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“I don’t know what to say, Mike. Just- thank you.”

“You don’t have to say anything. I just did my job, and I was more than happy to do it. I know how important this book is to you.”

“Well, it’s not a book yet.” Ryan’s cheeks flush as he laughs quietly. “But it is important, yes. This is… I don’t want to say it’s my life’s work, but writing is something I’ve been doing my whole life, and this story in particular… it just means so much to me.”

Mike smiles. “I look forward to buying it once you get it published. I know you will.”

“Thank you.” Ryan exhales shakily. “You can’t imagine what a relief it is not to have to worry about that anymore.” He tilts his head. “Do you write?”

Mike snorts. “Me? No, I’m not a writer.”

“Really? With all that knowledge about literature and linguistics, you could have fooled me.”

“Just because I know something about it doesn’t mean I know how to do it,” he points out. “I’ve never even tried.”

“That’s a pity. I feel like you’d have something to say.”

“Yeah?”

“Absolutely.”

“Well, I’m flattered you think so. Shame that I don’t know what it is, though.”

“I don’t always know either. Sometimes you want to say something but don’t know how, or you don’t know what it is, but it’s there, and eventually… it finds you.”

“Sounds interesting.” Mike shrugs. “But it hasn’t found me so far.”

“Would you have let it find you?” Ryan asks with a knowing smile.

He narrows his eyes, considering. “No idea.”

“Well, maybe it will one day. And you know, it doesn’t have to be deep and important or even good for it to have value. Especially in the beginning, it’s most likely not going to. When I look back on my first story – the first few, actually – I want to bury all evidence of them and never pick up a pen again. But there’s a learning curve, which is wonderful to watch. And there’s value in it for the writer, no matter how small or insignificant the story is. They don’t say writing is free therapy for nothing.”

Mike huffs. “Alright, I see where you’re going with this.”

“All I’m saying is that everyone can use an outlet sometimes, and writing really helps. No matter what you write about, I guarantee you that you’ll feel better by the end of it.”

“Hm.”

It’s nothing he hasn’t heard before, but somehow it never crossed his mind to actually sit down and write about his feelings.

Maybe it’s something to consider, though.

“Do you have a specific process?” he wants to know, leaning in. “Is there a certain way to go about it?”

“I mean, there is one that works for me, but I know half a dozen writers who go about it in an entirely different way. There’s no right or wrong, just things that work for you and things that don’t. You just have to try them and figure it out along the way.”

“That’s not very helpful.”

“Probably not, no.” Ryan shrugs. “The only advice I’d really give you is not to listen to any advice. There’s a lot of bullshit out there. Some tips are good, but some just make you go crazy focusing on things that are ultimately pointless, and they distract you from what really matters, which is the actual writing. And believe me, writers do a pretty good job of distracting themselves from that as it is.”

Mike chuckles. “I can imagine. Will you get back to it now that you can stop worrying about this whole thing?”

“Get back to it?” Ryan grins. “Oh, I never stopped.”

He would love to chat a while longer, but since Mike has to get back to his work, he regretfully cuts the conversation short. They say their goodbyes, sharing a warm embrace that leaves a smile on his face.

Ryan turns around once more, calling over his shoulder, “Hey, Mike?”

“Yeah?”

“I used to be not a writer too. Then I started writing. Maybe you should give it a try.”

He winks before he leaves, and Mike huffs, shaking his head. “Yeah, maybe,” he mutters to himself.

It’s not something he ever thought about, which seems weird in hindsight, given how much he loves to read. Writing, on the other hand, was always something other people did. He never had the desire to put something on paper when all these other stories already existed.

Then again, if every writer thought like that, bookshops would be a very sad place.

Could he do it? Write a story? Make it engaging, give it that special something that leaves people desperate to turn the pages? Maybe he could, from a technical point of view. With all the books he’s read in his life, he doesn’t just know what makes a sentence sound good and what doesn’t, but can probably apply it to his own writing with a bit of practice.

Does he have the vision though? That’s the tricky part. Does he have a story to tell?

The answer is not an enthusiastic yes, but definitely not a hard no either. What Ryan said echoes in his head, and he finds himself agreeing more and more the longer he thinks about it. His story doesn’t have to be the next Harry Potter. He can start small, just to see if he even likes it.

“Mike,” Andy calls that moment, sticking his head into the office. “I need you in the file room for a second. It’s important.”

It always is, and Mike represses a sigh as he goes to follow him, promptly forgetting all about the matter.

He doesn’t think about it again until the following Friday, when he unexpectedly finds himself with a few spare hours on his hands. Rachel is out for drinks with a friend while he stayed in to catch up on some paperwork. It didn’t take as long as he thought, and now he’s got the rest of the night still ahead of him.

He's about to shut his laptop and look for something to do when he hesitates, remembering his conversation with Ryan. His interest has been sparked, there’s no denying that, and he has literally nothing else on right now. Why not give it a shot? If he sucks at it, he’ll delete the whole thing and no one will ever know about it.

It’s a way to satisfy his curiosity, if nothing else.

He takes his laptop and moves to the sofa, opening a new document once he’s made himself comfortable. He wonders if he should put on some music or set the mood somehow, but it seems a little ridiculous, especially when he doesn’t even know what mood he’d want to set, given that he has no idea what he’s going to write about yet.

Well, this is going to be fun.

There probably isn’t one right way to do this anyway, like Ryan said. He doesn’t mind the silence, cherishes it even, and so he sticks to it and stares at the blinking cursor on his laptop, pursing his lips.

What should he write?

Thinking about a story in terms of a full plot, complete with beginning, ending, and suspense curve in the middle doesn’t prove to be very productive, so he decides to start smaller and just think of a scene or a character that interests him.

Which is still harder than expected.

Pursing his lips as he looks at the blank page, he taps his finger against the keyboard before he switches to his browser.

A quick Google search reveals that there are dozens of websites with prompts to help writers get going, and Mike decides that there’s nothing wrong with looking for a little inspiration elsewhere if he can’t find it himself.

There’s one prompt he likes in particular – ‘write a story about someone rising to a challenge’. He’s had his fair share of those, he should be able to come up with something.

There was once a man who lived in a small apartment in a big city, he types, reading over the sentence with pursed lips. Not exactly a strong beginning, but he can always come back and change it when he thinks of something better.

And he had an even bigger problem.

He pauses, trying to think of something. Should he give his character one of his own challenges? Or should he come up with a new one? He stares at the screen, eyes narrowed, and then decides to go with the first thought that crosses his mind on a whim.

The man was part of a huge family, and with huge families came huge skeletons in the closet. And he had just stumbled over one of those. But that wasn’t the real problem.

The real problem was that someone else knew that he knew, and that was where the trouble began.

Mike huffs out a laugh, shaking his head at himself as he types and the story takes shape beneath his fingertips. The man has a name, suddenly – Alexander – and a mother, who is not the saint everyone believes her to be. He has a taste for whisky, and a nervous habit of playing with the ring on his finger, and a ring on his finger to begin with that, on second thought, turns out to be a family heirloom, which turns out to be an important detail.

“Ridiculous,” Mike mutters, but he’s smiling as he says it.

It’s rather strange to write with no idea where the story is going, and he imagines that it would take a lot of his insecurity away if he knew what he’s actually writing about, but there’s also an element of fun to it, to just going along with whatever thought crosses his mind and seeing where it takes him. It’s kind of exciting, even.

Who would have thought?

He keeps typing, intrigued by the family constellation he’s coming up with, and the words flow easily without the pressure of them having to be good or make much sense hindering him.

He has just short of a thousand of them by the time Rachel gets back, and he saves the document and shuts his laptop when he hears her key in the door, fully intending to come back to it another time.

As small and improvised as the story is, he finds himself rather captivated by it. Maybe because he’s the one writing it, because he can do whatever he wants and this entire world is his to command, all the possibilities he can think of right at his fingertips.

Whatever it is, he’s tasted blood. And he wants more.

He manages to write a little the following night too, and about two hundred words as he sips his morning coffee on Monday. He finds himself thinking about it during work as well, coming up with random details to add or lines he thinks would fit his characters. The story is hardly Literary Award material, but he’s having fun with it – a lot more than he’s had with anything else lately, which is enough reason for him to stick with it.

The prompt has soon run its course; there is nothing else Mike can think of to add to this story without making up a whole lot of background information, so he leaves it be. It has served its purpose – he is no longer a complete stranger to writing, and he has rather acquired a taste for it.

Next time he wants to try something a little more structured though, something he has planned in advance. See what will come out when he actually gives it some thought.

He searches the internet for more ideas, finds a few that appeal to him, and promptly decides to try all of them. He figures that getting some experience can only benefit him in the long run, should he decide to keep this up. And it’s fun, experimenting with pacing, creating characters just to see if he can do it, how he can make them feel more real, how he can say a lot with very little. Coming up with plots, and twists, and subplots to weave into the bigger one; building a story, a world, with nothing but the words he’s using to describe it.

It’s a hell of a lot more fun than he would have thought.

Of course, Rachel notices he’s up to something eventually.

The Gundars family had three children; a boy, the eldest, who came after his father, a girl, the middle child, who looked just like her mother, and another girl, the last of the three, who had somehow managed to avoid either of those predicaments,” she reads over his shoulder one day. “What’s this?”

“Nothing, really,” Mike mutters. “Just a little story I thought of.”

“Huh. When did you develop an interest in writing?”

“I’m just dabbling. You know that client I had, Ryan? He gave me the idea.” He shrugs. “I’m just trying it out.”

“Right. So this is what you’ve been doing all the time lately.”

“Well, not all the time,” Mike negates, even though she’s admittedly not entirely wrong. He isn’t spending every free minute on it, but close enough.

It’s been doing him a world of good though. It takes his mind off work at night, gives him something to look forward to. He hasn’t felt this good about things since… well, since before they moved to Seattle, and it’s been a refreshing change of pace.

“If you say so,” Rachel tells him, the smile audible in her voice. Then she adds, “You could have mentioned that you’re doing this, you know.”

He does know. He just didn’t want to.

He liked that part of it for some reason, doing something just for himself, without anyone else knowing about it. It’s not that he’s uncomfortable telling her, but it’s only a matter of time before she wants to look at something he wrote, and that’s another thing altogether.

“It’s nowhere near ready to be read, so I didn’t see the point,” he tells her, shrugging. “And… don’t take this the wrong way, but it’s personal somehow.”

“I get it,” Rachel says after a slight pause. “Well, maybe I can read something you’re happy with sometime. If you’re comfortable with that.”

“Yeah,” he mutters, his eyes returning to the document before him. “Maybe.”

*

He gives in eventually.

It takes him almost three months before he can get himself to let someone else see what he’s written. Rachel doesn’t pester him, not verbally at least, but the look on her face is enough. And there’s a part of him that wants to share what he’s been working on, and while it’s completely nerve-wracking to hand her his laptop and stand by as she reads his words, he doesn’t regret the decision.

“You have to tell me if you think it sucks,” he makes her promise, and Rachel rolls her eyes before doing as he asks.

It’s a fairly short story, but the minutes seem to stretch into the immeasurable as he waits for her to finish, her face entirely unreadable.

“Well,” she says when she’s done, sitting back.

“Well what? What did you think?”

“I think,” she begins, raising an eyebrow, “that it’s funny how you never told me you could write, but also that I never expected it. I mean, you have practically every book on this planet memorized. Of course you can write.”

“So you liked it?” Mike clarifies, and he doesn’t notice how much the uncertainty has been weighing on him until it dissolves at her nod.

“I liked it,” she confirms. “I think it’s really good, actually, considering that you haven’t been doing this for long.”

“I mean, yeah, there’s still plenty of room for improvement, obviously-“

“And plenty of things that don’t need improving at all,” she finishes, handing him his laptop back with a smile. Mike notices that it’s the first one in a long while that’s directed at him. The thought dampens his enthusiasm somewhat, but he quickly dismisses it, because going down that road has never led him anywhere he wanted to be.

“If you have any more detailed comments, I’d be happy to take them into consideration.”

“Alright, well, the pacing seemed a bit off, if I’m honest. The characterization was a good start, but I feel like it lacks depth, which is probably due to the nature of the story and how short it is, but nevertheless caught my attention. And…”

She trails off, pursing her lips as she gives him a thoughtful look.

“What?”

Her eyes linger on him, but then she smiles, shaking her head. “And that’s all I have to say right now.”

“Thank you.”

“Anytime.”

He goes back to his work and she goes back to hers. They spend the rest of the night in silence, and Mike, immersed in his writing, almost forgets that she’s there until she bids him goodnight.

Night after night, they repeat their new routine, Mike being more than happy to spend every free minute on his stories, and two weeks later he sets down his laptop before her again, giving her an expectant look when she glances up at him.

“You got time for a break?”

She closes her file and pulls the laptop closer. “How long is it?”

“Shouldn’t take you more than fifteen minutes.”

She glances at the clock, but nods and starts reading. Mike does his hardest not to stare at her this time, responding to a few texts instead, and only looks up when he notices her eyes on him, her expression unreadable.

“What?” His stomach sinks. “Was it bad? You hate it.”

“No, I don’t. It’s nothing. Really, I like it – a lot, actually. You did way better on this one with the pacing.”

“Thanks. I thought it was better too. What did you think of the characters?”

She takes a deep breath, but smiles. “They felt very real. It’s a good story, Mike.”

“Thank you.”

He’s pretty content with it himself; it’s not perfect, but it doesn’t have to be, and it was fun to write, which is the main thing.

He saves the document when he’s done polishing a few bumpy lines and promptly starts a new one. There’s an idea that’s been following him around for a few days now, and it seems like the perfect opportunity to practice his pacing some more until he gets the hang of it.

*

Mike knows now what Ryan meant when he asked if he would have let the stories find him, and the answer would have been a clear no. He probably wouldn’t have recognized them for what they are if they had hit him over the head, much less known what to do with them.

It’s different these days. He has no idea if it’s because he wants to do something with them, if he’s just more in touch with the creative part of his brain now that he’s frequently making use of it, or if it’s something else, but there’s a new space in his head where there was only silence before, and it’s at work constantly.

He writes all the time. He writes even when he doesn’t, ideas and little snippets crossing his mind at the most random times, gone as fast as they came if he doesn’t put them down somewhere immediately.

He writes story after story, some of them only staying with him for a night or two, some never even making it into his folder of saved works, but there’s something in all of them that speaks to him, that keeps him going.

Some stay with him longer, and some make a home in his mind so thoroughly that he’s not sure he’ll ever get them out again.

Like the one about Christopher.

It comes to him in the shower one day. He’s thinking about nothing in particular, and the idea creeps up on him in that wonderfully random and unexpected way these thoughts have, and Mike nearly trips on his way out of the bath as he stumbles into the living room in search of a pen and paper.

Rachel gives him a piqued look when he barges in, his chest heaving as he scribbles down his thoughts before they disappear.

“You’re dripping on the carpet,” she says when he drops the pen and straightens with a sigh.

“Yeah,” Mike agrees with a grin.

She looks at the paper, then back up at him. “What was so important that you had to run out of the bathroom without as much as a towel?” she mutters and shakes her head.

“Christopher,” Mike tells her, like that explains everything, and then returns to the bathroom and belatedly covers himself. He goes to the mirror, rubbing the fog away until he can see himself.

“Christopher,” he mutters, and his reflection is smiling when he looks at it.

Christopher is a politician nowhere near the top of the ladder yet, who gets wrapped up in a deception that will bring him to his limits and beyond. He’s enigmatic, and smart, and deeply vulnerable beneath the witty exterior he lets the public see. He’s lonely, and he defends those he cares about too fiercely for his own good, and that might just be his downfall one day.

Mike loves him, instantly.

There’s a lot that’s still unclear about him; his political standpoint, his background, what role he will play in the machinations he gets entangled in, but Mike can’t wait to discover all of it, can already tell that, with every new detail he figures out about him, he will fall in love a little more.

And god, he hasn’t felt the thrill of that in a long while.

He writes halfway through the night, finding new details about Christopher’s life and lines he can hear him say as he creates a universe around him. He’s almost done with a superficial outline for what is most definitely going to become his longest story to date when he checks the time and, heaving a sigh, decides to call it a day. Or night, if the two hours of sleep he squeezes in before his alarm rings count as that.

Going to work is an unpleasant disruption of his creative flow – not that Mike has ever truly enjoyed working for Andy, but counting the hours until he can go home and write is a new low, even for him. At least at home he gets some peace and quiet. He and Rachel never talk much in the evenings, and he made sure to speed through his to do list so that he could focus on his story once he left the office.

He has a detailed plot by the end of the week and a dozen half-written scenes just waiting to be finished. Now all that’s left is to fill the spaces in between them.

And what a joy it is to do so.

It’s hard work, too. He’s tired from work and staying up late all the time, and Christopher is more complex than any other character he has written. He has contradicting thoughts and feelings, and they demand to be thought and felt and truly understood before being put on paper.

It’s hard work, but he dives into it willingly, and the reward satisfies him more than anything else has in a long, long time.

Christopher takes shape before his eyes, becoming a little more fleshed out every day. He starts breathing, talking, acting, and Mike adores him, wants to spend every minute he has on him, wants to see where he can take him and exactly how far they can go.

“So when do I get to read this new story of yours?” Rachel asks, and the fierce possessiveness surging in him comes as a surprise, but he instinctively, immediately knows that Christopher is not meant for her eyes, not yet; that he’s Mike’s alone, and he wants it to stay that way.

“It’s not ready,” he tells her curtly, and that should be enough, that should tell her everything she needs to know, which is nothing, because this story is not hers, it’s not for her, it’s personal.

But she doesn’t get it.

“You know I’m happy to offer constructive criticism,” she says instead. “It might help if you had an outside perspective to-“

“Rachel,” he cuts her off rather rudely, not caring all that much, “I appreciate that, but I don’t want you to read it yet, okay?”

“Fine. It’s up to you.” She pauses, and just when he thinks she’ll finally let it go she continues, “I’m only asking because you’re brooding over this one all the time and-“

“Jesus Christ, what part of I don’t wanna show you aren’t you getting? Just drop it!”

She blinks at him, and the harshness of his words only catches up with him in the stretching silence. He stifles a sigh. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to snap at you. It’s just… private. Let it go, alright?”

The brief smile on her lips doesn’t reach her eyes. “Of course.”

She turns around and gathers her files. “You know, I’m starting to get jealous of this Christopher guy,” she comments, and he knows it’s a joke, but he doesn’t feel like laughing when she adds, “You’re spending so much time with him, it’s almost like you’re having an affair.”

That’s rich, coming from her.

Mike swallows the comment on the tip of his tongue, suppresses the urge to remind her of Logan Sanders and what it really feels like to be cheated on. He does it again and again until it finally stays down, because that’s so far in the past and they’ve long moved on from it. There’s no need to open old wounds again.

They’re past that.

They are.

*

Mike writes.

He knows there was a time when he didn’t, when every moment of downtime he had wasn’t spent on the words flowing out of his fingers – on good days, when he doesn’t have to tickle them out – but he can’t for the life of him remember why.

Taking Ryan’s case was a blessing, and a bit of a curse too on those nights when the words just won’t come, and despite the fact – or maybe because of it – there is nothing, no job, no relationship, that has ever fulfilled him the way this does.

Weeks pass, and Mike writes on, and it takes him places he didn’t see coming and places he’s been dying to get to from the moment he started planning this story, and at one point he reads over the first draft and finds himself surprisingly happy with it, but even more importantly, he thinks he might be ready for a second opinion.

“Really? You’re actually letting me read it?” Rachel asks when he hands her his laptop, lifting an eyebrow, and Mike fails to find the humor that he knows must be in there somewhere.

It’s not surprising, but it still annoys him that she’s referencing his slight obsession with this story. It’s not that she’s wrong; when it comes down to it, he’s been spending more time on it than he has with her. Not that he’s counting or she’s complaining. This new distribution of their time works just fine for them – she has things to do, he does too, they share them with each other sometimes; everyone’s happy.

“It’s just the first chapter, and it’s far from polished,” Mike warns, folding his legs under him, pointedly ignoring her remark.

“Yes, I know. We’ve done this before.” She glances at him. “You know you don’t have to sit there and stare at me while I’m reading, don’t you?”

“Obviously,” Mike says, continuing to do just that. She snorts softly, but drops her eyes to the document again, immersing herself in the story.

She’s silent for a few long minutes, her index finger on her lip as she reads, the quiet only disturbed when, at one point, she lets out an almost inaudible, “Hm.”

“What’s that?”

“Shush. Let me finish.”

He narrows his eyes, but complies, perking up when she leans back.

“Well?”

“Well, what?” She huffs, the corner of her mouth lifting. “It’s an amazing story, Mike. And I think you know it.”

A smile spreads on his lips. “You really think so?”

“Of course. I wouldn’t lie to you. It’s obvious how much you care about this… character, even if I didn’t know how many hours you’ve spent on him. You’ve clearly poured a lot of your heart into this.” She blinks at the laptop, looking like she wants to say something else, but then shakes her head and shuts it. “I look forward to reading the rest.”

Mike throws her a glance, but she sounds genuine, even if the look on her face doesn’t match her words.

“I’ll let you know when the next part is ready,” he promises, and promptly gets to work.

Maybe it should bother him that he doesn’t really get to spend time with her anymore, but it doesn’t. Maybe it should bother him that it doesn’t bother her beyond the few snarky remarks she’s made about his new hobby, but that doesn’t either, and so he doesn’t waste another thought on the matter.

There are other things to worry about after all, like how to settle the case Andy dropped on his desk this morning before it can take up most of his weekend, or how Christopher’s encounter with the journalist in chapter seven is going to unfold beyond the brief note he put down for it in his outline.

Without him quite realizing or being able to do anything about it, the story grows beyond anything he’s ever written before or what he ever imagined it would become. It comes alive; it’s breathing, developing on its own, and he tries his damn hardest to keep up because if he doesn’t, it might just slip away from him.

Rachel reads chapter two, and three, and she keeps telling him how amazing it is, and that it’s great work, and yet he can’t shake the feeling that there is something she isn’t telling him, but he can’t get himself to really care. If she’s keeping it from him, she must have her reasons.

It’s halfway through chapter six that she sets down the laptop with an unreadable expression and says, “You do know what you’re doing, don’t you?”

“What I’m… what am I doing?” he asks blankly.

Rachel sighs, shutting the laptop. “This is him, Mike. You’re writing about Harvey.”

Mike blinks at her, trying and failing to process her words.

“What? That’s ridiculous.”

She tilts her head, asking mildly, “Is it?”

“Of course it is. Why would I be writing about Harvey? I’m not.”

“Well, no. You’re writing about Christopher, who’s an ambitious, tough guy on his way to the top, only that his surprisingly big heart gets in the way. Oh, and he’s also wrapped up in illegal activities because of his superiors. Doesn’t that sound familiar?”

He wants to dispute the fact, but before he can say anything she carries on, “And it’s not just that. In the story before this one it was Garret, the rich businessman whose biggest secret is his heart of gold. The time before it was Tom, the celebrated broker who was just so misunderstood. John, Connor, whatever the name of the guy before that was… they’re all him, Mike, in one way or another. It’s always about him.”

Mike opens his mouth to protest, but finds that the words won’t come.

“I mean, when you put it like that…” he admits reluctantly, shaking his head. “But it’s not like I meant to. It’s a coincidence. That just- happened.”

She smiles. “Funny, isn’t it?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing. I just… it’s not that you’re writing about him. It’s how you write about him. You’re obsessed with him and his story. You’re putting so much of yourself and your heart into this. I mean, this feels like it’s beyond hero worship. This is… devotion. Jesus, Mike, it’s practically a declaration of love if you just squint a little.”

Mike closes his mouth, swallowing. “You’re not making any sense,” he says, except she is, she’s making more sense than either of them have in a long, long time, and this is not something he ever thought he would hear her say, but here they are, and he knows somehow that there is no going back again.

“You love him, don’t you?”

Christopher or Harvey? he wants to ask, but the words stick in his throat, and he doesn’t try to get them out because he realizes that the answer would be the same.

She doesn’t seem to expect a response, just waves her hand like she knows it already, and isn’t that a terrifying thought. “I mean, obviously you do. But I never knew if it really was the same way he felt about you. I thought it might just be a crush. But now I can see that it’s more than that.”

“What are you talking about?” Mike shakes his head. “Are you saying- Harvey is not in love with me, Rachel.”

He can’t argue about himself, and there’s a small part of him that hopes she doesn’t notice, as if they don’t both know it anyway.

She chuckles. “Yes, he is,” she simply says.

Mike stares at her.

“This is ridiculous,” he repeats, feeling like a broken toy. “You’ve lost your damn mind.”

“Come on, now,” she says, her voice far too gentle in contrast to his sharp words. “You’re better than that.”

Mike swallows. He’s not better than anything. He wants to fight her on this until she forgets why she ever believed it to be true, wants to fight until he forgets that he’s a liar, that he’s not better, he’s not even good.

Nothing about this is good, but then again it hasn’t been for a long time.

“Can I ask you something?” Rachel inquires. “I want you to answer, obviously, but only if you’re gonna be honest. If you can’t do that, don’t bother.”

Mike swallows. “Ask me.”

She exhales deeply. “Are you happy?”

He blinks at her, opening his mouth, then closing it again without a sound. His heart is pounding in his chest, and it makes it hard to focus on the conversation.

“How the hell am I supposed to answer that?”

It could be very simple, and it should be, all things considered, a mere yes or no sufficing, but he can’t get himself to say either, and she lets him get away with it for the time being.

“Okay, let me rephrase that. Are you happy here, in Seattle?”

Safer territory. Marginally, but he’ll take anything he can get right now.

He lifts his shoulders defensively. “I’m not deeply unhappy or anything.”

“Which, I take it, is a no.”

He lets out a frustrated breath. “Rachel, that’s…”

“You can just say it, Mike. We can drop the act for one night. We were never very good at it anyway, were we? Are you or are you not happy here?”

He looks at her. Swallows. Looks away before he meets her eyes again.

“No. I’m not.”

There’s no flicker of surprise on her face, which is perhaps the worst part of this.

“And are you happy with me?”

“Jesus, Rachel. What in god’s name… why the hell are you asking me this?”

She just looks at him, and he gets up and pushes a hand into his hair, shaking his head.

“I mean… this isn’t fair. Come on. What if I asked you that, hm? Are you happy with me? How does that feel?”

“Not great,” she says simply. “But even more importantly, the fact that you’re asking me at all tells me that you know something is wrong. And it’s been wrong for some time now, hasn’t it?”

You can just say it. We can drop the act for one night.

But he can’t just say it, because it won’t just be one night. They never went there before, and he knows why, because once they do, there is no coming back from it.

Is that what she wants? Has she finally decided that she’s had enough, that this weak attempt at a marriage has run its course?

Shouldn’t he feel worse about that possibility?

Drop the act for one night.

He’s outraged by her line of questioning, of course, shocked and appalled – but beyond that, there isn't much more to it. He didn’t see it coming, it was entirely unexpected, and that’s the worst thing about it. Everything else? He doesn’t particularly care.

Maybe he’s even relieved, just a little.

Because it’s clarity, for the first time in so very long. No confusion, no more doubts, no more silences and things unsaid.

It means he didn’t make it up, it wasn’t just him who felt it, and he doesn’t have to pretend any longer.

It won’t be pretty, whatever comes next. But once they’ve gotten that out of the way, they’ll be able to leave it behind and move on from it. From the bleak heaviness of pretending that he’s now realizing has surrounded them constantly since they got here. But it doesn’t have to stay there, not anymore.

They’ll be free.

“You’re very calm about this.”

It’s as much of an admission as he is willing to make, having spent too long ignoring the truths she is now asking him to confront head-on, but it’s enough for her. She doesn’t need more from him than this, than he can give her right now, and the thought brings with it a bitter streak of melancholy, because he used to think that’s what made them work, that it meant they were right for each other. That it was enough, but it never goddamn was.

“Yeah, I suppose I am. I’ve known for a while now, though, so I think I already accepted it. And…”

Known what? That he has feelings for Harvey? That they wouldn’t make it to their first anniversary?

Or are those just two sides of the same coin?

“And what?”

She lets out a deep breath. “And I think we both know that this is not what it’s supposed to be.”

He just regards her, neither confirming nor denying, until he finally sits back down and exhales quietly.

“What happens now? Should we keep trying? Try harder?”

Whatever that’s supposed to look like. He doesn’t even know if keep trying is the right way to put it, doesn’t know if they’ve been trying at all so far, because if they did it certainly never got them anywhere.

“Maybe.” She lifts her shoulders a little. “But do you want to?”

He blinks at her.

“I don’t know.”

They look at each other. No judgment, he realizes. No matter what they say to each other now, it’s safe. They are both in this together, both laid bare, both having committed too many mistakes to count the ones the other one has made.

“I’m tired, Mike.”

He swallows, because he knows, and he understands, because he feels the same way, and he knows what lies behind that sentence, what she’s really telling him.

“Me too.”

She holds his gaze, nodding once.

“Then I guess that’s your answer.”

He purses his lips and nods as well. And he should be devastated. He should feel the grief setting in right around this moment, he should struggle against the certainty of it even though he knows it’s futile. He should fight for her, and beg her to give it another chance, and promise that he will do better, and he does none of those things, he just sits there, still as a statue, and he does nothing. He lets it happen.

Because that’s not how it works. That’s not what life is about. It’s never about how it should be, only about what is. And he is not heartbroken. He is not happy with Rachel. He doesn’t wake up in the mornings feeling good about the choices he made that led him here, to Seattle, away from everything he knew and loved.

He does love Rachel, and that’s not something he thinks is likely to change, but it’s not what it should be and deep down he’s always known that, he just didn’t want to acknowledge it.

And yes, he does love Christopher. That he has known and acknowledged since the moment he first thought of him. He is obsessed with his story. And yes, he can admit that there is a lot of Harvey in him. He can admit that it means something, even if he isn’t happy about it.

He can admit that he got blindsided by this. But it is what it is. And there’s freedom in that, in not having to pretend any longer, in not turning a blind eye and accepting what he thought couldn’t be changed.

Some things still can’t be. Harvey.

He does love Harvey. Another thing he didn’t want to acknowledge, even to himself. But looking the other way never took away the knowledge that there was something he wasn’t looking at. Looking away never stopped anyone else from seeing it.

Some things can’t be changed.

Some things can.

“I’m sorry,” he says, and he doesn’t realize he’s made a decision until the words have passed his lips in all their terrifying, liberating finality. “I’m sorry that it’s come to this. I’m sorry I didn’t put a stop to it before it was too late.”

“It’s alright,” she tells him gently, and maybe it is and maybe it isn’t, but what matters is that she believes it, and maybe he needed to hear that as much as he needed to take responsibility for his own shortcomings.

“I’m not so sure about that,” he admits.

“Why not?” Rachel lifts her shoulders. “Yes, this sucks. Yes, I wish we didn’t have to do what we’re going to do now. But that’s how it is, and I’m… alright with it. Besides, we both went along with this. We’re both to blame, if we’re blaming anyone.”

Mike regards her quietly, then shakes his head.

“Let’s not. I don’t want to think about blame. I don’t want to fight anymore.”

They’ve done enough of that. He remembers a time before all this when they didn’t fight so much, when they had fun together and enjoyed each other’s company more often than not, and the intense desire to go back to that and hold on to it floods him out of nowhere, but when he looks at Rachel she smiles at him, like she understands, like she feels it too, and it’s alright.

“Then let’s not,” she agrees and squeezes his hand.

So they don’t. It’s as simple as that. After all this time, all the worrying and thinking about how complicated things were, it’s suddenly so simple.

It must be the most quiet and amicable divorce in the history of divorces. They live together for most of the year, because once Mike has moved into the guestroom there’s really no reason to rush things. It’s like a switch has been flipped; they talk again, and they laugh, and the weight that’s been pulling them down for so long he didn’t even realize it was there anymore disappears.

He feels so much lighter than he did before.

He starts looking for places eventually. Starts thinking about whether he wants to stay in Seattle or leave again.

He hasn’t really found an answer to that question when he finds a nice little apartment about half an hour from the office, and so he takes it for now and decides to think about it some more, because there is no rush. He has nothing but time to figure it out.

All throughout the year, all throughout these decisions he has to make, Mike keeps writing.

It gives him something to focus on other than his feelings, an opportunity to channel them into something productive. He’s been destructive for far too long. He’s done destroying things, destroying himself; he wants to heal, he wants to create, he wants life to go forward and not backwards.

And so he uses the time on his hands and writes, dives in headfirst and goes a little deeper each time, lets the current take him and sees where he ends up. A year is a long time, after all. A lot can happen in a year.

A lot does happen. His voice changes, his rhythm smoothens, the plot takes a few turns he didn’t plan on, and as frustrating as it can be when he gets stuck, as rewarding is it when he breaks through.

He scraps ideas, and rewrites some scenes half a dozen times, and manages to find that one perfect line that sounds like music when he whispers it to himself, a giddy smile on his lips.

The story grows, as he grows with it, and a month after the divorce is finalized, he types the last word of its final chapter and sits back, allowing himself to bask in the exhilaration of the instating realization that he just finished his first novel.

It needs polishing, of course. But he did it. He told Christopher’s story.

He wonders then, briefly, if other people would want to read it.

Getting it published was never the plan, never the reason for writing it, but he figures that it can’t hurt to get it out there and see what happens.

Rachel tells him to go for it when he mentions it the next time they talk, and since she’s the one who read along from the very beginning, he decides to take her word for it.

And it most certainly doesn’t hurt, because four months later he receives a call from an enthusiastic woman working for one of the publishers he contacted, asking him to come in for a chat.

Mike walks into her office with sweaty palms and his heart fluttering in his chest. He walks out of it an hour later in a daze, a whole bunch of documents in his bag and a publishing deal on his hands.

He doesn’t even try to process that this is happening, the thought alone making him dizzy, because someone read his story and thought it was good enough to be published. He’s going to be a published author. His name is going to be on a printed book, on people’s shelves, in their hands before they go to sleep or on their way home in the subway. People in other countries will read his book, on entirely different continents, and the implications of the reach he suddenly possesses leave him slightly unsteady as he wanders through the streets without really taking anything in.

But before any of that can happen, his book needs to be printed.

There are parts of the story he has to rewrite, people he’s supposed to meet with – a lot of those are involved in getting a book published, apparently – and arrangements he needs to make, and while he understands all of it perfectly, going through the process step by step, it never quite loses its surrealism.

It’s a long road ahead, but he’s more than happy to embark on the journey – that and a whole lot of other things; nervous, disbelieving, endlessly jittery – but most of all determined to see it through.

And at the end of it, he’s holding the first printed copy of his book in his hands.

His fingers trace the black letters spelling out his name, and it steals all the air out of his lungs as he stares down at it, reading and rereading it over and over until he has convinced himself that this is actually real.

It’s another month until the publishing date, but he gets a few advance copies to do with as he pleases.

The first one he keeps for himself.

The second he sends to Rachel, writing a personal note on the first page to express at least a fraction of the gratitude he feels.

The third one goes to Ryan, thanking him for giving him the push he never knew he needed. He received a copy of Ryan’s book a few months ago, grinning every time his eyes fell on it, so it’s only fair that he’s sending him one of his in return.

The fourth copy, Mike sends to Harvey. He picks it up and opens the first page, reading the dedication he mulled over for ages once more. He’s still not quite sure he found the right words, but he realized at one point that if he doesn’t settle for mediocre sometimes, he’ll never get anything written at all, and he’d rather say these things clumsily than not at all.

H. -

You were there for me when no one else was, and every day since. I never thanked you properly, but maybe this is a start. Although you had no part in the making of this novel, it is yours in every sense of the word – it’s for you, and about you, and a part of myself that I want you to have.

What you gave me I can never repay, but I carry all of it with me, and I wouldn’t be who I am without it. You may not be with me physically, but always in spirit.

I'd still do it again. Even knowing how it all turned out, I'd do it again in a heartbeat.

His agent was right, it does rather read like a love letter. He supposes it is, in a way, and it doesn’t bother him that everyone and their goddamn mother will know. He’s done hiding, and he’s done not saying the things he wants to say.

Harvey can do with this whatever he wants. It’s not like there’s much of a relationship between them for him to ruin these days – if he’s uncomfortable with it, he doesn’t need to do as much as lift a finger to call him.

He picks up a pen, pausing briefly to consider before he adds beneath the dedication, For you. Always you. Love, Mike

“Bet you aren’t expecting that,” he mutters, a smile pulling at his lips before he shuts the book and wraps it up, ready to send it to New York first thing in the morning. It’s quite literally out of his hands now, and he finds that he doesn’t mind as much as he thought he would.

There’s peace in the knowledge that he’s done his part, and whatever happens next, happens. He did what he could.

Now all he has to do is wait.

*

It turns out he was right about one thing. Harvey doesn’t call him.

He flies across the country to show up on his doorstep instead.

Mike opens the door one night expecting to see his neighbor, coming to pick up the parcel he accepted for her, only to find Harvey before him.

“Mike,” he says, and he sounds a little breathless, like he ran here all the way from New York just to talk to him, just to say his name.

“Harvey,” Mike returns.

“I got your book,” he continues after a brief hesitation. “Congratulations on getting it published. Quite the shock, seeing your name on the cover.”

Mike smiles. “Thanks. I felt the same way, to be honest. Have you read it yet?”

Obviously he at least opened it, otherwise he wouldn’t be here.

Still, Harvey just nods.

“Did you like it?”

“That’s an understatement. You’re an amazing author. I never knew you had it in you.”

Mike snorts softly. “Not sure if I should be insulted or flattered, but thanks.”

They look at each other, neither of them saying more. It’s been a while since he last saw him, and he takes his time looking him over, trying to find signs of the months gone by, but he only sees the same old Harvey he’s always known, a little more fidgety perhaps, but otherwise the same.

The silence stretches. He purses his lips, and Mike finally remembers his manners and opens his mouth to ask him in, but before he gets the chance Harvey begins, “Mike, about that dedication…”

So they’re doing this now after all. It almost makes him smile. That’s just Harvey – even uncertain like this, he still dives headfirst into battle. He never runs from his fights.

Mike can only admit now how much he admires that about him.

“I meant it,” he states simply, before Harvey can say anything else. “I meant every word. It’s true, I do love you. Always have, even if I didn’t want to admit it to myself for a good long while. And I’ve come to realize that the way I’ve been handling stuff hasn’t exactly worked out well, so I’m trying this new thing called being honest, and saying things I should have said a long time ago, if only because you deserve to hear them.”

He shrugs. “I don’t expect anything from you, or need you to say something in return, but I’m guessing this is what you’re here for, to ask for clarification. So there you have it.”

Harvey, to his credit, accepts all that with nothing more than a blink.

“Alright,” he agrees after a slight pause. “What if I want to say something in response?”

Mike lifts his eyebrows. “By all means.”

Harvey looks at him before shaking his head, asking, “Did you honestly think that I didn’t love you too?”

Mike stares at him. “What?”

The corner of his mouth twitches, but Harvey presses his lips together, trying to stay serious. “It’s recently come to my attention that I was rather obvious in my infatuation, apparently. Don’t know how I feel about that, but… well. I guess that makes a fool of both of us. Me an obvious and you an oblivious one.”

Mike blinks at him. “It has recently come to my attention that I’ve been pretty self-absorbed these past few years, so,” he then says, waving his hand.

Harvey hums. “That explains it.”

“So.” Mike watches closely for Harvey’s reaction. “I’m guessing since you’re here that you didn’t actually mean to say that you loved me, past tense.”

“Well, look at you. An expert on grammar now, are we?”

“You say that like I didn’t correct it on your briefs a good decade ago.”

Harvey huffs, but the crinkles around his eyes give him away. Mike has to bite his lip to keep the elation building in him at bay.

“Lippy.”

“I may have undergone some changes, but I haven’t turned into a completely different person. Sorry to disappoint you.”

“No need to apologize. For some inexplicable reason I find myself rather happy about that.”

Mike snorts and shakes his head, and he smiles at the prickling sensation in his stomach, smiles because there’s all the time in the world, and life is finally moving forward, and in creating one thing he may just have created another without realizing it, and if that isn’t the most wondrous thing in the world then he doesn’t know what is.

He smiles, and he opens the door wider, and he asks, “Why don’t you come in?”

And Harvey nods and goes inside, and when he turns around just as Mike closes the door and their eyes meet, inches apart at most, there isn’t really any reason not to kiss him anymore.

Mike takes a step forward, and Harvey does too, and they’re so close when Mike mutters, “Was I right, then?”

“About what?”

“That you still love me.”

Harvey hums. “I never learned how to stop. I used to resent myself for that, but when I look at you now, I realize that I never stood a chance. You’re so much stronger than my resistance to you ever was.”

Mike pauses and draws back, narrowing his eyes. “Wait a second. You dickhead, that’s my line.”

“No, it’s Christopher’s,” Harvey corrects, grinning.

“Whatever. You’re still quoting my own book at me. Now, of all times.”

“Well, it’s not my fault you gave him all those lines that perfectly describe my feelings for you. Besides, you did write him with me in mind, didn’t you? I’m just following the script.”

“God, I fucking love you,” Mike mutters and grabs his face to unceremoniously bring their lips together. It doesn’t work entirely; they’re both still smiling too hard to kiss properly, but he personally thinks that’s what makes it so damn magical.

Harvey’s hand comes up to his hip, the other to his back, pulling him closer, and Mike feels hot all over, safe and wanted like he hasn’t in years.

God, he’s going to have to send Ryan a massive gift basket after this.

Harvey’s lips are gloriously warm and soft, and Mike sorely regrets parting from them when he pulls back just enough to catch his breath.

“I wanna hear it again,” he murmurs against his lips, kissing him a second time, slower now, before he adds, “in your own words.”

“Gladly,” Harvey assures him, his arms closing around his waist like the warmest welcome home Mike has ever received. “We have time. All the time in the world.”

Going forward, Mike thinks, and he asks, “Is that a promise?”

“It’s a fact,” Harvey says simply, and closes the distance between them with another kiss.