The lights were on low in the Chateau, the yellow and white bulbs clashing with the green and red twinkle of the out-of-season Christmas lights tangled over a few nails above the door. They all had beers, John B was sprawled in the seat of honor on the couch, and everything was right in the world again.
Except Ward was out on bail and it wasn't looking like the charges would stick.
And Sarah was locked in her house, forbidden by her parents and their lawyer to see John B, or any of the Pogues, at the very least until the depositions were over and probably forever.
Things were…weird. It was the first time they had all been in a room together since the night they found out John B was lost. He'd told all his Bahamas and pirates and shipwreck stories, some of them twice already. They had all hugged and smacked him and bitched up and down about him not trying to call or send a coded message or anything.
But there was still an uneasiness in the air, a waiting in the way the silences fall too quickly in between John B's stories, in the way they were all laughing too loud when they got any excuse to.
"Does, um, anybody need a beer?" Kiara broke the latest silence by getting to her feet.
"Isn't yours still full?" JJ tipped his bottle toward hers, and she looked down to find the level of liquid sloshing incriminatingly at the neck of the bottle. Shit.
"You know how it is with beers," she said brightly, "easy come, easy go!"
She tipped her head back and chugged, even though it stung her throat and pressure built in her chest and she suddenly wondered if they were all watching her boobs lift under each big swallow.
And she hated herself for thinking that because a few scant weeks ago, she never would have wondered if her friends were looking at her boobs. Never would have thought of it at all. She choked and sputtered on the last swallow, then headed toward the kitchen to fulfill her stalling maneuver.
JJ knocked his beer back, too, and passed her the bottle when she passed, their fingers brushing with a jolt of awareness so intense that she jumped back and dropped the empty.
"You okay?" His eyes followed her, wary.
"I'm not your beer wench," she snapped, like she always did.
"I know," he said slowly. "That's why I was surprised you offered to grab the next round. Because you always get pissy about it when you've been waiting tables too much."
He leaned forward and she scampered back, her heart racing that he'd try to touch her now, in front of all the guys. But he just hunched his shoulders a little harder and snatched up the bottle she dropped, then stomped to the kitchen to throw it away himself. She could tell by the tense line of his back that her flinch hurt his feelings. She called after him, "JJ…" without having any idea what she was going to say.
"Hey," John B said into the silence. Had his voice gotten deeper while he'd been gone? "Can you help me with something outside real quick, Kie?"
She whipped around, guilty and defensive all at once. "Me? Right now? It's dark."
"Yeah, but the HMS Pogue was running funny earlier and I want to go out fishing at dawn. It'd be nice, you know, after all the craziness of the past few weeks. One normal morning."
Pope wouldn't look at her. Not that that was new. No newer than their post-kiss "we're better as friends" talk, anyway. But now he seemed to be extra conspicuous about it.
"Uh, just me and you?" Kiara said, shifting her weight from foot to foot. Jesus, John B wasn't going to make a move or something, was he? He was still mooneyed over Sarah, she was pretty sure. But why was he trying to get her alone to talk? Man, more guy drama was the last thing she needed.
JJ came back out of the kitchen, scowling. "I took care of the HMS Pogue while you were gone, man. Like it was my own. Runs fine."
"No, I'm sure you did," John B says. "This is a new thing. Probably just came up. Kie and I will just take a quick look."
JJ looked thunderous, his mouth snapping shut and jaw working. "What would Sarah think about that?"
"About Kiara fixing my boat?" John B looked genuinely bewildered, an expression that had crossed his face more and more since he'd waded back into the newly choppy waters between the Pogues.
"About you being alone with Kiara. After dark." JJ turned his head to spit, then seemed to realize he was inside and shoved rough knuckles across his mouth, instead. It made something in Kiara's chest ache to look at him, so she glanced away. Only to see Pope's eyes fleeing from her at the same time.
"Uh, I don't think Sarah will think anything about it," John B said. "Considering I've been alone with Kie after dark about twenty thousand times more than I've been alone with Sarah."
He tilted his head like he was asking a silent question of JJ. The two usually had their own language that even Pope and Kiara couldn't totally translate, but JJ didn't seem to be in the mood to talk today, because he looked away.
"You good?" John B finally asked, out loud.
"We're good." JJ threw a stormy look at Kiara and turned away. "I'm going to get a beer."
Presumably out of his right hand, since that was where he was currently holding a full beer. He stormed off, anyway.
She let out a breath that left her whole body sagging like empty clothes. John B grabbed her hand, like he'd done twenty thousand times before, and she snatched it away, glancing after JJ. What the hell was John B thinking? He better not be staking some kind of claim. Or making a point. It was her body, damn it and he didn't have any right—
"You coming?" He had that same, too-deliberate "are you crazy" tone he'd been using on JJ. She scowled and stormed out the door, taking a sharp right toward the beach.
"Boat dock's still to the left," he called after her. "Hasn't moved."
"You're still the world's worst liar, John B." She turned around, crossing her arms. "And sound carries over the marsh, in case you forgot while you were on your little vacation in the Bahamas. Whatever you want to say to me, they're still gonna hear it if you say it on the boat dock."
"Okay." He matched her long, angry strides easily as they made their way down the shore, his steps annoyingly quiet on the sand.
Even after dark, the humidity hung heavy and suffocating, like even the air was touching her too much and making her want to swat it away. She gritted her teeth and reminded herself that a week ago, she would have given anything on earth to have John B walking this beach with her, alive and okay.
"I really am glad you're back," she said, even that honest truth coming out snappy and harsh.
"Okayyy…" he said, stealing a sideways look. "Then you want to tell me what's going on with all of you?"
"What, because it's automatically my fault?"
"No, because you're the one acting the weirdest. Did I do something?"
Her heart stumbled in her chest and she threw him a desperate look. "I'm sorry. Shit. It's not that we're not glad you're home. It's all we wanted, seriously, you don't even understand how bad things were without you. How lost we all were. Just…a lot of stuff happened. And maybe we're still a little lost."
He stopped and touched her arm, letting go as soon as she pivoted toward him. "So, tell me. All the stuff that happened, whatever went wrong. Maybe I can help fix it."
She laughed, shortly. "Yeah, good luck with that, champ. No, I think telling you will only make it weirder than it already is. Exponential weirdness."
"I don't know, you always said I was as weird as a human person could ever get…"
"Don't try to make me laugh right now."
"I would never," he said solemnly. Then crossed his eyes.
She snorted. "Very mature, John Booker Routledge."
"Mature is my middle name," he said, with his finger up his nose.
She looked away, battling a smile. "I hate you."
"Yeah, but it seems like you maybe hate me a little less than the other two right now, huh?" he fished. "So maybe you could tell me what's wrong?"
She sighed. "I kissed Pope."
His eyes bugged out. "Pope? You kissed Pope?"
"Did your English get rusty while you were gone?" she snapped. "Yes, I kissed Pope."
"Uh…" He tucked his hands in his pockets, stole a sideways look at her. "You know he likes you, right?"
She slapped a mosquito on her neck with more force than strictly necessary. "I didn't kiss him because he hated me, moron. Yes, I knew he liked me. And I told him I didn't feel that way and Pogues didn't mack on other Pogues, and then…" Her breath whooshed out and she buried her toes in the sand until she couldn't see them anymore. "And then you died and I kissed Pope and ruined everything."
"Wait, you kissed Pope because I died?" He shook his head, like there was something rattling loose inside.
"Kind of? I think so? I don't know, John B. I mean I love Pope, I love all you guys, but I don't love him like that. I told him that but then I just…it felt like everything was slipping away and you guys were all gone somehow and I was just trying to hold on." Her hands fell open at her sides, grasping at the air, but her chest felt emptier, like she'd found a truth in there just by letting it out.
That was right, she realized for the first time since it had happened. She kissed Pope because she didn't want the Pogues to slip away without John B to anchor them. She wanted something big, like a promise, that she'd be able to keep the boys who were her whole world. And instead she'd driven them all away.
"So JJ's jealous," John B said with confidence, like he didn't even need to ask the question. "And he's probably being a butt because he feels left out, and then you want to leave him out because he's being such a butt."
"Actually, JJ kissed me."
"Do we really need to do that whole bit again?"
John B was turned her way, gaping, but she just stared out over the sea, leaving her eyes wide open so hopefully the tears that were starting to gather would evaporate before they had to fall.
"Oh, Kie," he finally said. "I kissed you and then they…fuck, I'm sorry, man."
She coughed, the laugh so hard it felt like a punch and the tears leapt from her eyes before she could stop them. "That's the problem, isn't it? I'm not a man. I can't ever be one of the guys like you and now it's so messed up there's no un-messing it."
"Fuuuuuck," he said, shoving a hand through his hair. "Kie, I'm sorry, this is all our fault. We're fucking horny idiots."
"No," she said, hugging her arms tightly over her chest, so tightly it almost bruised. "It's my fault. That's the thing, John B. JJ's the one that kissed me, but I'm the one who—I mean, we—"
His eyes bulged. "Did you have full-on sex? With JJ?"
"No! No. But I…we…" She gestured widely, ineffectually. "It was like…"
John B's chin tipped up. "Oh. It was like, a big thing."
"Yes," she said. "The biggest. Like, crazy, John B. Like I don't even know how kisses…I don't know how I didn't…"
He was nodding, harder and harder. "No, I know. Fucking nuts, right? You know somebody your whole life, but then suddenly they're there like BAM, and it's like you've never even really looked at them before and were their eyes always that bright and—"
"Was their voice always that deep and did it always sound that good when you made them laugh?" she finished. "But John B, oh my God, it's the lamest, like I can't even…be around him now. I'm just coming out of my skin. I can't breathe and my heart's all crazy and I get goosebumps, and the hair on my arms stands up and I don't even want him to know I have hair on my arms all of a sudden but like, of course he knows I have arms, they're the same arms they've always been, and oh my God I'm an idiot."
John B was laughing, but smiling, too. "Yeah. All that. Yeah. Ah, Kie..." He exhaled. "You like JJ. I didn't know."
"I didn't know," she gasped out, laughing too, if only from the relief of having someone to share her crazy with.
"So have you tried talking about it with him? Are you like…" He slanted her a glance. "Together?"
"I have no idea. It's been super weird." She paused. "You remember when we made the no macking rule?"
"Sure, it was that day at the beach."
It was junior high, and Kiara had just gotten her first bikini. And her first bumps inside the top of said bikini. They were taking a break from surfing and Kiara had just busted into the lunch her mom had packed her, and they were all tussling in a big pile of arms and legs, fighting for her packets of fruit snacks.
"Stop it, you bunch of animals!" she howled, elbowing Pope in the face and losing her grip on the last gummy grape. It went flying up in the air and JJ snapped it into his mouth, grinning as he chewed triumphantly. She flopped back, pouting. "If I starve, it's all you assholes' faults."
"We're growing boys," John B said.
"You hope," she shot back, because he was the shortest this summer, barely half an inch above her head as the other boys' growth spurts had come on first. He glared back, wounded, but his retort was interrupted when Teddy Piercey came up, his hands in his swim trunk pockets.
"Hey Kiara. Uh, guys," he added after a second.
"Oh, hey," she said, extricating herself from the pile of sweaty boys and brushing sand off her leg into JJ's mouth, which was wide open to show her the chewed-up grape fruit snack as evidence of his triumph. She jerked at her bikini top, irritated that her boobs weren't big enough yet to keep it in place.
"That's an um, nice surf board."
She glanced at her board, then up the beach at where he'd left his next to a group of friends who were jeering and staring their way. "It's exactly the same as yours. Are you saying you have a nice board?"
He colored. "No, uh, I forgot they were the same. I was just saying it's a nice color. A good uh—" He took another look at it and wilted slightly. "Pink."
John B was muffling a snicker into his hand and JJ coughed, "Loser," into his fist.
Kiara kicked him, embarrassed that he was being so mean, but thrown off by the weird way Teddy was looking at her, like she'd grown a second nose or something.
"Thanks," she told Teddy.
He kicked at the sand. "So, I'll uh, see you around? Maybe?"
It was a very small island and they went to the same school. He'd see her all the time. She just stared at him, then realized she was being a jerk and tried to smile so he'd go away. "Uh-huh. Sure."
He smiled back, his eyes flicking down, then walked back to his friends, who erupted in cheering. Kiara shook her head and fell back onto the sand.
"Ooh, Kiara," JJ said in a breathy voice, "I just love your 'surfboard.' It's so…pink."
"Knock it off, JJ, you're being gross," Pope growled.
Kiara laid back, groaning, and started covering herself with sand. "Ew, ew, ew."
"What's wrong?" John B frowned.
"Boys are so dumb," she whined. "Ever since I grew boobs they look at me all weird and it just makes me feel gross."
John B sat up straighter. "Do we need to kick some asses?"
"Like I need you to do my ass kicking for me." She threw a handful of sand at him and he ducked too slow and took it full in the face, spitting and sputtering. "Come talk to me after your next growth spurt, tough guy. I just mean like, last year Teddy blabbed to me for two long hours about how Grand Theft Auto was the most realistic video game ever, but this year, he can't even manage a full sentence when he's talking to me. I'm not a person anymore to him, just two bumps in a bikini."
"Look, we may not be the biggest dudes on the island," JJ said, "but if those guys are weirding you out, we'll take them down. We can get one of my dad's fishing nets and wait while they're dirt biking and get 'em good."
She sighed, only her head poking out of the sand now. "No. You'll get arrested. Just promise you'll never look at me like that. And get all dumb around me."
"Never," John B said immediately, then blushed. "C'mon, you're not even really a girl, you're a Pogue."
"Totally," Pope chimed in. "You're one of us."
She looked around, relieved. "Right? No Pogue on Pogue crushes, and definitely no macking, like, ever. Promise me. It's not worth you guys getting dumb like Teddy."
Now, she glanced over at John B, the memory of that other day on another beach seeming all too apt.
"I always felt safe with you guys. Comfortable. And now, I feel like I don't even know how to walk when JJ's in the same room as me. There's like a force field between me and both the guys like…" She sank down to the sand. "And it was no different with you, at least back around the time you kissed me. You'd look at me like normal and then you look again like you're looking at something else entirely, and I don't even know if that's really part of me. Or if I know the person you're looking at." She gestured at her body, feeling like it was this awful, foreign thing that might just be ruining her life.
"It's that you're hot," John B said.
She rolled her eyes. "Unhelpful."
He sat down next to her, scooping up a handful of sand and letting it sift through his fingers. "No, I'm serious. You're like regular you, and you're our Kie, and you're a hell of a surfer, and as good with an engine as me and JJ both—"
"Better," she put in.
"And you've known us forever and you're a Pogue." He paused. "And sometimes when we remember you're a smoking hot rich girl from the Figure 8 it just like…fucks up our heads. Like we don't know what to do with that. But it was the same when I met Sarah." He pulled his knee up to his chest, draping an elbow over it. "It's like, growing up, we were told there's friends and there's girls. You like girls, and you hang out with your friends. So then when there's somebody you really love spending time with and she's a pretty girl, you just like…don't know what to do. I understood Sarah when she was just hot, but once I realized I liked hanging out with her, almost as much as I like hanging out with you guys, my brain sort of fizzled, like in the cartoons."
"You got dumb," Kiara said, helpfully.
"She would agree with you, yes. Dumb." John B nodded.
Kie picked up a stone and threw it out toward the ocean, so far she couldn't see where it landed. "So what'd you do? You're not as dumb around her now. I mean, a little starry-eyed and blushy, but mostly you again."
"Thanks a lot," he said dryly.
"I just kissed her a lot. Until the dumb wore off and I stopped panicking about how good it felt or how to act so she would keep talking to me, and just enjoyed myself."
"So you're telling me to just kiss JJ a lot."
"Yup, that is my best advice, as the only Pogue in an actual relationship." He nodded. "Damn, I wish he knew what I was saying right now. I'd get mega wingman points."
She smacked him. "Conflict of interest. If you're giving me bad advice to get our friend laid, it's a seven-year curse on your junk. Choose carefully."
"I just told you to kiss him." John B gave her finger guns, his eyes gleaming. "You're the one who stepped it up to sleeping with the guy. I think that says it all, don't you?"
"Shut up." She shoved him, and then they were both smiling out at the ocean for a minute and the island felt like theirs again. The way it used to be before everything happened.
Kiara hugged her knees and dropped her chin atop them. He glanced over at her.
"So what's the rest of it?"
She ducked her head, blushing. "Nothing."
"Oooh," he jeered. "That doesn't look like nothing. Do you like his…surfboard?"
She got to her feet, yanking her sarong skirt straight again. "Yeah, no. Definitely not talking to you about this."
That got him serious and he bounded to his feet, tripping over them before grabbing her arm to keep his balance, clumsy as always since that last big growth spurt that came so late in high school.
"Hey, I'm sorry. I want to help, really. Besides, the other two guys aren't really talking to you right now, so…" He weighed his hands like he was gauging her options, then gave her a hopeful smile. "I'm your best shot. Hit me."
She hesitated, and his interest sharpened.
"Whoa, it's something good. And you already kissed Pope and JJ, so…did you kiss Sarah?" He bounded forward. "Wait, did Sarah cheat on me with you? That's so hot."
"It would serve you so right if she did." Kiara sat down again, her face burning. She was pretty sure John B wasn't a virgin. She was 90% sure she and Pope were the only virgins of the group, though Pope wasn't really the bragging type so she could be wrong about that. Yeah, she was probably the only virgin.
"Kie." John B squeezed her shoulder. "Let me help, really. I've never seen you so twisted up and I already feel guilty you all thought I was dead. I want to get us all back to normal, since it was my fault for messing up our summer with this whole treasure hunt shit."
"Okay, but you can't look at me when I say it." She squeezed her eyes shut and laid back on the sand. John B's shirt brushed her arm as he lay down next to her. She peeked over and his eyes were shut. She snapped hers closed again and said, "I'm a virgin."
There was a long pause, like he was waiting, and then he said, "So? We all knew that, Kie. You're always saying how all the guys on this island are disgusting, and there hasn't been a word about girls since you made out with Alice Kim in eighth grade."
"Okay, but knowing is one thing. I don't want to bumble around my first time with JJ. He'd make so much fun of me, and then I'd have to look at him for the rest of my life, knowing he knew I was a total clumsy idiot in bed." She was shaking her head so hard that John B reached over to still it and she slapped his hand away. "Don't look at me, you promised."
"My eyes are still closed!" he yelped, slapping back at her. "And I think you're building JJ up too much in your head. Remember that one time you belched really loud at that crawfish boil and he told you it was hot?"
"He really thought it was hot."
She sighed. "Was he lying about those tourist girls or did he really have sex with them all those times he went off with one from a party?"
"Um, he didn't have sex with all of them."
"But most of them?"
John B hesitated. "Most of them, yeah." He paused. "Does that make you like him less? I feel like I shouldn't have told you that."
"He told me that. And he told you, and Pope, and all the people in the kitchen at work, and the guys at the Marina, and our sex ed class when he jumped up to add the clitoris to the anatomical diagram of a vagina."
"I thought you were proud of him for doing that."
"I was proud, but now I'm intimidated. I'm inconsistent, okay?"
John B laughed, but he reached over and took her hand. She peeked, but his eyes were still closed, his face relaxed, and it was so, so good to see him again that she got choked up a little.
"No, I get it. When Sarah and I—" He stopped.
"When Sarah and you what?"
"I think you should talk to Sarah," he said carefully. "I think maybe, she would know what you were going through."
"I don't want to tell Sarah Cameron I'm a virgin! She probably hasn't been a virgin for years."
John B was conspicuously silent.
"I hate that I love you for being a gentleman right now." She pouted.
"I have no idea how to decode that. Am I in trouble or not?"
"No." She pouted harder, then tried again. "But if you did want to tell me, I wouldn't say anything to Sarah that you were kissing and telling. It doesn't count as bragging because I'm a girl and you're not trying to look like a stud, and even if you were—"
"And even if I was, you'd kick me in the balls for having a double standard for the genders," he finished.
She grinned. "I really did miss you."
"Damn right you did. I'm the best."
They stared up at the stars for a while, and then he turned on his side. She turned on her side, too, and for some reason this time when their eyes met, it felt dark enough that it was okay.
"I just…don't want to do anything that he thinks is gross," she confessed. "Or dumb."
"You should ask Sarah," John B said again, grimacing. "I think…I mean, I only know what she told me but I think she thought that if she had sex that she'd lose control. Of her body, her life, I don't know. But afterward, she laughed and laughed and said she'd been so stupid, that it was just fun and she felt like the same person." A warmth touched his eyes. "It feels so great in the moment it's like you might come apart, but you don't."
"John Booker Routledge, you hussy," she said. "Are you saying you went all the way with Sarah Cameron? Already? Was this before or after the Bahamas?"
He gave her a dirty look. "I'm not talking about her when she's not here. I'm just saying, with you and JJ, if that's what you want, it'll be okay, really. When a girl trusts you with her first time, it's super hot. Also, there's not much you can do with a penis that doesn't feel good. It's a low bar."
She shouted with laughter. "Right. Point."
"Besides," he went on, "if JJ dumps you because you're not good enough in bed, I'll kick his ass myself."
She rolled onto her back, breathing harder than she should be for just lying on the beach. "I don't know. Just the kissing screwed everything up so much, John B. It's scary. And I—"
"You really like him," John B said gently. "I know."
"I'm not laughing at you."
"Sure you're not."
"I'm just happy."
"Why? I just told you everything is totally and completely fucked up."
"I mean, I'm happy for JJ."
She paused, glanced uncertainly his way.
"C'mon, Kie, it's not like you don't know. You're his dream girl. He says it all the time."
She rolled her eyes. "Yeah, when he wipes out on a big wave and I ride it all the way in, or when I pull my crab pot faster than he can get his, or when I tell off some Kook douche. It's a joke. He tells Pope he's in love with him like three times a day."
"It's not a joke. And he does love Pope." John B stopped. "Sorry, I thought you knew why he did all that. JJ's dad never said anything nice to him. Like pretty much not ever, not even when we were really little. And so JJ's always tried to be different, with us. To say what he means. I mean, he still lies as easy as most people breathe, but when he says what he feels? Kid's never lying."
She crossed her arms over her chest. "Wow, way to make me like him even more. You're not making the stakes any lower here, JB."
"Okay, how about this?" He rolled up to sitting. "When we were in sixth grade, JJ made this plan."
"And I bet it was really conservative and well thought out, right?"
John B snorted. "He worried that we didn't want to look like dweebs, when we finally got the chance to kiss a girl, so he decided we should practice in secret. On each other."
Kiara bolted upright. "No."
He gazed at her calmly, his eyes amused.
She started to snicker. "So how'd that go for you, champ?"
"He spit in my mouth."
She shrieked with laughter, rolling back onto the sand as she lost her balance.
"Like, really gently and sweetly spit into my mouth," John B enunciated. "His mom left when he was really young, so he hadn't seen that much kissing in real life. And his dad used to always use the term 'swapping spit' so that's what JJ thought kissing was. He had no idea he was doing it wrong."
Kiara choked, holding her stomach as tears of laughter streaked from her eyes. "Stop, stop, I can't breathe!"
"Trust me," John B said, "if I could afford a therapist, I'd still be there today."
He waited while she laughed herself out, and when she finally sat up, wiping at her eyes, she asked, "So what did you do?"
"Gave him a dead leg and told him no decent woman would ever go out with him. And you're welcome, by the way, for taking that one for the team."
He got up and dusted off the seat of his shorts, then held out his fist. She bumped his knuckles with hers, slapped their hands back and forth in their quick Pogue handshake. "I'm going to go tell JJ you need help fixing the boat."
She sucked in a breath. "Wait, John B, I don't know if I—" But he was already gone.
Author's Note: Stick around, folks! We've got more JJ and thus more steam coming next chapter!