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three's a crowd

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Sometimes, JJ Maybank doesn’t know whether he’s blessed or cursed.

He has two soulmate marks that are both extremely obvious. The dotted arrow scrawled across the inner wrist of his right arm; the spread of what looks like the outline of honeycomb over his left hip. He can hide that one under shorts and boxers as long as he keeps them hiked up high.

The dotted arrow – he doesn’t have to hide that one. It’s a third-grade teacher that takes one look at his pale forearm and groans.

“Just my luck that I have a bonded pair in my class,” Ms Jenkins complains. JJ likes Ms Jenkins – she has red hair and wears big skirted colourful dresses, like some TV soap teacher. She doesn’t mind that he wears the same outfit a lot and has to wash his hair without soap with the hose in the backyard.

JJ screws up his face. “What?” he demands. “A what?”

“A bonded pair,” Ms Jenkins repeats, more patiently than perhaps his petulant demand warrants. “You and John Routledge.” JJ keeps on frowning. “Oh, honey. You’ll find out soon enough.”

He finds out half a day later when a small boy with long brown hair marches across the yard with a small posse behind him. JJ’s drawing the letter J into the dirt with a stick because Ms Jenkins tells him kindly but firmly that he needs to get his dad to help him with his name. When JJ had asked his dad when the letters stopped moving around, Luke Maybank had laughed and laughed until JJ went and sat on his bed and tried to think about what was so funny.

“Show me your arm,” the brown-haired boy demands. JJ thinks it’s John Routledge but there are a lot of John’s and he gets them all mixed up. Like there’s one baby name book on the entire island of Kildare and it only has one page left in it.

“No.” Even aged eight his defiant streak is a mile wide, which does make navigating school somewhat hazardous.

“Yes,” the brown-haired boy insists.

JJ throws the stick down in the dirt and stands up fully. There are three kids behind maybe-John. “Make me.”

The boy doesn’t move any closer. He just pulls up the sleeve of his navy sweatshirt, right the way up to his elbow. Reveals the dotted arrow on the inside of his wrist.

“Aw,” JJ complains plaintively. “Shit.”

It’s hard to keep quiet about it after that, although JJ clamps his hand over his matching mark and pouts a lot. Ms Jenkins referred it to the Principal and both boys get pulled out of Art. It’s the worst kind of art – the one involving pasta and string, and JJ gets told off for crunching too much raw pasta even though it’s definitely the more valid use for it and it’s more pasta than he’s ever been faced with in his life. Painting it gold and threading it on a piece of frayed string is a colossal waste of resources and effort.

They both have to sit on the plastic chairs outside the principal’s office, their shoes barely reaching the ground. JJ swings his feet and accidentally kicks maybe-John in the knee. Maybe-John kicks him right back in the shin. JJ gasps in outrage and punches the boy in the arm.

“Boys,” the principal interrupts just as JJ has maybe-John’s t-shirt in one hand and is ready to grapple the boy to the floor. “Come in.”

It’s then that they both learn properly about bonded pairs. Soulmates. The universe’s placement of marks so you know you have found your perfect match.

“Does this mean we’re getting married?” maybe-John asks, once the boys have stopped blinking and absorbing the onslaught of information their principal has just unleashed upon them.

“Hell no,” Luke protests.

“Unfortunately, not legal yet, kiddo.” Big John looks at his son with amusement or pride or both. “It’s not always a marriage kind of bond.”

“Definitely not this one,” Luke mumbles.

“It just means you’ll be the best of friends,” the principal assures them. “But you will hear a lot about soulmates and people will be very interested in you. It’s unusual to find each other so young. If you ever get worried about anything, you both just tell your parents or your teacher and we’ll try and help y’all out. Might be an idea to find an age-appropriate counsellor.” The last bit is said as an aside to their parents.

“Counsellor may be a little strong,” maybe-John’s dad protests affably.

“My kid doesn’t need no shrink-”

“Just to facilitate their adjustment. We’ve never had them so young. And the same gender – of course it happens. But it’s rarer. They’ve barely even discovered whether they like pasta yet.”

“I like pasta,” JJ pipes up. “It even tastes good before you cook it.”

The room swivels to look at him. Maybe-John says, “pasta is boring. Painting it is more fun.”

“Yeah, I definitely can’t marry him.”

Maybe-John’s dad laughs and reaches out a hand to ruffle JJ’s hair. It’s the sharpness of the movement – the unexpectedness of it. JJ jerks his head out the way so quickly he almost overbalances off the too-big chair. Is pinned into place by his father’s firm hand on his shoulder, the man’s thumb pressing hard into the groove below his collarbone.

The adults talk a little more and maybe-John’s dad keeps looking at him quickly and frequently out the corner of his eyes – it makes JJ want to hide, because most of the time when someone looks at you like that on the Cut they want something and it’s not usually something you want to give them.

They’re allowed to leave school half an hour early which feels like a big win. Maybe-John runs ahead but JJ’s jerked back by a hand fisted into the neckline of his t-shirt; the fabric tight against his throat.

“I can take them both this afternoon if you need to get back to work,” maybe-John’s dad offers.

Luke seems at war with something: stands stock still for a long while, his fingers tightening and loosening on JJ’s t-shirt. JJ knows better than to complain or try and wriggle free. Just stands very still like his father, eyes fixed on some spot on the horizon.

“No romance shit,” his dad commands finally, as he releases his son’s shirt. JJ chances a look at his father’s face, then runs. He can feel his dad’s gaze on his back as he runs, eyes narrowed against the sun and the new prospect of his son’s soulmate.

The playdate confirms a few things for eight-year-old JJ. One is that his new found soulmate is definitely called John. The second is that his dad is also called John. When JJ confesses that he is also called John (or more accurately, Jonathan), both the John’s laugh at him. Little John then informs JJ gravely that he’s not just John – he’s John B. Emphasis on the B.

Big John makes them grilled cheese which are browned and crisp around the edges. They play around on an old skateboard in the dirt of the backyard – chase each other around the bottom of a tree with sticks. JJ gets a little caught up in the occasion when he catches up with John B and smacks him firmly around the ears. Blood wells up in the scratch from the smaller twigs and JJ says, “sorrysorrysorrysorry, please don’t tell, please don’t tell,” as a mantra as John B touches a hesitant fingertip to the wound and inspects the blood droplets.

“DAAAAAD!” he hollers. “DAD!”

JJ doesn’t know what to do – he panics and hoofs it after John B as he runs through the back door. JJ’s quicker, usually, but John B’s on home territory. He knows how to skip up the porch steps the quickest – knows he can still shimmy through the bars to cut down time. JJ has to go the long way around. He’s there just as John B slams into the kitchen, just as his dad enters from the other door. Terror grips his gut and JJ can just watch with dread; his hands curled into fists. He is a bystander to the scene before him; an outlier.

John B’s eyes are sparking with mischief and unshed tears.

“Woah, bud,” Big John’s hoisting his son onto the counter as easily as the fishermen down the docks hoist up their fishing nets and lobster pots. “What’s happened here?”

JJ’s stood by the fridge with the distinct impression that this is the last time he’s ever going to be there. John B’s looking at him, then his dad, then out the window. It’s the moment JJ holds his breath because he’s safe in the classroom – teachers don’t seem to lose their temper there, beyond some raised voices. But in homes – JJ knows how things are. He may not be the best at reading books and words, but he knows about people.

“JJ-” John B looks over his father’s shoulder and maybe he’s good at reading people to. Or maybe JJ looks like how he feels on the inside – like a cornered racoon. The kind you kick near your dumpster with steel capped boots. “I – a stick. A big stick.”

“A big stick,” Big John repeats.

“Huge,” John B confirms.

“And what were you doing with the big stick?”

“…Looking at it?”

Big John looks at his son whilst rifling through the medical kit. “Looking at it?”

“Real, real close.”

“Uh-huh.” It takes several attempts for Big John to open an antiseptic wipe. JJ’s tempted to point out that it’s easier to open them by using your teeth on the corners. His fingers twitch against his thigh. John B hisses out and his face screws up, shoulders twisting away as his dad passes the wipe over the graze. Big John stills, hand steady on his son’s shoulder. “JJ,” says Big John. “Were you also looking at the big stick?”

“Yessir,” JJ mumbles, nodding his head frantically. “And John B fell and-”

“Fell, did he?”

“Yessir.”

Big John looks between the two boys. John B stares right back whereas JJ looks at a spot on the wall in the man’s general direction. “Sure,” the man concedes eventually. “Sure he did. How about you two be careful with sticks from now on? When you’re looking at them, that is. Could take someone’s eye out if you’re not careful.”

“Yessir,” JJ agrees quickly.

Big John looks at his son for a long while. John B folds his arms across his chest and pouts out his lower lip. Finally he mutters, “fine, okay,” and then jumps down from the counter. He runs past JJ and JJ’s kind of shocked at the whole exchange. Mostly that no one got told off, but also that John B still has boundless energy and JJ’s never really noticed anyone who has as much energy as he does.

“Sorry about my dad,” John B apologises as they hang upside down from a branch of a tree. “He’s kind of a hardass.”

JJ laughs, shrugs a shoulder, then realises a shrug is pointless. “He’s not a hardass.”

“Yeah,” John B’s voice turns thoughtful. “Your dad seems like kind of a hardass too.”

JJ wants to laugh again because yeah, his dad is kind of a hardass. But he’s not supposed to say that. People outside don’t necessarily understand how badness sits under JJ’s skin like a disease and his dad has to help him get it out. He says instead, “he’s pretty cool.”

The whole soulmate thing gets them a lot of attention at school. A lot of attention from parents outside the school gates, too. The adults try to make their renewed efforts of talking idly to Big John subtle, but it’s hard to do so when the man is now plagued by curious bystanders every time he sets foot in the school yard. He ushers the boys home with a hand on each shoulder – JJ flinches away from the firm grip, but allows himself to be steered away.

Kids from all the grades in school keep coming over and demanding they see the marks. The requests drop off when they see them pulling their sleeves down over their wrists or JJ’s blank, unimpressed look. John B liked to indulge them at the beginning – liked to drag JJ over by the arm to line them up side by side. But even his enthusiasm for the attention is dampened by the constant requests. Even more so whenever someone says something negative about them both being boys.

“My mum says it’s not normal,” Allison Greta sneers. “She says you’re freaks of nature.”

JJ bops her politely on the nose, which bleeds all down her Spongebob shirt. She cries and then both boys get sent to the Principal’s office.

JJ points out that John B didn’t do anything wrong. The Principal stares hard at the both of them. “I had hoped maybe you’d rein him in, John. Not the other way around.”

The principal must have some modicum of sense, because she calls Big John and not JJ’s dad.

Big John retrieves two bandanas from his room; one blue and one red. He ties them firmly around the boy’s wrists. “It’ll stop people staring,” he explains as JJ runs his fingers over the material, automatically loosening the knot in the fabric. “You don’t have to hide it – but. It might stop people asking.”

It does stop people asking for physical evidence. Everyone knows and it’s not like it’s some secret.

They get sat next to each other in class because they’re worse if they’re separated.

Clara Thompson complains. “Miss. Miss! JJ said the a-word!”

Their fifth grade teacher hates cussing above all else. JJ has a suspicion she’d use soap in kids’ mouths if she wouldn’t get caught out.

“JJ Maybank,” Ms Thornley grits out. “Did you say the a- word?”

“Technically,” John B bursts out, loud and fast, despite JJ stamping hard on his foot. “Technically, motherfucker does not have an a in it.”

They both get sent to the principal’s office and this time it’s Luke Maybank who picks him up. The boys have to sit outside the office and John B sits half on JJ’s chair, shoulder pressed firmly to his, head bent over the Nintendo DS in JJ’s hands. JJ is worse at video games through lack of practice, but John B had insisted firmly that sharing is just something soulmates do. They have to take the cartridge out to blow on it a lot, but JJ likes losing himself in some fantasy world with John B urging him on.

John B has his ankle hooked over JJ’s and is bent half over the boy when Luke Maybank walks in. He takes one look at the pair and his ever-present scowl deepens.

John B gets sent home to an empty house. More like put at the curb – Luke pulls the wheel of the truck hard, slams on the brakes. John B says “woah,” and giggles a little as the pair are flung forwards in their seats. JJ flinches at the sound. Doesn’t turn away from where he’s staring out the window.

“There’s a key outside so I’m okay, Mr Maybank,” John B chirps cheerfully with no prompting from the only adult present. “Thank you for the ride, sir. JJ, I’ll see you tomorrow.” Then he reaches out to drag his fingers across JJ’s wrist, because they do that now. Fingertips that linger on the bandanas they have secured around their marks. Sometimes they take them off and line them side by side.

Luke Maybank tracks the movement in the rear view mirror and JJ bundles his hands into a fist and moves his arm away. “Bye, JB.”

His friend – his soulmate, actually – is watching, eyes wide with incomprehension. But then he pulls the handle and jumps down from the truck and trots merrily up his dirt driveway, stopping once at the door to wave cheerfully at the passengers. “See you tomorrow, JJ!”

John B does not see him tomorrow. Doesn’t see him for a week. Not until the bruising has gone down, anyway.

John B runs right up to him at the yard, grabs at his hand. “JJ – you’ve been gone forever – were you on vacation? Where did you go? Ms Thornley said you weren’t, said you were sick. You don’t look sick.” John B gets real close, so close that his eyes cross and go all squinty. He presses a warm hand to JJ’s forehead. “Are you sick?”

“Bug off.” JJ pushes at John B’s shoulder, looks over his own to make sure his dad isn’t watching him holding John B’s hand and the boy touching his face. “JB,” it comes out all barbed like, all jagged and splintered. John B’s hand has moved to cup his chin and pull his face around – it’s not tender in itself, but it’s the tenderest thing JJ’s had all week. He’d forgotten how handsy his soulmate is.

“What’s this?” John B pulls at the bandage wrapped hastily around JJ’s wrist where the bandana usually is. JJ finally breaks away from his grip and curious stares, stepping smartly back out of reach.

“John B,” JJ grits out again. “Chill out, man. I’m cool.”

They go surfing after school because there’s always a fortnight or so reprieve from Luke Maybank when he feels the equilibrium between father and son has been reset. JJ’s bandage gets soaked with sea water and becomes looser. Slips down.

It’s Big John who sees it first – Big John who says, very quietly, “JJ, come in here, I got something to show you,” and takes JJ into his study. John B complains loudly about it, but Big John shouts “go get the ice cream from the freezer, I just gotta show JJ something for your history project!”

“What history project?” JJ questions as he slopes after Big John. The man shuts the door behind him with a quiet click and even though JJ knows this is just Big John, who feeds him most evenings and lets him crash whenever he wants; who passes him all of John B’s old clothes and some JJ suspects aren’t even old on account of being in pristine condition and not smelling of detergent. That knowledge is not enough, in that moment. Not enough to still his heart or limbs or mind. “Do we have a history project?”

“You do, actually, but that’s not what we’re here for. JJ, show me your wrist.”

It’s automatic to hook his arms behind his body. “What?”

“Your mark, JJ. Show me it.”

JJ can feel his heart behind his threadbare t-shirt. “You’ve already seen it, sir. John B has the same. I’m sure you’ve seen that.”

“JJ.”

It’s the voice and the tone which has the dread crawling through JJ’s veins. “I-”

“JJ,” now it’s gentler, softer. “It’s okay. Just – we need to look after them, okay?” The pair stare at each other – boy and man, eyes locked. Slowly, JJ pulls his arm out from behind his back and holds it up. “And the bandage.”

JJ’s soulmark is a mess of angry red, scabbed skin in three jagged circles. They’re linked by the dashed dots that usually make up the arrow. Even from across the room, Big John sucks in a deep breath.

“We’ve gotta clean them, JJ. Is that okay? I’m going to have to clean them. You shouldn’t wear the bandage for a while so we can let them heal.”

Now his wrist is exposed and Big John can see the mangled skin and mess of the mark that’s supposed to be the purest thing about him, JJ can allow the disappointment to swell through him. “It was a candle – I just leant over it-” the words trip off his tongue, and Big John looks at him. “Do you think my mark will be okay?” JJ asks in a small voice. “Do you think it’ll come back?”

“It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t – we all know it’s been there. You and John B have already found each other. The mark is just an indication of soulmates. It’s not the deciding factor.”

Big John’s inched closer, has reached out to take JJ’s elbow. There are antiseptic wipes in his back pocket, which he pulls out. Tears open with his teeth. He looks at JJ with the wipe poised across his wrist.

“This is going to sting.”

“I know."

It does sting – and then they have an embargo over leaving the wounds uncovered versus bandaging them back up, once they’ve been coated generously with antiseptic. JJ wins, and Big John fastens the bandage gently but securely.

Big John’s car roars into action twenty minutes after installing JJ and John B on the couch in front of Harry Potter. John B fancies himself as Harry Potter and tells JJ the same around a mouthful of charred popcorn. JJ protests that Ron is the best – funnier, better family. Big John clatters back in towards the end of the film – he heads straight to the kitchen and rinses his knuckles under the kitchen tap. Pulls a bag of peas from the freezer. John B is as oblivious as ever, but JJ eyes the man as he exits the kitchen.

“Don’t stay up too late,” the man warns them. Then he disappears into his study and shuts the door behind him.

Ten days later, the scabs under the bandage are fading surely. The black mark is taking up residence on his skin once more, although slightly faded where the wounds have been. John B grabs his wrist when he forgets to put the bandage back on and looks so closely at the skin that JJ can feel his friend’s breath on his hand. His dad hasn’t so much as looked at him wrong since. His soul mark is intact. Life is good.

*

Pope Heyward is on the outer remit of JJ’s life but does not feature heavily until 7th Grade.

It’s about the time they’re actually being trusted with chemicals in Chemistry. They have to wear plastic goggles and endure lectures about Bunsen burner safety and improper use of chemicals.

JJ and John B’s first experiment goes predictably awry, and they’re then split up for apparent safety reasons.

JJ gets put with Pope Heyward who is one of those kids who’s always been on the peripheries of JJ’s school career. Mostly on the upper echelon of academic prowess – the sort that is so out of JJ’s reach that it does not flag on his radar. JJ’s extracurriculars are mostly formed of lower reading groups and the assisted learning programme where he and John B sit at the back and fold increasingly complex paper airplanes. Pope Heyward is undoubtedly on some fast track to college and escaping the Cut.

Pope Heyward mostly keeps his head down and doesn't make waves. He hangs around with two other kids in the loosest sense, and a girl as his ever present shadow. Sits in the library amongst the shelves and the books to eat his lunch. No one looks at him twice apart from teachers when they're looking for the correct answer in class and his favourite cafeteria worker who always gives him extra baloney with an exaggerated wink.

Then he's paired with JJ Maybank who everyone knows and not for the right reasons. It's some sort of irony that they get paired together in science - JJ Maybank is a walking experiment, a walking chemical explosion waiting to spark into life with the merest flame.

JJ doesn't believe Pope considers it a beneficial arrangement to be paired with the disruptive kid. But it's an arrangement the boy seems resigned to. Teachers use him as a buffer. Try to dress it up as a positive maybe he'll draw you out of your shell as though the worst thing a kid could be was on the quieter side. Like the boy could act as a boring sedative to try and wrangle the livelier ones into order.

There's already friction as JJ slopes across the room with his backpack slung across one shoulder. He throws his bag on the bench and himself on the stool. Links his arms across his chest and slumps to rest his chin on them. John B's across the room making friends with his new partner and it shouldn't sting because they're soulmates, literally made for each other, but the familiar panic and dread builds anyway.

He reaches out a hand to twist on the gas tap. Centimetres away, smooth fingers enricle his wrist and pull his hand away. "Don't touch that." Pope drops JJ's wrist immediately, but maintains eye contact. "If you turn that on and we don't light it - well, it's not good. Not healthy. Potentially dangerous."

It's hard not to pout. JJ doesn't succeed. "It sounds like you need some explosions in your life," he mutters belligerently. "Might spice you up a little."

There's an edge to the other boy that JJ hadn't appreciated. An edge which allows Pope to repent and let JJ light the matches and the gas and mix the chemicals, even the ones which they're told not to -

Their beaker cracks in two and acid or alkaline spills all over the desk. Pope raises his hand and says "uh, sir," as the liquid trickles to the floor. JJ kicks their bags out the way.

"I hoped you'd be a good influence," Mr Johnson complains as they evacuate the lab. It's the school's only lab and rumours quickly abound as to how long it'll be out of commission. Pope has the look of a chided dog but JJ - he's bouncing on the balls of his feet, tucking his hand under the strap of his bag, then out again.

The lab takes half a day for the fumes to disperse, so they're back in the next day for science again. Mr Johnson fancies himself a modern day teacher and man of God, so he allows Pope and JJ to remain paired together - just keeps a wary eye on them as he circles the class slowly.

Pope writes and JJ does the practical steps. Pope reads the instructions out carefully. Looks up every now and then to check JJ's doing it right. It takes three weeks before JJ realises he barely has to write at all and how Pope is single handedly saving his tanking grade. Usually assistance from anyone but John B is a sign of weakness. But Pope is so slight and underhand that he can barely even detect it, much less accuse him of pandering.

One day when JJ leans forwards to pick up some beaker and the bench digs into his bruised ribs, he snaps. Pope stops reading the instructions and looks up sharply as the glass beaker clatters to the wooden countertop, shortly followed by JJ's open palm.

"I'm not dumb," JJ grits out between his teeth. "You don't have to treat me like I'm dumb."

"No, you're not dumb," Pope agrees. He's flipped over the instruction sheet, has his fingertip poised on the next line. "Just dyslexic."

“Just - what?”

“Dyslexic.” Pope’s got his gaze focussed on the instructions but his eyes aren’t moving. Like he’s purposefully avoiding JJ’s searching look. “It means that you have slight processing issues between your eyes and your brain.”

“Issues?”

“Not like that - just - like. Programming faults.”

It’s enough of a disclaimer that JJ wilts a little. Maybe because his ribs still hurt when he clenches with fury. “Whatever,” he dismisses. “C’mon, weirdo.”

It’s two weeks later when they finish early and Pope says casually, “shall we run over the history project?” that JJ finally, properly gets suspicious.

“Why are you suddenly paired with me for everything?” he complains, although it’s slightly more good natured than he intended. “Did you like, request it or something?”

The edges of Pope’s ears darken and his head ducks down. He concentrates very hard on the page in front of him.

“Aw, Pope - have you got a crush on me-”

“Shut the hell up, JJ,” Pope grits out between clenched teeth. “You have no idea what you’re talking about.”

The bell rings and it’s volume makes JJ do a double take at the offending metal item. By the time he looks back at his most of the time partner, Pope’s slung his books into his backpack without his usual care and has the strap over his shoulder. With a squeak of a slightly worn sneaker on lino, the boy is gone.

JJ watches his retreating back for a long moment. Right up until John B bounces into view, hands tucked under the straps of his bag. He’s flicking at the brim of JJ’s hat - trying to knock it off his head. JJ ducks out the way, slides up from his seat. Shoves the singular paper covered in doodles and half sketches in his bag.

“Who’s pissed on your chips?” John B chirps as they emerge in the corridor side by side. Their shoulders jostle constantly; one slots in front, then behind. Their bandana’ed wrists barely even get a second glance anymore.

“Pope was acting weird,” JJ confesses.

“When’s Pope ever not acted weird? He’s an odd kid. Dad calls him Grandpa Pope. Dude’s just, like, old.”

JJ’s reflexively defensive in a way that he only usually is about John B or his dad. Grits his teeth to try and lessen the near instinctive way in which he wants to retaliate. “Yeah,” he says hollowly. “Probably.”

It’s three days later that Pope Heyward marches across the sand at Rixton’s with purpose in his eye. He stands on the shoreline and yells “JJ!” across the waves.

JJ, who’s sitting on his board and bobbing gently in the shallows, squints to the offending figure. John B’s off on some trip with Big John and Luke perhaps overindulged last night, so JJ’s Saturday plans mainly consist of floating in the sea until his fingers and toes peel from the saltwater.

Pope Heyward standing on shore yelling his name did not feature in these plans.

“What?” he yells back instead because - he’s not some friendly neighbourhood dog who comes to call. He has standards.

“Come here!” Pope calls. “I need to talk to you!”

JJ rolls his eyes. Flicks his feet in the water. Lies back down on his board.

There’s some splashing which gradually gets closer. JJ is tempted to crack open his eyelids to look but doesn’t want to ruin his facade. It’s by-the-by anyway because his eyes fly open and his arms flap when someone rudely grabs the nose of his board and tips it from side to side.

“What the fuck,” JJ snaps, his hands curling around the edge of his board. “Don’t fucking touch my board.”

Pope stands waist deep in the water, blinking splashes from his eyes and looking at JJ with a solemn look. “We need to talk.”

“Is this is about that history shit-”

“It’s not. But you still need to do your bit for that, by the way. Miss Penny really likes me and I can’t have you dragging my grade down. No - anyway. It’s not about school.” For a guy standing in the sea gripping the edge of someone else’s board, Pope still manages to look like he’s calculating his next chess move. “It’s about soulmates.”

JJ keeps his mark wrapped up more than ever. Especially since it doesn’t precisely match John B’s anymore. Some parts are faded or jagged. “Me and John B have been matched for literal years - this is so last year,” JJ dismisses. He lies back on his board and dangles his hand over the side, fingertips flicking the water’s surface.

“No,” Pope insists. “JJ - ah, sugar.”

“Sugar? Jesus Christ. Live a little.”

“Just give me a moment.” Pope releases JJ’s board which, now untethered, bobs a little further away. Pope retreats a few yards. Hooks his hands behind his neck and peers at the sky.

“Are you always so dramatic?” JJ complains. “Do you wanna know whether we hook up or whatever? Because that is strictly classified information.” Honestly - the idea of hooking up with John B was something JJ was undecided on. Definitely a bridge to cross at a later date.

“No,” Pope shakes his head emphatically. “Just - okay. I’m just gonna do it. Okay. I am. I’m gonna do it.”

JJ can feel his brow wrinkling in confusion. “Dude - are you okay?”

In response, Pope hooks his thumb in the material of his board shorts above his left hip. Tugs the waistband down and his t-shirt up. There against his skin is the distinctive honeycomb mark JJ looks at in the shower every few days.

“Fuck,” JJ says shortly - and now he is sitting up and paying attention. He tugs his board shorts to reveal his own matching mark. Pope stares at it, just as JJ stares at his. The sea laps against Pope’s hip, making it morph into something murky, then recedes again.

“Honeycomb,” JJ says at the same time as Pope says, “the molecular makeup of carbon.”

“The what now?”

“The molecular representation of a carbon atom. The fundamental of life.” Pope’s dropped his t-shirt. JJ takes the hint and pulls his board shorts back to where they sit, just slightly above his hips.

“Oh hell no. It’s definitely honeycomb.”

“Well,” Pope begins diplomatically. “We don’t have to decide this now - even though you’re wrong.” The boys both stare at each other. JJ kicks his feet to keep the board steady. “Do you wanna go for lunch?” Pope offers.

JJ snorts. “What - like a date?”

Pope tips his head back to look at the sky once more, as though seeking intervention. “Just so we can talk.”

“Lunch?” JJ repeats.

“That meal in the middle of the day.”

“Yeah - but like, out for lunch?” The concept of eating anywhere but at home or anything but store bought snacks is not something that registers often with JJ. He scrounges coins (and sometimes notes, if he’s feeling brave) and subsists off shoplifted chips, peanut butter out the jar, or Big John’s pity.

“Kiara’s dad owns the Wreck, so there probably.”

JJ’s fingers and toes are all wrinkled as he trudges up the beach, his board under his arm. It takes half an hour to trek all the way to the beach. JJ pulls on his shirt he left on the shoreline, but meanders with bare feet the whole way. Props his board outside the so called restaurant because he figures there won’t be room inside.

Pope glances at his board with question. “She’s safe,” JJ assures him. “Everyone knows she’s mine.”

Pope stops to stamp sand from the bottom of his beaten up sneakers before he ducks through the door. JJ watches him idly, wondering who had the bright idea of pairing them up together. JJ and John B made sense. JJ and Pope are yet to be determined.

After a lot of pointed looks, JJ brushes his bare feet on the opposite calf, then slouches in after Pope.

The two sit opposite each other. Two milkshakes appear and JJ eyes his warily. Only takes a sip when Pope’s downed half of his. There’s a silence, but JJ’s content to suck on his straw and watch Pope becoming increasingly agitated. The boy scrubs at his hair; flicks his straw between his fingers.

“So, uh, you probably have questions,” he begins. JJ shrugs. “I noticed it in PE. In about 3rd grade. But you were already matched with John B so I figured they weren’t exactly the same - it’s quite complex, as marks go, so yeah. I figured it was just coincidence.”

“So you’ve potentially known for years?”

“More like suspected. I wasn’t sure. But then I kept seeing it and I just - occam's razor means that the most likely solution is in all probability the correct one.”

“Why didn’t you say something maybe about four years ago?”

“I wasn’t sure. Besides, you had John B. There was just never the right time.”

The excuses fall quickly, like Pope’s had a lot of time to consider them. JJ chews on his straw in consideration.

“Why else not?”

Pope ducks his head. Moves his glass around the table. JJ watches the condensation it leaves in it’s trail. “Well - also - I don’t think I wanted to believe it.”

“Oh? ‘Cause it’s me?” JJ exhales in a gust. “Didn’t want to have to slum it with a Maybank?”

Pope hunches his shoulders to his ears. “It’s not that.”

“Sure it ain’t.”

“It’s not.”

“Mhm.”

“It’s ‘cause you’re a boy,” Pope mutters eventually. “And you already have a soulmate.”

JJ considers this. Slumps back in his seat. “Well, you ain’t wrong about either of them,” he confirms.

“Are you mad?” Pope asks quietly. “That I didn’t tell you?”

JJ bites his straw. “I’m not mad,” he decides. “Just… woulda been easier if you’d just said something. Would have had to eventually. But - not much you can do now. So welcome, soulmate. Nice to meet ya.” JJ swings on his chair in consideration and snorts. “John B’s gonna lose his shit.”

John B doesn’t lose his shit. John B does drop a pint of ice cream when JJ tells him and his eyes go all weird.

“Pope?” John B repeats disbelievingly. “The nerdy one? Pope? Pope Heyward? And you?”

“Yeah,” JJ retrieves the ice cream from the floor and in lieu of a spoon, digs in two fingers. “Pope Heyward. Matching marks. The whole shebang.” JJ fishes some cookie dough out of the ice cream and talks around it. “And - get this - he’s known since third grade. Apparently.”

“Huh.” John B sticks his empty spoon in his mouth in consideration. The metal clacks against his teeth as he rolls it around his tongue. “I wouldn’t have guessed Pope.”

“You’re more my type,” JJ reassures him. “Doubt Pope can kiss like you do, baby.”

John B throws his spoon at his head as JJ makes kissing noises in his direction. But it breaks the ice and John B slumps down next to him on the couch, customarily close, sharing a spoon.

“You are being greedy with two soulmates,” John B points out in a quiet voice. It’s the voice he uses when he’s choosing his words carefully. It’s usually the voice he uses when he’s talking JJ down from something, or trying to persuade him to uncurl his hands from protecting his head. “What about the rest of us?”

JJ throws a scrawny arm around John B’s shoulders and smacks a kiss to his cheek. “John B,” he promises. “You’re still the most annoying butthole in my life.”

“Aw, thanks, bud.”

With Pope Heyward comes Kiara Carrera.

Kiara Carrera is usually seen around school shouting about something. Spinning into the parking lot on her fancy ass bike. Sprinting around the school field with concentration etched into every line on her face. She’s the sort of person that decides she’s going to do something and doesn’t let anyone else get in her way.

She’s obviously rehearsed this interrogation in her head.

John B and JJ are at their usual lunch table. Big John always packs extra that John B slides JJ’s way. There used to be a pretense about this, but now JJ just takes the proffered items without question, without breaking his stride.

He’s recalling some story about English and potentially seeing Miss Riley’s thong above the waistband of her pants and Stacey Abrams pointing it out when he realises John B hasn’t given the anecdote the appreciation it truly deserves. Instead, he’s focussed on something in the middle distance. JJ follows his line of sight to see his other soulmate trailing behind Kiara Carrera.

Like Pope, Kiara has always been in a different orbit to JJ and John B. She was more likely to be joining the grade above rather than the additional reading classes the boys more often frequent.

To have her blazing a trail towards their lunch table with single minded focus on her face is beyond their usual remit.

“Well, hi,” John B greets affably as Kiara’s slams down her lunch tray. John B is what JJ’s mom might have called brought up right, but his mom also had a penchant for sharp needles, so JJ figures even the figmented remnants of her judgement cannot always be depended upon. “Pope and Kiara, isn’t it?”

Three heads turn John B’s way. Some of the self- righteousness is ripped from Kiara’s sails. “Yes,” she confirms. “John B, right? And JJ.”

“That’s us,” John B chirps. Then, “cookie?” and he holds out a crumpled packet of crushed Oreos.

Pope reaches a hand around Kiara, who slaps it away. Gives her friend a stern look. “Actually,” Kiara announces grandly. “We just came here to talk to JJ.” There’s a significance in her tone. JJ shoves an Oreo into his mouth. “Alone,” Kiara emphasises, once no one moves.

“Oh,” John B deflates. “Yeah, sure, I’ll just-”

JJ hooks an ankle around John B’s and speaks through a mouthful of cookie fragments. “It’s cool, JB. Stay.” He turns back to Kiara and Pope. Looks shrewdly at the girl. “Whatever you want to say, it can be in front of John B.”

Pope’s eyes dart to JJ’s and John B’s wrists and the bandanas covering the obvious. JJ’s tempted to tuck his hand under the table top. He feels laid bare before this pair.

“Well,” Kiara ploughs on, once John B remains sitting. “If you’re sure.”

Kiara sits down ceremonially at the table opposite him. Rests her hands on the table before her. After a stern look cast over her shoulder, Pope slinks into the seat next to her.

“Hi Pope!” John B greets cheerfully. “How’re you?”

“Good thanks-”

“We’re not here for pleasantries,” Kiara butts in sharply. She has an expression on her face that is single minded focus. “We have questions.”

JJ looks at the boy that is supposedly his second soulmate, and then at the girl sat next to him. Kiara’s eyes are sharp, pinpointed on him.

“Are you gay?”

John B, mid bite of a crumbled oreo, chokes suddenly. Sucks in a deep breath and exhales crumbs over the table. JJ thumps him on the back to assist with any obstruction and probably only assists with emphasising his social faux pas. Finally John B pushes at JJ’s forearm, eyes watering and wheezing faintly.

“Does it matter?” JJ decides on eventually. John B’s gaze jumps from JJ to Kiara and Pope - John B, who probably knows JJ better than himself.

“You have two male soulmates.” Kiara is calm, factual.

“I’m hardly going to date both of them-”

“So are you dating John B?”

John B wheezes faintly again. JJ, whose arm had dropped to rest behind his friend, rubs him on the shoulder. “Not that I’m aware of.”

“Don’t think so,” John B confirms.

The answer seems wholly unsatisfactory, judging by the way Kiara’s lips purse and she considers them. JJ is delighted that he appears to have transcended off the carefully arranged script.

“Do you believe in soulmates?”

This time, JJ and John B both stare at Kiara.

“Believe in soulmates?” John B repeats.

“We’re not unicorns,” JJ manages. “We exist.”

“There is a theory that people just believe in soulmates due to matching marks - when actually the marks are just coincidence. I mean, what’s the chance you happened to meet your two soulmates before graduating high school? They just happen to be on the same island you live on?”

John B’s mouth opens once, closes. JJ splays a hand over his friend’s shoulderblade.

“Do you have a soulmate?” JJ doesn't even temper the bluntness out of his tone.

Kiara’s facade cracks ever so slightly. “Well. This isn’t about me-”

“But do you?”

Kiara’s gaze flicks to the table, then determinedly back up to meet his gaze. Her jaw juts. “No.”

“Do you even have a mark?”

Being without a mark is not unheard of, but it is unusual. Kiara’s jaw juts further. “No.”

“You don’t have a mark?”

Finally, Pope breaks his silence. “That’s what Kie said.”

“So you’re over there with no marks, and I’m over here with two, and you wanna lecture me about these marks?” JJ leans back in his chair, the epitome of ease. “Now, excuse me, but I’m just saying. Considering I have two and you none, I suspect I am more of an expert in this matter.”

“J,” John B mutters with a glance.

“Nah,” JJ dismisses. “She doesn’t get to come over here and spout off about shit she doesn’t get and never will get. I’ve had a soulmate since I was eight, and you wanna chat bullshit about theories? Fuck that. And fuck you.”

“He’s kinda prickly, but he’s nice really,” John B attempts.

JJ’s not done. He stands abruptly, even though his stomach is still rumbling. “Pope. I figure you don’t wanna be bonded to me, and it’s shit for you that you are. If you ever wanna talk or whatever, make sure you leave your guard dog at home.” Then he knocks sharply twice on the table. “JJ out.”

JJ marches away from the table. Not quickly enough to miss Pope say questioningly, “did he just say JJ out?”

John B’s sighs in response. “He’s probably been listening to Eminem again. I can deal.”

True to his word, John B trots sedately after JJ’s storming strides. Follows him out the lunchroom.

“What was that about?” John B starts as they round the corner. JJ lets the door go so it slams back, feeling vindicated as it snaps back on its hinges.

“That was prime nerdy bullshit,” JJ grits out. “I figured it’s not what Pope wants. He probably wants some doctor girlfriend or something. Fuck, maybe he wanted it to be Kiara. Didn’t expect to get me.” His hands are shaking. JJ holds them up to observe their trembling only because he knows John B has panic attacks and is physically incapable of judgment. “Fuck, I need a smoke.”

John B gives him the sideways look that JJ can’t quite read. “Guess having two soulmates isn’t all fun and games.”

JJ bares his teeth in a semblance of a grin. “You’re telling me.”