The day hasn’t been a good one for Alex, even if it’s a Wednesday. He woke up late and made it to school only barely in time, was held back about a project during lunch so he couldn’t even see Willie, or sit with his friends, which usually calms him down and then there’s the fucking family gathering he has to go to on the weekend that’s been looming over him for weeks. He’s gotten pretty good at ignoring these types of events his parents drag him to, but today he can’t.
He's been restless the whole day, fiddling relentlessly with pens and his fingers, and the fabric of his clothes, and has pinched a bit of skin on his left wrist long enough that it’s almost gone now, hoping that the stinging pain will keep him grounded.
He knows that that’s not a good coping mechanism, but he needs to distract himself.
It’s a baby shower and gender reveal party.
A fucking baby shower and gender reveal party for the child of his conservative cousin and wife, and he just knows that it’ll be full of stupid gender stereotypes and all those in his family who value that shit, and who’ll ask him when he’ll finally bring a girlfriend along.
And he’ll have to take off his rainbow bracelet that Julie made for him a year back because otherwise his parents won’t let him practice with the band next week.
He’s on the way to Dance Club, actually, the thing that he’s been looking forward to all day. Seeing Willie, and Carrie ,and Kayla and just dancing and letting loose for an hour, and band practice after where he can vent on his drums and Rose will probably make him a hot chocolate.
Those are the things that have been getting him through the day, but he’s just parted ways with the guys and Julie and is alone in the hallways of the school, safe for a few other students he doesn’t know, and their sneakers are too loud on the floors.
He tries to walk faster, to block out the noises, but he becomes aware of the squeal of the janitor’s trolley somewhere off, and jangled instruments from the music room.
The colours around him become too bright all of a sudden.
He digs his fingernails into his palms.
His great grandmother will tell him he’s such a handsome young man, and that she wants to see him marry a good girl, and he’ll see his father in the background, standing and watching him, eyebrows knit together and warning him, mouth pressed into a stern line.
"Don’t make a scene, don’t embarrass us,” his mom will tell him before they get out of the car, holding out her hand so he hands over the bracelet.
His favourite cousin, Samantha, or Sammy, as he’s still allowed to call her, won’t be there.
She texted him today, telling him she’s sorry, but that she can’t put herself through her older brother’s gender bullshit.
They were good company for each other at the last two baby showers they’d been forced to attend, but she’s off to college on the other side of the country and can pretend she doesn’t have the time to fly back.
He envies her for it, and he’s been looking forward to gossiping with her in a tucked away corner.
He’s been looking forward to telling her about Willie, because she’s the only one in his family who doesn’t mind that he’s gay, and she’s been so excited to learn he has a boyfriend now.
But she isn’t going to be there, and Alex will spend the entire time under the watchful eyes of his parents, and his mother will grab his arm and dig in, until her fingernails hurt, when relatives start talking about politics.
“Don’t make a scene, Alexander,” she’ll whisper at him, voice tight and eyes blazing and he’ll be quiet and listen to whatever bullshit his Trump supporter uncle has to say, and not be able to say anything, because he wants to be able to see the band next week.
One time he said something, and he’d been under house arrest for a month. He’s learned from it.
Alex is almost running now, but somehow there’s till too much of everything.
His heart is racing, and the shoes are too loud, and his breathing is ragged and the light is too bright, and it’s too warm, and too bright and his fingernails are digging purple crescents into his palms and his chest feels as though someone’s put a belt around it, and is pulling, and pulling, and pulling it tighter.
He almost throws himself at the bathroom door at the end of the hall, the last one before the gym where he’s supposed to be.
It’s empty, and he knows it well enough to be sure that he’ll be alone in here for a bit.
The lights are too bright, reflecting from the white tiles.
One of the taps of the sinks is dripping, he tries to turn it off, completely off, so hard that his knuckles turn white. The sound is too much, but it stops, mercifully.
He can’t breathe.
It’s too bright.
He feels like he’s being strangled, and his heart is racing so much he’s afraid it’ll push out of his chest.
He tries to take a deep breath, but sobs instead, and the light is too bright, too fucking bright.
He finds the light switch almost blindly, hits it with too much force, tries to breathe.
Tries to find good thoughts, but his family and his mother's blazing eyes, and his father’s cold ones, thin mouth, set jaw, the feeling of his mother’s hand wrapped around his bicep push themselves in front of images of Julie laughing, and Reggie trying to catch an M&M in his mouth over and over, and Luke grinning wildly as he runs up to him with a new song in hand, and Willie smiling at him and the wind pulling at his hair.
His own breathing is too loud but he feels like he doesn’t get any air from it, and somehow there are still people walking fast and a locker slams and it’s so loud and he tries to breathe and to calm down but someone laughs outside the bathroom door and Alex stumbles, blindly, until he hits a wall, finds a corner and slides down.
He can’t breathe, and there are salty tears on his face and his fingers start cramping from how tight he’s pressing them into his palms and he can’t breathe.
Willie is starting to get worried. He hasn’t seen Alex much all day, only in the hallways, not even at lunch.
Reggie shot him a text that Alex was held back, but he really expected to see him now.
Alex usually either picks him up from his art class on the way to Dance Clube, or waits for him somewhere on his way.
He hasn’t seen him yet. And when he walks into the gym Alex isn’t there either.
He remembers passing by Alex in the morning, and getting a quick but tired smile. And that Alex has been stressed about the baby shower he has to go to on the weekend. Has ranted about it several times.
Willie’s noticed how much more tensionAlex has been holding in his body over the past few days, how much more he fiddles. It worries Willie a bit. He hasn't seen how bad Alex can truly get yet.
“Where’s Alex?” Carrie asks. She’s in the splits on the floor, stretching.
Willie feels a block of ice drop into his stomach. “He wasn’t here?”
Carrie looks up, her eyebrows drawn together.
“Uh, no? I assumed you’d come together, like always,” she says.
“Fuck,” Willie says.
“Look, maybe he’s just been held up, or something?” Carrie tries to amend, and gets up.
Willie shoots her a look, pulls out his phone just to double check.
“He would have texted, he hasn’t,” he says.
This whole thing is very unlike Alex.
It worries him.
He types out a question to the band group chat he’s now a part of, asking if they know if something happened.
Julie responds immediately that they thought Alex was meeting him. They’re coming back to school.
When Willie relays this to Carrie, worry starts showing on her face as well. Alex is known for reliability, and it’s not a good sign if he’s suddenly gone MIA. Willie tells about the last few days, how much anxious and withdrawn Alex has been.
“Get your ass going and make sure he’s okay,” Carrie says, and pushes him back out the gym door.
Kayla shoots him a questioning look as he passes her while exiting, but he doesn’t have the time to explain.
He doesn’t even know where to start looking and hurries down the hall, but a sound stops him.
It’s quiet, but distinctive. A sob. Coming from the bathroom.
Willie pushes the bathroom door open into a dark room, and sees Alex, huddled into the corner farthest from the entry, next to two stalls.
Or, well. He sees the top of Alex’s head and his bright socks and shoes and that he is curled in on himself.
And obviously struggling to breathe.
Shit. Okay. Shit. He’s got this.
Willie has done a lot of research since meeting Alex, on how to deal with people having panic attacks, and with general anxiety, but he’s hoped, sort of selfishly, that it would take more time until he would be the one to have to deal with it.
But Alex needs him now.
He steps into the bathroom, letting the door shut behind him softly.
“Hey, Alex. It’s Willie,” he says, in a voice as quiet and calm as he can, sending a very shaky and typo-riddled text to let the others know where Alex is and what’s going on.
Without the light from the hallway and his phone it takes a minute for his eyes to adjust. It’s not completely dark, a tiny sliver of light creeping in under the door, picked up by the tiles.
“I’m going to come closer now, okay?” he continues.
Alex makes a choked sound. Willie rushes over, and kneels down in front of Alex, taking care to not block him off entirely so Alex doesn’t feel trapped. He can hear Alex's ragged, way too fast breathing, the sobs that rip out of him.
“You don’t have to talk right now, but it would be great if you could signal me what I can do for you, okay? It’s pretty dark in here so I can’t see you that well, but I’m going to hold out my hand, if you want it,” he says.
He’s fighting to keep his voice steady and extends his left hand out to the shape of his boyfriend, who’s still got his head between his knees, and his arms wrapped tight around them.
“I’m going to brush your hand, okay? So you know where mine is, if you want it,”
It’s a light touch, he really barely brushes Alex’s hand, but Alex immediately grabs it, holds on tight.
“Okay, that’s good. Now, if I do something that’s okay, you can give it one squeeze, okay, and if you don’t, you can squeeze it two times,” he says.
Alex squeezes his hand once.
“Thank you, you’re doing great. Julie and the guys will be here soon, and then we’ll take care of you, okay?” Willie says.
Willie nods to himself. “Now, we need to get your breathing under control, okay? I’m going to count for you, you just need to follow me,” he continues.
“Okay, we got this. Now, you breathe in while I count to seven, and hold, and release when I count again, yeah?”
Alex makes a soft noise in his throat, barely audible under his loud, terribly irregular gasping breaths, and squeezes Willie’s hand once.
“Breathe in,” Willie commands softly, and counts.
Alex only makes it halfway through holding the breath, before another sob bursts out of him, and Willie can feel his body move with it.
“I can’t” Alex croaks, his voice thick with tears and desperation edged into it.
“Shhh, that’s fine, sweetheart. You don’t have to talk, but keep holding onto my hand, if you want to. We’re going to try it with five seconds now, okay?”
Alex gets through it this time.
Willie repeats. Alex gets through it again.
They fall into a rhythm. Willie counts, Alex breathes. Occasionally Willie whispers reassurances, or asks if Alex can keep going, and gets a tight squeeze of his hand in response.
It’s probably not a lot longer than five minutes, but Willie feels like it’s hours that he spends with Alex on the dirty bathroom floor in the dark, just breathing.
He can hear the progress. Alex’s breathing gets more regular, the heavy sobs stop rocking his whole body and upsetting their breathing pattern.
“That’s better, you’re doing great,” Willie whispers when they're at this point.
He can make out Alex finally lifting his face off his knees, but not his expression.
“Thank you,” the other boy whispers.
“Nothing to thank me for, Hotdog. Are you comfortable with talking or do you want to continue without?” he says.
He’s actually not sure where to go from here, if he’s honest.
Alex doesn’t seem actively stuck in his panic attack anymore, but Willie has no clue how to proceed.
“I think I’m fine with talking now,”
“Okay, that’s great! Do you want me to turn on the light, or call Luke or-” Willie starts.
He’s still keeping his voice calm, but realizes he might just overwhelm Alex with too many choices which isn’t great.
“Can I just have a hug?” Alex asks.
They shuffle a bit, in the dark, but then Willie is leaning against the cool, tiled wall, and Alex is in his lap, burying his face into Willie’s neck and shoulder and pulling his arms tight around him.
“Say when I hug too tight, okay?” Willie mumbles, unsure of whether he should really hug back. Restricting or enclosing Alex’s ribcage doesn’t feel that smart when he’s been literally struggling to breathe just minutes ago.
“You’re not,” Alex says.
He’s still crying, Willie can feel the wet tears on his skin, and his own eyes burn too, but now is not the time for that.
He finally really hugs Alex back, and starts rubbing circles into it.
“Do you want me to talk or be quiet?” he asks, when the silence lingers and all he can hear is Alex sniffing.
“The others usually sing for me,” Alex’s voice is quiet and hesitant, still thick with his tears and Willie can feel the other boy’s lips move against his neck when he speaks. He doesn't register anything that doesn't ascertain the other boy, only him, and his breathing and his weight and movement. That's all Willie is focusing on.
“Okay,” he says.
He doesn’t sing often, especially not in front of others.
His own friends agree that he should, because he sometimes does with them, but it’s one of the things he’s actually self conscious about.
Especially when it’s in front of Alex, who doesn’t give himself the credit but has an absolutely gorgeous voice, that Willie thinks he can’t compete with, ever.
But he’s going to try anyway.
He thinks he would try anything for Alex, do anything for him if the other boy just asked. He'd tear down entire cities for him, or try his best at least. Travel the world for a specific gift, climb mountains or dive into the darkest parts of the ocean, without hesitation if Alex only asked.
And so Willie opens his mouth and starts singing very quietly.
It’s a Troye Sivan song, 'Talk Me Down', he’s been listening to it a lot lately. It fits them, in many ways. He’s been compiling a playlist with songs that remind him of Alex. It's very long.
He doesn’t remember all the words to the song, hums in some parts, but Alex gets still when he starts.
Willie feels his shoulders stop shaking, but fingers tightening their grip on him. Alex's breathing is almost normal now, and he sits still, and listens.
Luke, Julie and Reggie find them that way. Alex in Willie’s lap, face buried in the crook of his neck, fingers gripping tight at his shirt. Willie with his arms around the other boy, singing.
Reggie pushes the bathroom door open, bright light spilling in. It’s too bright and Willie’s eyes need adjusting at first.
The three stare down at them, worry mixing with surprise and then confusion, and relief.
“Alex, sweetheart, the others are here,” Willie says quietly.
Luke steps forward, unusually calm and quiet.
“Buddy, can you look at us? How’re you doing?”
Alex finally looks up. His eyes are glassy, his entire face red and puffy, still wet. He looks at Willie first, then turns his head to Luke.
“Better. I’m not having a panic attack anymore,”
Julie moves to Luke’s side.
“Wanna come home and drink hot chocolate?” she asks, softly.
“I’m sorry I didn’t say anything, I thought I’d get it under control,” Alex says in response.
He pulls back from Willie now, pulling his arms in on himself. He’s met with a chorus of “It’s fine”s and “We should have noticed” from all of them.
“We’re just glad you’re feeling better now, and that you weren’t alone,” Reggie says.
He’s still standing in the doorway, letting light spill in. Alex looks at Willie, and a look of regret flashes over his face, and he clambers off his lap, attempting to stand up. He struggles, Luke catches him.
“Whoa, slow down, dude,” he says, holding him still.
Willie notices dark marks on Alex’s palms, and takes one of his hands, unthinking. Alex clenches it into a fist.
“I didn’t want you to see that side of me,” he says, looking straight at him.
“Why not?” Willie asks, surprised.
It dawns on him the same moment Alex voices it: “It’s not pretty, and I… I know you know I have anxiety, but I hoped you wouldn’t have to see how bad it gets,”
“It doesn’t always have to be pretty, Alex. I don’t care how bad your panic attacks get, as long as I know I can help you,” he says.
Alex’s eyes fill up with tears again, and Julie puts a comforting hand on his shoulder. She keeps her eyes steady on Willie, a bittersweet, almost reliefed smile dancing across her features.
Alex unfurls his hand, and Willie turns it over, slowly. It gets dark for a second, as Reggie closes the door, before he switches on the lights. Four dark semi circles show in the skin of Alex’s palm. Right where his fingernails would be, if he clenched his hands into fists.
“Alex, we talked about you not hurting yourself when you’re anxious. Where are the ginger drops we bought?” Reggie asks, worry in his voice and face as he kneels down next to his best friend.
Willie tries his hardest not to cry. The thought of Alex hurting himself to avoid panic hurts him, almost physically. He should have been there, picked Alex up from his class or something, because he’d seen that his day was bad.
“I forgot,” Alex mumbles.
“That’s okay, you can try that next time. Let’s get you home now, okay?” Julie says.
Alex nods, shoots another look at Willie. Willie gives his hand a small squeeze and smiles.
“Gotta patch you up again, huh, Hotdog?” he tries to lighten the situation.
A small smile flits over Alex’s face.
“Seems to be a trend with us. More importantly, you gotta tell me when you replaced my boyfriend, I don’t remember him ever singing before,” he says.
Willie lets out a relieved breath, and chuckles.
“You never asked,” he answers, and gets up in tandem with the others.
Luke keeps an arm around Alex’s waist to stabilize him, and Willie lets go of Alex’s hand, which is immediately taken by Julie. Both of them give him thankful smiles.
“You sing?” Reggie asks, surprised.
Willie rubs the scar on his arm uncomfortably.
“Not really, I'm not any good, but Alex asked,”
“He’s a liar, he sounded great,” Alex protests.
“Bathroom acoustics,” Willie says.
“But I’m the one who can’t take compliments,”
“You really can’t, dude. C’mon. Rose promised to cook for us, and I want to eat,” Luke says, grinning, they start making their way to the bathroom door, slowly starting to bicker again.
“You’re coming too, right?” Julie asks, looking back at him.
“Uh, sure,” Willie says. “I just gotta get my backpack, and tell Carrie things are okay, she was worried,” he adds.
Julie nods, opens the bathroom door.
The trio leaves.
The door falls into frame with a click.
Willie lets out a tremendous breath and lets himself fall against the wall, pushes his hair out of his face.
“Are you okay?” Reggie asks.
Willie looks up to see him watch him.
“Yeah, it’s just. It’s a lot,” Willie says.
“It’s hard to see him like that, isn’t it? The first time Luke and I saw Alex having a panic attack we thought he was dying. It doesn’t really get easier, but you learn to deal with it,”
“I thought it would be easier. I should have picked him up from his class, or something. I feel like if I had taken better care he wouldn’t have had time to spiral,” Willie says.
He’s still fighting against the tears in his eyes. He feels so guilty.
Reggie sighs. “I get what you mean, but we can’t baby him. His parents won’t let him go to therapy, so until he’s eighteen it’s gonna be hard, but after that it’ll get better. Believe me, Luke, Julie and I don’t want to leave him alone sometimes, but he doesn’t like worrying us, and he doesn’t like it when we hover because he feels like he can’t do things alone. It’s hard, but all we can do is make sure he knows he can always talk to us when it’s getting bad,”
“He didn’t talk to me though,” Willie says.
Reggie gives him a sympathetic smile.
“You heard him, he was afraid he’d scare you off. I’m pretty sure that today showed him different. Give him a bit of time, but he’ll open up more about when exactly his anxiety’s getting to be too much,”
“Fuck man, this whole thing sucks,” Willie says.
Reggie gives a short, uncharacteristically bitter laugh.
“It does, but it’s gotten a lot better since we realized he has anxiety. And with therapy, well. He’s not going to be healed, but at least he’ll have better help than us, we can only be there when he needs to talk, and hold him and tell him to breathe, but he needs real, actual professionals helping him,”
Willie nods and sighs, running his hands through his hair again.
Scrubs at his eyes furiously.
Reggie opens his arms, wiggling his eyebrows. Willie falls into the hug.
“You did well, seriously,” Reggie tells him.
“I did some research,”
“I’ll be honest with you, Willie. We were all kind of worried about this. You’re a great guy and we like you a lot, but if you’d been bad with Alex during one of his panic attacks, we’d probably dislike you a lot now. I’m very glad you did your research and took care of him, because some people don’t,” Reggie says.
“That… that means a lot, thank you, Reggie,” he says, and pulls out of the hug.
Reggie smiles at him and slaps his shoulder.
“Wait, who doesn’t help Alex with his panic?”
Reggies face falls again, he draws his brows together, Willie's never seen him angry before, but he doesn't like it. It doesn't fit Reggie.
“His fucking parents. They just tell him to stop, that it’s annoying. Scream at him sometimes, too.”
“As if I needed more reasons to dislike them,” Willie says. Anger starts boiling in his veins.
“Tell me about it,” Reggie agrees. “We should get going, Alex is gonna be exhausted when the adrenaline wears off,” he says.
Willie nods, they pop by the gym, give Carrie a really short update and pick up Willie’s bag and skateboard, before making their way to the parking lot.
Luke’s driving, apparently. Reggie stays by Willie’s side, and he’s thankful for it.
He knew, he really did, that panic attacks aren’t a pretty thing. Despite what the media likes to tell. But actually seeing Alex having one hits different.
It’s scary to see someone you love in pain, or distress and-
“Holy fuck,” Willie says and stops.
They’re almost out the front doors. Reggie turns, surprised.
“What’s going on?”
“I’m in love with Alex,”
And it’s the truth. He can’t deny it anymore, that feeling. It’s been sneaking up on him for some time.
A seed that’s been sown a few months back, when he watched Alex talking, illuminated by the sun, against the backdrop of LA’s skyline.
A seed that’s grown with every laugh, and every smile, every kiss and every look and touch.
That’s been watered by all the moments between them, the loud one’s where he watches Alex argue with the others, the quiet ones between just the two of them.
A flower that bloomed, probably a few weeks back already, that Willie hasn’t seen until now.
It’s overwhelming, it’s scary. But beautiful as well. Terrifying and warming, calming at the same time.
He’s in love.
What the fuck.
Reggie snorts. “Yeah, dude, that’s kinda obvious?”
Willie snaps out of it, stares at the other boy who looks on in amusement. “Come again?”
“I’m famously known to not pick up on things, and even I see the way you look at each other, and listen to you talk about each other, of course you love him,” Reggie says.
Then he grimaces. “I did it again, didn’t I? You just realized?”
“Yeah,” Willie says. He’s still reeling.
What a fucking day. His emotions are all over the place.
“Sorry, but, well. It’s good you know now? Also I’ll definitely help you with telling Alex, if you want my help,” Reggie suggests.
“Like, make a big romantic gesture to tell him. You’re gonna tell him, right?”
“I- I guess so,”
“Nice, so I was thinking roses? And maybe we can get Luke to write a song so-” Reggie begins rambling and moves to the doors again.
Willie has to run to catch up to him.
“Maybe not so fast, dude? I appreciate it, but I need to let that sink in, it’s all a bit overwhelming,”
“Shit, sorry,” Reggie says.
“I’ll definitely enlist your help, but not now, okay?” Willie says when he sees Reggie’s face fall and annoyance at, probably himself, creep in.
The boy lights up again though, at his words.
“Oh, Alex won’t even know what hit him. We’re gonna be so fucking romantic!”
Willie lets out a small laugh.
They approach Luke’s car, where the other three are leaning against the door.
Alex looks exhausted, and Willie can still tell that he’s been crying, but he looks better.
And when Alex meets his eyes, and smiles when Willie smiles at him, and when they’re sitting next to each other in the back of Luke’s car, while Reggie starts a discussion about why Candy Corn is actually a good snack and Luke argues against it, and Alex leans his head on Willie’s shoulder to close his eyes for a minute, and Willie takes his hand and runs his fingers over the marks on Alex’s palm and pretends not to see the others watching them with soft smiles, Willie knows that he’s in love, and doesn’t feel scared anymore.