Will doesn’t know why he’s surprised to see him.
Weddings are a dime a dozen in Salem, but it’s Brady, so of course Paul’s in town. Stupid not to expect it, really, even if there’s been plenty of missed events before this.
It’s like a scene from a movie: the bored, slightly miserable protagonist stopping in his tracks as his co-lead steps out of a taxi. The clouds part, the sun shines, and everything seems to happen in slow motion.
Paul’s smiling as he pays the cabbie, glowing as if he brought California with him, and Will feels every one of the last five years like an anchor on his back, a reminder that he’s gone nowhere, done nothing. Shit, he’s pretty sure he’s wearing the same clothes.
It’s not true, obviously. Not completely. There’s Arianna if nothing else, and she’s more than worth the rest of it.
Paul waves off the cab and slings his bags over his shoulder, biceps straining the sleeves of his t-shirt.
Fuck, Will thinks, and wonders if it’s too early to get drunk.
“Paul’s in town,” Will says, shoving his hands in his pockets and leaning against the doorframe as he waits for Arianna to finish throwing her things together. He’s not sure if it’s casual conversation or a warning or just a need to say the words aloud so they feel real, but he holds his breath and waits to see how they’re taken anyway.
“Hmm,” Sonny says distractedly, flicking through the papers on his desk in search of Ari’s homework.
“For the wedding,” Will pushes, and Sonny nods, standing up with an “A-ha!” as he finally digs out a notebook covered in astronaut stickers and glitter pen doodles.
“I mean, yeah,” Sonny says as he passes it over for Will to add to the ever expanding collection of necessities. “It’s his brother. He’s probably best man.”
“Yeah,” Will says, looking up at the crash from the ceiling and hoping his daughter’s not broken anything too expensive.
“Can you keep her ’til Friday?” Sonny says, apparently unfazed, and Will frowns as he wonders if it’s real or delusional. Fifty-fifty chance at either, but Sonny’s ability to compartmentalize has always been pretty astounding. “I’m backed up with meetings.”
“Sure,” Will says, mentally rearranging his plans and coming to the depressing realization that it doesn’t take much doing. “I’ve got an interview Wednesday evening but I’ll find a babysitter.”
“Great,” Sonny says, and then takes out his phone to scroll through whilst they wait, silence not exactly awkward but a far cry from easy.
“Bye Dad!” Arianna shouts as she finally storms down the stairs, and Will winces and wonders if she’s too old to talk to about inside voices or if they’re just going to have to cave and invest in earplugs for the teen years.
“Bye, honey!” Sonny calls back, offering Will a wry smile. “You ever feel like the bigger she gets, the more we’re just becoming underpaid packhorses?”
“I have no idea what you mean,” Will says, staring at the pile of crap at his feet. “Feel like helping?”
“Not even a little bit,” Sonny says cheerily, already opening his laptop and pulling up whatever big merger he’s working on this week.
Will shoots his back the middle finger and wonders if he needs to get a bigger car.
Will likes to think his daughter gets her love of school from him, but she definitely gets her socialite behaviour from her other two parents.
“Please,” she says, batting her eyes like he doesn’t always agree anyway.
“I can drop her home after dinner,” Betty’s mom says. Will should really make an effort to learn more names.
“Sure,” he says, and Ari and Betty squeal like it’s not just chicken nuggets and the Disney channel. “Be good and call if you need anything.”
“Promise,” Ari says, leaning up to kiss his cheek because she’s secretly the best kid in the world.
He dashes away from the school gates as soon as she’s inside, uneager to exchange small talk with committee members trying to rope him into this month’s bake sale, or, more terrifyingly, any more single mom’s who haven’t quite got the memo about the whole gay thing.
He’s got a story to wrap up and two new research emails in his inbox waiting for attention, but the thought of returning to his empty apartment makes him tired, so he takes the turn into town and figures if he can’t have real company, being surrounded by people he probably knows is the next best thing.
When he gets there, Paul’s sat at a table in the square, empty breakfast plate and fresh coffee in front of him, scrolling through his tablet.
He’s not surprised this time; Paul’s always liked eating outside, fresh air and people watching, and he’s never had to worry about the cost of it. The only time Will’s known him not to is when he was spending lazy mornings in bed with— whoever. Which isn’t a line of thought for nine o’clock in the morning and five years too late.
He’s not sure if it’s the surrealness of it all or the bone-deep ache he can’t shift that makes his feet start moving, but honestly he’s too tired to care.
“Hey,” he says, dropping into the free seat opposite and shooting a smile at the waitress to grab her attention. Paul doesn’t react, just flashes him a glance, and Will pretends his breath doesn’t catch a little.
“What can I get you?” the waitress asks, flipping her pad open, and Will catches Paul’s eye and feels a little defiant as he orders pancakes and coffee.
Paul just raises an eyebrow and does a little more on his iPad before putting it away.
“How’s Arianna?” he asks when Will’s food arrives along with his own coffee refill.
“Practically an adult,” Will says, fiddling with his napkin. “I heard her and her friends whispering about a boy the other day and almost had a heart attack until I realized they were just planning to put worms in his gym shorts. I mean, I told them off, obviously, but I won’t pretend it wasn’t a relief.”
“You never know,” Paul says, “she might end up liking girls.”
“Here’s hoping,” Will says, raising his mug in salute.
Paul’s not fazed by him, and Will wonders if it’s time or distance or the acceptance that pretty much everyone in this town’s an asshole; whatever it is, it’s a good look, and Will finds himself staring more than’s probably socially acceptable.
“It’s good to see you,” he says when the silence drags, and Paul blinks, mildly surprised.
“Sure,” he says after a beat, and Will can’t tell if he means it or if he’s just being polite. “You too.”
The town’s coming alive around them, and for a moment Will eats his breakfast and stares at Paul and feels like he’s gone back in time.
“I have to go,” Paul says, breaking the spell as he leaves enough cash to cover his own breakfast and a healthy tip. “Suit fitting.”
“Oh, sure,” Will says, and tries not to look disappointed.
He wants to ask how long Paul’s staying, if this is a fleeting visit or if he’s back for a while, catching up with his family and slipping into local life. Wants to ask how he is these days, who he is these days, if there’s forgiveness in him or if he no longer cares enough to feel it necessary. Wants to know if he still considers Salem home, if he ever did to begin with, if he’d ever think of coming back.
Instead he just offers a short, awkward wave and watches him leave.
Paul always was too good for Salem anyway.
“I swear I’m not stalking you,” Will says when he steps into the pub.
Paul rolls his eyes, casual and dismissive and a little devastating. “Wouldn’t be the first time.”
“Touché,” Will says, and wishes he felt on firmer ground.
His interview was grating, too evasive and without enough stand out soundbites, and to make it worse the guy had tried to grab his ass as he was leaving. Will had refrained from punching him in the mouth, but it was a close call.
Ari’s with the babysitter for a few more hours, and Will’s careful not to drink often — too much family history and too many nights it could easily be a comfort — but a beer is the least he’s owed.
“You look like crap,” Paul says, and Will blinks at him for a long moment before realizing that the words really did just come from his mouth.
“I think that’s the meanest thing you’ve ever said. Wow. Did you get body-snatched or just finally figure out how to be catty?”
“It’s not catty if it’s a fact,” Paul says, and accepts his drink from the bartender with a brief smile.
“Bad day,” Will says in reply. “Bad week. Hell, bad year.”
“Ouch,” Paul says, and seems to battle with himself before nodding towards a table. Will jumps at the chance, ordering a drink of his own before following Paul across the room.
“How about you?” Will says, and knows it doesn’t come across as casually as intended.
It’s been years, but it’s like the first time and the second and a thousand in between where that first sight of Paul leaves his skin buzzing and his blood aflame. The amnesia feels like a century ago, but it’s still a unique perspective; two first meetings, two first times, and the exact same surge of attraction and want that just seems to keep repeating on loop.
Those things are familiar (too familiar), but the aching affection that sticks in his throat tastes bittersweet these days.
“I’m good,” Paul says. “Great. I got out of the private eye business and back into sports. I, uh, I’m a commentator now, which…I thought it might bring back too much stuff but it’s been amazing. I reconnected with my old teammates, and I got this fantastic place on the beach. Hell, I took up surfing. I didn’t realize how much I missed the sun until I moved back, you know?”
“Wow,” Will says, the ache between his lungs growing a little bigger. “And, uh, is there….I mean, are you…?”
Anyone else would probably tell him to mind his own business, but Paul’s always been too honest, crushing over-bluntness with an inherent kindness that’s just part of who he is. Even that first time, amidst jealousy and guilt and insecurity, Will was only ever able to respect him for that.
“Yes,” Paul says. “I mean, not right now, but there have been.”
“Oh,” Will says, and tries to crush the stem of hope climbing up his throat. He’s neither naive or selfish enough to let it rise any further. He still can’t stop himself saying, “Um, you heard about me and Sonny, right?”
Paul nods, taking a long pull of his beer. “Vaguely,” he says, and doesn’t look at Will with pity or sadness. “Not to be rude, but I don’t exactly chase after information about either of you.”
“No,” Will says, feeling like an idiot. “Of course not. I didn’t— I just—”
“It’s okay,” Paul says, cutting him off before he can dig himself a bigger hole. “I know you’re not. I heard you guys broke it off a while back, that’s all. Mostly I just keep up on family stuff, but you know Marlena. You’re her pride and joy.”
“God,” Will says. “That’s not embarrassing at all.”
“Oh please,” Paul says. “You love it.”
He wants to tell Paul everything, how he and Sonny had fallen apart one day at a time, living on memories and little else, knowing how to be good parents but not good partners. How they were either everything or nothing, weeks of sparse conversation interspersed with obnoxious highs that’d hold them together a little longer even as they forgot to notice they were barely even friends anymore. In the end the break up had been almost too easy for both of them, and Will was left with the startling realization that he’d wasted years on something he’s not even sure he’d ever wanted in the first place.
Paul doesn’t need the explanation though, and Will’s selfish but he’s not that selfish.
“How’s the wedding stuff going?” he asks instead, safer ground, and Paul throws him a brief smile that says he knows Will’s changing the subject and he’s grateful for it.
“Chaotically,” he says, leaning back with a smile. “I’d forgotten how even the most mundane things have to become a drama around here. I mean, I’ve already been to three weddings this summer, I was in two of them, and the most dramatic thing that happened was a few nerves and a bridesmaid hooking up with the groom’s sister. Here I’m worried someone will be murdered over the wrong color pocket square.”
“Oh, you heard about last winter?” Will deadpans, and Paul laughs.
“No, but really,” Paul says, “it’s fine. I will be wearing a bulletproof vest under my suit though, don’t judge me.”
“Pretty sure all the local boutiques sell those as standard these days.”
He’d forgotten how easy this was. The back and forth, Paul’s endless supply of warm smiles and bright energy.
God, Will’s an idiot.
“Is that your phone?” Paul says, frowning down at the buzzing and pulling Will out of his own head.
“It’s Ari,” he says, checking. “She wants to know if she can stay up late to watch the Teen Choice Awards.”
“It should only be an hour long show,” Paul says, and Will quirks an eyebrow.
“I’d be more concerned about that statement if I didn’t know you used to be a famous athlete. Were you ever nominated?”
“Nominated?” Paul says with a smirk. “I rescued that surfboard from my mom’s place the minute I moved back to Cali.”
Paul never talked about his baseball career much once Will came back to ‘life’, a different person than that early, confident guy determined to take on the world and not let his injury affect him, and it’s only with distance that Will realizes that wasn’t healthy or fair. He’d been a household name once upon a time, only to end up stuck in Illinois with a family he barely knew and a non-existent support system.
Salem must have felt like hell sometimes.
“I need to get home,” Will says, regrettably acknowledging the time. “But, thanks for…you know.”
Paul nods, a small frown between his eyes. “See you around, Will.”
“Yeah,” Will says, and tries not to get lost in the sound of his own name.
The truth is, Will’s known he fucked up for approximately four years, eight months.
At first he was still caught up in the return of his memories. Every moment with Arianna made it hard to breathe, and the non-linear string of events felt like hopping between universes, trying to make order and sense of something inexplainable. Then there was the drama, Salem’s usual tangled thread of disaster and intrigue, and he hadn’t had much time to think.
And then, amidst the storm, he’d shuffled a Spotify playlist only to find himself on the floor, Tokyo Fab’s cover of Oh! Darling in his ears and loss choking its way into his lungs. He’d played the song on repeat for an hour, staring between the contacts on his phone and dead space, and coming to the awful, overwhelming realization that he’d screwed up.
Four years and eight months ago he’d sat on that floor and missed Paul so completely it hurt.
He’d replayed everything. Their first meeting, the lust and the respect and the fondness that mutated into something ugly and bitter in Will’s own mind. The second time, Will a brand new person, a clean slate that looked at Paul and thought ‘Him. It’s him.’ over and over until the serum and the guilt and everything that came after. Paul’s visible heartbreak as Sonny looked through him, rewriting history until Paul became a new person in his head and refusing to take it back. Paul’s fear that Will was lying, didn’t mean it, wouldn’t mean it, and Will making every one of those doubts come true.
One betrayal after another after another.
He’d sat on that floor and let the song and the memories hit him on loop, and then he’d stood up and continued on because it was the only thing he could do.
He’d made his choice.
And Paul? Paul deserved so much better than Will or Sonny or Salem.
“I can take Ari this weekend if you’re going to the wedding,” Sonny says as they’re going over the next month’s schedule. Gabi and Arianna are in the middle of a serious discussion in the next room over whether Ari should be allowed to watch the latest CW teen angst fest, which is staying at a firm and undebatable ‘no’ much to their daughter’s disgust. Will and Sonny are just waiting for the inevitable tantrum.
“You’re not going?”
Sonny scoffs. “Brady and I may tolerate each other these days but nothing could convince me to sit through those speeches.”
“Sure then,” Will says, wincing as the volume from the other room goes up a pitch. “Thanks.”
“Okay,” Gabi says, shutting the door behind her with a sigh. “I think I’ve defused the bomb, but don’t either of you dare cave to her later. Looking at you, Horton.”
Will raises his hands in defence whilst Sonny grins.
“So, hey,” Gabi says, suddenly unable to look directly at either of them. “Did you guys know Paul’s back in town?”
“For the wedding, yeah,” Sonny says, digging out a yellow highlighter and frowning down at the spread sheet, making note of school events.
“Right,” Gabi says. “I, uh, I was going to meet him for a drink later. Catch up.”
She sounds unsure, like she’s testing the waters to see if she’s allowed.
“You’re a grown woman, Gabi,” Sonny says, checking the diary for pre-arranged playdates. Will’s still not sure if he actually doesn’t care about Paul’s presence at all or if it’s an act. Honestly, once Sonny makes a decision they pretty much become the same thing anyway.
“Um, I already had a drink with him, actually,” Will says, running a hand over the back of his neck and willing the blush on his cheeks to fade. The pen in Sonny’s hand pauses for a second before he goes back to his task, but Gabi’s head snaps up in surprise.
“Oh,” she says, “Uh…?”
“We just ran into each other,” Will says. “It wasn’t planned.”
“No, right,” Gabi says. “Great.”
There’s a pause that Will’s pretty sure would count as awkward before the TV starts blaring a familiar theme song.
Gabi’s eyes squeeze shut.
“Grounding?” she says resignedly.
Sonny shakes his head. “We’re trying not to do the grounding thing. I’ll talk to her later.”
“Do you still have all those early Degrassi DVDs?” Will asks, and Gabi’s eyes light up.
“Oh my God,” Gabi says. “It’s both retro and practically age appropriate. You’re a genius, Will!”
“I have my moments.”
“Once more unto the breach,” Gabi says, and Sonny and Will both shoot her salutes.
“Think it’ll work?” Sonny asks, and Will shrugs.
“We’re acing this parenting thing,” Sonny says, and Will shoots him a salute too.
He’s mid-article, struggling to organize his thoughts in the most cohesive way when there’s a knock at his door. Considering everyone he knows lives within a ten block radius with no concept of privacy, he’s mostly just surprised whoever it is hasn’t let themselves in.
Until he opens the door to find Paul on the other side.
“What year is it?” Will asks, turning to look behind him like it’ll provide answers.
“Hilarious,” Paul says, “really.”
“It’s cute you think I’m not having an existential crisis here,” Will says, and then holds the door open for him.
“I need a favor,” Paul says, slipping past him and casting a quick glance over Will’s sitting room. “Not a scary one, I promise.”
“Okay, well, that could mean anything from borrowing a cup of sugar to burying a body in this town, so…”
“Fair enough,” Paul concedes with a grin. “But really. Brady’s changed the suit color and didn’t tell me before I left. I only realized when we picked them up this evening and pretty much everywhere’s shut.”
“Shoes or belt?” Will asks, and Paul sighs in relief.
“Belt. I only brought a brown one with me and it needs to be black.”
“Give me a second,” Will says and goes to rifle through his drawers. It also gives him a moment to try and regulate his breathing. He’d only mostly been kidding about the existential crisis; seeing Paul standing in his home, hair ruffled from the breeze and eyes bright from a night with his family, hasn’t done anything more to steady his footing than any of their other encounters. If anything it’s significantly worse.
“Here,” he says, handing Paul his best belt, the dark, soft leather a gift from EJ years ago.
“Lifesaver,” Paul says gratefully.
Will shoves his hands in his pockets with a shrug. “No problem.”
“So,” Paul says, glancing towards the door. “I’ll see you tomorrow?”
“Yeah,” Will says. “I’ll be there. I promise not to film your speech.”
“I appreciate that,” Paul says. “Brady’s making me use the word ‘soulmates’ unironically.”
“Yikes,” Will says. “I don’t know what’s scarier: that Brady suddenly believes in them or that you suddenly don’t.”
He regrets it as soon as he says it, but Paul doesn’t look offended, just shrugs it off with a self-deprecating smile.
“‘Those who cannot remember the past’ and all that. Anyway. Tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow,” Will says, and pulls himself together enough to see Paul out, leaning his back against the closed door as soon as it’s shut and biting his lip to stop from screaming.
“Will Horton, you are a disaster,” he says to no one and decides his therapist will forgive him just this once.
“Will!” Marlena says, kissing his cheeks in turn and then leaning back to take a good look at him. He’s hoping she won’t comment on the effort he’s obviously made; smartest suit and a last minute rush to the barber. It doesn’t help that his skin seems to be permanently flushed these days, a glow he can't shake, and a walking billboard for everyone to see.
She just smiles, wide and knowing, and moves aside to let John shake his hand.
“Here’s hoping this one sticks, hey?” John says, slapping a palm against Will’s shoulder, and Will laughs and doesn’t tell him he thinks relationships only get a chance of lasting outside the Salem border. “I’d better go make sure the groom hasn’t developed cold feet.”
“John!” Marlena says, and he chuckles as he leaves.
Will slips away to take his seat, feeling exhausted from ‘hello’s’ by the time he eventually slides into an empty pew, and flipping through the order of ceremony as an excuse not to meet anyone else’s eye. There’s a brief commotion as Brady and his groomsmen come in, but it isn’t long before they’re taking their places and everyone’s starting to hush in anticipation.
Paul easily stands out in the crowd. The heather gray suit looks devastating on him, and Will doesn’t know why Brady decided to change the color but he wants to send him a fruit basket for it. Everything about Paul screams of happiness; happiness for his brother, happiness in his life, and happiness in himself, and it’s simultaneously the hottest and most bittersweet thing Will’s seen in years.
His eyes catch the glint of the belt buckle, and his stomach swoops at the thought of Paul wearing something of his.
He really needs to get a grip.
“Hey,” Gabi says, sliding onto the bench next to him, and Will jumps. Gabi just quirks an eyebrow and shoots a look towards the front of the room. “Oh.”
“I have no idea what you’re thinking, but you’re wrong and imagining things and also shut up.”
“Wow, are you five?” Gabi says. “I mean, he looks good.”
“He looks great,” Will says, and Gabi snortlaughs so loud the people two rows in front turn to stare at them. Will throws them an innocent smile and then turns on her. “We’re not talking about this.”
“No, I know,” Gabi says. “It’s all very serious and sad.”
“Yeah,” Will says with a sigh, because that might sound flippant but he knows Gabi gets it. Several tequila fuelled nights post-Sonny and Will’s inability to keep his mouth shut had made sure of that.
“He’s your walking Katy Perry song,” Gabi says, squeezing his arm, and Will blinks at her.
“I cannot believe you just said that with a straight face.”
“Oh, you know what I mean.”
The worst part is that he does.
“Showtime,” Gabi says under her breath as the bridal march starts up.
Forty-five minutes of staring shamelessly at Paul without anyone noticing is worth it, he tells himself, and takes to his feet with everyone else.
The reception has an open bar.
Will’s not sure if this is a bad move or a genius one, but the good people of Salem are certainly making the most of it.
“Uh,” Paul says, tie loose and looking a little dazed. “I’m not going to tell you who I just saw making out in the bathroom, but I may need to bleach my eyes.”
“Here’s to Salem weddings!” Will says, raising his drink in cheers.
“How much have you had?” Paul asks, sounding amused but not judgemental.
“How much have you had?” Will replies, and Paul laughs.
“Not enough apparently.”
“Cool, so. Shots?” Will asks, batting his eyelashes. He’s suddenly aware that he probably learnt that move from his daughter.
Paul’s nose scrunches up. It’s unfeasibly cute.
“Screw it,” he says, tilting his chin up in defiance. “Let’s do it. Why not?”
“Woo!” Will cheers, throwing his hands up and calling to the bartender. “What’ll it be?”
“Something disgusting,” Paul says, folding his arms across the bar and leaning into it. “Sambuca?”
“Gross,” Will says, “I love it.”
Every part of Will knows this is a bad idea. History’s shown he’s either a really happy drunk or an incredibly mean one, but he has the horrible feeling that this could spiral in a different direction entirely. All it’ll take is the DJ to start playing The One That Got Away and Will’s pretty sure he’ll be sobbing and clinging to Paul’s leg.
To be fair, he’s done worse things.
“To the bride and groom,” Will says when the shots are lined up in front of them, and Paul raises his glass in reply.
“To the bride and groom.”
Some time in the last hour they’ve devolved into sitting against the wall and making up stories about the other guests. Paul’s surprisingly bitchy when he’s drunk, and Will’s living for it.
“Okay,” he says, reaching for the bottle they’d liberated from the bartender and nodding towards a trio on the dance floor, “okay. Love triangle?”
“No way,” Paul says. “He’s gay.”
“Is not,” Will says, squinting as he tries to look closer.
“Is too,” Paul says.
“There’s no way you know that,” Will says, handing the bottle over and watching Paul’s throat as he swallows.
“Oh, but I do,” Paul says, and waits for Will to take another drink before adding, “Otherwise I wouldn’t know what his dick looks like.”
Will spits Sambuca all over his suit pants.
“Exactly,” Paul says, and Will loses it, laughing so hard he develops hiccups.
“You asshole,” he says, catching his breath. “I don’t want to know. Actually, I do, but it’s probably best you don’t tell me. Side note: who are you?”
Paul shrugs, still grinning. His hair’s damp with sweat and he’s lost his suit jacket amidst the chaos. “Still me,” he says. “Just…more grounded, I guess. Happy. Free.”
“Ouch,” Will says, and Paul closes his eyes on a laugh.
“Shut up,” he says. “Amnesia you was the best thing to happen to me in this town, I don’t mean him.”
“Double ouch,” Will says, and clutches his hand to his heart for effect. He’s glad the alcohol’s numbing because he has the feeling when he relives this conversation sober it’s going to hurt like a bitch. “I guess I deserved that.”
“Definitely,” Paul says, snatching the bottle back. He’s smiling though, and Will wonders how long ago he got over it.
They watch the dancing for a long moment; it’s mostly just devolved to leaning against each other and swaying, but a few people are still pulling out their best ‘90s boyband impersonations.
“Feel free to punch me for even suggesting this, and I offer it with the disclaimer that I know it’s a terrible idea, but…do you want to get out of here?” Will says, watching two middle-aged women shuffling around their handbags.
Paul’s silent for a while, and Will doesn’t push it, just waits, promising himself he’ll accept the answer, whatever it is.
“Alright,” Paul says eventually, and Will’s heart swoops. “With the disclaimer that it’s definitely a terrible idea.”
“As long as we’re on the same page,” Will says, and leaves the Sambuca.
Will knows it could be the alcohol talking, but somehow it’s even better than he remembers. He’s had dreams about Paul’s hands, and now they’re marking paths across his skin as his lips follow, burning shapes Will won’t be able to forget.
He doesn’t know why he thought this would be a rush; Paul’s always been a fan of taking things slow, dragging Will to the edge and keeping him there, and it seems he’s only gotten better at it with time. Will wants to simultaneously kill the Californian exes and bow at their feet.
“Your body is still a fucking work of art,” he moans, unable to help himself, running the pad of his thumb across Paul’s pecs, and Paul laughs against his collarbone.
“I aim to please,” he says, scraping his teeth against the curve of Will’s neck as Will’s toes curl.
“Okay,” Will says, breathless, “okay. I’m going to need us to move this along or it’s going to be over embarrassingly quickly.”
Paul leans back, eyes glinting and Will realizes his mistake.
“That was not a challenge!”
“Sure,” Paul says, and takes it as one anyway.
“Okay,” Will says once the morning light’s stopped trying to stab his eyeballs and he’s located the aspirin. “At the risk of pushing this too far, I haven’t been to the grocery store in a few days and if I don’t eat something soon it’s going to get messy, so…breakfast?”
“Bad idea,” Paul says, pulling on his pants. His shirt’s a lost cause, crumbled beyond recognition, and Will would offer to lend him one but he kind of likes the idea of Paul wandering around town in his undershirt and blazer, a walking advert to exactly what happened the night before.
Which is a dick move, but it’s early and he’s hungover and grossly satisfied, so.
“Obviously,” Will says, rolling his eyes and immediately regretting it, “but are you in?”
“Fine,” Paul says, sighing over his ruined shirt. “But only because the thought of waffles is all that’s keeping me alive right now.”
“I respect that,” Will says, and goes to fumble through getting ready.
Will’s fairly sure they look like they’ve gone two rounds with a bear as they make their way through town; he’d caught sight of a hickey the size of Australia on his neck in the bathroom mirror, and Paul’s lips are still kiss-slick and swollen. It should probably be embarrassing, but Will’s too busy feeling content and anxious and smug.
“Last night was fun,” he says when they’ve ordered their combined weight in carbs, looking down at the table rather than at Paul.
“It was,” Paul says. “Look, we don’t have to talk about it.”
“But what if we did?”
“Will—” Paul starts, but Will waves him off.
“No, I know, I just—” He takes a breath, digging his fingers into the knees of his jeans and trying to unearth his bravery from the wreckage of his hangover. “This isn’t about last night. I just…I’ve wanted to say this for so long, and if I don’t I’ll regret it, so. I’m sorry. For everything.”
“It’s okay,” Paul says but Will shakes his head.
“It’s not. It never has been. I made a lot of bad choices and you paid the price.”
“Love can’t be an expectation,” Paul says, tapping his nails against the side of his coffee mug. “You never owed me anything.”
“I owed you honesty,” Will says. “I owed myself honesty.”
“I’ve never been happier in my life than those months with you,” Will says, and the words alone feel like a lifted weight.
Paul blinks is surprise.
“Again,” Will says, “I’m not saying this with expectations. I just— You deserve to know that. In the end I got so muddled in trying to align the past and the present, I got lost in it. But. Those months with you…I loved you, and I loved myself. I loved who I was when I was that guy.”
“You’re still that guy,” Paul says. “He’s always been there, he just…came with a different set of baggage.”
“Maybe,” Will says.
Their food arrives, and they sit in silence for a while.
“I told you once I’d never be someone’s second choice again,” Paul says eventually. “I stand by that.”
“Good,” Will says. “You should. And I can’t pretend it didn’t happen, but. You left, and there were a few crazy months, and then suddenly I was me again, the whole me, all back in place, and I missed you so much it hurt.”
“You could have called,” Paul says, but even he doesn’t look convinced.
“No, I couldn’t,” Will says. “Paul, I fucked up. I’m not saying this because I’m not with Sonny anymore, I’m saying it because it’s one of the major factors in why I’m not and haven’t been for a long time. But I couldn’t call. You deserved more than that.”
“And I don’t now?”
“No, you still do. This place suffocated you. We suffocated you. But…I don’t know. Maybe I’m still trying to be honest to myself. Maybe I’m trying to be a little more like amnesia me.”
The corners of Paul’s mouth lift, and Will feels it in his bones.
“This is a heavy conversation to have with a hangover,” Paul says, and Will laughs, pressing his face into his palm.
“God, I know.”
“I was so sure I was going to come back and be able to handle this,” Paul says, biting at his lip. “That I was over this town and everyone in it. I was here for my family and that was it. And then I saw you again.”
“Yeah?” Will says. “Is that a good or bad thing?”
“I haven’t worked that out yet,” Paul admits. “If we’re being honest, you should know you broke my heart.”
“I know,” Will says, and tries not to let the self-anguish stick.
“You couldn’t have done that if I didn’t love you so much,” Paul says, and Will chokes on a sob at the release of it. “I think…It’s easy to rewrite history, and maybe we all did that. I may not believe in The One anymore, but of all my loves you were definitely the greatest, however short and sweet we were. And maybe I’ll find a greater one, down the line, but…”
“But?” Will says, and can barely breathe for hope.
“We’d still owe each other a lot more honesty,” Paul says. “There’s a lot to talk through. And…it’s been half a decade. There’s no guarantee we’re the same people anymore.”
“Of course,” Will says, barely resisting the urge to reach for Paul’s hand. “I didn’t think you’d…”
“Me either,” Paul says. “But, seeing you. Maybe I owe myself some honesty and some risks too.”
“I think that’s the best idea I’ve ever heard,” Will says, and this time doesn’t stop himself from reaching out.
“You’ll call?” Will says between kisses, unable to detangle his fingers from the lapels of Paul’s jacket. They’d talked all night about the old and the new, beginning to relearn parts of each other slowly and thoroughly, and Will knows there’s so much more to be said, but for now it’s something.
It’s a start.
“Promise,” Paul says. “I promise, but if I don’t leave right now I’m going to miss my flight.”
“Ugh,” Will says. “I hate distance.”
“I’m not staying,” Paul says. “Don’t ask me to.”
“Never,” Will says, and means it. Salem’s never suited Paul, too small and too incestuous. Paul deserves sunshine and easy friendship, big cities and a job he loves somewhere without drama in its blood.
Maybe Will deserves those things too, some day.
“It’s been good to see you, Paul,” Will says, grinning against his lips as Paul laughs.
“You’re a terror, Horton.”
“Yeah, but you’re stuck with me. I know where you live,” Will says, and finally steps back. “Wait, do I?”
“I left the address on your desk,” Paul says, rolling his eyes. “I have to go.”
“Fine,” Will says. “Geez. Get out of here.”
“It’s been good to see you, too,” Paul says, eyes glittering. Will would say he can’t remember being this happy, but he absolutely can.
He’s missed it.
“Call me,” he shouts as Paul gets into the car.
He’s pretty sure even the cabbie’s laughing at him.
“Good weekend?” Sonny asks as Arianna runs off to find her latest science project to show him. He’d lay money on it being another imagining of the solar system.
“Hmm,” Will says, biting back a smile.
“That hickey’s an eyesore,” Gabi says, curled up on the couch, looking far too amused at Will’s glare.
“I don’t know,” Sonny says. “It’s sort of modern art, don’t you think?”
“I hate you both,” Will says, and means I love you. It may not always be easy or pretty, but he’s kinda proud of who they’ve grown into all the same.
In his pocket, his phone buzzes.
“I’ve got to take this,” he says, trying and failing to stay calm.
“Uh huh,” Gabi says, as Sonny snorts. “Send Paul our love.”
“I am sending him no one’s love but my own,” Will says, tilting his chin up. “And also you both need to get laid.”
“Hey!” they cry in unison, but Will’s already ducking out the room, laughter on his tongue as he presses ‘answer’.
“Hi,” he says, the anchor on his back slipping clean away.
“Hi,” Paul says, warm and easy.
Will doesn’t know why he’s surprised to find it sounds like home.