storm with Carlos, while Logan awkwardly two-steps his way around the beat. He never did get a hang of dancing, even after doing in it front of sold-out stadiums.

Kendall, though. Kendall's a natural. Even now his hips sway. He probably doesn't know he's doing it.

"James, I don't want to do this anymore. I hate-"

You, James expects him to say.

"-being strangers," are the words that actually come from Kendall's mouth. "If you never wanted to be with me, that's okay. We don't have to be like that. We can go back to being friends."

"Is that what you think?" James demands, haunted by cigarette smoke and the way that Kendall's skin crackled like starlight in his hands. "It was never about you."

Inside, lights flash, white hot as Kendall's laughter, but Kendall's not laughing now. His eyes go tight with misery, wrinkles at the corners that James doesn't remember seeing before. "I had to have done something wrong. Why else would you hate me?"

The music pounds.

"I could never hate you. You hate me."

Kendall asks, "Since when?" with such genuine surprise that the words fill an empty space in James's chest, turning it from a cavern to a tiny gap.

Second chances feel like this.

James takes a step forward, breathing in, breathing out. He laid his hand over Kendall's chest, demanding, "Do you mean that?"

Every drumbeat brought their faces closer together, like there was a magnetic pull lingering in the air. The noise of the club blinks to existence in their ears, Doppler-far and then close and then gone again, each note gorgeous until it dissipates. It echoes James's heart, the LA traffic, and the electric hum that exists between them.

Kendall says, "I don't know how to hate you."

The bass kicks. James folds. He wraps himself around Kendall and breathes into his mouth, "I love you, I love you, I love you. I'm sorry I never told you before."

Kendall does not kiss him. His arms go up to clutch at James's shoulders. Pedestrians jostle by as they move past. He asks, "Do you mean that?"

James nods and nods and nods, so hard he worries his head might snap off his neck. He can taste Kendall in his throat. He wants to taste Kendall everywhere. "I was scared."

"You should have told me."

"Talking's not my forte," James explains, babbling, falling over himself to tell Kendall everything without moving an inch. He is trapped between Kendall's hands, happily. He doesn't want to find out what happens next.

What happens next is that Kendall laughs. He wends his fingers through James's hair and says, "I actually knew that."

He's got eyes cut from peridot and a mouth made for kissing. His soft laughter burns the sky, heat lightning James wants to cup in his hands and his heart, wants to sizzle all the way down to his toes.

Somewhere behind them, Buttercup Version Whatever asks, "Should I change your relationship status?" but James doesn't acknowledge the sarcasm in the voice, because that would vindicate her backtalk and because he doesn't care.

Because Kendall touches his lips to James's, hot as a firebrand.

The world falls to flame.

James is okay with burning.