A/N: This chapter is dedicated to Chadwick Boseman. Our king. Our superhero. Our fighter. Black Panther. His portrayal of King T'Challa wasn't just for the kids, it was for US! Representation matters, and so many of us saw ourselves in the movie Black Panther, a movie that wouldn't have worked as well as it did without Chadwick as the titular character. His passing has brought me to tears multiple times since I heard the news, and although I knew him only through movies and interviews, I still feel a sense of loss. I think most of us do, especially considering how difficult 2020 has been for everyone, with all the fear surrounding Covid-19, the people we've lost, all the natural disasters, racism in full force and less hidden…everything that's happened has made me realize that time can be fleeting. My late aunt used to say, "life is too short," and that makes me think of all the things people leave unfinished because they think they'll have more time. I'm trying to make sure that I don't leave this story incomplete, because even if nobody is reading it, finishing it means that I didn't give up. Pushing through and writing a chapter even though I'm still struggling with my characters voices is hard, but not following through is harder still. I still have a chance to finish what I started. Unfortunately, the people we've lost this year weren't afforded the luxury of time, and it breaks my heart.
Rest in eternal power and everlasting peace, Chadwick. Like you said in Black Panther, you never yielded, and you leave behind such a beautiful, awe-inspiring legacy that your name will live on forever.
The words hung between us as I stared at our interlaced fingers. Exclusive. Yet another thing I didn't have on my summer 2015 bingo card.
"I thought you didn't do commitment," was all my frazzled mind could come up with. God, where was a sarcastic joke when I needed it?
Huffing out a laugh that had only the barest tinge of humor laced through it, Kameron said, "I normally don't." The warm pads of his fingers rubbed small circles over my skin as he glanced pensively at me. "I mean, you saw my parent's relationship play out in front of the whole neighborhood, right?"
Boy, did I! But admitting that would be in really bad taste, and it would reveal that, when it came to the Wallace family drama, my mom would have given the neighborhood gossip a run for her money from the tea she had accumulated by talking to Kameron's mom, tea that I had overheard countless times.
On purpose, of course. I may be accused of many things, but nobody has ever called me bad at eavesdropping.
I cleared my throat before replying. Time to be delicate. What would diplomatic Jermaine say?
"Somewhat. I mean, it's not like I was following the events as they happened like my favorite reality show, but I kinda got the gist."
Luckily, Kameron didn't press me on the vagueness of my answer, and he nodded, staring off into space. "They were fucked up." I watched his serious profile as he blew out a breath. "The last two years they were together, I saw the most toxic behavior ever. Can you blame me for not wanting to commit to anyone?"
"Mmm," I murmured evasively, my mind flitting back to a few short minutes ago. He said we would be exclusive, so did that mean I broke him, and he wanted to commit to me?
Before I could think further on this interesting topic, Kameron interjected, pausing my thoughts. "And please don't say some shit about how you'll be the one to change me and make me see how wrong I am, because I've heard that before."
I could feel my lips turning down into a pout as I glared at Kameron's cute, smirking face. God, he was good-looking. I could definitely be exclusive with his fine ass.
"I wasn't even thinking that," I mumbled, feeling my cheeks heat up with the blatant lie. Avoiding eye contact, knowing that Kameron had that adorable, yet teasing look on his face, I continued. "I don't want to change you. I like you just the way you are, screwed up viewpoint about relationships and all."
And since that screwed up viewpoint about relationships included me demolishing the walls he had put up, I was clearly the winner here.
Not that there's a competition happening, or anything.
Pinching my cheek lightly, Kameron scoffed, "I can see that fucking smile on your face, Ness."
"Ain't nobody even smiling," I muttered sulkily.
Chuckling, Kameron moved till he was sitting next to me, and I instinctively scooted closer to him and laid my head on his shoulder, breathing in the clean, soapy scent of his skin. His arm looped around my waist, hugging me towards him and a contented smile slipped onto my face.
I could get used to this.
"That's why I was always at your place. My parents were always arguing, Kenny was always at his friend's house- at least when I was at your place, I felt like things were normal." He paused, and I felt his shoulders tensing. "And then after Kenny- things just went to shit."
It was always heartbreaking when Kameron talked about his brother. His voice tightened and the nostalgically sad look on his face always broke me into pieces.
I snuggled closer to him, my knees resting on his legs, hoping to be some comfort. "And then you moved."
"Yeah and had to deal with my mom being pissed at my dad for cheating and not being there for us after Kenny- and using me to stick it to him." A bitter laugh, but the pain in his voice was palpable. Kenny's death had shattered the already splintered Wallace family, and poor Kameron was the one who had borne the brunt of his mothers' grief, which had shaped his life. It was so unfair. "She pushed me to go to the Olympics when I was 17. I just wanted to swim for fun- I was going to play basketball in college!"
An involuntary snicker burbled out of my throat, followed by the sardonic words, "No, you weren't."
Janessa Banks, everybody, ruining the mood since birth!
My interruption of Kameron's monologue lifted the brooding mood though, as Kameron chuckled. "Deadass, I was in my junior varsity team. But mom wanted me to focus on swimming because she had dreams of being a momager and showing my dad that she did it, she raised an Olympic swimmer while he was, I don't know, fucking around with his mistress and the side kids."
"Well, technically…" I started, my voice trailing off as I realized that if I continued, my overhearing mom's side of the private phone conversations with Kam's mom would be revealed.
After Kameron won at the Olympics, those phone calls became a thing of the past, which was why I was as shocked as mom when Kameron had shown up at our doorstep this summer. Vanessa Wallace had used my mom as a grief and relationship counsellor, Olympics advisor, and business soundboard all in one, and as soon as her son had his Olympic medals and articles written about him in magazines and newspapers, she promptly forgot how much mom had helped her move on and become an influential momager in her own right. That had never sat right with me, even though mom had brushed it off because 'you can't expect to remain friends with every neighbor you've ever had.'
I definitely didn't inherit my pettiness from her.
"She did, yeah. That's never been what I wanted." Kameron shrugged, and I let out a little squeal as my head bounced off his shoulder. "Shit, sorry babe." He kissed the top of my head. "I wanted to have a normal college experience, play some ball, get my degree in computer science…"
I tried to keep it in, but I just couldn't help saying, "Nerd."
"I'm fucking pouring my heart out here, Ness."
Quailing under the both fond and exasperated glance that Kameron bestowed on me, I muttered, "Sorry. Force of habit," and was rewarded by a sunny smile and another soft kiss, this time on the forehead.
"Don't I know it." He repositioned himself so that my head was resting against his chest, and I could feel the pleasant rumbling as he spoke. "I wanted something normal. That's why I came back to Sao Marino this summer. I wanted to feel the safety net of being back in your house, having Deshaun around- being normal. But-."
As he pointed at my face, I beamed and waved a hand in the air. "Surprise!"
"You're a good surprise." He gave me a squeeze as I reveled in his touch. Sitting here, cuddled in his strong, toned arms- it almost made the knot in my stomach from all the sneaking arounds and lies worth it. "But nothing about this is normal, is it?"
I sighed, his words bringing home just how unfeasible and messed up our situation was. Us getting together was the exact opposite of normal, and the guilty sinking feeling in my stomach reared its ugly head again. We were nuts. This was crazy. Being exclusive wasn't going to work, and we were idiots for even thinking it could.
"Oh, Kam. I just don't think you should jeopardize your career for something that could just be a fling-," I started, lifting my head from his chest and hugging my knees as I looked up at his face.
His lips set, he stared down at me, his eyes piercing into mine as he placed a warm hand on my cheek. Lowering his head to meet mine, Kameron kissed me softly, slowly, and I leaned into him as I kissed him back, wanting to stay like this forever.
Okay, maybe I'm the broken one, because the old Janessa was not romantic.
Pulling back enough to look me in the eyes again, Kameron said, "Does this feel like a fling to you?" He caressed my cheek with his finger, the slight touch sending a shiver down my spine. "It feels real. You feel real." A pensive pause as he bit his lip before continuing in an urgent, low tone. "And it's so fucking rare that I get real, so I'm not gonna give you up if I can help it. Okay?"
When I was 15, I learned about imposter syndrome when Cordell, one of the best basketball players I knew, confided in me that he was scared he wasn't going to be picked in the NBA draft, despite having been on the team that had won back to back NCAA championships. "I just feel like they think I got there because of dad's name, not my own talent, and even though I helped my team win championships, I just feel like they'll think I'm not supposed to be there." I had made one of my patented jokes to ease his fears, or at least make him forget about them for a while and was one of the loudest cheerers when Cordell was picked fourth overall in the NBA draft a few weeks later.
I say all this to say that right now, looking up into Kameron's serious face, I suddenly realized what Cordell had been feeling that day. My stomach was tied up in uncomfortable knots and I let out a sigh as a wave of despair floated over me.
For the first time in a long time, I felt out of my league, all because a beautiful man was asking to be with me. My whole teenage life, I had been asked out by guys who were not my type- in other words, jocks. Jocks that I wasn't attracted to, jocks who were too into themselves to ever be into me in ways that weren't shallow, jocks who annoyed me just by looking at them. Tons of 'you're an ugly bitch anyway' comments when I turned most of the guys pursuing me down, not that they bothered me because I was confident in my looks and loved my beautiful dark brown skin.
But the Leroy François incident (how's that for a blast from the past?) had stripped me of some of my confidence, and now I felt like an imposter, unworthy of Kameron's attention and affection. He could have any girl he wanted. As annoying as she was, Mari was beautiful, and she was a testament to this fact. Why would he want to date me? I was Mari's antithesis, her polar opposite. After a few weeks, we would be back in school, a sophisticated college girl who didn't have ashy ankles would turn his head, and I would be a thing of the past. That's the way things always went. Yeah, it was a defeatist way of thinking, but it was also realistic. So what could I do to preserve what was left of my fragile dignity?
"Okay," I whispered back, swallowing hard at the look of utter excitement that bloomed on Kameron's face. God, this was going to hurt when it inevitably ended. "But- we need to find a perfect day to tell my family." He frowned as I continued, the words tumbling out of my mouth in my hurry to get them out. "We can't just spring it on them."
Scrunching his brow, Kameron said, "Probably the best thing to do. Just lay it on them at once and run for cover."
"I think we should wait for a bit." I squeezed his bicep, stroking my fingers along his golden-brown skin. "Please. We shouldn't rush into this."
Kameron groaned, snapping his eyes shut. "Rush? Babe, 'this' has been going on for almost a month."
"But this is the first time we've had a conversation about us without anything extra going on." I pointed out, noting Kameron's frustrated body language as he pushed a hand through his curls. "I just think we need more time."
Being mature is really hard.
Another groan as Kameron pushed to his feet, bristling with uneasy energy. "Ness, honestly, what's more time gonna do?" he asked as he walked around me in a tight circle. I remained seated, letting him work off his exasperation. "The more time we take to tell everyone, the less we'll want to deal with the repercussions. As fun as it was creeping around, that shit got old real quick."
"You seemed to enjoy it. What's changed?"
The words slipped out before I could catch them, sounding cynical even to my ears, and I tensed in anticipation of Kameron's reaction, staring down at my hands. This wasn't a conversation I wanted to have, but it needed to happen because if it didn't, what was the point of us even pretending to be exclusive?
Sinking back heavily onto the blanket, Kameron scoffed. "You know what's changed, Ness." He spread his arms; hands palm up. "Come on, I know you're stubborn, but don't you see this is the best way to go about it?"
"No, Kam!" I shook my head defiantly. It was time for some hard truths, and, as unpleasant as it was, I was here to deliver them. "I know that Deshaun is your bestie and you call my mom Mama Banks, but they are my family." Kameron's eyes were on me, I could feel them almost piercing my skin, and I avoided eye contact until I could get all my words out. Somehow, I knew that if I even looked at Kameron right now, all my resolve would fly out of the window and these words would never get said. Revealing our fledgling relationship at this point was in no one's best interest, and how was it that Kameron didn't get that? If he wanted a future in swimming, if he wanted my dad to keep managing him, surely, he would understand that going public was a bad idea, especially right now, in the middle of summer vacation? "I know them, I know everything about them. Springing shit on them, especially something like our relationship- I know it's a bad idea. We can't just waltz into the house and casually say, 'oh, by the way, we're dating now'. Think that will go over well?"
Hesitantly, I glanced up, and just like I thought, Kameron was staring at me, his face taut. Chewing on his full bottom lip as he mulled my words over, he finally muttered, "Fuck. Ness…" and I knew I had won a reprieve, for at least a short period of time.
Not to be petty, but SCORE!
"I'm not budging on this, Kameron."
If I could just stall him, at least until college started, just so that he wouldn't lose the management deal, sneaking around and acting like we weren't in a relationship in front of my family would be worth it. Kameron acting all flippant about wanting things to work between us to the detriment of his career was something I wasn't there for. If he woke up one day and decided he didn't want to be with me anymore, and his swimming career was in the toilet, who would he blame? Janessa Naki Banks. At least I was being responsible and thinking about the future. If we could get away with this long enough for my parents to understand that our relationship was serious when we revealed it…for it to even be serious between us…
You're scared and trying to give him an escape route.
I fidgeted nervously as the tiny, truthful voice in my head spoke up.
Sighing deeply, Kameron clapped his hands together once and nodded. "You're the boss."
Success! And also, boss, you say?
"I am?" I asked, as a slow grin spread across my face like that Grinch gif.
You know the one.
Kameron laughed, shaking his head in pure 'what am I going to do with you' mode. "I'm gonna regret saying that, aren't I?"
He scooted closer to me, cupping my face in his large hands and I felt myself melting to goo as I gazed into his eyes.
Chuckles. I'm in danger.
"I don't know, are you?" I was able to ask, right before our lips met in a sensual, unhurried kiss. Pretty good way to get me to shut up.
I broke the kiss, but he still moved forward until our foreheads were touching. "No regrets about anything to do with you," he whispered, his breath tickling my lips.
"You need to stop being so smooth," I muttered, pushing against his chest until he moved back out of my space. I needed to catch my breath because being close to him was always a head rush.
A soft chuckle as he looked at me with that tender light in his eyes. "Why do you think I'm smooth? You think I'm fake?"
"You always have the right thing to say, at the right time." I tossed my head, crossing my arms across my chest. "Like, how is that possible?"
Kameron chucked me under my chin playfully, a smile tilting the corners of his mouth up. "It's just what pops into my head when I look at you."
"Like that, for instant." I was giggling as I slapped his hand away from my face. "Stop it!"
"My bad, shit." Dropping his hand to my thigh, Kameron swallowed before asking, his voice wavering uncertainly, "We're doing this?"
I paused, my eyes raking his face, searching for any sign of hesitancy, insecurity that could make me feel better about taking a step back, not that I wanted to take a step back. But Kameron's shoulders were relaxed, his face was hopeful, and the tight, guilty feeling in my stomach that had eased a little after Jermaine told me he knew about us eased further still. Kameron was all in. Maybe it was time for me to be all in as well.
Clearing my throat, I threw caution to the wind and nodded, relishing the smile on Kameron's face growing wider as I said, "Yeah, Kam, we're doing this."
A/N: What a freaking year, guys. 2020 has been ROUGH for all of us on some level, and I want to virtually hug you all. We're getting through it somehow. I hope you enjoy this late, late chapter. I ain't got an excuse, apart from trying to make it through this year, working while the world was on lockdown, and losing friends and family members to illness has taken out A LOT from me. My form of self-care? Watching the Good Place and live tweeting Love Island (team Jaleb!). If you liked this update, please let me know, because I love reading your feedback!