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JUST BREATHE OUT

J. Rocci







SMASHWORDS EDITION

Copyright © 2019 by J. Rocci


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Thank you for downloading this free eBook. You are welcome to share it with your friends. This book may be reproduced, copied and distributed for non-commercial purposes, provided the book remains in its complete original form. Thank you for your support.


This book is a work of fiction and any resemblance to persons, living or dead, or places, events or locales is purely coincidental. The characters are productions of the author’s imagination and used fictitiously.


Contains Adult Reading Material


Previously published in the Hot Summer Days free anthology from the GoodReads M/M Romance Group. First edition is still available on the M/M Romance Group’s site at: https://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/578115-j-rocci-just-breathe-out-7-19


Discover other works by J. Rocci through the author’s official website:

http://www.jrocci.com/


Sign up for J. Rocci’s monthly email list and receive a free ebook:

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Author's Note


This story was written as a part of the M/M Romance Group's "Hot Summer Days" event. Group members were asked to write a story prompt inspired by a photo of their choice. Authors of the group selected a photo and prompt that spoke to them and wrote a short story. The prompt for this story was:


Dear Author,

These two men have been best friends since they could crawl; over the years they have both secretly fallen in love with each other, one of them is out and proud the other man wants to be as long as it’s with his best friend.... How did this happen?? Oh Author, can I please add that they Love Hot SEX everywhere and that they have a HEA :)


Photo Description: A black/white photo of a windowed, sunlit lodge with 50s-looking furniture. One naked youth hangs by his right hand from a wooden rafter, his left hand stroking his lover's hardened penis. His legs are over his young lover's shoulders as his naked lover holds him by the hips and sucks his dick.


This story is still available on the M/M Romance Group’s site at: https://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/578115-j-rocci-just-breathe-out-7-19


I’m publishing this on Smashwords since the original distributor, All Romance eBooks, went out of business. I hope you enjoy!


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JUST BREATHE OUT


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“Go, Dare! Keep steady!” Russ yelled from the football green below.

Darren surged up the stadium seats, balls of his feet hitting the top of one chair per row as he leaned forward to keep his momentum. His quadriceps burned with sustaining the brutal pace, his groin muscles stretched to reach the next vinyl seat, while his calves provided the tension to spring up, one after another.

His sole focus was on the path in front of him: the next seat, five rows ahead, the empty alcove of the concrete balcony separating the front rows from the cheap seats, the handholds he would use to get to the mezzanine.

Calloused hands slapped down lightly on the orange-rust colored railing that fenced in the balcony as Darren twisted into a roll, flipping tightly as his obliques contracted and his glutes tightened. His thin-soled free runner shoes slapped down on concrete as he landed, the forward momentum carrying him into a somersault.

Using the energy of the roll, he sprang up during the recovery, kicking off the short back wall of the alcove to grasp the railing of the mezzanine tightly. He hoisted himself up, never losing his fast pace, and slid through the railing bars sideways, arms burning as he used a push-up to right himself on the first row of seats. A hand planted flat on the bottom seat cushion, followed with the toes of his shoe finding traction on an arm rest, knee at ear level, and he exploded upwards, forwards, other foot landing on the top of the seat and just pushing, until he was back in the rhythm of skimming up the stadium rows.

His lungs were burning, chest heaving, sweat running down his face and back, pooling in the sweatbands on his wrists and the waist of his cargo shorts. All of it barely registered as he focused on the pull and protest of his muscles, arms relaxed as he maintained his center of gravity.

He was almost at the last row of seats. A scan of the area behind the seats showed maybe fifteen feet of clear concrete before the cinderblock wall supporting the stadium awning. He could either go up higher, try to find handholds up there and continue around the length of the bowl, or he could end his run against the wall.

The need for water and the oxygen-starved feeling in his muscles decided it for him. He pushed off the last seat and hiked himself over the last railing like a gymnast on a pommel horse, palms of both hands flat on top of the railing, slowing his momentum enough to swing his legs over sideways, parallel to the bar.

He landed in a side roll, arms tucked, shoulder absorbing and dispersing the impact energy. His legs and toes curled under him and he kept spinning up the wall, into a backwards flip, releasing all that momentum he'd carried in the spread of his arms, the solid placement of his feet and legs.

The shock of landing on his feet, facing the wall, was absorbed as he bounced backwards a step, feet spreading to bring him into a low crouch.

Darren stayed down in the crouch, panting wildly and coming back into himself. He let the sounds of the sports stadium filter back in; birds, traffic, his friends crowing at each other halfway up the seats. The slap of runner shoes on the concrete coming on his left.

"Here." Russ squatted next to him, all tanned skin and tousled blond curls, and held out a Gatorade. Russ' arms had a light sheen of sweat on them from his earlier run.

Ripping the cap off, Darren gulped the drink down, carefully standing up. He drank a quarter of the bottle before pausing for air.

"You're breathing too hard," Russ observed with a frown. His slate grey eyes were studying Darren, assessing him. Darren let him, used to it.

Russ was the de facto leader of their little parkour pack. There was another free running club on campus, but Russ ascribed to the original philosophy of parkour: Go anywhere. The paths you take to navigate your surroundings are limited only by your physical abilities. Expand those abilities and you can go anywhere.

Both Russ and Darren had taken gymnastics as kids, Darren following Russ' lead even back then, but they were pretty much the only ones with formal training from both groups. Shane, the guy who ran the free runners, started out as a skateboarder and BMX rider, and his group preferred cultivating more complicated and impressive moves to test their creativity and have fun.

Russ' parkour, though -- that was all about finding your Zen as you defied gravity.

"Holy shit, dude!" Mary yelled from the bottom of the mezzanine. "That was sick!"

Cooling off, Darren looked down at the rest of the group gathered on the balcony alcove he'd just rolled through. It looked a lot farther away now than it had when he was running up the seats.

Lithe and tough with long brown hair, Mary was the only traceur -- a practitioner of parkour -- in their group that was a lady. She was also Russ and Darren's housemate, along with Blake and Pete. Blake was short and stocky, more suited to the football team that got him his scholarship to the college, but that just meant Blake had to be the most creative in getting around. Pete was in the group for the company, Darren suspected. He stuck to the easy paths and stayed in shape, but he hadn't built up much stamina in the four semesters the group had been practicing, and he seemed more content to film the rest of them.

The five of them had met when Blake and Russ had taken weight-lifting together their first semester. Russ had gotten sucked into the parkour world after he and Darren had watched a French movie during high school that showcased parkour, and then Darren was there running next to him. Blake had been intrigued, and then Mary wanted to join their daily runs, then Pete. They'd gotten along so well after forming their "club" that it didn't seem odd to rent a house with the five of them come their sophomore year. Darren totally didn't mind having to share a room with Russ.

Aside from the core five housemates, the parkour group had about ten fluctuating members who sometimes joined Shane's free runners when Russ didn't have anything going on.

Even now, a group of eight people were gathered around Pete's digital camera, probably re-watching the footage of Darren's ascent. Three were regulars with the free runners.

The two groups got along fine; Russ and Shane just had different philosophies. Well that, and Russ acted like a personal trainer for his people, which some of the runners took as being too rigid and serious. But it was also why Darren wasn't bothered by being scrutinized under the sharp eye of his best friend. With Russ, that just meant you were his.

"You're still breathing in on your jumps," Russ finally said. He turned to stare out over the empty football field when he did it, though, so Darren wondered what had him bothered.

"It's habit," Darren replied simply and downed the rest of the Gatorade. He finished with a small gasp.

"Bad habit. You'll get more power breathing out on the push. It's a different rhythm than freestyle swimming."

Darren shrugged. "Guess you'll just have to train me harder."

Russ gave him a side glance, smirk laden with innuendo that had only gotten worse since they started living with Mary and Pete, the two pervs. Instead of laughing it off like he would've when they were teenagers, Darren just grinned back in what he hoped was a challenging way.

"Let's go look at that video," Russ suggested abruptly with an eyebrow wag, already heading towards the bleacher stairs. For a moment, Darren watched the way his thin T-shirt clung to his trim waist and the line of his spine, and took a deep breath before following.

"Dare, my man," Blake said with a wide grin, pulling Darren into the circle around the camera when he got close enough. "This? Is going on Youtube. Check this out."

Darren watched the replay with a little bit of embarrassment, but he could see what Russ meant. There were times when he faltered on a launch, just not getting enough of the lift that he knew he was capable of, and it wasn't his hand holds. Those seemed to be solid.

"Maybe we should work on the rocks more," Russ mused, leaning over Darren's shoulder to watch the video. "You can practice jumping."

Darren could smell Russ' deodorant, a spicy musk, and feel the heat of Russ against his back. Lifting his Gatorade, Darren tilted his head to get the remainder, forcing Russ to step back or risk choking Darren. It worked, but didn't help the spike of want Darren felt.

"Sure," he finally said when he realized everyone was looking at him. He cleared his throat. "I'm game for some beach time."

Mary smirked. "You're always game for beach time, waterbaby."

Darren shrugged. Swimming would always be his sport of choice.

The rocks were a cropping of rock formations on the public beach near their house. They were varying heights and sizes, perfect for climbing, kicking off of, and jumping between. The parkour group usually tried out new moves there first, since the sand was more forgiving than asphalt. They'd originally started practicing their jumps and flips in the gym, using the mats and walls, but the phys ed department had put a quick stop to that. Darren didn't mind being able to go for a swim right after he got sweaty anyway.

"We should have a beach party," Pete announced, apropos of nothing. "Like, celebrate the end of the semester--"

"Forget beach party," Blake interrupted. "We should have a house party. What's the point in living off campus if we don't live it up, yeah?"

"We should get out of here before we get kicked out," Russ said in a definitive tone. The group scattered to gather their belongings.

Russ caught Darren's eye and smiled. "We could take a break during our morning run to hit the rocks."

Darren grinned back. "You take me to the nicest places."

Russ blushed and ducked his chin, still showing off his dimples. "C'mon. It's your turn to cook."

"Oh, man." Groaning, Darren followed. "I hope you found the number to poison control…"


***


Darren had never admitted it to anyone before, but he woke up at the same time Russ did every morning. Russ thought he slept in, but Darren, well--

Martial arts were the only sport that Russ took without Darren, just like Darren had his swimming. When Russ had gotten into karate and Eastern philosophy, Darren had started reading up on Zen and Buddhism and Taoism, but he didn't take any karate classes. That was Russ' alone time.

But Darren couldn't help noticing when, a week after they'd moved into the house, Russ got up even earlier than their alarm clock and quietly snuck outside. He had watched out their bedroom window as Russ went through a few katas in the backyard, and tried not to feel like a creeper.

Every morning, Russ went down early in his running shorts and shoes, no shirt, and wound his way gracefully through the burgeoning sunlight. His narrow face would relax as all his attention focused inwards and his body flowed between stances that were second nature now. It was amazing to witness.

Darren thought Russ had noticed him watching a couple times, but since Russ had never said anything, Darren let it lie. The fact that Russ waited for Darren to come down and get him for their jog helped, but it was those few stolen moments every morning that were as necessary for a good day as a smoothie for breakfast.

That morning, when Darren went out back in running shorts and a loose tank top, Russ was stretching with his foot braced against the deck post. Russ nodded a greeting and stretched his arms above his head, taut abs straining in sharp contrast to his pert nipples.

Darren cleared his throat and looked away, focusing on his own stretches.

Tossing Darren his water, Russ started jogging in the opposite direction than they usually took. Darren remembered that they were going to the rocks, which were only about a mile away, so they'd probably hit the nearby fitness park on their way back for a complete workout. Either way, he'd just follow Russ.

They passed other early morning joggers on the asphalt running path, dodging dog walkers and baby strollers. The day was still cool enough that everyone who wanted to engage in some glam jogging was out in force. Luckily, the rocks were abandoned when they arrived.

Russ kept jogging straight up to the shortest formation, transitioning seamlessly into a squat that ended in a lunge, straight up the side of the rock. While Russ started using his hands as well as feet to get higher, Darren jogged around to the far side for his favorite formation and clambered up.

Finding two of the sturdier rocks that were maybe a foot apart, Darren tried a ski jump between the two, keeping both feet together as he pushed from one to the other in a single jump. Lacing his fingers behind his head and tightening his abs, he did a couple slow ones before settling into an easy rhythm of jump-pause-jump-pause-jump-break. After about four repetitions, he could feel his thoughts drift while he focused on the feel of his legs and torso and shoulders.

"You're still inhaling when you push off," Russ said mildly from below him.

Darren broke pattern for a second, holding on the second jump, before starting up again.

"I can't do it if I think about it, dude," he gasped.

"Talk to me, then."

"Say what?"

"Talk to me. It'll help."

"You're crazy."

"Maybe." Russ pulled himself up between two rock shelves using only his arms, then started doing short push-ups while letting his legs dangle. "What're you making for dinner?"

"It's your turn," Darren said between pants.

"I saw a pasta recipe where you use butternut squash soup as a sauce," Russ mused, still suspended, voice only beginning to reveal a strain. "You could try that."

"Your. Turn."

"But the food tastes better when you cook."

Darren knew Russ liked his cooking. Darren's dad was the chef in their house, since his mom was the stereotypical absent-minded artist who burned water, and Darren had learned from an early age most of his dad's culinary tricks.

"Not. My. Turn."

"I can make us salads," Russ threatened, a rivulet of sweat running down his cheek.

Even though Darren's parents had pretty much adopted Russ before Russ' parents split up, the blond had never shown any interest in preparing meals, only eating Darren's creations. Now that they lived in a house and not a dorm, they supposedly took turns cooking. Odd how on Russ' nights they had salad. A lot of salad.

"Fine." Darren was sick of lettuce and spinach. "You want squash?"

"Mmm."

Dropping forward from his last ski jump into a crouch, Darren somersaulted off the formation to land on the sand below, rolling until his momentum dispersed.

"C'mon," Russ said happily, jogging past. "I have an idea."

Darren paused long enough to gulp down half his water before sprinting to catch up. Russ led them to the fitness park. Seeing that the wide uneven bars were in use by some teenagers, they took a moment to cool off and stretch.

"When're your last exams?" Russ asked, eyes on the kids horsing around.

"Tomorrow and Tuesday," Darren said to his knees, bent over neatly at the waist.

"Want to head to the beach house on Wednesday then? Your dad texted me last night."

Darren slowly rolled his shoulders up to a standing position. "Sure. He said they were heading out today last time I talked to him."

The teenagers finally got tired of the bars and moved on to the balance beam. Russ nodded for Darren to go ahead, so he grabbed a hold of the lower bar, hooking a leg over it and hoisting himself up with his quadriceps and abs. The next higher bar was in easy reach.

"Let yourself hang," Russ commanded. Darren swung gently from the bars. "Keep your arms locked and do a full body crunch, knees to chest, exhaling when you pull your legs up."

Darren wanted to curse as he did it, back and arms burning, but he could get a feel for the breathing pattern Russ wanted him to learn.

While he did crunches, Russ shimmied up the side of the highest bar with just his hands and toes, pulling himself up to crouch on top. The teenagers were watching them, but Darren didn't care.

"Pete's going to load the vids from yesterday online," Russ said as he planted both hands on the bar and raised his butt slowly from his crouch. Movements controlled and balanced, he raised his legs into a handstand, facing Darren.

Needing a break, Darren stopped his crunches and pulled himself up, hooking a leg again to spin topside on his knee.

"You didn't care about vids before," Darren pointed out once he caught his breath.

"Yeah well…" Russ' face was turning red from the strain. "I talked to CJ again. He thinks he might get me on a union film in LA as an extra so I can put some hours in, but he said a portfolio and fan following would really help."

Russ hadn't started out interested in the film industry, but during their freshman year one of the film students had needed a stuntman for his senior project and tracked the parkour group down. CJ came from money, more than Russ and Darren did, and wanted to be a director come hell or high water. His ambition had led to Russ filling in as an extra on a Screen Actors Guild project when one of CJ's many "industry friends" needed free stunt labor.

Darren thought CJ was kind of a human shark with a "social interaction equals social capital" attitude that rubbed him the wrong way. But Russ had fallen in love with stunt choreography and the control required to push his own limits, so Darren was being supportive. Russ really was that good and he had the looks. Everyone ended up wanting Russ, even if Russ was oblivious.

"So how many clips do you need for a portfolio?" He finally asked after Russ lowered himself back into a crouch.

"Dunno. Enough to show off my best moves, I guess."

"Nothing too stupid?"

"Nah. You get that little frowny face whenever I try the fun stuff."

Darren glared.

"Yeah, that face." Russ snickered.

"Bite me," Darren grumbled. "So, I guess we need to find some legal spots for the group to film?"

"I'm kind of against posting physical evidence of trespassing on ye olde World Wide Web when I'm trying to attract an agent, so yeah."

"We can brainstorm while we sun ourselves on our private beach." He sighed dreamily.

He loved Southern California dearly, but the area was so crowded with people, he was looking forward to the peace and quiet of his parents' beach house and its private cove.

Darren let himself fall forward, blue skies rushing past as he tumbled and landed solidly on his feet. He winced at the way his palm calluses had been pinched white by the bar. He needed to put more time in at the gym or start taping his hands for runs.

"We have to survive exams first," Russ was saying, flipping backwards to dismount.

Darren looked up at him, sun highlighting his golden hair and making his slate grey eyes sparkle. Russ grinned, dimples showing.

Affection and love swelled in Darren's chest. He had to smile in response to that gorgeous expression.

"Piece of cake."


***


The party was ridiculous and getting way too loud.

Darren frowned as he pushed his way back downstairs from dropping off his book bag, glaring at the wide-open front door. He had closed it not even five minutes ago. He shut it with a reverberating bang that only the people hanging out in the foyer noticed over the thumping music.

He was going to kill Peter and the half-sentient sound system Peter had installed.

What had started as a gathering of friends to celebrate the end of the semester had evolved into a scene from frat house row. Someone had replaced all the light bulbs in the living room with those cheap colored strobe ones that could be controlled by phone app. The slacker from Russ' biology class was smoking up on the couch. Darren told himself that was just a cigarette. Oh God, he hoped that was just a cigarette--

"Dare!" Pete curled an arm around his shoulders, steering him away from the living room to the kitchen. Pete leaned heavily on him, swaying.

The kitchen was a nightmare. It looked like the blender had vomited up rainbow Jello all over the counters. Bottles were everywhere, some empty, some trickling their contents down the cabinet doors.

Mary was sitting cross-legged on the island counter as her boyfriend Steve fed her another Jello shot. Her girlfriend Lena licked the taste off her lips. Three assholes Darren didn't know were just standing in front of the stove and staring. Russ was digging around in the fridge, back to the room.

He took a deep, centering breath.

"Look who decided to show up to his own party!" Peter slurred. The noise level was barely tolerable even with the door to the living room closed, but Mary heard him and cheered.

"Dare! Dare! You gotta try this. It's a rainbow of flavors."

"They are destroying our house," Darren shouted.

"Maybe it was the house's time to die?" Mary shrugged, pulling Lena in closer. "Isn't that right, Fearless Leader?"

Russ looked at them over the door to the fridge, carrot dangling from his mouth. "Everything has but so long to live."

Darren blinked, staring at Russ' face. Something was off.

"Are you drunk?" Darren demanded incredulously. His voice may have squeaked. Russ had taken one sip of alcohol in his life. His body was his temple. Russ wouldn't even have wine with dinner when Darren's parents served it.

"I'm not drunk," Russ said with a frown, words distorted by the carrot. His declaration was ruined when he tried to close the fridge door and missed grabbing it by a good foot.

"Oh, God. Are you drugged? Did someone drug you?"

"Relax, Dare," Pete said, leaning even further into Darren's space. "He just had a cup of jungle juice."

"A cup of what?"

"Jungle juice. Everyone brings a bottle of whatever and we pour it in." Pete pointed to a twenty-gallon plastic bucket on the counter. The contents were a muddy brown.

"You drank that?"

"I'm fine." Russ gave him a grin but Darren didn't care.

"The music is so loud the neighbors are going to call the cops. I just found Blake's friend 'Ogre' and his girlfriend engaged in -- relations," he stumbled over the word, "on my bed. And you -- None of you are even twenty-one! When the cops show up, you're all going to get arrested and then you'll have records, and the next time we get stopped for running where we shouldn't, they're going to take us in--"

"Relax," Russ said with a laugh. When Darren took a breath to continue, Russ moved in closer and settled his calloused hands on Darren's shoulders, finally dislodging Pete's arm.

"Relax," he crooned again, and damn him, Darren did. Darren cursed those big grey eyes and floppy hair. Russ was good looking, the stereotypical surfer boy with lean muscles and tanned skin, and he knew -- he had to know -- that he had Darren wrapped around his little finger with one pout.

Russ swayed in close, intently focused on Darren's eyes. "I'm fine," he whispered and Darren couldn't hear him over the music, but he could read those lips anywhere. Russ smelled like alcohol, but also his deodorant, and Darren wanted to close the inches between them.

"Who wants cherry shots?" Pete shouted, breaking the moment and Darren realized where they were and how close Russ was standing. Russ must have too, because he backed off quick.

The three assholes by the stove cheered when Mary and Lena raised their hands. Darren huffed and turned to catch Russ' eye, but Russ was over by the sink now.

"You know what?" Russ said suddenly. "I'll have some water. Anyone want water?"

No one answered, too focused on Pete's poor Jello skills, but Darren's shoulders relaxed completely. Russ wasn't meant to be drunk. Russ was never out of control like that. He'd sober up, they'd do some damage control, and get everything set to rights.

The kitchen door banged Darren's elbow hard as a herd of people stomped in, bringing with them a blast of techno pop and the return of Darren's bad mood. If he ever heard another Ke$ha song again…

"Yo, Russ," Blake called out, apparently leading the herd that was currently milling around the shots tray. "I got somebody who wants to meet you. C'mon, Trey. C'mere, man. C'mon."

Blake tugged a gangly strawberry blond guy over to Russ. Darren rubbed his elbow and frowned. Blake was either really drunk, or not just drunk -- in which case Darren would kill him along with Pete -- since he was repeating himself.

"Trey, this here is my man Russ. Russ is, like, a ninja, dude. He can like, climb walls like Spiderman and fly like Shu- Superman."

"Technically, I would be closer to Batman than Superman," Russ corrected and giggled. Russ never giggled.

"Whoever leaps buildings in a single bound," Blake waved him off. "Russ is also, like, a total geek."

"I like geeks," Trey purred. He probably thought he was sexy, but he totally wasn't.

Death was too good for Blake, Darren decided, and did not like where the conversation was going at all.

"Trey here runs track," Blake continued, lips obviously numb as he formed the words. "He's all skinny and shit, which you like, and he's like a friend of Dorothy, too." Blake tried to make bunny ear quotes in the air. "And he's available, so he has gra-- graciously volunteered to help with your little unrequited love-virginity-problem thing--"

"Blake!" Russ shouted, pale and scandalized. He looked shocked.

"Oh, c'mon, man. Nothin' to be 'shamed of."

"Shut up, Blake."

Darren's stomach dropped twenty feet and hit the pavement. It was worse than breaking his collarbone. He couldn't move.

Russ wouldn't react like that unless it was the truth. He had an unrequited love problem? He'd never mentioned meeting anyone to Darren, and they shared everything. Didn't they? When had Russ met someone? He was quiet and sometimes shy, like sunlight on still water. He didn't chat people up or flirt with them. Darren would have heard about it. There was an entire parkour fan club that followed them around.

Oh God, was it a groupie?

"Relax. I explained the whole situation to him, and he really wants to help you out, man, because it is sad that you are a soph-- soph'more, and still a virgin."

Trey nodded. "I am totally here for you, Russ."

"I--" Russ started to say, but broke off. He glanced at Darren, stricken expression on his face, and looked like he wanted to be sick.

Darren just stared with wide eyes, not sure what was on his own face, but he felt frozen.

Russ clapped a hand over his mouth and bolted out the back door, to the wooden railing of the deck. Darren winced at the retching noises that could be heard over the music, and hurried after him, spell broken.

"So that's a no?" Trey slurred.

Russ was bent over the railing and Darren didn't think twice about catching his shoulder, bringing more of Russ' weight back on his heels before he pitched over to the lawn.

"You all right?" Darren asked quietly, glaring at the two girls on the other side of the deck who were smoking and staring.

"I don't feel so good," Russ mumbled down at the grass.

Daren rubbed his back in what he hoped was a soothing motion. "Better out than in."

Russ just moaned and heaved some more. After a while, the violent motions tapered off, and Darren sighed.

This was why he didn't do parties. They were every cliché teen movie waiting to happen. He wasn't going to think about what Blake said, or the look on Russ' face.

"Why don't we get you to bed?" Darren asked quietly when it seemed like Russ was content to drape himself over the railing all night.

Russ made an unhappy noise, but he didn't protest when Darren got a shoulder under his arm and levered him upright. They staggered through the kitchen as Steve was slurping a Jello shot off Lena's abs, and no one paid them any mind. Darren was glad to see that Blake and Trey were nowhere to be seen.

Darren had to threaten to step on a few people, but he got them upstairs to their room, which was thankfully unoccupied. The floor was vibrating with bass and he kicked the door shut behind them, plunging the room into darkness. When his eyes adjusted to the weak light coming from under the door, Darren maneuvered them to the Russ' bed.

Russ flopped face down on his mattress and didn't move when Darren removed his sneakers and socks. Russ would just have to live with sleeping in his T-shirt and shorts, because Darren wasn't a masochist.

He sighed again, unbelievably tired. He'd had his final exam that evening, and then came home to a reenactment of Animal House. He stared down at his disheveled sheets, which were definitely not how he left them that morning, and shuddered to think of the earlier scene he'd walked in on. No way was he sleeping on that.

Determined, he turned to Russ' bed and shoved until Russ' arm was out of the way. Slipping in, he lay rigidly on his side, as close to the edge as possible. He didn't fall asleep until the music cut off hours later.


***


Darren woke up sticky and hot, and definitely not in his own bed. Blinking, he realized he was in Russ' bed, which explained the wall being on the wrong side.

He shifted and the sheets next to him moved. He could only see Russ' horrible bed hair sticking out, but a soft snore started up a second later. Russ must have rolled onto his back, since that was the only position he snored in.

And that was Darren's cue to get up.

When Darren rolled out of the bed, Russ just whimpered lightly and curled into the spot Darren had vacated. Darren swallowed at the sight of matted blond hair on Russ' temple, waiting to be brushed away from Russ' eyes, but he resolutely kept going.

Russ didn't normally sleep that deep, so Darren figured he was sleeping off the brown "jungle juice." Darren's stomach roiled in sympathy.

He brushed his teeth on autopilot, trying hard not to think about Blake's smiling drunken face and how Russ was out on campus and proud, but he'd never had a boyfriend.

That Darren knew of.

Tapping his tooth brush hard, he yanked off the tap and focused. It was early in the morning, they were about to go on a road trip, and he needed to pack their bags.

Unrequited love? Why did Blake know and not Darren? Did Russ not trust him?

They'd been best friends since Russ was four and Darren was three. Neither could remember how or when they met, because they'd both just always been there in each other's pockets. Through Darren's grandfather dying, Russ' parents' divorce, the time when Darren broke his collarbone, and then Russ wrecked his car. For every birthday, summers at the beach houses, Darren's first car and Russ' first karate tournament win. The first time Russ told anyone he was gay, and the only time Darren admitted out loud that he didn't want to inherit his father's business. They'd been through everything together.

That was why Darren had such a difficult time doing anything about the tension between them, because he thought he knew what it was, but he didn't want to risk it, in case he was wrong.

They were close. Like brothers, his mom used to say, although she stopped using the phrase after Russ came out, and Darren knew she didn't have a problem with Russ being gay, so he--

He just wondered, sometimes, if he wasn't imagining it.

Now he heard that Russ already had someone else in mind, and knew that he didn't have a chance. They were just good friends. Best friends.

Russ was still sleeping when Darren left painkillers and a glass of water on their shared nightstand. As quietly as possible, Darren stripped the sheets off his own bed and balled them in the corner. He unearthed their backpacks from under the camping gear in the closet and laid them open on his bare mattress.

Eyeing the pile of dirty sheets, Darren wrinkled his nose and took them down to the laundry room. He didn't want them sitting in the room while they were gone. He pointedly ignored the trashed living room and the bodies sprawled on any available surface large enough to hold a person. So much for their security deposit.

Pausing in the kitchen, he opened a window and hoped it would help air the place out. He put his hand in something sticky on the counter and swallowed a shriek.

When he returned to their room, the painkillers were gone, the glass was empty, and he could hear the shower running down the hall. At least it made packing easier. He went through their shared dresser, separating T-shirts and shorts, Russ' boxer briefs, his own briefs, and a couple pairs of socks in case they went jogging. Russ always wore flip flops when they went to the beach house, so Darren grabbed his running shoes, too.

While he had the dresser open, Darren changed into his T-shirt and jersey shorts for the drive. He left a logo T-shirt, boxer briefs and cargo shorts on Russ' bed, then swiped the empty glass off the nightstand, wiping away the condensation ring.

The bathroom door opened and a moment later Russ appeared with his towel slung around his hips. They'd changed in front of each other before and been in a locker room together, so Darren didn't know where his sudden shyness came from. He looked away and gestured at the bed.

"I packed your favorite shirt," he said. "But your black shorts are dirty, so I had to go with the khaki."

"Thanks," Russ said in a small voice.

Darren glanced at him, but Russ was studying the carpet, one hand in his hair and the other holding the towel up. He was embarrassed about something. He never did the hair thing otherwise.

When Russ opened his mouth to speak, panic seized Darren's chest. If Russ was going to tell him that there was honestly some mysterious love interest-- If Russ said that, there would be no taking it back and Darren--

He couldn't live with that. Oh God, he just couldn't.

"If you want to get dressed, I can finish packing the toiletries," Darren said quickly. "Maybe we could get breakfast on the way?"

Hurt flashed across Russ' face and Darren felt like an ass. He should have let Russ tell him, but he'd rather have a few more days -- hours, minutes -- of ignorance before Russ was completely taken away from him and the fantasy in his heart shattered beyond all repair. He needed time to brace himself, to deal with it, and then he'd be able to smile and be the supportive best friend. He just couldn't do that now.

"Sure," Russ finally said in a defeated tone.

The guilt spiked in Darren's chest and he swallowed hard.

"Russ--"

"Well," Russ said loudly over him, "I'm going to get dressed now. We'd better leave soon if we're trying to get there by dinner."

Darren swallowed again because Russ' voice had a hard edge to it that had never been directed at Darren before, like when he spoke to his father. Darren just nodded and hurried to the bathroom. He tossed their toiletries in a Ziploc bag, wondering why his hands were shaking.

They loaded Russ' convertible in silence. Blake, Pete, and Mary hadn't been anywhere in sight, and Darren hoped they would actually clean the mess in the house. If they didn't, then it would be waiting for Darren in two weeks.

Silver keys flashed through the air and Darren caught them reflexively.

"You drive," Russ said shortly.

Darren meekly got in the driver's seat and adjusted the mirrors. He couldn't remember the last time their silence had felt so awkward. Pulling out of the driveway, he cautiously turned the radio on low.

When Russ didn't protest, Darren glanced over at him. His eyes were closed as he slouched in the reclined seat and pulled his sunglasses down.

"Do you want to stop at a diner?" Darren asked, hating the hesitance in his voice.

"Whatever," Russ said, and Darren couldn't even tell if he had opened his eyes.

Darren settled on breakfast sandwiches from a fast food restaurant and let the radio fill the space between them.


***


The summer house was more like a summer mansion. Darren hadn't really thought of it as such until they'd visited Blake's family the previous summer and he realized their entire home was half the size of his parents' summer house. Russ' parents used to own a similar summer retreat less than five minutes down the beach, but the house had been sold off in the divorce and the profits split.

By that point though, Russ and Darren had claimed the guest house as their own. The smaller structure was like a loft apartment plunked down on the beach side of Darren's parents' house, and for two teenage boys dealing with a nosy little sister and dueling parents, it was a safehaven.

They didn't get there until dinnertime. Darren bypassed the main house completely and parked the convertible next to the guest house. Russ was up and out of the car immediately, surprising Darren since he'd thought the blond was still asleep.

Popping the trunk, Darren got out at a slower pace. Russ already had both back packs and was heading for the front door by then.

"You have my keys," he called over his shoulder.

Darren hurried to unlock the door and was greeted with the light scent of lavender. The cleaning service must have been through, since the covers were off the furniture and the wispy white curtains were open.

The guest house had an open floor plan, with a two-story slanted roof and a wall of windows overlooking the ocean. The living room was a step down from the kitchen and loft. A semi-circle of sofas and cushions surrounded a fire pit that Darren had never seen anyone use. The loft was directly above the kitchen and only accessible by a narrow set of stairs.

The kitchen had a small dining area off to its side, in front of the small bathroom, but the dining area was filled with a paint-splattered long table and free-standing hutches that housed the remnants of Darren's mother's Beach series.

The loft was as open and uncluttered as the rest of the guest house, with a full-sized bed and a roll away cot that fit underneath it. A hope chest and wardrobe were the only other furniture, but the skylight-- That was Darren's favorite feature, because on clear nights, they could open it up and watch the stars from the foot of the bed.

Russ took their bags up the narrow stairs while Darren went to check the fridge. It was empty except for Russ' favorite brand of ice tea.

"We're gonna have to go to the main house for dinner," Darren called out over his shoulder.

"Kind of expected that," Russ said in a tired tone, right behind him. Darren jumped. "We might as well go now. They saw the car."

Darren didn't point out that Russ had been pretending to sleep. He just shrugged and followed the blond back into the summer heat. They were both tanned enough from days at the beach that riding in the convertible hadn't done much damage, but Darren still felt like his skin was too tight and hot.

Gabriella was the first to notice them as they traversed the path of broken sea shells between houses to the enclosed back porch. The eleven-year-old flung open the screen door and came barreling down the steps, launching herself at both of them.

"Dare! Russ!"

Laughing, Darren caught her around the middle while Russ caught her shoulders, giving his first grin of the day.

"Whoa, there, Gabby!" Russ said dramatically, pretending to stagger under her weight as Darren made like he was going to drop her.

"Guys! Mom and dad are being fascists!" She declared once she was back on her own two feet. "I'm grounded and it's summer vacation!"

Darren tried not to smile. "Fascists, huh?"

"Totally." She pouted up at them, crazy brown ringlets in an untamed halo around her head. She kicked at the sand with her bare toes and shoved her hands in the pockets of her sun dress. "So dad is always saying I don't apply myself, right? Which I totally do, but I'm in all the slow classes with boring teachers and everything's so dull. So my last day of chemistry, I 'applied' myself to next year's text books and Mrs. Behr got all ticked off because I skipped ahead."

"That sucks," Russ said mildly. He glanced at Darren meaningfully and it was like the night before had never happened.

"So if all you did was skip ahead," Darren drawled, "why are you grounded?"

"Has she gotten to the part with the fire and setting off all the sprinklers on her floor?" Darren's dad, John, called through the open door of the kitchen.

Gabby rolled her eyes and shouted, "I'm not talking to you!"

"Of course you aren't. Do you want broccoli with dinner?"

"Ew, gross! Dad!" She stormed back onto the porch and through to the kitchen. "Mom said she bought peas just for me."

Finally laughing out loud, Darren gestured for Russ to go first. Russ chuckled and hopped up the stairs, kicking off his flip flops in their usual spot. Darren kept his sneakers on and followed him into the kitchen, stealing a broccoli floret from a bowl on the counter.

"Hey, Mister Alterman," Russ said as he bee-lined for the fridge.

"Hey, Dad," Darren said absently, giving his dad a side hug.

"Hi, boys. Help yourselves to the veggies on the counter," John said and continued to stir the pot in front of him. "For tonight's dining experience, we're having goat cheese tortellini in a light garlic sauce accompanied by steamed garden vegetables."

"Sounds awesome," Russ said, coming up beside them to steal a slice of zucchini. "Darren made roasted butternut squash and ziti the other night. Delicious."

Darren felt himself flush at Russ' proud tone, and his dad gave him a knowing look.

"Did he now?"

"If by roasted, you mean I burned it in the pan, then yes," he mumbled and toyed with the end of a carrot left on the cutting board.

"Tasted delicious," Russ emphasized and John just smiled.

Darren ducked away, not sure how to take the return of happy and teasing Russ, and went to join Gabby at the dining table. She'd taken over one end with stacks of textbooks and spiral bound notebooks.

"What's all this?" He asked, lifting up a copy of The Scarlet Pimpernel.

"Since I was so bored, I blew up the lab, Dad wanted to send me to a summer literary camp. Mom talked him into book reports instead." She wrinkled her nose. "I'm being oppressed by the bourgeois regime, bro. You have to break me out before I start supporting the revolution. Take me back to SoCal with you!"

Darren laughed. "I think you can put the pitchforks away. You know how it goes -- we come out here for family time, then less than a week in, Mom is in her studio and Dad is in the office. Wait until then to break out."

She huffed and rolled her eyes, despondently pushing her blue glitter pen around the table.

"This sucks."

Before he could come up with more lame brotherly advice, his phone buzzed in his pocket. BLAKE IS THE MAN showed up on his caller ID.

"I thought you'd be passed out until midnight, dude. What's up?" He answered, ruffling Gabby's curls and heading out onto the back porch. He could see Russ in the kitchen talking with his dad.

"Well at least you're still talking to me," Blake groused. "Tell Russ to pick up his damn phone. I've called five fucking times."

"What?" Darren laughed incredulously. "Why so many?"

"You know, dude."

"Again: what?" A thought occurred to Darren. "You didn't permanently damage the house, did you? Because I meant it when I said I'd make you work off my part of the security deposit--"

Blake let out a frustrated growl. "You're really going to make me talk about it, after I acknowledged The Bromance That Dare Not Speak Its Name? In public, no less."

Darren froze. "Oh."

"Fearless Leader said you never wanna talk about it, anyway. Why do I have to?"

The whiny tone made Darren snap, "You're the one who called me, douche."

Blake was quiet a moment. "Yeah, okay. Fair enough." He cleared his throat. "All right. So. It's been pointed out to me that I may have been an asshole last night. I wouldn't know, since I can't really remember much of it, but Trey explained at great length this morning why he is not a prize stud horse I can gift to my friends. So. Yeah."

Darren swallowed hard. The silence dragged out.

"Look," Blake sighed. "I didn't know, all right? Mary ripped me a new one this afternoon. I thought, with the way you two are fucking married, that my boy had already confessed and you turned him down and were happy with all that bromance shit. I didn't know it was so taboo to talk about. I really didn't mean to make him hurl, either."

"I--" Darren's voice broke and he swallowed again.

"It's cool, man. I'm not, like, blaming you or anything. I just got tired of watching him pine and thought I'd help a bro out. Y'know, get him to move on. And now Pete's shaking his head at me." Blake's voice became muffled. "What? What's that look for?"

"Blake." Darren croaked, heart starting to pound.

"What the hell do you mean--" Blake came back on, louder than ever. "Are you shitting me, dude? Pete says you don't know?"

"Know what?" Darren asked faintly.

"Everybody knows! Russ has got it so fucking bad for you. I've listened to his sorry ass enough times, I would know! The man is, like, the pinnacle of unattainable and his little fan club weeps at your existence. He's saving himself and shit, complete with hearts and flowers and fucking little Cupid cutouts, because his love is soooo pure-- Jesus Christ, Pete, that fucking hurt!"

The phone clattered on the other end, but Darren just sank down on the porch glider chair. His knees felt funny.

Russ loved him? And not in a platonic, best friends forever way?

He was Russ' mysterious love interest?

"Blake, I gotta go," he mumbled into his phone and hit disconnect. After a long pause, he shut it off. He needed to think.

"There you are!" His mom, Vivienne, exclaimed from the doorway.

Darren startled, jumping to his feet and forcing a smile. "Hey, Mom! Where've you been hiding?"

"I saw a dolphin pod from our bedroom," she said absently, giving him a kiss on the cheek. "I wanted to capture the energy of the waves before the clay dried. It's never the same if I have to re-wet it."

"Still trying out sculpture?" He asked as he led her back into the house.

"It just doesn't listen to me right, but I'll work it out."

His mom was a very intelligent woman, she just had these spikes of artistic frenzy where she'd disconnect from the rest of the world until she was either sleep deprived or starving. Since it was dinnertime, Darren guessed starving. They'd all gotten used to it.

Russ was setting the far end of the table from Gabby, as much as they ever did, with silverware and napkins. Darren froze in the doorway at the sight, face turning beet red, but luckily Russ headed back into the kitchen without looking at him.

Unfortunately, Gabby was studying him with raised eyebrows. Darren frowned at her and pulled out his mom's chair.

"What's up with you?" Gabby demanded and Darren glared.

"Did you want broccoli with your dinner?" He asked sweetly.

She made the disgusted face at him and hurried to get her own plate. Darren followed, footsteps slow until he had his emotions under control again. His dad put together a dish for his mom, then they all settled down at the unoccupied end of the table.

"How's that report going?" John asked Gabby, who smiled smugly.

"I want to learn fencing," she announced and that conversation devolved down into a debate on the ethics of sports and violence.

Russ caught Darren's eye at one point during John's lecture, quirking his lips a little, but Darren swallowed his peas funny and started choking until tears streamed down his face.

"Charming," Russ teased and fetched him a new glass of water.

"You need to chew, Dash," his mom said, using his childhood nickname.

"I'm just tired," he gasped. "From the drive and all."

Darren didn't miss the way his dad gave her a knowing look when he thought Darren wasn't paying attention.

"How did exams go?" She asked gently. "You both seem quieter than usual."

Russ almost fumbled the glass as he handed it to Darren. "Exams were fine."

"Yeah. They were fine," Darren replied after he had a sip of water. "We won't have our final grades until next week, but I don't think I screwed up too bad."

"Language," his dad chided quietly.

Gabby rolled her eyes. "I've used the word screw before, Dad."

"Well, you shouldn't," John said, resigned.

Russ was very obviously trying not to grin at her.

Darren finished his water and stood up. "I think I'm gonna call it an early night. The tortellini was great, Dad."

"Yeah, it was awesome," Russ echoed, gathering his dish and Darren's before taking them into the kitchen.

"Are you sure you're all right, honey?" His mom asked again went he bent over to give her a hug.

"I'm just tired. Really."

Gabby pouted up at him. "We're still going boating tomorrow, right?"

"Wouldn't miss it," Russ called from the kitchen. When he reappeared, he said goodnight and ushered Darren out of the room with a guiding hand at the small of Darren's back.

He tried not to think about how hot Russ' fingers were. Not with just his shorts on and his family in the room behind him.

The sun had set while they were eating, but the moon was full and the seashell path glittered in its light.

"You could have stayed," Darren said quietly, feeling bad that he had interrupted Russ' time with his family.

Russ shrugged and shoved his hands in his pockets, scuffing his flip flops as they came up to the guest house.

"You seem out of it," Russ commented, voice just as soft. "I would've just been worrying."

Darren let Russ go into the house first, taking a breath. "Blake called."

Russ didn't look at him. "Hm."

"He's been trying to call you all day to apologize."

Waving a nonchalant hand, Russ sighed. "It is what it is."

Darren followed him into the living area, mind racing. One thought kept circling again and again until it was all that he could do to ask, "Do you love me?"

Time froze. Russ turned to him with wide eyes, and under other circumstances it would've been comical, but Darren just waited for a response.

Then Russ was in motion again, hand shoved in his curls as he hopped up the steps to the dining area.

"What do you mean?" Russ stuttered. "Of course I love you. You're my best friend, bro."

And that was when Darren realized that, whether or not Blake was right, Darren didn't care. He'd always have Russ, because Russ was his, as much as Russ claimed him. Why had he been afraid before? Russ was his first thought when he woke up, and his last before bed. It was so simple.

He exhaled slowly. "Because I'm in love with you."

There. He'd said it out loud.

Twisting around, Russ stared at him again, eyes searching his face for something. Darren held his gaze, and took a step forward.

"I love you," he repeated, just to be explicitly clear. "I'm in love with you. I want you."

Russ drew in a shuddery breath. "But you're not--"

"Am I?" Darren looked down at his hands, spreading them out. "I've never been interested in anyone else. It's always been you."

In a flash, Russ launched himself over the back of the couch and down into the living area, right in front of Darren.

"Do you mean that?" He asked breathlessly.

Darren had to smile, had to laugh. He reached up and tentatively stroked Russ' cheek, right where a dimple normally appeared.

"Of course I do."

Russ laughed with him this time, shaky with relief and disbelief. Darren had to lean in and kiss him then.

Their first kiss was kind of clumsy, with Russ not expecting it, and his lips were chapped and they both tasted like garlic. Darren thought it was perfect, the two of them pushing as though they could show the other how they felt by enthusiasm alone. Russ' hands slid up around his shoulders until their bodies were pressed together. Darren clenched the back of Russ' T-shirt too tight, almost choking him.

They broke apart laughing, before they returned to pepper each other with light kisses until Darren was dizzy. Russ cupped Darren's cheeks and opened his mouth, licking across Darren's lips. He took advantage of Darren's gasp to slide his tongue in, and Darren moaned.

"You--" Russ started to say, but broke off mid-pant.

Darren raised an inquisitive eyebrow even as his hands clenched Russ' sides. "I?"

Russ struggled for words, and settled on, "Me? Really?"

Darren couldn't stop his dopey grin. "Yeah, you. Really."

Laughing again, Russ curled around him, face pressed to the side of his neck, and Darren held on tight. He should have known that if anything happened between them, he'd have to be the one to say it first.

When they had stood there long enough to start swaying, Russ pulled away but kept a tight grip on Darren's hand. He peppered Darren’s knuckles with light kisses.

"C'mon, we should head to bed."


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