“Okay,” Tasha said evenly as James lined up his shot. “So you went out with a boy in Oregon-”
“We sorta made out a little, too,” he noted, sending a condensed gust of wind swooshing down the range of the gymnasium. It struck his target dead on, sending it clacking back against the rail along which it moved, built into the far wall of the space. He glanced across the way to make sure his father was still out of earshot.
Tasha scoffed, then returned to setting up her weights.
“No you didn’t,” she said, examining the plates currently attached to the barbell frame, and opting to add an extra one on either side. “I know you, James. No way.”
James bristled at that.
“I did tho!”
“Did you use tongues?” she asked, hefting a weight one handed and sliding it into place along the bar.
“Well, no, but-”
“Did it last more than five seconds?”
James’ cheeks reddened. He began lining up his next target.
“… Maybe like, two and a half.”
“That’s called kissing, dude. It’s not the same as making out.”
“Like you’d know,” he muttered. He took a second shot, and, to his satisfaction, watched another target snap satisfyingly back.
Her smile turned sly.
“And who says I don’t?” she asked, sliding into a ready position with her back against the bench, hands gripping the bar above her. “Spot me?”
That got James’ attention.
“… Caleb?” he guessed, stepping up alongside the machine as she made ready. “Did one of you finally make a move?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know?” she teased, before starting up her set, her shoulders straining as they took the weight. For the first second or so, nothing happened. Then, with a heave of effort, the bar began to lift.
“One,” James counted, watching each rep as he shifted himself down beside his partner’s head. He laid a hand against her shoulder. “Two, three…”
By the fifteenth rep, Tasha was heaving, her teeth gritting with the strain as she struggled against the weight. She lowered the bar back onto the bracket, and James allowed himself to slide away from the bench.
“D’you think you maybe go a bit too hard with this stuff sometimes?” he asked, his voice mild.
Tasha grunted, leaning down to grab her water bottle from its spot beside the bench.
“If it isn’t hard, then it’s not enough,” she muttered between impressively sized gulps of water. “No pain, no gain. That’s how you know it’s working.”
“I don’t know if that works when you’re trying to bench like-” he made a rough estimate of the weights currently loaded onto the machine. “- Five thousand pounds, ish?”
She took another long pull from her water bottle, then shrugged.
“I dunno,” she answered. “Sounds like quitter talk. Think I got buff with quitter talk?”
James conceded the point with a snicker. While he had spent the past nine months learning whatever magical skills his grandparents had deigned to teach him, Tasha had spent the time working on her physicality with a single minded focus. Gone was the naturally lackluster teenage body fat and posture. Now, she bore a striking resemblance to the person she’d always acted like; corded with muscle, head to toe.
“You are kind of a chad,” he admitted. “That’s not cuz of how you talk, though. That’s just cuz you’re insane.”
“Same diff,” she replied, laying back down for another set. “C’mon. You’re still spotting me.”
James rolled his eyes, and resumed his position by her head.
“Ready.” Under his careful eye, Tasha once more began to strain against the weight. “One,” he counted. “Two, three…”
Tasha made it all the way to ten before her arms locked up, her face knotting up with effort as she fought against a weight roughly equivalent to that of a camper van.
“You can do it, Tash,” James said, his voice encouraging. “Come on. You’re a beast. You can-”
Tasha let out a bark of effort as she pushed with everything she had- only for her arms to give out. The barbell slipped from her grip and fell, slamming against her chest with the force of an industrial accident. The impact sent a thin series of cracks radiating out across the surface of the barrier James had raised around her. A couple people glanced across at them from around the gym.
“Nice work,” James said brightly. “Ten whole reps. That’s pretty good.”
“Mmh,” Tasha grumbled, awkwardly shrugging herself out from under the barbell’s weight, one end of it sliding off of her and hitting the floor with a thump. “It’s fine. Long as I have to work for it. Thanks for catching it.”
“You’re welcome,” James murmured with a smile, pulling his hand away from her shoulder as she slumped off of the bench, allowing the shield to fade. “Still think you’re pushing too hard.”
“Eh, maybe,” she grumbled half-heartedly. She reached for her water bottle again, her hands a little shaky this time. “So. You met a guy. You had a pathetic tweenie makeout. What’s the problem?”
“The problem’s-” he hesitated, once more scanning the gymnasium to be sure his dad was out of earshot. He spotted the man a couple dozen feet away, currently working at a rowing machine. He lowered his voice to a whisper regardless. “The problem’s Casper.”
“Ah.” Tasha nodded. “You’re still into him, huh?”
“… Well, no,” James muttered. “Not exactly.” Tasha raised a sardonic eyebrow at him. He scowled. “I mean it! It’s just. Ok. Cody was great, right? He was cute, and fun, and tall, and he wasn’t a pushover, which is kind of awesome. But like…” he took a breath, unwilling to meet her gaze for what came next. “I couldn’t talk to him about stuff the way I can with Casper. And it felt weird sometimes, cuz I knew he wanted me to talk to him like that.”
Tasha took a prolonged sip of water, clearly thinking through what he had said.
“So, basically,” she murmured. “you’re telling me you’re still thirsty over Casper.”
James sucked a breath between his teeth in indignation, his cheeks scarlet.
“I am not thirsty!”
“Don’t lie, man,” she taunted, a touch too loud for James’ comfort. “You want him so bad.”
“I do not!” he hissed, shooting a furtive glance towards his father, still a good few dozen feet away. “And keep your voice down!”
Tasha raised an eyebrow at that, confused.
James made a ‘duh’ gesture.
“Cuz my dad might hear!”
Tasha cocked her head.
“And he doesn’t know yet!” James snapped. “I’m still in the-” he huffed, and forced himself to speak a mite more calmly. “I haven’t come out yet, okay?”
Tasha nodded, still a touch confused.
“Okay,” she said, lowering her voice a fraction. “Why not, though?”
James groaned at that, his eyes shifting to the floor. In honesty, he didn’t have a reason. He trusted his dad, and knew full well that he’d probably take it fine. That didn’t help with the anxiety that bubbled in his stomach every time he tried to say the words out loud.
“Cuz what if it makes things weird?” he muttered, a touch defensive. “After all the stuff that happened last year. What if-”
“No, no,” Tasha cut him off. “James. That’s not it. I’m asking, like. Why haven’t you talked about it? I mean, he’s probably figured it out by now, you know?”
“What?” James asked, wrong-footed. “Uh. No, he hasn’t. Not unless you told him… Please say you haven’t told him.”
“Didn’t say a word,” Tasha reassured. “Still, tho. I’m pretty sure he knows.”
James scowled, trying to pretend he wasn’t nervous.
“Ok. So, how does he know?”
“Promise you won’t get mad?” she asked. James nodded, so she continued. “You’re just really obvious about it.”
James gasped. He was offended.
“I am not!”
“Dude, you go bright red when you even see a guy you have a crush on. I will bet you a shiny dollar he already knows. Have things been weird so far?”
“… No,” James allowed. “It’s been pretty good with him lately. But that doesn’t matter, cuz he doesn’t know.”
“Does not!” he snapped. “I will bet you ten shiny dollars!”
“Deal.” Tasha grinned. “So tell him.”
“Ugh, fine!” he snarled. “You suck at helping!”
“Fine, fine,” she snickered, raising her hands. “Go over the problem for me one more time. I’ll be serious. I swear.”
James glared at her for a moment, then sighed.
“Am I allowed to share more with a friend than with my boyfriend?” he asked. “Is that even fair?”
To her credit, Tasha gave that one some thought, the humor dropping from her face as she put her mind more genuinely towards the problem he’d put forward. Eventually, she shrugged.
“Just do what feels right, my dude,” she answered. “You trust Casper with the hard stuff cuz he’s your friend. You’ve walked through deep shit together. Of course you trust him more than some newbie. He’s reliable. A couple dates aren’t changing that.”
James thought on that for a moment, then let out a breath.
“… Thanks, Tasha.” Then, he grumbled: “See? Was that so hard?”
The journey home was spectacularly awkward. James bade Tasha goodbye at the entrance to the gym, before joining his father in the car.
To his credit, Peter did the best he could; as usual, using the momentary confinement as an opportunity to touch base with his son. As was always the case, though, communication became a good deal harder when there was actually something to talk about. James answered sporadically, at best. His focus was elsewhere.
Just tell him, he told himself again and again. It’s fine. He’s Dad. You can trust him.
“I got the report from Finch today,” Peter was saying. “He says you did well in Oregon. He’s giving you a passing grade.”
“He is?” James muttered. “But I was freaking out the whole time.”
“He mentioned that. But he also stressed that even when pressured or caught off guard, your first priority was always to maintain secrecy and minimize civilian risk. You performed well as part of a team, and you knew when to call for extra help. It’s a good report card. I’m proud of you.”
Peter reached across the divide to momentarily ruffle his son’s hair. James couldn’t help but smile at that, his cheeks a little pink.
“… Thanks, Dad.”
Just tell him, James. You can do it.
He took a deep breath.
Peter was talking again, something about potentially training him up to be part of Finch’s response team once he’d finished school. Normally, James might have found that more exciting.
“Uh, Dad?” he interrupted, his gaze steadily pointed at his shoes. “Can I say something?”
Peter glanced across at him, one eyebrow raised.
“Of course you can,” he replied, his voice touched by the faintest hint of concern. “You can always talk to me, James. No matter what. What’s on your mind?”
James nodded. He took a deep breath, then another. He was finding the air strangely thin for a boy who no longer had any need for oxygen. He shook himself.
“I-” he swallowed. “I’ve… Kinda known for a while, and I know I shoulda told you sooner, but…”
“What?” Peter asked, his voice deliberately calm. “Not interested in this line of work anymore?”
“No,” James muttered. “It’s not that. There was-” he swallowed, the words almost fighting to remain inside his throat. “There was a boy… Back in Oregon.”
There was silence there. James couldn’t quite look his father in the eye.
“Dad… I’m gay.”
Peter inclined his head.
“Yes you are,” he acknowledged. “What was it you wanted to talk about?”
James took a second to reboot at that. The first emotion to surface was a faint annoyance.
“That was it,” he muttered, deflated.
“Oh!” his father realized, apparently relieved. “I see. Okay. Yeah. I know.”
“You could at least pretend to be surprised.”
“I am shocked and amazed by this revelation. That better?”
“Yes,” James muttered, folding his arms. “Much.”
Another momentary quiet, before:
“Love you, Dad.”
“Love you too.”