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First Time - 5th Grade:

 

The first day of school was always hard in the Outer Banks. Being forced to sit inside at a desk while the weather was perfect for surfing and swimming and bumming it on the beach was nearly impossible for ten-year-olds. Between that and new teachers and new kids and new classrooms and new subjects, the first day of Kiara’s fifth-grade year set out to be absolute chaos. It didn’t help matters that she had been placed in an entirely different class than last year. Scanning the classroom on open house night, she realized she knew exactly one other kid: the Heyward boy, Pope. Her parents got fresh seafood from Heyward’s for The Wreck, and sometimes Pope would tag along when Heyward made deliveries. They would play on the dock together if their parents started chatting. She liked him. He was smart and nice and never said she couldn’t play with him just because she was a girl. But now, on the first day of school, he stood at the back of the classroom, putting his backpack into his cubby, with two other boys, and Kiara’s stomach churned at the thought of talking to all three of them. 

 

“I know it’s scary, Kiara, but try to make some new friends,” her mother had said that morning. “Some of those other kids might surprise you.”

 

Well, she would certainly like to make some new friends, and no one could ever say Kiara Carrera was scared of anything. So she took a deep breath and walked straight up to the group of boys. She tapped Pope’s shoulder. “Hi, Pope!”

 

“Kiara!” Pope’s face lit up with recognition, calming Kiara’s racing heartbeat. “Guys,” Pope gestured to the other two boys. “This is Kiara! Her dad owns The Wreck.” 

 

The boy who wore a red hat (hats were against the dress code, why was he wearing a hat?) looked at her skeptically, but the boy with brown hair smiled at her warmly. “Hey, Kiara,” he said. “I’m John B, and this is JJ.” He stuck out his hand for her to shake, which she thought was kind of funny and very grown-up, but she shook his hand anyway. “No, wait, try it like this,” he said, motioning for the boy in the red hat - JJ - to show her their special handshake. She tried it again. “Perfect!”

 

The teacher called the class to order and Kiara moved to where she had seen her desk on open house night. She ended up being assigned the desk next to JJ. “You better not distract me,” he said with a twinkle in his eyes. “I take school very seriously.”

 

“He’s joking,” Pope whispered as he slid by to find his seat. 

 

Fifth grade was fun, even if JJ whispered to her through most of the lessons. The teacher made him take his hat off, and his blonde hair stuck up in a crazy mess and he kept running his hands through it when he wasn’t tapping on his desk with his pencil. He put it back on for recess. 

 

Kiara didn’t quite know what to do when the class went outside for recess, but John B waved her over. “We like to play over here. You can join us.”

 

“Aw, come on, JB,” JJ complained. “Do you really have to invite a girl to play with us? She’ll make us play house or something.”

 

“No, I won’t.” Kiara crossed her arms and glared at JJ, trying her hardest to look intimidating. 

 

“That’s all girls wanna play.”

 

“Not me,” she insisted. “I like to play adventurer.”

 

“We can pretend we’re looking for the Royal Merchant!” John B cried.

 

“Not again,” Pope groaned. They ended up playing that anyway. John B knew an awful lot about the lost ship and the gold that sank to the bottom of the ocean. Kiara was impressed. And JJ was actually pretty fun to play with once he realized she didn’t want to play house.

 

Except that he kept touching her hair. “Stop, JJ!” She cried for at least the sixth time. “Don’t touch my hair!”

 

“Sorry,” he said, holding his hands up. He didn’t look sorry at all. “I’ve never seen hair that curly before. Except for Pope’s, but his is short.”

 

“Well, you can’t just touch someone without asking. That’s what my mom says.”

 

JJ didn’t touch her hair again until lunchtime. They sat next to each other at the lunch table, Pope and John B sitting across from them. He carefully reached out and tugged one of her curls, watching the way it sprang back into place. She spun to face him, smacking at his hand and accidentally knocking his hat off his head. “I said don’t touch my hair!” she hissed.

 

Pope and John B laughed. “Careful, JJ,” John B said. “I think Kiara could kick your butt!”

 

JJ smirked and leaned down to get his hat. As he sat back up, he said softly, so only Kiara could hear, “Sorry, I just think your hair is really pretty.”

 

Kiara felt heat rush to her cheeks, but she wasn’t sure why. She wanted to change the subject. “Um, Pope, what do you wanna do when you’re a grown-up?”

 

“I want to be a mad scientist. Like Dr. Frankenstein!”

 

“Cool, I think,” Kiara said with a confused smile. “What about you John B?”

 

“I want to be a treasure hunter, like my dad!”

 

“That’s not realistic,” Pope scoffed.

 

“And being a mad scientist is?” John B elbowed Pope. “JJ, what do you want to do?”

 

“I want to marry you,” he said, leaning forward and placing his chin in his hand. He looked directly at Kiara with a smirk.

 

Kiara tossed her curls and scoffed. “That’s not what we mean, JJ. Besides, I’m not getting married. I want to travel the world.”

 

“Okay, but that’ll get lonely all by yourself.”

 

“Then I’ll find someone to go with me, but it sure as hell won’t be you.” Pope and John B’s eyes bugged out of their head and they elbowed each other, whispering things like She said ‘hell!’ Kiara gathered up her lunch tray and walked away, tossing her hair over her shoulder one more time. 

 

“You really think a girl like her would marry a guy like one of us?” Pope asked incredulously, watching her go. “I think we’re lucky she wants to be our friend. Hope you didn’t ruin it, JJ.”

 

“I didn’t ruin anything. She likes us.” JJ shrugged. “And you just wait. She’ll want to marry me when we all grow up. Especially because I’m going to be rich as heck. Chicks like guys with money.”

 

John B snorted. “Yeah, right.”

 

“I will! I’m gonna help Big John find the Royal Merchant .”

 

“Good luck with that.” Pope shook his head, as the teacher came around and told them to clean up.

 

***

 

Second Time - Before 9th Grade:

 

As rocky as their start was, those four awkward fifth-graders were inseparable all throughout middle school. They managed to have most of their classes together, too, much to the distress of their teachers. By the end of sixth grade, they were known for wreaking havoc during PE yet still having some of the highest test scores the school had seen (thanks to Pope and Kiara). John B and JJ took turns falling asleep in class and Kiara always knew exactly what question to ask during history that would pull JJ out of his daydreams. By the first day of seventh grade, even the new teachers knew not to seat any of them next to each other, and by the second day, the four of them had coined a new group name: the Pogues. 

 

Middle school brought a lot of firsts for the Pogues. The first Pogue sleepover happened in sixth grade, despite Mrs. Carrera’s protesting. Seventh grade brought about Pope and Kiara’s first taste of alcohol, and shortly after that came the first time all four of them got drunk. From sixth grade to eighth grade there were always new experiences to be had: first parties, first time smoking (for all of them except Pope), first times swearing, first kisses, first boyfriends, first girlfriends. The summer after eighth grade, Susie Rogers even started bragging that she had hooked up with JJ at a party, and based on JJ’s smug expression, it was true. 

 

That summer after eighth-grade year brought some awkward firsts, like Kiara getting her first period. Of course, it was the perfect week for surfing and the boys didn’t understand why Kie would pass that up, or why she started to cry the third time they asked her to join them - Kiara Carrera never cried. She explained, eventually, and even though JJ made a joke, they weren’t weird about it. John B even started to keep painkillers in the first aid kit in the bathroom at the Chateau and Pope always had MnM’s in his backpack during her period.

 

Which is why, when JJ came to pick Kiara up from The Wreck one summer afternoon and found her sitting at the edge of the dock, crying, he didn’t assume the worst. 

 

“Hey, Kie-“ he started to say as he walked up. “Oh, shit, is it already that week? Pope has the chocolate, I promise.”

 

“Shut up,” she tried to chuckle, swiping at the tears on her cheeks. “That’s not why I’m crying.”

 

He sat down next to her, bumping her shoulder with his own. “So you don’t want the chocolate?”

 

“No, I always want chocolate.” She gave him a watery smile that faltered when she met his eyes. She looked back out over the water and sighed, “Mom and Dad want me to go to Virginia Dare Prep.”

 

“The Kook Academy? Why?”

 

Appearances.” Kiara practically spat the word out. “That’s what my mom said, at least. Something about having the same opportunities she did. She didn’t even listen when I told her that I have nothing in common with them. They’re not going to like me.”

 

“Come on, Kie. It’s like, impossible not to like you.”

 

Kie chuckled softly, rubbing her eyes with the heels of her hands. “You’re my best friend, JJ. You, Pope, and John B are required to say shit like that.”

 

“No, it’s true. You’re pretty cool. For a girl.” He tugged one of her curls, but she didn’t smack his hand away. 

 

“The worst part is that I won’t see you guys anymore. I don’t know what to do without y’all.”

 

“What do you mean you won’t see us anymore? We’ll still be around after school and on the weekends!”

 

“Yeah, but it won’t be the same. It’s like I won’t even be a Pogue anymore.” 

 

“Hey, now.” JJ’s tone was stern. “Don’t say that. You’ll always be a Pogue. Going to school with the Kookiest Kooks on the island doesn’t change that. It’s just who you are, Kie.” 

 

Kie gave JJ a half-smile. “I guess you’re right.” Her smile faded and she sighed heavily. “But my parents don’t see it that way. I know what they’re trying to do. They don’t want me to be a Pogue; they want me to be this perfect Kook daughter and get good grades and go to all the Kooky parties then go to a legacy college and meet some fancy rich boy who has a trust fund and family money and marry him and have babies. I don’t want that.”

 

“Sounds like hell,” JJ agreed. He paused for a moment before asking, “If you don’t want any of that, then what do you want?”

 

“I don’t know.” Kie mused. “I really don’t know. Not that. Not anything my mom wants. At this point, I guess I just want to piss her off.”

 

“You could always marry me, instead of some rich prick. That should piss her off.”

 

“Gross,” she said, but she laughed. “She would flip her shit if I dated one of you.”

 

“I would take it as a compliment if a Kook mom hated me.” He stood and held out his hand to help her up. 

 

“Of course you would,” she laughed, following him back up the dock to his new dirt bike. It had been a gift from his dad for his fourteenth birthday that had just passed, though Kie wondered where Luke Maybank had gotten the money for it. “Guess I have to tell the others about the Kook Academy.”

 

“Kie,” JJ turned to her and looked straight into her eyes. “You don’t have anything to worry about. You’ll always be a Pogue, no matter what.”

 

Kie smiled. She managed not to cry when she told John B and Pope about the terrible school situation, and no matter what happened after that, JJ ended up being right in the long run. She would always be a Pogue.  

 

***

 

Third Time - The Gold Summer:

 

“Kegger?” Kiara suggested. 

 

Even without the extenuating circumstances surrounding the suggestion, the Pogues were overdue for a rager at the Boneyard. Tourist season was officially underway, school was out, and the summer was just begging to be kicked off with a massive party. And, of course, in true Kildare Island fashion, the party got even bigger than they had planned for when a slough of uninvited Kooks and Tourons showed up. 

 

“Good thing your cousin hooked us up with that extra keg,” John B said to JJ as they served the drinks. “We should probably get that out of Twinkie in a bit.”

 

“Yeah, especially at the rate this one is drinking,” Kie laughed, jerking her thumb in JJ’s direction as she walked up. “I saw you challenge three different Touron girls to a beer chugging contest.”

 

“We haven’t even gotten to the keg stand yet,” he joked, pouring another drink and handing it to her. “You’re just jealous because you can’t chug a beer.”

 

“I’m pretty sure she could beat you,” John B said. A blonde Touron who had previously been flirting with JJ sauntered up to John B and started trying to get his attention. 

 

“I am hurt, John B. Coming for a man’s pride like that. Shameful.”

 

“You know what? I bet I could beat you. You up for the challenge?” Kie made sure her cup was full before filling another one and handing it to JJ.

 

“Never let it be said that JJ Maybank backed down from a challenge. John B, you be the judge!”

 

John B momentarily broke away from his side conversation to pay attention to the shenanigans he had, in fact, started. “Yeah, okay. Three, two, one, go!”

 

Kiara tossed her hair over her shoulder while bringing her cup to her lips, the slowly setting sun catching on each of her curls. JJ paused because damn, that was hot . Why was that so hot? He forgot for a split second that it was meant to be a competition, mesmerized as he was Kiara literally glowing in the sunlight. He shook his head, bringing himself back into the moment and downed his own drink in what was, arguably, his best personal time. It still wasn’t enough to beat Kiara with the head start he had inadvertently given her. He strangled on the last few drops as she tossed her cup to the ground, crowing, “Hell yeah! I won!”

 

“Well, man,” John B said, clapping a hand to a still-coughing JJ’s shoulder. “She beat you fair and square.”

 

“Damn right, I did!” she gloated. 

 

Now recovered, JJ laughed and grabbed for Kie’s hand, falling dramatically to his knees. “Marry me. Our children will break every beer-drinking world record.”

 

“You’re ridiculous.” Kie shook her head with a smile and pushed at his shoulder playfully, sending him sprawling into the sand. “Besides, marriage is a social construct. It’s just a flimsy piece of paper that gives you a tax break. There’s no point to it.”

 

“Some people like the sentimentality of it,” John B mused, staring off into the distance to where Sarah Cameron climbed an old buoy and pointed out at something on the horizon. The Touron girl he had been chatting with rolled her eyes.

 

“What is she doing here?” Kiara asked, shaking her head. She and Sarah had been on less than good terms after her disastrous first year at the Kook Academy. 

 

“Ah, let it go, Kie,” JJ chuckled, slinging an arm over her shoulder, threading his fingers through her hair. He always got touchy after a couple of drinks. “I’ll make sure she doesn’t bother you.”

 

JJ stayed true to his word. He didn’t let Sarah bother Kiara. But that didn’t stop him from picking a fight with Topper. Or from pulling a gun when Topper took that fight with John B too far. Or from firing that gun into the air, sending all the party-goers, Pogue and Kook alike, into a panic. Kiara and Pope both shoved JJ out of the way, snapping him out of his rage. “Are you crazy?” Pope yelled. “You idiot!”

 

“Stupid!” Kiara screamed. “It’s not worth it!” Her fists clenched. She moved to march in between the still yelling boys, wanting nothing more than to punch JJ right in the jaw, when John B collapsed. “Guys!” she called out to them. She struggled to drag John B out of the water, his nose barely hovering above the waves. “Guys, help!” 

 

JJ and Pope put aside their argument long enough to drag John B into the back of the Twinkie. It took all three of them to get him into the Chateau. He was terrifyingly pale, the black eye Topper gave him already darkening. As soon as they laid him on his bed, JJ stomped back outside and flopped into the hammock. 

 

“Will he be okay?” Kiara asked Pope, gesturing to John B. 

 

“I don’t know,” Pope sighed, removing his hat and putting it back on again. “I mean, I hope so. God, what was he thinking?” He waved his arm in the direction of the door, the hammock, and JJ. 

 

Kiara shrugged helplessly. “We’ve all been friends for years and we still don’t know why JJ does what JJ does.” 

 

Pope shook his head, but he didn’t say anything further on that matter. “I’ll sit with John B for a while,” he said instead. “Make sure he’s not concussed or dead.”

 

“Okay,” she hesitated for a moment. “Don’t be out too late. The cops are bound to be roaming since I’m sure someone called in the gunshots.”

 

“Yeah, I’ll be safe.”

 

Kiara still vaguely wanted to beat JJ up. Or hug him and cry out all her frustration at almost losing one of her best friends. She couldn’t quite tell. Of fucking course he had the gun on him at the party. Why wouldn’t he? He did always like the power things like fighting and weapons gave him. She remembered the summer he found a knife in the woods. That’s how he ended up with that scar on his calf. She’d safely disposed of it and he had been none the wiser. But how was she supposed to get rid of a gun? She sighed, watching the trail of smoke from the joint he had lit dance in the faint moonlight. She slid into the hammock next to him and took the joint from between his lips. His knee shook, bouncing the whole hammock, but neither of them said anything for a while. They sat in familiar, if slightly uncomfortable, silence, blowing smoke into the night air. He shifted in the hammock so he was facing Kiara and stuck his fingers in her hair. The don’t touch my hair rule long ago forgotten, he started braiding. 

 

Kie took one final drag before flicking the roach into the dirt. “You started the fight with Topper.” It wasn’t a question. 

 

JJ just sighed and continued braiding her hair. 

 

“You wanted to pull the gun. Was it some kind of fucking power trip?”

 

“I wasn’t going to kill him. Just scare him.”

 

“Well, you did that. And you pissed him off. And you scared everyone else there. It all backfired on you, huh?”

 

“I didn’t want John B to get involved.”

 

Kie arched an eyebrow. “You really think he’d let you get in trouble all on your own? You think any of us would do that?” 

 

“You got a point.” He nudged her shoulder with his own, lightheartedly, and dropped his hands into his lap. He chewed the inside of his cheek, which betrayed his nervousness. She laid a hand on his arm, forcing him to still his anxious bouncing. 

 

“John B is going to be fine.” With her words, he visibly relaxed. They sat in a much more comfortable silence for a long while, watching the stars make their journey across the sky. 

 

***

 

Fourth Time - Two Months After Graduation :

 

Sarah Cameron was posthumously given the title of honorary Pogue. After everything they had just been through, the three who remained decided she deserved a proper send-off alongside John B. They held a small memorial at the Chateau for the two friends they lost.

 

When he returned from the dead, John B fully supported Sarah’s honorary induction into the group. Sarah protested at the honorary portion of her title, to which JJ argued, “We would make you a full-fledged member of the Pogues, but that requires the whole board to vote and we all know they drag their feet making decisions. The only way around all the legal red tape is to be related to or married to a living Pogue member. Bylaws are bylaws.”

 

“I’d just roll with whatever he says, babe,” John B said when she looked to him in exasperation. 

 

After John B and Sarah returned with the gold, life went back to normal, if normal was something any of the Pogues were able to achieve. Thanks to Sarah, the Camerons’ legal team made sure the gold ended up in the five teens’ bank accounts and that Ward went to prison for a long time. Thanks to Pope and Kie, the Pogues all made it to graduation (despite John B and JJ’s original plan to drop out and move to Mexico as soon as the first payment of gold came through). And thanks to John B and JJ, the group continued to get themselves in and out of trouble time and time again. 

 

John B proposed to Sarah the evening after graduation on the beach by the Boneyard. All of the Pogues chipped in in their own way and the whole event was the epitome of sappy and romantic. Sarah and John B both cried (JJ teased him about it relentlessly for months, but he secretly thought it was quite adorable). 

 

Two months later, Sarah was promoted to full-fledged Pogue in the fanciest wedding Kildare had seen in a long time. “Isn’t this a little too Kooky for a couple of kids from the Cut?” JJ whispered to Kie as the music started. They stood arm in arm waiting for their cue to enter the small church.

 

“Sarah isn’t from the Cut, in case you forgot. Besides, I think it’s sweet.”

 

And it was sweet. With the couple exchanging written vows and hopes and dreams, the ceremony went on entirely too long, and JJ wouldn’t stop fidgeting, but John B and Sarah only had eyes for each other. Tears were shed all around, even from Pope, though he wouldn’t admit it.

 

Half the island attended both the ceremony and the reception at the Chateau. As such, alcohol and other questionable substances flowed, despite the newlyweds and the wedding party being underage. Spirits were high and the makeshift dance floor stayed full as long as the music continued to play. Kiara had long ago ditched the sparkly high heels Sarah had made her wear in favor of dancing barefoot. “Need something to drink?” JJ asked when she finally took a break and plopped into a seat next to him. 

 

“Probably,” she smiled, taking the cup he offered her. “Having fun?”

 

“Sure,” he chuckled. “But I’d prefer a kegger to something that requires me to wear a bowtie.” He tugged at the obnoxious tie around his neck, knotting it further. Kiara leaned over to help him untangle it. 

 

The music shifted and a soft folksy song began playing. “I love this song!” Kiara cried, grabbing JJ’s hand, the bowtie finally undone. “Come dance with me!”

 

It wasn’t an abnormal request. JJ wasn’t a particularly great dancer, but he enjoyed it, especially dancing with Kiara, and he would dance any time she asked. And she asked often. She dragged him onto the floor alongside many other couples and began swaying along to the music. Her hands wrapped around the back of his neck. He placed his hands on her hips, trying to match her rhythm. The party lights were soft, the moon and stars lending their brightness to illuminate the evening. Kiara closed her eyes, humming along to the chorus, absently twisting her fingers into the hair at the nape of JJ’s neck. He pulled her closer, and she didn’t push away. They danced chest to chest, breaths mingling. His hands were warm around the small of her back, and hers were soft on his neck and in his hair. It must have been the music or the lights or the alcohol or the romanticism of the whole evening, but JJ found himself murmuring into her ear, “You wanna get out of here?”

 

She didn’t say anything. She just leaned back and met his gaze, searching for something there that she must have found because her eyes flicked from his own to his lips and back again. She nodded. 

 

They were hardly discreet as they sneaked into the Chateau, the screen door on the porch slamming and Kiara tripping over the threshold. In the dark, they made their way down the hall into what had become JJ’s room. He had barely shut the door before his lips were on hers, then her jaw and her neck and her collarbone. His hand tangled in her hair, the other on her hip, guiding her across the room. “Took you long enough to catch a hint,” she breathed as her knees hit the bed and she pulled him down with her.

 

The reception raged on outside JJ’s window, most attendees barely noticing the two of them were missing. Sarah, of course, noticed and she gave John B a knowing smirk when he asked where JJ had run off to. Slowly, the party-goers dispersed and finally, John B and Sarah were sent off, the backyard of the Chateau growing quiet. 

 

JJ lay on his back, a little breathless, watching the moonlight dance between the slats of the blinds onto his ceiling. “You’re a goddess,” he muttered. “Just marry me already.” 

 

Kiara felt her cheeks grow warm and she pointlessly pulled the sheet up under her chin, growing suddenly shy. “Um, thanks, I guess” she whispered, biting her lip. “But you should probably take me on a real date or two before proposing.”

 

JJ laughed, a warm genuine laugh that was close to a giggle. “Really? You’d let me take you out?”

 

She rolled up on her side, propping her head in her hand. “Is this you asking me out?”

 

He rolled onto his side, their noses practically brushing. Out of all the ways he had imagined asking Kiara Carrera out, this scenario had never crossed his mind. He’d thought about grand romantic gestures, getting her flowers, fancy dinners, or some normal shit like that, but none of that suited either of them. He’d thought about getting on his knees and confessing his love countless times over the years but settled for playful flirting that she’d always returned, but never seemed serious about. Now here she was, lying in his bed, brown eyes locked on his blue ones, a seriousness behind them that he realized must have been there all along. If he asked, she’d be his. “Yeah, I guess it is.”

 

“Okay then. Yeah, I’ll let you take me out.” She leaned in, ghosting her lips over his before rolling out of the bed to search for her clothes scattered across the floor.

 

***

 

Fifth Time - Thanksgiving, Three Years Later:

 

It took JJ and Kiara entirely too long to define whatever it was they had between them. They were still just friends, right? Friends who occasionally went on dates. Friends who held hands and made sex jokes. Friends who slept together more nights out of the month than they slept alone. Friends who talked about a future together. Friends who said I love you.

 

And with that, they were definitely not just friends anymore. It had been nearly a year when they finally went to the other Pogues and announced they were dating. 

 

“We know,” Pope said, barely looking up from the book he was reading. 

 

“You hooked up at our wedding,” Sarah added. “You thought we didn’t notice?”

 

“You guys knew?” John B cried. From that point on, Sarah learned not to assume John B had caught on to anything. 

 

Holidays were a touchy subject for JJ; they always had been. Kiara didn’t push it with him when he refused to join her family for Thanksgiving or Christmas or New Year’s. Instead, they traveled. They spent their first official Christmas together (their second, really) in Paris and the New Year in New York. Their second (again, it was actually their third) they spent in Mexico. Three years had passed since they hooked up at John B and Sarah’s wedding and finally, Anna Carrera had had enough.

 

“Kiara Carrera,” she said over FaceTime one October evening. “If you don’t come to at least one family holiday this year-“ she cut herself off, trying to think of a credible threat. “Well, I’ll think of something. You had better bring JJ, too! If you’re going to keep dating him, he might as well meet the family.”

 

“We’ll be there for Thanksgiving, Mrs. Anna!” To Kiara’s surprise, JJ leaned over her shoulder and flashed Anna one of his winning grins. 

 

Later on, Kiara tried to talk JJ out of it, but he insisted that Thanksgiving was the best time to be introduced to her family. Between the excessive amounts of food, early Black Friday shopping, and football there was more than enough going on to distract from the two of them. 

 

They flew in late the day before Thanksgiving. Anna tried to show them to separate rooms, but Kie arched an eyebrow before saying goodnight and pulling JJ into her room. 

 

News spread fast among the Carreras that Kiara finally brought her boyfriend home. People began arriving around eleven and steadily streamed in for hours, it seemed. Kiara promised to bail JJ out of any awkward conversations if he needed it, but he seemed fine. He turned on his classic charm and got along quite well with her family. She still had to bite her tongue when politics were brought up, and when her aunts asked more than once when she and JJ planned to get married or start having kids, she said through a fake smile, “We’re barely twenty-two, Aunt Maria. We’re not thinking about any of that yet.”

 

As it got closer to dinner time, Kie made herself at home in the kitchen alongside her dad, while JJ rotated between commenting on the football game and sticking his fingers in the cranberry sauce. On his third trip into the kitchen, JJ swiped a finger into the bowl of whipped cream. Kie smacked the back of his hand with a spatula. “No sampling until dinner time! Stop!”

 

“Make me.” He smirked at her and tapped his whipped cream covered finger to her nose. She rolled her eyes, but couldn’t stop a broad smile from spreading across her face as she scrubbed her nose clean. 

 

Thanksgiving dinner itself was nearly blissful. Kiara and Mike were showered with compliments for the meal, and Kiara only had to smack JJ’s hand off her thigh once. Perhaps it was because Kiara herself was much happier that year than any other, but it seemed that Thanksgiving had taken on a lighter, more joyful feeling. She truly had quite a bit to be thankful for, as cliché as that was. 

 

Afterward, no one wanted to think about eating dessert for a few hours. JJ was the first to venture back into the kitchen. He pulled himself onto a clear spot on the counter and dug into the apple pie. “You’ve been holding out on me, Kie!” He said while she plated more slices of pie for the rest of the family. “You don’t cook shit like this for me!”

 

One of her aunts raised an eyebrow at JJ’s words. “Language!” Kie hissed good-naturedly.

 

“Sorry,” he mouthed as her aunt left the room. Having finished the pie, he slid off the counter and came up behind her, wrapping an arm around her waist. “But seriously,” he said. “If I had known you could bake like that, I would have locked this down years ago.” He pressed a kiss to the side of her head, unaware her mother and grandmother walked into the kitchen. “Marry me.”

 

Kiara’s grandmother froze and Anna let out a soft gasp. Oh shit, there it was; the one little thing that would send this perfect holiday spinning out of control. Kiara had hoped it would be an ill-timed political statement or some good old fashioned family drama, but no. It was, of course, her boyfriend absent-mindedly bringing up marriage in front of her mother . JJ didn’t seem to notice how his little statement had affected the matriarchs of the family. Kiara let out a nervous laugh that sounded more like a cough, shrugging his arms off of her. “In your dreams, Maybank,” she said. 

 

JJ laughed, but Anna cried, “Kiara!” gesturing between the two of them, her mouth continuing to open and close as if she were lecturing, but no sounds actually coming out.

 

“It’s a joke, mom,” Kie said, nervously. “With a long story attached to it, but it’s not serious. We’re not getting married.”

 

JJ tilted his head to catch her eyes better. A smirk played at the corner of his mouth, directly conflicting with the seriousness behind his eyes. “We’re not getting married now , or not ever?” he asked, clearly directing the question at her. 

 

“I’ll keep you posted,” she replied, shaking her head. She couldn’t keep from smirking back at him. Her mother let out another exasperated breath and her grandmother still looked entirely confused, but Kiara didn’t really care anymore. The holiday vibe was officially thrown off, and there was nothing left to do except steal a whole pumpkin pie and eat it in her room. She motioned for JJ to follow her up the stairs. 

 

The two of them settled on her bed, pie between them and a sappy Christmas rom-com on the television. “You had some really great timing there, babe,” she laughed. Using her thumb, she wiped some stray whipped cream off the corner of his mouth. “The look on my mom’s face was priceless.”

 

“What can I say? I’ve always had impeccable timing.” He caught her hand and kissed the pad of her thumb. 

 

“Or something like that.” She swung her legs over his and slid closer to nestle under his arm.

 

“Yeah, but you love me.”

 

“Yeah, I do,” she said with a smile, pressing a soft kiss to his nose. She pulled back a bit and added, “Hey, when you propose for real, it had better not be in front of any of my family. I’m not about to deal with all of that again, times ten.”

 

“Yeah, yeah, okay,” he laughed. “Come here.” He pulled her close again, making sure to move the half-eaten pie out of the way. Kiara thought she would like to spend all her holidays just like this. 

 

***

 

+ One Time: 

 

After a year, Anna Carrera gave up asking when JJ and Kiara would “settle down.” She stopped asking when they would come home for visits or holidays. She didn’t bring up marriage or children or buying a house or a 401k or careers or futures. She just smiled when they FaceTimed to show her the new and exciting place they were visiting and cheered when they gave her two days’ notice that they were coming to visit. She wanted to complain, like all the other Kook moms who fussed that they never saw their children or grandchildren. She wanted to sit Kiara down and explain that she wasn’t getting any younger and she would like to have at least one grandchild to spoil. But if she was honest with herself, she had absolutely nothing to complain about. Another year passed and Anna continued to notice that Kiara practically glowed with happiness each time she called, and JJ - that damn Maybank boy - seemed to be good for her. She never thought she would live to see the day a Maybank held a reputation for anything other than trouble, but here she was, completely content to have her daughter traipsing around the globe with a boy from the Cut, making memories and gaining experiences she never got to have. It was nowhere near the future she had planned for herself or her daughter, but it was a hell of a good one. 

 

She grinned, really and genuinely, as she chatted with her baby girl over FaceTime. “Where are you headed next?” she asked. 

 

“We’re going to stay in Spain for another week or so, I think,” Kie mused, playing with the ends of her hair. “We just got in to Marbella, and it’s right on the coast. One of the most gorgeous cities I’ve ever seen.” Even after all of these years of traveling, there was always something new to discover. She and JJ had started to slow down more and really take their time exploring a city or country before jetting off to the next destination. 

 

“Sounds fabulous, as always. Have fun and keep sending pictures!”

 

“I will, Mom! Love you!”

 

Kiara and JJ spent another week sightseeing and enjoying the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes Marbella had to offer. This had become their life, a blissful compilation of place after place, culture after culture, adventure after adventure. Certainly, they couldn’t keep this up forever, but while it lasted, it was a fairytale. 

 

On a walk by the sea on one of their last mornings, Kie sighed, looking out across the water, “I could do this forever.” She leaned over the railing on the walkway and into the sea breeze. Her skin glowed in the soft light of the morning sun and JJ thought for a moment that none of this could be real. The past five years of traveling, of being with her, of being hers, must have all been a dream. She was far too angelic, too other-worldly, too far out of his league. His breath caught for a moment. Five years later and she still took his breath away. Really, it had been much longer than five years that she had been stealing his breath and giving him butterflies. 

 

“Do what?” he asked.

 

She smiled at him, the kind of smile that reached her eyes and brightened her whole face. “ This. Just be. Just exist alongside you.”

 

“Aw, you’re getting all sappy on me, Carrera.” 

 

She rolled her eyes, but her smile didn’t drop for a second. She turned back to the water. They always ended up here, by the sea. No matter where they went, where they landed, they always found the water. The sea, in all of its ebbing and flowing, was a constant for them. It was a picture of themselves, their humanity, the changing and growing they had experienced that brought them to this place, together. It was a reminder that home was less a place and more a state of being, of existing alongside one another. He leaned his back against the railing, so he could face her and really take in her radiance. Just be, he thought. Alongside you? Forever. He let the comfortable silence envelop them completely for a moment, then said, surprising even himself, “Let’s get married.”

 

Her eyes met his, an amused twinkle in them. “Okay. Like, right now?” she chuckled softly. 

 

“Kiara,” he realized as he said her name exactly what he was saying, and that, despite all of the other times he had casually said it, he meant it this time. “I’m being serious. We should get married.”

 

She leaned in, placed a hand over his. She had never looked more beautiful. “I’m being serious, too. Let’s get married.”

 

She was joking. She was humoring him, like all of the other times he had mentioned it. It was all just a joke; that’s what she had said a few Thanksgivings ago, right? She didn’t believe in marriage. It wasn’t something she needed to solidify their relationship, and that was fine. She could exist without the legal entanglement. He shouldn’t have entertained the thought, to begin with. JJ Maybank proposing to Kiara Carrera? Ridiculous. “Really?”

 

“Yes!” And there, reflected in her brown eyes, he saw her answer. There were no jokes this time. Even if he hadn’t meant to, JJ Maybank proposed to Kiara Carrera. And she said yes. 

 

“Wait, wait, I’m doing this all wrong, aren’t I?” he stuttered. “I’m supposed to have a ring and get down on my knees and use your full name, right? Sarah said-“

 

“JJ. I don’t care about any of that.” Kiara fully faced him now and took both of his hands. “I’m already saying yes.”

 

“Yes?”

 

“Yes! JJ Maybank, I want to marry you!”

 

He reeled back, placing a hand on his head. He laughed. He was going to marry Kiara Carrera. She stood before him, saying yes, laughing in glee right along with him. She took his face in her hands and kissed him. He pulled back. “Holy shit, Kie!”

 

She bit her lip to hide just how wide she was grinning. “What are we waiting for? Aren’t we supposed to be getting married?”

 

“Now?” JJ’s eyes were still wide in shock. Of course, he wanted to get married now. He wanted to get married years ago. Kiara nodded. “Can we even get married on such short notice in Spain?”

 

“Oh.” She pulled out her phone to do a quick google search. He leaned over her shoulder to see, as if they were googling how late their favorite restaurant stayed open. “Fun fact: we cannot,” Kie sighed, twisting her mouth to the side in disappointment. 

 

JJ’s shoulders fell, but Kie continued typing into her phone and after a moment she squealed in excitement. He bit back laughter. It was the most girlish sound he’d ever heard fall from her lips.

 

“But if we book a hotel for a night in Gibraltar, we can get married there!” she cried. “It’s only an hour drive from here!”

 

“Well, let’s go!”

 

***

 

“I don’t know why they couldn’t have asked Pope to pick them up,” John B grumbled scooping his two-year-old daughter off the ground where she had been chewing on a discarded boarding pass. 

 

“Kie said Pope was coming, too.” Sarah pushed the stroller back and forth trying to keep their infant daughter asleep as long as possible. “She said she wanted all of us here. With how grumpy you are, I would think you were the one missing a nap instead of that little gremlin.” She nodded at the toddler in his arms. She caught sight of Pope entering the airport, and waved him over.

 

Pope greeted the both of them with a hug and even relieved John B from toddler-wrangling-duty when his honorary niece reached for him. “Have they landed, yet?” he asked. 

 

“They should be getting off the plane right about now,” Sarah replied. John B’s grouchy facade faded some at the thought of seeing all of his best friends in the same place again. As if on cue, Sarah heard a distinctly familiar voice call her name. She turned to see Kiara and JJ, hands clasped, walking toward them. Kiara’s messy bun had seen better days and JJ had clearly been napping on the plane, but they looked ecstatic to be back where they belonged: with their friends. 

 

The Pogues met in a sloppy, wonderful group hug. “Welcome back!” John B cried. 

 

“Okay, so,” Pope said, shifting his niece from one hip to the other. “It doesn’t take all three of us to pick y’all up from the airport, so why are we all here?”

 

“We haven’t seen y’all since Christmas,” JJ said. “So what if we wanted a happy Pogue reunion?”

 

“Unrealistic,” Sarah said, with a smirk. She noticed the way Kiara chewed on her lip and kept glancing at JJ. She had a secret. “You’re up to something. Spill.”

 

“Well,” Kiara started, then abandoned her sentence. She held up her left hand showing off a thin gold band with a single diamond on it.

 

“You got engaged?” Sarah shrieked, jumping up and down. Her screaming woke her sleeping baby, who began to fuss softly. John B took over pushing the stroller rhythmically. Sarah grabbed Kie’s hand to inspect the ring. 

 

“Actually, we got married,” JJ corrected her, holding up his own hand, a new ring added to his collection. The Pogues froze. 

 

“What?” John B spluttered. “Married?”

 

Sarah shrieked again, flinging her arms around both of their necks. Kiara wasn’t sure, but she thought her best friend was crying. “You did not!” Sarah screamed. “You got married without us?”

 

Pope shook his head as if trying to reboot his brain. “You - you both always said marriage was pointless. If two people were committed to each other, they didn’t need the legal bit weighing them down.”

 

JJ tried to disentangle himself from Sarah’s grip. “It was kind of an impulsive decision.”

 

“What can I say?” Kiara said. “I’m a little more sentimental than I thought.”

 

“I would expect nothing less from either of you, honestly,” Pope said, pulling John B with him into another crushing Pogue-style group hug. 

 

“Congrats, man,” John B said, slapping JJ’s back. 

 

“Your mom is going to kill you,” Sarah half-whispered to Kie.

 

On the drive to the Outer Banks, Kiara thought back to her fifth grade year and the first time she met her boys; the start of a crazy, stupid, fantastic friendship. At ten years old, she never would have guessed what adventures being friends with them would bring or where life would have taken them nearly fourteen years later. She remembered her mother’s words: Those other kids might surprise you. And they certainly had, especially one. She leaned over and whispered to JJ, “Do you remember what you told me on the day we met? What you wanted to do when you grew up?”

 

“Yeah,” he grinned, a giddy boyish grin. She would never tire of making him smile at her like that. 

 

“Did it live up to your expectations?”

 

“No,” he said. “It was better.” He pressed a kiss to the side of her head and took her hand, the one with the ring he had given her. “It was so much better.”