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A Fire Ignited

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So many people stood before him. So many strangers who claimed to adore him. He had tried to put it into words before, many times, how strange it felt to see how surrounded he was, how crowded his space was, and yet for him to recognise almost no faces. He could barely make out any faces at all. He tugged his old flask out of a worn blue duffel bag and took a long swig, relishing in the hum of that burn in his throat.

“James, come on,” a voice snapped, slapping his shoulder hard. “We’ve got an encore; get the fuck back on stage.”

“In a minute.” He took another swig, but the intro to his biggest single was already beginning to play and he groaned, slamming the bottle down. “Fine, fine. I’m going. Just tell Gustavo you had to fix the mic wiring, okay?”

Alright, whatever, just go!”

Two hands shoved him and he stumbled back onto the stage. He easily transformed the stagger into an energetic jog as he waved to the audience and returned to his microphone stand. He was just in time to start singing, and so he did.

From a young age, he’d always been told he had the purest of voices. Like an angel, his mother had said before she forgot how to show affection. He used to have what he dubbed “the famous dream” on a regular basis and dreamed of having his name up in lights, sparking like diamonds. Just a fun little wordplay he kept to himself. Having his dream come true at such a young age was everything he’d ever dreamed of. He was so happy. So he said.

 “Now I just wanna cry,” James sang, or slurred – sometimes he couldn’t quite tell the difference. “I just wanna cry, ooh . . . Nothing I haven’t tried, ooh . . .”

In the distance, he could hear the audience singing along, could hear them chanting in unison with the lyrics he had written when – six years ago? No, more. It had to have been more. He was on Album 7 now; ‘Cry’ had been one of his very first songs. For some reason, the people still adored it. Though, to be fair, he could understand the relatability. He felt his eyes fill with tears and shut them tight, swallowing back any feeling he hadn’t numbed yet.

Right around Album 3, which he had named ‘Green eyes’ after a lyric from Track 6 (he couldn’t remember what it was about now), Jamez Diamond- or just Jamez, at Rocque Records’ request, had never been bigger. They’d never had a brighter star. When the fame began to burn out, slowly, he found – so did he.

“Now I just wanna cry,” he mumbled, lips grazing the microphone. “Darling . . . let me cry.”

A bump in the road startled James awake. His eyes blinked open and the first thing he saw was the ceiling of one of Gustavo’s generic black jeeps. He didn’t waste money on limousines for him anymore. He saw the faint reflection of the city lights on the ceiling and realised it was night.

“Huh?” he grunted, sitting up and reaching instinctively for the flask in the seat pouch in front of him. It was empty. He groaned and pushed it back in. “Where are we going?” he asked the driver – a driver, he couldn’t see his face in the dark. “Where’s Gustavo?”

“Gone to bed,” Carlos said, taking a right. “He asked me to take you back to the hotel to rest up for tomorrow night.”

James sighed, looking out the window at the lights of the strange city. “Where are we, again?” he asked, rubbing his head.

“Minneapolis, sir.”

“Minneapolis. Huh.” He looked out the window again and, with some squinting, spotted a familiar looking hardware store. Besides one or two days in a row for concerts and the like, he hadn’t been back to Minneapolis since he was eighteen. “I grew up here, you know,” he said, looking out the window and giving a humourless chuckle.

“I know, sir.” He could hear in his voice that Carlos was smiling. “So did I. Moved when I was nine, though. Mom’s job. Do you ever miss it?”

“I don’t know . . . I guess some things about it.” He rubbed at the rough stubble that had begun to grow around his chin and cheeks. “So, can we stop somewhere?” he asked, grabbing the black baseball cap from the seat pouch and pulling it over his head. “I need a drink.”

“Mr Rocque asked me to take you straight back . . .” But Carlos was already slowing the car down and glancing out at the streets for somewhere to pull over.

“I just want like, one drink. I swear just one. Besides, it’s only . . .” He glanced at his watch; his vision swam and he squinted. “It’s not even midnight yet. There’s a ton of time. Do you see anywhere?”

“There’s a bar just here,” Carlos said, pulling over and turning off the engine. “It’s called the Palmwoods.”

“That’s lame. But if they’ve got booze they can be as lame as they fucking want.” James stumbled his way out of the car, turning to glance through the window at Carlos. “Coming in, man?”

“I can’t drink and drive. I’ll wait here.”

“Sounds boring.”

“Sounds peaceful.” Carlos smiled. “Have a good time. No funny business.”

“Right, right. Just a drink or two . . . see ya.”

James stepped into the dimly lit bar. Music played softly from a radio on a high shelf behind the bar, and James could just about hear it over the low chatter of the bar’s patrons. It was just coming to the end of one of his own songs. He groaned to himself and slumped down in a stool by the bar. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw one or two people glance at him, some staring for a few seconds. To his surprise, though, they turned away again. Satisfied, he called out to the bartender closest to him, whose back was turned as he tidied his work station. “Excuse me.”

“Yeah?” The bartender turned around and rested his hands on the smooth wooden surface, leaning in so he could hear. “What can I get you?” he asked. His eyes then lit up; they were a vivid shade of green even in the low light of the bar. “Hey, I know you,” he said, dimpling.

“Yeah,” James mumbled with a sigh. As much as the intense look in the stranger’s eyes intrigued him and awoke something dormant within him, he had been hoping that he might at least go a few minutes without being recognised. He tugged his hood up over his head. “It’s me, Jamez. Can I get a gin on the rocks, please?”

The bartender nodded and grabbed a glass, scooping a little ice inside. “That’s not what I meant,” he said as he grabbed a bottle and poured. “Though I know that too. We went to high school together.” He plonked the drink down on the counter and leaned down on his elbows. “Don’t you remember me?” he asked softly, a trace of a smirk on his face.

James stared hard at his face, grasping the glass in his hand and raising it to his lips. Just as he sipped it, that gleam in the man’s eyes struck a chord within him. “Holy shit.” He put the glass back down on the counter. “Kendall Knight.”

Kendall laughed, straightening up. “There you go. Took you a minute, huh?”

“I don’t believe it. How are you?”

“I’m good. Not doing too bad, anyway. I had heard you were back in town. Playing another gig?”

“First night of two.” James took another sip of his drink as Kendall turned slightly to greet another customer and listen to their order. He glanced at the shirt sleeves rolled up high, his thin arms and the sharp edge of his elbows. The way his shirt hung loosely on his lithe form. He remembered seeing that body countless times; Kendall’s body heat pressed in close when they used to sit together in the chemistry lab; his body pale in the locker room before hockey practice, but flushed and shining with sweat after. “Do you still play hockey?” he asked the moment Kendall had finished serving the other patron.

Kendall turned back to him. “Nah, not anymore.” He took hold of a cloth and gave the counter a quick wipe. His knuckles clenched around it. “I got drunk and crashed my car after graduation, fucked up one of my knees pretty bad. No more hockey.”

“I didn’t know . . .”

“How would you? You were away becoming a star.” Kendall gave a small smile. “I reckon my brother wanted to kill me after, but he felt too sorry for me so he let me off the hook.”

“Don’t forget me when you’re famous,” Kendall had murmured against his neck one night, as the two sat curled up under a blanket in the back of his car. James’ hands clung tight around his waist.

“I’d never,” he’d whispered back. “Who knows if I’ll even get picked anyway?”

“Don’t be a dick. You know you will.”

James chugged down the rest of his drink and swallowed back the painful lump in his throat that had suddenly appeared. “I’m sorry I didn’t recognise you,” he said. “I’m just . . . tired.” He tapped his empty gin glass.

“It’s okay.” Kendall stepped back to pick up the bottle. “It was a long time ago.” He poured James another drink and stepped away to serve at the other side of the bar.

James watched him work, watched him chat with a couple of men who must have been regulars. He spotted a long, thin scar on the back of his arm; Kendall got that when he was eight, and he fell out of a tree. James hadn’t been there, of course, but Kendall told him when he asked. They used to talk about stupid stuff like that all the time. He missed talking about stupid stuff.


James looked up to a see a pale, dark-haired man stride out from the back and stand behind the bar. “You’re free to go,” he said. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Thanks, Logan.” Kendall dropped the cloth he’d been holding and disappeared into the back before James could say a word.

“Hey, I know you!” the new bartender, Logan, exclaimed. “Jamez!”

“Yeah.” James finished his second drink. “Another, please.”

Kendall emerged from the back room, zipping up a black leather jacket and pulling a grey beanie over his hair. “It was nice seeing you again, James.” He walked towards the door and gave a hearty wave. “Good luck with your show tomorrow. I mean break a leg, sorry. Break a leg!”

“Wait!” James jumped from his stool, eyes around the bar turning to him. He cleared his throat, cheeks flushing red as he pulled his hood further over his forehead. Kendall looked back at him, hand still on the door. His head tilted and he raised his eyebrows. “Um,” James stammered as attention was finally turned away from him, “Will you stay? Let me buy you a drink?”

Kendall bit his lip and glanced at the door. He stepped away and sloped back to the barstool next to James. He sat down and took off his beanie, saying, “Just so you know, I get a free drink after my shift if I want one.”

Logan smirked at him and grabbed a glass as Kendall slipped his jacket off. “So, he continued, resting his chin on his hand and grinning at James. “I’ll have that, and then you can buy me another.” He held out his free hand. “Deal?”

James took his hand and shook it slowly, thumb gently grazing the ridge of Kendall’s knuckles. It took him a minute to let go; in fact, he deliberately waited until he saw Kendall’s cheeks start to flush. “Deal,” he said, letting go.

As they talked, James was reminded of all the songs he had written when his muse still lived on in his memory. The songs about high school whirlwind romances, the songs about feeling invisible when everyone was looking at you, the songs about a kid who thought the world didn’t care a bit about who he was, when all James had ever done was listen to him in utter awe. He listened now as Kendall spilled mundane details about his life throughout the last few years; what jobs he’d had; he had a dog now; it turned out he was allergic to bees. None of it was all that interesting; in fact, he noted that he avoided mentioning anything important. That was okay, James avoided the same. He’d listen to him say anything anyway. One of the reasons was just because he liked to watch his eyes light up and his lips pout or stretch into a catlike grin.

It was just getting to around 2am when Logan rang a bell by the cash register and announced last call. Kendall put his jacket back on and James paid the tab. “Thank you, Jamez,” Kendall teased as they left the bar. James threw his arm around Kendall's shoulders, throwing a quick peace sign to Carlos still sitting in the driver’s seat. Carlos nodded to him and closed the book he’d been reading, starting the engine and following slowly behind him. “Don’t worry,” James said as Kendall glanced back with a furrowed brow. “It’s just my driver.” Despite the street being pretty quiet, he kept his hood up and his cap on just in case. He wanted to stay in this private little hub.

“My bad, Fancypants. I usually walk home from work.”

“Is it far?”

“A little.” They crossed the street into the shopping square. “Sometimes I take a cab when it’s snowing.”

“Well, I’m giving you a ride home tonight. Well.” He chuckled, conscious of how his form swayed as he walked. “Not me. Carlos. He was supposed to take me straight to the hotel after work. Hopefully Gustavo won’t kill him.”

“Who?” Kendall asked, head drooping a little against his shoulder.

“Gustavo Rocque, my manager. You know Rocque Records, don’t you?”

“’Course I do. Wait, that’s who you’re under? I never knew that!” Kendall laughed, stopping and looking at him. “Stop, that’s hilarious.”

“Why’s that so funny?” James demanded. “He does his best.”

“Oh, I know! Don’t get me wrong but, he used to do all that boyband stuff in the 90s, right? Oh my god, they played his stuff all day at my last job. All his ridiculous ‘girl’ songs. Thank god he grew out of that with you; I mean some of them were kinda catchy, what was that one . . . ‘Girl to my Heart?’”

“Oh, hmm . . .” James frowned. “I mean, he loves all the awards but he doesn’t talk about that era much anymore. I don’t remember that song.”

“Come on, you have to! It’s classic cheese. How does it go again . . .” To James’ shock, the giggling Kendall hopped up onto the low wall bordering the square. His breath puffed out into the cold night air as he opened his mouth wide and started to sing. “Girrrrl, my eyes, and girrrrllll, my mind—“ He swayed and James reached to catch him, but he kept his balance. He remembered the song then, but didn’t say anything. He just watched Kendall sing and swing his head and thrust his hips like he was back in 1999. “Come on, you have to know it!” he whined. “You’re messing with me, right?”

“Yeah.” James grinned. “I remembered about a verse and a half ago.”

“You jerk.”

“Will you sing me something else?”

“Huh?” Kendall’s face scrunched up. “Why?”

“Because I asked you to.”

Kendall’s cheeks flushed, and he scratched at the back of his head. “Um . . . what do you want me to sing?”

“Anything. One of mine, if it makes it easier. And it’s not just because I’m a narcissist.” He smirked. “Promise.”

Kendall rolled his eyes, but he seemed to relax then as he bit his lip and thought for a moment. “Let it go, the anger in your eyes,” he hummed. James recognised the melody immediately, even with his head being as fuzzy as it was, and he resisted the urge to sigh. He needed to listen. As he watched Kendall sing and give a little spin on his heel, he found himself mouthing the words as though he were a groupie at one of his own shows. It felt bizarre, and so he jumped up on the wall, scooped Kendall up in his arms and hopped back down with only a slight stagger.

“Now I just wanna cr— oof!” Kendall squeaked as he found himself clinging to James’ shoulders. “What was that about?” he demanded, though James still held him close as though he weighed nothing.

“I don’t know.” James shrugged and felt his own cheeks turn red under Kendall’s intense gaze. “Just felt like it.”

Kendall’s lips parted slightly as he tilted his gaze slightly down to James’ mouth. He diverted his eyes and cleared his throat, “So, um . . .”

James reluctantly put him down. “Can I ask you something?” he said.

Kendall straightened up, fixed his shirt and nodded. He sat down on the wall, swung one leg over the other. “Go ahead,” he said, patting the spot beside him.

James sat down next to him, one hand landing immediately (and intentionally) over Kendall’s long, slender fingers. His knuckles were bruised and rough, his skin very pale. “Do you ever sing?” he asked, thumb gently brushing over the back of Kendall’s hand. “Like, for real? You’re really good. You never sang in high school.”

Me? No, no.” Kendall shook his head, hand and body shrinking away from him as his shape grew distinctly smaller. “I’m not a singer. I mean – I don’t know what I am. But not a singer. What you do, singing your songs in front of all those people, I could never do that. Ever. I don’t know how you do it.”

“It’s not as tough as it sounds,” James said. “It’s like having a conversation, you know? If you’ve got something to say, all you’re doing is getting up and saying it to a whole bunch of people who you know already want to listen.”

Kendall bit his lip, picking at a loose thread don the torn knee of his jeans. There were a couple of splotches of paint along his thigh, a small spill of red wine. “When did you know they were listening?” he asked at last.

“I didn’t.” James gave a long sigh, leaning back with his hands pressed against the wall. “But I always knew I wanted to make them listen. I wanted to tell my story, so I did until people started to care. It was pretty easy, actually.”

“I can imagine,” Kendall chuckled, standing again and swaying slightly on his feet with his hands pushed deep into his pockets. “With a gorgeous face like yours. One look at my nose . . .” He tapped the tip of his large nose, hand moving to push the blond hair from his face. “I mean . . . I don’t have a face for fame.”

“I don’t think that’s true.”

“It’s true. It’s okay, though. It’s not like I’d ever show anyone what I wrote. I mean—“

“You wrote songs? When?”

“They’re nothing . . .”


“Fine, fine. Jesus, what are you doing to me . . .” He began to hum, lightly tapping his foot on the sidewalk. “I’m ready to run,” he mumbled. “I could really use a win right now . . . mad at the world, mad at the world . . . that’s all I have for that one. Hey, do you want do drink more? I do.”

James had to do a double take on how quickly Kendall flipped from singing to speaking. He transitioned from one self to the other with ease; James longed for that ability to switch himself on and off. To get out of his brain. He jumped up, tugged Kendall close to him with an arm around his shoulders. Kendall melted in against his body, glancing up at him with warm eyes. He gave his chin a light peck and smirked when James flushed under the hood of his cap. “Well?” he asked in a low voice. “Drinks?”

James nodded, walked along with Kendall close to his side.

Unfortunately, as they walked, they came to realise they weren’t near a whole lot of bars still open. They came across a convenience store still open and James bought them a bottle of Bombay to share. “I can pay for half,” Kendall tried to argue, pulling out his tattered wallet. James pushed it back into his pocket.

“I know how you can pay me back,” James said, carrying the bottle as they left the store together. He grinned at Kendall, who raised his eyebrows. “Sing me another song.”

Kendall snatched the bottle from James and unscrewed it, taking a long swig. “I don’t know them all off by heart,” he stammered. “I haven’t written that many anyway, and they’re not good . . . honestly, I don’t have much of a creative streak.”

“Oh, bullshit. You think I’m an idiot?” He took Kendall’s hand, pulled him closer. “Come on. I know I blanked for a minute back there, but I know you. You’re a bad liar.”

Kendall’s hands pressed against his chest, breath coming out in a gentle puff against his chin. He tilted his head up just slightly and looked him in the eye. “Tell me more about you,” he said softly.

“You’re changing the subject.”

“No, really.” With nowhere else to sit, the two slumped down onto the curb. Kendal hugged his knees and rested his chin down, watching James as he opened the bottle and took his own long chug. “I mean, a lot of people were wondering about you when you left. We thought you might come back for graduation or prom, or something. But you never did. I haven’t seen you since the day you went to LA.”

“I didn’t really have anything to come back to . . . I mean—“

“It’s okay.” Kendall took the gin and sipped it. “You know I wanted you to go,” he said with a mild slur. “I’m not sad about it. I was just wondering what went on with you in the meantime is all.”

James took a deep breath. “Alright. Let me take another drink . . . I’ve been alone, for a long time. I don’t think I’ve ever said that out loud before.”

Kendall frowned, hand touching James’ knee. “Tell me.”

“Me and my mom, we don’t talk anymore. I haven’t seen her in years.” James played idly with Kendall’s fingers as he took another sip. “You know she became a total dragon after my dad left. You know he fucked off with a girl just shy of nineteen? Fucking gross. “

“Yeah, I didn’t know that part . . . I’m sorry.”

“She never said it, but – I think I remind her too much of him. I don’t like to think I’m like him. Sometimes, though . . . sometimes I wake up in the morning and I haven’t shaved and my hair’s a mess and I get up and look in the mirror, and he’s right there just fucking staring at me.”

“I’m sorry,” Kendall repeated, taking another drink and handing the bottle back.

James looked at him, their shoulders pressed together. “Do you think we’re bound to repeat our parents’ mistakes?”

Kendall chuckled in a cryptic way James didn’t quite understand, and shrugged his shoulders. “I sure hope not.”

“I haven’t heard from him in years either, not really . . . once in a while he’s called up and asked me for money, but that’s it. I think he’s got like, three more kids now. I don’t even know if they’ve got the same mother.” He shook his head. “He’s a joke.”

“Well.” Kendall pursed his lips. “We’ve both had shit dads, haven’t we?”

James then remembered that Kendall’s father had left too, when they were eleven. “Yeah . . . have you heard from him lately?”

Kendall smiled, but there was no mirth in it. He looked the most miserable he had all night. “Not since he came back last. Probably because . . . well . . . ugh.” He took another swig and coughed. “He came back and shot my mom and then himself.”

James froze. “Fuck. Kendall—“

“I was nineteen. I don’t really like talking about it, okay?” Kendall swallowed, covered his face with his free hand. “I just thought,” he whispered, hand pressed to his temple. “Like . . . I used to think he couldn’t be any shittier of a person than he was, then he went and fucking did that. Proved me wrong. I moved in with my brother then so, that’s that. I’m done talking about it.”

“I’m so sorry,” James couldn’t help saying to him.

“I know you are.”

“I should’ve been here.”

“No, you shouldn’t have. Who knows if we’d even have been speaking then anyway?”

James squeezed Kendall’s hand tight and pressed it to his lips. He gave it several gentle kisses before he leaned in and let his lips brush against Kendall’s cheek. Kendall shut his eyes and let him tilt his head over. Their lips had barely brushed together when Kendall mumbled, “Can I tell you something?”

James nodded, giving him a little more breathing space.

“I started writing after I heard ‘Green Eyes’,” Kendall confessed, looking at him with an open gaze. “When the album came out it was after . . . you know. And I guess hearing what you’d written and how you put all these feelings into words I just thought maybe I’d feel a little better if I tried it.”

“Did you?”

“I did. Don’t get me wrong.” Kendall grinned. “Those first few were absolutely terrible. But they did help me vent. It was kind of like screaming into the void.”

“You know that album was about you. You know that, right?”

“I didn’t know. I thought maybe a couple of tracks but . . .” Kendall shrugged. “I figured you’d met somebody else with green eyes at some point. I mean, you definitely have.”

“Maybe I have,” James shrugged. “If I have, I don’t remember them.”

Kendall blushed. He looked away, biting his lip hard to hide the smile on his face. “You’re not like your dad, you know,” he said. “You shouldn’t ever worry about that.”

James shrugged. “Sometimes it’s just hard not to find stuff in common with him . . . I’ve pushed so much shit to the back of my head. It’s like I forget how to feel. Does that ever happen to you?”

“You’re preaching to the choir, Jamez.”

“Please don’t call me that.”

Kendall chuckled. “Sorry.”

They sat in silence for a few moments. James was just drifting off into a daydream when Kendall started to hum softly to himself, his foot tapping off the road. He started to mumble some lyrics to himself that James couldn’t quite make out. He looked at him and Kendall glanced at him too. “Tell me something, boy, are you tired, trying to fill that void?” he sang. He quirked an eyebrow at James and gave him a little nudge. “Or do you need more . . . ain’t it hard keeping it so hardcore?”

“That’s cute.”

“I’m falling . . .” Their fingers brushed together. “In all the good times, I find myself longing for change . . . and in the bad times, I fear myself.”

“And who’s that about?”

“It’s about you.” Kendall shoulder bumped him gently. “I already kind of had the melody in my head. The lyrics I just made up.”

“You just made those up now?” James raised his eyebrows. “Seriously?”

“Yeah.” Kendall shrugged. “I’ve got this chorus in mind that could go well with it. It’s kinda like ‘ I’m on the deep end, watch as I dive in’ something something . . . I’m working on that bit.”

James said nothing, just listened intently.

“Crash through the surface, where they can’t hurt us . . . we’re far from the shallow now . . .” He cut off, glancing across the road. His cheeks flushed. “Your driver is still watching us.”

“Oh.” James looked, and rolled his eyes when Carlos gave him a thumbs up. “He’s such a dork.”

“I should be getting home,” Kendall said, standing up and brushing off the backside of his jeans. “It’s late.”

“Okay . . . I’ll take you.” James kept the bottle of Bombay; he slipped it into the seat pouch when they got into the back of Carlos’ car. Carlos started the engine and drove off without a word, listening to Kendall’s quiet instructions of the way to his home. They passed a few more familiar streets that had kept their place somewhere deep in the back of James’ memory.

They pulled up outside a small suburban house. “Here we are,” Carlos announced, parking the car.

“Thanks, Carlos.” Kendall turned to James. “Um . . .” he took his beanie off and shoved it in his pocket, brushing his hair back. “It was really nice seeing you again,” he said. “I had a lot of fun and um . . . good luck with the rest of the tour and everything.”

“Thank you,” James said as Kendall scooted across the seat and opened the car door. Watching him step out of the car, he felt an unbearable panic come over him.

“Wait.” James clutched Kendall’s hand. Kendall turned around and bent down, leaning back towards the car.

“What is it?” he asked, hair hanging in his face.

James took a moment to really look at him; to study the sharp angle of his jaw, the slope of his nose, the slight furrow in his brow and the flecks of gold in his green eyes. “Will you come to my show tomorrow night?”

“Oh. I don’t know . . .” Kendall glanced over his shoulder at the house, back at James. “I’ve got work tomorrow night, it’s kind of last minute . . .”

“Please.” The thought now of tuning his guitar, of bearing his soul to a crowd of strangers suddenly seemed not scary exactly, just – empty. “I’ll send a car to pick you up.”

Kendall gave a soft smile, and a slow nod. “Okay. I will.”

“Thank you.” For a moment, he didn’t let go of Kendall’s hand. “You’re beautiful,” he found himself blurting out before he could stop himself.

Kendall’s cheeks turned red and he pulled his hand away sharply. But as he stepped back from the car and mumbled, “Goodnight, James,” he saw him grin before he turned and jogged up the steps to the front door. James watched from the car as he unlocked the front door and glanced back, gave one more quick wave and disappeared inside. He sighed and rested his head back against the headrest.

“Hotel now, sir?” Carlos asked, starting the engine.

“Please.” James looked out the window as they drove, fingers lightly tapping the new melody on his knee. “I’ve gotta get some sleep. I’ve got stuff to write in the morning.”

The following evening, James had never been more nervous to start a show before. At least, not since he first began performing in front of much smaller audiences. “Is he here yet?” he demanded as a crew member hooked him up to his earpiece. “He should be here by now.”

“Relax, he’ll be here,” the stage manager assured him – he’d forgotten her name. “I’m keeping an eye out for the car. You need to get on stage.”

James did as he was asked and waved to the audience. He asked them how they were doing. He glanced at the backstage area. No sign. The band began to play and he reluctantly began to sing. He tried to lose himself in it but couldn’t help glancing back every chance he got. He knew he wasn’t being subtle. He took a deep breath and forced himself not to look back again. Maybe something had come up. Maybe he couldn’t get out of work.

James finished his third song and glanced again at the backstage area. His eyes widened when he saw Kendall standing there among the crew, VIP pass around his neck. He waved when he saw James and clapped along with the audience, face lit up in such a pure, joyous smile. James’ heart was suddenly, unbearably full.

He waved to the audience and jogged to the side of the stage. “You’re here!” He enveloped Kendall in his arms and hugged him close. “What kept you?”

“Car accident, traffic was murder.” Kendall clung to James just as tightly before they let go. “You’re doing so great! Thank you so much for inviting me.”

“Come here.” James grasped Kendall’s hands and tugged him close. “Will you do something for me?”

“What?” Kendall asked, breathless.

“I want to play that song you wrote, the one you sang last night. I put together a little backing for it. I want you to sing it with me.”

“What?” Kendall’s eyes widened. “No, I – I can’t—“

“Come on, you’ll be amazing, you have to.”

“No, James, please.” Kendall shook his head frantically, digging his heels into the ground as James tried to tug him forward. “Listen to me, I cannot go out there. I’m not a singer.”

“Yes, you are.” James let go of Kendall’s hands and he stumbled back slightly. He gestured back towards the stage. “You belong out there. All you have to do is trust me.” He grinned, grabbing his acoustic guitar and slinging it over his shoulder. “Besides, I’m going to sing it anyway, because they need to hear it. Do you want me to take all the credit?”

He stepped back out in front of the crowd, turning one more to look at Kendall and mouthed, Trust me. He stepped in front of the mic and called to the crowd, “Now I’m going to sing a very special song with a very special person. And I hope you guys are into it because I sure as hell am. This is called ‘Shallow’.”

He began to play as the crowd’s screams slowly died down, and they slowed enough to listen. He began to sing, glancing back at Kendall out of the corner of his eye still cowered backstage with the stage crew. “Tell me something, boy,” he sang. “Are you searching for the road to joy . . . or do you need more? Is there something else you’re searching for?”

Even from that distance, he could see Kendall trembling. He saw him glance out at the stage, look away again. He turned back to face the crowd and continued the verse he’d sloppily put together in the late hours of that morning, the feeling of Kendall’s hand on his still lingering as he wrote with an energy he hadn’t felt in a long time. “And in the bad times, I fear myself,” he hummed, feeling the truth in an uncomfortable, but necessary jolt.

“Tell me something, boy . . . aren’t you tired trying to fill that void . . .”

The voice came timidly from one of the backup microphones behind him. The crowd burst into cheers as James looked back to see Kendall standing beside the bassist, arms folded tight around himself, eyes screwed tightly shut as he sang. The microphone amplified what little volume he had in his voice, but the tone was still clear, the words – and the singer – beautiful beyond words. James watched him, almost forgetting to keep playing the melody for him.

“I’m on the deep end, watch as I dive in, I’ll never meet the ground,” Kendall sang, eyes opening for a second before his hands clapped over them. “Crash through the surface, where they can’t hurt us . . .” But James saw the trace of a smile on his face, saw the tremble in his knees subside slightly. When Kendall finally did drop his hands and look out at the crowd, and at James, properly, James gave a little tilt of his head to beckon him over as he kept playing.

Kendall slowly walked to centre stage, right up to stand beside him. The spotlights shined down on them and he gazed out into the crowd with almost comically wide eyes. James couldn’t help letting out a chuckle, kept strumming lightly as he watched him take it all in. Kendall looked at him and his chest billowed as he took a deep breath. Then he did possibly one of the last things James expected; he grasped James’ microphone and tugged it down to meet his height, he closed his eyes, and he let loose.

“We’re far from the shallow now,” he roared, hands coming up to push the hair back from his face. He swayed in time to James’ guitar, lighting the arena up merely with his presence. As he sang, he seemed to light the crowd on fire. James could only stare at him; he thought at the last moment to lean in close and finish the song with him, strumming on autopilot at this point. Kendall gazed into his eyes and smiled. James didn’t realise the song had even finished until the crowd erupted into a deafening applause. He awoke and glanced at the band behind him. He chuckled when the drummer gave him a coy thumbs up.

James stuck his hand over the microphone. “I want you to sing something else,” he mumbled to Kendall. He took the guitar from his back and handed it to Kendall. “Sing something else you wrote.” And he stepped back before Kendall could say a word.

Kendall’s jaw dropped and he scowled. But he took another deep breath and strapped the guitar over his shoulder, grasping the microphone again and stuttering, “Um . . . hi.”

The crowd screamed and Kendall gave a nervous giggle. “Thank you,” he said, taking hold of the guitar. “Thanks. Um . . . this is called ‘Memories and Melodies’. I hope you like it.”

“I could kill you!” Kendall shouted. “For making me do that. What the fuck, man?”

“Hey, I didn’t make you do anything!” James said, one hand raised in surrender as he poured them both a drink with the other. “Besides, I was right, wasn’t I? You killed it.”

“Well, yeah . . . but still.” Kendall’s hands raked through his hair and he shook his head. “I can’t believe I did that.” He took the drink James offered him and downed it in one go. “Thanks. I’m still shaking. Look at my hands.” He held them out.

James downed his own drink and took their two glasses, putting them on the coffee table. He took Kendall’s shaking hands in his and kissed them both. Kendall let out a shaky breath as James’ arms ensnared his waist and pulled him close. When they kissed at last, it was as though James was back on stage with him and feeling alive again. How glorious it felt to breathe.

“Hey, dog!”

James pulled back and glanced at the open door where Gustavo stood, shaking his head in disapproval. “Are you two finished?” he demanded, slamming the door as he marched into the room.

“Nice to meet you, sir,” Kendall said shyly, prying himself away from James.

“Yeah, you too, Kendall.” And to James’ shock, he seemed that he really meant it. “Listen, you and I have to talk. Since when was there a plan to bring some nobody on stage, exactly?”

“He’s not a nobody,” James retorted. “We were in high school together. I ran into him last night, I heard him sing and I had to have him on. He wrote those songs, too.”

“Well, just the lyrics of the first one,” Kendall mumbled. “Some of them . . .”

“Listen,” Gustavo snapped, finger raised as Kendall fell silent. “I’m not looking for modesty from you. You were incredible.”

“I . . . really?”

“Kendall!” Gustavo waved his hands dramatically in front of his face. “You have the fire! I’ve never seen anything like it. And I haven’t been this excited about anyone in years, let me tell you.”

James grabbed the whiskey and poured himself another drink, taking a sip and sitting back on the couch. He watched Kendall’s face light up.

“Do you really think so?” Kendall asked. “I’ve never really gone anywhere with it. I got told I’m too ugly.”

“Ugly? Oh, please. I can work with ugly. You do know who I am, don’t you? Now, you need to show me what else you’ve written. Come with me. Play me something else.”

“Oh, okay . . .”

“Quick! Grab one of those guitars, I don’t have all night.” Gustavo threw himself down on the couch next to James and folded his arms. Kendall picked up one of James’ guitars – a personal favourite, in fact.

“Now,” Gustavo said, leaning forward and resting his elbows on his knees. “Let’s see what you’re really made of.”

Chapter Text

“I am not dying my hair.”

Kendall folded his arms and glared at Gustavo. Gustavo folded his arms and glared back, squinting at him from behind his ridiculous sunglasses. He sat slouched back behind his large metal desk, Kendall and James sitting in their plush chairs opposite him. This wasn’t the first of his and Gustav’s stand-offs, and he was pretty sure it wouldn’t be the last. Kendall glanced at James, who was slouched down in his chair, chin supported by his head. His baseball cap was tilted low over his forehead; was he sleeping? Kendall sighed and turned away from him again.

“It’s not happening,” he said, looking back at Gustavo. “So forget it.”

“Look, Kendall.” Gustavo unfolded his arms and sighed, resting his hands on the desk. “The publicity team like your look for the most part. They just want to elevate it, tighten it up a little bit. You’ve already got blond hair, they just want to make it blonder. That’s not a big deal, right?”

“I’m not changing the way I look,” Kendall insisted. “This is how I look. I’m not pretending to anyone that I’m somebody else.” He heard James give a soft snore beneath his hat and did the best he could not to roll his eyes. He had to be patient. He unfolded his arms too and folded them primly on his lap.

The gentler position seemed to calm Gustavo a bit. Instead of continuing to scowl, he just pursed his lips. “Okay . . . if we leave the hair for now, will you please let them fix your eyebrows?”

Kendall opened his mouth, but Gustavo cut in before he could say a word. “They’re not going to change the shape. Just neaten the edges a bit. Please.”

Truthfully, Kendall didn’t see much of a problem with that. And he almost fell sorry for Gustavo; it almost looked like he was going to fall to his knees and start begging. So he nodded and said, “That’s okay.”

If he was totally honest, the thought of lightening his hair a little didn’t scare him too much either. But all it took was a small change like that, then they’d be talking him into trying to buff up his body or lose weight, and then . . . He took a deep breath. No need to panic yet. Gustavo smiled, and he smiled back. They were getting on just fine.

“Okay, now that that’s out of the way, let’s start recording,” Gustavo said, wheeling back in his chair and standing up. “I want ‘Shallow’ to be totally finished by the end of this week, production and all. So we need to finish recording the vocals today.”

“I think we can do it,” Kendall said, standing up too. “I’ve got the hang of the recording booth now. We’ll be right down, I’ve just gotta use the bathroom first.”

Gustavo nodded. He didn’t look at James as he left the room. Kendall sighed and knelt down in front of James’ chair. “James, baby . . .” He gave his shoulder a gentle shake. “Babe, wake up. We need to go record.” James mumbled something unintelligible and Kendall let out a shaky breath, shaking him a little harder. “Please, wake up. James.”

James gave a soft snort and his eyes blinked open. He looked at Kendall blearily from beneath his cap, and smiled. “Hey, baby. How’s the meeting going?”

“It’s finished,” Kendall said softly, cupping his cheeks. “We have to go record our song. Is that okay?”

“Yeah, of course it is. I can’t wait. I love you, baby.” James leaned in and kissed Kendall; his cheeks were rough with stubble and his breath reeked, but Kendall kissed him back and ran his fingers through the soft hair at the nape of his neck.

“Come on,” he mumbled against his lips. “I don’t want to keep Gustavo waiting. He’s already mad because I won’t change my hair.”

“You shouldn’t change anything,” James mumbled, heaving himself from his chair. “You’re beautiful. You’re so beautiful, Kendall.”

Kendall swallowed the lump in his throat and took James’ hand, leading him from the room.

James had his bad days. Most people had bad days; hell, Kendall’s bad days were pretty dire. But James’ seemed particularly difficult to manage. He didn’t know why; he should’ve been able to deal with it better than he was. He’d had his own problems with stealing his brother’s whiskey after his parents died, but it had never been this bad. As he led James down the hall towards the recording studio, he felt as though he were maybe leading him down a path to peace. Maybe James would feel better after recording. Singing always made him happy; he sang all the time at home. Sometimes too much. Dustin had followed them to LA, not wanting to let Kendall move across the country alone, and shared the house with them until he had settled enough to find his own place. He wasn’t a big fan of the singing when he was trying to get to sleep. Or when James jumped up on the furniture and knocked it over. Kendall kept telling him it was fine. And it was. He loved James. He adored him.

It was just that some parts were harder to love than others. Sometimes.

“Good, you’re here,” Gustavo said as they walked into Studio 1. “Let’s get started straight away. In the booth, please.”

Kendall and James walked into the booth and put their headphones on. Kendall cleared his throat and took a little sip of water, watching James rub at the scruff on his chin and brush a stray hair out of his eyes. Even as he was now, with bloodshot eyes and dark circles, he was still so handsome. Kendall gave a shaky sigh and turned to face the microphone, and the backing track began to play.

“Tell me something, boy,” James crooned into the microphone, shutting his eyes. Kendall felt his hand find his and squeezed it back.

When he had first started in the studio, he’d been so nervous he came out completely tone deaf, then out of time, then too quiet, the problems just went on. Having James there did help him, and soon enough he got the hang of it. ‘Shallow’ was the third full song for them to record. The thought that Kendall was actually in the process of making an album still made his head spin. Once they were halfway through the album, Gustavo wanted to choose one of the finished songs as his first single and get to work on a video. A fucking music video. It blew his mind, to be frank. Kendall had requested ‘Shallow’ become a single too; it was the song that got him started after all, and it was a duet with his boyfriend. But Gustavo insisted they save it for later. Kendall figured he knew best.

“We’re far from the shallow now,” he sang, eyes locked with James throughout the whole song. Every time they sang it together, he felt the same thrill of that first time over and over. Not just their first time singing it together. Their first real kiss. Their first time doing . . . well, other things. It was tough to remember sometimes that his brother slept in the next room over.

If anyone had asked Kendall the day James left for California when they were teenagers what he thought of the whole thing, he would’ve told them he hoped he got everything he wanted. If anyone had told him he’d be joining him in a few years, he would have laughed in their face. But as Gustavo watched them and listened with a hunger in his eyes, he knew it was all really happening. When they finished, he pressed a button on the control panel and declared, “That was great, guys. Really great.”

“Thanks,” Kendall said with a grin, pressing James’ hand to his lips. James bit his lip and gazed at him like he were the first drop of rain after the longest drought. His ears burned.

“We’ll do it a couple more times just to be are, but I don’t think we need it. From the top, please.”

Kendall nodded and listened to the song begin again. He felt James’ fingers brush against his and felt the most wonderful tingling feeling, all the way down to the tips of his toes.

Once they finished recording, they got in one of Gustavo’s cars and Carlos drove them back to the house. Kendall looked out the window the whole way home, as he always did. When they first started driving back and forth, James used to tease him about staring at every little thing he saw out the window. Now he just accepted it was something Kendall had to do. He had to drink as much of it in as he could, every chance he could.

Once they got home, James made his way straight over to the cabinet by the fridge, opening it up and pouring out two glasses of whiskey and topping them up with ice. “Here, let’s celebrate. I’m so glad we got the song done today. It feels like yesterday when you sang it to me in Minneapolis.” He handed Kendall a glass.

Kendall looked at it and took a half-hearted sip, watching James drink it with much more enthusiasm. He put the glass down on the counter. “Yeah, I know. I can hardly believe it either.”

After Kendall played properly for Gustavo, he offered to let Kendall come on tour with them. They only had a few dates left anyway and weren’t going too far. Kendall agreed immediately; it wasn’t like he lived for his bar job or anything. He sang a couple of songs as one of James’ opening acts, then came on during his set to sing a song or two with him. Only four shows, but he remembered every one of them in minuscule detail. At first, Dustin had been angry with him for agreeing so quickly. Then Gustavo agreed to fly him out for the last show and he didn’t say another word about his little brother’s new aspiration.

“James, don’t have any more,” Kendall said, reaching for the bottle when James picked it up again. “One’s enough. Come on, please. Stop.”

“What?” James frowned at him, prying the bottle from his hand. “It’s just one more, it’s not a big deal.”

Kendall was so used to hearing James’ voice slur he sometimes found it hard to tell if he was drunk or not. He knew that was a bad sign. He just sighed and took the bottle back again. “How about later after dinner, okay?” James sighed and Kendall stared hard at him. “Promise?”

James sighed again and shrugged. “Fine. I promise. Happy?”

“Yes, I’m happy.” Kendall pecked his lips, before downing his own drink just so James couldn’t have it. He grimaced and James chuckled, winding an arm around his waist. He rested his head against his chest and shut his eyes, feeling James’ hot breath against his cheek, his strong and rough hands against his back.

Things would get better.

“Kendall, sweetie, are you sure you want to wear that?” Kelly asked, a nervous smile on her pretty face. “It seems a little, er . . . wild.”

Kendall held the red plaid suit jacket in his hands, gripping it by the shoulders. His cheeks hurt from grinning, his heart all aflutter with nerves and excitement. “I love it,” he said. “Do we have matching pants?”

Kelly visibly grimaced, but said she would look and went to search through the rest of the clothes racks. Kendall grinned and tugged the suit jacket on over his T-shirt, surveying it in the mirror. He did a couple of poses and checked it out from different angles, glancing in the mirror over his shoulder. “I love it,” he mumbled to himself, running a hand through his hair and fluffing it up and quirking an eyebrow at his reflection. He gave a giddy little laugh. Over his whole life, he couldn’t remember ever looking in a mirror and wanting to keep looking.

“Kendall,” a voice piped up, and he turned to see one of Kelly’s assistants standing by with a little clipboard and headset. She radiated positive energy and helped Kendall feel a little less anxious. “Mr Rocque has just pulled in. I think Jamez is with him.”

Kendall gave a nervous little squeak and nodded. “Thanks, Camille. Kelly, do you have those pants?”

“I’m afraid I do,” Kelly said and handed them to him with a chuckle, shaking her head. “I don’t know what I’m going to do with you, dear. I’ve never met someone with your sense of style.”

“I want to look like me,” Kendall said, holding the suit pants and grinning, holding them up against his waist. “Even if what I look like is a hippie with mismatched socks.”

“To be honest, I think this outfit would do better with short black socks hidden in your shoes,” Kelly said, fishing a black dress shirt off the clothing rack. “Here, try this under the suit. Go change and we’ll see what Gustavo thinks when he sees it.” She smiled. “And I do love the hair.”

Kendall blushed, touching his hair. “Thanks, Kelly.” He bustled off into the changing room to put on his suit. He’d been at the set since the early morning, getting ready to shoot the music video and take some promotional photos for the single. And he’d done the unthinkable; he’d agreed to let them change his hair colour. Just one shade lighter, he ordered them, as they squealed and clapped their hands. Just so it would catch the light a little better. His hair tended to get blonder in the sun anyway. Might as well embrace the California look. As he dressed in his suit, he buttoned up his shirt and looked in the mirror, touching his smoothly shaven jaw, the neat trim of his thick eyebrows, the soft quiff of his hair. He’d never seen himself look so fresh or so new. In truth – though he loathed admitting it – he liked it. It didn’t have to be a different person. It could just be a new him. He straightened his hideous suit jacket and grinned. Yes. Just a new him. But still him. He couldn’t wait to show James.

He heard Gustavo’s voice outside the changing room and took a deep breath, going to the door and opening it a crack. “I’m ready,” he called.

“Come out then, let’s see what the damage is.”

Kendall threw the door open and stepped out, raising his arms in what he hoped was a confident pose. In truth, he suddenly felt very small and very frightened with everyone’s eyes on him. He swallowed and looked at them all. “Well?”

Camille was the first to react, giggling sand nodding in approval, looking at Kelly. Kelly stood with her hands on her hips. She sighed, and said at last, “I like it.”

Kendall grinned and turned to Gustavo. Gustavo’s hand was on his chin, stroking his beard and tilting his head, giving him a few long looks up and down. Kendall’s knees started to shake again.

“Well, dog,” Gustavo said, raising an eyebrow in that strange manner he so often did. “I’ve gotta be totally honest here . . .”

Kendall held his breath.

“I love it!” Gustavo roared, face lit up.

Kendall practically felt the force of his yell knock him back on his feet, but he felt so giddy he kept his footing. “Really? You don’t think it’s ridiculous?”

“It’s completely ridiculous. But it suits you. And we’ve got to make you stand out, haven’t we? I would never have picked that out. That’s what I love about you, Kendall. I don’t have to make you interesting.”

Kendall felt this cheeks heat up. “That’s a nice thing to say. I’m glad you find me interesting.”

“I won’t be the only one. Are you ready to start shooting?”

“Yeah, I can’t wait.” Kendall turned to James then, who was standing there with his hands in his pockets. He shuffled on the spot, lips pursed. “James?” Kendall said, surprised at how small his voice came out. He’d been able to get Gustavo’s feedback with a lot more ease than he’d expected. “How do I look?”

James didn’t seem to be looking him in the eye; he was looking at something else. “I wouldn’t wear it, but it’s nice,” he said. “Did you change your hair?”

“Um.” Kendall’s hand touched the softness of his hair. It felt better than it ever had in Minneapolis, free from the cold air and plush from the hands of the expert stylists and their high end products. “Yeah. We lightened it.”

“I thought you said you weren’t going to change your hair,” James said, toe scuffing against the floor, brow furrowed.

“I . . .” Kendall shrugged, suddenly wanting to sink into the floor. “I changed my mind.”

“I think it looks great,” Gustavo said, turning to scowl at James. “You look like a pop star.”

James shrugged and turned around, crossing the room and slumping down onto one of the couches. Kendall felt cold and hugged his arms, feeling all eyes return to him. He forced a smile onto his face and looked up, facing them all. “Well,” he said, trying to keep his voice strong. “Let’s start shooting and get some work done, yeah? We don’t have all day.”

Gustavo nodded and led him briskly over to set; he was essentially surrounded in a stark white background, standing on a smooth white floor. Gustavo handed him a shiny electric guitar in cherry red.

“Let’s do some of the shots with the guitar first, and we’ll work our way on from there,” Gustavo said, stepping back and watching as the lights and cameras were adjusted accordingly. Kendall squinted in the bright light and just managed to see James slouched over with his head low. “Don’t squint, you’ll need to be looking at the camera. Strap that guitar on and let’s get going. Take 1 for ‘One Way Ticket’. I hope you like the song, dog, because you’ll be hearing it a lot over the next couple of hours. Is everyone ready?”

Kendall took a deep breath and nodded, strapping the guitar over his shoulder. He tried to imagine the feeling of cheer when he’d first written the song, and swore to channel it in. He knew Gustavo wanted to keep him on, wanted to make something of him – but if his first single flopped, it would get a little more difficult. He wanted to be worth the effort. He would be worth it.

 The first few run-throughs of the song went pretty well. Kendall had abandoned the guitar and done a couple of runs with a handheld microphone on a long chord he had fun tossing and swinging around like a lasso. The first time he did it, Gustavo’s hands smacked up to his eyes and Kelly burst into laughter. Kendall laughed too and Gustavo said, “Please tell me you got a good shot of that.”

After another couple of reruns, Kendall was permitted to take off his suit jacket and take a break for a few minutes. He wiped his sweaty brow and a woman rushed forward immediately to fix his makeup and neaten up his hair. He bent his knees a little so she could reach, and she smiled at him.

“There, all fixed,” she said, closing her compact and popping her glossy lips. “There are refreshments in the fridge over by the couches.”

Kendall walked off the set with his jacket draped over his arm, hanging it over the back of a cushy armchair when he reached the couches. James still sat there, slouched back so far he was practically lying down. He wasn’t asleep as Kendall had thought; he was simply staring off into space. Kendall sat down next to him, as close as he could, resting his back against James’ outstretched arm.

“I’m exhausted,” he said with a grin, reaching into the fridge and taking a swig from a small bottle of water. “But it’s so much fun, isn’t it? I’d love to do my next one with a real backdrop though, if I can. Like on the street or something, I don’t know. I guess it depends on the song. Do you think I’m doing okay? Gustavo seems to like it but you know what his moods are like.” He was met with silence for a second and said, “I really wanna know what you think, Jay.” He leaned in and pressed his lips to his cheek, hand on his strong chest.

James sighed, reaching up to run his hand through Kendall’s hair. “I’m sorry I’ve been a grump,” he said softly, leaning over and kissing Kendall’s forehead. “I don’t mean to be. I’m just tired. I’m sorry, babe.”

“It’s okay,” Kendall said. “You don’t have to say sorry all the time.”

“I guess I was just surprised to see you all dressed up like that. And your hair and everything . . .”

“You hate it, don’t you?” Kendall felt a lump rise in his throat.

“No, I don’t hate it. I just thought you were holding your ground and everything. Being stubborn, like you always are.” James smiled at him, blinking sleepily as he sighed. “I guess I didn’t want you to be like me. Jamez and all that. I let them change things about me. I thought you’d be better than that.”

Kendall knew James was trying to say a nice thing. Trying to tell him he was being strong for not giving in before, that maybe James letting them give him a stage name was something he regretted, and maybe even something he felt made him lose touch with himself. But he heard the words ‘better than that’ and they stung him a little too deeply. “It’s not a stage name,” he said. “It’s just my hair. It’s not even that different.”

“That’s not the point. You’re letting them dress you up like a doll.”

“They didn’t dress me up. I picked what I’m wearing.” His cheeks burned. His whole face burned and his palms were sweating. “And I told them I changed my mind about my hair. I made those decisions myself.”

James snorted. “If you say so.”

“I did. Why are you being such a dick?” Kendall sat up. “Can you not handle the fact that they like the choices I’m making? That they like me? Are you jealous?”

“I’m not fucking jealous,” James snapped, pushing his greasy hair off his forehead, lips pulled back in a sneer. “Grow up.”

“You grow up! Why are you acting like this, then?”

“Maybe I just don’t like seeing you make a fool of yourself.”

Kendall’s fists clenched. “I’m not making a fool of myself.”

“Next you’ll be letting them cut that fucking nose off.”

Kendall’s hand covered his nose, eyes wide. He didn’t know what to say.

“And you know what? Maybe you should. Maybe you are too ugly.” James sat up.

“Ugly?” Kendall’s voice rose. “Are you serious?” There were eyes on them now. His blood rushed through his veins and tears rushed to his eyes and he spat, “Fuck off. Get out of here.”

“What?” James raised his eyebrows. “You want me to leave now?”

“Yes, I want you to fucking leave. Get out.” Kendall pointed towards the door and stood up, advancing towards James until he did leave, storming out of the room and slamming the door.

Kendall stood there with heavy breath and a pounding heart, teeth gritted. He clenched his jaw and tried not to let any tears fall. Everyone was staring at him, then pretending not to. “Let’s get back to shooting,” he said, voice scratchy from shouting. “I don’t need to rest anymore.”

“Kendall.” Kelly’s voice was gentle. Gustavo strode from the room and shut the door. “We don’t have to do anymore today if you don’t want to.”

“All the lights and cameras are set up and everything’s ready to go,” Kendall said. His hands shook, so he pushed them behind his back and clenched his fists. “I don’t want to inconvenience anyone. We’ve got work to do.”

“It’ll all still be here tomorrow. We won’t move anything.”

“I . . .”

“Kendall.” Kelly’s hand touched his shoulder. He swallowed and his lip wobbled. “Go home and we’ll finish it tomorrow. We want to keep the high energy up, right? For the video?”

Kendall nodded, letting out a shaky breath. “Yeah, okay . . . fine.”

He sped into the changing room and flung off his suit, hanging it up as neatly as he could and throwing on his T-shirt and jeans. He couldn’t stop shaking with the urge to not burst into tears. He could cry in the car. Carlos wouldn’t care; God only knew the kind of shit he’d had to put up with driving those cars. He grabbed his bag and left the set, barely waving a goodbye to anyone but Camille, whose eyes bore into him as he left with a look of unbearable pity.

He walked out into the hall and pressed his hand to his forehead, pinching the bridge of his nose and taking another deep breath. For a moment he felt so disjointed he couldn’t remember the way to the parking lot. But he began to walk down the hall and remembered then, just as he heard two voices coming from around the corner. He walked forward and stopped right before he turned the corner, to see who it was. He should’ve recognised Gustavo’s bellow immediately.

“I’m not going to have you ruin things for him, do you understand?” He’d never heard Gustavo sound so angry. “Who do you think you are speaking to him like that? What the fuck is wrong with you?”

“You don’t care about him,” James’s voice came snarling back. “You just don’t want him in a bad mood so you can keep speeding through the album.”

“Yeah, I might care about the album getting done and everything going smoothly but I care about him too. And I care about you. If you think I don’t care about my acts then I don’t know what to tell you.” There was a brief pause. “You’re going to wreck this for him if you treat him that way. Don’t you realise how good his chances are? He could be my next big thing, Rocque Records’ new shining star. But he’s not going to want to do that if you’re being shitty.”

“I used to be your shining star.” Kendall’s eyes widened at the words; James didn’t sound angry anymore.

Gustavo sighed. “Then get yourself together and you can be that again. Do you think I like seeing you like this?”

There was silence again. Kendall’s heart ached when he heard James give a hoarse sob.

“James . . . I can’t help you if you don’t want to help yourself. I want to keep you up there at the forefront of my brand. You never lost your talent. You just lost your way. If you can try and find it again, you know I’ll be happy to promote you again.” He heard Gustavo take a deep breath. “I need to go to my office and work over some paperwork.” And the sound of his footsteps faded away down the hall.

Kendall took a deep breath and let himself step out around the corner. James was standing hunched over with his back pressed against the wall, hand over his face. His shoulders trembled with sobs, his breath jagged. Kendall walked to him quietly and touched his shoulder. “James,” he murmured. “James, look at me.”

James tilted his head up and their eyes met. Tears gathered in Kendall’s eyes when James moved to touch his face with a shaky hand. “Kendall . . . I’m so sorry.”

“It’s okay.”

“It’s not okay. I was a dick. I’m just jealous. I’m a jealous fuck.” Kendall opened his mouth and James shushed him. “No, let me finish. I admit it. I was jealous, I’m not bullshitting. But it was childish. It’s my own fault I’ve fallen off Gustavo’s radar, it’s not your fault.”

“It’s not your fault either,” Kendall said softly, letting out a shaky breath as James hugged him close. “You’re just going through some tough times, that’s all. It’ll get better.”

“I love you.”

“I love you too.”

“You know I don’t think you’re ugly. You know that, don’t you? I think you’re beautiful.”

“I know you do.”

“And I did like your outfit. Only you could pull off something that bizarre.” And they both chuckled.

Kendall wiped his damp cheeks and gave an ugly sniffle, cheeks red. “Let’s just go home, okay? I’m coming back in tomorrow. We don’t have to talk about today ever again.” They linked hands and James kissed him softly, hand pressed against the small of his back. Kendall hummed and let his body press against James’, resting there for a moment and letting the tension in his muscles fade. When they straightened up, Kendall led James down the hall towards the doors, feeling a little better.

The single was a massive hit, largely thanks to Gustavo’s promotional efforts. And then the video took off. Kendall had taken to answering fans’ questions on Twitter and tweeting about the music video every couple of days or so. Pretty soon he heard the song all over the radio; saw his smiling, laughing face on billboards and TV channels. He felt like he was watching somebody else, but in a good way. Somebody he wanted to be.

The album was almost finished. Every time Kendall heard a new finished track, he started to feel more and more thrilled, more and more nervous. ‘Shallow’ was still a favourite of his; it probably always would be. But he felt proud of every track, of every promotional photo they took, even the ones he wasn’t too sure he looked great in. He was proud of all of it. He’d never created anything before, never made anything that felt important. Crappy arts and crafts in elementary school that got thrown in the trash didn’t count. This was a real thing he’d helped to make, with songs of his own mind and soul. It was starting to feel very real and very scary, but in the best way.

James wasn’t back in the studio just yet. He came once in a while to watch Kendall sing, but mostly he stayed at home in the apartment. He sang there, but nothing new. Kendall would come home and see him trying to write, surrounded by crumpled paper and chewed pen toppers. But when he sang, there was still a pure energy to his voice, a clearer tone and a brighter spark in his eye. He drank less, for Kendall. Kendall tried to keep the liquor supply in the place at a bare minimum; he didn’t want to cut James off cold turkey or cut Dustin’s stash off either, but James was doing well enough with what they had going.

A week before the album was due to release, Kendall woke up in the late morning tangled in James’ arms. He breathed in the soft smell of James’ collarbone and rested his head against his bare chest. He had a scent that was all his own. He hummed and snuggled in closer to him, opening his eyes when he felt James’ hands squeeze tighter around him. He looked up to see James smiling down at him. “Morning,” James said softly, leaning in to kiss him.

Kendall whined and squirmed in his hold. “Don’t kiss me, I have morning breath,” he mumbled against James’ lips.

“I don’t care,” James said with a smirk and kissed him again, sliding his hands down his back. “How’d you sleep?”

“Really well.” Kendall smiled, rolling away and lying on his back. He looked at the flushed colour of James’ cheeks, the sparkle in his eye, the shine of his white teeth. For all the times James called him beautiful, he felt that he really didn’t tell James enough that he was beautiful too. Incredibly so.

He did say it then, and James grinned. “Don’t flatter me.”

“It’s true,” Kendall said, tapping him on the nose. “Did you sleep okay? You’re looking so much better.”

“I feel better.”

Kendall sat up and threw the covers off, getting out of bed. “Want some breakfast? I know I’m dying for a coffee.”

“I’ll join you in a minute. I want to make a call first.” James sat up too and reached for his phone. “Tell Dustin not to make plans tonight if he hasn’t left yet; I was thinking the three of us could go out for dinner. Kind of pre-celebrating the album coming out.”

“I’m sure he’d love that. I’ll tell him.” Kendall leaned down and pecked James’ forehead, before straightening up and leaving the room.

Out in the kitchen, Dustin was finishing off a cup of tea and a plate of heavily buttered toast, just the way he liked it. “Morning,” Kendall said, walking over and leaning on the counter. “All ready for work?”

“Unfortunately. I’ll be home around six.” He finished his toast and gulped down the last few swallows of his tea. “Any plans today? Any album stuff?”

“Not today. James and I are just chilling around here. He wants to take us out to dinner tonight, is that okay?”

“I’m free.” Dustin paused, getting up from his stool at the counter. “So . . . are you nervous?” he asked at last.

Kendall was taken aback by the question. “Huh?”

“Are you nervous about the album?”

“Of course I am. If I wasn’t I think there’d be something wrong with me.” Kendall shrugged. “But I’m more excited than nervous. Even if it doesn’t go well . . .”

“Even if it ends in disaster?”

“Why would it end in disaster? Why are you acting weird?” Kendall folded his arms. “Tell me what you’re thinking.”

 “I just want to make sure you know what you’re doing,” Dustin said, hands on his shoulders. “You know . . . with everything.”

“Are you talking about James?” Kendall asked, eyes narrowed. “We love each other if that’s what you’re talking about. I know what I’m doing. He’s not well.”

“I know he’s not. Look, I like James. Love him, even. I’ve lived with him long enough. But I love you more, okay? I just don’t want you to get hurt. And with the album coming out next week and everything . . .”

“I appreciate it,” Kendall said softly, hands touching Dustin’s as he gently removed them form his shoulders. “Honestly. But I’m doing okay, really. I’m so excited about the album, and James and I are really happy together. And he’s trying really hard right now, for me.”

“I know.” Dustin sighed. “Look, I trust you. If you say you know what you’re doing, I believe you.” He smiled. “I have to say, I’m looking forward to the launch party. My first big Hollywood event.”

“I mean, it’s kind of my first one too,” Kendall chuckled. “My hands are gonna be so clammy.”

“Gross.” Dustin ruffled Kendall’s hair with a laugh, just as the bedroom door opened and James walked out, just in a pair of dark sweatpants. Kendall blushed and bit his lip at the sight. James didn’t work out a whole not anymore, but he’d kept that toned body he had when they were younger and he spent half his life at the gym. Dustin nodded to him with a smile and said goodbye, pecking Kendall’s forehead before grabbing his car keys and leaving for work. As the front door slammed, James reached Kendall and cupped his cheeks, bringing him in for a slow kiss. Kendall smiled, hands touching James’ neck and tangling in his hair.

“What was that phone call about?” Kendall asked, throwing himself down onto the couch.

James sat down next to him. “I was checking if Gustavo needed you much over the next couple of days,” he said, arm draped over the back of the couch. “I wanted to take you away for a couple of days, before the launch party and everything takes off with the album.”

“Oh?” Kendall’s eyebrows rose I surprise. “Where?”

“There’s a beach house about an hour’s drive away from here. It’s really quiet, really peaceful. Gustavo actually owns it but he never really goes there. He hates the beach. So he lends it out, and he said I could take you.” James was grinning, eyes brighter than they’d been in a while. “Is that okay?”

Kendall thought about spending a couple of days away by the beach, just him and James in a secluded place all to themselves, and the answer was pretty obvious. He nodded with a matching grin. “I’d love to. Dustin will be happy to get a bit of space for a couple of days anyway.”

James chuckled and hugged Kendall close, ruffling his hair. Kendall huffed and pushed his hand away, fixing it back into place. But he felt elated, and didn’t mind too much that everyone around him felt the need to muss up his hair. He pushed James down to lie on the couch and straddled him, hands on his strong chest. James smirked up at him and reached up, threading a hand through his hair and tugging gently. Kendall’s eyes drifted shut at the feeling of James’ long fingers, before he was tugged down into a heated kiss.

The beach house was wide and spacious, almost too much so. Kendall’s bare feet pattered along the tiles of the kitchen. They were cool against the soles of his feet but the house itself was pleasant enough; he could walk comfortably in his T-shirt and sweatpants even so late in the evening, when the sun had long set outside. He headed to where the patio doors lay open, a gentle breeze flowing through the thin curtains. He stepped outside onto the patio, eyes falling immediately on the pool, where it cut off at the edge of the patio and stretched out into a distant view of the dark ocean. A little ways to his left, beneath the sun roof, James sat leaned over the grand piano, hand scribbling at some paper on his hand. He wore his baseball cap on his head again, turned backwards this time, so Kendall could see his face. His lips pursed in concentration, chin shaved clean.

Kendall smiled and padded over to him, listening to the soft ring of the piano keys as James tapped slowly at them. “Hey,” he said softly. James started and looked up, grinned and beckoned Kendall over. Kendall sat down on the seat, squashing in beside him.

“How are you feeling?” Kendall asked. “Why weren’t you in bed?”

“I had to write. It just took hold of me.” James was smiling; there was the slight scent of wine on his breath, but his eyes were bright and his voice clear. He pressed his lips to Kendall’s ear and trailed soft kisses down his cheek and jaw. “I’m okay though, honestly. I wrote you something.”

“Really?” Kendall’s cheeks flushed. “That’s sweet.”

“I want you to hear it. It’s not finished but I’ve got a chorus going . . .” His fingers pressed against the piano keys. Kendall’s hand looped through his arm and he rested his head on his shoulder, closing his eyes and listening.

“I don’t wanna feel another touch, don’t wanna start another fire,” James sang softly, fingers delicate on the keys. “Don’t wanna know another kiss, no other name falling off my lips . . .”

Kendall squeezed his arm tight, biting his lip. His heart felt swollen almost to the point of pain.

“Don’t wanna give my heart away to another stranger . . . or let another day begin, won’t even let the sunlight in, no, I’ll never love again . . .” James cut off then, fingers dropping from the keys. Kendall opened his eyes and saw James’ fists clenched, eyes wet with tears.

“I don’t want to ruin things for you,” he murmured, voice shaking. “If you lose all this because of me . . .”

“I wouldn’t have it at all if it weren’t for you,” Kendall whispered, kissing James’ neck. “You know that. You gave me this.”

“But what if you excel without me? If it’s better for you to go on by yourself, I think you should. Make this happen for yourself.”

Kendall swallowed, hand rubbing at his eye. He held James close, suddenly cold in the night air. James’ hands wrapped tight around his shoulders. “Not without you,” he said, swearing to stick to it.

“Marry me.”

“What?” Kendall lifted his head, figuring he just hadn’t heard right. But James was looking into his eyes, gaze burning into him. Kendall’s heart fluttered.

“Will you marry me, Kendall?” James asked, tips of their noses brushing together, his thumb brushing the apple of Kendall’s cheek.

Kendall let out a breathless sob, trying to calm his breathing, to let enough air into his lungs. He nodded. “Yes.”

Chapter Text

James smeared a piece of cake against Kendall’s cheek, laughing at the indignant expression on his face. A glob of icing dripped onto his crisp white collar and James swiped it off deftly. “Sorry,” he said with a grin, eyes twinkling beneath the lights. He screamed when Kendall rubbed his cake-covered hand across his face and they roared with laughter. Laughter echoed all around them from their wedding guests, followed by an array of cheers and congratulatory slaps on the back. He spotted Gustavo’s face among them, and he looked as genuinely happy as anyone. Their guest lists had been limited; Kendall had no family to invite bar Dustin and James had only invited his mother, who couldn’t make it. Carlos was there too, and Logan from the bar that felt so long ago now; seeing as Kendall’s Minnesota guest list was so pathetically small, Gustavo had offered to pay for their flights. Economy, but still. It was generous. They were both glad to catch up with some old faces.

Dustin had practically fainted when he had heard the news. He’d never seen an expression so gobsmacked, so terrified. He’d reassured him then it was just the usual jitters of seeing his little brother settle down and get married, especially before him. James got that. Kendall promised Dustin he’d find someone too. And he did believe he would. He hoped it would be a little easier for him. James’ road to love hadn’t been easy, that much was clear.  But he had never felt more alive and more filled with joy than he did now with cake splattered all over his face. Not since the very first time Gustavo heard him sing and swept him away, and maybe not even then. He’d never seen Kendall look more alive either, or more beautiful. He swept him close into his arms and kissed him again, and tasted sugary frosting and the salt of tears.

I love you. I love you. I love you.

Kendall’s eyes glinted like fireworks.

Carlos handed him a napkin to clean his face, and they wiped themselves off. Then they started serving the cake out for real, handing out slices on cheap paper plates to anyone lined up. The wedding was a tiny affair; they held it in a hotel James had stayed in once before, years ago. He vaguely recalled the plushness of the upstairs suites, but he would’ve gotten married in a back alley, or anywhere else for that matter. He and Kendall had little inputs here and there, but they had mostly left it up to Gustavo. He knew how to take care of things like that, and neither of them was fussy. James may have come from a background of some pickiness, and some wealth, but he’d left it long ago.

“I’m so happy,” he said softly in Kendall’s ear as they sat at a secluded table, watching their friends dance in jerky, awkward moves on the dance floor. His veins buzzed with wine and champagne, but every so often he felt Kendall’s hand tight on his arm, prying him away from taking too much.

“I’m happy too,” Kendall replied, but James could tell he meant it. Their eyes met and he smiled, wrapping his arm tight around his shoulders.

“Who’d have thought we’d end up here, huh?” James asked, eyes on Carlos and Logan doing some kind of strange take on an Irish jig. “Would you have thought it, back then at school?”

“Obviously not. I don’t think that far ahead now, much less back then.” Kendall gave a soft sigh and leaned back against his shoulder. “Did you think that?”

“Can I be honest with you?”

“I didn’t ask to get a lie, did I?”

“I did think about you like that, back then,” he admitted. “Not a lot, I wasn’t obsessed or anything. But when we hung out, when we . . . well, you know – I did think about what it might be like to be with you all the time. To be with you even when we got older. I obviously didn’t tell you because it would’ve been weird. But I did think it sometimes.”


Kendall looked up from where he stood by his locker. His hair was cut short and his body was still growing into itself. But he stood with a strange air of confidence, shoulder pressing casually against the wall as he quipped dryly, “Diamond.”

James grinned. That was the way Kendall was; he always played it cool in front of other people. Sometimes even when they were alone. But he’d become something of an expert at tearing those defenses to shreds. “Are you free after school? You know, for the chemistry report?”

“Well, I always make time for academics.” And he could feel the sarcasm dripping from that statement. But Kendall grinned as he slammed his locker shut with a loud crash. “You’ll drive me, right? I’m not walking over there.”

“I’d be happy to.”

Kendall bit his lip, eyes falling on the pristine white tablecloth. “That’s really sweet. I never knew that.”

“Like I said, it would’ve been weird. It took a while to crack you.” He poked Kendall’s side with a chuckle. “You were stubborn as a kid, you know.”

“I know.” Kendall smirked. “And I’m damn proud of it. Now, are you going to ask me to dance again tonight, or do I just have to sit here and wait?”

“Yes, your majesty. Take my hand.” James stood up and took Kendall by the hand, tugging him onto the dancefloor. The lights danced upon his pale face and set his eyes ablaze. James kissed his forehead and they danced the night away, feeling the heat of a thousand fires.

The Florida sun was beautiful.

It would never have been his first choice for a honeymoon; not the state, at least. But then Kendall had thought about Disney World and how he’d always wanted to go there, and that maybe now, while they were both a little more low-key, was the perfect opportunity. And it had less alcohol than most places; another bonus. Their hotel room had a mini bar that they’d made use of the night before upon their arrival. The bed was so comfortable it was almost ridiculous – of course they’d made plenty of use of that as well.

Kendall got out of bed and stretched his stiff limbs, finally spotting his boxers and putting them on. They’d left the balcony door partially open during the night, and now the soft curtains flowed in the morning breeze and brushed off his legs as he reached the windows. He opened the door and stepped outside, his first view being of the great blue Atlantic before him. He grinned and sat down on one of the soft cushioned chairs and relaxed back with a sigh, letting the ocean breeze brush the messy hair from his forehead and cool his warm face. He had a little peak across the city in front of him, spotting the heavy morning traffic and a couple of pigeons. Then he saw it, and squealed at the top of his lungs.

“James!” He jumped up and sprinted back into the room, jumping on top of the lump huddled beneath the sheets. “James, get up! You need to see this!”

He heard a groan, before James’ bedhead emerged from beneath the sheets with a huff. “Baby, I’m sleeping. What’s going on?” He took note of Kendall sitting on top of him then and gave a sleepy smile. “You look good.”

“Come on, get up. I need to show you something important.” Kendall hopped off the bed and waited for James to rouse himself, bouncing on his heels. “Hurry up. Put something on first! We’re going out on the balcony.”

“Alright, alright.” James found his boxers and put them on, straightening up with his hands on his hips. “Show me what’s so important.”

“Come outside with me, let me show you.” He opened the balcony door again and stepped out, pointing to a tall billboard away to their right. “Take a look.”

Right there, in the middle of Orlando, was his face. A giant fucking photograph of his face on his brand new album cover. How much did it even cost? Did Gustavo arrange it? Who put it up there? Did people look at it and know who he was? James stood next to him, hands clapped together with wide eyes and an even wider smile.

“That’s my album,” Kendall screeched, hands slamming on the balcony rail as he leaned over, staring at the billboard. “Look at the size of my head! My nose really is fucking massive, isn’t it?”

“I think it looks beautiful,” James said with a grin, tapping the tip of Kendall’s nose. “Almost as good as it does up close.”

Kendall blushed and hugged James close, shivering suddenly out in the open air. “I never thought I’d see myself on anything like that. Do you think a lot of people have seen it?”

“It’s right there in the middle of the street. There’s no way people haven’t noticed it. I remember the first time I saw a poster of myself. I’m really proud of you.”

“Thank you,” Kendall said with a grin, eyes finally leaving the billboard. It felt a little weird to keep staring at a photo of himself. It was starting to feel a bit narcissistic. But it felt exhilarating, too. He was a real artist. And maybe he would be something after all.

“Do you think if we turned on the radio, one of my singles would come on?” Kendall asked suddenly, pulling back from the hug. “I mean . . . I’m just curious.”

James chuckled. “Let’s order breakfast and listen to the radio until we’re finished, how about that?”

Kendall bit his lip and nodded, and the two walked hand in hand back into the hotel room, throwing themselves onto the bed in a tangle of limbs.

After they’d had breakfast (they heard ‘One Way Ticket’ in the middle of their pancakes and Kendall had almost choked on a sip of his coffee) they set off in a taxi to go to the Disney parks, hands folded together on Kendall’s lap. Then they heard the song again, playing from the taxi driver’s worn down radio and Kendall had to suppress an excited squeal, just squeezing James’ hand in response. The driver didn’t seem to recognise them, and they decided to keep it that way.

They spent ten days in Florida; it was enough for them. James ended up spending a lot of the evenings writing before they went out for dinner. Kendall read the lyrics back and marvelled at them; they felt like what he’d written in the very peak of his career, when Kendall used to buy his CDs and play them in his car – then in Dustin’s car after he wrecked his own. It even sounded like what had driven Kendall to start writing songs too. After his parents’ death, he’d felt numb for so long. Then James’ voice brought tears to his eyes, tears that choked him in his lungs and in his throat, and finally formed into the ink he used to write his first lyrics. The worst lyrics he’d ever written, but also the most honest. He’d never be quite that raw again, but that was okay.

“I can’t do this.”

Kendall sighed and pried James’ hand off his chest, where he had desperately tried to yank his numbered sticker from his shirt. It read 23, while James’ read 22, explaining his desperation to switch them. “James.” He gave a long sigh. “This is your dream, not mine.”

“But what if I’m not good enough?” James’ eyes were wide, his hands shaking. They stood up and Kendall clamped his hands tight on James’ shoulders to steady him. “What if they laugh at me?”

“What if they do? We’ll laugh at them. I’m sure they’ve got their own embarrassments. It doesn’t matter.” He shook James’ shoulders. “Focus. Opportunities like this come once in a lifetime. You need to take this chance now, even if it doesn’t work out. I’ll be waiting out here for you, okay?”

“Are you going to audition too?”

Kendall scoffed and peeled off the sticker. “No. I only wore it to get this far in. It’s not my thing, you know that. I’m just your cheerleader.”

“Does that mean you’ll wear a skirt?” James smirked.

“It does not. Now get in there!” And he shoved James forward towards the double doors. And he stepped inside, and changed his life forever.

He shut his eyes and rested his head against James’ neck, the evening breeze fluttering their hair. His billboard glowed in the distance.

Kendall straightened his bowtie one more time, even though the first three times had made just as little difference. His throat felt dry; he swallowed and coughed, trying to clear it. He turned away from the mirror before he found another ten flaws to pick at. He saw James across the room, helping himself to another drink. He sighed and made his way over, taking the glass Dustin offered him. The three of them were dressed and ready to go, waiting for Gustavo to arrive with the car.

“Relax,” Dustin said, as Kendall downed the drink with a groan and a cough. “It’s gonna be really fun, even if you don’t win anything.”

“I know,” Kendall choked, rubbing his neck and putting the glass down. “It’s just scary. What if I do win?”

“Then you’ll win a Grammy? Hello, that’s incredible. You don’t have stage fright, do you? I feel like you’re past that.”

“I guess so.” Kendall took a deep breath and poured himself a second drink, ignoring the stern look Dustin gave him. “Relax, I’ll be fine. It’s just two. I need it for my nerves.”

“Hear, hear,” James chuckled, throwing his head back and finishing his drink. Kendall didn’t know how many he’d had. He didn’t have time to check. He couldn’t even think about that right now; he couldn’t think about anything except the sound of his phone ringing with Gustavo announcing his arrival. He took a deep breath and picked it up, and they got ready to go.

When they arrived, Kendall was immediately blinded by the flashes of cameras and the sounds of the fans crowding the red carpet. He swallowed and took James’ arm, holding him close as they made their way to get their photo taken. James slumped slightly against him, but Kendall held him up strongly enough that it wasn’t really noticeable. A reporter made her way towards them with a microphone and he gulped, nudging James to stand up straighter and vowing to do all the talking, for his sake if nothing else. Thankfully, it seemed she mostly wanted to talk to him anyway. James chimed in one or two words, and it was enough. Kendall sighed with relief and moved them on. He didn’t feel any way relaxed until they were safely in their seats, where nobody else could scrutinise them. Then there were the awards to wait for. He held James’ hand tight, to keep both of them grounded.

“And now,” a woman on the stage announced, dressed in a beautiful red gown. He had seen her before, but he couldn’t remember for the life of him who she was. “Here are the nominees for Best New Artist.” He heard his own name being announced and let out a tiny squeak. Dustin, on his other side, patted his knee and gave him a reassuring smile and a thumbs up.

“And the winner is . . .” The woman opened up her envelope, taking a quick glance and grinning, turning up to look out at the audience. “Kendall Knight.”

Kendall froze.

“Kendall!” Dustin shook his shoulders. “Get up there!” He’d never seen him smile so wide, and Kendall couldn’t help smiling back at him. He felt James’ hand tugging at him as he got up, heard him mumbling his name as he made his way out into the aisle. The applause following him to the stage was deafening, and he took a deep breath and finally managed to smile. He made his way up the couple of steps and to the microphone, taking the award in shaky hands. He looked out at the audience as the music died down, almost blinded by the lights. He’d never seen so many famous people in one place, and they were all staring at him. He felt queasy but took a deep breath, and clutched his award tight in his clammy hands.

“Thank you,” he said softly into the microphone, caught off guard by the encouraging wave of cheers that followed. “Thank you, so much, for this award. Um . . . there are a couple of people I need to thank for getting me to this point. I want to thank my brother for being there for me my whole life, and being more like a father than anything else. Thanks, Dustin.” He squinted and spotted him in the audience and grinned, unable to help giving him a little wave. He noticed then, to his surprise, he couldn’t see where James was. He swallowed and took a deep breath, voice shaking. “I want to thank Gustavo Rocque and everyone at Rocque Records for giving me a chance and making all this happen for me. Gustavo was so patient with me in those recording booths so thanks for that, man. I really appreciate it. But most of all, I want to thank my husband, James. He believed in me when it felt like nobody else did . . .”

He heard a thud to his left and noticed the audience were mumbling to each other, staring with a new look in their eyes. He looked over to see James hobbling onto the stage and froze, eyes wide. He looked out at the audience and back at James, who was walking towards him in a kind of weak, slow stagger. His face turned red hot. “Um . . . a-and I . . .”

“Did you win, baby?” James slurred, reaching him and resting too firm a hand on his shoulder. “That’s amazing. I can’t believe you won.”

“James,” Kendall muttered, hand covering the microphone as best he could, while trying to steady James with his Grammy-holding hand. “Go back to our seats. Please.”

“Are you making a speech?”

“James, please.”

“Oh, fuck.” James covered his mouth. “I’m so sorry. I’m ruining it. I’m ruining everything.”

“No, it’s fine. Just go back to your seat. Backstage behind them, he spotted two security men readying themselves to walk on stage and started to panic. “Just go sit down and I’ll be there in a second.”

“Okay . . . okay . . .” James stumbled back, eyes fluttering. Kendall’s hand left the microphone and he reached out to grab him. The audience erupted into gasps at the thump when James hit the stage floor. It was followed by a deathly silence, broken by the security team hurrying out to help him up. Kendall felt numb. His eyes found the audience, and he wanted to disappear. He wanted everything to disappear.

James woke late; he heard his alarm going off but when he glanced at the clock, he realised he must’ve hit the snooze button without even realising. He groaned and heaved himself up to his feet, throwing the comforter aside onto the floor. He knew he was late, but even so his movements were sluggish as he pulled on a pair of dark washed jeans and a white V-neck T-shirt after giving it a brief sniff. He left everything behind in his room but took a quick sip of water from the plastic cup by his bed after he put on his shoes. He left the room and walked down the corridor, past blank walls painted white, with the occasional floral mural in a corner or by the ceiling. Down the polished wooden staircase he wandered and around the corner, opening the first door on the left with a creak.

The room was large and pretty empty; a couple of tables lined up by the wall held plates of healthy snacks and fruit juices and tea. A circle of chairs sat in the centre of the room, all occupied but one. The woman sitting at the head of the circle looked up then as James approached the circle.

“You’re late,” she said, dark eyebrows furrowed in disapproval. Her blonde hair was in a bun pulled back from her face, making her look older than he knew her to be. But the softness of her brown eyes brought her youth back.

“I’m sorry, Jo,” he said, feeling the others’ eyes burning into him as he slumped into the empty chair beside her. “I slept through my first alarm.”

“Then go to bed earlier. You know I’ve made it a policy not to start until everyone is here,” Jo said. “So don’t make the others wait for you again. You’re not famous here.”

Before the Grammys scandal, James had felt that he was no longer famous anywhere. But he understood what she meant and nodded, repeating, “I’m sorry. I promise it won’t happen again.”

“Good.” Jo sat back in her plastic chair, swinging one long leg over the other. Her own addiction in the past had cost her her marriage and custody of her child. That was what she’d told them on their first day. She saw her little girl on the weekends now, but the fractured bond with her husband would never be repaired again. She had made peace with it. James didn’t know if he could ever make peace with that.

“Today, we’re talking about how each of us felt in the aftermath of what brought us here,” Jo said, eyes turning to the patient on her other side. “We’ll go through each person in turn. I won’t force you to speak, but I encourage you to. Feel free to make comments, but no aggression, please. Jennifer, why don’t we start with you? After your car crash, how did you feel when you found out what had happened?”

Jennifer, whose plastic chair had been substituted for a wheelchair, swallowed and began to speak.

When James realised what he’d done, at first he wasn’t quite sure how to react. Only with numbness.  He first became aware of what was happening when he woke up on a stretcher at a first aid station. He heard the distant sound of a rock band playing before his eyes came into focus on Kendall’s sobbing face above him. When he finally found the strength to sit up, Kendall held him close for about three seconds before Dustin tugged him away. Then James had endured the yelling match of his life; three of them between him, Dustin and Gustavo. Though he hadn’t contributed much from his own side. His head had felt a little clearer, but he felt too weak to speak, let alone to shout. Once he figured out what had happened, anyway, he had nothing to defend himself with. It was indefensible. The next morning, Gustavo picked him and a small suitcase up from his and Kendall’s home and took him away. Took him to the treatment centre, where he met Jo and her circle. It had been two weeks now since he’d last seen anyone from the outside. They believed at the centre that the first few weeks for new patients with severe cases were the most crucial, and that it would be better if he tried to improve himself without many outside influences or interactions. Maybe they were right. He thought about what it would be like to see Kendall again, and though it kept him going, it also kept him terrified. He didn’t know how to properly express himself and how sorry he was, once they met again. Maybe he wasn’t ready. But it didn’t matter.

“Thank you, James,” Jo said, offering him a smile that was cool but kind. “I know seeing your husband again will be scary, but it’ll be good for you to reconnect with the world outside. And it’s just him visiting, so you won’t be overwhelmed by too many faces.”

James nodded. “I know. That does help, thank you.”

When Kendall arrived on that Sunday, James, for a wild moment, didn’t even recognise him. He was so numb, so focused on staring down the door of the visitor’s room for his arrival that he didn’t even realise he’d walked in until he was standing right there in front of his table. He looked tired. His eyes brimmed with tears when James did look up at him at last.

“Kendall.” His voice came out hoarse as he rose to his feet, hugging him so tight he heard him give a startled squeak of pain. “Oh, Kendall. I can’t believe you’re here.”

“Did you think I wouldn’t come?” Kendall mumbled against his shoulder, voice thick. “I’m your husband.”

“I know, I know. Of course I knew you’d come, I just . . . I don’t know.” He swallowed.

“Let’s just sit down, okay?” Kendall gestured to the chairs and sat down, pulling away from the hug. He rested his chin on his hand, brushing the hair back from his face. Something about him was unkempt, even with Gustavo’s visible efforts to keep him neatly groomed. James had no idea how he’d been living the past couple of weeks, what he’d been doing. He wanted to ask. He opened his mouth to ask just that, but something different came out entirely by mistake.

“I’m so sorry, Kendall,” he blurted out. “I ruined your night.”

“No.” Kendall closed his eyes, a tear trickling down his cheek. “Don’t say that.”

“I did, it’s true. That was your biggest moment and I fucked it up so bad.” His hands pressed to his face as he started to cry. “Dustin, oh God . . . he was so mad. He must hate me.”

“No, he doesn’t hate you. He loves you.”

“How can he after what I did? Kendall—“

Stop. That’s enough.” Kendall’s voice rose enough to attract the attention of the nearby tables. James was startled into silence. Kendall’s hands covered his face, mouth gasping in shallow sobs as he sniffed and wiped at his cheeks. “Just stop it, please. I don’t want to hear it anymore. Just stop apologising, I’m sick of it. I can’t hear it anymore.”

James was about to apologise – again. But he held his tongue, biting his lip hard.

“I just want you to get better,” Kendall whispered, dabbing at his cheeks with a tissue a nearby nurse offered him. “Just try and get better, please. That can be your apology.”

James nodded and reached across the table, finally daring to take Kendall’s hand. “I promise. I’ll try my best. When I leave here, I’ll be clean. And I won’t go back to it, I swear.”

“You know you can’t swear that. I don’t want you to swear it.” Kendall took a deep breath and squeezed James’ hand back. “I just want you to try.”

James nodded again. “I will try. I love you.”

Kendall smiled then, and James realised how much he’d missed that smile. How had he ever gone years without it? “I love you too.”

They spoke at length about small, simple things like they used to. They sipped on cups of tea and nibbled on chocolate chip cookies and talked about things that weren’t important. James talked a little about the people he’d met in his counselling sessions, about how the food was, what the view was like from his window. Kendall talked about a party he’d gone to, which he described as dull and way too long. He talked about his most recent quarrels with Gustavo, all of which were petty and irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. And he knew that; they both did. James wondered if these increases in quarrels were a way to distract themselves from his absence. Not in an arrogant sort of way; just a way to push his mistakes out of their minds.

“When you come home,” Kendal said, fingers tapping on the table. “I was thinking maybe we could get a dog. Dustin’s keeping Sissy and I know you love dogs, so I thought it might be fun. I also want to redecorate the living room a little, I don’t like the colour. Is that okay? I won’t do it without your input.”

“A dog sounds nice. Maybe a little while after I come back.” James smiled, appreciating every attempt Kendall made at establishing normalcy. “And I agree. How do you feel about brightly coloured couches? Like, maybe orange?”

“Orange?” Kendall’s nose scrunched up and he bit his lip. He gave a little chuckle. “Alright, I’ll think about it if that’s what you like. I can live with orange couches.” He paused, eyes flickering towards the doors as he heard the nurse announcing the end of visiting time approaching. “But I don’t want to live without you.” He stood up and James stood with him, clutching his hands tight. “So remember that you promised to try. Okay?”

James nodded, pressing his hands to Kendall’s waist and giving him a soft kiss. He wanted to stand and kiss him for much longer, but knew he couldn’t. “I will try. I’ll see you again soon.”

Kendall nodded and took a deep breath. “There is something I need to tell you. I shouldn’t have waited this long, but . . . I’ll be back to see you again in a couple of weeks, and in between that we can talk a little on the phone but I won’t be in LA. I’m uh . . . I’m going on tour.”

“Oh.” James’ eyes widened. “That’s great.” He did mean it, but for some reason it just wasn’t coming out that way. “Are you sure you can come back?”

“Yes, of course I am. Gustavo and I have arranged it so I have a free day, and I’m going to fly back here and see you. We’re only going around the States. I promise I’ll be here.” Kendall squeezed James’ shoulders. “Okay? Trust me.”

James swallowed and nodded. “I trust you. Break a leg out there. You’ll be amazing. Will you send me some pictures, or videos?”

“If Jo says it’s okay, of course I will. You can give me tips.” Kendall grinned, and then glanced back at the door. “I really do need to go now. Good luck. Get lots of sleep, okay? I love you.” And with one more kiss, he was gone.

James sat down at his table alone, and thought of Kendall out on the road alone, without him. Of course he wasn’t really alone, but James should have been with him. Next time, he would be. He needed to take some time in his room to cool off, maybe do some writing before his next group therapy session. Just a little time to vent.

“Thank you,” Kendall said with a smile, microphone clutched in his hand. It stood on a tall stand before him, his favourite acoustic slung over his shoulder. He’d just finished ‘Memories and Melodies’ and was nearing the end of his set. He gazed out into the crowd. It was the last night of his American tour, and none of these audiences had ever been as large as the first one he performed in front of, on that night that changed everything. Yet still he found himself trembling before every show; maybe that was just normal. Now he felt comfortable, but melancholy. He’d enjoyed the tour, but it wasn’t the same without James. Dustin came to a couple of shows when he was able to get away from work, but other than that it had just been him, Gustavo and the team. It got a little lonely. But he was used to feeling lonely.

“So, this is my last song,” he said out into a screaming crowd. “The last song of the tour. Thank you so much for all the support. This song is really special to me. It’s called ‘Shallow’. I hope you like it.” And with that, he began to play. As he sang, he imagined James on stage with him, singing with the same love and passion he felt every time the words left his mouth.

When he finished, the crowd almost blew him off the stage with their applause. He smiled, waved to them, thanked them one last time and left the stage with a heart growing ever heavier. He took off his guitar and handed it to a backstage hand, accepting the bottle of water he was offered and taking several long gulps, brushing the sweat from his forehead.

“That was great,” Gustavo said, clapping a hand on his shoulder. “That’s your first tour, finished. How do you feel?”

“Tired,” Kendall mumbled, putting the water down and stretching his stiff muscles. “I’m going to my dressing room.”

Gustavo nodded with a strange smile. “Yeah, go do that. Take a break before we head back to the hotel. Then it’s back home tomorrow. See you in a bit.” He patted Kendall’s shoulder one more time and bustled off with his team in tow.

Kendall gave a long sigh and rubbed at the back of his neck, making his way through the dark corridors of backstage to the dressing room door with his name stuck up in the centre. He rested his hand on the handle for a moment before twisting it and opening up the door, walking inside. The room was pretty modest; it had enough space for a couch and little coffee table, a dressing table and chair and a little attached bathroom. It was small, which meant there was nowhere to hide. He spotted the man thrown back on the couch with his feet up on the coffee table immediately. He froze and the breath caught in his throat. He choked out a sound, but it didn’t form any words. He knew what he wanted to say.

“Surprise,” James said, getting to his feet and holding his arms open.

Kendall found himself unable to move. “I . . . what . . . how?”

“I was already going to get out next week anyway.”

“I know, but . . .”

“They agreed I was well enough to go a little early, so long as I attend my weekly sessions. So I called Gustavo and he flew me out for your last show. I stayed near the back, I didn’t want to distract you. I hope that’s okay.”

“Of course it’s okay.” Kendall managed to finally cross the room, stumbling into James’ arms and holding him so hard he grunted in discomfort. “It’s better than okay. I can’t believe you’re here. I can’t believe it. I’m so happy.”

“I’m happy too.” James hugged him close, swaying him on his feet. “You were great, by the way. You really do have the fire.”

Kendall blushed. “It means a lot, coming from you.” He leaned back from the hug and tilted his head up to look James in the eye. “We’ve gotta get you back in the studio, get you working on your new stuff. I can do it with you if you want, like how you helped me.”

“I’d love that.” James pecked him on the forehead and, like that night in the square that felt like another century ago, swept him up into his arms and carried him towards the door.

“I need to change—“ Kendall started, before cutting off with a squeal and a laugh as James bounced him in his arms.

“You’ll be fine. We’re heading back to the hotel.” James smirked. “I’ve missed you in more ways than one, babe.”

Kendall’s face felt hot and he grinned, letting his head rest against James’ chest. “I’ve missed you too.”

James bellowed his way through the latest in a long stream of songs, almost able to feel himself smile through the notes. He could tell he was smiling; he’d been smiling a lot lately. He felt so awake that at times, it felt like too much. His own mind felt like too much for him to handle. Kendall was too proud of him to see it, and James didn’t want to admit it to him. He didn’t want to see any kind of disappointment in Kendall’s eyes, not ever again. He only wanted him to be happy, almost more than he wanted himself to be. No, definitely more.

“I’ve been thinking,” Kendall said through the microphone, into the studio where James stood. “Maybe we can release one of these songs before the album’s even fully confirmed. It might get some hype around it, get your fans to speculate and stuff. What do you guys think?”

“It’s a good idea,” Gustavo mused, hand touching his sunglasses. “’Shallow’ did pretty good things for both of you, maybe putting out a solo song would get you back in the spotlight a little bit. I’ll think about it and run through the roster of tracks we’ve got going.”

“I want to have a say in what’s released,” James replied. “If that’s okay. I trust your judgement, but it’s my music.”

Gustavo grinned. “I wouldn’t have it any other way, kid. Welcome back.”

Kendall clapped his hands together in delight, beaming in through the window at James. James blew him a kiss and gave him a wink. Maybe Jamez Diamond really was back in action.

After surveying a couple of the songs in the later stages of production, Gustavo presented a couple of options to James. He had a quick glance over the list and immediately knew that he wanted to choose ‘Addicted’. It was the most honest thing he’d written in a long time, and though he was tempted to start off his new cycle with a sappy, sweet love song, it didn’t sit right with him. He wanted to try and be open, even if being open meant being vulnerable, and exposing the way he’d been feeling inside. Kendall hadn’t heard ‘Addicted’ yet; he’d been busy on the day of the recording and after that Gustavo had taken care of most of the production. So now he and Gustavo had a music video to plan.

They were sitting in one of Gustavo’s conference rooms discussing ideas when James’ phone rang. When he looked at it, he saw a contact name he hadn’t seen in years. He swallowed. “Gustavo, I have to take this.”

“What?” Gustavo’s eyes narrowed, his voice already raised a fraction, the vein in his forehead throbbing. “We’re in the middle of a meeting.”

“It’s my mom.”

“Oh.” Gustavo took a quick breath to calm himself down. “Alright. Go outside for a minute. We’ll keep talking without you.”

James nodded and left the room quickly, answering the phone before the call cut off. “Hello? Mom?”

It took a moment for her to answer. Her voice was soft, softer than he remembered. “James.” She didn’t say anything else for another moment or two. James stood with his back pressed to the wall, feeling his heart begin to flutter uncomfortably. He suddenly longed for a glass in his hand, a burn in his throat and belly. He waited, and finally she said, “How are you?”

“I’m good.” He sighed, pressing his lips together. “I’m fine.”

“Are you really?” The tone of her voice caught him off guard. “The last time I saw you . . .”

“You know, I can’t even remember when that was. It’s been so long.”

“You weren’t well.”

“I’m doing better now. I’ve . . . I’ve had treatment. I’m doing fine. I’m sober.” He bit his lip. “And you know I’m married now, since I invited you. I know you got the invite.”

“I know, I did. I’m sorry I couldn’t be there.”

He was about to refute that claim, thinking there was no way she could have been so tied up she couldn’t make it to her only child’s wedding. But he realised something so odd, it terrified him. He’d never, in all his life, heard Brooke Diamond apologise for anything. “Mom?”

“James, I need to tell you something.”

“What’s going on? Mom, tell me.”

When James got home from the studio, an hour or two earlier than normal, Kendall still hadn’t come home yet. He’d gone to a fan event with Kelly by his side, and didn’t arrive until James had already been lying flat on the couch for thirty minutes, hand twitching as he craved a drink to hold. There was no alcohol kept in their home anymore.

When Kendall walked in, his eyes fell on James immediately and he stopped in his tracks. “James? What are you doing back already?”

James didn’t answer, staring up at the ceiling. He wasn’t quite sure what to say just yet. He felt the couch dip as Kendall sat by him, taking his hand. “Are you okay? Was the meeting bad?”

“The meeting was fine. It’s not that.”

“Then what is it? You’re worrying me.”

James shut his eyes. His mouth trembled. “She’s dying.”

“What?” Kendall’s grip tightened. “Who?”

James swallowed, free hand moving to press over his eyes. He didn’t want any tears to show just yet.

“Oh.” Kendall’s voice softened. “I’m so sorry.” He tugged James up to him and enveloped him in a hug. James clung onto him, feeling his body start to shake. “When did you find out?”

“Today. She called me. It’s why she didn’t come to the wedding. I have to go and see her. If I don’t, and I’m too late. . .”

“I know.” Kendall touched his cheek, fingers stroking his skin. “I’m coming with you.”

They flew out that night on Gustavo’s plane. Brooke didn’t live in Minneapolis anymore; the later years of her business had found her settled in Chicago. They got to their hotel and collapsed into bed. Kendall fell asleep pretty quickly, but James found he couldn’t. He sat up at some point in the earliest hours of the morning, glancing at Kendall sprawled across the bedsheets. He slipped from the bed and stood on the carpeted floor, moving over to the window and glancing out at the city. Like LA, it never slept, but he could see it was nearing its quietest hours. He moved away from the window again, and his eyes fell on the minibar pushed in underneath the desk. He knelt down in front of it and opened it up, glancing in at the contents. The light glinted off a miniature bottle of wine slotted into the door. He swallowed and reached for it.


James froze and looked over his shoulder, seeing Kendall sitting up in bed. His hair was a mess and his eyes were only half open, and so James shut the mini bar softly and prayed he wouldn’t put two and two together. “I couldn’t sleep is all. I was just looking around.”

Kendall gave a sleepy sigh, beckoning James over through closed eyes as he slumped back down against the mattress. “Come back to bed.”

James crawled back into bed beside him, surprised when Kendall pulled him close against his chest, fingers rubbing through his hair. He shut his eyes and listened to the soft, slow beat of Kendall’s heart.

“Try to get some rest,” Kendall mumbled, humming under his breath. “I love you.”

“I love you too.” James shut his eyes and listened to Kendall hum and sing him to relaxation, until eventually he fell asleep too.

The next morning they arrived at a luxury apartment block, taking the elevator up to the penthouse. Brooke had abandoned hospitals; they could do nothing more for her. He expected nothing less than for her to end her life in the most luxurious setting possible. A nurse answered the door, dressed in simple scrubs. She smiled in greeting. “You must be James?”

In any other setting, it might sting a little that she didn’t recognise him. But not today. He nodded. “This is my husband, Kendall. Um . . . where is she?”

“Oh, in her bedroom. Here, I’ll take you through. Can I get you something to drink?”

“Just some water will be fine,” Kendall said, holding James’ arm as they followed her through the living room and into the hallway. Everything was neat and tidy, as she always had been; but he hardly saw a single object of any personal value. At least, not until they stepped into her bedroom, and for some reason the first thing he spotted was a framed photo on her bedside table. A photo of them when he was younger. When they were happier. His hand found Kendall’s and he gripped it tight.

Brooke lay in a bed much too large for her. Her hair was cut short, shorter than he’d ever seen it. He realised that it must have been only growing back after all the treatment. He swallowed and made his way towards her as her eyes opened and she looked over at them.

“James,” she said softly. There was a wide armchair situated by the bed; James and Kendall were able to squeeze into it side by side, James sitting closer to her and reaching for her hand. He took it and almost shivered himself at how cold it was. “It’s nice to see you.”

“It’s nice to see you too,” James said, voice coming out heavy and slow.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t come to your wedding.” She swallowed, lips dry and chapped. “I really did want to be there, I promise I did.”

“I know you did.” He glanced at Kendall, who looked pale and uncomfortable. “Um . . . this is Kendall. You know, my husband.”

“Of course.” Then, to James’ surprise, she lifted her other hand and reached for Kendall. He took her hand immediately. “Kendall, it’s nice to see you. I remember you.”

“You do?” Kendall said, eyes widening. “Really?”

“Of course I do. I’m so happy . . .” She cleared her throat. The nurse offered her a cup of water, and she took a small sip before saying, “I’m so happy you found each other again.”

James glanced at Kendall, who gave a small smile and squeezed her hand. “That’s really nice of you to say. Thank you.”

Brooke nodded, looking at James again. “I’m glad you came. I wanted to see you again before it’s all over.”

“Don’t say that,” James mumbled. “Maybe . . .”

“No. I’m on my last legs. It’s okay. I’ve had plenty of time to accept it. It’s alright.”

James sniffed, shutting his eyes. “I wish we had more time.”

“So do I. But more than that I wish the time we did have wasn’t spent so badly. I wasted the time I had with you.” She shut her eyes and sighed. “I let your father change me. I’m sorry for that.”

“James.” Kendall touched his hand. “I’m gonna give you guys a bit of time to yourselves, okay?”

“You don’t have to go.”

“I know, but you guys should be alone for a little bit. I’ll go for a walk.” He kissed James’ cheek and stood up, leaning over Brooke and kissing her cheek as well. “I’ll be back in a little while.”

The truth was, James and his mother didn’t have a lot to say to one another. Once the initial apologies were out of the way, there wasn’t a lot left to go into. There were, perhaps, things to say, but nothing they particularly needed to. They sensed the years of loneliness and loss within one another, and felt the love each of them felt for the other, without having to say it. So they quietly made small talk about Brooke’s nurses and her apartment, and what she spent her days doing confined to its space. She wanted him and Kendall to take the apartment after her death as somewhere else to live. He accepted it. She said it would all be confirmed in her will anyway. She’d always intended on giving everything to him, whatever way she died. And somehow, that comforted him greatly. It would sound shallow if he didn’t explain; it meant she had always been thinking of him, even before her diagnosis. That she had always intended to mend the rift between them, even if they never spoke again in her lifetime. It made him feel that things had been healed, however delicately.

The following week, they received the call informing them of her passing. He found he had no tears to shed, at least not right then. Kendall held him close and whispered sweet nothings in his ear, but no tears came. It was only the following morning, when James insisted Kendall go to work, that he’d be fine for a few hours, that the tears erupted from him in an almost painful sensation. He fell asleep on the couch with a pounding headache, hands twitching, clenching, his throat longing for a familiar burn and a soft numbness.

The truth was, he didn’t know if he could do it. He didn’t know if he could do any of it anymore. Maybe he just wasn’t strong enough to survive without his numbing agent.

When he woke up, his head was no better. His eyes wandered the living room, mentally mapping out the way to the bathroom, to the medicine cabinet. He rose to his feet with a sluggishness that almost knocked him to his knees. He walked like a zombie. Already half dead, then.

Maybe it wouldn’t make any difference after all.

Kendall dialled James’ number one more time, sighing in the back of Carlos’ car.

“Something wrong?” Carlos asked, eyes on the traffic before them.

“James isn’t answering his phone,” he said, locking it and shoving it into his pocket. “I don’t know, maybe he’s asleep. It’s been a tough couple of days for him. I didn’t want to leave him today . . .”

“He insisted?” When Kendall nodded, Carlos chuckled. “He’s the type to suffer in silence, isn’t he? But please give him my condolences. I lost my mom a few years back. It takes a lot out of you.”

“I know,” Kendall said with a sigh, mind returning to the moment the gunshots rang out and his life was ripped apart at the seams. “It really does.”

They pulled up shortly after and Kendall ran a hand through his hair, reaching for the door handle and almost propelling himself out of the car. “Thanks, Carlos. See you soon. I’ll give James your best.”

“Have a good night,” Carlos called after him, sliding the car window back up as Kendall produced his keys, unlocking the front door and stepping inside.

He walked into the front hall, dropping his keys on the table and shrugging off his jacket. “James, I’m home.” He hung the jacket up and walked into the living room, looking around. No sign of James, though his phone was on the coffee table. He frowned. “James?”

He checked the kitchen and the music room, making his way to the bathroom next. It was empty, but something was different about it. He couldn’t put his finger on it. He left and made his way to the bedroom.

The first thing he saw – well, technically he didn’t see. He smelled it; he smelled vomit. His stomach retched on instinct and he covered his nose. Then his eyes fell on James and he forgot about the smell. He was lying on his stomach on the bed, mouth half open, still and pale. He had vomit on his chin.

“Well.” James stood on the sidewalk, hands deep in the pockets of his expensive leather jacket. Kendall stood before him, his own hands deep within the pockets of his ratty grey sweatshirt. “I guess this is it, huh?”

It was the last night of James’ life, in a way. It was the last night of his life in Minnesota, at any rate. His life at school, his life with Kendall, his life with ice hockey and cold pizzas and secret raids on liqueur cabinets. The following morning, James was going to fly off to Los Angeles and become the next teenage singing sensation. Everything was going to change for him. Nothing would change for Kendall, but that was okay. It wasn’t his dream to fulfil anyway.

“Don’t get all sappy on me,” Kendall said, swallowing and pleading with any god listening that he wouldn’t start blushing, that he wouldn’t show anything. “You’re going to go live your dream, you should be happy.”

“Are you kidding? I am happy, I’m so happy. It’s just scary.” James smiled, gave a nod as he removed his hands from his pocket. “But yeah, I’m happy. I can’t wait. I know I act confident and all but for a while, I was starting to think this would never happen to me.”

“But it is happening.” Kendall smiled back. “I’m really happy for you.”

“I shouldn’t have left him.” Kendall’s voice sounded odd; his throat felt dry and scratchy, his head fuzzy. His eyes felt swollen and ready for sleep. “His mom just died, he was vulnerable . . . what was I thinking?”

“You couldn’t have known.” The man’s voice was kind, and soft even in the bustle around them as they loaded James up onto a gurney. They checked for life signs and found them, faintly. But he was a ticking clock. A ticking time bomb. “Don’t blame yourself. We’ll do everything we can for him.”

 Kendall’s hands covered his face. “Maybe this is always where he was heading. And I knew that. I think part of me knew deep down that he would never get better.”

“Don’t say that.”

“It’s true. Maybe he won’t ever get better. That’s if he doesn’t die today. There’ll be another day. I can’t do it. I don’t know what to do anymore.” He almost laughed at the irony of what he was about to say. “I need a drink.”

The man’s hand squeezed his shoulder. “Do you want to ride in the ambulance with us? You might not be up to driving and we have space for you. Just try and take a breath.”

“I’m going to miss you.” The words came quite suddenly, and /James’ cheeks turned red. “A lot. I mean . . . yeah. I’ll miss you.”

Words hung on Kendall’s tongue, words he couldn’t quite yet manage to say aloud. I’ll miss you too. Don’t go. I’ll come visit you. Let’s stay together. How do you really feel about me?

“Don’t say that,” he said instead, flashing a grin, a thumbs up as he took a single step back. “We’ll see each other again. This isn’t goodbye. I’ll see you around.” Kendall Knight didn’t catch feelings. Not serious ones. It just didn’t happen to him.

James frowned, biting his bottom lip. “Okay. Well . . . see you around.”

Kendall nodded, saluting to him. “See ya.”

He turned to go, feet scuffing on the sidewalk. He thought about what school might be like now without James. It wasn’t like he didn’t have other people to hang out with. He had friends. He had his mom and brother. He’d be fine. But for some reason, it didn’t feel like it. He realised he wasn’t sure he knew how to feel  . . . that way about anyone else. He didn’t want to have to learn. But the thing about being a Knight was accepting you couldn’t always get what you wanted.

He heard a faint, slurred wheeze of his name and turned his head so quickly he heard something snap. James’ hand was twitching, reaching for him. He gripped it tight. “James. James, can you hear me?”

“Ken . . .” He had to lean in close just to hear him. “Ken . . . sorry . . .”

“It’s okay. Don’t say sorry. Save your strength.” He felt he had no strength left. “I’m here. You’re gonna be fine.”

James gave a small shake of his head, eyes closing again. “Sorry . . .”

“I forgive you.”

“Better off . . .”


“Leave . . . leave me.”

Kendall shook his head, tears spilling again. His head pounded. “No. I’ll never leave you. Never again.”

The ambulance doors slammed shut, and he heard the roar of the engine coming to life. James’ eyes fluttered, a paramedic testing his heartbeat again. “You should . . . Ken . . .”

“No. Stop.” Kendall squeezed his eyes shut for a minute, but forced himself to open them again. If this was the last time they spoke, he wanted to look him in the eye. “You feel me here, holding your hand? I’ll never let go of you. Never. Never.” His hands shook. “Don’t you remember what you wrote for me?”

James blinked, eyes opening and shutting. He gave the slightest movement that may have been a nod, so Kendall rambled on.

“’I’ll never love again’, remember? Well, neither will I.”

He gave James a soft kiss and tried to ignore the stink of vomit. “Never again.”

He brushed the hair from James’ sweaty forehead and vowed again.

“Not without you.”

Kendall turned on his heel then and lunged back, catching James by surprise. He gripped the collar of his jacket tight and gave him a firm kiss, not caring they were out in the middle of the street. There was nobody around, not while they touched so close. He felt James’ large hands on his sides, even through his thick clothes. His body radiated a tender heat, and Kendall didn’t want to let go.

But he did. His cheeks were red. “Um . . .”

James was grinning. “See you around, Knight.”

Kendall chuckled, watching as James checked his watch and took a step back. It was getting late. “See you around, Diamond.”

“Don’t get into too much trouble while I’m gone,” James called, growing smaller in the evening twilight.

“Trouble? Me? Never.”

Kendall waved, feeling his voice die out to what was almost a whisper. James was almost out of sight.

“Not without you.”