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Bravery Practice

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If anybody had ever asked him, Michael would have told them that the best thing about New York is that you got to make your own family. Mostly because of the city itself; he loved living in New York, loved everything about it, pretty much, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t big and scary when you were on your own. So people stuck together so they wouldn’t get chewed up and spit out by the city, but sometimes it was just because they didn’t have anyone else to look out for them.

Michael pretty much got the short end of the stick in the family department, but once he moved to New York he discovered that a lot of people did. A lot of the other actors he met at auditions and in acting classes were tossed out by their families, sometimes for being gay, and sometimes just for being dumb enough to want to act. It made Michael feel a little less like a freak to know he wasn’t the only one, anyway, and that made it easier not to have any of his real family around for the holidays.

Not all his friends had lousy families. Ellen’s parents were still in touch, though her father ragged on her all the time about giving up on acting and getting a ‘real job’. But the joke was on him, because Ellen was the only one of Michael’s friends who did have a steady job at the moment.

His friend Kurt had a pretty good family too, though he’d left them behind somewhere in Nowheresville, Ohio to come to the city and try to land his big break on Broadway. They met in line at an audition for an off-off-off-Broadway revival of La Cage aux Folles: Michael showed up in drag, Kurt didn’t. Neither of them got a callback, and afterward they drank coffee at some dive in the Village and traded stories about their experiences in New York so far.

Even though Kurt had a dad who practically worshiped him and a stepmom he actually got along with and a boyfriend who looked like he’d just stepped right off the set of Friday Night Lights or something, they’d been pretty much inseparable ever since. Which was the only reason Michael was hanging out in the kitchen of Kurt’s shitty apartment on Christmas Eve instead of going home to his own shitty apartment to lie in bed and stare at his scenic view of the 4 line tracks and feel sorry for himself for not having a meathead all-American boyfriend to drive up from Ohio to make out with him under the mistletoe all night.

Seriously, they’d been at it for like half an hour, and if they didn’t get a room soon people were going to start leaving. Michael got the feeling Kurt had forgotten that he was even having a party as soon as his boyfriend showed up to surprise him, so Michael had spent the night making sure people had drinks and refilling chip bowls. And okay, glaring at Kurt and said boyfriend, but that was mostly because it was Christmas and he was still pathetically single and Ellen was in Nebraska or somewhere tragic like that with the touring company of “Guys and Dolls”, and maybe he was a little jealous.

“Guess some things never change.”

Michael turned at the sound of the voice, frowning as he tried to place it, because it sounded sort of familiar, but he was pretty sure it wasn’t one of his friends. Then he caught sight of the cocky grin and those stupid blue eyes and he felt his jaw drop.

”Vlad?”

“Still got a thing for jocks, I see. Or is it the other one you’re drooling over?”

Michael blinked and glanced over at Kurt and his boyfriend again, then looked back at the Vlad-shaped hallucination in front of him. “That’s my friend Kurt and his disgustingly all-American boyfriend, and I’m not drooling over either of them.”

And okay, so Kurt’s boyfriend happened to be exactly Michael’s type. Except Kurt got lucky and picked one who turned out not to be a closet heterosexual who was only playing gay to fit in with the theater crowd. It probably helped that Kurt’s boyfriend went to Ohio State on a football scholarship, so there was no reason for him to pretend to be gay. The fact that he was out and still the running back for the Ohio State football team...well, Michael would never admit it to Kurt, but it sort of gave him hope that someday other kids wouldn’t have to grow up the way Michael did.

“What are you doing here, anyway? And why aren’t you blond?” Michael asked, narrowing his eyes at Vlad’s perfectly mussed hair, which was an alarmingly attractive shade of dark brown. Vlad reached up and ran a hand through it, somehow managing to muss it even more perfectly in the process.

“Oh, yeah. It’s for a part. We close next week, I can grow it back out then. Unless you think I should try the shaved look,” Vlad said, nodding toward the show in the center of the room, where Kurt and his perfectly bald boyfriend were still wrapped around each other.

“You mean you live here?” Michael said, as though New York City wasn’t one of the biggest cities in the world. As though they should have run into each other before now, which was crazy, he knew, except that the theater scene wasn’t really all that big, and ‘Vlad’ wasn’t exactly a common name, so Michael should have at least heard he was around.

Vlad’s smirk was just as annoying now as it was three years ago at camp, and when he swayed into Michael’s personal space Michael didn’t bother trying not to roll his eyes. “For about six months now. Before that I was in L.A.”

Of course he was in L.A.; that town was made for guys like Vlad. Except that meant there were lots of guys just like Vlad there, and Michael knew from experience that Vlad couldn’t handle the competition.

“You never answered my question,” Michael said, frowning and doing his best to ignore the way Vlad was leaning into him, because he knew Vlad, and he knew it didn’t mean anything. “What are you doing here?”

“It’s a party,” Vlad answered, then he lifted a plastic cup full of what Michael could only assume was Kurt’s special recipe champagne punch. “I’m mingling.”

“It’s my friend Kurt’s party,” Michael said, gesturing toward the couple he assumed were still making out on the other side of the tiny living room. “You didn’t even know who he was, so obviously he didn’t invite you.”

Vlad’s smirk turned up a notch, and Michael felt his cheeks heat up. His skin had cleared up a lot in the years since he last saw Vlad, but turning bright red over Vlad making fun of him wasn’t exactly the look he was going for either. Not that he had any reason to try and impress Vlad, of all people. Not that Vlad ever thought about anybody but himself, unless he’d grown a new personality in the past three years.

“This girl in my show invited me. Rachel or something. I think she was angling for a date, actually, but she’s not really my type.”

“What, no pulse?” Michael asked before he could stop himself.

The truth was he knew Rachel; she went to high school with Kurt, and Michael had met her enough times to know that she had the kind of personality Vlad wouldn’t want to compete with. But that hadn’t stopped him from hooking up with Jill back at camp, and Michael was sure there were plenty of other girls in Vlad’s past with a flair for the dramatic to rival even Vlad’s.

Instead of rolling his eyes and getting defensive, Vlad just smirked some more and leaned against the counter next to Michael. “I should be mad at you, you know.”

Michael felt his jaw drop again, and he knew it wasn’t the most attractive look for him, but seriously, Vlad should be mad at him? “I haven’t even seen you in, like, three years.”

“Yeah, I know,” Vlad said, and Michael never actually saw him move, but suddenly he was crowding in again, radiating body heat and some cheesy cologne that despite his best efforts, totally made Michael want to, like, lick his neck. “But you would have saved me a lot of trouble if you’d just let me kiss you three years ago.”

And now Michael was sure that he’d gone crazy, or maybe slipped on some ice and given himself brain trauma, because clearly he was hallucinating. There was no way Vlad Baumann was standing in front of him, looking just as straight and self-centered as ever, flirting with Michael like they hadn’t been through this already. He wished suddenly that Ellen was here, if only because he’d heard there was safety in numbers.

“I don’t even want to know how you think me stroking your gigantic ego would have saved you any trouble.”

As soon as he said the word ‘stroking’ he regretted it, but seriously, he was nearly twenty years old now, and he should be past blushing over an unintentional sexual innuendo. Apparently Vlad was still, like, twelve, though, because he snickered and leaned a little closer.

“If you’d let me kiss you back then I might have figured out how much I liked it.” He could feel the words on his skin, Vlad was so close, and Michael fought the urge to close his eyes only because he wasn’t sure what Vlad would do if he let his guard down. “Not that figuring it out hasn’t been fun, but you could have saved me some time.”

“This is a joke, right?” Michael asked, and it had to be, because there was no way Vlad was coming out to him. Not now, after three years of trying not to remember that one moment by the lake, when he did the right thing and pushed Vlad away even though all he really wanted to do was pull him close and find out what the straight boy tasted like.

“No joke,” Vlad answered, then he shrugged and leaned back against the counter again, taking his body heat and his cheap cologne with him and leaving Michael feeling suddenly cold. “But if you want to get back to staring at what’s-his-face...”

“I told you, I am not pining for my best friend or his boyfriend,” Michael said. He cast a sidelong glance in the direction of the living room, but Kurt and Noah-the-Football-Star apparently decided to get a room, finally, because they weren’t making out under the mistletoe anymore. “Though Kurt’s brother is around here somewhere. He’s kind of cute.”

Vlad grinned and leaned in, looking over Michael’s shoulder at the crowd in the tiny living room. “Yeah? Which one is he?”

Michael scanned the crowd until he spotted Kurt’s brother, which wasn’t all that hard, considering Michael was pretty sure he was part giant. A giant who had that Rachel girl backed up against a wall, giving her a dental exam with his tongue.

“I guess Rachel’s not too broken up over your rejection,” Michael said, and when he glanced over at Vlad they were barely two inches apart. “She...uh...seems to be pretty friendly with Kurt’s brother.”

“Like I said, she’s not my type,” Vlad said, then he swayed forward and kissed Michael square on the lips.

This time Michael didn’t stop him. He knew he should; even as he parted his lips and rested a hand on Vlad’s hip, his brain was screaming at him to stop, to back away to a safe distance and ask Vlad what the hell he thought he was doing, showing up out of nowhere and kissing Michael without even bothering to ask how he’d been for the past three years. But Vlad was a really good kisser, as it turned out, and he was touching Michael like maybe he even meant it a little. His hand was resting on the back of Michael’s neck, drawing distracting little patterns on his skin while he kissed Michael like he’d been thinking about it for a long time.

Three whole years, maybe, and just the thought of Vlad pining sent a shiver running down Michael’s spine. And he wasn’t dumb or delusional, at least not anymore, so he knew better than to think Vlad had been pining for him. More likely he hadn’t let it go all this time because Michael was the only person to ever say no to him, and he couldn’t rest until his record was perfect.

The thought made Michael laugh against Vlad’s mouth, and he flattened a hand on Vlad’s chest and pushed him backwards, just far enough to break the kiss.

“Seriously, what the hell?”

Vlad let go of Michael to reach up and run his thumb over the corner of his own mouth, lips sort of parted and when he smiled a little and shrugged Michael had to stop himself from shoving Vlad a lot harder this time. “I guess I’ve always wondered what it would have been like.”

“Yeah, well, now you know,” Michael said, and when he rolled his eyes this time it was mostly at himself, because seriously, he knew better than to let Vlad get the upper hand. And Michael hadn’t been pining either, so he wasn’t about to let Vlad think he had, but he felt his hands tremble a little when he crossed his arms back over his chest.

For a minute Vlad just stood there and looked at him, head tilted to one side like he was trying to figure something out. Like he was trying to figure Michael out, and the thought sent a spiral of warmth curling in Michael’s stomach. He ignored it and shifted his weight and hoped that Vlad wouldn’t notice the effect one stupid kiss had on him, but it was Vlad, so of course he noticed. His gaze drifted down the center of Michael’s chest, then back up again, and before Michael could react Vlad was pushing back into his personal space and reaching up to run his thumb over Michael’s bottom lip.

“So what if I want to do it again?”

And it was pathetic, the way Michael’s knees went weak at just the sound of Vlad’s voice. He’d had years to get over this stupid crush, years of assuming Vlad was going to be a momentary regret from his past and nothing more. Just another embarrassing story about his painful adolescence, one of those ‘that which does not kill us’ tales he only confessed after his cheeks were already flushed from too much cheap wine.

Never in any of his fantasies had the idea of Vlad reappearing out of nowhere ever entered his mind, and even if it had, he would never have expected to find out that not only did Vlad regret that moment too, but that he seemed pretty determined to make up for it.

“You’re not even gay,” Michael said, but his voice was sort of breathy and he knew if Vlad kissed him again he wouldn’t have the strength to stop him.

“Michael,” Vlad said, and there was something about the way he said it, exasperated but kind of amused at the same time, like they were just two old friends who hadn’t seen each other in awhile, that made Michael’s heart skip a beat. “A lot can happen in three years, you know.”

“So...what, you are gay now?”

“Let’s just say I like to keep my options open," Vlad said, grinning like he knew exactly how charming he was.

Michael rolled his eyes again, and seriously, he was starting to get a headache. “Still embracing the whole concept of commitment, then?”

“For the right guy, maybe,” Vlad said, and Michael wasn’t sure whether to kiss him again or hit him. Because he might have figured out he actually liked kissing guys, but he was still the same old Vlad, saying whatever he thought people wanted to hear just to get his way.

He should walk away. He should turn around and walk right out of the kitchen, right out of the apartment and right to the train station. He should go home and pull the covers over his head and stay there until Christmas was over for another whole year. Because he was lonely, sure, but he wasn’t this lonely.

Except maybe he was, because when Vlad leaned in again Michael didn’t stop him. He didn’t pull away when Vlad’s mouth pressed against his, and when Vlad’s hand curled around the front of his shirt to pull him closer, Michael didn’t try to stop him. He just...kissed Vlad back, like any of this made any sense at all.

“So what do you say?” Vlad murmured against his mouth, smile curving against Michael’s lips and making it really, really hard to focus on the question.

“I say you look better as a blond.”

Vlad laughed, warm against Michael’s cheek and he pulled back to run his hand through his hair. “Then come to my last show next week. You can come backstage after and help me dye it back.”

“Are you, like, asking me out?” Michael asked, and he was blushing again, but if he was going to let Vlad back in his life or whatever, he wanted to know what he was getting into, exactly.

“Yes, Michael, I'm asking you out. So what do you say? Come on, I’ll even put your name on the list so you don’t have to cough up the ten bucks for a ticket.”

“My hero,” Michael said, rolling his eyes and crossing his arms over his chest again to keep from reaching out and touching anything that didn’t belong to him. “What show is it, anyway?”

Grease,” Vlad answered, then he grinned again and puffed out his chest a little. “I’m playing Danny.”

It was a decent part, and Michael had to admit Vlad probably made a good Danny. He’d always had a great voice, anyway, and Michael was sure he could sell the romance with whoever was playing Sandy. The fact that he’d landed the lead role in a show after only six months in New York...well, Michael wasn’t going to pretend he wasn’t jealous, but he was kind of impressed, too.

“Fine,” Michael said in a tone he hoped sounded more bored than nervous. “I guess I can come.”

“Good.”

Vlad took a few steps backwards, hands in his pockets as he edged toward the door, and it took a second for Michael to realize what was happening.

“Wait, so you’re just leaving?”

Vlad paused and tilted his head to the side, flashing that grin that made it feel like Michael had swallowed about a thousand butterflies. “All three of my roommates went home for Christmas. Figured I’d take advantage of having the place to myself for once. You coming, or do you want to stay here and wait for your friend to put in another appearance? Because I saw his boyfriend, and I think you’re going to be waiting awhile.”

Michael knew he should say no. He knew if Ellen found out he was even considering it that she’d never speak to him again. But Ellen wasn’t here, and Vlad really was a great kisser. Michael spared one last glance at Kurt’s tiny living room, but he really didn’t care anymore if Kurt's guests had punch and munchies. Not when Vlad was standing in the kitchen door, eyebrows raised like he was issuing some kind of challenge.

If Ellen heard about this, she was going to kick his ass and then never speak to him again. Michael told himself that what Ellen didn't know wouldn't hurt either of them, then he grabbed his coat and followed Vlad out of the kitchen before he could change his mind.

They walked all the way to the subway station in silence, but once they reached the platform Vlad reached for Michael's hand and pulled him up against a pillar. He leaned in and pressed a soft kiss against Michael's cheek, then the corner of his mouth. Like he just couldn't stop touching, and Michael was pretty sure at this point that his stomach was never going to stop doing somersaults.

"I'm not sleeping with you," he murmured between kisses, but his arms were around Vlad's neck and he didn't even sound convincing to himself.

Vlad pulled back to grin at him up close, then he gripped the front of Michael's coat to pull him away from the pillar. "Guess we'll just have to stay up all night, then."

The train rolled into the station before Michael could answer, and when the doors slid open he shook his head and followed Vlad into an empty car. He let Vlad pull him down onto a seat, and when Vlad didn't let go of his hand Michael told himself that maybe Vlad deserved another chance to prove he wasn't a complete jerk. And if Vlad really had changed and Michael had a reason to tell Ellen about all this...well, he figured she'd understand eventually.