It is two weeks before filming for X-Men: First Class starts. James had kept in touch with Michael sporadically for a few years after Band of Brothers, a phone call here or an email there, finally going out for drinks when he stumbles across Michael riding around on his Vespa in the London streets. Somewhere along the line though, the communication had dissolved entirely. It wasn’t either of their faults; they had simply just grown apart.
Years later they had seen each other again at the auditions for First Class, and had quickly reconnected, almost as if their time estranged had never even existed. When both had found out they were going to be filming together again they had made it a point to spend more time together. Despite his appearances, Michael could have this boyish liveliness to him that was incredibly infectious. This entire week had been spent with Michael hanging out around London bars, clubs, and at each other’s flats playing video games they are both probably out of the age range for and challenging one another to ridiculous feats of drinking.
James is lazily spread out on the middle of Michael’s floor, drink balanced precariously on his chest. Michael is strung out on the couch, swirling the whiskey around in the glass like he has all the time in the world. It was still too early to be walking the streets for bar hopping and they had played through just about every video game Michael had. This had led them to breaking out the alcohol earlier than usual, conversing about whatever came to mind.
Somehow the conversation had turned to their families and childhoods. James talks, hands moving a mile a second, about the absence of his father, life with his grandmother and sister. The time he convinced his sister he was a ghost and had gotten a shoe thrown at him over it makes Michael almost spill his drink and fall off the couch in laughter. Michael talks about his time as an altar boy and how his religious upbringing had left him with more questions than answers, climbing trees, fishing, and almost endless fields of green.
“It was a good life, for the most part. I guess,” Michael toys with his glass, “Sometimes though, I think that maybe—” Michael cuts himself off to take a swing of his drink.
“Wazzat? Maybe what?”
“Sometimes I wonder if it really was as good as I force myself to think it was.” Michael tears his eyes away from James to study the floor; it was almost as if he had meant to keep the thought to himself.
“Oh please.” James chortles into his drink, and teases, “At least you have parents. What, they whack you on the ass too hard one time? Didn’t get you the Superman toy you wanted one Christmas or something?” He tries to roll over onto his side and reach out for Michael so that he can pat him on the arm in reassurance that it couldn’t have that bad. Moving makes the ceiling spin violently, and James quickly abandons the idea for sulking at his empty glass instead.
The tension that draws and snaps across Michael’s face goes by lightning quick. It is too fast for James, enamored in grief over his finished drink, to notice the subtle queues. So when Michael smiles tightly back at him it feels as if the air pressure of the room has decreased sharply and James can’t figure out exactly why.
“No, it wasn’t anything like that…..You’re right, of course. Sorry, I shouldn’t have even brought it up.” Michael chuckles and knocks back the rest of his drink. “It’s getting kinda late, y’know? I don’t want you turning into a drooling, drunk mess all over my carpet like you were the other day—”
“Hey, ’s not my fault you decided to leave me lyin’ there! And it’s not even six o’clock yet, I thought we were gonna go out again, what gives?”
“Well I’m not your Mum, wasn’t about ‘ta drag yer drunk arse up onto the couch. An’ does it I look like I give a damn about the time? ‘M tired and I’ve been drinking too much this whole week and I wanna sleep it all off so shoo before I decide to puke up a weeks’ worth of drinks on ya.”
James bites back a retort to the Mum quip when he sits up to look at his friend. He knows for a fact that on only three martinis and a whiskey Michael is probably only bordering tipsy, nowhere near drunk. From the look on his face though, Michael is worn down, exhausted, and clearly annoyed. James has no idea what’s happened in the span of these few minutes to make Michael look that way, but he knows better than to goad an Irishman that has had a few drinks in him.
James sways to his feet, “Whatever you say. Don’t let it choke you on the way out, yeah?” He grins as Michael shoves him out the door with an affectionate ‘arsehole’ muttered under his breath.
Michael slams the door behind James with a bite that he can feel in his teeth and ring in his ears, but figures that Michael maybe really is too buzzed to remember his own strength at the moment.
The next morning James calls Michael’s cell, but gets nothing but voicemail the whole day. He doesn’t reply to any of James’ texts, either.
If you ever asked any one of his friends or co-stars, they would all say that James was one of the least self-absorbed people they knew. It was a rare trait to find in an actor this day and age in Hollywood, but then again James had never associated himself with that word and all it implied to begin with. He had his chances to jump into the Hollywood circles during past movies, and passed them up without hesitation. It was all a bit too pretentious and full of people that took themselves far too seriously for his liking and LA had horrible traffic and bad air, anyway.
James is only human though, and far, far from perfect.
Which is why almost a month into filming, when Michael flinches practically out of his skin to get away from a hug, from Jennifer, of all people—
“Sorry—I didn’t mean—I just—I—you startled me, that’s all.” Michael stutters out, completely unlike anything James has seen from him before. He smiles wanly down at Jennifer as she immediately rambles out an apology that Michael ignores in favor of putting one of his long arms around her in a half-hug. He mutters a soft, “Don’t worry about it. It’s not your fault.” Before walking quickly off in the direction of his trailer, ending the problem just like that.
—He begins to realize that he might not know as much as he thought about the man that he is slowly starting to have feelings of more than a friendship for. It makes James feel completely helpless as to what to do about it, and like the biggest heel in the universe for not noticing that something was wrong sooner.
James studies Michael intensely for the rest of the week, and finds it all came down to extremely subtle actions and some damn good acting on Michael’s part. When they were being fitted for costume or being touched up by the make-up crew Michael is always tense. It’s not visible in his face or posture but in the nervous wringing of his hands, the way he grips the arms of his chair, as if he’s ready to run at the slightest hint of trouble but forces himself to keep still so the people invading his personal space can do their job.
Aside from the crew, James finds that any sort of touching flat out did not happen unless it was absolutely necessary for Michael to do so. Aside from the costuming and make-up crews asked of him, giving out handshakes and light pats on the shoulder or back were about as far as things went.
James became acutely aware of the number of times that he and Michael had touched over the years could be counted on one had (a handshake when they first met, then another when they had meet up again for the auditions of First Class, and lastly the time when James had gotten so pissed that he had to be nearly dragged back to Michael’s to crash on his floor).
After the first disaster Michael had with Jennifer, the only sort of physical affection he would see from him were when Jennifer was being her usual bright and exuberant self that swept anyone that was around her off their feet. Affection was given out by her spontaneously, freely to anyone who wanted or needed it, without question. If you were feeling down or were in a bad mood, she was there with foods you weren’t supposed to be eating while you were in costume and wild stories about her brothers or of a time when she had peed herself in public. In those moments, Michael would just smile, flatly, and put an arm around her shoulders. Jennifer would just squeeze his arm back in silent understanding.
Understanding of what, exactly, James still doesn’t know.
He also still winced when someone near him did any sudden movements around him. Michael hides his reactions almost masterfully, unless you were deliberately looking for them like James was, you would never even know.
It makes James squash back the crush for Michael that’s chewing away inside his chest, and be all the more determined to be a better friend then anything. Whatever it was Michael was dealing with didn’t need to be made worse with James’ growing infatuation. An infatuation that James wasn’t even sure would be reciprocated.
Filming wraps up for the evening and the younger cast members are determined to get him and Michael to go bar hopping with them. Even going so far as to rope Rose and January to try and goad them into it, but after filming Erik and Charles’ first meeting in the harbor both of them were still soaking wet and Michael was clearly quite miserable about it. James would have considered the slight pout he was doing to be akin to adorable if it wasn’t accompanied by shivering and the loud clacking of teeth that was making James’ jaw ache in sympathy.
The group is practically surrounding the two of them now, not so close to be invading any personal space but just on the side of crowding. It was enough that James could see the slow panic starting to gloss itself over in Michael’s eyes. Like he was considering just dropping everything and running as far away as he could.
James quickly pulls everyone’s attention to him, “Sorry, but I don’t think either of us are in the mood for going out seeing as we’re both freezing and look like a couple of wet dogs! I don’t know about Michael, but all I want is hot shower and then pass the hell out.”
Michael follows up, “Yeah, same here.” He turns to the group and offers a weak smile, “Sorry guys. Next time though, yeah?”
Michael is usually the first one to pounce on the chance for an excuse to go out no matter rain, shine, or class five hurricanes. His decline makes Jennifer and the others them look at him in surprise, which in turn makes Michael fidget uncomfortably under the attention. It is at this point that James can’t help but give all of them the sternest look one can whilst shivering and soaked to the bone, daring them to say anything against him. The awkward silence is broken up by Lucas, completely oblivious to it all because of his impatience, saying that it was their loss, and could they all hurry up and just go already?
Relief spreads across Michael’s face as the two of them part ways with the others. They walk in companionable silence, almost shoulder to shoulder as they go in the direction of their trailers to shower and change into fresh clothes. It doesn’t dawn on James that he’s damn near walking Michael to his trailer like they were teenagers at the end of some kind of date until they are actually at the door to Michael’s trailer.
Michael turns to look down at James, his eyebrows draw together and the lines on his forehead make their usual appearance when Michael is thinking about something intensely. Before the silence can border on awkward he starts, “James, I—”
James quickly holds up a hand to silence him, “Don’t worry about it, just go dry up and get some rest. I’ll see you tomorrow, yeah?” And oh, he really hadn’t meant to accompany that with a wink. Michael flushes just as James realizes what he’s done and starts mentally kicking himself for it. He had been doing so well keeping his feelings in check and giving Michael the space he needed, yet here he had gone and pushed things. He quickly wills himself to stay calm; there was still time to play it all off as a friendly gesture—
—He’s taken by surprise when Michael, still a bit pink-faced, brushes his shoulder against him as he passes. He dips his head low to skim his lips lightly against the shell of James’ ear to whisper a shy, “Thank you.” as he goes inside.
Michael’s breath tickles against the hairs on his neck, sending shivers down his spine. Somehow in that moment James knows that he’s fallen, and hard. His ear doesn’t stop tingling for the rest of the evening.
It’s been three days of shameless flirting between him and Michael since that night and it has James at his wits end. They’re dancing at the precipice between being just friends and the potential to let that become something more, something brilliant and wonderful and James just knows that it can be. Michael was obviously just as interested in moving things further, but something was stopping him from taking the next step.
There had been one point yesterday, where they had been talking about something that wasn’t important anymore because somehow James had ended up right inside of Michael’s personal space, and he'd been elated when Michael hadn't pushed him away. James had been so close, he could have gone on his tip-toes, lifted his head slightly and Michael lips would have been on his easily. The moment was axed when Michael had felt the tension become too much, or maybe he had somehow realized the exact same thing James had been thinking. Whatever it was, Michael had stepped back, offering a feeble excuse about being needed in make-up before awkwardly making his leave.
James was determined to get rid of whatever doubts Michael had and make the next move first.
Today was the perfect opportunity to do so, as they both had been given a day off from shooting. He makes sure that he looks decent and not as if he just rolled out of bed less than five minutes ago like he truthfully has (while he wasn’t a vain man by any measure, it was always in ones favor to not look a mess when you were about to ask someone out on a date) and he walks confidently down the hall to Michael’s hotel room. Just as he’s about to knock, a voice seething with malice from the other side of it stops him dead in his tracks with his arm paused, raised midair to knock.
“I don’t even know why we still bother with you anymore.”
The voice coming from inside is crackling with static, much too loud to be from a cell phone, meaning that Michael had to be talking to someone on the hotel’s cheap speaker phone.
“Listen, Mum. I’m sorry, ok? But I can’t surgically attach the phone to myself and let my life revolve around answering all of your calls and text messages. I’m busy filming a movie, I’m working, why can’t you get that through your head?”
“Don’t you dare take that tone of voice with me!”
“Well then, what tone am I supposed to take to get you to actually listen to your son for once?! My life doesn’t revolve around you and Dad anymore. It hasn’t for years and you know it. Just because I’ve outgrown being your physical punching bag doesn’t mean that you get to use me as your verbal one and harass me with voice messages about how much of a worthless, ungrateful shit I am for missing a phone call!”
James decides that he has intruded for long enough, and this is definitely something that he’s not supposed to be listening in on. He turns to make way to his own room when he hears Michael’s hollow laughter ring out, freezing him back into place.
“I feel like we go through this conversation every time I’m away—which by the way is all the time—and each time I get nowhere with you. Well, this is it. Here’s your ultimatum: Either leave me the hell alone and let me talk to you on my own terms, or I will just cut you both off completely. And trust me when I say that I won’t miss either of you.”
There is nothing but the crackle of static before a man’s voice comes on speaker.
“Listen here, boy—”
Suddenly, the only noises are something ripping from the wall and being thrown across the room. The palpable silence that follows shoots James back to the realization that he needs to get the hell out of here and now. Before he can make himself go, the shuffling of feet from the other side gets closer and closer and the next thing he knows, the door flies open putting him face to face with Michael. His expression is as shocked as James' own to be caught standing there at door like some kind of creep.
In the seconds they stand there staring at each other Michael’s face goes through more emotion then it has all week until it settles back into a blank, neutral state. From the looks of it Michael had been meaning to go out and spend his day-off alone. A plan which James had just ran into the dirt. He shifts from one foot to the other, trying to think of a way to diffuse the tension that didn’t involve crawling under a rock and dying.
“Should I…Should I leave?”
“No, no. Come in.” Michael sighs as he turns away without bothering to see if James even follows.
James does follow, and sees that the cord to the phone line had been ripped out of the wall and the phone in a heap on the opposite side of the room from where it should have been on the nightstand. He wisely decides not to mention it as he takes a seat on the couch.
He watches as Michael begins to pace back and forth like a caged animal while running his hands through his hair. It unnerves him, makes him feel like a child that was about to be scolded. Michael paces twice more before the tension drains from his body and he exhales shakily. He settles in next to James, holding his head in his hands.
James can’t help but watch Michael’s throat as he swallows nervously, “How much did you hear?”
James looks away, ashamed. “I heard all of it, I’m really sorry. I didn’t mean to intrude like that. I just came up to see if you wanted to uh…”
He trails off; because how can he admit he had just spontaneously mustered up the courage to finally come up to this room and ask Michael out on a date after days of flirting, at a time like this?
“No, no it’s alright, I’m not that mad. I’m sorry that you even had to hear it. With how loud I was you probably would have been able to hear me three rooms over.” Michael begins picking at the skin around his nails nervously and chuckles self-depreciating, “Here I am, a grown man, acting like some kind of rebellious teenager. Honestly, it’s embarrassing.”
James isn’t sure how to respond to that. Instead he asks, “Do you need to talk about it?”
Michael looks up from his hands and gives James a sharp look, “Why do you suddenly care now? You didn’t seem to, before.”
That makes James feels like he’s been slapped in the face, “What?”
He instantly regrets his reaction when Michael casts his eyes back to the floor and moves away from him to the other side of the couch. The cellphone starts to go off and Michael doesn’t even look to see the caller ID, just pulls it out of his jean pocket and simply hits the reject button, tossing it across the room before it can get to the second ring.
“That day, when you said I was lucky. You were right, compared to what others have been through my childhood was a stroll in the park. Sometimes though, it’s really, really had to feel that way.” Michael finishes, hands clenched tightly into fists in his lap to keep them from shaking.
“When in the hell did I ever say that—Oh.”
It gets awkwardly silent for a minute after that. James replays the events of that night in his head as clearly as he’s able. Michael sits, the tension making him practically vibrate in his seat with his arms wrapped around himself. He waits patiently for James to say something, anything.
“Back then, you were trying to tell me…I’m so sorry; I never meant to imply anything. I was kinda pissed when we were talking about that and—God. I am the biggest asshole in the world aren’t I?”
The corner of Michael’s lip curls slightly, “It’s ok. You didn’t—don’t—know. You were joking around, and I might have taken it just a bit too personally.”
“From what I’ve just heard, you had every right to! Will you talk to me about it? That is…if you want to.”
Michael laughs, dripping with darkness and more self-depreciation. He shakes his head, “N-Nothing. It’s nothing. I mean, it wasn’t like they chained me in a basement or starved me or something like that—”
“Michael, don’t do this to yourself.”
Michael looks back up at him with big, glassy eyes and James realizes this is it. He’s being given one last chance to back out of this, to come up with some excuse to be elsewhere and pretend none of this ever happened. James scoots himself close, just enough to have their knees knocking against each other and he looks Michael right in the eye.
“You don’t have to deny it or belittle it anymore,” James tells him, “Not with me, never with me.”
Michael’s neutral expression wilts as he lets out a small, pained noise and leans into James the exact moment James reaches out for him. There are no tears, yet every dry, tiny sob stabs right through James’ chest, making him hold onto Michael that much tighter.
When Michael finally calms down he makes no move to leave James’ embrace. Instead, he settles further into it, resting his head on James’ shoulder with a content sigh. It makes James wonder when was the last time anyone actually cared enough to do something as simple as this for Michael, and he has to keep a tight lid on the anger starting to boil within knowing the gist of why Michael is unable to allow it.
After a few minutes Michael finally starts talking, and James does what he should have done the first time Michael tried to bring this up: He holds on as tight as he can to him, and listens.