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Toss the beginning, try to live it down

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1.

Mike wakes up hunched over his desk—the spiral binding from his notebook digging painfully into the meat of his cheek, ink-stained fingers loosely circling his pen—to the annoying vibration of his cell phone buzzing across the faux wood.  He gropes for it with a groan, sliding his thumb to answer it without checking the caller ID.

“Huh?”

It takes an embarrassingly long second for his brain to come online enough to realize Lenny and Jason are both shouting, “Serge is getting married!” in varying levels of volume and excitement.

He yawns and stretches back into his chair and says, “What?”

Lenny’s voice gets louder and clearer. “Check your email, Tate! Rich Douchebag is flying us out next month for the engagement party—”

“You guys have a weird relationship with your landlord.”

“Whatever! Serge! And Em! A union of souls!”

“It’s too late for this, are you drunk?” Mike says, rubbing a palm over his face. Serge is awesome, Em is awesome, he’s very happy they’re going to be awesome together for the rest of their lives, but it’s—Jesus, fuck, only nine p.m., what the fuck is wrong with his life?

“Love you!” Lenny yells, Jay an echo in the background, and then there’s blessed silence. 

Mike sighs and stares blearily at the college-ruled paper in front of him, half-filled with what looks like an alien language mixed with scribbles. His handwriting always gets more and more incoherent as he runs out of steam. His coffee cup is empty, his fingers are sore, and he still has no idea how he’s going to get this draft finished, typed neatly into his laptop and emailed to his editor in the morning. It’s not happening; Phil’s just going to have to deal.

He totally needs a beer.

*

In the morning, Mike has nine empty beer bottles and two and half chapters written, typed even, and he’s…wary. Totally wary, there is no telling what the fuck is in them, and his choices are to buckle down and reread them himself or send them off to someone who doesn’t pull punches or let him get away with shit.

Lisa calls him six hours later and says, “Are you sure this is how you want this to play out?”

“Um.”  He’s debates whether or not he should tell her that he doesn’t remember exactly how the fuck anything played out. He knows it’s where he’s been stuck for weeks, the culmination of the last three books in the series, the search for Layla’s older brother, MIA from the great interstellar war, but—

“I mean, don’t get me wrong—I like it. I’m just not sure you realize that this is basically a love letter to Rook Wallace.”

Mike chokes on spit and nothing. “What?”

 “‘After a year and a half of piloting Layla and her princess minion through dead space, Storm knows the twist of this man’s mouth is pure Kitschens evil, and he fights the urge to put a boot through his gut.’”

“I don’t see how—”

“‘Pale as moons with dark beetle brows, eyes the sort of rich brown that make Storm want to punch things.’ Captain Storm wants to jump this handsome dark-haired stranger’s bones, Michael, and everyone knows Captain Storm is you.”

That…is unfortunately true. But, “Jules Kitschens is not Wallace.” That would be totally fucking pathetic, god.

“Jules Kitschens is totally Wallace. With ‘large, strong hands and a smile that lights up the entire cargo hold, despite being thin to the point of gaunt, gray exhaustion smudging his eyes and the faint lines around his mouth.’” She takes a deep breath. “Michael, you’re waxing poetic about Rook Wallace, you might as well call him dreamy and have Captain Storm swoon at his feet.”

“He’s probably brought the entire Confederation down on their heads. Storm wants to wring Jules’s neck—”

“And kiss his pouty lips, yeah, I got that part, too.”

“You suck.” Mike rubs a palm over his face. “So you hate it.”

“I love it, I think everyone’s going to love it, I think you’re going to get hate mail and death threats from conservative Christian groups and Philomena is going to shit a brick and it’ll be awesome.”

“You sound like Cam,” Mike says, and Lisa makes a hilarious squeaky sound and says, “Bite your tongue.”

He flicks his gaze over to Big Billy, Cam’s enormously fluffy white cat, who is currently lounging on Mike’s chapter notes, spread out all over his bed. He’s got his paws in the air, wriggling around on his back. It’s totally not super fucking cute. Mike hates cats, for real.

“Well,” Mike says, “it’s not like Wallace is going to read it.”

Lisa says, “Of course not,” in a way that means she totally disagrees, but whatever. There is seriously a zero percent chance that Wallace reads any of his shitty stories.

“I think you should write Layla and Jules’s big reunion scene next, I’m dying to know how that turns out.”

“I’ve got half of that done,” Mike says absently, staring down at his notebook.  Layla is currently crying and trying to climb up Jules’s body to give his face an octopus hug, and Princess Coco is scaling crates to come at him from behind. They haven’t seen each other for eight years, Layla’s the only one who insisted he wasn’t dead. The whole thing kind of makes Mike want to tear up, too.  Or maybe—he sniffs, smells something off. “Hey, hang on,” he says, “I have to call you back.”

He sniffs again. It smells like smoke. He shouts “Cam?” and grabs for the cat.

 

 

2.

There are a grand total of five people left on this earth that Mike would do any and everything for.

His Gramps, because Nana was a rock and missing her makes him sick to his stomach, but Gramps forges onward like Nana wasn’t his whole world, and Mike admires the fuck out of him.

His mom and Rosie, half because they’re family and half for being nearly the same person, this has revealed itself to be truer and truer with each passing year. It’s both awesome and terrible, considering Mike’s mom is so honest it hurts sometimes, and Rosie has been pushing all of Mike’s buttons since she was eleven and realized Mike would give her the moon if he could.

Cam, because Cam is his brother forever, no caveats attached, not even accidentally burning down their apartment building has managed to change that.

And Rook Motherfucking Wallace, because Wallace is the goddamn love of his life.

“Dude,” Cam says, leaning back on his elbows on Mike’s childhood bed, “your high school sweetheart you broke up with nine years ago can’t be the love of your life.”

“My life sucks—”

“Your first book was a bestseller. You have a bestselling series. They’re talking about maybe making movies out of them.  They’re saying they should get Blue Ivy to play Layla.” Cam flops back down on the mattress and says, “Mini-Bey’s totally too tall to pass for a thirteen-year-old, though, you should make them use what’s-her-name, the one who’s mom was in that fake Spiderman movie,” because Cam is ever resentful about that franchise for reasons known only to Cam, even fifteen years after the fact.

“My life is awesome,” Mike amends, because he can be gracious, even though he’s currently homeless and living with his mom and all his clothes got destroyed in a fire, thanks, Cam. But Serge is getting married and Cam has finally officially moved in with Deana, and Jason and Lenny have Rich Douchebag—which Mike honest to god has no actual idea what the fuck is going on with that, but whatever—and apparently Wallace is fiscally secure with an accountant and two dogs and a three bedroom house in Clearwater. It makes him die a little inside. He wants to puke at how fucking cute it all is and he’s pretty sure that’s why Rosie always tells him this stuff. Teeny Wallace still being best friends with Rosie is both a blessing and a curse.

The thing is, though, that Wallace didn’t fuck things up with him. Mike totally owns that, he knows it. Mike was an asshole back then, in just about everything, but he’s grown. As a person.  Kind of.

“I’m okay at relationships now, right?” Mike says, then immediately regrets it, because this is Cam.

“Sure, dude,” Cam says, shrugging. “Didn’t your last girlfriend punch you in the balls when you broke up with her? And that guy,” he snaps his fingers, “that lawyer guy you had a thing with, I’m pretty sure he threw a glass at you when he saw us out two months ago—”

“It slipped out of his hands,” Mike says, resigned. He’s a fucking terrible boyfriend. 

“Yeah, okay, and it happened to slip out of his hands and hurtle toward your face.”

“Right,” Mike says. Jesus Christ. Cam is such a dick, why are they still friends?

“Look,” Cam says. He reaches out and takes both of Mike’s hands and looks into Mike’s eyes and generally creeps Mike out, but Cam grips his fingers so hard Mike can’t yank away. “You have some problems trusting people. Remember Silvy?”

“Duh,” Mike says, throat dry, because he’d totally loved Silvy, she was the Cooper Sharp to his plain American.

“You loved Silvy.”

“I did,” Mike says. They’d broken up when she’d moved to LA for work and Mike didn’t want to move with her. There had been shouting, and something about Silvy’s boss and having lunch dates with her ex-boyfriend and it was so long ago all Mike feels now is a dull ache and faint sense of betrayal.

Cam squeezes his hands one last time and lets him go. “So, like, you were kind of terrible at relationships before Silvy and then after that mess it just got worse.”

“But— I’m better as a person now?”

“Oh, absolutely,” Cam says, clapping his shoulder. To his credit, he doesn’t even sound like he’s mocking Mike at all. “Now stop pouting and come on. I promised Meckles we’d stop by for lunch.”

*

Mike had gone to college in Virginia, learned to like football, wrote Layla Kitschens Destroys the Universe pretty much as a joke, then randomly ended up living with Cam in Atlanta for three years before they both moved back to their hometown eighteen months ago. It’s been a little like a high school reunion since then, accidental fires and all, and Mike still isn’t exactly sure how he feels about that.

Meckles lives in his parents’ basement and Mom Meckles makes them grilled cheese sandwiches with bacon and tomato soup. They sit around the kitchen table and Mom Meckles ruffles Meckles’ hair and Mike feels like this is stupidly indulgent, considering Meckles has been unemployed for the better part of a year and is the kind of pale Lilith Wallace was until she discovered college.

Mom Meckles tweaks Cam’s ear and says, “How are the kids, Cam, dear,” before doling out glasses of iced tea.

Cam gives her a thumbs up as he swallows down a giant bite of sandwich.

Cam teaches first grade at the elementary school two districts away.  He is an actual licensed educator. It never stops amazing Mike that someone took a hard look at Cam’s life decisions and thought: yes, give this dude young minds to mold, please.

Cam loves it. He thinks seven-year-olds are the coolest, even though he complains every year when the weather gets warm, since his ill-advised but badass sleeve tattoos have to be covered even when the temperature gets above ninety.

“And you, Mike,” she says. “How’s the next book coming along?”

He makes a face and says, “Swimmingly,” and avoids thinking about how he just wrote an outtake where Jules and Captain Storm have sex in a supply closet after a foreplay fistfight.

Goddamn Lisa and her Goddamn ideas.

Meckles says, “So how awesome is it that Serge is getting married?”

Cam offers up a high five. “Dude, we’re going to get trashed.”

 

 

3.

The sum total of Mike’s belongings are now:  a laptop, three notebooks, a pair of jeans, a t-shirt, Sherpa-lined suede slippers, and a pillowcase that Big Billy did not appreciate being shoved into.

Currently, Mike’s single t-shirt is in the wash, and he has no qualms about wearing Rosie’s clothes instead.

Rosie is sixteen and obsessed with whales. Probably the only people who don’t think that’s even a little bit weird is Teeny and Rosie’s other best friend Jimmy, who is simultaneously the most adorable and badass high school junior to ever own a motorcycle. He wears a leather jacket over sweater vests and helps organize the Toys for Tots every year. He plays the trumpet. Mike’s pretty sure he’s half in love with Rosie, but Mike has money on Rosie becoming a marine biologist and going off to live alone on a boat.

She flops diagonally across her bed and says, “You know you’re comfortably wealthy, right, you can probably afford to buy new clothes.”

Mike shrugs and pulls out a blue shirt that says GET SOME across the front. He says, “Mom lets you wear this?”

Rosie rolls her eyes, “Mom doesn’t let me do anything, you know that.” 

He does. Mom is awesome like that. He still wishes she’d stopped him from wearing that unfortunate tux t-shirt to his senior prom. Wallace had been pissed.

Mike pulls Rosie’s shirt on over his head and says, “I’d rather spoon out my eyeballs then go shopping.” It fits perfectly fine. It’s only a little tight at the shoulders. Mike’s always been kind of slight, and Rosie likes to wear her shirts big, a byproduct of that time Mike was out of state and left Rosie to wade through puberty all alone. The tearful skype calls had been scarring. It wasn’t Mike’s fault, but he still feels twinges of guilt about it anyway.

“There’s this thing called the internet now. I know you’re like five million years old deep down in your soul, but you’ve sent me packages from AE before, I know you know how to use a credit card online.”

“I do,” he says absently, but right now he has bigger fish to fry.

*

Mike slides into the diner booth across from Serge for their standing bi-monthly Saturday brunch—because Serge is secretly an old man and wears cardigans with sweatpants, he’s worse than Cam now, sometimes Mike misses all the black and despair, Serge is only a tight pair of flood pants away from being a hipster—and frowns at him. Mike is deeply hurt here. There are rules about this kind of thing. 

“Is there a reason I had to hear about you and Em from Lenny and Jay?” he says.  Lenny and Jason, who apparently rated an email Save the Date to an engagement bash that Mike still doesn’t know the details of.

Serge flushes. It’s fucking adorable; Mike doesn’t understand how he can continue to look like a puppy even after growing into his ears and feet.

“So,” Serge says, “here’s the thing. I want you to be a groomsman.”

“A… groomsman,” Mike says carefully, because there’s a great big glaring glitch in that plan. A tall, dark and handsome glitch that hates Mike’s guts.

“Right,” Serge says, nodding.

“In a wedding that, uh, your brother will probably be best man of?” Mike says, just so they’re both clear on everything here. Mike isn’t going to say no. Serge is one of his best friends, Mike will totally stand up with him and Em, but— 

Serge says, “It’ll be fine,” and Mike just arches an eyebrow at him, because really?

Mike hasn’t been in the same room with Wallace since the disaster that was Serge’s high school graduation party. Mike remembers getting drunk and crying a lot; that’s been Mike’s go-to reaction to seeing Wallace’s disappointed, confused and enraged face ever since their own disastrous high school graduation party break-up two years before that one. Fun times.

Mike taps his fingers on the greasy Formica and says, “So it’ll be me and your brother—”

“And Lil and Teeny, for me, and Em’s two brothers and Sophie and her best friend Carl for, uh, Man of Honor, or whatever.” Serge has his fingers twisted together and is chewing on the corner of his lip and he’s looking at Mike like Mike is the only thing standing in the way of them having the best wedding ever, ugh.

“I’m not going to say no, asshole,” Mike says.

Serge motherfucking lights up. Goddamn stupidly hot Wallaces are ruining Mike’s life.  

He slumps down and presses his face into his hands.  “I hate you so much for this.”

“No you don’t,” Serge says cheerfully. He orders them both pancakes and coffee and pours syrup all over Mike’s stack while Mike is still busy groaning into his palms.

Serge nudges Mike’s plate into his elbows. “Eat up.”

He feels sick to his stomach. And, like, hot in the face and it’s almost as if a giant hand is squeezing around his heart and he’s not sure if he’s having a panic attack or just really fucking excited.  God. So much hate.

But, okay, pancakes.

 

 

4.

Lenny and Jay got a little weird after ending up at the same college.  Codependent weird.  Attached-to-the-hip weird. Mike doesn’t think they’re fucking, but, like, they’ve lived together for nearly a decade and Mike is pretty sure they were only peripherally aware of each other in high school, despite both being Mike’s friends. It totally creeps Mike out.

Rich Douchebag’s name is actually Steve and there’s definitely a good chance Steve is fucking one or both of them. Mike doesn’t want to actually know, for real.

Jay has grown into his ears and all his limbs finally have meat on them and Lenny is still five foot nothing with hair down to her ass. They pile on top of Mike like enthusiastic puppies the minute they walk through the door. The only blessing is that they don’t seem to have Rich Douchebag with them.

Mike hides his face in Lenny’s hair and says, “I totally didn’t miss you assholes, fuck, let me breathe,” only he’s basically the one clinging to them now.

Lenny finally wriggles out of his hold. She says, “If only Dotty could be here.”  They all bow their heads in sorrow for the fact that Dotty invented a better vacuum and moved to Germany and dropped off the face of the earth.

And then Lenny says, “Coats!” and they all finally hand over their coats to the coat check dude and Mike can no longer put off going upstairs to the actual engagement party. Where Wallace will be. And his significant other.

He squares his shoulders.

Jay knocks their arms together. He says, “We can use a secret code. Scratch your nose if you want me to send in Lenny to save you.”

“I’m planning on getting bombed and sobbing to myself out on the balcony,” Mike says. It’s been nine years. Mike may have grown as a person, but Wallace still makes his heart ache.

“Find me when you’re ready,” Jay says, “and I’ll come too.”

*

The party is charming. The party is delightful, with little kitten keychains as favors, since they both volunteer at a cat rescue. There’s pink champagne and a chocolate fountain. There’s a small jazz band and glittering fairy lights.

There are speeches, and Mike stares dumbly up at Wallace, fingers clenched around his glass stem, because Wallace is beautiful. Wallace has aged like a champ. Wallace has premature flecks of gray at his temples and his eyes crinkle up when he smiles. He’s wearing a waistcoat and a watch fob and he should’ve looked like a complete tool, but Mike just wants to dig his fingers up under it and press his mouth along his jaw. He’s so screwed.

After dinner Mike retreats to the bar and has several serious conversations with a bottle of vodka.

Each one ends up with a burn down his throat and a fire in his belly.

Out of the corner of his eye, he watches Wallace dance with his accountant boyfriend. Every time Wallace smiles, a little part of Mike dies.

He’s so fucking pathetic, right?  Ugh.

He stays well away from him, though, because a) he doesn’t want to ruin this night for Serge. And b) everyone already knows Wallace makes him cry, but he still doesn’t want to do it in the middle of the room.

By the time he figures he can finally call it a night, he’s not actually as drunk as he thought he was going to be. This is good for his balance, but not so great for his mood. He can slip right out, none the wiser, though. Serge is a wild thing on the dancefloor; he won’t even notice Mike is missing.

The elevator from the rooftop restaurant down to the lobby is just starting to close when Mike makes it to the vestibule. He says, “Hey, hold it!” and a breathy, “Thanks,” when he slips inside, before realizing:

Wallace.

Rook motherfucking Wallace, looking glassy-eyed and flushed, waistcoat hanging open, shirt unbuttoned to the middle of his chest, is leaning against the back wall of the elevator.

Mike squeezes his eyes shut and curses out all the gods.

*

It should be a short ride. They’re fifteen stories up, that’s like…less than a minute’s worth of downward momentum.

It feels like hours.

Mike clears his throat at Wallace’s continued, lazy staring and says, “So, uh, how’s…?” What the fuck is the accountant’s name again? He knows Rosie’s mentioned it. Roy? Troy? Montgomery?

Wallace unhelpfully just says, “Fine.” His voice is a rough rasp down Mike’s spine.

Mike wants to sink into the floor and disappear.

And then Wallace slowly reaches out—Mike watches him with wide eyes—and presses down on the emergency stop.  He says, “Michael,” rolling the name around in his mouth. “You wrote a book about our little sisters joyriding around space and blowing shit up.”

He’s surprised enough by the question to blurt out: “Well, yeah.” What the fuck else was he supposed to write about?

“You wrote several,” Wallace says, and the way he slurs out the word makes Mike think Wallace is actually very, very drunk, and holding it well.

Mike takes deep breath and unstops the elevator. Any longer and the security guard would’ve opened up the intercom, anyway.

Mike says, “I did,” and stares determinedly up at the digital numbers. 5, 4, 3, 2…buzz.

“Wallace,” Mike says, pained. There’s a band around his chest and a knot in his throat. He jerks away at the light touch of fingers on the back of his neck.

Wallace says, hand still arched in the air, “Your shirt tag was showing.”

Mike’s eyes burn. “Right.”

Wallace reaches past him again and presses the button. In two seconds the door dings open at the first floor, where Roy, Troy, Montgomery is waiting with a pair of coats and a solemn expression.

Wallace doesn’t even look back at Mike when he walks away.

 

 

5.

The six months leading up to Serge’s wedding are a blur of working and writing and helping Serge choose a tux, and what cake to have, and how many cartoon cats are acceptable for decorations—answer: none, but no one will actually listen to Mike—and trying to track down Omar, who is overseas and unlikely to be able to make it.

They have one shaky skype call after Mike invokes the powerful name of the late Colonel Marjorie Tate, but there’s too much sand and too much wind, and all Mike manages is to yell at Omar about checking his goddamn email every once and a while.

Mike tells Serge at their weekly planning session: “He has the date, but I doubt he’ll be able to get leave.”

Serge sighs.

Wallace tips his chair back and rolls his pencil in between his lips, like he’s seventeen instead of twenty-seven.  Mike has flashbacks of homecoming committee and that does nothing good for his entire body.

He snaps his notebook shut and says, “Are we done for the day? I promised Lisa I’d meet her for lunch.”

“How is Lisa?” Wallace asks, dropping his chair back to the floor with a loud thunk.

“Fine,” Mike say shortly. Lisa’s flown in for the weekend to see her parents and Mike, and he kind of doesn’t want to be late.

Wallace presses his mouth together. He looks over at Serge, then back at Mike. He drops his pencil on the table and says, “Can I talk to you before you go?”

Mike pauses. “Why?”

“Just…” He shoots another glance at Serge, and Serge rolls his eyes and gets to his feet.

“I’ll call you later,” he says to Mike, then sends Wallace an unreadable look before walking away.

In the quiet after he leaves, Mike can hear his heart pounding in his ears. He can feel it throb in his fingertips, and the longer Wallace just stares at him, the more heated his face gets.

Finally, Wallace just says, voice low, “I’m sorry about the other night. In the elevator.”

Mike gapes at him, incredulous. “That was four months ago!”

Wallace shrugs a little. “I’m still sorry. I was dru—”

“I can’t—” Mike jolts to his feet. “Look,” he says. “I’m getting along with you for Serge, okay?  He’s one of my best friends, and I’m not going to ruin this wedding for him, so maybe we just need to… not talk to each other for the next two months. That’s worked out for us so far. Okay?”

It’s all a lie. He’s not getting along with Wallace. His pining is so obvious even Meckles has noticed. But he wants to see Serge get married and then never have to be reminded about Wallace and his perfect life with his dogs and Roy, Troy, Montgomery ever again and maybe someday Mike won’t care about him anymore. Maybe that will happen. He should probably stop writing him into his books.

Wallace stares up at him and says, “Yeah. Okay.”

*

Lisa says, “You look terrible,” and stuffs a fry into her mouth.

“I look like I’ve been forced to work side-by-side with Rook Wallace for the past four months,” Mike says. He looks like warm death; he’s seen himself in the mirror. There’s no fancy way to talk around the circles under his eyes and the way he can’t remember when he last brushed his hair.

She jabs her pickle at him. “You’re not a teenage bum anymore, Michael. You’re a professional.”

You’re a professional,” Mike grumbles.

Only Lisa’s an actual environmental lawyer and is currently wearing a coral pantsuit—in her free time—so all she does is arch an eyebrow at him. “Is that Rosie’s shirt? Don’t make me take you shopping,” she says.

“Please, no,” Mike says, but he doesn’t have the energy for a real protest. He would honestly welcome anything to break up his near constant tension-filled days. He wishes he hadn’t already finished and handed in his latest draft.

She lets the subject drop with the kind of grace she usually lacks, which raises Mike’s hackles in apprehension, but then she says, “Have any trouble tracking down the old gang?”

“Dotty’s still MIA. Omar’s in a war zone. You know, the usual. Everyone else will be there.” Mike orders another chocolate milkshake when the waitress stops by, and Lisa’s expression turns even more judging.

“Mike.”

“I’m fine,” Mike says. He’s totally not fine, but he only has two more months to go.

 

 

6.

Mo Howard hasn’t changed at all except for the fact that she’s enormous and nearly eight months pregnant.

She says, “With any luck I’ll give birth on the dancefloor,” as she drops her feet in Mike’s lap. “Rub.”

Mike automatically puts his hands to work.

She stuffs half a cupcake in her mouth and looks curiously over at him. “Why are you here?” she asks, voice muffled by icing.

“What, like why is anyone here?” Mike shrugs. “Ask the cosmos.”

“Dick.” Mo pokes at his stomach with her toes. “Why are you at the bridal shower?”

Deanna comes up behind him presses down on his shoulders and says, “Because the alternative is brunch with the boys, and Mike is avoiding Rook.”

Cam is calling it the Bro Brunch, and Mike is absolutely avoiding Wallace. It’s bad enough that he won’t be able to get out of the bachelor party.

“Can we talk about this child you’re having?” Mike says. “I don’t know who thought letting Leoni reproduce was a good idea.”

“I’d be mad, but I don’t have the energy,” Mo says. She tugs her feet out of Mike’s hold and hefts herself up out of her seat. “And now I have to pee.”

The rest of the shower is filled with champagne toasts and presents and by the time Serge and Cam and the others swing by after their Bro Brunch, Mo is the only one still sober.

She lets Mike hide himself in her shoulder while the management calls everyone cabs.

“I didn’t think bridal showers were this hardcore,” Cam says, helping himself to a giant piece of penis-shaped cake. “I think I went to the wrong lunch.”

Deanna pets Cam’s head with clumsy fingers. “Poor Cameron,” she slurs.

“Poor me,” Cam says, nodding. “We had two Wallace shouting matches, and Marcus got us thrown off the golf course.”

Golf, Mike thinks. Phsaw.

“I think we left Carl in the clubhouse bathroom.”

Mike thinks, uncharitably, I hope they drowned Roy, Troy, Montgomery in a water hazard, but, alas, he spots him standing stiff-backed behind where Em is attempting to show Wallace how to do a high kick. Next to them, Serge dissolves into a pile of giggles. It’s not at all cute.

“Ugh,” Mike says. “Why are all Wallaces so stupidly cute, right?”

Mo pats his back. “I know, kiddo, I know.”

*

Mike helps out his Uncle Louie at the cheese shop for the money and also because he can pick and choose his shifts every week. He works with Beth, a high school junior, and Larry, an ambitious fourteen-year-old with a workers permit. Larry isn’t allowed near the wine fridge. Mike would probably be arrested for serving minors if they knew how many times he let Larry near the wine fridge, anyhow.

Mike is trying very hard not to think about how much he doesn’t want to go to Serge’s bachelor party later that week when Chris Leoni strolls through the door.

Leoni has aged big and soft, Mike can understand what Mo sees in him.

“If you’re here to warn me off Wallace,” Mike says before Leoni can open his mouth, “we’ve already forged a truce until after the wedding.”

Leoni cocks his head. “Actually, Mo wants something called,” he checks his phone, “gruyere? And an industrial sized tub of cheddar.”

Mike blinks at him.

“I think she wants to spread it on pickles, but I’m afraid to ask.”

Mike says, cautiously, “Okay,” and goes off to prepare the cheese.

The shop is quiet. Leoni stares steadily at Mike, and Larry bounces his gaze in between them with wide, curious eyes, but thankfully keeps his mouth shut.

Finally, when the cheese is all wrapped up and Leoni’s slid his credit card through the reader, he says, “I wouldn’t warn you away from him,” which is—what?

Mike’s hands tighten on the edge of the counter.

Leoni, bent over as he signs his receipt, glances up at him through his lashes. “We’re all grown adults, man, both of you can do whatever the hell you want, right?”

“Uh. Right.” What? Mike kind of feels like Leoni is giving him his blessing, even though Wallace is in a committed relationship with possibly the most boring man Mike has ever not-quite met. “Can you stop being weird?”

Leoni gives him a wide, creepy smile and says, “Nice seeing you again, Tate,” and Mike wonders when Leoni learned to be so bizarrely mellow.

“Yeah, sure,” Mike says. “You too.”

 

 

7.

Mike has friends he didn’t go to high school with. He does, truly, except most of them are in Atlanta, and Rosie thinks his social life is sad. Mike has a wide and varied network of hangout peeps in Buckhead, but somehow that doesn’t translate very well to suburban Pennsylvania.

“You’re sixteen. Your friendship circle consists of the captain of the color guard and a guy in jazz band!” Mike says to Rosie. “You don’t get to judge me.”

She sprawls back on Mike’s bed. “I totally get to judge you. You get Sonic milkshakes with Cam every Friday afternoon—”

“How do you even know that?”

“And you’re still in love with your high school sweetheart.” She wrinkles her nose, like somehow the ghost of Wallace’s teenage love smells bad.

Mike says, “That’s not true.” Wallace’s love ghost smells like Polo Blue, and Mike absolutely doesn’t have a secret bottle of it that he wears when he’s depressed.

“Even you don’t believe that,” Rosie says. “Try to say it with more conviction, from your belly.” She deepens her voice, sucks in her gut and says, “That’s not true.”

“You sound like a Muppet.”

Rosie throws at pillow at him. She says, “C’mon, let’s get pizza and talk about how I’m gonna get Teeny and Jim to fall in love.”

*

At lunch, Mike tells Rosie, “I’m pretty sure Jimmy’s in love with you.”

“And I’m in love with the open sea,” Rosie says. “We all have to deal with our disappointment.” She says this bitterly, because Mike knows she thinks she doesn’t have the science grades for it.

Mike also knows, though, that Rosie can do absolutely anything she puts her mind to. “You should see if you can volunteer at the Camden Aquarium,” he says. “I bet if you asked, you could get help with biology. Have you even talked to your counselor about this?”

Rosie makes a face. “Stop sounding so responsible.” She picks at the cheese on top of her pizza. “And yes, Mom and I have already been to see the guidance counselor. He told me to think about business school and Mom told him to fuck off.”

“See,” Mike says. “Mom will smuggle you onto a research boat if she has to.” One of the best things about their mom is that she never lets anything get in her way.

“I’d kind of like to be accepted into a program first,” Rosie says morosely.

“Then get your ass in gear, Rosalinda.” Mike kicks at her feet under the table. “What would Nana say?”

Rosie takes a deep breath. “Maybe I can get a tutor.”

Mike says, “Dream big,” just before a motorcycle pulls into the space in front of the pizza shop windows.  Rosie’s friend Jimmy gets taller every time Mike sees him. “Are you sure you’re not into that?” Mike would probably be into that if he were Rosie’s age, and if he didn’t have Wallace to compare him to.

“I’ve seen him pick his nose and eat it,” Rosie says. “You can’t come back from that.”

“You could,” Mike says, “but I’m not sure you’d want to.” Jimmy tries so hard, he’ll give him that. He’s got swagger and tight jeans.

“Teeny’s dad would have an aneurism,” Rosie says gleefully, and the truth comes out.  None of the Tates are overly fond of Wallace’s dad. Wallace’s dad is kind of a dick. Granted, he eventually came around about the gay thing—rumor has it he just loves Roy, Troy, Montgomery—but the tension in the Wallace household didn’t exactly help matters when they were seventeen. It was kind of a toxic mix for a relationship. It wasn’t the deciding factor in their doom—Mike totally owns that—but it was hard to ignore that Wallace’s dad really fucking hated him.

“This is my cue to leave, kids,” Mike says, sliding out of the booth as Jimmy slides in. He pats Jim’s shoulder and says, “Don’t let her talk you into anything you don’t want to do.”

 

 

8.

For Serge’s bachelor party, Mike had been hoping for a stripper and some alcohol, so he could drunkenly hide in the wake of Serge’s absolute horror and embarrassment.

What actually happens is they end up at some hipster coffee bar filled with board games.

“What is this?” Cam asks in horrified amazement.

Tables of all shapes and sizes are scattered around the room. Black and white prints of dogs wearing glasses are all over the walls. The place is empty except for a lone barista behind the counter—Carl and Wallace must have rented it out.

Em’s older brother Marcus curls his lip at the drink menu and says, “They don’t even have a liquor license.”

“They have tea,” Serge says, already up on a ladder in the back of the room, searching through stacks of games. “Ah ha!” He holds a game triumphantly up over his head, looking ridiculous in his old man cardigan and lime green skinny jeans. “Who’s up for a friendly game of Risk?”

*

The problem with playing any game with Cam, even a deceptively mundane board game, is that someone is going to get hurt. Most likely Cam, but any number of innocent bystanders, too. Which is how the most badass game of Risk ever played devolves into a sword fight in which not one, not two, but three people get stabbed with forks.

Mike is luckily not one of them.

After they let the highly unqualified barista wrap their wounds, they cross the street and stumble into the nearest bar.

Cam downs a shot, throws an arm around Serge and says, “I got stabbed!  This is the best bachelor party ever!”

Mike smiles around a beer bottle and catches Wallace’s eye over Serge’s shoulder.

Wallace holds up his battle-wounded hand and pouts. He says, “You owe me a drink for this.”

“I may owe you a drink,” Mike says, “but not for that.” It’s not Mike’s fault Wallace got caught up in Cam’s crazy, but Mike will admit he probably has years of other shit to apologize for. 

He slips a twenty down and nods to the bartender.

Wallace clinks their bottles together before taking a sip.

Mike absolutely does not watch his throat when he swallows.

*

“So where’s…” Mike gestures at Wallace, and Wallace shrugs.

“Busy,” he says. “You? Any…” He wiggles his fingers, and Mike thinks the only reason this conversation isn’t excruciating is because they’re both kind of drunk.

“To be honest,” Mike says, “I was hoping there’d be strippers.”

Wallace barks out a short laugh. “Male or female?” he says, like this hadn’t been a sore point for them before.

More than the beer tastes bitter in Mike’s mouth. He forces a grin. “Eh. You know me. I’m not picky.” The words come out sharper than he meant them, and Wallace winces.

“Sorry,” he says.

Mike sighs. They’re drunk. They’re drunk, and they still can’t get along, and Mike wants to curl up and—he’s just really fucking tired, right now. He’s fucking exhausted, his brain hurts, he’s sick of being tense all the time, he’s sick of being on edge, like he’s going to say or do the wrong thing and Wallace will know.

What the fuck does it matter, anyhow? Wallace knowing will not make one fucking inch of difference.

Mike says, “No, I’m sorry,” and then he kisses him.

*

In the history of all bad decisions in the entire world, Mike belatedly realizes that kissing Rook motherfucking Wallace is a truly terrible one.

Wallace jerks backwards, eyes wide, hand to his mouth.

Cold terror washes through Mike, muted only slightly by beer and vodka. He says, “Oh god. Oh—” and then Marcus stumbles into him and throws up on his shoes. It’s disgusting and gross and the best thing that could have happened, even though it gets them all thrown out into the street.

Serge sways on his feet, pulls out his phone and squints down at it. “I’m calling Emmie. Em’ll call us… car things.”

“Boats,” Cam says, chest puffed out. He throws an arm around Meckles. “Captain Meckles, what say you?”

Meckles, probably the soberest of them by the barest miniscule amount, mostly due to being the size of a barn, says, “Maybe we should walk it off a little first.”

Serge says, “Shhhhhhh. Shhhhhhh,” with his phone to his ear. “Emmie says she’s sending the calv—the calvary. The mounted police. Are we sure that’s a good idea?”

Mike is pretty sure that’s not actually what Em said, but then five or fifteen or fifty minutes go by—they’re entering the loitering phase, Mike thinks they’ve got a sixty percent chance of getting thrown into the drunk tank soon—and suddenly there’s a sweet black van idly at the curb in front of them.

“Holy shit,” Cam shouts. “Dude.”

Omar rolls down his window and grins at them. “Hey guys. Miss me?”

*

The hug Mike gives Omar only drags on for five minutes longer than it probably should. This is due to the high amount of alcohol in Mike’s system, his inability to act like a normal human in front of Wallace, and the fact that he hasn’t seen Omar in person for three years.

Omar very dutifully stands still and lets him. He pats his back a little and says, “What’s up, my man?”

Mike’s, “Nothing,” is muffled in the front of Omar’s t-shirt.

The van is still idling. The guys have to sit on top of each other to all fit. The city is loud and busy, and three separate cars lean on their horns to try and shame them into moving.

It’s not working. Mike’s never letting go.

Omar sighs, tightens his grip and then hefts Mike up and lurches toward the van. “You’re talking later.” Omar has matured in a lot of great ways over the years, but not letting Mike get away with hiding shit is not one of them.

“Don’t wanna,” Mike says.

“Okay,” Omar says, “but if you’re still like this by the time I have to leave, I’m telling Lisa.”

Mike scowls. The only reason Lisa doesn’t know everything already is that she lives a thousand miles away.

Omar shoves Mike into the van and leans in after him and says, “Everyone brace yourselves and we’ll try and make it home alive.”

 

 

9.

“Aw, hell,” Mike says, pausing in the middle of the walkway with three plastic-wrapped lavender bridesmaid dresses draped over his arms. “What are you doing here?”

“What does it look like?” J.J. shakes a couple leads in his face. Leads that are attached to three tiny hooved animals that are butting at the back of J.J.’s legs. “I’m here to deliver the goats.”

Mike stares at him. J.J. seems to have slimmed down even more over the years. He’s a wisp of a man in suspenders and a bowtie—his hair is flyaway short all over, like a baby chick’s, and the look he’s giving Mike is somewhere well below deeply unimpressed.

Still, Mike has to ask, “Goats?”

J.J. cocks his head and says, “’Why hello, Michael, it’s been a delightful nine years, I’m fine, how are you?”

“Fine,” Mike sighs and hikes up the dresses so any nosy goats can’t bite them. “Sorry. You’re doing okay?”

A genuine smile blooms across J.J.’s face, and Mike remembers why he had kind of been into all that, once upon a time. “Can’t complain.” He wiggles his ring finger in Mike’s face. “Married to a big oaf of a farmer, found my passion for agriculture. If you ever need to get away for a while, we own a working bed and breakfast just outside Lancaster.”

“I’ll keep it in mind,” Mike says, instead of saying, that’s weird. “So. Goats?”

J.J. shrugs. “A gift from Miss Emily Shaw for the groom.”

Mike opens and closes his mouth, stares up at the cloudless lovely sky and says, “You know what, I don’t want to know.”

*

The venue is outside, the day is gorgeous, and Serge looks both ridiculous and happy in his deep purple three-piece suit. Em is an elegant pixie in something floofy, iridescent and short, wearing the sharpest pair of high heels Mike’s ever seen. She walks down the aisle with her grandfather to January Wedding, covered by, Mike is pretty sure, four high school band students Em works with.

The goats all have bowties.

Mike tries not to notice the way Wallace tears up, standing next to him in the giant, rose-covered arbor.

Mike’s own wet eyes are obviously due to the high pollen count.

It has nothing to do with the way Serge and Em light each other up, clasping hands in front of the officiate.

Mike feels uncomfortable and antsy in his suit, in the heat of the summer afternoon, and the way Wallace shifts slightly, so their arms are touching. He’s torn between wanting the entire night to be over already, and for it to never end.

They haven’t talked about Mike kissing him. They’ve talked: about the cake, about the hotel bags for guests, about the limo, the emergency services numbers—for Cam—and how late the hotel bar will stay open for them after the reception.

Mike avoids looking Wallace directly in the face, and Wallace keeps casually touching him.

And after all this is over Mike won’t have a reason to see Wallace again.

*

When Mike was seventeen and eighteen, he’d had more second chances with Wallace than he probably deserved. At the time he hadn’t thought anything about it: Wallace didn’t owe him anything, but most times if he looked apologetic enough it didn’t matter.

The thing that ultimately broke them up, though, was that Mike couldn’t handle going to college without him.

That was it.

There were fights about Mike’s sexuality, Wallace’s dad, Mike’s inability to call Wallace ‘Rook,’ the way Wallace felt like he always came second to Mike’s friends. They all usually ended up with sweet make-outs and, on one memorable occasion, declarations of love.

But then Wallace accepted a scholarship to a Midwest college without telling him and Mike had a complete and embarrassing meltdown. There was really no coming back from that.

“You might think I wasn’t a very emotional person,” Mike says to his empty beer bottle, “but you would be wrong.”

Cam knocks their drinks together. “No one has ever thought that, dude.”

Which: fair point.

“That’s not a bad thing,” Cam says. He slumps down in his seat, rolling his beer between his hands.

They’re in the corner of the ballroom at a random table—there’s a shawl over the back of the chair Mike commandeered, and a sparkly gold clutch next to the half-eaten plate of chicken.

Mike says, “It isn’t.”

“C’mon, I’m pretty sure every one of your exes either hates you or is still in love with you,” Cam says.

“How is that a plus?” Mike asks, incredulous.

Cam claps his shoulder. “You’re passionate about things! You’re an all or nothing guy. You’re in with both feet and if they’re not in it with you, you scream at them until they leave.” Cam frowns. “That didn’t come out right.”

“No.” Mike presses a hand over his face. “No, you got it right.” Mike’s a mess. There’s a chance that he hasn’t grown as a person at all.

The music during dinner had been Em’s band kids playing various folk-pop hits, and eventually that faded into a DJ that’s so far been overly fond of line dancing, which means that Mike has ultimately failed as Serge’s music mentor over the years.

And then:

“Oh man,” Mike says, straightening up in his seat.

“Oh man,” Cam echoes. “Oh my god. Serge is playing you a love song.” He bursts out into giggles, but Mike is touched.

Mike is motherfucking touched; he holds a hand to his heart and goes a little breathless over the refrain of Into Your Arms, and he forgets for a little while to be upset about how much the other Wallace doesn’t give a shit about him anymore.

 

 

10.

The hotel bar is all dark paneling, low lights, and soft hits of the 70s & 80s. Mike’s at a round table in the middle of the room, tucked between Jay and Omar, across from Meckles and Cam, nursing a beer that’s long gone warm.

Cam tilts his bottle up and says, “To Serge. The first of us assholes to settle down.”

Mike clicks his bottle to Cam’s, takes a sip and grimaces. Everyone else, visibly tired, lazily follows suit.

Somehow they’ve managed to get through the entire day without any Cam-related injuries, and the worst thing that happened was that one of the goats bit the flower girl.

All in all, Mike would rate Serge’s wedding a success.

Deanna and Cam turn in for the night first, with Meckles drunkenly stumbling out shortly after.

Mike idly watches Jay and Lenny slow dance to How Will I know?, boxed in by too many tables. Their faces are shadows when they tip their heads together, and Jay has one hand high on Lenny’s back, cradling her spine.

Omar squeezes Mike’s shoulder when he gets up. He says, “Maybe you should talk to Rook about this.”

Mike tries to play dumb, but Omar just squeezes harder. Mike sighs.

“I saw him take a drink out back about five minutes ago,” Omar says, and if you’d asked Mike ten years ago if Omar would ever feel comfortable talking about Mike and a dude, well…

Not that Omar looks comfortable. He looks kind of pained in the face-region, but also like he treasures Mike’s happiness above his own shit. This is why Omar’s still one of his best friends.

Mike leaves his warm beer discarded on the table and slowly makes his way outside. He doesn’t actually want to talk to Wallace—what would he say?—but Omar’s staring him down expectantly. He can take a few breaths of fresh air and maybe escape without Wallace even knowing he was there.

The stars are bright specks; the moon is low and small. The air smells like hyacinths and smoke and Mike’s fingers itch for a cigarette he hasn’t touched in three years.

Wallace is facing the door, perched on top of the railing rimming the deck, like he’s been looking in the bar windows like a creeper. He doesn’t give Mike a chance to turn away.

“Hey,” he says.

Mike makes an abortive wave and says, “Yo.”

He tries to keep his distance, but Wallace has his bowtie undone, hair a mess, long legs bent against the second rung of the railing. He’s staring at Mike like maybe Mike has all the answers, when really all Mike has is the tux he’s wearing, a pillowcase, and a couple changes of clothes Rosie and Lisa made him buy.

Mike slinks forward, hops up on top of the patio table across from Wallace. He wishes he still had his beer. He digs his thumbs into the slick material of his trousers.

The silence between them is heavy, pressing into the center of Mike’s chest.

Finally, Wallace says, “John asked me to marry him,” and then takes a slow swig of the beer tucked between his thighs.

Mike thinks John, that’s what that bastard’s name is.

And then: “Huh.” That…doesn’t at all make Mike want to curl up and die. Sure.

Wallace rubs at his eyes with his free hand. “I told him no.”

“Wow, Wallace,” Mike says, ignoring the burst of relief flooding all his limbs. “That’s kind of dick move.”

Wallace laughs, watery and pained. There are lines of tacky tiki torches on either side of the deck. They turn Wallace’s skin gold, reflect fire off the wet of his eyes. He licks his lips and says, “He took the dogs.”

Beyond them is the dimly lit parking lot. A car door slams.

“I know a good lawyer,” Mike says. Lisa mostly fights for clean water and killer whales, but a couple of dogs will be no problem.

“I thought.” Wallace shakes his head. He picks at the label on the beer bottle, staring at his hands. “I just thought to myself, when he asked…how can I marry him when I’m in love with somebody else?”

*

Mike doesn’t know what to do. He doesn’t know what to say. He doesn’t know if Wallace means him—of course he means him—but he knows that this is exactly what he’s wanted for years, for so long he doesn’t ever remember not wanting this, and he knows somehow, someway, he’s going to fuck this up.

That’s just what Mike does.

He clears his throat. He says, “Yeah, uh. I think maybe I should…go?” He watches Wallace nod, the slow dip of his head, watches his hands clench and unclench around his beer bottle.

Mike thinks: stop me, asshole

He slides off the edge of the table, tucks his hands up under his arms.

There’s muffled music and laughter from the bar. The air is tense and hot, and Mike’s eyes feel tight. What the fuck.

He’s already turned away when Wallace says, “Lisa sent me your draft of the next book.”

“Well,” Mike says. Shit.

Wallace takes a noisy breath. “I’m going to be really disappointed if Storm and Jules don’t end up together.”

Mike tilts his head back to stare up at the dark sky. “They’re probably going to end up killing each other.”

“I don’t know,” Wallace says, slight amusement coloring his words. His feet hit the wooden deck with solid thumps. “That closet scene was kind of explicit.”

Of course she sent him the closet scene, too. Mike is going to kill Lisa. “I hope you’re not laughing at me, Wallace,” Mike says.

The words, “I’m not laughing at you,” are close enough to feel hot on the back of Mike’s neck.

Mike resolutely stares at the door of the bar. He sees Jason laughing through the dirty windowpane. The last stragglers from the wedding are settling up at the bar.

“Mike?” Wallace sounds uncertain, small, and Mike thinks: what the fuck am I doing?

He heaves a deep, bracing breath. Whirling around, he fists the front of Wallace’s shirt and hisses, “I better not be a fucking rebound, Wallace,” into Wallace’s mouth.

Wallace says, “I can’t believe I missed you,” and, “Say my name again,” like he’s finally figured out that ‘Wallace’ is and has always been a term of endearment.

“Wallace, you tool,” Mike says, grinning. “I’m in love with you.” He feels weightless, happy, and also completely flooded with adrenalin and fear.

Wallace looks a little like he’s been sucker-punched. “Oh,” he says. And then, even though he’s already said it, “Me too.”

 

 

11.

The hotel where the hardcore wedding guests and out-of-towners are staying is small, as quaint as the attached bar, and Mike wakes the next morning to:

Cam barging into the room, laughing about Meckles.

News of a security guard chasing an elusive Meckles throughout the night for being drunk and disorderly in the halls.

Wallace.

Cam says, “Whoa,” as Wallace scrambles to cover his naked chest.

It’s amusing and unnecessary, and Mike tugs the sheets back down so they pool in their laps, even though it makes Wallace flush red all over.

Cam says, “I feel like I’m intruding,” even as he sits down at the small chair and table set by the windows.

Deanna pops her head around the doorframe and says, “Cam, do we have to discuss manners and boundaries again?”

“We have to discuss how much everyone had to drink last night.” Cam leans back in the chair, hooking one arm over the top. “Specifically these two, and how much energy I’m gonna have to use later to put Mike back together.”

Wallace is no longer the only one bright red. “Cam,” Mike says, covering his face with his hands.

“Oh, no you don’t,” Wallace says, pulling at his wrists.

Mike doesn’t fight him. It’s not like he can hide how much he cares, anyway. He’s already told Wallace he loved him. Oh god. He wasn’t near drunk enough to explain how that happened.

When he glances over at Wallace, though, his dark hair is flat on one side, mouth and throat kiss-burned, eyes still sleep-swollen. His lips are softly curling up—the big hands around the bones of Mike’s wrist are dry and warm, and Mike wants to fall into Wallace and never let him go.

He vaguely hears Cam yelp, and Deanna say, “No, you can’t watch, dickhead.”

He hopes they closed the door after them.

Mike twists his hands out of Wallace’s grip and climbs on top of him, legs spread on either side of his hips. He leans over and flattens his hands by his head. He says, “This is going to be a disaster.”

Wallace shifts, bends his legs up so Mike settles into the cradle of his groin. He tugs at the sheets until there’s nothing between them but skin, lets the cool white cloth billow up and lightly fall to the middle of Mike’s back.

Wallace frames Mike’s face with his hands and says, “I hope so.”