James hears the sigh of frustration from all the way across the room, despite the fact that the bathroom door is half-closed, and he is all but hiding behind the heavy curtains that frame the large window that looks out over the city.
The light is turning that golden shade that indicates that afternoon is starting to think about becoming evening, and James thinks to himself that Michael might actually be late if he doesn’t get a move on.
He hears another sigh, and it draws him out of his semi-hiding place and across their hotel room. He pushes his way into the bathroom to find Michael scowling at himself in the mirror, his normally dextrous hands fumbling at his throat.
“Here, let me,” James says quietly, and taking Michael’s arm pulls him firmly away from the mirror until he is facing James, and James can reach up to fix the somewhat mangled bow tie.
“This is why I don’t normally wear these things,” Michael grumbles, as his hands drop to his sides.
“It’s traditional,” James says, and Michael scowls again.
“Not any more,” he mutters, but he allows James to tie the bow tie properly, and then smooth away some (possibly imaginary) wrinkles in the shoulders and lapels of his dinner jacket.
“I’m sorry you can’t come,” he adds suddenly.
James tenses slightly. “Are you?” The words slip out before he can stop them.
James thinks about letting things lie for a split second, and then says the words anyway. “I don’t believe you.”
“Because I’m pretty sure I saw the words ‘plus one’ on that gilt-edged invitation of yours.”
There was no gilt-edged invitation, not really, but that doesn’t make the words any less true, James thinks savagely.
Michael raises his hands, as if to embrace James, but James skitters backwards, out of reach, and Michael is left reaching for nothing.
“I just don’t think it’s the right time yet,” he says. “I don’t want to move too fast.”
Too fast. What a joke. As if over a year since their first date that was actually a date, and not just friendly drinks after a hard day on set, could be said to be too fast.
(It’s fourteen months, in actual fact. And two weeks and three days, but who’s counting, really?)
They’ve been having this conversation for a significant chunk of those fourteen months, on and off, but never quite as vehemently as they’ve been having it in the last few weeks. Ever since those bloody nominations were announced and that metaphorical gilt-edged invitation arrived in the post. And there’s part of James that can’t quite believe that they’re having it again now. As if it will actually change anything at this point.
“You’re scared,” James says, and it’s nothing he hasn’t said before. “You’re scared about what people will think. What they’ll say.”
But the well-worn accusation has no bite to it. Suddenly he’s tired, and he doesn’t want to be having this conversation any more. “Why am I even here, Michael?” he asks. Although he’s not sure whether he’s referring to this hotel room, in sunny L.A., or to something else entirely.
But before Michael can answer – although James can’t imagine what his response would be – his phone beeps. Michael scoops it up and looks at it for a moment.
“The car’s downstairs,” he says. “I have to go.”
“All right.” For a moment, James thinks that Michael might kiss him, but he doesn’t. He merely stares at James for a moment, and then turns towards the door.
He stops and looks back over his shoulder.
“Don’t forget to turn that off before the ceremony, yeah?” James says, nodding at the phone Michael’s still holding in his hand. He offers up a small smile, and receives a tentative one in response.
“Of course not.”
“And Michael…good luck,” James adds softly, unable to let him go without at least saying that much.
Michael stares at him again for another long moment. “Thank you,” he says finally, and then he’s gone.
The lift feels very empty as Michael travels down in it alone. He feels unsettled, and no wonder, as he thinks back to the expression on James’ face before he’d left the hotel room. Wounded, and the encouraging little smile doing absolutely nothing to hide it.
Michael feels a twinge somewhere under his ribs, and he wonders if he should text James or something before he gets to the theatre. He doesn’t want to leave things as they are.
But what would he say? What could he possibly say?
“Why am I here?” James had said, and Michael had known exactly what he was asking.
He has no idea what the answer would have been.
The doors slide open, alerting Michael that he’s reached his destination, and as he exits the lift he pastes on a smile for the members of the press he can see waiting for him outside the hotel.
As he walks outside he turns off his phone and slips it into his pocket.
James turns on the television. Of course he does. Despite everything, he still wants to watch. This could be the biggest night of Michael’s career, and he’s not going to miss it.
And even though it will be hours yet before the ceremony drags itself to the only bit he actually cares about, he watches from the beginning, hoping for a glimpse on the red carpet, in the audience, something.
When a camera does finally settle on Michael (a random shot during the applause for, he thinks, Best Adapted Screenplay – he stopped paying attention to those kind of details a while ago), he stares fiercely for the few seconds he’s given, trying to discern…what? Guilt? Strain? Is he imagining the distraction he can see in Michael’s eyes? The faint lines of tension around a politely fake smile?
Yes, he decides, as the picture on the screen cuts to someone else, he is. Michael’s far to good an actor to let any personal inner turmoil show at moments like this.
If, of course, he has any inner turmoil to speak of.
James regrets the thought as soon as he has it, even if it is locked in the privacy of his own head. It’s unworthy of both of them. Michael cares, he does. He cares about James.
Are you sure? asks the spiteful little voice in his head, that he seems unable to shut up now that he’s let it speak.
James slams a metaphorical door in the voice’s metaphorical face. Michael does care, and James knows it.
And unfortunately, James knows that he cares too. He knows that, no matter what Michael says or wants with regard to their relationship, he won’t leave him. He loves Michael too much, and that’s the simple truth of it.
And if the price of that love is secrecy, then James will tolerate it.
Even though he can’t deny how much it hurts that Michael apparently thinks of him as something to hide, as some kind of dirty little secret.
He doesn’t want to be anyone’s dirty little secret.
It could be seconds or weeks later (James has been lulled into some kind of trance by the endless whirlwind of glamour and sparkle and tears and thank yous) before the host’s voice catches his attention again.
“And now we come to the award for Actor in a Leading Role…”
James holds his breath.
It’s a cliché espoused by many winners before him, but Michael’s honestly not sure how he makes it to the stage. He remembers Steve clapping him on the back, Carey excitedly telling him “Congratulations!” and someone else muttering “So the Academy does have some balls, after all,” but after that it’s all a bit of a blur until he realises that he is approaching the podium and Natalie is handing him the golden statuette, and that in approximately five seconds he’s going to have to say something.
His mind goes instantly and terrifyingly blank until, just in time, instinct kicks in. He welcomes it gratefully, accepting the award and the kiss on the cheek from Natalie gracefully enough that he doesn’t look like a total fool, and then turns to face the audience.
But perhaps it’s that same instinct that causes what happens next. He takes a couple more precious seconds to gather himself, and lets his eyes sweep over the blur of faces in front of him – his peers, who are still applauding – searching, searching…
Until it hits him that the one face he’s looking for won’t be there. The one person he wants to share this with more than anything isn’t present, isn’t applauding him, isn’t cheering and whooping with everyone else.
The one person who should be here, isn’t.
Logically, Michael knows he probably wouldn’t be able to pick James out of the crowd even if he was here, but this isn’t about logic.
This is about Michael being very, very stupid.
The applause is dying down now, expectantly. Michael’s hand tightens a little around the statuette, and as hush descends he leans slightly towards the microphone and begins to speak.
It’s a pretty standard acceptance speech, but Michael sounds sincere, and at least he’s not overdoing it. He thanks Steve and Carey, and other members of the Shame cast and crew. He talks about his family, and what a great, if challenging (and James knows exactly how challenging it was for him – for them both), experience working on the film was.
But then, just when James thinks Michael’s about to wrap it up (James can almost sense the orchestra leaning into their cue, anticipating the forty-five second cut-off), he…doesn’t.
“I just have one more thing to say. One more person to thank, if you’ll indulge me for a little bit longer.”
James goes very still. He thinks he might even have stopped breathing, now.
“This person is someone who means a lot to me, who’s stuck by me this last year or two, and never complained even when my job involved vast amounts of rolling around naked with strange women. And occasionally strange men.”
That garners Michael a ripple of laughter from around the auditorium, but James doesn’t laugh. He’s not finding any of this funny in the slightest.
“Someone who I’ve realised I couldn’t do any of this without, and who needs to know that. Who needs to know how special they are.”
Suddenly, Michael’s staring straight into the camera (although how the bloody hell he knows where to look is anyone’s guess).
“Thank you, James.”
James doesn’t hear the gasps that replace the laughter. He doesn’t hear the renewed applause, peppered by the odd cheer, which breaks out as Michael sketches a small bow and is led off the stage by the usher.
With numb fingers, he fumbles the remote and switches the television off.
It takes approximately fifteen seconds for Michael to start second-guessing himself. Enough time, thankfully, for him to exit stage right into the shadows of the wings, ensuring at least that he doesn’t have his crisis right out in public.
Did he say too much? Is James going to be furious with him for outing them without consulting him first, despite the fact that it is what James has wanted all along? (“Yes, but I didn’t want you to do it live on national television in front of an audience of millions!” he imagines an angry Scottish voice ranting at him.)
Or did he say too little? After all, he didn’t actually specify which James he was talking about. Is James going to think he was hedging, not revealing exactly who his partner is? (And come to think of it, he never actually used the word ‘partner’. Or ‘love’. Or any word that might indicate that they’re more than very good friends, really. Fuck.)
Michael wonders whether anyone would notice if he just slipped away right now (he’s not clear on whether he has time to make it back to his seat for the last few awards of the night anyway). Although he’s not entirely certain whether he wants to rush straight back to James or run as far away from all of this as humanly possible.
But of course people would notice. There’s no escaping just yet. He has to endure the seemingly endless rounds of press interviews (where, not very surprisingly, everyone is rather more interested in his personal life than in the night’s achievement), and then he’s obliged to make an appearance at an after-show party, where what feels like hundreds of people want to congratulate him again and make sly insinuations and rather too educated guesses about James.
Eventually, however, he makes good his escape (Carey, bless her, offers to cover for him, whispering to him to “go on, get out of here” under the guise of giving him another hug) and heads straight back to the hotel in a cab, still clutching his Oscar, which feels like it’s been getting heavier all night, and which he really couldn’t care less about at this point.
It’s gone 3am by the time he arrives at the hotel, and therefore the lift is just as empty taking him upwards as it was when it brought him down earlier in the evening – something that he’s absurdly thankful for, considering that he feels like he’s about to have some kind of meltdown any second.
However, it’s not until he’s standing in front of their hotel room door, key-card in his hand that he realises how truly unprepared for this he is. What is he going to say? What will James say? Did James even watch the ceremony? That thought hadn’t occurred to him before, but it does now. What if James had been too upset with him to bother? He might not even know what Michael’s done (and suddenly Michael’s a little bit grateful that he hadn’t been more specific about James’ identity, and that his presence here is still a secret – imagine if James had found out because some snooping member of the press had managed to call him at the hotel to bombard him with questions).
Or perhaps James isn’t even here any more. Michael goes cold all over as he considers – really considers – that he might have made things so much worse. That James might actually have left him. That he’s going to walk through this door and find an empty, desolate room filled with a complete absence of James.
Well, there’s no way to know until he does it. He steels himself and slides the key-card into the lock so he can push the door open.
The room isn’t empty. James is still here.
Michael’s knees go weak with relief. He sets the all-but-forgotten-about statuette down on the table just inside the door and takes a few more steps into the room.
James is standing by the window again, silhouetted against the closed curtains. The only light in the room comes from the two lamps on the nightstands by the bed, and the soft glow doesn’t quite illuminate James’ face, making his expression hard to read.
“James?” Michael asks softly. He’d expected either recriminations or (somewhere, wistfully, in the back of his mind) some kind of deliriously happy reconciliation. Not this…blank silence.
James just looks at him, and Michael realises that his blue eyes are very wide, almost shocked.
“James, I’m sorry,” Michael says, knowing that one word probably isn’t enough to encompass everything he’s done. “It just…happened. I know I should have asked you first, but I needed to…”
“Shut up,” James interrupts. “Shut up.”
And Michael still can’t tell whether James is angry, or happy, or what, but something in James’ voice pulls him across the room like a magnet, and suddenly he’s standing right in front of James, less than a foot of space separating them. But he doesn’t touch James. He doesn’t think that would be a good idea, not yet.
There’s a long moment of nerve-wracking, terrifying silence, and then, “Do you love me?” James asks in a low voice, head bowed so Michael can’t quite see his face.
Michael stares down at that messy mop of brown hair, speechless for nearly ten more seconds until finally he forces out, in a voice gone rough around the edges, “What the fuck, James? Of course I love you! Why…” He’s about to ask why James would ever think he didn’t, until his brain very helpfully reminds him of several reasons, none of which reflect very well on Michael, and all of which remind him what a complete and utter fool he’s been.
“I love you,” he says again. “And I’ll say it a hundred times a day if that’s what it’ll take for you to believe me.”
“I think that might make conversation a bit boring,” murmurs James, and there’s suddenly the ghost of a smile in his voice.
Relief hits Michael again with all the force of a speeding freight train. He knows he doesn’t deserve it, James’ forgiveness, but he’s suddenly tentatively beginning to hope that he might be granted it anyway.
“I have one more question, though,” James continues. He still hasn’t looked up, but Michael thinks – hopes – that might be because James is trying not to give the game away too soon.
“Anything,” he replies.
“Live on national television?” James says. “In front of an audience of millions? Really?”
It’s not quite the rant that Michael had previously imagined – in fact, James sounds like he’s working hard to suppress a fit of giggles – but they’re fair questions nonetheless.
“I looked for you and you weren’t there,” he says simply. “It felt wrong.”
James comes to him then, closing the space between them and flinging his arms around Michael as he buries his face somewhere in the vicinity of Michael’s collarbone.
“Oh god, James,” Michael says, his voice choked as he speaks into James’ hair. “I’m sorry. For everything. I’m so sorry.”
“It doesn’t matter,” James replies, his voice similarly muffled. “Not now. It doesn’t matter.”
It does matter, of course, and Michael’s going to spend the rest of his life making it up to James if James will let him, but right now Michael’s prepared to believe anything James says if it will keep him in his arms for a bit longer.
Then James lifts his head, finally, and although his eyes are dry Michael can see now that they’re red-rimmed with something that might be tiredness, and might not be, and he hates himself all over again.
“James…” he says helplessly, and then can’t say anything else because James is kissing him, and this is something he thought he might never get to have again.
“Take me to bed,” James murmurs against his skin.
“It’s late,” Michael protests mildly. “Really late.”
James smiles a cheeky smile that, while not quite up to its normal standard, is trying its best. “All the more reason then.”
And since Michael’s just promised himself that he’s going to make everything up to James, he does what James asks and takes him to bed.
"I thought you might have left," Michael says sometime later, breaking into the comfortable silence.
James hesitates, takes a deep breath, and then confesses. "I nearly did," he admits in a low voice.
The arms around him tense and tighten, as if Michael thinks that he's going to follow through and disappear right this minute.
“I was angry,” James continues, not wanting to disturb the calm waters of their reconciliation but needing to say this nonetheless. “I appreciated what you were trying to do – what you did – but you were making the decisions about us. Again. You always make the decisions. You never asked me what I wanted.”
“That’s not going to happen any more, I promise,” Michael says fervently.
“No, it’s not,” James replies, half agreement, half warning.
He twists in Michael’s embrace until he can look into the other man’s eyes. “That doesn’t mean I don’t know what it took for you to do what you did. I know you had your reasons for wanting to keep us a secret, and I know they weren’t all selfish. You aren’t going to regret this, are you?”
He sees the thoughts chasing themselves across Michael’s face. He sees him thinking about their careers, about the press coverage this is going to attract, about the questions that are going to follow them for a long time (perhaps forever), about the fact that their lives are going to be irrevocably different from this moment on.
Then he feels himself gathered even closer as Michael whispers fiercely, “No. Never. I’ll never regret this, James. I love you. And I’m sorry.”
James breathes a tiny sigh of relief that he hopes Michael doesn’t notice, and drops a kiss on the most accessible patch of Michael’s skin, which happens to be his shoulder. “Well, in that case then,” he says, “perhaps you would care to accompany me down to breakfast tomorrow morning? A man can get tired of room service.”
He feels the guilty wince that convulses Michael’s body for a second, and then welcomes the wry laugh that follows it.
“James, it already is tomorrow morning,” Michael points out, and James cranes his head to see that the clock is proudly proclaiming it to be 4:27am.
The sight prompts a sudden jaw-cracking yawn. “All right, then,” James concedes. “Perhaps we’d better make it brunch.”
Michael laughs again, and kisses the tip of James’ nose. “Brunch it is,” he promises.
Unsurprisingly, by the time they make it downstairs later that morning (much later), the press have well and truly gathered. Of course, they’re not allowed inside the hotel, but that hasn’t stopped them congregating out front, as close as possible to the glass doors that line the front of the foyer.
And naturally, said doors and windows mean they spot James and Michael as soon as they emerge from the lift. The clamour is instantaneous, audible even through the glass, and is accompanied by a frenzy of camera flashes.
“Someone’s not very happy,” Michael mutters.
James follows his gaze over to the concierge, who looks distinctly unimpressed by the ravening hoard that has turned up on his doorstep, and suppresses a laugh.
Then he glances up at Michael. “What about you?” he asks. “Are you all right?”
Michael gives him a look that plainly says he doesn’t think he deserves the sympathy James is bestowing on him. “I’m fine,” he says firmly.
That would be enough for James, but then the arm that is already slung around his shoulders reels him in closely enough that Michael can plant a quick kiss on his temple. “Don’t worry about me, okay?” he whispers in James’ ear.
The crowd, predictably, goes wild. The number of camera flashes triples, and out of the corner of his eye James can see the concierge making a beeline for the doors, apparently having finally reached breaking point.
He can imagine perfectly the picture that all the papers are going to be carrying tomorrow – himself wearing the most ridiculously sappy smile, tucked firmly – almost a little possessively – against Michael’s side.
He can’t resist giving the photographers a little wave, and almost hears Michael roll his eyes.
“Only you would wave at a rabble of nosy paparazzi, James,” he says, with fond amusement.
And James’ smile doesn’t diminish one iota as he’s led away in the direction of the restaurant.