There are tears in Max's eyes when he tells Michael he's getting married.
When Max had asked Michael to come over and have a bite to eat, Michael certainly hadn’t been expecting this. He arrived with a six-pack and an empty stomach and now they’re talking about Max and Liz getting married.
Married. A convention that neither suits nor excites Michael, especially not after a brutal break-up.
He isn't exactly surprised at the news; Max and Liz have been joined at the hip for six years ever since they met at university, inseparable, and disgustingly in love. Enough to make Michael a little sick of it. Well, not really, but his recent return to being single makes it a little insufferable. He is happy for Max, of course he is, but spending a weekend celebrating that love makes his stomach turn a little.
Max has been talking about it for a while, even tried to get Michael to help with finding a ring but Michael hasn’t been able to get into it. He hasn’t been in the right headspace ever since his break up.
A break up with Liz’s best friend and confidante, Maria, who will also be at the wedding. Oh this is going to be a disaster.
Michael pulls Max into a hug and pats him on the back, expressing a joy at the occasion that is somewhat superficial.
“Congratulations, Max. I’m so happy for you two!”
“Thanks,” Max says. “I asked her spontaneously while we were out camping this weekend and I’m so happy… we’re so happy.”
Michael is happy for them, of course he is, but he also wants to roll his eyes – of course they were camping, it was probably really romantic and shit.
“So, I have a question for you,” Max says when they break apart. He wipes a tear from his cheek -- an actual tear of happiness -- and then smiles at Michael.
“Yes, I will get you a stripper for your bachelor party,” Michael says.
Max hits him on the shoulder, gently, and Michael feigns pain.
“Not it, at all. You’re my brother Michael, in all ways that matter.” Michael smiles, because it is true. Max is his brother, even if they are not blood relations. “I was wondering if you would be my best man.”
It’s a surprise, undoubtedly. Max has Isobel, his actual sister and the person Michael thought would be the choice but, Max wants him? The drop-out mess who has never amounted to anything? Now it is Michael’s turn to feel tears prickling in his eyes, a lump in his throat as he struggles to find the words.
“I know you’re not a very traditional person,” Max says, “but there’s no one else I’d want standing beside me up there.”
They are brothers, in all ways but in blood and when did blood ever really count for much. It hadn’t counted when Michael’s parents had given him up as a child, and it hadn’t counted when Max had found him on his first day at a new school when they were 10, alone on the swings, and asked him if he could join in. They had been friends ever since, through thick and thin. Through puberty and college. Through break ups and first relationships. It hadn’t counted when Michael’s foster placement became abusive and horrific and Michael needed a place to sleep.
“Max,” Michael says, when the emotions let him. “Of course I’ll be your best man.”
The grin on Max’s face that erupts at the words makes Michael pull Max into another hug. The most important person in his life is getting married, is happy. Michael can endure a little discomfort.
“What about Isobel?” Michael asks.
“She’ll be up there with us,” Max says, pausing. Pausing? “She was thrilled to be a groomsman.”
“So, it’s me and Isobel?”
“Well,” Max starts. He puts a hand on his neck and looks up at Michael with a sheepish look on his face.
“I’m going to ask Valenti.”
Michael groans a little at the thought.
Kyle Valenti, college football player extraordinaire-turned-doctor, Mr. Perfect, and by all definitions, an asshole. At least, he had been when they first became friends. Michael just hasn’t been able to forgive him, and though he knows that Valenti and Max are close now, he hates the idea of having to spend more time with him.
Max and Kyle met in an English literature class and had become fast friends, and Kyle had been their ticket to all the good frat parties. As the years had gone by, they had stayed in touch and Max said that he had changed. Michael would have to see about that.
“What about Liz, she can’t be a fan of me being the best man…”
“You mean after what happened with Maria?” Max says casually.
Michael winces at the memory. It wasn’t good, he knows it wasn’t good. When they broke up Michael did all he could to numb the pain and anger, even if it ended up making Maria feel worse. Guilt creeps up and Michael fights the self-loathing that follows. He walks over to the fridge and pulls out two beers, handing one to Max and opening his own.
“Liz knows what you mean to me, but yeah… Maria’ll be up there, along with Rosa and Alex.”
This makes Michael’s hands stop half-way to his mouth. Rosa he knows, Rosa he likes. She is badass and has been through more than most people, and survived it all to boot. The mention of Alex, however, makes his stomach flutter.
“Alex… Manes?” Michael asks.
“Yeah,” Max says, eyeing Michael. “They’ve been in touch since college, he’s coming back for the wedding. They already talked and his job in London is closing up soon, so he’ll be back here in a few weeks.”
Michael takes a sip of his beer letting the cold liquid distract his mind from the thought of Alex.
“Have you stayed in touch?” Max asks, eyeing him.
“No, nope. Haven’t spoken in…” Michael stops and thinks and suddenly it hits him. Six years. It’s been six years since they last spoke.
“Thought you two were friends back then?”
“Friends,” Michael says. “Yeah, we were.”
Friends. It is woefully inadequate word for what they were to each other but Max doesn’t know, none of them knows. What they had was beautiful and searing and lasted just long enough to hurt them both. They never told anyone because neither of them felt comfortable being as vulnerable as they felt with each other. They saw each other for what they were, and Michael loved him for it. Everyone knew about Alex but no one knew about Michael at the time, but that wasn’t it. It was dangerous not because of who they were, but because of what they meant to one another.
Max grins and pulls a chair out to sit down. “Great, then we all know each other!”
Michael knows Alex and Liz were best friends in college, but Michael wasn’t aware that they were still in touch. There may have been a birthday or two throughout the years that Michael has strategically avoided, but making Alex a bridesmaid? Michael takes a sip of his beer. Alex Manes is coming back and it makes his palms sweat.
Michael smiles at his brother and suppresses the sudden flood of emotion that always wells up at the memory of Alex Manes, hoping it isn’t noticeable. There are so many memories, some good and some bad, and the bad ones are the ones that have cut the deepest in the years since.
If Alex is going to be there, Michael will have to pretend that everything is fine, that Alex Manes didn’t break him. That he is past it all.
“Great,” he says, and Max is still just grinning like an idiot.
Fuck. The wedding will be wonderful, but Michael isn’t thinking about that.
Max pulls out the menu from the local pizza place and pushes it towards Michael.
“Liz is thinking that we should hold the wedding on New Year’s Eve,” Max says, bringing Michael out of his stupor. “Our anniversary.”
Michael remembers that party; the night he met Alex. Liz and Max had been dancing around one another for months but then Liz had invited him to the party she was hosting with her best friend from high school, Maria. He still remembers the look on Max’s face as Liz hugged him that night, the terror in his eyes as he pulled her aside and asked her if she wanted to date. Michael also remembers the moment Liz had pulled him over to the bar and Michael had spotted Alex pouring himself a rum and coke and wearing smudged eyeliner, and Michael’s mouth had gone dry.
He swallows, and takes another sip of his beer. “That’s soon,” Michael says.
“I mean, it’s seven months away,” Max says.
Michael picks at the label on his bottle, his nail rhythmically tugging it off in time with the music.
“Seven months to plan the wedding, means we’ve got to start now?” Michael says.
“You got it,” Max says with another grin. “But first, pizza!”
Michael stares at the menu without reading a word, and ends up picking his usual, jalapeño and pepperoni, and then he drinks the rest of his beer in one.
Max gets up and brings them each another beer, but Michael doesn’t even notice. His thoughts are entirely consumed by Alex.
He doesn’t let himself think of Alex often; they are memories he keeps buried except for the nights where he lets himself remember, lets himself relive and relish in the good and the bad. Alex’s soft lips, they way he would laugh as they kissed because he was happy, the first time they slept together, the little noises he made as he slept. For each happy memory, Michael has an arsenal of bad ones and those he only thinks about with a bottle of tequila beside him.
It was not Alex’s fault, of course. They were just two boys, each carrying a giant suitcase of emotional baggage who couldn’t help but see that pain reflected in the other, and had lessened that pain, until they hadn’t. Until they broke up and Michael forgot how to be happy, for a long time.
Now, he’ll have to pretend everything’s fine, that Alex Manes didn’t break his heart. He’ll have to shake his hand, talk to him again, hear about his life. It makes his stomach churn.
Maybe Alex is past it all, or maybe he has forgotten entirely.
Somehow, even though he hasn’t spoken to him in so long, Michael knows that isn’t true.
Alex has never had a social media profile - not that Michael has checked, has occasionally searched every platform for a glimpse of Alex Manes - so Michael doesn’t know what to expect as he sits at the restaurant with Liz and Max and the rest of the bridesmaids and groomsmen, waiting for Alex to arrive.
The restaurant is one of Liz’s favourites. It is run by a family of Mexican immigrants and they do Mexican food right, according to her. The drinks are full of tequila, which Michael is grateful for, and the atmosphere is fun, relaxed, and usually Michael loves it here. Right now, though, his stomach is in knots.
Maria and Michael are seated as far away from each other as possible, Maria closest to Liz and Max in one end, and Michael sitting at the other, Isobel next to him, chattering away about some insignificant work-problem in her PR firm. Luckily the alcohol keeps coming, so Michael doesn’t have to do much, just nod and drink.
Rosa is sitting next to Maria and they are talking about Rosa’s latest art project, and finally there’s Valenti, who has chosen a seat next to Michael and is engaging Isobel in conversation more gracefully than Michael can muster.
It has been weeks since the engagement. Liz, or Max, Michael doesn’t care, got the great idea of gathering all of them together, celebrating with a dinner and some quality time with the bridal party. To Michael, it feels like all they wanted to do was torture him.
All he can seem to look at is the empty chair between Isobel and Liz, and who will be occupying it in the immediate future.
“Michael?” Isobel asks, and his eyes break away from the chair and land on her.
“How’s work?” she asks.
Being a mechanic is not where Michael thought he would be, but it pays the bills and keeps his mind relatively occupied. Michael’s job is fine -- he repeats it to them now, a tried and tested phrase that usually gets people to stop asking, and one that usually elicits no immediate follow-up questions. It’s easier than explaining the truth; that he is tired of it, hates it, wants to get out of it, wants to feel a drive for what he does again. He hasn’t felt that in years.
Kyle nods, and Michael can’t tell if it is fake or real. Annoyingly, it might be real.
“How long have you been a mechanic now?” Kyle asks.
Damn. A follow-up.
“Five years,” Michael says.
Fuck, has it really been five years? They seem to have gone by in a flash, more quickly than Michael feels entirely comfortable with.
“Why did you decide to be a mechanic?” Kyle asks.
Michael takes a big sip of his beer.
“Oh, you know, dropped out of college and needed to pay the bills.”
Kyle’s eyebrows raise a fraction, and Isobel snorts into her drink.
“Michael, always so eloquent,” she says.
“What?” he asks.
“I -,” Kyle starts, and he genuinely looks sad, “I had no idea you dropped out. Max never mentioned it.”
“Why would he? Plus, we haven’t exactly kept in touch,” Michael says.
“Well, I hope that changes,” Kyle says. “This wedding could bring us all together again.”
Kyle looks around the room smiling, and Isobel’s smiling too. Michael rolls his eyes, and is glad no one sees it.
“What about you, Kyle?” Isobel asks.
Kyle starts, and quickly Michael stops listening. He’s a doctor, and Michael doesn’t want to be reminded of the fact that Kyle is a good person now. Not after everything. He empties his beer and orders another one, and that one is half empty before the door opens and someone walks towards their table, and it sends a shock through him. This is it.
“Sorry I’m late.”
It makes his heart expand just a little to hear the timbre of Alex’s voice again, and it makes him uncomfortable to realise how much he has missed hearing it. Michael turns around and there he is, grinning at Liz from ear to ear, his hands stuffed in his trouser pockets.
Liz jumps out of her chair with excitement and throws her arms around him, and he pulls her close.
“We’re just glad you’re here!” she says, face buried in the crook of Alex’s neck.
“Wouldn’t miss it for the world,” Alex says, hugging her tight.
Michael’s frozen as he watches them, Alex with closed eyes as he hugs his friend. He looks the same; the past six years have been kind on him, broadening his shoulders and leaving his cheeks dusted with stubble but in essence Alex looks like Alex. He looks good, great even. Michael doesn’t like thinking that.
Then Alex’s eyes open, and they immediately fall on Michael.
Emotions flood him, emotions that he always knew were still there. He has always known he was still in love with Alex -- loving Alex Manes is more of a constant for him than a memory, a permanent state of being. It isn’t just something he can move past. He swallows, and waits for Alex to look away because he can’t.
Everyone else at the table gets up, forms a line to greet the last addition to their group and Michael knows he has to follow suit.
Max gets a handshake but is pulled into a hug, Alex is grinning as he congratulates him on his upcoming nuptials. Maria gets a giant hug, a whispered greeting in her ear that Michael wishes he could hear. Isobel gets a hug, though it is shorter than it was for either Maria or Liz. When Alex gets to Kyle he sticks a hand out.
“Didn’t realise you’d be here, Valenti.”
Michael’s stomach is in knots.
“Yeah, I’m one of Max’s groomsmen,” Kyle says.
Michael can’t help but notice the lack of a greeting. Valenti and Alex didn’t part on good terms, and Alex now seems calmer about it than Michael could ever be. Alex nods once before letting go, and then he’s turning.
Turning to face Michael.
“Long time no see,” Alex says, holding out a hand.
Michael opens his mouth to speak, but can’t find words. Instead, he takes Alex’s meagre offering, curling his fingers around Alex’s palm, feeling the calluses on his own skin against the softness of Alex’s hand.
“Manes,” he ends up saying. Alex’s mouth lifts a little at the corner, and Michael can’t remember the last time he saw anything that made him feel as much as even a potential smile on Alex does.
“Guerin,” Alex replies, face now stoic and cold again.
Quickly, too quickly for Michael’s liking, they let go, Alex’s eyes leave his face and that brief moment of contact between them is broken.
Everyone takes a seat, Alex between Liz and Kyle, his attention firmly on the happy couple. Michael takes a breath to find himself, and then forces his attention on Isobel. Unfortunately for him, Isobel looks to Alex for conversation.
“Alex, I feel like I haven’t seen you in years, not since Liz’s 25th birthday party?”
Alex turns to her and Michael can see some lines around his eyes that weren’t there the last time.
“That sounds right, I left for Sweden right after that, had a contract there,” Alex says.
“What have you been doing abroad?” Kyle asks.
By now the whole table is listening, looking at Alex with interest and so it is easy for Michael to do the same without it looking out of place. It’s dangerous though, like staring into the sun. Alex is radiant and to Michael, he is beautiful.
“Cyber security stuff, got hired to do some inspections abroad,” he says.
“Don’t those usually just require you and a laptop? What took you abroad?” Max asks from the other end of the table.
Alex shrugs. “You’re right, but I got the option to do some work in Europe, then Australia, then Europe again, and I figured why not. I didn’t have much keeping me here.”
Michael doesn’t know if it is projection, but Alex isn’t looking at him and it feels like it is on purpose.
“Oh wow, so you’ve been all over,” Kyle says.
“Yeah.” Alex smiles. “I actually just landed from spending a few weeks in Germany, so I’m a little jet-lagged.”
“I thought you said you were in London? Honestly, Alex, I can’t keep track.”
Alex shrugs. “Had someone to see there.”
The image conjured in Michael’s head is one of a perfectly chiselled blond with large green eyes and a smile that makes Michael want to punch him.
“Just stay as long as you can,” Liz says. “We’re all just so glad you’re here.”
Alex looks around the table and his smile looks strained.
“It’s good to see everyone again,” he says, but Michael could always tell when Alex lies.
Alex orders something to drink -- water -- and they all order, and talk erupts in small groups. Maria and Max, Liz and Rosa and Alex, Kyle and Isobel… Michael just can’t get himself to engage. There’s a barrier, a wall he doesn’t want to break, too much potential hurt that could come from him opening his mouth. That could come from him being himself.
Sometimes he wonders when he was last true to himself, fully.
The question brings up a frightening response.
He doesn’t hear the full context, but he hears Liz say Michael’s name in passing, look towards Maria, give an apologetic smile at her, and Michael sees Alex’s hand freeze on his glass of water. Alex’s eyes flicker to Michael again, and again Michael watches for any sign of emotion that matches his own. If Alex didn’t know about him and Maria before he certainly does now, and Michael hopes it hurts, just a little. If it hurts, it means Alex might still care.
The nugget of hope he has tried to quell for years still rears its ugly head, but Alex takes a sip of water and the split-second reaction is gone. He looks so indifferent that any hope Michael had is snuffed out.
“I’ve actually wanted to talk to you two,” Isobel says, interrupting Michael’s brooding and forcing him to look away from Alex again. Kyle nods enthusiastically, and Michael finishes his third beer. “I know it is the best man’s job to plan, but I thought we could meet and bounce ideas off one another, for the bachelor party.” She looks at Michael. “Want some help?”
Michael does, desperately. His mind has been stuck firmly in the past for weeks, and Isobel is great at parties.
“You are great at planning, so yeah.”
“Shh, not here,” Kyle says, looking down the table. “Max will hear.”
“It’s not as if I want to plan it here and now, but we need to meet. Can you do a coffee Wednesday after work?”
Kyle takes out his phone. “I’ve got surgery until 5 pm, but after that?”
Isobel looks at Michael, and waits for his reply.
“What?” he asks.
“Come on, Wednesday, The Green Bean, 6 pm? Can you come or not?”
Michael makes a show of taking out his phone and checking his calendar, knowing full well that it is empty.
“Yeah, I can be there.”
“Good,” Isobel says, her smile triumphant. “We need to give my dear brother a night he won’t forget.”
Their food arrives, droves of it and they all dig in. Michael makes the mistake of looking at Max; he is sitting with one hand in Liz’s on the table, eyes shining with such love that it makes Michael’s heart clench. He is just watching her speak and yet, he has never looked more enamoured. Max looks over, sees Michael, and quirks and eyebrow up at him, a silent question which Michael does not know how to answer.
Max is maybe the only other person here that he cannot lie to.
Max finds him later, in the men’s room while Michael is washing his hands.
“You alright?” he says.
Their eyes meet in the mirror. Michael shuts off the faucet.
Michael opens his mouth to say ‘fine’ but he can’t get himself to do it, not now. Not after seeing Alex again for the first time since --.
“Can we not do this now?” Michael asks in lieu of an answer.
Max walks over to the sink and leans against it, eyes fixed on Michael’s face.
“If you want,” Max says. “You can always talk to me; you know that right?”
Michael lets out a breath through his teeth. He knows that now; if only he had known that in college.
“Remember when I broke up with Maria, and you asked if I was okay?” Michael says.
“I didn’t lie -- I was. Maria and I… she didn’t mean anything to me, not really. I’m not happy about how I handled it but I was never serious about her.” Michael knows it’s horrible to say, but he also knows Max won’t judge. They are too close for that. “We had fun, and I wanted to have fun, but…”
Max shrugs, showing Michael more kindness than he deserves. “So, she wasn’t the one,” he says. “So what, you’ll find the one, I’m sure of it.”
Michael’s swallows hard, pulling a paper towel from the rack and drying his hands. The silence is loaded with the weight of the giant torch he has carried for over half a decade, a force he is unable to hide with Alex sitting in the other room.
“Wait,” Max says, eyeing him. “Have you already…?”
The question remains unfinished, and Max’s surprise is clear as he waits for an answer. The implications are bigger than Michael can deal with, so he throws the paper towel in the trash before facing Max again.
“Michael, this is massive! Who is it?” Max’s excitement is palpable but to Michael it is just pain. Max sees that, though, and his face falls.
“Another time,” he says and Max nods in resignation.
He puts a hand on Michael’s shoulder and squeezes.
“Soon,” Max adds.
With that, Michael walks out and back towards the table.
Alex is engaged in what looks like a thrilling conversation with Maria and Liz, and Isobel and Rosa are chatting about something Michael barely understands. Michael sees his empty beer and makes some quick comment about getting another, and so he goes to the bar. Kyle, annoyingly, gets up to join him.
“So, we’ll be seeing quite a lot of each other in the next few months,” Kyle says.
Michael has to stop himself from giving some snarky reply. Instead, he orders and stares at his hands. It’s been too much, this evening and this week and this feeling raging in his chest that the one thing he wants is the one thing he can never have again, and he wants nothing more than for it to end so he can go back to his bed and the sweet oblivion of sleep.
“I wanted to clear the air,” Kyle says, clearly not getting the message. “If I’ve done something to make you annoyed with me, I’d like to know so we can get over it and focus on what’s important. Max.”
This makes Michael look up.
“I… definitely did not expect that.”
“So, what is it?” he asks.
Michael doesn’t know how to explain it to him, how to say that the homophobia he heard Kyle express in college was one of the moments that got the ball rolling on Michael and Alex’s end, and a small part of Micheal can’t help but blame him for the break-up. Blaming someone else is less painful than blaming himself.
“You were a jerk in college,” is all he says, watching for Kyle’s reaction.
Kyle lets out a small chuckle. “Yeah… I was, wasn’t I?”
The bartender comes back, beer in each hand but a napkin pressed to the one he gives to Michael, a napkin with eight digits scrawled on them. Michael meets the bartender’s gaze and sees the interest in his eyes, the potential in the playful smile, and Michael smiles right back.
“Yeah, you were.” Michael shows off the phone number when the bartender leaves, hoping Kyle will react. When he doesn’t, he stuffs the napkin in his pocket. Michael’s bisexuality isn’t a secret, not anymore, but he doesn’t know if Kyle knows.
Kyle wraps his hand around his beer and looks Michael squarely in the face.
“I hope you know that I’ve changed since then,” Kyle says. “I’m not proud of who I was, and I know I held some pretty… disgusting beliefs.”
“Glad to hear that being an asshole can be cured,” Michael says. “I’ll wait to believe you till I see hard proof.”
Kyle nods in acknowledgement and takes a sip. “I look forward to proving it.”
Michael shoots the bartender a glance before he walks back to the table, and it feels good to have at least one good thing come out of the evening - at least Michael knows he has options.
As the night progresses, Michael can handle it less and less.
He wants Alex to look at him, acknowledge him in some way but Alex is steadfast, keeping his attention fixed everywhere but Michael, and it hurts. It hurts more than he can handle but about the amount he expected, and so he empties yet another beer.
The floor beneath him feels like a riotous sea, his tongue is heavy in his mouth, and Michael needs another beer. When he goes up to the bar, the bartender is smiling at him, asking questions, and when he mentions he has a break coming up, Michael feels that flash of excitement flare in his chest.
The bartender is attractive; skin the colour of caramel, eyes dark and mysterious, hair styled to be messy but is gorgeous, a shirt that emphasises the muscles of his arm. Michael remembers the phone number in his back pocket, and asks if he can join him.
The alcohol in his system is making his thinking blurry, but the bartender is cute and when he presses Michael against the wall in the hallway towards the bathroom, Michael can pretend it is the relief he has been looking for.
Michael presses their mouths together and within seconds they are moaning against one another, tongues slick and soft as they kiss, hands exploring taut muscle and gripping at clothes. Michael gets lost in it, in the rush of attraction and desire and the mindlessness that it brings. He can focus on the heat of the person pressing against him, the erection pressing into his thigh, and suddenly the sting of being forgotten doesn’t hurt as much.
Until the spell is broken by a door opening.
Michael looks over the guy’s shoulder to see Alex frozen in the bathroom door frame as he takes in the sight in front of him. He must have left the table while Michael was ordering. He looks at Michael, whose hands are curled around the bartender’s arms, and for the first time tonight, Michael can see emotions raging across his features, though he can’t decode them.
“Sorry,” Alex says, voice harsh, and Michael hates it. Alex has nothing to apologise for, and yet, here they are.
Alex leaves, and when the bartender leans back in Michael puts his hands on his chest and pushes him away. The reminder of Alex has destroyed any joy he was getting out of forgetting.
“Moment’s over,” Michael says quietly. “I have to get back.”
“Alright,” he says, letting Michael go. “But text me.”
Michael nods, and then he goes back out there.
Alex’s eyes burn into him as he walks over and Michael feels a blush rise in his cheeks. Isobel catches it, because of course she does.
“I saw you go off with that bartender, is that why your lips are swollen?” she asks, teasing.
Michael doesn’t answer, but Maria is shooting daggers at him.
Dessert is uneventful; Michael broods, Liz and Max taste the cake as if it were a wedding option, Alex sips at his water and listens as Maria talks to Isobel but Michael can’t even pretend to listen. Kyle, apparently no-longer-an-idiot Kyle, looks at Michael with a worried expression.
They say goodbye as a group when Max pays the bill and some of them leave together; Liz and Max are happy and smiling, Kyle, Alex and Isobel share a cab and Maria gets a ride home with Rosa. Michael walks out into the fresh air and breathes it in, and starts walking. When Michael makes it home and closes the door behind him, the relief brings tears to his eyes. It’s over. It’s done. He has seen Alex Manes again, and he has survived. Surely that has to count for something.