“Alright. We want a nice, clean line.”
“You don’t know how to open a coconut.”
Kiara was on foraging duty with JJ. She had practically leapt off the sand when he announced he was going, which she explained away by declaring she didn’t want him to fall and break his neck with no one out there to babysit him. It was fair enough, because JJ had a habit of climbing fruit trees like a lemur, no hesitation, and he also had a newfound tendency for tumbling from high areas.
JJ looked up at her from where he was balancing one coconut on a rock, the others piled in his opposite arm. He tried to shove a lock of blonde out of his eye with his elbow, failing miserably.
“A clean line,” he repeated, holding the hand with one coconut out to signal her to stop talking.
Kiara rocked back on her heels, grinning a little more softly around the edges than she would have liked to. If her arms weren’t mostly full of coconuts, she would have crossed them.
JJ lifted the coconut over his head. He shuffled his feet like he was lining up for a winning shot, shooting a little glance at Kiara.
The coconut slammed down on the rock, solid as ever.
Kiara let out a snort, and he argued, “No, I was just warming up! That for real doesn’t count.”
“Actually, I think it does.”
Two more slams and a few jabs with his knife later, JJ had pried a jagged chunk out of the coconut. The juices from inside had splattered all over his shirt, and he shook his head through Kiara’s laughter.
“See, the problem is I don’t have one of those fruity ass little straws on this island. That’s how you drink a coconut.”
“Yeah. The ocean thanks you for not having that,” Kiara said.
JJ had the coconut tipped back, trying and failing to get any of the remaining moisture out of it. She tossed a look at the sky, seeing that the sun had traveled significantly since they’d set out.
Her internal debate didn’t last long. Here, all they had was time. She nudged him aside with her elbow, feeling around for the ridge on one of her coconuts. She’d never done this on a rock, but she’d seen her dad do it several times with tools.
Kiara swallowed down the lump in her throat at the thought of her dad. At what he must be thinking right now.
The dark thoughts were chased away when her coconut fell apart, cleanly enough to be impressive. She whooped, lifting both halves into the air, and JJ’s grip on his coconut went slack.
He whistled. “Damn.”
She gave him an ‘I showed you’ smile, ignoring the throbbing in her thumb. It was totally worth it.
The truth was, Kiara came with JJ because he was the best at getting her mind off of what a shit show her life was at the moment.
Sometimes, she found herself staring off into space, faced vaguely at the ocean much like she’d done with her bedroom wall during her freshman year at the kook academy. It was a less all encompassing feeling than the temporary loss of John B and Sarah, like water creeping into her lungs rather than a whole wave crashing down on her. It was also potentially even more dangerous.
Before she’d ditched the pogues for Sarah, when things were nearing rock bottom for her, JJ had found her one day, arms wrapped around her knees in the otherwise empty Chateau. There’d been no hiding the tearstains on her cheeks, the emptiness on her face.
John B and Pope would have pushed. Would have wanted her to talk to someone, or hold her hand like she was a toddler.
JJ had slid shoulder to shoulder with her on the pullout. Offered her a blunt that she scowled at, but then reluctantly took between her fingers. “Do we need to beat someone’s ass?” he’d asked, when he’d realized what was going on. Aiming for casual, even though she could see the muscle popping in his jaw.
“Shit list wise,” he’d continued, pointedly ignoring her strangled sniffle. “Which one is the worst?”
Three draws of the blunt in, and she was ranting about how Rebecca had put gum in her seat at school, how Scarlet had just asked her if it was true, did she really catch Chlamydia from the pogues? How the kooks sniggered when she gave her presentation on the abomination that was single use plastic. She’d left out the part about Rafe Cameron calling something decidedly ungentlemanly after her in the entryway, because she didn’t want JJ actually getting into a fight.
JJ was still the perfect distraction for her. Sometimes, the only distraction. From the thoughts of how angry her parents must have been at her, to how there was absolutely a bunk bed on the mainland with her name on it.
Truth be told, the coconut was rather bland and not all that exceptional, just like most of the food available to them on the island. But if not having perfectly seasoned food was the sacrifice she had to make for freedom, for free laughter like she was experiencing right in that moment, she was willing to endure it a little longer.
“Okay, but you work in a restaurant, so that’s like, totally unfair,” JJ was still arguing, even when they were trekking back through the forest. Jungle, maybe. Kiara wondered how pissed the rest of the pogues would be when the only food they came back with after all these hours was a handful of coconuts they’d have to break their backs to get open.
“You work in in a restaurant, too,” she pointed out.
“Uh, worked. Past tense.”
JJ held a branch aside for Kiara to walk through, and her attention snagged on a new bush, cutting off her train of thought.
“Oh, hey. There’s some berries here.” She had hardly had time to cock her head at the bush, taking in the rounded, greenish skins before JJ was shooing her away.
“Woah, dude.” He took his free hand, pinching a berry between his fingers like an expert. His other arm adjusted his pile of coconuts. “Don’t you know the saying, Kie?”
She rolled her eyes. “Here we go.”
“Purple and blue, good for you. Green and yellow kills your ass.”
His finger hovered in front of her nose while he talked, and she swatted it away. “I wasn’t going to eat it.”
She had in fact forgotten that saying. It was vaguely familiar, if potentially inaccurate. She was smart enough to not stick strange berries in her mouth, though, at least until they all evaluated them as a group.
When they finally emerged into the little clearing on the beach they’d made home, John B and Sarah were awaiting them outside the lean shelter the group had thrown together. John B’s hair was standing up from more than the salty wind, and Kiara was really freaking thankful they’d heard their boots clomping through the undergrowth. She was sure she didn’t want to witness whatever they’d interrupted.
John B threw up his hands. “Hey. Thought we were gonna have to send out a search party or something.”
“Where have you guys been?” Sarah demanded.
JJ gave an offended nod to his coconuts. “Uh, providing, that’s what.”
“Providing a show, maybe,” Kiara cut in, and JJ ignored her.
Kiara knew her smile was fond. She didn’t realize it might be a little too fond until she caught Sarah’s eye. The expression dropped off her face.
JJ didn’t appear to notice. He held out some coconuts to John B. “Listen. You, me, and Pope. Cracking competition.”
John B’s frown at the coconuts shifted into a competitive glint in his eyes. He never learned, always unable to turn down a challenge from JJ. “You’re on,” he said.
The boys’ attention turned to where Pope and Cleo were gathered around their little makeshift campfire in the distance. Pope waved his hands at them.
“Not like we’re starving or anything,” Pope yelled.
“Hey. Working magic takes time, man,” JJ called back. He and John B dashed off towards him, no doubt to work out the details of their bullshit competition, but Kiara hung back. Sarah was still giving her a look, eyebrows slightly raised.
Kiara sighed. She was never one for beating around the bush. “What?”
“I know I’m kind of new to the group and all,” Sarah hedged, not as hesitantly as Kiara would have liked. “But is there something you want to tell me?”
Her hackles were raised on instinct. She knew the implication was, I’m new to the group, but I’m not new to you.
She forced a blank expression. “Nope.”
It wasn’t that Kiara didn’t notice a difference. She’d found herself gravitating towards JJ, way more than was probably called for. She’d brush a hand on his back when she was passing him, or fling her feet over his lap while they were napping under the lean.
Maybe the feel of warm skin, flesh on flesh, reminded her that he was alive. That he’d survived. They both had.
But now that Sarah had more or less brought the not-so-subtle shift in dynamics to her attention, she found herself dwelling on it. It was just the six of them, the endless ocean, and their island, and Kiara had way too little to do and far too much time to linger.
Visions of them traveling the world, pink cheeked and salty from spending the day on the ocean invaded her thoughts, more frequently than they already had. Sharing cheap blunts, preparing a fish JJ had caught over smoldering flames. And in the deepest parts of her mind, there was his arm slung over her, their legs tangled in sheets.
How could something that had been so close for so long sound so impossibly perfect? And sometimes, their eyes would meet a little too long, and she was sure they were on the same page.
Once she let herself think it, she couldn’t unthink it.
The rest of the group was gathering around the fire one night, victoriously roasting some fish JJ and John B had somehow managed to spear.
Her eyes fell on JJ, on his magnetic, wild grin. His hand appeared to be bleeding, and it was probably better that she didn’t know the details, really.
Her stomach dropped, and she thought, oh. Oh, shit.
She cast a quick look at Pope, then. He was between Cleo and Sarah, seemingly caught up in an argument on the best way to cook a fish. Things were good between them. Too good, really, as far as half exes were concerned.
Maybe if she just tested the waters… It didn’t mean she had to jump in, really. She wondered if there was some small part of her desperate for attention from all three of her male friends. Wasn’t sure she was totally in control of what she was even doing.
Kiara scooted next to JJ on the log, her hip nearly brushing his. It was far closer than she would normally sit when their was such a free expanse of space, and the action had him swiveling his head to glance at her, eyes swimming like the Caribbean when they met hers.
Her hands clutched into fists on her knees, and she produced a big, relaxed grin. “Hey,” she said.
He blinked at her, and there was something, a flash in his eyes that made her think maybe she really was on to something. “Uh, hey, Kie.”
He turned back to smack at John B with his stick just as quickly, but for Kiara, it wasn’t so fleeting.
Okay. Maybe this was a thing.
The weeks on the island rolled into a rescue, house arrest and some seriously pissed but sobbing parents, and plenty of time for Kiara to come to terms with the fact that she very much wanted the something to become a thing.
With JJ. JJ Maybank.
The concept felt foreign and too familiar all at once, and still it was not going away.
Somehow, miraculously, Kiara managed to weasel out of boarding school. Maybe it was her parents’ fear that Kiara would run away and never come back this time, or the experience of losing her, but the conditions were seeing a therapist on the regular and the pogues only once a week outside of school. Her Find My Friends had to be on at all times, and if she missed a phone call, it was back to house arrest.
This left her with even more time to think, but instead of endless nothing and four walls, Kiara found herself dwelling on rolling, enormous waves in South Africa. Booking a plane ticket. Golden skin shining at her under a foreign sun, laughter on their lips.
There was no gold in their future, but there was still a future.
On one long, drawing night, Kiara was sat in her car in her driveway after a shift at the Wreck, and a plastic jar in her recycling pile drew her eye. It had almost definitely contained something made of palm oil at one point, so it was basically everything Kiara hated in the world. But it had a slate as blank as the years ahead and room to stuff some cash, which was all she needed.
Surf trip jar it was. She yanked a handful of her tips out of her apron, shoving them inside.
She had the best night’s sleep since coming home.
Occasionally, her parents felt just bad enough for Sarah that Kiara managed to sneak in an extra day with her. It seemed having no parents didn’t cut it for the pogues, but for a Cameron girl whose entire family had disappeared, wanted, into international waters, there was room for a smidge of pity.
And sleepovers were good for her teenage psych, according to her therapist. Who were her parents to say no to that?
They were painting their toenails and watching some sappy Nicholas Sparks movie Sarah had chosen. The boys would have mocked them until kingdom come, but there was something soothing about the simplicity of seeing someone fall in love and cry over trivial things. Kiara had had enough action in her life in the past year, thank you very much, and this mindless entertainment happened to be the perfect thing.
It also happened to have her thoughts back in a place she spent entirely too much time on these days. She scowled down at her periwinkle polish.
“Wow. Thinking you should’ve gone with the coral instead?” Sarah’s joke broke through her daze.
“Something like that, yeah.” Kiara tried to smooth the lines of her admittedly unpleasant expression. The periwinkle taunted her, entirely too pretty for her to be frowning down at.
She felt Sarah studying her out of her periphery. Finally, the blonde averted her gaze back to her own toes, popping a kernel of popcorn into her mouth. “I know we haven’t had a sleepover in a while, but it’s kinda perfect for getting things off your chest.”
Kiara reminded herself that Sarah was her friend. She was on her side, and would want to help her, even if that meant confirming her fears that this concept was stupid as shit.
She wrapped her arms around her knees. “I always got so pissed when people acted like I was that girl.”
Kiara knew Sarah was probably waiting for her to elaborate, but she looked at her hands, lips twisted bitterly. She was a feminist. She knew there wasn’t anything wrong with having multiple partners; she was a teenager for God’s sake.
Once upon a time, she’d worn the rumors like armor. Tossed back a, “So what if I am?” when a particularly bitchy kook asked her if she was sleeping with all the pogues. But then the no pogue on pogue macking rule had disintegrated right alongside her childhood, and it wasn’t a joke anymore.
She didn’t want to be some girl running around, sampling all of her friends like a kook with a new car before deciding not to buy it. What kind of shitty person did that?
“Is this about Pope?” Sarah probed, eventually. “Or someone else…?”
Sarah leaned over, interlacing her fingers with Kiara’s. She reluctantly looked up.
“I think you’ve never cared what other people think,” Sarah said, carefully. “I think you’ve both been through a lot, and you deserve to be happy.”
Kiara blinked back the stinging in her eyes. Didn’t know whether she was relieved that Sarah hadn’t even needed her to say JJ’s name.
“But Pope—Things are good.”
“You need to talk to him,” Sarah confirmed. “But he loves you both. I really think he’ll be okay with it.”
She found herself nodding. Didn’t know if she thought this was true, or if she just wanted it to be. It wasn’t that dramatic, right? They were chill. They were pogues. “Yeah. Yeah, I will.”
“So.” Sarah grinned, scooting back to prop against the foot of Kiara’s bed. She gave Kiara’s hands one final pat, but the seriousness in her eyes had been chased away by glee. “What’s the plan, then?”
“Pray Pope doesn’t give me a permanent silent treatment this time.”
Sarah rolled her eyes, grinning playfully, and this was suddenly so reminiscent of freshmen year that Kiara was hit with a sickly surge of déjà vu. “No, with JJ.”
“Shit.” Kiara rubbed a hand across her face. Tucked an errant braid behind her ear. “You tell me.”
She wondered how her parents would react to the news if things ended up working out in her favor. Both dreaded and kind of longed to see the muscle tick in Anna’s brow again.
“He’s into you. Right?”
Kiara worked her lip. She still didn’t quite believe this conversation was real, but she forced herself to think back on it. Really think. “Possibly?”
Things she knew: JJ was probably attracted to her, but he was also attracted to everything with boobs and legs and a heart that was beating.
But there were moments now. Moments when their gazes would lock for a little too long and her breath would catch, or he would slide a finger across her shoulder in a way that was very much unnecessary.
“I mean, there’s always just planting one on him,” Sarah suggested. Kiara didn’t like the grin she was wearing. “I don’t think he’ll mind.”
“Not happening. I have to know for sure before I talk to him about it, or to Pope.” Kiara did think that there was something mutual there. Felt that there was something, just as surely as she’d felt the boat rocking her insides when JJ had sat across from her, cementing her future. But no way in hell was she making that jump without knowing without a shadow of a doubt that this wasn’t going to blow up in her face. She was lucky enough to avoid that the first time around.
Sarah quirked her mouth, but she must have read something in Kiara’s expression that convinced her not to object. “Hmm. Fine. Maybe just drop a few hints, and see if he picks up on it.”
Kiara considered it. Tried to imagine what sort of hint it might take for JJ to pick up on. She almost snorted at the concept, but… JJ certainly had had success with tourons over the years, and probably more with the local girls than Kiara particularly cared to think about. He could surely pick up on flirting.
“Yeah,” she said. “Okay. I can do that.”
Kiara found it hard to calculate the best approach to getting JJ’s attention. How did one drop a hint that was subtle enough not to make things totally awkward when they had spent so long in the friend zone they could no longer quite see the surface? It wasn’t as if she and JJ didn’t already do everything possible together.
This was a new feeling for Kiara. As bigheaded as it sounded, she’d always been the pursued, not the pursuer. Still, she figured getting him alone was as good a start as any.
Her allotted pogue days were filled with all of her friends crowding her as much as humanly possible, trying to get their weekly dose of Kie. She needed her weekly dose of them, too, but she also very much wanted to get the ball rolling on this JJ thing.
They were all crammed onto the pullout couch at the Chateau one evening, some docuseries Pope had been yammering on about playing in the background. Kiara’s hair was still damp with seawater from the too-cold surf session they’d had earlier, and her muscles ached pleasantly. There were only a couple of hours left until her phone was due to ring, demanding her return home.
Kiara nudged JJ’s foot with hers. She mustered the most casual of smiles. “I don’t know about you, but I could use a J right about now.”
Predictably, he lifted a lazy hand and said, “Don’t have to ask me twice.”
She avoided Sarah’s eyes at all costs, inclining her head towards the door. JJ scrambled off the couch with her, holding the screen open for her on the way out.
“Uh, nobody asked me if I wanted a J,” John B said, before the door could close, and Kiara heard Sarah whisper something into his ear. His mouth clamped shut.
JJ gave him a salute over his shoulder. “Looks like your leash is stuck to the couch, bro.”
Kiara didn’t have to look back to know John B was flipping him off, and JJ didn’t bother to, either. In fact, she could just make his tongue flitting out to lick his rolling paper, and she dragged her eyes away.
The air outside was dim and devoid of all noise, it being far too early in the year yet for the hum of katydids. She headed for the hammock, and JJ trailed behind her.
“John B,” he muttered, in a poor imitation of Sarah’s voice. There was no real malice in it. “Swear to God, I need her to teach me how to do it one day.”
“You don’t have boobs.”
JJ paused, the joint still in his fingers. He gave a thoughtful nod. “Touche.”
They crawled into the hammock, and Kiara let her legs tangle with his. JJ went too still, like a deer frozen on the spot, and she wondered if maybe this was a mistake. If she was pushing a line that he wasn’t comfortable crossing; might never be comfortable crossing.
JJ shifted, offering the blunt to her. “Ladies first,” he said.
She took it with a swell of relief, mock toasting him with it. It took three flicks of his zippo for him to light it, and she focused all her attention on the wavering of the flame.
“Maybe there’s manners in you after all,” she joked.
As they passed the joint back and forth, fingers brushing, she noticed him sinking further into the hammock. His thigh rocked more firmly into her calf, and she could feel the heat of his skin through her jeans. A small sense of victory hummed through her.
They sat in mostly a comfortable silence. As talented as JJ was for going on and on about stupid shit, one of her favorite things about him was his ability to sit and soak in the quiet when the situation called for it, just enjoying each other’s company.
Sooner than she wanted to, she passed the joint to him permanently. She had to be home within a couple hours, and if she stumbled through the door high as a kite, she didn’t know when she’d be permitted to stumble back out. Hopefully she had just enough in her system for a little much needed boldness.
“Alright,” she announced, mournfully. Chill bumps were dancing across her arms, and she wasn’t sure if it was from the way JJ was looking at her, buzzed and heavy lidded, or the dropping temperatures. “No more fun tonight.”
He flicked her knee. “Not to worry. I’ll enjoy it enough for both of us.”
“Less than two years ‘til freedom,” she said, lips tight. “But who’s counting, right?”
“Amen to that.”
JJ’s head lolled back, gaze on the sky. Kiara stared at a vein in his neck, mind ticking for what to do next. She clapped her hands against her legs. “I’m freezing my ass off,” she said.
JJ was in a ratty, long sleeved t-shirt and shorts. If it was brighter out, she had no doubt she’d see that his knees would be close to turning purple.
He took a long puff off the blunt, still not looking at her. She willed him to make some clever quip about how he could warm her up, and herself to dare him to when he did.
“Feels just peachy out here to me.”
Kiara glared at him through the dark. She slung her legs over the edge of the hammock, half kneeing him in the ribs in the process. Maybe it was a little on purpose.
“I love your concern, really,” she snipped.
“Hey, where you going?” he called after her, but the effect was ruined by his laughter. The slammed door of the chateau tuned him out.
She reemerged victoriously a few minutes later, drowning in a too-large yellow checked flannel.
“Back already? I knew—“
The flickering porch light caught her silhouette, and JJ cut himself off in mid sentence, mouth open. His tongue darted out to wet his lips, and then he was saying, “Oh, just a free for all now, is it?”
Kiara nudged him back over so she could reclaim her spot in the hammock, and his eyes kept flying back and forth between her and literally anything else. They landed firmly on the stars.
She raised her eyebrows. “Want me to freeze to death on your watch?”
JJ gestured vaguely in her direction. His joint appeared to have long since been kicked out. “By all means. This is Walmart, after all.”
Kiara tugged at the sleeves. Tried and failed to pull them up towards her elbows. “God, you have the arms of a daddy long legs.”
This was definitely a lot sexier in her head. Now, she was just a shapeless lump sitting across from him, and she was swimming in JJ’s scent of sea spray and axe and weed. She resisted the urge to tug the collar up around her nose.
When Kiara looked up, JJ’s attention was back on her. His gaze swiveled away quickly enough she might have imagined it; borderline jumpy, even. It reluctantly swiveled back.
“Here,” he said finally, leaning forward. The hammock swayed, and so did Kiara’s stomach when his hands clutched at her forearms. His callouses sung against her skin, the shine of his rings winking in the moonlight, and it took her a second to process that he was rolling the sleeves up for her.
There was a beat where his grip lingered after he finished with the second one. His eyes drifted to hers, nose only inches away. Kiara’s insides tightened with what might have been anticipation.
“Thanks,” she managed.
JJ froze. Cleared his throat. “Mhmm.
He settled back in the hammock, squeezing his eyes shut like nothing was out of the ordinary. Kiara bit back her disappointment.
Kiara had missed parties at the Boneyard.
It wasn’t that her parents knew she was there, or that they were aware of when and where these parties went down at all, but things had been decent with them. She’d only just grown brave enough to tug on her short leash a bit, wary of risking her allotted times with the pogues.
As usual, JJ was the life of the party. He’d hauled along his bike and had spent the majority of the afternoon competing in stupid little jumps, mostly with other boys from the Cut. A few kooks joined in occasionally, revving bigger, fancier bikes that they risked their necks significantly less on than JJ did on his. She held her breath when he went up too big of a hill at a speed that made her uncomfortable, but JJ had been driving for years. He was, for all intents and purposes, the best driver in their group, even if he scared the shit out of her.
Kiara had been sat on rock watching for way too long, humiliating like one of the little touron groupies he inevitably attracted. She sipped her too warm beer (Only one cup, so her parents wouldn’t get suspicious) and tried not to glare at the blonde eyeing him up on the other side of the clearing.
Tonight had been mostly a standstill. JJ hadn’t wandered off with some random hookup, thank God, but he also hadn’t taken any inches when she beckoned him through the crowd to dance with her. One song, and then he’d been on his bike ever since.
All thoughts of pettiness fled her brain when there was an abrupt screech of tires. The bike was red and the shirt was familiar and oh shit.
JJ rolled across the ground, and her heart was in her throat. There was a flash of his body floating face down, too many feet below her in the ocean.
“JJ!” Kiara cried, and she was one of the first on her feet, pushing her way through the throng of bodies yelling around him.
There should have been more of a sense of relief at the sight of his arms and legs twitching, and it almost definitely looked worse than it was, but all Kiara could register was that he was under the bike. Familiar, bronzed arms got there before her, shoving the bike to the side.
“Holy shit. J, are you okay?” John B demanded.
“Fuck.” JJ groaned, and there was a too familiar stream of red when he pulled his hand away from his head. “Yeah, I’m good.”
His eyes landed on Kiara, squinted like there were two of her, and she had hardly realized she’d grabbed on to his shoulder. Up close, the blood didn’t seem to be gushing from his head as badly as she’d feared, but it didn’t do much to calm her racing heart.
JJ had gone frighteningly pale, and Pope’s voice registered in her ear, saying something about how it was probably just the shock. She wondered if maybe she was in shock, too.
“Is it normal to see stars, man?” JJ asked, which told her he was fine.
Kiara’s grip on his arm tightened, and she helped the boys pull him to his feet. “That’s not funny.”
She felt his gaze on her, questioning, but before he could say anything, Sarah was in the background, suggesting they leave. Kiara had to concur; any spirit of the party had left her, and JJ looked like he’d been through hell.
John B and Pope hiked the bike up between them, tossing it in the back of the Twinkie alongside their surfboards, and Kiara settled in across from JJ, dark eyes intent on him. A rolled up shirt hit him in the side of the head.
John B was facing them from the driver’s seat, looking mournful. “I love that shirt, so use it wisely.”
It was one of his more horrendous prints, with outrageous pink flowers and some dark stain that looked suspiciously like oil. JJ shoved it against the wound on his head, and Kiara cringed. That looked like the perfect shit to infect it.
Now that she was calming down, she didn’t miss the minor scrapes on his knees and elbows. He was seriously lucky nothing was broken.
By the time they pulled in to the yard at the Chateau, JJ was already turned around, poking at the bike. He was oblivious to Kiara’s glowers.
“Shit. I definitely threw off the alignment.”
“Yeah? You’re lucky it wasn’t your head,” Pope said.
John B’s door slammed from up front, and Sarah twisted in her seat. Her eyes darted between Kiara and JJ. “Seriously? Can we give the bike a rest for tonight, please?”
“Fine,” JJ muttered. Kiara could tell he was hurting from the stiff way he exited the Twinkie, but only trained eyes would pick up on it. JJ had gotten too good at hiding his pain over the years, and ever since he’d fallen apart in her arms in this very yard, she’d made it a mission of hers to pay better attention.
JJ collapsed on the pullout inside, and Kiara headed straight for the bathroom. She had to fish deeper in the cabinet than was called for for a clean cloth, but she wrapped her fingers around the first one she could find and ran it under the sink.
“That was some top tier stupid shit, bro,” John B was saying, when Kiara came back down the hall. He cracked a coke open from the fridge, so she didn’t get the impression that he was extremely worried.
Pope passed Kiara in the hall, a spare shirt wrapped in his arms. Over his shoulder, he called, “Hey, try not to die while I shower?”
JJ had lain back on the couch, one scraped arm rested on the back of it. “Once I’m in my nice, cozy cell you won’t have to worry about it anymore—“
“Would you stop fucking saying that?” Kiara snapped, and the room went silent. JJ’s eyes fell on her, jaw cocked. “I like you out of jail, so just stop.”
Sarah watched with wide eyes, but John B tipped his coke. “Yeah, man. One of us is enough for me.”
JJ eyed Kiara warily as she approached the pullout, slinging a knee on to the cushion beside him. She gathered the damp cloth, letting him get a clear view of it so he knew what was coming.
Once upon a time, he would be fighting letting her help him. Would scowl or wear his blood on his skin like a badge of honor to contrast how John B or Pope melted into her touch when she fussed over them.
Maybe it was because her hands were still shaking, but he went mostly silent as she pushed back his hairline, wiping the dried blood away. Making sure the wound wasn’t something terrifyingly deeper.
She’d kept relatively quiet so far, but she said, “If you do that shit again, you’re wearing a fucking helmet.”
“I mean it.”
His face was still white, but there was a tinge of color returning to his cheeks. He was still under her touch, and Kiara might have imagined that he was even leaning into it a little, but she was interrupted by a familiar ding from her back pocket.
“Shit,” she hissed, yanking the phone out.
Mom [9:47 pm]: Kiara, where are you? Curfew in ten minutes.
Her fingers hesitated over her keyboard. A familiar instinct roared for her to ignore the text, to shut her phone off, or pretend it had gone dead, but there wasn’t much that pissed off Anna more.
In a move that would make her therapist proud, she kind of told the truth.
Will be home soon. JJ had a problem with his bike and I had to drive him, she typed, and hit send before she could dwell.
John B and Sarah were filing around in the kitchen cabinets, but JJ was watching her. “Death row?”
Her brows twitched in consideration, and she shoved the phone back in her pocket before the three little dots indicating her mom was already typing drove her to insanity. “Hope not.”
JJ’s eyes trailed from hers, down to where her hand had absentmindedly returned to his shoulder, and back to a seam in the couch. “You don’t really belong in the nothing to lose club. No offense.”
Kiara pursed her lips. Gave his shoulder a fond squeeze. “Neither do you. You sure you’re alright?”
JJ adjusted himself on the couch, fingers tapping against the cushions. His legs stretched out at a different angle. “Yeah. Sarah gave me Advil,” he said, as if this was the end all.
Kiara rolled her eyes. “Well, I do actually have to go, if I want to ever come back.”
Her hand cupped JJ’s shoulder more tightly, and she hesitated almost long enough to make it awkward before she swooped forwards, brushing her lips across his cheekbone. His skin was salty under her mouth, and she felt him stiffen beneath her.
She had always been an affectionate person with the boys, but there had always been more of a physical barrier between she and JJ. Not significantly so, but they’d never done this. Never shared this brand of affection so casually, and Kiara preferred not to unpack the root of that just yet.
JJ’s gaze bored into her.
“Oh, wow.” John B sounded unimpressed. She hadn’t even realized he’d been paying them any fragment of attention. “And you tell me to get a room.”
Kiara wasn’t sure if she wanted to scowl at him or shake his hand for picking up what JJ was clearly not.
There was a too long pause.
“Almost dying does it for me, bro,” JJ said, in an attempt at sage, but Kiara didn’t think she hallucinated his voice was thicker than normal.
She grabbed her keys. Baby steps, maybe.
Working at the Wreck was one of the few things in her family life that never failed to make sense for Kiara.
When she’d been attending the kook academy, most of the other kids there weren’t forced to help keep up the family business, preferring to spend their weekends on fancy yachts or getting drunk off their parents’ too expensive wine. Most of the pogues didn’t have a family business as admittedly booming as the Carreras’ to help with.
When she first became a waitress, gangly and hardly fourteen, the boys had been frequent crashers. They’d linger around during her shifts, sending pleading eyes her way for a refill of sweet tea and hoping for some scraps if Mike was feeling generous. When her dad had begun teaching her to cook, they’d been her earliest taste testers. John B and JJ would shovel just about anything down like a garbage disposal, and Pope was too polite to say anything that made her want to up and leave the kitchen forever.
The strain of the past year had led to their presence mostly petering out, but Kiara wasn’t totally surprised when she twirled out of the kitchen and nearly gave Pope a shirt full of shrimp and grits.
Years of experience was all that saved the tray.
“Woah, watch it, bro,” she said, with a little laugh. He didn’t share it.
“Shoot. Sorry, Kie.”
Pope’s presence in of itself wasn’t that odd, but the wringing of his hands and the hat tugged down nearly over his eyes certainly was. She tilted her chin down for a better view of his face.
“Everything okay? You’re a little bit of freaky Pope today.”
She hadn’t seen him this awkward since those horrid in between days before they’d called off their failed attempt at a relationship. The thought made her stomach twist with something almost like guilt, because she hadn’t had a chance to talk to him about things yet.
In her defense, things on the other end were moving at a snail’s pace. In fact, worse than a snail’s pace. Kiara was fairly sure JJ had flirted with her more before this bad idea had even settled in her mind.
“Yeah,” Pope said. It clearly wasn’t. Kiara strained not to pull too much of a face, because for whatever reason, he was struggling. “I just came here to talk to you about something.”
“Okay,” Kiara encouraged, and she tried not to let her patience thin. She had hot trays of food in her hands and more than a few hungry patrons to look after, and she really didn’t want her parents on her ass again. “Actually, let me take care of this first.”
She delivered the shrimp and grits and burger, giving her best suck up smile to the customers and a customary ask if she could get them anything else. Thankfully, they didn’t need anything, so she was able to hurry back over to where Pope was lingering by the counter.
Kiara wiped her hands on her apron. “What’s going on?”
Pope took a breath, and she could see him running through something rehearsed in his brain. “I just felt like I should tell you. Cleo and I—“
“That’s awesome,” she interrupted, both to take pity on him, and because she wasn’t totally blind. She’d been seeing this coming for weeks, had seen the way Cleo grinned at Pope when he was stuttering through a bait sale at the shop. She’d been helping him stock the place for weeks now, and even Heyward was taken with her and the way she half charmed, half terrified customers.
And Kiara meant it. It was awesome. Pope was moving on, and that meant there was no reason she couldn’t, too. “You two are good together.”
She still wasn’t positive how much she trusted Cleo. The girl had been tolerable enough while they were stranded on the island, and she wasn’t a totally uncommon addition to pogue hangouts nowadays. Kiara had just always had a hard time vibing with new people, with letting them into her small circle. But if Cleo made Pope smile, then Kiara would try her damndest to support them.
“Really?” Pope said, like he couldn’t quite believe it had been this easy. A somewhat disbelieving smile broke across his face. “Yeah. Thanks, Kie.”
“So. Are y’all together, or…?”
“We have a date. Kind of a date.”
Kiara forced the protective instincts screaming in the back of her head down, powering it into a playful punch to his shoulder instead. “Let me know how it goes, yeah?”
Pope was off with a promise to do just that, but the “date” wasn’t for several days yet. Like her, he valued their impossibly easy post half-breakup rapport, and wanted to check in with her before things moved forward. She sincerely hoped she’d be able to do him a similar favor before the turn of the next century, but she wasn’t holding her breath.
She had to up her game. A few longer than normal glances and touches were clearly not going to cut it.
Think of the devil and the devil shall appear, because not an hour had passed before JJ showed up in her periphery. He was sat at a table in the corner, eyes squinted down at the menu like he was some form of actual customer, and he was altogether making a show of not looking in her direction.
Kiara resisted the urge to roll her eyes.
But the restaurant had grown slow enough at this time, and her dad was in the back, busy with cooking. She approached his table, only slamming her hand down on it when the tell tale stiffening of his shoulders let her know he’d spotted her.
“No loitering,” she said.
JJ’s head shot up, his blonde hairs sticking out from under his cap in every direction. His clearwater gaze roved over her from head to toe.
“Wow,” he appraised. “I give you an F in waitressing.”
“Seriously. I’m just saying you could show a little more respect for your customers.”
“Oh I could, could I?” She’d always kind of hated talking about this with him, had thought it felt a bit like nails were dragging along her throat instead of words. “If you’re here because of Pope—‘
“I’m not,” JJ argued, too easily. He pretended to look at the menu again, and her glare could’ve burned straight through the lamination. “But if I was—“
“Oh my god.”
“If I was,” JJ repeated, more loudly. “Would everything be chill?”
“Yes, dude.” Kiara felt something a little like defeat. “Pretty sure we established me and Pope don’t like each other like that.”
She tried to read him. To decide whether he was actually uninterested, interested because he was concerned over his friends, or interested because he was interested, but the quirk of his lips left her head spinning.
Still, she didn’t actually want him to leave just yet. A glance around the restaurant told her that a breather was still an option for her, so she said, “I’ll be right back.”
Kiara returned moments later, a pitcher of sweet tea and a tray of onion rings in hand. JJ’s face lit up, and his fingers were flying for the food before she could even sit down.
If this was a normal relationship, she probably would’ve been offended he seemed more happy to see the onion rings than her.
“We’re elevated back to free food status?” he asked.
“Wouldn’t push it that far,” Kiara said, pulling apart an onion ring. Things were improving with her parents, inch by inch. She didn’t think her dad would bitch, but if he did, she’d tell him to take it out of her check.
He let out a low, pitying whistle, but her parents were currently on the backburner of her worries.
“Not like they can keep the place afloat without me, anyway.” Okay, so they could, but she was definitely their best waitress. Was becoming one of the better cooks, too, even though she didn’t spend as much time back in the kitchen.
JJ had yanked his hat off his head while she was gone, and Kiara followed his gaze down to where it was clenched in his fists, pointedly past the bulging muscles in his arms. Her eyes met ratty shades of olive, and she was hit with a stroke of brilliance.
She hardly absorbed what he said next. Hardly could keep the smile off her face, which didn’t escape JJ’s notice.
He leaned forward in his seat, light brows pinched together. “Yo, you sure you’re good?”
“No, yeah. Just tired.”
“Because if you want this last onion ring—“
She snatched half of it, shoving it into her mouth with too big of a grin. The weird look wasn’t wiped off of his face, even when she reluctantly pushed herself back to her feet.
“If you’re still here when we close, you’re cleaning tables,” she threatened.
He wasn’t, but she didn’t miss the napkins poorly arranged, or the ketchup bottle wiped down. He was a slob, for certain, but he was a notch above John B.
Kiara was a woman on a mission the second the door to her room shut behind her that night. She’d never been so happy to be locked inside the familiar four walls.
She thanked all the heavens above that her parents had let her cling to her unlimited data plan, because she needed it. She crawled across all corners of the web, and of fucking course the company was shut down. The original had probably been swiped off of some 70-year-old man, for all she knew.
Amazon, google, pinterest; they all failed her, but finally she stumbled upon a familiar red hat on a website that had a one hundred percent chance of getting her debit card hacked from Thailand.
It was a chance she was willing to take, and she was going all in, damn it.
By some miracle, it arrived in tact on her porch, even if in the amount of time it took for it to arrive she’d nearly forgotten ordering it altogether.
Kiara knew JJ missed that hat. She missed that hat. She couldn’t even begin to count the amount of boneyard parties, boat rides, or late night drives in the twinkie it had gone on with them, but he hadn’t mentioned it. She supposed he thought it seemed stupid to mention, when he came close to losing his actual life at the same time.
The next morning, the hat was tucked away in her backpack on the drive to school, and she was hit with an irrational wave of nerves. What if JJ didn’t like that she’d done this? It wasn’t like he’d never gone distant and quiet over an attempted act of kindness from people before. There was a reason she didn’t usually do this type of thing.
But this wasn’t that big a deal, she told herself. It wasn’t expensive enough to count as charity (She’d neglect to mention the shipping cost to him), and she just wanted to show him that she’d been thinking about him. That she thought about him a lot, and she wanted to do something nice for him.
Yeah. It was fine.
Although she wanted to keep it relatively cool, Kiara didn’t want to give it to him in front of their friends. She wanted to maintain some semblance of game.
An opportunity arose on their way to agriculture. John B and Pope had split off for their gym class, and her eyes were full of JJ’s ratty old backpack as she followed behind him. There was one, lone rooster pin just below one of the fraying straps, which she had stuck in there weeks ago. It hadn’t been budged from its spot.
She kicked his heel, boot against boot. The corners of her mouth picked up when he turned a questioning glance on her over his shoulder.
“I’ve got something for you,” she said.
He stared back at her. “What do you mean—Kie?”
Kiara wove off away from their classroom and in the direction of the courtyard instead. She heard the squeak of his shoes on the tile as he hurried to follow her. His eyes remained glued to her when she pushed open the door and threw her bag on the nearest table to rummage through it.
“Just a second.”
JJ teetered from foot to foot. “Wait—Today’s not a holiday, is it?”
Kiara’s hands grasped the bill, and she tugged it upwards and into the daylight. She straightened it, uselessly, and stared down at the lettering she’d been debating for twenty-four hours straight.
“I just... I know you lost yours on the ship, and it’s not the same as yours, but I figured this could still be good.”
The hat hovered in the air between them. It was stiff and too new, and the logo wasn’t exactly right, but JJ took it with careful fingers. She saw his throat bob, and he wasn’t taking his eyes off the hat.
“Kie….” His voice was a little hoarse.
There was a moment of hesitation, and then he was pulling her into a hug. Her arms went up to wrap around him, and her heart fucking leapt, as if she hadn’t hugged him dozens of times before.
He pulled back, and her mind was still hazy from the familiar smell of his body spray. He dropped the hat carefully over his head, and his hair fanned out, the red looking familiar and too bright all at once against the blonde.
His hand flexed against the brim, and she seemed to have rendered him a tad speechless. A feat in of itself.
‘Uh, thanks.” JJ cleared his throat. He tugged at his shirt collar. “So, what’s the occasion?”
Kiara shrugged, a little bashfully. “Just wanted to. You know.”
He blinked, very rapidly. Adjusted the hat on his head again, and didn’t bother to bite back his grin. The shine of his dimple felt like a flag on the first lap to victory.
“Guess this means I have to step up my game for Christmas this year,” he said.
“Two baggies of weed instead of one?”
“Hey. I’ll have you know that’s good ass weed.”
Getting JJ the hat didn’t do shit. She rarely saw him without it, and she didn’t miss the way he carefully tucked it away in his backpack before diving into any water, but he treated her the same as ever. Tossed her the same lazy smiles, with no bolder touches or invading of her space to be found.
She was going to have to be more straightforward, then.
The year was already warming up again, and Kiara was getting tired. She opened her texts, purposefully thumbing past the pogue group chat and onto JJ’s individual contact screen.
Kie [10:37 am]: Hey! The rents gave me another day of freedom. Want to hang out tonight?
She’d picked up an extra weekend shift at the Wreck to earn that freedom, but he didn’t have to know that. This doubled as a positive, because it meant more tips for her jar.
She kept glancing at her phone, even as she tucked away some remnants of her laundry. It wasn’t like he was going to say no, so she really wasn’t sure why the waiting had her so on edge. Wasn’t the best part of having a thing with your best friend avoiding stupid nerves?
Kiara clearly didn’t know. It wasn’t as if she had a ton of experience outside of them.
JJ didn’t make her wait long.
JJ [10:43 am]: See. I’m down
Kie [10:45 am]: Pretty sure you spelled that wrong.
Kie [10:46 am]: Wanna take the Pogue out? I’ll bring food
JJ [10:53 am]: Hell ya
Getting JJ alone wasn’t going to cover it, which Kiara was unfortunately well aware of by now. She rifled through her closet, debating a way too cute yellow romper that had had compliments piling overtop her at the kook academy. Decided it was too much, and shoved the hanger back into the depths of the closet.
She yanked it back out. She could use a bit much.
She gave her hair an extra dollop of curl cream, and even spritzed a bit of perfume on her wrists that she would absolutely regret when the friendly neighborhood mosquitoes swarmed her later. It left her decidedly cuter than a hangout with the boys called for, but that was what she was aiming for here, right?
When midday began to creep towards afternoon, Kiara picked up fish tacos from a Mexican place that definitely did not recycle their plastic, even nabbing JJ a Mountain Dew along the way. Bringing food Not From The Wreck was decidedly a step up from what she’d normally do.
She had Pelican Taco bags tucked away in one arm, a towel big enough to be a blanket under the other, and hopes soaring entirely too high when she slid out of her car at the Chateau.
JJ was already at the dock, readying the Pogue for the marsh. His nose was in the coolers, so she whistled a greeting. He lifted a hand in return, not yet looking up.
His new red hat was pulled backwards on his head, and he was in a Heyward’s Seafood t-shirt that looked almost clean if she squinted. A fond grin crept over Kiara’s face, and she jostled the food bags.
“I got Pelican Taco,” she announced.
“Wait, that’s what I’m talking about!” JJ’s head shot up, a smile blazing on his face. His eyes landed on her, and the cooler lid came down with a whack. He yanked his hand back, waving his fingers in the air dramatically. “Ow. Shit.”
“Hey, no breaking your fingers and ruining the day,” a voice called, and Kiara stilled.
John B was trotting down towards the dock, two fishing poles in tow. He bumped her with his elbow as he passed, then leaned down and gave her head the best noogie he could manage with his hands nearly full. Kiara could practically feel her styled curls flying up towards the sun, a halo of hell around her face.
“What are you doing here?” she demanded. She realized how it sounded, but there was roaring in her ears, and it was typically a date night for both of the resident couples, dammit.
John B landed her with eyes round and dark enough to belong to a golden retriever. She could never stay pissed at those eyes, even for her own good. “Sarah’s aunt is in town.”
“The non insane one. And Pope’s on a date with Cleo, so we thought the three of us could go catch some,” John B explained.
The three of them. Fishing.
Kiara’s expression had gone flat. “Fishing. My favorite thing.”
JJ was uncharacteristically quiet, blinking at her from the boat. His eyes darted to the deck, and then back to her again. She wondered if he could feel the threats of bodily harm rolling off of her in waves.
John B gave her a double take, forehead crinkling. “You’re wearing that to go fishing?”
“Pretty stupid of me, I guess.” Kiara shifted the bags around in her arms, and JJ finally gathered the sense to take them from her. His hands didn’t graze hers. “Not that I can’t look cute just because I feel like it.”
She hated that she’d reached the point where she a little bit resented John B for coming out with them on his own boat. This bad energy she was currently experiencing? Undoubtedly earned.
“Wait, sorry, Kie,” John B said. He juggled the fishing poles, casting a glance back at the house. “Did you want a pole?”
Resigned to her fate, Kiara lifted a leg up and over the side of the boat. JJ shifted like he might hold out a hand to help her, but she made the leap across before he could.
“I don’t think I’ll add ‘fish murderer’ to my name today, thanks,” she said, and it was lighter and generally less bitchy than her tone had to have been in the last several minutes.
Kiara didn’t actually have a problem with the boys fishing as a general principle, so long as they kept it as clean and cruelty free as possible. She’d eaten and prepared her fair share of seafood, so too much bitching would make her a hypocrite. She just preferred not to stare into the fish’s eyes as it died. Sue her.
Whatever had caught JJ’s tongue evaporated for he and John B to fall into an argument about the best place to fish on the sound. JJ won, predictably, and as the motor roared to life, Kiara toyed with the urge to drown them both. Or herself.
She stuffed a taco into her mouth instead. Tried not to scowl when John B ducked his head in the bag and complained, “Where’s my drink?”
Kiara scooted her tea closer. “Feel free to fight over JJ’s.”
JJ tapped his fingers on the wheel. “No worries, bro. I hooked us up with Geechie’s.”
True to his word, there was a six-pack shoved in the cooler, too close for comfort to the fish bits they were using for bait. Kiara scrunched up her nose and scooted down the bench, unfortunately unsurprised.
The afternoon was good. Even if it wasn’t exactly what she had planned, it was hard to go for a day on the sound with JJ and John B and not come away smiling. They shit talked each other for their mediocre catches, Kiara shit talked them both, and it was a hell of a good time.
She didn’t pass up the opportunity to torment JJ. He was sat at the stern, elbows braced on either side of him and eyes lazily tracking his line.
Kiara climbed back to her feet, nudging his knees aside so she could get to the cooler. “Watch out.”
Maybe she dipped down a little further than necessary, pretending to debate which can she was going to grab even though they were all the same. Maybe she knew the front of her romper parted just so when she bent over, giving the perfect glimpse at her cleavage.
But she looked really fucking hot for nothing, and it was what he deserved, okay?
She emerged with her beer, hands stinging from the ice, and he predictably forced his attention away several seconds too late. Kiara flipped her hair over her shoulder.
“Whatcha looking at?” she asked, arranging her expression as innocently as possible.
“Nothing,” JJ said, on reflex. He adjusted his hat on his head, and she didn’t miss the way his lips twitched. He cast a sideways glance at her, then corrected, “Nothing I shouldn’t be.”
“I’ll be sure to close my eyes next time.”
She shot a look at John B; he was obliviously staring off into the rolling waters at the bow, so she eased onto the seat next to JJ, close enough that his outstretched forearm tickled the back of her neck. She wondered if he read the hint of smugness in her grin as she sipped her beer.
JJ shifted beside her, and something warm traced the underside of her sleeve where his hand had been propped on the boat. It took her a second to realize it was the pad of his finger. Little goose bumps crept over her skin, and she willed him not notice. Willed him to even more.
Kiara’s eyebrows popped up, and she adjusted her weight away from him so she could get a better view of his face. There was no way he could miss her grin now. “Nice thing?”
“Yeah. Outfit. Whatever the fuck.” If it wasn’t JJ she was talking to and they hadn’t just spent several hours in the sun, she might have thought his cheeks had gone a little pink.
“Oh, thank you.” Kiara was fairly certain that her glowing face took points off of her attempt at a sarcastic tone.
There was a pause. It should’ve been the moment she leaned into him a little bit more than platonic friends called for, and he let his arm slide down just those few inches to drape around her shoulders. Or better yet, the moment he leaned into her.
Instead, he stilled, bracing himself like panther before springing from his seat, shouting, “Fish on!”
And then his hands were on his reel instead of her, because of course they fucking were.
Facetiming had never been something Sarah and Kiara had particularly done before. Kiara wasn’t really one for talking on the phone, in general. She preferred to sit face to face with the people she loved, to enjoy the company of whomever she was with in person rather than through technology.
But with Kiara’s socialization hours limited, they’d picked up the habit more and more. Even though the Carreras were loosening up, bit by bit, they hadn’t dropped the new ritual.
When Kiara called Sarah that night, her favorite oversized sleep shirt thrown on and her hair pulled into a bun, Sarah answered on the third ring.
Kiara had been told she had resting bitch face before. So she didn’t go around smiling all the time when the world was slowly sinking into an all out climate collapse. What was she supposed to do?
She didn’t want to imagine how she must have appeared through Sarah’s screen, because she took one look at her expression and asked, “What’s wrong?”
“Is John B there?”
“No.” Sarah’s blonde head whipped around behind her, like maybe she was just checking to make sure. “Why? Is this about JJ? Did the taco thing not work?”
“Oh, yeah. We had a date. With your boyfriend.”
Sarah went so still Kiara thought maybe her internet connection had gone out. “He did not.”
“Oh my god.”
“I always hated when I heard guys bitch about being in the friend zone,” Kiara said, flopping back on her bed. The cushions sunk around her like a fortress she might just consider never leaving. “But what the fuck.”
“Kie, I know I don’t know JJ as well as you do,” Sarah said. It felt like she was hesitating. “But have you ever thought that maybe he’s just really dumb?”
“He’s not dumb.”
Kiara called him JJ a dumbass at least once a day, but a little defensiveness pricked at her when Sarah said it. He could be immature, and definitely rash, but she’d also seen him studying her almost self-consciously when he contributed to certain conversations about carbon emissions or waste dumps. When he really tried to contribute, not when he piped in just to piss her off.
(Maybe she had it bad, okay?)
“I didn’t mean it like that. I just think maybe he needs a bigger clue. Like an actual conversation about it. He’s probably just as nervous as you are.”
Kiara scoffed at the idea of JJ nervous. He didn’t know the meaning of the word. He went through life vicariously, with a lust for fun that she could only hope to half match, and she’d seen him chase after girl after girl without a care in the world.
She realized she wasn’t just some random touron, but come on. He knew flirting, and she’d practically been flashing a neon sign in his face.
Sarah frowned sympathetically at her silence. “I’m sure he likes you.”
Sometimes, Kiara still thought so too, but even when they did have something that almost felt like a moment, JJ seemed inclined to ignore it. It was bewildering, infuriating, and borderline embarrassing.
Kiara was starting to think that maybe Sarah had been on to something. Maybe just planting one on him was the only way to go.
Or maybe she’d read things all wrong. It would be fitting karma, probably. That maybe the pogue she finally set her sights on didn’t see her as a romantic entity at all.
“I think this dating the pogues thing might just be too complicated.” Kiara pulled at a thread in her pillow. Saying it should have felt like a relief, but it was lead in her stomach.
Sarah frowned. “Kie, I think you should do whatever you want to do. JJ will still be there whenever you’re ready.”
Kiara sensed she wanted to say more, but was holding back. She mustered a half smile. “Thanks.”
One last, rolling tang of bitterness shot through her, and Kiara couldn’t help but say, “I even wore that yellow romper.”
Sarah adjusted herself in the tiny little screen, like she was thinking back. “Wait. The one with the ruffle hem?”
“What? You look so hot in that.”
“Right?” Kiara found herself laughing, because okay, it was a little funny. It was also easier than focusing on the sting of rejection. “Maybe he is just a dumbass.”
Or he was trying to let her down easy.
But the thought was drowned out by their giggling, and shit, she was so glad to have Sarah back. It was both the same and better than their hurricane friendship during her kook year, because this time, she had her boys too.
Their laugher was interrupted by a thump from Sarah’s end. She looked up from her phone, eyes trained on something Kiara couldn’t see. “Shit, that’s John B. I better go.”
Of course. The king of convenient timing.
Kiara gave a little wave. “Alright. Talk to you later.”
It was probably kind of pathetic to use up a limited hangout with one’s friends to clean up other people’s trash on the beach, but Kiara wasn’t exactly normal. Besides, she had been consistent enough with checking in with her parents lately that they’d almost definitely allow her a second day this week.
She tried not to think too much into the fact that JJ was the only one who could be talked into it.
Sarah, who was the only one other than her into that kind of thing, had a project due the next day at school, and John B was pleading the case of moral support for his girlfriend. Cleo had given her a less concise version of thanks, but she’d rather cut off her hands, and Pope had refused to make eye contact.
“Guess that leaves me,” JJ had said, too casually for someone who could hardly pick up his own trash, much less the trash of other people. And especially for free.
Kiara had abandoned her half assed plan. There was still a hum of something between them, and she still found her fingers reaching for his contact in her phone more than ever before, but as far as she was concerned, she’d all but passed him a note that said, “Do you like me? Check yes or no.”
And he hadn’t exactly checked no, but he had ignored it. It was arguably even worse.
“People are disgusting.” Kiara curled her lip, alligator clip closing around something that looked too close to a used condom for comfort.
“Yeah,” JJ said, after a beat, like it was obvious. He was already trailing behind her, his attention span waning. She could see his attention on the waves, like he was imagining all the swells he could be catching.
Kiara was imagining a sea turtle choking on a fucking condom.
“Seriously. When humans go extinct, they’ll deserve it.”
“Call me selfish, but I seriously hope that is not in our lifetime—Hey! Check it out.”
Before Kiara could protest, JJ’s ungloved hands were reaching out through the water in their full glory. She tried and failed not to cringe when he flipped the bill over. The damp face of Abraham Lincoln stared back at them, and Kiara couldn’t totally blame him for grabbing it. It was half an hour’s work for him.
He gave it an appraising nod. “Who needs the Royal Merchant when we’ve got this?”
“More than I usually make at work.” The Carrera’s had come around a bit, but that didn’t mean they’d gone back to handing Kiara money as freely as they had before.
He reached out for a pogue handshake, and whatever the hell had no doubt made its way from the bill to JJ’s hand was the least of Kiara’s concerns. It was all JJ’s smirk and the feel of his knuckles against hers.
He stretched out the bill, contemplating it very seriously. “What should we buy? I’m thinking one of those fancy little drink jackets.”
“You mean a koozie?”
JJ snapped his fingers. “Exactly.”
“No, I’ve got it.” Kiara grinned. “Wait here.”
Thankfully, the public parking was close by, and Kiara was digging through the back of her car underneath the stash of towels she kept on hand, just in case, in no time. Her tongue poked out in concentration, but it transformed into a little smile of triumph when her grip landed on a familiar smooth lid.
It wasn’t that she had thousands of dollars stashed in their surf trip jar, but she knew it would be smarter to keep it in her room. It wasn’t like her car would be difficult to break in to. Maybe if there wasn’t still a lingering fear that her parents would find it, would somehow sabotage it because they didn’t understand, she would have done so.
“You got a stash you’ve been keeping from us, Kie?” JJ asked, from over her shoulder, and she hadn’t quite realized he’d followed her back to the parking lot.
She rolled her eyes, but the lilt of her lips betrayed her. She held the jar out for him to see. “Surf trip jar.”
JJ blinked down at it. Blinked down at it some more, and something like dread slowly pooled into Kiara’s belly.
She hadn’t accounted for the fact that what was on the jar might be slightly incriminating. “Kie and JJ’s surf trip” was innocent enough, but the little doodle heart she’d scribbled next to it read as slightly fruity, at the very least.
Kiara filled the silence with an awkward little intake of breath that was not at all befitting to she and JJ’s relationship. “Figured my tip money would be a good start, right?”
JJ’s throat bobbed. He forced a laugh. “Probably a good thing you’re in charge of it.”
He handed her the five dollars, and then he was backpedaling, like he couldn’t wait to get back to beach.
Kiara followed a few minutes later, debating the merits of ducking her head under a wave. JJ’s back stiffened as she approached, and she noted that his hat had been twisted around to be backwards on his head while he waited on her.
He tossed a quick look over his shoulder. “Found some more shit.”
“Of course you did.”
The conversation teetered off, unnaturally tense. Kiara wasn’t sure if the problem was her or JJ or both, but her hand was gripping her trash bag with newfound vigor. She contemplated snapping something at him.
It must have been as painful to him as her, because JJ eventually said, “You’re serious?”
Kiara could have played dumb. Asked him what he meant. But his expression was shuttered, like he was struggling to even look her in the face, and the implication was obvious.
“Sure,” Kiara said. He was still watching her, eyes scanning her face, so she added, “To be honest, us on a surf trip is just about the best thing I’ve ever heard.”
There was a pause, and then JJ’s hand was pinching the bridge of his nose. He shook his head, muttering something that sounded suspiciously like, “Goddamn.”
Kiara was already a bit on edge, so it made her bristle at once. “What?”
He aggressively snatched up a coco-cola can for his bag. “Nothing.”
“No, I heard you. What?”
It forced him to look at her again. Finally.
“Jesus, Kiara,” JJ said. He sounded more subdued, but his jaw was clenched tightly enough to make her dentist cry. “You just don’t make it easy, alright?”
Kiara snorted, disbelieving. He had no idea what that even meant. “Oh, I don’t make things easy?”
“Well, excuse me for saying nice things about you. I’ll be sure not to do it again.” She threw up her hands, and absently, she realized she must have dropped her trash bag. Shoved down the fear of where this might be going.
“That’s not what I meant,” JJ said, like she was supposed to know what the fuck he did mean. “It’s just that lately you’ve been, like—I don’t know. Never mind.”
“Oh, you don’t know?”
“No. Yeah. It’s just a little confusing for a man to remember you’re just friends sometimes when you—“
She hadn’t realized she’d moved; all she knew was that she was stomping towards JJ, up to her ankles in ocean water, and that she’d thrown her hands on either side of his face, cutting him off in mid sentence.
Her lips smothered his words, whatever shit he was going to say fading into her.
JJ went went slack, lips still as stone and chapped as she brushed them against hers. One, two, three seconds passed, the hammering of Kiara’s heart ticking from exhilaration towards horror.
But then his hands were moving. One splayed out against her hip, and the other slunk up her back, sinking into the curls at the nape of her neck and dragging her closer. Closer. Closer.
The movement caught her enough by surprise (or maybe it was relief) that she let out a little breath against him. JJ didn’t miss the opportunity to slip his tongue between her lips, coaxing something like a moan from deep in the back of her throat.
He felt so good. He was so good.
JJ pulled back before she was prepared for it. Her lips chased his, to no avail, and she peeled open her eyes. She wondered if a bystander would call what she was doing pouting.
“Hi,” he breathed. She could count the shades of saltwater in his eyes, and the shine of his smirk so close up was nearly blinding. There was a question there, on his face, but a flicker of something like hope, too.
Her heart soared.
“C’mere.” She yanked him back in, and she realized she was grinning against his lips, too.
And holy shit. This. If there were any doubts left, that this was subconsciously trying to round out the group to most accurately conclude that no, she didn’t in fact have feelings for any of her best friends, then they would have been swept away in a tidal wave.
This was nothing like kissing John B or Pope. It was hot and all consuming and Kiara felt flames tickling all the way to the tips of her toes. If it was going to consume her, she was prepared to let it.
They could have been there for minutes or hours before they finally pulled back, but Kiara didn’t care. She could bottle this moment, them against the ocean, and live in it forever.
JJ blinked, gaze a little foggy, like a man coming out of a daze. His lips arched into a wider grin. “The surf trip just got more interesting,” he said.
Kiara snorted, but it turned into happy, infectious laughter bubbling out of her chest. She flicked his forehead. “Oh yeah?”
His fingers were still threaded through her hair, like he couldn’t stop touching her. The thought made her lean up on her toes to plant a kiss on his nose, and he watched her with wide eyes.
“Just so you know,” Kiara said, slapping a hand against his chest. She schooled the joy off her face, which was especially difficult when JJ had a visibly hard time looking away from her fingers splayed against his shirt. “It’s your fault this didn’t happen sooner.”
JJ looked appalled. Or, as appalled as a person could look when they still couldn’t stop grinning. “My fault?”
Shit. He’d had her legitimately worrying he no longer saw her as a sexual entity.
“I’ve been dropping hints for months, dipshit,” she cut across him.
JJ stared at her, processing. Yanked her further into his space. “Uh, I have been dropping hints for years, so.”
Kiara took in his expression, which was more open and affectionate than she’d ever seen it. In the gentle way his thumb was rubbing against her waist. In the realization that maybe, just maybe, he wasn’t the only dumbass in this situation.
She couldn’t resist dropping another kiss on his lips. He made a noise of protest when she pulled away too soon, but his eyes were dancing with delight.
“We should probably talk about some things,” Kiara said, but it was hard to worry about any of the what if’s when his arms felt so nice around her.
He licked his lips. “Yeah.” There was a pause, and then, “Can we talk about them later?”
Kiara had no objections when he pulled her chin forwards, enveloping her in another kiss.