strengthcoversmall James Theard comes into Kurt’s life when he needs someone the most. A friend first and boyfriend second, James becomes his shoulder to lean on, a voice of reason and helps Kurt learn he is stronger and more capable than he imagined.

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Kurt frowned and looked down, just making out the blurry outline of his feet in the water. He thought of all the things he couldn’t bring himself to talk about. The letter he’d left on the table at home. The tearful call from his mother asking if his sudden decision to be gay was a sick joke. His father snatching the phone and threatening to disown him if he didn’t get some help. The silence from his best friends before he finally gave up waiting for a response to his emails. No, nothing was going on. Nothing he could discuss with a relative stranger.

“No,” Kurt said finally. He pressed his lips together and crossed his arms over his chest. He needed to get out of the water. He was cold all over.

James nodded. “Fair enough.” He paused, moved as if to touch Kurt’s shoulder, then returned his arm to the water at his side. “Whatever the reason, I can tell you’re not focused. And if I can tell, Coach Davis has known for a while and won’t let it slide for much longer.” He paused and searched Kurt’s face.

Kurt avoided his eyes, all at once feeling short of breath and naked, as if James’s scrutiny could force him to confess his darkest sins and confront the demons who’d stolen his peace of mind. It would be so easy to confide in him, this stranger who was in no position to judge. But as much as Kurt wanted to find one person who could listen and understand, what he wanted more was to take back the last few weeks of his life and find a way to cocoon the wounded part of himself from being hurt again. It was a child’s wishful thinking, but there it was. He wanted to turn back time and make his parents love him again. He wanted to pretend his confession had been a nightmare that ended before his parents returned home from seeing him off to school. He wanted to be a son they could love, if it meant he didn’t have to be alone in the world.

He looked back at James and nodded to show he understood the warning.

James studied him for a few more moments before he said, “All right. Try it a few more times and I’ll let you go.” He stood back and watched Kurt try the turn and kick several more times before waving his teammate out of the water. “That’s enough. Hit the showers.”

Enough as in I’m done for today or done altogether? Kurt followed in silence, nerves twisting his stomach into knots. He grabbed his towel and toiletries from his locker and debated if it would be appropriate to ask for an evaluation while they were in the shower.

When James walked into the shower, he chose one near the far wall. Kurt stayed as close to the door as possible. A tense silence had fallen between them and Kurt drew the inevitable conclusion. After his performance, James couldn’t stand to look at him. He’d been swimming as if he’d just stopped using his floaties and they both knew it. Now, with his apparent inability to take on even the smallest lesson, Kurt felt sure it was only a matter of how, not if, James would break the news to him.

It was just as well. Failing at this would just be another step in what his father had called his descent into hell. Another would be the way he found his eyes drawn to James. Through the steam in the shower, he could just make out the outline of the other man’s shoulders and legs, and the delicious stretch of skin between. It only took a few seconds of imagining helping James wash his back before Kurt was fighting down his erection, hoping James wouldn’t turn on his way out of the shower area and notice his teammate about to come all over himself like a twelve-year-old after his first wet dream.