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I wore a mask that always smiled

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I was once sad and lonely,
Having nobody to comfort me,
So I wore a mask that always smiled;
To hide my feelings behind a lie.

Before long, I had many friends;
With my mask, I was one of them.
But deep inside, I still felt empty,
Like I was missing a part of me.

-"Mask," by Anonymous

 

Connor Walsh is fifteen, and he’s in love. He’s never felt this way about anyone, and he’s brimming over in excitement every time Aiden tugs him into an empty classroom and gently removes his glasses before kissing him. They make out fervently, blushing and grinning at each other when class starts, straightening their ties and then finding an excuse to get detention together for more time. 

It’s new, this movement from best friends to— well, Connor’s pretty sure they’re boyfriends. After all, he let Aiden sneak into his dorm last night and they cuddled till morning, and Connor is pretty sure this is it, that this is Special, that person he’s been waiting for, and when Aiden asks if he wants to go any further, Connor eagerly accepts.

Sex is fun, and exciting, and he loves that he gets to do this with someone he loves. 

It isn’t until Connor gets a care package from home and is reading over a letter from his parents when it occurs to him he hasn’t told them he’s dating Aiden yet. So Connor asks Aiden to come home with him for the winter break so he can meet his family, and Aiden coughs and says, “Thanks, but they know we’re friends, right?”

It barely takes Connor any time to read the indecision on Aiden’s face and then push aside the horrible sinking feeling in his own stomach that he’s been wrong about this all along, and then for him to force a casual laugh and say, “Best friends, duh. Just wanted to know if you wanted to come ski with us in Vail, but looks like you don’t want that title anymore.”

Aiden looks visibly relieved. “No, sure, that sounds great. I just was worried for a sec that you thought maybe because we were hooking up…”

"What, that we were boyfriends? Please," Connor laughs, his voice sounding hollow even to himself but Aiden laughs with him.

Connor is sixteen, and is determined never to feel this way again.

He’s still friends with Aiden of course, (his shrewd mind tells him it would be a bad idea to let go of a strong connection to someone who will surely be a mayor and possibly a governor one day), but they don’t hook up again, and Connor pushes his feelings aside and gets his rocks off elsewhere. He sleeps with the captain of the rowing team, blows his French tutor after class, gets fucked behind the greenhouses by the debate team president. It’s all fine. It’s just physical release, that’s all, and Connor learns to use this to his advantage.

Connor is eighteen, and gets laser eye surgery, goes for a 5-mile run every morning to hone his body in addition to his mind. Undergrad goes by in a whirl of studying and hookups. Connor know exactly what a well-placed smile and raise of the eyebrow can do, and always styles his hair immaculately and outfits himself in tailored suits like armor. 

It’s easy, when he sees Aiden Walker for the first time in how many years to grin brightly and return the embrace. They were friends, after all, there are lots of good memories there. Plus, the opportunity to rile up Michaela is too good to pass up. 

At the bar there’s some vindictive part of Connor that’s pleased to see how Aiden’s eyes light up in interest, how they flicker over his body, and Connor knows he’s come a long way since the scrawny friend that Aiden probably remembers.

Connor takes another drink, listening to Aiden talk about his work, surprising himself by how little thought he’s put into how easily it would be to actively derail Michaela’s relationship. He knows he should be trying to get ahead in all respects, and surely a heartbroken Michaela would be no competition at all— but Connor can’t really bring himself to care to do anything other than politely catch up with Aiden. He tries to tell himself that for now, Michaela is part of this team that he’s on and any heartbreak on her part would surely drag the team down (it’s not because Connor cares, okay, he’s not a caring kind of person, he can still rub this in her face.)

He doesn’t have to pursue this thought very long because Michaela swoops in, leaving Connor to navigate the rest of this stupid mixer alone.

Connor ignores a few appreciative gazes, even though he’s sure if he stayed a bit longer he could be going home with someone. 

He walks home to his empty apartment, flops on his bed, and scrolls through his phone. Connor lingers on the screen over Oliver’s phone number, sighs, sets the phone down and rolls over to fall asleep alone.

Connor is twenty-six, and he doesn’t do boyfriends. 

 


 

 

It's Wednesday night, and four days since Connor last was with Oliver, so it's not a relationship, okay, it's just really good sex. That Connor decided to wait to have, just in case Oliver got any ideas. 

They're laying on Oliver's bed, sated and staring at the ceiling, and Oliver is laughing about some mishap at work. Connor feels compelled to share something ridiculous as well, so he tells Oliver the story about Michaela's fiancé and laughs a little. 

Connor doesn't get the amused, "oh, how funny, small world" response he expects.

"You’re a dick. Get out."

"You like my dick," Connor says smugly, and then he realizes. "Wait, what?"

"You just told me you outed your ex to his fiancé is just for— for what, for fun? You’re an asshole. Don’t call me." Oliver gets off the bed, folding his arms. He grabs his glasses and puts them on, giving Connor a expectant look when he doesn’t move.

Connor’s been kicked out of guys’ beds before, but it’s never quite felt like this. There’s a post-coital part of him that’s actually kind of turned on by Oliver’s determination, but it somehow only makes the numbing realization that Oliver doesn’t want him all the more real. 

"But—"

"Look, I fell for the desperate I-missed-you-and-brought-takeout act, and I thought maybe we were going somewhere, but I’m not gonna be with someone who would do something like that."

"It was just a joke," Connor mumbles, but the flippant tone dies before he gets the first word out. The hollow feeling inside of him tells him he’s already lost. Oliver stares him down, and Connor swallows down the apology that wants to bubble out of him, holding onto his pride. He grabs his clothes in a rush, getting dressed haphazardly and stumbles towards the door, too shocked and hurt to come up with an actual comeback. 

 


 

 

The next day, Connor is in a foul mood when he gets to Keating’s office. Laurel and Michaela are talking in the hallway, looking suspiciously a lot more chummy than he’s ever seen them.

They follow him into the sitting room, and Connor’s ears burn when he hears Laurel say, “You know, he could be bisexual.” 

Connor, still furious about the whole situation, doesn’t waste any time turning around and saying, “Please, don’t be naive, you either play for one team or the other.” He huffs, letting the words hang like a defining mark in the air. To be honest, Connor doesn’t really believe this, couldn’t care less about what labels people like or whatever, but he’s in a certain kind of mood. 

Somewhere on the couch, Asher lets out a hearty guffaw. “So true, man; like you know all the girls I’ve—”

"Shut up, Asher,” Laurel says, bristling. Connor feels a little uncomfortable that Asher, of all people, is agreeing with him, but he’s already set on this path, so. “For your information, bisexuality is a very real thing,” Laurel says coldly. “I would know, since I’m bisexual, and you, Connor, are an insufferable prick.” 

Wes looks up from the book he’s perusing and says, “Yeah, me too. I mean, I’m bisexual, not the other thing.” He blinks and then absently turns a page, not looking at it. Laurel gives him a grateful look, and Wes nods, smiling in solidarity.

Asher stares at them, one by one, and Laurel tugs Michaela into an empty chair next to Wes, and they start talking in low voices about how sexuality is fluid. Every now and then Laurel will shoot Connor an exasperated look, reminding him that he is definitely not a part of this conversation. 

The humiliation stings worse when Asher seems to take it as invitation to come over to Connor and try and do small talk before Professor Keating gets here, and even Connor’s best “I-hate-this-and-am-not-interested” face will not deter Asher from talking about his boat. And something about fish. Connor doesn’t really care either way.  

Michaela’s face has gone from the distraught panic in the hallway to curious to hopeful, and Wes is patting her shoulder and Laurel nodding, and Michaela is saying, “Thanks, guys, I’ll talk to him tonight. I really— I really didn’t know anything about all this, and I feel terrible for even thinking that of him—”

"It’s okay, a lot of people buy into the stereotypes, even the ones in the queer community—”

Connor looks at his feet, and is saved from the rest of what he’s sure is a scathing comment when Professor Keating strides into the room. 

They get to work; Rebecca’s case is going to be arduous, and there don’t seem to be any real leads so far, except Wes keeps shifting uncomfortably, and normally Connor would try to get to the bottom of it or maybe even tease him for having a crush on their client or something, but he’s too unsettled to do anything about it. 

It’s a long day, and it occurs to Connor when Michaela brushes past him wordlessly on her way out that he could probably apologize, or something. Instead, what comes out is, “Even if Aiden is bi, doesn’t change the fact that I’ve gotten to a base you haven’t.”

Michaela whirls around and fixes him with a steely glare. “What is wrong with you?” she says. “Even if you could break us up, Mister-I-Don’t-Do-Boyfriends, what’s in it for you? Nothing, okay. You’re just a spiteful, bitter, lonely person who gets joy out of ruining other people’s lives. Well, guess what. You are not a threat to me.”

She stomps off, heels clacking down the steps, and then turns around once more. “Besides, I’m sure I can always buy a strap-on that will be plenty better than whatever you have between your legs.”

"Keep dreaming, princess," Connor calls after her, but the taunt is empty, and largely unheard, judging from the way Michaela ignores him on the way to her car. 

Connor goes home to his empty apartment, flopping listlessly on his bed. He’s ahead of his work in all his classes; it’s a Thursday night, he could definitely go out, go get laid or something. 

He could call Oliver, but they've already fucked yesterday...

Oliver. 

Right.

Oliver hates him. 

Connor groans, rolling over and pressing his face into his pillow, and then decides to get very, very drunk. 

He finds an old bottle of whiskey he was intending to give his Ethics professor as a gift, but he's already sure he's going to ace the class anyways. Connor takes a swig, and then another, and another, and it turns into deciding to Facebook stalk Michaela and Aiden's relationship. 

It looks like they've been together since undergrad; everything is neatly documented according to Facebook's cheerful system, all there in white-and-blue about how Angela Pratt thinks they are so cute together to the 21+ people who "liked" their photo of their first date to the scores and scores of photo albums they have together, looking beautiful and happy on the Yale campus, vacationing in Hawaii together, kissing each other in front of a sunset.

Connor pauses on a photo where Michaela and Aiden are posing in the snow outside a sign that reads "Vail, Colorado."

He gets to his feet, closing his laptop, and stumbles out the door.

It's not difficult to find his way towards Michaela's neighborhood; when Keating first hired them the first thing Connor did was to find out where all his coworkers lived and their contact information, if for whatever reason he needed to find them after hours.

Well, now he needs.

He bangs on Michaela's door until it swings open, and he can see her jaw tightening when she sees who it is.

"It's late, Connor, what--"

"I'm sorry," Connor blurts out. "I was fifteen, and we were best friends, and I was totally gone on him, and he didn't like me back, like that-- I don't know. I--I am all of that, what you guys said--a bitter, lonely, insufferable prick, and I'm sorry. I know I'm an asshole." 

Michaela sighs, tugs the robe around her a little closer, and gestures inside. "Come in." 

She's wearing pink fuzzy slippers, and her apartment is immaculately decorated in tasteful colors. Another day, Connor might make fun of her taste in Renaissance art, but he takes the cup of coffee Michaela hands him and sits down on her designer couch with its designer pillows. 

He talks, and Michaela listens. 

Three cups of coffee later, Connor is a lot less drunk, and he feels a little raw about everything that's just spilled out of him. Michaela hasn't said much, just stared impassively at him, gesturing at him to continue or saying "hm" occasionally. "Like, I totally get that there are bisexual people, I just was saying that this morning to be a dick. Everything I've said about Aiden to you was to be a dick. I don't have an excuse for that, and I'm not like, jealous of you two or anything, I mean I got over Aiden a long time ago, just..."

"You're jealous of our relationship," Michaela muses.

"No," he says, but he doesn't really believe it.

"Weren't you seeing that guy? Oliver?" 

Connor fiddles with his empty coffee cup. "I was sleeping with a guy called Oliver, and now I'm not." 

Michaela gives him a knowing look, sips her coffee, and says, "Well, whose fault is that?" 

Connor glares at her, and Michaela laughs. "Alright, it's really late now. I've got an early class tomorrow, so I'll see you around." She takes his empty cup and bustles him towards the door.

"Thanks," Connor says, sincerely. 

"We're not friends," Michaela reminds him. "But I dislike you less." 

 


 

 

Saturday afternoon finds Connor holding a dozen red roses and standing nervously in front of apartment three-oh-three. He rings the bell a third time, and then Oliver answers it.

"Connor, this isn't really a good time--" Oliver starts crossly.

"Just hear me out," Connor says, holding up the roses apologetically. "It was wrong of me to out my coworker's fiancé, it was a petty, rude thing, and I apologized to her about it. You're right, you deserve someone who is like, a good guy and I want to to be that guy, or like try to be that guy--"

Oliver's expression softens a little, and he takes in Connor's pathetic look and the roses one more time, and then he says, "Can you come back, in like, an hour, and you can apologize then--"

"Ollie, who's this?" 

Oliver sighs, and a shorter woman with a kind expression is standing behind him, looking curiously at Connor in the hallway. 

"Aw, Ollie, he brought you flowers! And you're making him stand in the hallway! Where are your manners?" she tsks at him.

"Mom, this is Connor. Connor, this is my mom, Ruth." Oliver says. 

"Um, hi, it's nice to meet you," Connor says, holding out a hand for her to shake. She takes it, shaking it firmly and then smiles warmly at him.

"You didn't tell me your boyfriend was so handsome," she says, pulling Connor inside the apartment. 

"I didn't mean to interrupt," Connor says. "I just wanted to bring Oliver these, and, um..."

Oliver coughs, the faint blush starting in his cheeks. 

"Such a sweetheart. You should invite him to Jessica's debut next Saturday," Ruth says, beaming.

"It's a Filipino coming-of-age party thing," Oliver quickly explains. "My cousin is turning eighteen and, uh, you don't have to, it's just a ridiculous family event." 

"I'd love to meet your family," Connor says quietly. 

Connor is twenty six, and he's never really done boyfriends before. But he'd like to.