"Happy belated birthday, James."
James turns to find Carly standing next to him, smiling with her hands clasped behind her back.
"Thank you," he says, shutting his locker and slinging his backpack back over his shoulders. "I'm finally 18. It doesn't feel that different."
She shrugs. "I know, right? I feel like my 16th birthday was a bigger deal to me than becoming a legal adult. I guess it means we can legally buy cigarettes now, but that's not something I really want to start on."
"Me neither," James says, starting to walk toward the auditorium, already starting to run the lines for rehearsal today through his head.
"Do you have any plans?" Carly asks, pulling James back out of his focus. "Or did you have a party this past weekend? I'm assuming not, since I didn't get an invitation."
James isn't quite sure how to take that. He supposes he considers Carly a friend -- as much as he'd consider anyone at school a friend -- given that he spends more time with her than he does with anyone else in school, even though a lot of that time is spent in rehearsals for drama club.
"I didn't," he says, choosing to simply answer the question.
"You should've had a big bash," she says, grabbing his arm as they walk, and he tries not to let it bother him, because she does that with other people, too. "I'm sure the entire drama crew would've come. It's a big birthday."
James just shrugs. "Like I said. It doesn't really feel that different. It didn't feel like something that needed a celebration." He thinks back to Carly's own 18th birthday party, and how he'd spent most of the time in a corner with a glass of soda, despite knowing most of the attendees. He'd never really liked parties, and ones where he would be the center of attention would be even worse.
He wonders if that makes him a hypocrite given his acting aspirations.
Carly pats his arm before letting it go. "Still. You should have a big graduation party at the end of next semester."
James thinks he hates that idea even more. "I'm sure you'll have one, and invite me," he says instead, and she laughs.
"Inviting yourself to my parties, James? I'm pretty sure that goes against proper party etiquette. It's a good thing I like you so much."
He knows she's teasing, but it still makes him feel guilty. "Sorry," he offers, even though he knows it's not necessary.
"Uh huh." She grabs his arm again. "You need to loosen up a bit, you know."
James just nods, starting to run his lines in his head again. To his relief, she doesn't say anything else for the rest of the walk to the auditorium.
"Good job, everyone," Mr. Ortiz says, clasping his hands together. "I think we're ready for our performance this Friday, a bit ahead of schedule, so what was supposed to be our second dress rehearsal this Thursday is optional."
"Let's do some improv, instead!" Carly says with a grin, and James thinks he should be thankful for the practice, even though he's dreading it already.
"That would be a good use of our time," Mr. Ortiz says, approvingly. "I hope to see you all then, but otherwise, remember that we're meeting at 5 PM instead, on Friday."
James walks to the area backstage where he'd stashed his backpack, annoyed at the fact that someone had thrown their own bag against it, causing his bag to tip over from its carefully-placed position with his coat draped over it.
"I hear you turned 18, James," says a voice behind him, and James turns to see Rafael, a fellow drama club member, walking toward him.
He also spots Carly nearby, chatting with another castmate, and thinks to himself that it was a mistake telling her his birthdate, even though she had asked.
"I did," James says, picking up his coat and carefully dusting it off.
"So are you going to come out yet?"
James supposes he shouldn't be too surprised by that, given how much Rafael and some of the other guys had been teasing him throughout the years about it. He suspects that even Mr. Ortiz doesn't actually believe him when he says he's straight.
He pushes the fact that it's technically not the truth out of his head.
"I'm straight," James says, instead of everything else he's thinking. "Unless you want me to come out as straight."
Rafael pats his arm. "You're an adult now. Your parents can't do anything about it. It's okay to be your true self, James."
James isn't sure if admitting that he's bisexual would make things better or worse, and reminds himself that Rafael means well. He tries to think of a somewhat final retort to end the conversation, but is saved by Everett, Rafael's boyfriend, bounding up to the two of them.
"Hi honey!" Everett says, giving Rafael a kiss. "Happy birthday, James!"
"Thank you," James says, glancing at Carly again. She still seems to be chatting away, unaware of how much he's agitated, thanks to her actions, at the moment.
"You were brilliant, as always, today," Everett says, winking at James. "Also that costume looks really good on you."
James pulls his coat on, despite the fact that it's probably still dusty from the ground, suddenly feeling self-conscious about the way the costume's sleeves hug his biceps. "Thank you," he says again, feeling like a bit of a broken record. "You were good, as well."
"I said brilliant, not good," Everett says with a grin. "But that's still a high compliment, coming from you, so thank you right back."
"I have to go," James says, even though he knows his mom won't be here to pick him up for another half hour. "My ride will be here soon."
Fortunately, neither Everett or Rafael question it, instead waving as James grabs his backpack and heads out to find the relative privacy of a bathroom stall to change.
James hates the rain.
He hates the feeling of wet hair and wet clothes, but he especially hates the sound that wet shoes make on the tile floors and the wet footprints everywhere in the hallway that he tries his best to dodge but always has to walk through, anyway.
At least the school is mostly empty now, he thinks as he walks down a hallway and out a set of doors, standing under a overhang and watching for his mother's car.
Fortunately, he isn't waiting long before the blue sedan pulls up and stops in front of him. He makes a run for it, nevertheless getting soaked between the short distance between the school and the car, throwing the passenger's door open as quickly as he can and climbing in.
His mother has a towel draped down the seatback and seat itself already, he notices, thankful for that, and she hands him another one as he removes his backpack and settles in the seat.
"How was rehearsal?" she asks, waiting until he dries his hair as best he can and buckles his seatbelt before pulling the car out of park.
"Good," he says, trying to focus on the conversation instead of the feeling of his wet shirt sticking to his skin or his damp hair against his forehead. "Mr. Ortiz says the dress rehearsal was a big success."
"I'm looking forward to the show on Friday," his mother says, glancing at him briefly with a smile before returning her eyes to the road. "Your father too."
He nods, carefully folding up the towel and setting it on the dashboard, where he'd know where it was at all times so he wouldn't constantly need to check whether it'd fallen onto the floor.
"Do you have a lot of homework tonight?" his mom asks, and he wishes she'd just let them sit in silence.
"No," he says, thinking over the physics questions he'd mostly completed in the bathroom stall after rehearsal, sitting on the toilet, fully dressed in his regular attire again. "A couple physics problems left. And the paper that's due next Monday."
He reminds himself to put his pants in the laundry basket when they get home. He wonders if he should have risked running into Everett or Rafael in the library instead of working in the bathroom.
"Well, don't put it off until the last minute," she says, before seemingly thinking better of it. "Not that you ever put off assignments."
"Is it okay if I play PSO after dinner?" James asks, changing the subject, feeling a need to meet up with some of his online friends after the day. He feels less like he's pretending to be someone else there, behind the shield of relative anonymity.
"Of course," she says, smiling briefly in his direction again. "Your father and I are very proud of you, James," she adds, and he's not sure why. "I hope you always know that."
James just nods.
"And scene," Mr. Ortiz says, clapping. "Very good job, everyone. How about James, Rafael, and Shelby for the next group?"
James dutifully takes his place center stage, feeling his heart beating heavily in his chest. He's never liked improv scenes, as much as he's tried to embrace the opportunity to be a little more spontaneous. He feels a bit bad that he's actually nervous about being in the same group as Rafael. He wishes Mr. Ortiz had chosen Carly instead of Shelby.
"Gay male strip club!" calls out a voice from the audience that James recognizes as Everett's.
"That's not an appropriate scene for high school improv, Everett," Mr. Ortiz admonishes, and despite the fact that James really had been expecting that response, it's still a huge relief to him. "Any other suggestions?"
"Car crash?" suggests a voice from the wings that James recognizes as Carly's. "A couple and their teenager get into a car accident. The car isn't drivable, it's on a remote road, and the kid is mildly injured."
"Dad!" Shelby immediately yells, throwing a hand onto her forehead, not waiting for Mr. Ortiz' response. "I'm bleeding!"
"Is everyone okay?" James says, moving into position roughly where he thinks the driver's seat of a car would be, given Shelby and Rafael's positions on stage, as he tries to think through what his own father would do in such a situation.
"God no one ever listens to me!" Shelby whines. "I said I'm bleeding!"
James kicks himself for getting off to a bad start, and tries to go with it. "I'm sorry. Of course everyone isn't okay if you're hurt." He glances over at Rafael, who's grinning at him in a way that he thinks is entirely inappropriate for the current scene. "Do we have any bandages in the first aid kit, honey?"
"I think my arm might be broken," Rafael says, still grinning, and James thinks to himself that such an injury doesn't really fit the prompt.
He turns away from Rafael, instead looking over his shoulder at Shelby in what he imagines is the back seat, thinking that a good father would prioritize his kid over his... husband? "Did you hit your head, sweetheart? How bad is it?"
Shelby moves her hand from her forehead, seemingly studying her palm, and lets out what James thinks is a pretty good sniffle. "On the back of your seat. It's not too bad."
James nods and mimes trying to start the car. "It looks like the car might be dead. That tree really did a number on it. I'm sorry for not having paid better attention, but this sudden rain made the roads a lot slicker than I expected."
"Does this feel broken to you?" Rafael asks, grabbing James' hand and jerking it toward himself, putting it on his arm.
"Um." James isn't sure how to handle that one, but trying his best to play along. He squeezes Rafael's arm. "Does that hurt?"
"It does," Rafael says, yelping in a way that James finds entirely unconvincing. "It hurts so much."
James mimes pulling his phone out of his pocket with his other hand, wishing they'd had time to grab chairs before Shelby had jumped into the scene. The motion doesn't feel right when he's standing up. "Let me call for help."
"There's no signal out here," Rafael says, dismissively, and James feels annoyed that Rafael doesn't seem to be on the same page as himself and Shelby. "It hurts and I'm scared. Come here, husband."
And before James knows what's happening, Rafael has grabbed James' shoulders and pulled him toward him, mashing their lips together and kissing him.
James pushes him away with more force than necessary, no longer interested in participating in the charade. "What the hell!?"
"Stop," Mr. Ortiz says, and when James glances over at him, he looks disappointed. "Shelby, great initiative. James, good job setting the scene and getting into character. Rafael, that was inappropriate."
"If we were in a car accident, I'd want Everett to comfort me," Rafael objects. "James is just fucking homophobic and afraid of admitting to himself that he's into men. And doesn't want to kiss me."
James starts to object, but Mr. Ortiz holds a hand out, stopping him. "Talk about James' sexuality is inappropriate, Rafael. Besides that, you need to learn to work with your scenemates. Not against them. That kiss was inappropriate because you didn't properly work up to it. James had every right to be surprised by it."
"James wasn't working with me," Rafael says, kicking the ground, but looking a bit deflated.
"Let's try a different group, instead," Mr. Ortiz says. "Carly, Alex, and Zora?"
James pointedly walks offstage in the opposite direction from Rafael. He's pretty sure he can feel both Rafael and Everett glaring at the back of his head, but he can't bring himself to care.
"Hey," Carly says as James grabs his coat and bag.
"Hey," James says, wanting to stick around backstage even less than usual, slinging his backback over one shoulder and walking toward the exit.
"I'm sorry about that," Carly says, following him. "I thought it would be a fun scene. I was kind of imagining you would be the kid, and wanted to see how you'd play a moody, injured 16-year old."
"It's okay," James says, pushing the exit bar on the door and emerging into the hallway. Carly follows him and the door slams shut behind them with a satisfying thud. "It was a good scene suggestion."
"For what it's worth, I don't think you're homophobic," she says, and James stops walking at that.
"I'm not," he says, hoping she wouldn't press further. He thinks he still isn't entirely comfortable with the idea that he's bisexual, himself, and really doesn't feel ready to have that discussion with anyone else.
"Rafael was just out of line. I think he has a crush on you, and just wanted the excuse to kiss you."
"Rafael has a boyfriend," James says, turning away and walking again.
"Well, if Everett's suggestion was any indication, it sounds like Rafael's boyfriend has a bit of a crush on you, too."
James makes a non-committal noise, trying to decide the best way to change the topic. "I'm looking forward to the performance tomorrow."
"Because you get to kiss me instead of Rafael?" Carly asks, and James stops walking again at that. She's looking at him with a grin, and he reminds himself that she's just teasing.
"Because it's a good play, and we've all worked hard on it," he responds. "And you look pretty in your costume," he adds, feeling a need to quell any potential thoughts she might be having about his sexuality, but immediately regretting the words anyway.
She seems to light up at that. "Well, thank you. You look quite handsome, yourself, in yours."
The compliment feels more comfortable coming from her than it had from Everett, for some reason. He wonders if that means he actually is homophobic, at least in part.
"I'll see you tomorrow," he says, hoping that comes across as fairly final.
She smiles and pats his arm. "I'll see you tomorrow, James."
He watches her walk back down the hallway toward the auditorium.
"That was wonderful," James' mom says as he walks out into the mostly-empty auditorium. "Not that we expected anything less."
James' dad nods in agreement. "Your sister said she can't wait to watch the recording. I might have to watch it again, myself."
"Mr. and Mrs. Bennett!" says Carly's voice from behind James, and then she's standing next to him. "Did you enjoy the show?"
"We did," his mom says. "It's nice to see you again, Carly. You both did an amazing job."
"James is easy to work with," Carly says, grabbing James' arm again, and he stiffens at it. He thinks he dislikes it even more than usual when it's in front of his parents.
"Were you also looking to major in drama in college, Carly?" his mom asks, and James feels irrationally annoyed at the question. He doesn't want his parents to get to know his classmates, especially when they're also his castmates.
"Oh, no," she says, seemingly surprised by the suggestion. "I applied mostly to engineering programs. I figured I'd go into electrical engineering. Drama is just a hobby."
"That's a very respectable field," his dad says, and James tries not to take it as a personal slight. He tells himself both of his parents have always been more than supportive of his interests and college pursuits, even though he knows they would have preferred he picked something they'd consider more practical.
"I think everyone is secretly jealous of James, though," Carly says, squeezing his arm before letting it go. "I know I am. It takes a lot of guts to want to do this as a thing, you know?"
"Drama is what I'm good at," James says, intending it as a simple statement of fact, but Carly's face seems to fall at it anyway.
"You're good at a lot of things, James! Mrs. Rhodes called you out last week for your English paper, didn't she? She said it was the best one she'd read in a while. Also you got an A on your last calculus test, didn't you?"
"Drama is what I enjoy doing the most," James says, hoping that correction is sufficient. "And I'm also good at it."
"That you are," his mom says, smiling at the two of them. "But we should let you two get changed."
"I just need to grab my bag," James says, not really wanting to get changed backstage with everyone else.
"I'll come with you," Carly says, and James nods. He isn't sure he could find a good excuse to tell her no, anyway.
His backpack, fortunately, is untoppled this time, his coat resting in its carefully-folded position on top of it. He grabs it and pulls it on, and picks up the bag.
"I'm glad you had a good time today, James," Carly says, smiling at him, her hands behind her back again.
"You were a good partner," James says, smiling despite himself. "Thank you for making the show a success."
She giggles. "So formal." Then she leans over and kisses his cheek. "I'll see you on Monday."
James watches her walk away, his hand involuntarily finding his cheek, and he immediately feels like he needs to wash his face and hands, but also strangely finding that he liked it.
He pushes that urge aside and slings his backpack over his shoulders, heading back out to meet his parents.
"Can I ask you something, James?"
James glances over at Carly, standing next to his open locker again. He nods, figuring she'd ask anyway no matter what he said.
"You're straight, right?"
James nods again. It was easier than an explanation, at least.
"You've never had a girlfriend either, right?"
"No," James says, before realizing it could be taken the wrong way. "I haven't had a girlfriend."
"Why?" Carly asks, looking at him with an expression he can't read.
James shrugs, shutting his locker and picking up his backpack. "Who would be interested?"
Carly's eyes seem to bulge out of their sockets at that. "Um. Are you serious?"
James slips the backpack straps over his shoulders and starts walking toward the auditorium. "I'm hard to get along with."
Carly's hand grabs James' arm, and pulls him to a stop. "Okay, no. Stop it with the self-deprecation."
"I'm not," he says, and it's not a lie. He'd intended his words as statements, not self-insults. "I'm also fine being single."
"You don't think about having someone? Ever? About dating or about sex?"
James shrugs and starts walking again, and Carly doesn't seem to stop him this time. He can feel himself starting to blush at the current topic. "I don't," he says, even though this one is definitely a lie.
He's found himself physically attracted to more than one girl around school -- and, as he'd recently allowed himself to admit, to more than one guy, as well -- even though he doesn't think he's close enough to anyone other than maybe some drama club members to actually want to date any of them.
And the drama club members were too loud, and gossipy, and demanding for what he'd want, anyway.
"I don't believe that," Carly says, and her tone of voice makes him stop walking, part of him briefly concerned that she'd noticed the way he sometimes looks at Matt, or Joe, or some of the other students in their English class.
"What are you asking?" James says, feeling like she had a point to make and wishing she'd just make it already.
She shrugs and stares at the ground for a bit. "I like you," she admits, finally. "Along with just about everyone else in the drama club. And others besides."
None of that really surprises James, but he still doesn't like the way the statement makes him feel. He focuses on the first part, instead. "Are you asking me out?"
She looks up at him, her eyes filled with hope. "Are you saying that you wouldn't say no?"
No, he wants to tell her, in the same way he's told other girls in the past who've asked him out, because he really isn't interested in her in that way. But then he thinks about what Rafael and Everett would say if they got wind of the fact that he'd turned down Carly, probably the one person at school he was closer to than anyone else.
He really doesn't want to have to deny their accusations again, especially because of what he's afraid they might lead to.
"I wouldn't say no," he says instead, wondering if it was a mistake.
Carly smiles at that, and holds out her hand. He hesitates briefly before taking it, finding it unpleasantly warm and clammy. He forces the feeling out of his mind, and hangs onto her hand instead.
"Be my boyfriend?" she asks.
"Yes," James says.
"Carly is my girlfriend," James announces over dinner that night, not waiting for an appropriate opening in the conversation. He figures they'd find out sooner rather than later anyway, and wants to get it out of the way as quickly as possible.
"Oh," his mom says, seemingly taken aback for a second. "She's a very nice girl."
"Remember the conversation we had," his dad says, and James nods, desperately hoping he won't say which one. "About safe sex," he adds, and James blushes.
"I know." James really wants this conversation to be over. "I still have the condoms you gave me."
To James' relief, his dad just nods and changes the subject, and he finishes the rest of his meal in silence, listening to his parents discussing the latest episode of Lost.
The week goes by fairly quickly, and James thinks he's getting used to Carly hanging off his arm between classes, now. It's different than before, when her touch was casual and friendly. Now it feels fierce, like she's laying claim to him and daring anyone to challenge it.
He isn't sure whether it's actually different, or if it's all in his head.
Kissing her, too, is different. He's done it before, of course, in the context of plays and performances and other kinds of more casual acting games. But now it feels more meaningful, somehow, and she kisses him with more of a need, and randomly in the hallway between classes.
James isn't exactly sure what having a girlfriend is supposed to feel like, but he finds he doesn't mind it quite has much as he thought he would. The fact that it's Carly, at least, helps, because he's already as comfortable around her as he thinks he ever is around anyone else, and she at least makes an effort most of the time to oblige what he thinks of as his idiosyncrasies.
She finds him like usual after class, giving him what's already become her new usual greeting of a kiss next to his locker.
"I got you these," James says, pulling a box of chocolates out of his locker and holding it out in her direction. He wasn't sure exactly what kinds of things she might like, or if boyfriends generally got things for their girlfriends like that, but he figures chocolate is probably a fairly safe bet.
"James!" Carly takes the box, looking at him with utter affection before tucking it into her backpack. "Thank you! You didn't have to get me anything."
James shrugs and shuts his locker, pulling on his backpack and holding out his hand, which she takes readily. "I hope we're not doing more improv today."
She laughs. "I imagine two improv sessions in a row was already more than you'd prefer. But, for what it's worth, you're really good at it. I don't know how you slip into so many different roles so easily."
"Thank you," James responds. "You're good at it too."
She smiles at him, releasing his hand and clutching his arm instead as they head to the auditorium together.
"Still together, I see," Everett says with a grin as they walk through the doors.
"Oh, fuck off, Everett," Carly says, and James isn't quite sure whether it's intended to be affectionate or serious.
"The two of you had sex yet? Rafael and I are betting how long it takes you to realize you're just a beard."
James isn't sure how he feels about the thought of sex with her, even though she's definitely not a beard, and Carly gives Everett the finger with one hand -- that's definitely not affectionate -- while clutching James' arm more tightly with the other. "You two are just jealous and want James for yourselves," she says, "even though he's not and never will be interested in you like that."
"Two weeks total, so just over another week," Everett says, winking as he heads backstage, and Carly shakes her head.
"I wish they wouldn't do that," she says to no one in particular.
James shrugs, trying not to be disappointed that his attempt to stop the rumors hadn't worked, even if the outcome had actually been rather pleasant in other ways. "Gay men and drama go together."
"That doesn't mean there aren't straight men in drama," Carly says, looking at him with a smile. "That doesn't mean it's right for them to give you a hard time about it."
James nods, appreciative of her words. "Thank you."
She pats his arm and leads him backstage, where Mr. Ortiz is holding some papers, and holds two copies out in their direction.
"We're going to be doing a dramatic reading today," he says. "Please grab a chair from the stack over there and add yourselves to the circle."
Carly releases his arm, giving him a kiss instead. James notices Rafael make a gagging motion from his chair in the circle.
He wonders what he could do to actually make the rumors stop.
"Dinner will be at around 6 PM," James mom says, waiting until Carly has walked through before shutting it behind her. "You can work either in the living room or James' room, but please leave the door open if you do."
"Thank you, Mrs. Bennett," Carly says, grabbing James' arm again. "How about your room?"
James nods, feeling suddenly extremely self-conscious. He still isn't quite sure how it happened, but what was supposed to just be a quick greeting by Carly to his mom had turned into Carly inviting herself over for dinner and doing homework together with James.
James doesn't think he needs help with homework, and he isn't sure how he feels about someone else in what he thinks of as his private space.
He leads the way anyway, having already accepted her proposal for a study location, and stands awkwardly in the middle of his room. "Um."
Carly looks around at his bare walls, his wrinkle-free bedspread, his recently-vacuumed carpet, and his meticulously organized video game setup in the corner. "Wow. It's very... you."
"This is my room," James says, feeling silly immediately afterward for stating the obvious. "I play video games over there when I have free time. My favorite..."
"That's nice and all, but can we make out now?" Carly says, interrupting him, and when he turns back to her, she's staring at him with what he thinks is lust.
"Um." He's surprised that he doesn't actually mind that suggestion. "Yes."
He struggles with whether he should shut his door or respect his mother's request, but Carly solves that problem for him by kicking the door shut with her foot and pulling him toward his bed.
It's inelegant, and one part of James' mind really doesn't like the way his coat ends up in a rumpled pile on the floor after she pulls it off of him, but he focuses instead of the feeling of her lips on his, and of her hands running up his back.
He stumbles as his legs catch the wooden bed frame, and she pushes him backward onto his back, breaking the kiss only briefly to climb on top of him and straddle him before claiming his mouth again.
He decides he really likes this closeness, even though he thinks he really should be horrified by how turned on he is at the moment, and how he's sure she can feel his arousal pressing against her. She doesn't comment though, and his hands find her head, in the way he always tells himself to avoid for a stage kiss, and he allows himself to get lost in the pleasant sensations.
Carly breaks eventually, and he smiles up at her through half-lidded eyes. She smiles back, grinding her ass against his crotch and he groans, despite himself.
"You're so hot," she says, and he isn't sure how he feels about that, even though he know it's intended as a compliment.
"Thank you?" he says, still a bit breathless, the panic from the closed door and being pinned under her -- even though he's sure he could push her off of him if he wanted to -- rising in his mind and replacing the pleasant fog from the kissing.
She kisses him again, just a quick peck this time, and sits up, running her fingers down his cheek, down his neck, and to the collar of his shirt before hooking a finger over it and gently tugging it down.
He doesn't really like that either -- stretched shirt collars that lose their shape bother him -- but he forces himself to stare up into her eyes instead.
"You're a bit hairy," she says as her fingers tug his collar far enough down to run over a bit of his chest hair.
"Oh." He isn't sure what good response to that is, or even if her comment is intended as a compliment or a criticism. "Um. You've seen me shirtless before."
Her fingers release his shirt collar, to his relief, and he reaches up to smooth it back into shape. "Only briefly, since you tend to change so quickly backstage," she says, smiling at him now. "Also your body hair's light, so it's not really obvious."
He just nods, still not sure what point she's trying to make. "Do you... not like it?"
She shrugs, and her hand slides back up his cheek as she leans back down over him. "Most of the guys I've been involved with aren't hairy, or they shave or wax, so let's just say I'm not used to it."
"Oh." His mind is focused now on the involved with part. He knows, abstractly, that she's dated other guys in the past, and presumably has done things with them, but he still doesn't like the idea of someone else kissing her, or doing anything else with her.
Even though he regularly kisses other people on stage, himself.
Her lips find his again, and he pushes the thought out of his mind, telling himself that the fact that he was jealous was a problem that he'd have to work through for himself.
James catches himself scratching his chest through his shirt again, and chides himself for it. He mentally tries to focus on anything other than the itchiness, and tells himself that he's never shaving anything other than his face again, even if he thinks Carly would like it, and even if it supposedly gets easier subsequent times.
He's especially glad he hasn't done anything other than his chest, wanting to see how that worked out, first. He thinks that the discomfort would be worse if he'd tried any of his pubes, and that he'd probably die from embarrassment if someone caught him scratching his crotch.
The worst part is he isn't even sure Carly had noticed. They'd made out a few times since then, of course, but she hadn't brought it up again and he felt strange bringing it up, himself. He'd considered wearing a henley with some buttons undone -- or at least a v-neck t-shirt -- to show her that he'd listened to her, but it'd always felt improperly showy. So in the end, he hadn't done anything, instead sticking to his regular crew neck t-shirts and not saying anything about it at all.
"Hey," Carly says, appearing next to his locker again and pulling him out of his thoughts as she kisses his cheek.
"Hi," James says, shutting his locker. "What do you think we're doing today?"
She clasps her hands behind her back and looks at him. "Want to play hooky with me?"
"Um." James doesn't know how he feels about missing the usual drama meeting, even if they were just doing exercises before auditions for the next big production formally started. "To do what?"
She just smiles and holds out her hand. James hesitates only briefly before taking it, his sense of responsibility fighting with his desire to see what she has in mind, helped by the fact that he's fairly sure he'll like whatever it is.
She takes him to an unfamiliar door, which ends up being a janitor's closet. It's not a terribly comfortable space for the two of them, and James tries not to think about how filthy the room is, instead trying to steady his racing heart, fairly sure he understands what she has in mind, now. She shuts the door, leaving just the light harsh glare of the single bulb above them.
"Can I blow you?" she asks, and he almost feels a sense of relief at it.
"Please," he says, honestly having wanted to do something more with her for some time now, but he hadn't been sure how to broach the topic with her without coming across as rude. She'd jerked him off in his pants once in his room, but he hadn't really been able to enjoy the experience because of his fear of being discovered, and he didn't really like dealing with the mess afterward. A blowjob felt cleaner, somehow.
He also hadn't been sure of where they could do it. The obvious choices would have been his room or Carly's room, but he's pretty sure he'd die of shame if his mom or, worse, Carly's mom walked in on them. So, despite the current location being a bit dirtier than he'd like, he isn't sure he would've had a better alternative.
She smiles, kissing him again as her hand finds the hem of his shirt and slides up his belly. He's hard already, her lips and mouth demanding as her hand works its way down under his pants and boxes and combing through his public hair.
He breaks the kiss, a suddenly realization coming to mind. "Um. I don't have condoms." He wonders if he should have carried some around in his backpack, despite his likely unfounded fear of them being discovered by a teacher.
Carly just shrugs and kisses him again, her hand now unbuttoning his pants. "Why would we need those?"
"Um." James is pretty sure he wouldn't be okay with his mouth around an unsheathed penis, but he supposes Carly doesn't really seem to mind. He also supposes there isn't really a risk of pregnancy from oral sex, and the feeling of Carly's hand sliding into his underwear and gripping his cock pushes the last bits of doubt from his mind. "Okay."
She pulls him out, staring at it with an expression he isn't sure he understands. He's about to ask if she needs him to do something, when she speaks. "You're... big."
"Um." James blushes at that. He didn't really have any basis for comparison, although he's had an inkling that he was maybe above average in that department. "I'm... sorry?"
Carly just shrugs, stroking him firmly, and he muffles a groan with his fist. "We'll make it work," she says.
James can feel his jealousy rising again, the unspoken implication that she'd done this before with other guys bothering him, now. It shouldn't surprise him, he knows, but he's about to ask her anyway how many times she's done this when her mouth envelops him and he loses all ability to think.
Between her mouth and her hands, he doesn't last long, and he thinks he would be embarrassed by it if he wasn't floating in a pleasant post-orgasmic haze at the moment.
She stands afterward, and he looks at her through half-lidded eyes, starting to thank her, when her lips find his and she's kissing him again.
That pulls him out of his blissed-out state immediately, and he tries to focus on anything other than the way her mouth tastes to keep himself from retching. She breaks, still smiling at him, her lips slick from his spit and cum, and he resists the urge to run to the bathroom and rinse his mouth, or at least wipe his lips.
"Thank you," he says instead, trying his best to smile even though he really doesn't feel like smiling anymore.
She nods. "Glad that worked reasonably well. I'm not sure you're really made for blowjobs, though."
He blushes again, not really comfortable with the conversation. "Should I... do something for you?"
Her hands find one of his, and guide it down her pants, which he suddenly realizes are unzipped. He isn't really sure what he's doing, but he finds her clit and feels around until he finds a spot that makes her moan.
"Yes, James. Right there."
He does okay, he thinks, guided by Carly's rather vocal feedback that makes him concerned the entire time they're going to get caught. Eventually, she's shaking in his arms and collapses against him, and he maneuvers her head onto his chest so she can't kiss him again.
"Was that okay?" he asks, kissing the top of her head and liking this closeness much more than after she'd finished him off.
She laughs into his chest, her arms wrapping around him. He can feel his flaccid cock pressing against her bare hip, and that, too, feels nice.
"That was great," she says, looking up and him and smiling. "That wasn't your first time, was it?"
James takes that as a compliment. "It was. I'm a... quick learner, I guess."
She laughs again, standing more properly and kissing him again. He gives in, her mouth not tasting quite so bad this time.
His brain, for some reason, fixates on the fact that he's not a virgin anymore, at least by some definitions. He likes that thought, and that his first time was with her, and his arms tighten around her as he lets himself enjoy the feeling of closeness.
"I'm having my usual holiday party next week," Carly says after her usual greeting kiss at James' locker. "It's Friday night."
"Oh." James remembers that she does this every year, although he's never attended before. "I..." he starts, before realizing that he would probably have to attend this year, and swallowing the 'can't make it' that naturally follows for him. "...am looking forward to it."
She smiles at him, and waits for him to grab his backpack before clutching his arm in her familiar way, and that makes him feel better. "We should coordinate outfits."
She senses his nervousness, and shakes her head. "I just mean in terms of color. We don't have to go out and buy matching t-shirts or anything like that."
He nods, thinking over his collection of shirts at home as he starts walking. "Red? That feels Christmas-y."
She follows, still clutching his arm. "Bright red or dark red? Or maybe I should come by your house again and we can go through your clothes together."
James blushes, both at the memory of what they'd done the last time she had come over -- which in turn reminds him of the blowjob in the janitor's closet earlier in the week -- and at the thought of her rifling through his clothing. "Maybe," he says, not really liking the idea, but thinking it's probably faster than trying to talk through the specific colors of his various shirts.
She nods and pats his arm as they walk through the door to the auditorium together.
James tries to set himself up in the corner with a soda, watching the groups and conversations in the way that feels comfortable to him, but Carly quickly nixes that possibility when she notices, instead dragging him from group to group for quick hellos that are far too abrupt and short for his taste. 'Being a good host', she called it, even though he thinks he really isn't the host of anything given it's her house and her party.
Still, he tries for her sake, putting himself in her shoes and trying to be as eager and welcoming as he could muster. It feels wrong, on him, but he tells himself it's just an extended improv scenario that he has to get through, and that helps.
After another loop around the room, when she's satisfied that no one new has arrived, she surprises him by taking his hand and dragging him into her bedroom.
"My parents are away for the evening," she says, and it takes James a second to realize what she's implying.
She hooks a finger over his shirt collar and gently pulls him toward her. "Want to do something about that?"
"I, um... brought a condom," he says, wanting to make sure he isn't misinterpreting her request. He wishes she would be more upfront about what she wants.
She smiles, pulling him the rest of the way against her and kissing him, and he knows he isn't misunderstanding.
James isn't sure how he'd feel about penetrative sex, given his general adversion to mess and disorder and generally touching other people -- although he supposes he and Carly touch each other almost excessively these days, and he actually enjoys that.
It doesn't help that the leadup is also anxiety-inducing, their clothes thrown unceremoniously to the floor by her and her expressing concern again at his size. He watches her ready herself for him, reminding himself to go slow, but the worry that he's going to hurt her or do something wrong just adds to his trepidation about the whole thing.
So it's a pleasant surprise to him when he finds that he really enjoys the experience -- more than enjoys, if he's being honest -- despite the condom feeling maybe a bit too snug and the sounds of the party outside a constant reminder of his fear that someone would walk in on the two of them.
He gets her off once, then joins her for the second, his lips on hers as they come down from their highs.
She snuggles against him afterward, her hand running through his chest hair, and he idly thinks about how it's mostly grown back at this point, or at least stopped itching. That thought, combined with their physical proximity and the feel of her bare skin against his, suddenly fills his chest with emotion.
"Um," he starts, holding her tighter against him. He trusts her, he thinks, and is feeling particularly close to her at the moment. And James wants to be brave, for once.
Her hand stops moving, and when he doesn't continue, she looks up at him and smiles. "Yes?"
"I'm... bisexual," he manages, finally, his heart thundering in his chest. It shouldn't be a big admission given it should change nothing, but somehow it feels like everything, and he nervously watches her expression change from curiosity to confusion, unsure if that's a good sign or not.
"Oh," she says, then is quiet for a bit, and James can't help but think that's a bad sign.
"I haven't..." he starts, trying to tell her that she's the first person he's ever told, and that he's maybe more nervous now than he's ever been, before.
"So who are you cheating on me with?" she asks, interrupting, and it takes James a second to really understand her question.
"I'm not cheating on you," he manages, his heart sinking at the accusation.
"Right," she says, looking like she doesn't believe him. "One of each and all that, right? At least that means it isn't Rafael or Everett, since I know they wouldn't be able to keep quiet about it."
"Um." He really isn't sure how he's supposed to respond to that. "There isn't anyone else."
She props herself up on an elbow, staring at him, and he wishes he'd just enjoyed their post-coital snuggles instead of sharing unnecessary information about himself.
"Hell of a time to tell me this, James," she says after another uncomfortable bit of silence.
"Please don't tell anyone," James says, feeling a bit paniced now about what would happen if Rafael or Everett or anyone else in the drama club -- or god forbid, his parents -- found out. "No one else knows."
She seems to consider for a bit before sighing and laying back down next to him. She throws her arm over his chest again, but it feels significantly less pleasant this time.
"Fine," she says, finally. "I just... don't know how I feel about dating a bisexual guy."
"Why?" James asks, not really intending to press the issue, but legitimately confused now. He wonders if he'd just worked through this enough times in his head that he's come to a bad conclusion about the whole thing.
She looks up at him. "Really?"
James shakes his head, really wishing he could drop it, but also really needing to understand. "Really. Why?"
"How would you feel if I told you that you weren't enough for me?"
"Um." James doesn't like that thought much at all. "I... wouldn't like it."
She removes her arm, sitting up and grabbing her underwear. "Exactly."
James props himself up on his shoulders, suddenly very aware of his own nakedness, and the used condom still wrapped around his dick in a way that would disgust him if not for the fact that his brain was currently focused on a different crisis. "But... you're enough for me."
She shakes her head, pulling her underwear on and standing to grab her bra. "If I was enough, you wouldn't feel a need to have sex with men, too. God, I guess I should be glad you were a virgin before all of this, so at least you're not going to give me anything."
His head feels like it's swimming now, but he finally convinces himself to let it go, feeling like the conversation isn't going anywhere. "I'm sorry," he says, unsure of what else to say.
Carly doesn't say anything else, instead pulling on the rest of her clothing and heading back out to the party.
They don't talk that weekend -- a rarity these days, that James is sure his parents pick up on, but thankfully don't ask him about -- and he walks down the hallway Monday morning filled with nervousness.
He'd rehearsed his words over the weekend, starting with an apology and ending with a retraction of his confession, even though he felt like it shouldn't have been anything to have to take back. He tells himself that making things right with his girlfriend -- and apologizing for ruining their first time, in addition to disappearing from the party afterward -- was more important than any feelings he might have on the matter.
She's waiting at his locker for him, and he swallows, putting a smile on his face even as her own neutral expression makes him feel even worse.
"Hi," he says, stopping in front of her, running through the next few sentences in his head. "I'm sorry that I..."
"Look," she says, interrupting him. "I think I can't do this."
James had been expecting, or at least thought about the possibility of, something like that. He'd practiced a response to that, too. But as she stands there, and he watches a tear run down her cheek, the words stick in his throat.
"I'm sorry," he says, instead, even though he's said that already.
"I still want to be friends," she says, her voice wavering now, and it hits him that he has so few people in real life that he'd consider friends.
It had never bothered him before, and he wonders why the thought of losing her friendship is bothering him, now.
"Me too," he says, holding out his hand in what he immediately thinks is a misguided offering. She doesn't take it, and he lets it drop back at his side.
She nods, but it still feels like a goodbye.
"Hi," says Carly, appearing next to James' locker.
"Oh." James isn't sure what to think, but her expression seems friendly, at least.
Things definitely hadn't been the same between the two of them after the breakup, and James thinks at least part of that was his fault. Despite his words afterward, and his desire in the moment for the two of them to remain reasonably close, the hurt had really hit him later that day.
Hurt, and a bit of bitterness, he thinks, still feeling a little upset when he thinks back to her reaction to his coming out. Even as a friend, much less as his girlfriend, he would have expected her to be more understanding rather than making unfair accusations.
So he'd been maybe a bit colder toward her than he should have, and fallen back on his online friends and the relative anonymity of the internet instead of continuing to hang out with her and other drama friends.
"I'm sorry," she says, and James isn't expecting that.
She clasps her hands behind her back, looking a bit guilty now. "I've been... thinking about what you told me, that night," she says, and James wonders if she's reading his mind. "And the more I've thought about it, the more I think I was maybe unfair to you."
James shuts his locker with more force than he intends, the slam startling both himself and Carly. "It's been five months," he says, letting the bitterness surface now that they're discussing it. "Why now?"
She shrugs, holding out a hand now, and James' gaze lands on the envelope in it. "We're graduating."
He doesn't move to take the envelope. "So?"
She holds the envelope out higher toward him. "So I'm having a graduation party, and I wanted you to be there."
"Oh." He takes the envelope, realizing it's one of her usual party invitations. She hadn't given him one to her events earlier in the semester, and even though he wouldn't have gone anyway, the fact that she'd been excluding him still hurt. "Why?"
"Because we're still friends, aren't we? And friends invite friends to their parties."
He shoves the invitation into his pocket and immediately regrets it when he can feel the corners crumple. He thinks he should have put it flat in his backpack instead. "Didn't matter the previous times."
She looks regretful at that. "I know. I figured you wouldn't come anyway, and I just... didn't want the reminder, I guess."
He nods, grabbing his backpack. "Thank you. For the invitation. Now."
"Will you accept it?" she asks, hope in her voice, and James can't help but feel like she's asking about more than just the party.
He shrugs, walking toward the door to the parking lot where he knows his mother is waiting. "Maybe."
"That's not a no," Carly says, and James thinks the tone of her voice is a lot happier -- and a lot like the Carly he really expects -- now.
He smiles, despite himself. "It's not," he says.
James glances over at Chris, sitting on the couch next to him, trying to work up the courage to do something about the feelings -- or perhaps just suspicions -- that had been growing in his mind for the past few weeks. Although, if he was being honest, he's pretty sure it'd been longer than that, and maybe he'd just been too much of a coward to do anything about it sooner.
He idly wonders if this is how Carly had felt when she'd asked him out by his locker, and feels a sense of appreciation for how hard it must've been for her to put herself out there like that for him.
Chris seems to notice James looking at him, because meets James' gaze, a smile on his lips but a curious look in his eyes, and James tells himself he can't keep ignoring his feelings.
He pauses the show, and swallows, thinking already about all the ways Chris was different than Carly. Chris was respectful -- deferential, almost -- to James' quirks like immediately washing the dishes, relentlessly organizing his entertainment systems and consoles, and his constant sweeping and mopping that he'd gradually felt less and less awkward about doing while Chris was over. Chris was quiet, and his friends were quiet, and James didn't feel like he had to make an effort to be someone he wasn't around them. Chris didn't stare at him like he was a piece of meat in the way that Dan did, or the way some of his drama school associates did, or the way some of his high school aquaintances had.
Most importantly, he thinks, Chris was understanding of his bisexuality. He knew James had had a girlfriend. He knew James was also interested in men. He didn't seem like the kind of person who would care about such a thing.
"Do you like me?" he asks, watching Chris' expression carefully. The smile on Chris' face doesn't disappear, and James takes that as a good sign.
"I like you... as a friend," Chris says, but James is pretty sure that's not really what he intends to say.
"I like you as a friend, too," James says, taking a deep breath and trying to put himself in Carly's shoes, and somehow that helps. "But I like you as more than a friend, too."
"Oh," Chris says, his smile growing bigger, and James can feel his heart soar at it. "I... like you, too. Like that. I just didn't want to... risk our friendship. By saying something."
James nods, realizing that he's unconsciously leaning toward Chris on the couch, and sits up straight again. "Um."
"Be my boyfriend?" Chris asks, and James can feel the last bits of worry fall from his face.
"I'm... not an easy person to date," James says instead of answering Chris' question, feeling the need to put everything out there, but smiling despite himself. "I'm a geek. I'm neurotic. I'm obstainate. I kiss other people on stage but I get jealous easily. I'm always busy."
"That doesn't change anything," Chris says. "I know that. I still like you. And you always make time for me even though you're busy."
James allows himself to lean in again, staring into Chris' eyes now. "I always want to."
"Be my boyfriend?" Chris asks again, his smile growing.
"Can I kiss you?" James asks, wondering why he can't just answer Chris' question.
Chris nods. "Please kiss me," he says, and that's all it takes.
Their lips find each others', and James' hands find Chris' shoulders, and James thinks to himself how different this feels to him than when he and Carly first kissed.
He thinks it feels comfortable, this time.
He thinks it feels right.