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Twice The Vow

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

When two people in the same circle of friends despise each other, nothing would be easy between the two. There would be the constant internal turmoil of needing to be polite and wanting to pounce at the presence of the other. It would be even more difficult, when one or both of these people begin to age, and slowly realize, that the other’s presence, had begun to leave them breathless and that the world slowed down a little when they’re together.

When two people in the same circle of friends despise each other, falling in love with each other may be the easiest thing they will ever have to go through.

Unfortunately, it only takes less than ten seconds to fall in love. The rest, would be a decision they make for themselves.

In this case, the decision heavily relied on how much Salle couldn’t resist his little sister when she had been practically begging him to fetch her friends. Or more precisely, their friends.

Cessie promised she’d drive on the way to their friend’s place, while he would drive to the venue. This only further convinced Salle to agree with her request, but the confusion written on his face wasn’t lifted as to why she was so keen to have them fetch their friends, when their friends could easily get a ride for themselves to the venue.

His sister who crammed her gradient yellow-green strapless, knee length cocktail dress lined with a petticoat underneath, sat on the driver’s seat of Salle’s M3, chattering away as they approached the main road.

All remnants of a smile he had while talking to her disappeared and was replaced by a hard thin line on his lips as he watched the road. He ran his fingers over his already gelled back black hair to attempt to smooth out any non-existent fringes that stuck out. It also gave something his hands to do while his uneasiness settled in. He knew they were nearing their friend’s place and he was starting to believe this was a bad idea after all. They definitely should have just gone straight to the venue. It was closer to their area anyway.

As Cessie pulled into the side of the road, the man in a pale green, crisp, buttoned-up undershirt couldn’t help but stare pensively out the window of his car, at the building he’s ridiculously familiar with. He got distracted from his thoughts when he hears the hand break and driver’s seat door open.

He flicks his eyes back to Cessie.

         “Kuya? Not going down?”

In an instant, he feels his mouth dry and his palms sweat over the leather seat. He blinks a few times before spreading moisture on his lower lip.

         “Uhmm… Ikaw na lang… I’m…” his eyes scan through the interior of his car. “I’m fine here.”

He turned his eyes back up to Cessie who simply stood there with the door hanging open. He caught the slightest dip of the corners of her lips. A soft sigh escaped from Cessie before she shuffled on her feet to leave.

         “Suit yourself, kuya.”

The door shut and the silence was deafening inside his car. Salle watched her enter the building. As soon as she does, he wiped a palm across his face and leaned back on his seat, staring aimlessly at the ceiling. It left him thinking to himself.

He knew that a lot of their friends knew, that even Cessie knew, yet here he was, fetching them, when interaction could have been completely avoided if they’d just gone straight to the venue. Clearly he wasn’t prepared for this. But thank god he would be busy driving and it was the best excuse had in order to ignore him— them. Them.

 

~~~~

A bright smile lit up on Cessie’s face as soon as she got off the elevator and the hallway filled with laughter coming from Neo’s door. She skipped to the front of the door, with her hair bouncing as she did before knocking on it.

The laughter from the other side abruptly stopped and she heard footsteps growing louder. The door opened and she was greeted by a man, about the same height as her brother, with his brown hair gelled up, wearing a crisp light blue shirt, all buttoned up under his tie. Cessie immediately lunged at him, tackling him with a tight hug.

Neo couldn’t help but giggle as he stepped back to carry her weight and returned a fond hug, pressing his cheek to her temple.

         “Hey Cess,” he muttered to her softly.

         “Missed you kuya Neo!!” Cessie exclaimed, eyes disappearing with excitement.

A tall and curvy figure, dressed in a long, gold, sparkly formal gown filed in behind Neo in the already tiny cramped hallway. She leaned the side of her arm on the wall. A taller man’s head whose face was framed with glasses, popped in from the corner of the wall. He had the widest smile on his face.

         “Si Neo lang?” she teased, her eye lashes dipping once, with one end of her lips tipping up.

Cessie gasped and ran over to her, tackling her with a hug as well. The woman softly snickered while stroking her hair. The other man moved closely next to them with the same bright smile.

         “Namiss rin kita Ate Eeem!!” Cessie twisted her head to peer up at the tall man. “Kuya Phil!! Ikaw rin!!”

A fond smile briefly tugged at Neo’s lips before he slid in between the three bodies to the main room to gather the rest of his attire and belongings.

         “Missed you guys so much, na pinilit ko si kuya na sunduin kayo!!”

It was Phil who made the loudest and most sarcastic “Aaaaaaw”. Neo who was crouching beside his bed briefly flicked his eyes to Phil, who not to his surprise, was looking back at him. He casually snickered off the tease and resumed his task in looking for the right shoe box under his bed.

Mia casually giggled at the exchange until Phil turned back to Cessie.

         “Buti pumayag parin,”

         She squared her shoulders smugly, “Guess he just can’t resist me.”

Mia who still held her gracefully laughed, brushing her fingers over her lips.

         “Maybe he can’t resist him,” her eyes turned to Neo who was busy fitting his shoe on the bed.

Now it was Cessie and Phil with the same sarcastic “Aaaaw”. Heat began to rise to his cheeks, but he decided to ignore it. Neo could only lightly sigh away their teasing.

         “Let’s go na, we’re late.”

He pushed himself up to stand once he’d laced up his shoes and strode across to slide through the small group. Mia and Phil quickly hastened to pick up their belongings. They followed after Cess and Neo with Mia’s hand resting over Phil’s arm.

 

~~~~

The hot afternoon air hit Neo’s skin and it took him a moment to take in his surroundings, he was looking to the side when he walked out the building. Wind blew as they walked out, ruffling some fallen leaves and small particles. Neo had to squint and look ahead to avoid irritating his eyes.

As soon as his eyes turned to the front, his heart skipped a beat. A man with slicked back hair, dressed in a coat and tie had his back leaned on the side of his car. His head was down, busy with the phone he was scrolling through. Suddenly Neo stood frozen on the step. He felt his stomach drop and he didn’t know whether it was a good thing or a bad thing.

         “‘Yun oh.”

He jumped a little when he heard Phil speak from the side. The ravishing young man looked up as he heard Phil.

Their eyes met.

For the first time in several weeks, Salle was forced to look at those eyes he dearly missed. But not in the way they looked as they did then. He felt the heat shoot up to his face and a sudden lump appeared in his throat. Breathing had suddenly become very difficult.

The rest of the group walked past Neo who remained frozen. Cessie with an apologetic smile, patted Salle’s arm before opening up the passenger seat at his side. He seemed to regain his senses as she did and he returned the same smile. He stepped aside and eyed her until she closed the door.

His attention was caught by Mia who stepped in front of him and casually brushed her fingers on Salle’s cheek. The same smile on his face grew a little lighter as she guided his cheek to hers.

         “So gwapo naman ng driver,”

She said teasingly as she patted his cheek. Salle chuckled softly and nodded once as he pulled away. He moved to open the door to the back seat and offered his hand to assist Mia. Another hand suddenly swept in just before Mia’s fingers could touch Salle’s palm.

Phil smugly looked at Salle and it made the shorter man laugh and raise his palms up in defeat. The taller of the two placed a hand on Mia’s waist as she filed in and scooted over behind the driver’s seat.

         “Territorial naman nito,” Salle teased.

         “‘Di ko naman siya territory… pero….” Phil turned his eyes to Salle once Mia settled, “Ganon talaga pag love mo,” he flicked his eyes to Neo who was only now walking over with his head turned down.

Salle tried his best not to follow Phil’s eyes, but he couldn’t. He quickly glanced at him before forcing his eyes back to Phil.

         “Eh love mo pa ba?” Phil asked him with a teasing smile. Salle could only lightly sigh. A hand found his padded shoulder in an attempt to comfort him. He quietly nodded at Phil and the man returned it. “‘Yan pwede mong hawakan kamay niyan.”

Salle softly snickered, but before he could make a remark, Phil quickly slid in and shut the door. They all knew Neo was to slide in as well, but Phil just had to be that asshole. Salle turned back to his front knowing full well that the man he’d been trying to avoid is already standing before him.

He had his head down as he turned. So did Neo.

It was Salle who dared to lift his head up first. Neo followed suit.

Their eyes met with silence.

They never saw each other’s eyes this way. They were always soft and warm, or bright, or piercing with rage. It never resided with this kind of somberness.

He was also the first to look away. Lips dry, he ran his pierced tongue over them, eyes trying to find words to say.

         “Hey,” was what he settled with.

         “Hey,” Neo answered, just as flat and lifeless as the other.

Salle only nodded once to acknowledge it.

Dry leaves scratched the asphalt as it got dragged by the wind. Neo watched one of them float away as silence passed between them.

         “You look good,” it was Salle who spoke, straightening in his stance to ready himself to leave, for the driver’s seat? To run very far away and take a grab instead? To step closer to Neo and hold him until everything will be alright?

         “You too.”

Salle’s words hadn’t hung for less than a second when Neo answered. Despite the rise in temperature, everything between them felt cold. Detached. Fragile.

One could only sigh while the other trained his eyes on the door’s window. Salle was pretty much sure that this conversation was done. They both knew they should have just gone to the venue separately.

He reached over to open the backseat door. He held a hand out for the other to take.

Neo ducked in, completely ignoring the hand offered to him.

As the door shut, Salle stood straight, staring into the setting sun across Katipunan Ave. He felt the wind softly blow past him. He shut his eyes as he took in a deep breath in an attempt to compose himself. He sighed his breath away and made his way to the driver’s seat.

 

~~~~

The car remained chatty within the first several minutes of the drive. Thankfully there wasn’t as much traffic as Salle thought it would have been. This only meant that the time spent driving to Makayo would be lesser, which also meant he can finally put as much distance between him and Neo as the venue would allow. This thought irked him to add a little more pressure on the gas.

Conversation passed over his head and he was thankful, he didn’t have to speak so much since he was concentrated on driving. He also realized he wasn’t the only one who hasn’t said anything since everyone got into the car.

He peered over to the rearview mirror to find Neo quietly staring out the window, seemingly indifferent to the conversation around him. The ends of Salle’s lips tip down before he turned back to the road.

Supposedly, he was to ignore the rest of the conversation, but someone from the backseat had to mention something he wasn’t supposed to hear.

         “Aaaaw look at us,” Phil eyed all of them fondly, his eyes lighting up like he was waiting for everyone to be in on the joke. “Para lang siyang yung tagaytay hits natin mga two years ago no? Parang pareparehas din tayo ng posisyon ng upo nung last time.”

Salle froze in his seat and accidentally set his foot down on the gas. It caused all of them to push back into their seats as their eyes widened, apart from Phil who merely braced himself by holding on to the shoulder of the driver’s seat.

         “Oh fuck!”

         “Kuya!”

Salle muttered an apology one he slowly eased his foot on the gas, while Phil continued to speak, pointing at everyone as he enumerated.

         “… Remember nung pauwi? Diyan si Salle, mas gustong katabi si Cessie. Dito si Neo sa pinaka malayo sa driver, kasi ‘di sila okay, tapos—”

         “—Kayo pa ni Tomas,” Mia chimed in, mocking the tune of enumeration that Phil used.

Phil stopped in his tracks as he got caught off guard. Salle glanced at the rearview mirror to give Mia  a small smile, thanking her for giving Phil a taste of his own medicine.

         “— Ah— Ah-grabe siya ooooh!” Phil swayed back as he stared at Mia, with an easy expression on his face.

         “It’s true ‘diba?” she bit back, turning up her shoulder while her arm folded under her bust. “I wasn’t the one sitting here next to you, it was Tomas. Right?”

Phil remained staring at her and slowly nodding along with the same easy expression, almost even amused at how Mia was playing in. Now all of them practically had a smile on their face; Cessie softly giggling from the passenger seat, even the corner of Neo’s lips turned up while they two bickered.

         “Alam mo baby,” Phil sat back, slinging an arm around Mia’s shoulders, “the past,” he paused as he brought his hand up to make a slow gesture, “Is in the past— okay na ‘yon! I-let go na natin ‘yun!”

Mia merely shrugged his arm off with her eyes dipping once before rolling, while she smirked.

         “I’m not your baby.”

         Phil let out a gasp of exaggeration before continuing, “Edi babe, babu, babs, love, maha—”

Mia elbowed him roughly at the rib before he could get the next word out.

         “Aray!” He rubbed his side while whining, before completely shifting his attention to his other side. “Ano pa bang tawagan niyo? Parang medyo, tahimik ka diyan eh.”

Salle glanced at the mirror once more, somehow unable to not pay attention to Neo.

         “Panget.”

He answered quickly without looking back at Phil, surprising everyone that he actually managed to say something.

         “Uy gusto ko ‘yun!” Phil snapped his fingers brightly and twisted his body in a snap to turn back to Mia.  “Hi panget!”

It took a laugh out of everyone, even from the two who were supposedly indifferent to anything, until they got to the venue.

         “Fuck you, Philippines. Break na tayo.” Mia turned up her chin at him and looked away. “Hmph!”

         “Oh my god?!” Phil stared at all of them, with his jaw hanging, looking stoned and excited over a menial thing. “Tayo pala?! Fuuuuck!!” He turned again, making a ruckus inside Salle’s car and shook Neo’s shoulder vigorously, “Huuuuuy Neo kami na pala ni Mia!!!”

It had Mia throwing her head back with her loose curls bouncing over her frame. Cessie had done the same, while Salle softly chuckled. Neo only shook his head with a small smile on his lips.

Phil nodded, pleased with himself as he waited for their laughter to die down. As soon as silence waved over them, Phil quietly whispered.

         “Eh kayo…” He slowly eyed Neo first before eyeing the man in the driver’s seat. Quietly, he said, “Kayo pa ba?”

A low “Oooooh” came from the other remaining passengers, apart from Neo who simply looked back out the window. His soft smile from earlier disappeared as the road from his view did.

Suddenly the car was sucked into the same tension that Salle and Neo shared just before they left. But of course, Salle’s first concern was Neo. He glanced back at the mirror only to see Neo quickly blinking and squeezing his eyes shut. Salle’s lips pressed into a hard line as he stared back into the road. His grip tightened on the steering wheel. Cessie beside him briefly glanced at him before flicking her eyes to the road.

         “… Low blow Kuya Phil…” she muttered quietly, pouting as she did.

         “You’re so gago rin eh.” Mia bit at Phil, mildly irritated.

Realizing he’d gone too far, Phil bit his lip.

         “… Uy sorry mga pre.” He said, hesitantly.

Salle shook his head a little, his expression unchaging.  “Tangina bro, e-eject kita eh.” He meant it as a joke but seemed to come off the wrong way as both Cess and Mia glanced at him to make sure he wasn’t serious.

Phil ended up turning his head down in his sudden wave of guilt. He nodded, agreeing that maybe getting kicked out would be the only way to answer for his foul joke.

         “Sorry na…” He glanced at Neo whose mind already seemed to be in a different place. “Sige na nga, awat na ‘ko.”

He clapped his hand over his thighs.

         “Maiba na lang tayo,” he declared. “Sino daw ba pupunta?”

Cessie proceeded to carry on the conversation and the tension lifted as soon as the three of them started talking about table arrangements and alcohol if there were to be alcohol at Iya’s debut. Salle barely listened in, catching some interesting information here and there. He mostly bore himself with his eyes on the road and quietly singing to himself with whatever song was on.

Every so often, he’d glance at the mirror, checking in on Neo, as he always did when things were rocky between them. He hasn’t said anything apart from the one word he answered with, except this time, Salle knew he was out of it just as much as he was.

He looked away and leaned his head on his knuckles that were propped up by the window. He lazily stared into the road as he drove.

He knew tonight was going to be long night.

The group of five made their way into the lobby as soon as Salle’s car set off with the valet. Salle trailed behind them while the rest walked in pairs. A tinge of jealousy briefly crossed his head as he saw how Cessie casually held on to Neo’s arm and chatted with him like they were better friends. Last time he checked, he was the one who shared more intimacy with him, but he couldn’t even so much as look at him in the eye now.

They piled into the elevator and made their way up to the floor of the venue. For a hotel meant to hold several events, the space was a little cramped with just five people in. Salle stood at the farthest corner, but Neo was only centimeters in front of him, the fabric of their coats nearly touching. His nose already caught the deep and coolly refreshing scent that could only be Neo. He wanted to drown himself in it once more. His hands itched to reach for him and hold him by the waist with both hands, gently pull him back until he leaned his back on his chest. He wanted to dip his chin on his shoulder and brush his lips at his ear. He wanted to tell him they were okay.

But the elevator door opened. His eyes that he didn’t realize had closed, opened and everyone before him stepped out one by one. Salle deflated, as soon as Neo left.

He realized they’ve already reached the venue he’d been so keen on getting to, but now that he knew he can be as far away from Neo as possible, it left him even more hopeless than he’d been before.

Too many things were happening all at the same time, but all the while, nothing was happening between them.

He knew that he was here because Iya wanted him to be here, but he couldn’t shake off the feeling of uneasiness with sharing the same space with the man who is the love of his life that he might have already lost. Maybe he shouldn’t have come. Maybe he shouldn’t have agreed to fetch them. Maybe things would have been easier if he wasn’t forced to look at him so much through the mirror. Maybe this whole night that hasn’t even started yet could have gone smoother if they just went in and went out of the party separately, pretending that they both weren’t there.

         You can thank me later,

Were the words that echoed in his head that Cessie had said to him earlier, while he got manipulated into agreeing with her. The only thing he’d be thanking her for tonight, is when she drives him home when he believed he’d already drowned himself in so much alcohol that he won’t even be able to put a face on the name Neo.

Salle sighed deeply, but not audible enough for the others to hear. Mia took it to herself to write all of their names for the registration. Guests and staff were shuffling in and out of the venue when they arrived. Soft and moderate beats were could be heard from the inside, and there was a chatter from a good amount of people had already arrived before them.

         “Okay, you’re all in the same table, table number four,” the young lady at the registration said.

         Mia nodded before adding, “Uhh who else is in our table po?”

         The young lady knitted her eyebrows at the odd question, before turning her head down to scan the list. “There are only first names here so, Arem, Yue, Manuel and Libby.”

         “Uy oo nga pala, tangina. ‘San na mga kamag-anak ko,” Phil perked up, before stepping away from the group to make calls. “Una na kayo,”

Mia nodded at Phil before she politely smiled a thank you at the young lady.

Salle’s heart raced as they walked into the venue. He silently begged the Lasallian Brothers that their other friends were already seated. On an estimate, surely their whole extended barkada would be more than ten people, and since he wasn’t listening in on their conversation earlier, he didn’t know who was coming and who wasn’t. He clearly didn’t want to just stand up and sit at an empty table. He didn’t want to make it that obvious that he couldn’t sit through several hours with Neo so close to him, despite the fact that everyone probably already knew and would completely understand if he switched tables out of the blue. Still, he didn’t want to do it without reason. He still wanted to try to have a good time.

And like an answered prayer from the brothers, the first light at the end of a tunnel, he sees was Mappy with his height despite his sitting position, he stood out with his untidily pulled back hair. Sat next to him was a shorter man with two bandages on his face. He sat leaning against Mappy’s arm while they played on one phone together. The second, brighter light at the end of the tunnel was Yssa who sat next to Benjo. She looked uncomfortable in a strapless dress, unbelievably bored as fuck, like if she didn’t love Iya, she’d be elsewhere. Salle thought, his bestfriend looked beautiful anyway. The last person on the table was Asia who sat next to Yssa. She looked bright and stunning in her pale yellow dress.

He mentally threw a fist in the air when he realized he was spared the dread of the confinements of the issue of the table.

Cessie initially sat at their table but somehow Salle managed to get ahead of the crowd and nearly sprinted to table where his tropa were. The rest of the gang hadn’t noticed the arrival of their other friends and Salle nearly knocked Benjo out of his chair when he tightly hugged Mappy from the back. An arm wrapped around Mappy’s neck and he was nearly choking in Salle’s hug.

Mappy flails around while Salle pulled at him tighter as relief washed over him.

         “Ack— Sa—ck— ackay— ckay!” He patted into Salle’s arm begging to be let up.

The group of four he came in with turned their heads at his direction and started to approach that other table to acknowledge the rest of their friends.

Already they were witnessing Benjo, not-so-softly hitting on Salle’s shoulder.

         “‘Wag mo patayin yung bebi ko! Putangina mo talaga ka Salle!! Papatayin kita tangina mo!!”

Salle continued to hug Mappy, completely ignoring the bruise that was beginning to form on his arm. Yssa wiped a palm across her face while Asia gleefully laughed at them.

Phil managed to drive away Benjo’s attention from Salle when he picked up the shorter man into a hug.

         “Pareeee!! Wassup pare!! I missed you!!”

         Benjo then started hitting on Phil. “PUTANGINA IBABA MO ‘KO PANGET KANG GAGO KA!!”

While everyone from their group greeted each other with their cheeks, Salle simply slid into the seat that Benjo had been sitting on. He had reached out to touch Mappy’s shoulder, checking if he didn’t actually choke him.

Benjo was finally put down when Phil spoke again.

         “Uy sige, ‘dun kami sa kabilang table eh.”

They waved at each other, but before all of them left, Phil bent down to be at level with Salle who already sat comfortably at this table.

         “Ano, dito ka na lang?”

Salle simply nodded at Phil.

         “‘Wag niyo na lang painumin masyado… baka magkalat pa siya dito.”

Phil threw his head back laughing. To his surprise, Salle laughed with him. The air seemed lighter, now that he was certain he that he didn’t have to table with Neo and didn’t have to deal with Phil’s foul jokes.

         “Yes boss. Ako na bahala sa kanya pag-uwi.”

Salle nodded at him with a soft smile.

         “Thanks bro,”

They held each other’s hand in a firm shake before Phil patted Salle’s back and made his way back to his.

As soon as Phil left, Benjo was back into spitting his spite on Salle for taking his seat.

         “Puuuutangina, you already saw me sitting there when I got here bro!”

         “Well I’m sitting on it now.”

         “PUTA ANG YABANG NITO AH!”

Benjo with his face already flushed in red, was ready to pounce at Salle. Yssa extended her arm irritably.

         “Puta ano ba?! Upuan lang ‘yan eh!”

         “AYAW MO UMUPO SA TABI NG BOYFRIEND MO.”

Everyone at the table turned their heads at him, but it was all fun and games until Salle’s jaw clenched and he shot him a dark and piercing look.

It put a lump on Benjo’s throat, and to everyone’s surprise, he quickly zipped his mouth shut and hastily settled to sit beside Mappy’s other side.

         “It’s just a seat, benjy, ako parin naman katabi mo…”

Salle heard Mappy cooing at his “bebi” before he turned his head to the stage.

He picked up the glass of water set on the table and quietly drank from it, eyes trained in front of him, at nothing in particular. He reveled in the feeling of cool liquid traveling through his body. It seemed to put him at ease despite all the tension.

         “You went here with them?”

Yssa asked beside him. She had her chin on her palm and she was staring at the stage as well.

         “Mhm,” was all he could muster, lips still attached to the rim of the glass.

         “You fetched them didn’t you?”

         “Mhm.”

         “Cessie dragged you into this?”

With that, Salle finished the glass and nodded as he swallowed. A deep and long sigh escaped from Yssa. She finally turned her head to look at him.

         “Why do you do this to yourself?”

He let out a bitter laugh.

         “Ewan ko ba… Ayoko na ng ganito.”

         “So you still haven’t talked about it?”

He only shrugged.

         “Pano kami mag-uusap, ayaw naman niya ‘kong kausapin. He’s the one who said we needed to cool off, he needed some time alone.”

         “And you’re just going to let him? Without even trying to reach out to him?”

His eyebrows knitted. It took him a second to answer. He finally looked at Yssa in the eye.

         “He’s the one who said we need some time apart,” He paused, “he should be the one to tell me na we’re okay na, or…” he hesitated a bit, knowing he had to say it out loud. “… or this is the end for us.”

         Yssa clicked her tongue, “I know Salle, pero you know him, he has a hard time reaching out to people.”

         “Ako na naman lalapit sa kanya, tapos irereject na naman niya ko?”

She kept her eyes on him as she chewed the inside of her cheek. Her fingers found the top of her hair and scratched it. She turned away before speaking again.

         “I’m just saying… walang mangyayari sa inyo if none of you puts down your pride.”

         But why do I always have to do it?

Salle thought to himself as he took a breath and turned his head back to the stage.

 

~~~~

The rest of the guests arrived, and the multi-institutional barkada came in full attendance. Tomas arrived with Yue, Arem, Libby and Manuel. Salle already took notice of them and immediately, he realized he wasn’t the only one attempting to avoid someone else. It seemed that the boy with gradient yellow hair wanted to come off as subtle, but Salle saw right through it, so did everyone involved.

From the group that came in, Tomas was the only one who sat at the “second” barkada table. Aside from that, everyone greeted each other with hugs and offered their cheeks to one another, the only ones who had no interaction whatsoever, was Tomas, Phil and Mia.

Salle shook his head as he watched the short man head for their table. He guessed they were the table of the sad and bored outcasts with many relationship issues. It briefly crossed his head if Neo and he would end up the same. Would he have to distance himself from his those who used to be his closest friends in order to the avoid the fact that Neo would already be dating someone else from the barkada; probably Manuel, or Ace, or Arem. Could he bare to see that?

He couldn’t imagine what Tomas must be going through, he could have easily just apologized for his non attendance and went with his life not having to watch Phil and Mia frolick for several hours and bare the pain.

         “Uy pre, long time no see.” said Tomas as he gripped Salle’s hand.

It wasn’t as enthusiastic as how he used to greet everyone with all smiles and brightness. Tonight, it seemed as if he spoke, just for the sake of speaking.

         “Oo nga eh,” Salle nodded nonchalantly. “Parang last time, two inches shorter ka pa,”

Tomas let out a dry laugh.

         “Ganon na ba katagal?”

Salle only nodded. Tomas slipped into Yssa’s seat for the meantime while she went to the restroom. He realized he and Tomas has barely even messaged each other over the last couple of months. A pang of guilt hit him when he also realized he’d been a shithead because it seemed as if he’d already cut ties with Tomas when he was the one who got hurt in the first place.

         “Ano, kaya ba?” Salle asked.

The same laugh escaped Tomas.

         “Eh… kesa naman magmukmok ako sa España. Eh buong tropa ko nandito.”

Salle nodded.

         “Ikaw rin,” he reached over to lightly hit Salle on the shoulder, “Tropa ka rin naman dati ‘diba?” Salle snickered. “Tayong dalawa nga yung solid eh, kasi sila din yung mas magbestfriend ‘non.”

A small smile tugged on Salle’s lips as images of their time in highschool resurfaced his head. He had to pull an arm around Tomas’ shoulder and hug him tightly from the side.

         “Sa sobrang close natin, tignan mo tayo ngayon,”

Salle looked down at Tomas.

         “Parehas tayong may iniiwasan sa kabila.”

They share the same dry laugh, but it felt comfortable. They basked in the humor of snitching themselves sympathetically.

         “Ano ba nangyari sa inyo?” Tomas finally asked.

         Salle let out a breath. A beat. He shook his head lightly, “Mahabang kwento pre. Basta cool-off daw.”

         “‘Yan, sa cool-off nagsisimula ‘yan eh.”

Another laugh dark and sympathetic laugh escaped them.Tomas nodded off, staring at the stage.

         “Basta nandito parin naman ako pre,” the man with bright yellow hair reassured. “Ako unang yayakap sa’yo, batiin kita with ‘Welcome to The Club’”

Salle snickered at this. It was comforting to find someone who in a way, shared his pain.

         “Then I’ll just drop to the floor sobbing.”

         “Ayan, tas hahawakan ko kamay mo. Sabay tayo magnonovena sa med building na mukhang simbahan.”

They threw their heads back laughing. For the first time tonight, Salle genuinely laughed and it was relieving.

Yssa finally got back and Tomas had to move to sit next to Asia.

 

Just before the host stood by the stage to get everyone’s attention, the remaining three people from their group arrived. Everyone noticed the twins with what their towering height, large frames and bright, eye catching color scheme. Even addie was noticeable with her large difference in height. Addie and Faye went straight to the other table, while Ace went straight to hug Mappy.

He thanked the Lasallian Brothers once more that no one asked to switch him back to the other table.

 

The host started speaking. She talked about why they were all gathered tonight. Salle is reminded that they were all here for Iya. He remembered that he didn’t come here in the first place just to consciously ignore Neo, even if he still wasn’t sure whether his presence pleased him or not. Maybe both. Maybe he’s just a masochist.

The tension in his frame eased as he took a deep breath. Just a few hours, he thought. Get in. Get out. Don’t look at him too much. And everything will be fine? Right?

The lights finally dimmed

         “And here they are— Iyanna Tanco!”

Everyone’s attention pointed to the double mirrored doors at the back of the venue. All at the same time, loud beats filled the venue, all the colorful LED lights pointed at the mirrored doors, the loud hiss of a smoke machine sounded from the behind them.

The double doors were almost slammed open, emitting a loud noise. And there they were:

Iya stood tall in their heeled boots, with their light frame dressed in a blue pinstripe suit, the fabric almost dusted with sparkle which made them look striking. The look finished with tinted sunglasses. In one swift move, they flicked their elbows up and brought down their fingers to tug at the collar of their coat. They angled their chin up and began strutting down their very own red carpeted catwalk. Their audience roared in a loud round of applause.

The usually awkward looking Iya suddenly ensued with confidence. They were tipping their sunglasses down, they were smiling at the cameras and doing finger guns at their guests while they strode down the aisle.

Salle wasn’t trying to pride himself, but undoubtedly, the two tables of the multi-institutional friends cheered the loudest. Even Salle himself was blown away. For a second he forgot all his worries. He looked around and saw all of his friends clapping, getting teary eyed.

Maybe it wasn’t going to be a such a terrible night after all.

 

And the night went on.

Iya’s parents made the opening remarks, toasts were made, candles were lit and blown, the whole crowd sang them a happy birthday.

After the length of today, Salle’s hunger was starting to settle in. He was hoping that after the opening of the party, food was to come next. To his dismay, Iya announced that they would be playing some games.

Salle could only shrug at his hunger and found that he’d just amuse himself with the games. That was the plan.

Iya rubbed the her fingers together mischievously as the host mentioned the word “games”.  Suddenly names in pairs were being called up and Salle immediately froze. The first names were from Iya’s friends that he hasn’t met yet. Then he heard some familiar names.

         “Can we have Mr. Phil and Ms. Mia? And then Benjamin—”

Everyone from the two tables snickered.

         “—and Don Tomas, and the last pair, Yssa and Libby!”

Salle’s friends began to hesitantly stand up. They pushed on each other on who to walk up first. The whole crowd of people were teasing and encouraging all of them to step up the platform. Finally after a few protests, five pairs stood by the platform.

Each pair was then handed balloons and strips of tape. The host proceeded to explain the mechanics of the game.

         “This game that we are about to play is called, ‘Ilang Pops Mamser?!’”

The two tables of Salle’s friends roared with laughter. All the guests standing in pairs at the front had the same sheepish expression, Benjo’s face having the darkest shade as if he were to combust. Iya laughed it off.

                  “So what we have to do is, person A will tape up the balloon to person B’s lower back, or below the butt. Kung anong trip niyo!”

The crowd once again roared with laughter. Salle was known for being shamelessly sexual, but he was suddenly very thankful that most of Iya’s guests were composed of people of their age.

         “And then, when I say go, person B will have to thrust into the balloon until it pops! The first balloon to pop wins the game!” The crowd started clapping and howling with cheers. “Don’t worry may prize ‘to— A lifetime of friendship with our celebrant. Okay! Let’s begin!” The host clapped her hands together.

The pairs started talking amongst themselves even while they were beat red. There wasn’t anything they could do to leave at that point, so they might as well get on with it.

         “Ayan, malalaman na natin kung sino ang top at bottom,” said the host.

Salle thought it was already impossible for Benjo to turn any more red, but he managed to do that, and he seemed like he was just about to pass out with overheating. Don casually fastened the tape and balloon around him. Benjo couldn’t utter a word the moment they announced the name of the game so Don took it to himself to assign roles.

With the pair beside them, it seemed the game had already started. Mia stood with her back to Phil. She slowly raised her arm over her head and pulled all of her hair from her back to one side of her shoulder, revealing the low back of her slim dress that hugged her curves lusciously. She twisted her neck back and pushed her painted lips at Phil. She slowly batted her eyelashes and eyed him, while he stood frozen, balloon in hand. Mia slowly gestured to the lower area of her back, waiting for Phil to tape up the balloon— when Phil almost snapped back into life.

         “Hindi—hindi—hindi, hindi. Ako na—ako na—. Ako na. Yes. Ako na. Oo. Yes. Me. Not you. YEs.” He shook his head that was bowed down to hide his beat red face. He hastily taped the balloon at his back. Mia straightened up laughing and stepped over to assist Phil.

In the next pair, Yssa stood awkwardly beside Libby, unable to even look up at her. Libby with her towering figure held the balloon up as if it were a biological study.

         “Ahhhh… baka...” Libby started, “Baka mas okay pag, ano… itape sayo?”

         “What?”

         “Aahhh… Kasi mas matangkad ako?... Mas madali?”

Yssa could only shrug as she turned almost as red as her twin. She definitely looked like she would run for the hills.

         “‘Di ko ‘lam eh.” Libby awkwardly held the balloon before turning to the other pairs. “Kuya Phil, paano ba—”

The host suddenly announced a countdown and Libby hastily made a decision to tape the balloon around Yssa’s small waist. Iya had the balloon taped to them while their friend were to do the thrusting.

         “Are we ready to pop?!”

         “Ready!” said the other pair.

         “Ready!” giggled Iya.

         “Ready,” Mia let out in a sultry manner as she placed her hands firmly on Phil’s hips. Phil visibly gulped.

Mappy waited for Benjo to say they were ready, but already, Benjo was clinging on to Mappy’s back, burrying his face to the taller man’s coat in shame. Mappy sighed and raised his thumb.

         “Ready,” he dead panned.

Libby firmly gripped back on Yssa’s hips with a determined look her face. Yssa felt like she would never see daylight again.

         “Ready!” Libby threw her fist up.

         “Oh god...” Yssa hid her face behind her palms.

         “LET’S GET POPPING!!”

The hotest popped up a party popper and the game began. Everyone nearly stood on their feet to watch their favorites go. Not a few seconds in, Mia and Phil were already arguing, Phil telling Mia how to do it.

         “I’ve done a strap-on, I’m probably better you!”

         “Tangina wala akong pake! Lakasan mo yung hip power! Kailangan pumutok!”

Benjo seemed to have stopped working all together.

         “Bebi...” Said Mappy quietly. “You’re supposed to thrust.”

         “Hnnnnn nakakahiyaaaaa!!!”

Benjo started whining while Mappy twisted around to pat his back and console him, telling him it was just a game.

Benjo’s twin on the other hand, had her eyes wide and dead. Libby was thrusting her hips aggressively. Yssa awkwardly stood there, praying that they already pop the balloon first just so it could all end already.

The whole crowd was cheering and howling for their favorites. Finally a balloon popped and not a second later, the second balloon popped.

The host announced that Iya won the game. Most of the crowd cheered. At Salle’s table they booed teasingly.

         “Booooo!! Luto!!!”

         “Lutooo dahil birthday girl!!!”

         “May pin yung suit niya!!!”

Iya only smugly and proudly claimed their bragging rights. They looked over at Salle’s table and they all just simply laughed.

After the prizes were given, the pairs went back to their seats. Yssa slumped back on her seat next to Salle almost exhausted from shame. To his other side, Benjo put his forehead down on the table while Mappy soothingly brushed his back. Phil and Mia made their way back to their table while bickering again.

         “Sabi ko sa’yo hip power, nasan ‘yung hip power!?”

         “Team effort kasi! You were supposed to push back!”

Salle chuckled at them and then trained his eyes back to the stage. Hopefully now that the games are done, dinner time would be very soon.

 

Just as he was eagerly about to get on his feet to line up for the buffet. The host suddenly started calling more names.

And his stomach dropped— his name got called out, along with Neo’s.

The whole two tables shared the same drop of a low “Ooooooh”. His instinct, he turned to glance at Neo.The man already had his eyes on him. Salle felt his chest tighten and his breathing caught up. He looked away.

The host called out three more people from their group which included his sister, Arem and Tomas. Salle wasn’t the only one frozen in place as he saw Arem being forcibly pulled by Cessie from the other table. Tomas casually laughed and lightly clapped Salle’s back, before walking over to the stage.

         “Good luck pre.”

Salle, still planted on his seat glanced over once again. His jaw hung open when he saw Neo hesitate for only a few seconds with everyone from that table pulling and pushing him to the stage, he couldn’t do anything but stand up.

As they began to walk up, Salle turned his head back to the front. He was beginning to blink slowly, the room was suddenly too loud and he believed he was seeing dark spots in front of the several face howling at him and pushing him. He heard phrases over phrases; “just go for it,”, “get it over with”, “wala lang ‘yan”, “tangina mo, Salle ako nga sumali”.

As he got lightheaded, he wasn’t sure how his body was reacting, but he was pretty sure he remained planted on his seat as much as possible, shaking his head vigorously.

He felt like a child at a children’s birthday party being forced by his parents’ to participate. Except usually he’d be excited about these games, and wouldn’t even think twice about joining. Except the games at children’s parties weren’t risqué and people who had issues with each other weren’t paired to play. Except now, he just couldn’t stand being that close to Neo and probably go as far as grind on him for everyone to see, while they both knew it would mean nothing but a joke.

         “N-next game— Next game— promise!”

He finally managed to say. As his sense of awareness came back, he looked up dumbfounded to see Benjo, Yssa pulling at both his arms, Ace, lightly pushing him from the back.

His friends’ shoulders dropped in defeat when they heard the host ask for a volunteer from the other table. They whined as they slumped back on their seats. They all had some side comments, except for Mappy who remained quiet throughout the whole thing.

         “Grabe Salle, KJ naman nito eh.”

A phrase he heard repeatedly from them.

Salle thought they could think whatever they want, he’s just absolutely relieved.

 

From the other table, they put Manuel on the pedestal and after protesting for only a few seconds, he gave in and stood up next to Neo.

The game was apparently called Adam’s Apple, each pair was given an apple. The mechanics were simple, the apple would be pressed between the people’s stomachs. From their stomach, the apple was supposed to end up between their lips. Hands were supposed to be kept at the back and the first apple that reached a pair’s lips would win the game.

On this set, only Arem’s face had gone beat red. Cessie and Iya were laughing it off and so was Manuel and Neo. It was just fantastic that Neo casually held on Manuel’s wrist to keep it on his waist at the faced each other.

Salle rolled his eyes in spite. The crowd started cheering. It was suddenly deafening to his ears. His tablemates stood and howled as the game ensued. He felt heat rise to his cheeks, his jaw clench, and his eyes turning sharp. Every part conscious working part of his brain told him to look away from Neo and Manuel grinding on each other, but every fiber of his being was couldn’t keep his eyes off. It’s just a game . He repeated to himself.

To many, Salle was the epitome of a “chill” guy. Not many things irked on him. Had it been another person, he probably would have given in to everyone’s request. But this was Neo. Neo was different. Neo struck him with an ache the moment he said he wanted to cool off. Every single day of not seeing him and contacting him had been hard for Salle.

He looked at Neo now, and it seemed to him that everything single that wrenched his heart not to do, seemed practically easy to him. A physical ache started pain Salle’s chest as he came to the realization that maybe the only reason for that was because it was over. It was over for Neo, and he just had to suck it up.

The black spots started to reappear again. He shut his eyes and leaned back on his chair. Everyone around him was making a ruckus, jumping and cheering and howling. He forced himself to steady himself.

His world was crashing, but he couldn’t let the world know yet. Not here.

 

~~~~

The party carried on.

The dinner buffet was finally opened. But Salle seemed to have lost his appetite. Every one of his friends however had a bright face and shared light laughs, all the awkwardness from earlier had been lifted.

The first table of their group got to do the photo op with Iya from the stage. Salle and his group sat back waiting for their turn. A conversation about video games carried on among themselves, while Asia quietly sat trying to seem like she was interested. It was finally their turn for the photo op and by that time, the other table had already taken their seats, coming from the buffet table.

Despite everything, Salle still tried to have a good time, tried to be civil about it. As they got up the stage they all greeted Iya a happy birthday. Salle orchestrated each and everyone’s stances, having high, low and medium levels. He was determined for their table to have the best wacky shot.

After the camera had several flashes, everyone made their way down the steps. Salle trailed after them, assisting the ladies down the steps. Before he could step down, he felt a light tap on his shoulder.

He turned around to see Iya. Their sunglasses were no longer on their face.

         “Iya, happy birthday,” he greeted softly, offering his cheek.

Iya pressed their cheek to his. Salle nodded once before turning again. They stopped him again.

         “No wait, I uhh…” They cupped the back of their neck, “Wanted to say sorry earlier.”

         “What? Why?”

         “I mean I knew na may issue kayo… I didn’t think it was that bad.”

A pang of guilt struck him.

         “Aah man,” he started, “no dude it’s fine. Really!”

         “I mean, I just didn’t want to cross the line, man.”

A small smile tugged on Salle’s lips.

         “Hindi naman dude, you didn’t naman. I just...” he trailed off, not sure how to explain himself. “Sa next game na lang ako. Pramis.” was what he settled with. He nodded to reassure both of them.

         “Sige na nga. You sure dude? You’re alright?”

         His smile grew wider, “Yeah man! It’s fine. I’ll be alright.”

He stepped closer to pull his arms around Iya’s small frame. They hugged him back tightly. Salle pulled back with a genuine smile on his face. He wasn’t here to play party pooper and ruin everyone’s mood, especially the celebrant’s.

He greeted them a happy birthday once more before he went and lined up at the dinner buffet.

 

Salle tried his best to keep his feelings in check, at least just for rest of the night. He let people be and he let himself be dragged into everything else. After his meal that he surprisingly didn’t take a second round of, he was suddenly dragged into the photobooth, into the dessert table, to the bar area.

All throughout, they let bodies pass in between them, pretending that the other didn’t exist, convincing themselves that they were fine.

At some point, they got back to the table, but everyone else eventually stood up and started mingling with each other. Salle figured that everything else he could bare with; but the only thing he couldn’t do right now is bare with the questions everyone would ask. So he stayed at his table, staring lifelessly at the stage.

 

From the table across, where most of the group already coupled in, Phil sat next to Neo and he followed Neo’s line of sight. He saw Salle sitting by himself at the table next to them. He let out that sarcastic, “Aaaaaaw,” until Neo turned to look at him.

         “Mag-isa lang si baby mo,” he cooed at him, while pouting.

         Neo snickered. “Well, he shouldn’t be bumming himself out and creating a scene.”

         “Eh ganon talaga.” Phil shrugged. “Lakas ng tama mo sa kanya eh.”

Neo’s smile disappeared into a thin line.

         “‘Di mo man lang ba siya namimiss?”

Neo laughed dryly. His words caught when he spoke.

         “Of course I do.”

         “Eh ba’t ‘di niyo kasi pag-usapan?” Phil waited for an answer and Neo just shrugged his shoulders. “Eh ikaw naman pala eh. Ayaw mo naman pala kausapin eh.”

         “I didn’t say that—”

         “Ayan lang siya oh!” Phil pointed with his lips.

         “Phil, really, now isn’t the time—”

         “At least say something naman. ‘Di ‘yung nagkukunwari kayong hindi nag-e-exist ‘yung isa.”

         “Mhm, sure. Because you and Tomas are still best friends right?”

         “Pffffft, iba naman ‘yun eh.” Phil made a face at Neo before shaking his head. “Kami, wala na kami. Kayo, baka naman may magagawa pa diyan… Mahal mo pa ba?”

It took Neo a second. He glanced back at Salle.

Without the answer Phil was looking for, he waved a hand in Salle’s direction and dipped his head. Neo let out a long sigh.

He mustered up all the courage he could get and finally stood up, excusing himself from everyone around the table. The few steps to get to where Salle was felt longer than it should have been. The flood of Iya’s guests disappeared from his vision, and the world centered in on Salle.

He stopped half way and looked back at Phil. His friend nodded him encouragingly.

He blinked and nodded to himself before stepping closer. He swiftly pulled the back of Don’s chair and quietly sat on it. Salle seemed to have shut down already when he didn’t so much as flinch at his presence.

 

Salle’s eyes bore into a spot on the couch propped on the stage. Unfeeling, unspeaking, while the world moved around him.

         “Hey,”

He heard a familiar voice he knew so well, but he thought that maybe he was just hallucinating already.

         “... Salle,”

He blinked as he heard it again. A waiter stood behind him and poured water into a glass, that he didn’t pay much attention to.

         “Thank you po,”

Said the voice again. He snapped out of his trance and looked to his side to find him sitting there.

It took him several seconds for it to register that Neo was sitting next to him. The man wasn’t looking at him, he was looking at the stage. He couldn’t see Neo’s eyes properly. He wasn’t even sure if it was real. He glanced at the water glass briefly questioning what was in it that he drank.

         “Salle,”

He looked back at Neo. A second passed before Neo finally looked back.

Their eyes met.

Salle swallowed the lump in his throat. His name echoed in his head in Neo’s voice. It was calm, soft. He still couldn’t muster up a word.              

         “Salle, Iya came to me kanina, after mag-photo op sa stage,”

Salle tried to understand what the words he was saying meant.

         “And they told me na maybe they just shouldn’t have invited you. They felt bad about what happened kanina,”

Salle blinked. His eyebrows knitted. That was resolved. I already talked to them. He meant to say.

         “Look, I know we’re not okay. I didn’t expect any of that to happen. But—” Neo clicked his tongue and turned his eyes back to the stage, “Dammit, Salle. This isn’t the time and place to do this, we shouldn’t drag other people into this.”

He turned his body back to the stage and slumped back on his seat. A heavy sigh left through Salle’s nose. He’d already felt shitty about what he did earlier, he didn’t need another person scolding him, let alone the person he’d been in hot water with.

         “It's Iya's birthday Salle,”

He only nodded. He figured Neo only came here to scold him. He might as well just take it and wait for the other to leave.

         “It's not always about you.” Neo muttered to himself.

 

And the fragile glass broke.

Salle’s breath is caught and his whole body felt a rush of heat, that made the fabric of his shirt cling to his skin. His hands turned into fists over his thighs.

Everything was bearable up to this point.

         “Not always about me?”

He spit bitterly to himself. He said the phrase over again, slow that time. He laughed bitterly. His skin vibrated with resentment.

Neo’s eyes turned back to Salle in curiosity. He saw how Salle’s jaw clenched and his eyes were brimming with anger.

         “Salle…?”

         “I don’t fucking get it Neo.”

Neo leaned away, taken aback by the sudden sharpness of the foul word.

Salle shook his head and gritted his teeth. His breathing was getting heavier. He flicked his head to look Neo in the eye.

It had Neo frozen in place. He had to look away.

He couldn’t.

         “I don’t know if you just want to keep blaming me or if you’re too blinded by your selfishness.” his eyes bore into those light blue icy pools, “Pero putangina okay, between us two, trust me, it’s almost never about me.”

Neo sat stunned. He blinked several times as a light sob escaped him. He tore his eyes away and willed himself not to let tears spill as they stung his eyes.

Salle turned back to the stage with his knees bouncing in annoyance. He took a deep breath as his demeanor turned cold.

         “Don’t fucking ignore me the whole day then decide to sit next to me only to give me that kind of bullshit man.” he spit the words at Neo in complete spite.

A second passed as Neo felt a rush of heat w over his skin. He suddenly felt the weight of the world. His chest tightened even more so when Salle swiftly stood up and quickly left the venue.

 

~~~~

White smoke blew from his nose as he leaned against the marbled wall beside the hotel’s entrance. He took the cigarette between his fingers and pulled it from his lips.

He brought his fingers down to the side and lightly tapped off the excess. The streets had some light traffic, but it wasn’t as loud as the usual weekends. The air blew across Salle’s face. It was seemingly hot and dry despite the time nearing ten in the evening.

His eyebrows still knitted as he drew in another breath from the cigarette. Just as he felt his chest loosen, a man in a coat with a crisp light blue shirt and a tie around his neck walked out through the hotel’s exit.

         “Fuck,” Salle muttered to himself before turning his back on the man.

         “Salle,” Neo shortened the distance between them anyway. “Salle!”

         “Leave me alone, Neo.” he deadpanned.

Salle strode further away without facing Neo. He turned to the corner of the street, away from the slightly hectic entrance of the hotel.

Neo, without giving up, chased after him.

         “Salle ano ba—“

         “Ano ba?!” Salle threw the remnants of the stick as he twisted to finally face Neo.

Their eyes met once more. Salle’s were wide open, frantic, angry and pleading; Neo’s were sharp, determined, but all the while at the very brink of spilling tears.

They both heaved for air.

         “Leave me alone—”

         “No.”

Before Salle could turn his back, Neo cut him.

         “No?” He repeated mockingly. He turned to face Neo again. His face felt hotter as he chuckled darkly, “No?!” He demanded Neo in question.

A lump formed at Neo’s throat and all he could do is stare right back into Salle’s eyes.

         “No. Okay, no.” Salle said sarcastically, “No, pero when you say it, I have to suck it up when you push me aside? Pag ikaw okay lang, pero pag sa'kin, no?!”

         “Oh my god, Salle,” Neo sighed, exhausted. He wiped a palm across his face.

Salle shook his head and turned to leave again.

         “Can't we talk about this?!” Neo pleaded, raising his arm.

Salle whipped around and advanced on Neo with frantic eyes.

         “Every fucking time this happens to us, I always want to fucking talk about it, what do you fucking do?” Salle jabs his finger out, nearly hitting a street lamp, “Nagwa-walk out ka! Kasi sinasabi mo you want to be left alone.” He held his own chest harshly,  “Ako, hinahayaan kita. Tapos ako bawal?”

         “Eh kasi naman!” Neo stomped his foot in distress, raising his voice at Salle, “It's as if I always have to be talking to you all. The fucking. Time!”

Salle smiled in complete annoyance as he lightly shook his head. Neo continued to shout him.

         “I have my life to live. I have so much shit going on and I just can't handle all of it including you at the same fucking time!” He jabs a finger at Salle’s chest, “I'm sorry if I need more space than you, pero nakakasakal ka na kasi!”

         “So ako pa mali because I care about you so much?! Because I want to spend time with you!?”

Neo felt his stomach drop. His chest tightened all at the same time. He couldn’t hold Salle’s eyes and he blinked and looked away.

         “God Neo!” Salle raised his voice, his hair beginning to stick out at his body shook, “So ano? Ako na naman mag-aadjust? Para sa oras mo? Para sa'tin? Para mag-work tayo?”

Neo stepped back, biting his lip. He wanted to run away. His hands itched to slap him. His whole body itched to just pull his arms around— Anything to shut him up so they could just stop fighting like this.

         “May acads ka, may meeting ka, may org ka, busy ka. OKAY! Sige na!” each word Salle bitterly spat out, “I have all of those too, but fine! Sure! Ikaw lang nahihirapan sa’tin eh!”

         His voice lowered and he put his palms up by his chest, “Sige, I'll step back. You live your life without me bothering you 24/7. And we're fine that way ‘diba? We're good. Hindi naman kita nilalapitan ngayon ‘diba?” He paused. “So fucking leave me alone.”

He turned his back once more fuming as he walked further along the street, grinding asphalt as he set his foot heavy with each step.

         “No, Salle! Ano ba! Talk to me ng maayos!” Neo screamed.

         “Putangina!” He twisted on his heel to face him, “ba't ba ang kulit mo?!” He screamed back, causing his throat to itch.

         “Just because—” Neo words began to break, “—h-handling your life with me in it is easy for you, it doesn't mean it's the same for me!” He screamed at Salle, trying to keep his eyes locked on his through his blurry vision, “I easily get overwhelmed with the shit happening in my life and sometimes I just need to get my shit together without you pushing on me!”

Salle jammed is fist in his pocket and paced around just a few steps in front of Neo. He ran his fingers through his hair, over his face, at the back of his neck.

         “I don't push you away because I want to set you aside, I do it kasi I don't want you to deal with me when I'm in a bad place. Kasi I need time to assess my feelings and my situation by myself. I end up feeling even more pressure when you just keep asking and nagging me and demanding me to answer!—”

         “—Neo magboyfriend kasi tayo!” He cut in yelling, stopping in his tracks as he fully faced Neo. “Meaning kung may problema, pag-uusapan natin,” He said through his teeth, “hindi 'yung lagi kang magsasarili, lagi kang magwawalk-out and throw me out of the picture and pick me back up pag okay ka na, na parang nothing happened!”

         “Am I not allowed to have time for myself?!”

         “—I'm always giving you time for yourself!!—” He emphasized each word with his voice amplified, ringing through the silence of the streets.

Only their heaving breaths could be heard for a beat.

         Salle’s voice broke as he yelled through  catching his breath. “—That's why it feels like we're not even together anymore!”

Neo’s lips trembled as he felt tears rolling down his cheeks.

 

         “Guys...”

Salle turned his back on Neo, avoiding who ever the person’s voice came from as well.

Neo wiped his eyes with his fingers before turning to look up to see Phil with a worried expression.

         “...Mag-e-eighteen roses na…”

Salle tipped his head back and shut his eyes. He gently rubbed his fingers on his temples. As he stepped back and forth at an even pace.

Neo sniffed and cleared his throat. He straightened up himself and wiped his tears again. Phil stepped closer to Neo and silently handed him a handkerchief.

Neo forced a smile as a thank you and took it to dab it on his eyes.

He sniffed once more before walking back up the street to the venue. Phil rubbed Neo’s back before he went.

         “Salle?”

         “I’ll be there.” He muttered.

Phil hesitated, looking back from the corner of the street then back to Salle.

         “… Pare…”

         “I said I’ll fucking be there.” He turned to face Phil with the same rage-filled eyes. “Give me a fucking minute.”

Phil felt small despite the fact that he was taller than Salle. He bit his lip and nodded before he made his way back up the street.

Salle blew out a long and heavy breath. He placed both of his fists on the marbled wall and rested his forehead on them. He shut his eyes to even his breathing.

 

~~~~

Realizing he’d have a second strike if he missed his name for the roses, he straightened up and gathered himself. He made his way back into the venue.

Incidentally, Salle felt oddly calmer. The tightening of his chest was beginning to loosen. His face finally relaxed in his after cry.

He arrived as his name was called for a second time. He strode across the floor in haste, completely ignoring the line of men and women. He picked up a white rose as he crossed and automatically fitted his hands on Iya’s waist.

         “Dude, I thought you already left,” Iya’s laugh was light.

It tugged a smile on Salle’s face.

         “Got caught up lang. Naalala ko na it was your birthday.”

Iya nodded. They briefly glanced over Salle’s shoulder.

         “Seems intense.”

Salle sighed. Neo must be next to him in line.

         “Is everything alright?” They asked.

         “Uhmm...” Salle hesitated, eyes searching the wall behind Iya for answers. He let a smile be forced on to his lips and looked back into Iya’s eyes. “I’m here because it’s your birthday.”

Another light laugh slipped out of Iya’s lips.

         “Sige na nga,” they nodded, taking the answer. “Basta next time kwento mo,”

He nodded.

         “For our next rose, let me call up, Mr. Anthony Loyola!”

Salle and Iya stood with their arms around each other for the photo. He quickly pressed his cheek to Iya’s as he greeted them a happy birthday once more. He held them and only stepped back once Neo’s hands replaced his.

Salle stepped out of the spotlight and made his way back to his table.

 

It seemed like hours ago since he sat back here and Neo sat next to him. Mappy was already there, but Benjo, Ace and Tomas were nowhere to be found. Yssa gave Salle an apologetic smile as he sat down. Asia was leaning against her shoulder while they watched the 18 Roses.

Salle was about to set his glass down when Mappy flicked his tired eyes to him.

         “Where’ve you been?” he asked softly.

         “Outside.”

         “Okay lang ba kayo?”

This was the most expression he’d seen on Mappy’s face since the night started. Salle looked him in the eye to find concern in them behind his lenses.

Salle’s eyes turned down and he could only shrug.

The taller man reached over and rubbed Salle’s back.

 

The rest of the program was a blur for Salle. Staff and guests moved all around him, coffee and tea were being served on tables, ceramics clinked on each other, beats from the tracks filled the room along with the loud chatter of friends and family, all the while, the programs on the stage carried on. Through this, the only thing he felt was exhaustion. His eyes merely centered in on something from the stage. He’d look away every once in a while to see something he’d found interesting, but apart from that, the world moved around him and simply sat with his mind in the gutter.

Sometime into the night, the formal events finally ended and Iya raised their glass as they and their 18 other shots, downed their glasses.

Iya took the mic and declared that the mini bar was finally open and that drinks were unlimited.

         “It’s time to partaaaaay!!”

They yelled into the mic as the beats amplified and people rushed to the mini bar. Waiters and staff began moving tables to the side to give space to the dance floor.

It was Tomas who laid out four shots on the table in front of Salle. He snapped back into the present and his eyes found his friends with shots in hand.

         “Pare, iinom mo na lang ‘yan!”

He wasn’t sure who said it. He eyed the shot glasses taking a few seconds before he shot up from his seat and downed all four of them.

The crowd around him cheered. The next second he was being pulled to the dancefloor. To this he protested, keeping his feet planted. It was Ace who nearly lifted him and carried him to the dancefloor.

Iya swept in through the crowd and started pulling on Salle’s hands.

He finally felt himself loosen up and a smile crept on to his lips. The next thing he knew, he’d began to lead a dance off with Iya.

The crowd around them cheered. It thickened as the first table of their group stood in. Soon, Salle was replaced by Ace in front of Iya and he stood aside to cheer them on. He was passed another glass of alcohol. He turned to see Cessie raising her glass to him.

He clinked his glass to hers and they downed the alcohol. Salle’s throat burned as his senses heightened. Next thing he knew, he was pushed back to the center of the dance floor and stood in front of him was a man with combed back red hair, his face framed with white glasses.

Through his muffled senses, Salle heard the first beats of the song. It a emitted a laugh out of him. Benjo rounded him, stepping in with the beat. Salle shuffled on his feet eyeing Benjo as he stalked around him. The song riled up to the chorus and Benjo stopped at his right side. They shared a look before looking ahead into the crowd.

The bass dropped, the voice lowered to a whisper. They bent, shuffling their feet and dancing to the beat of a rehearsed routine. The crowd roared with cheers and applauded as the two danced in sync.

Phil slung a drunk arm around Neo, who stood, intoxicated, still entranced at seeing his body hit every beat to the song he’s memorized. He held on to Phil to support his weight. The taller man lightly hit Neo’s chest with his free hand.

         “Uuuuy, ‘diba isa ‘yan sa faaavee songs mmooo?!” Phil slurred.

Neo’s eyes stung and he turned his head to find Don with his arms up, cheering at his boyfriend. Before Neo’s tears could spill, he chucked off the half glass of alcohol from Phil’s hand and downed it.

Phil reached over to take Mia’s glass and handed it to Neo as well. Without missing a beat, Neo downed the second glass.

The song ended and everyone roared with cheers. Benjo was easily picked up by a drunk Don. The smaller man immediately locked his ankles around Don’s waste. Their lips crashed as they stood in the middle of the dance floor. More people howled. Salle clapped at Don’s back before slipping through the crowd.

He made his way back to his table. His seat nearly tipped over as he dropped his weight on it.

The crowded center broke away a bit as Neo swayed to the center. Don stepped back several times until his heel hit the stage. He sat down and Benjo straddled him. Their lips reattached, disappearing from the crowd as the people pulled their attention to a drunk Neo. Another He was quickly followed by another song. Mia followed Neo to the center.

The bass slowed down as a snare hit to a certain beat. The beat dropped and Beyonce’s voice rose. Mia and Neo stood on their heels before quickly shuffling on their feet, snapping their arms to the sharp beats of the song. In one swift move, Neo slide to the floor, grinding his hips down and pointing his toes up.

The crowd was going wild. Don and Benjo were still making out at the side of the stage. Phil slid off Manuel’s arm and dropped into the seat next to Salle.

Salle opened up his arms to steady Phil’s chair. Arem with his glasses skewed was clinging on to Manuel’s other arm. They stumbled away to the direction of the mini bar.

Salle turned his eyes back to the dance floor. He saw glimpses of Mia and Neo grinding sensually on the dance floor. Neo’s face was flushed in red and sweat, his brown hair sticking out. At one side of the crowd, Faye, Addie, Cessie and Iya were rounded in their own group nodding their heads to the beat of the song.

         “GO NEOO!!! ANAKAN MO ‘KO!!!” yelled Phil from his side, slurring his words. “I LOVE YOU MIA ANAKAN MO RIN AKO!!!”

His friend was deafening but a drunk smile tugged on his lips as he chuckled deeply. He eyed Neo, watching where his knees or his palms landed, keeping in mind of any possible injuries he might get if it got too wild.

         “Pareeeee!!” Phil slurred leaning his head on Salle’s shoulder. “Inom na lang, inooooom!!” Phil took a glass from the table and shoved it at Salle’s hand. “Ayaaaan!! More alak!!”

Salle downed the cold glass of water.

         “Alam mo pare,” Phil wiped his nose with his finger, “‘Wag mo na isipin ‘yan si Neo. Tignan mo,” He pointed to the dancefloor where Neo was going wild. “Nagwawalwal na ‘ara lang makalimutan ka.”

He waved a drunk hand at Salle.

         “‘Wag ka mag-alala. Ako nambahala diyan mamaya.”

         This took Salle’s attention. He turned to look at Phil’s droopy eyes. “Hahatid niyo ni Mia?”

Phil’s face lightly smiled like he was stoned and dropped his head in a low nod.

Salle nodded, taking Phil’s word for it. He turned his eyes back in front. He found Neo sitting on the edge of the stage with Mia patting his back. He had his face in his hands with his elbows propped on his knees.

Salle wanted to do nothing but walk over there and pull Neo close to him and tell him that he’ll drive him home.

         “‘Wag niyo na lang masyadong lasingin...” He told Phil, “baka magkalat pa ‘yan dito.” He chuckled.

Phil sighed deeply and leaned forward on the table, his palm caught his chin.

         “Pag-ibig nga naman,” he said in a drunken sing-song.

         Phil whipped around to look at Salle. “Eh ano ba nangyari sa inyo kanina!?”

Salle looked back, merely surprised at Phil for regaining some kind of sense.

         “Paglabas ko nagsisigawan na kayo sa labas, ‘tik pa kayong lapitan ng guard.”

         “... Basta..”

         “‘Wag na kasi kayo mag-away!” Phil whined. “Lab ka pa naman daw niya eh! Alam ko lab mo parin siya! ‘Wag na away!” Phil nodded as his eyelids shut. “We are lovers, not payters.”

Salle snickered. Neo’s words from their fight earlier echoed in his head despite the fuzziness of the alcohol. He glanced back at Neo who was already being half carried by Mia outside the bathroom. Salle blinked slowly as he took an even breath.

He didn’t know how else to make this right. Be he needed to. He wanted to. He wanted him back.

 

~~~~

The after party lasted for two more hours. At 1:00 AM, the mini bar closed Iya’s wilder guests finally started to take leave.

Several minutes before the flock of people left through the venue’s door, Yue and Salle already stood by the lobby. He took it to himself to sober himself up, knowing he was bound to be a Grab driver tonight. They were having a light conversation about being bummed to be the designated driver, meaning drinking less.

All at once, their passengers stumble down the grand staircase. The first people who got to the lobby’s couches in one piece were Yue’s entourage. Libby was carrying a half dead Manuel on her arm. Manuel had his hand pulled back, he had it clasped around Arem’s wrist. The taller man in glasses stumbled as he let Manuel pull him. Tomas trailed behind them, steadying himself with each step by grasping on to the staircase’s intricately detailed handrail. Yue quickly left Salle’s side to assist her kids.

A loud and drunken chatter shot through the silent lobby. The people’s heads at the front desk turned to look up. Benjo was being drunkenly loud and clinging on to Mappy. Yssa in front of them was turning his head back and scolding his twin off. Asia drunkenly laughed beside Yssa. Salle’s best friend tugged on Asia’s wrist, carefully assisting her down the stairs. Mappy was holding on to the handrail trying to steady both he and Benjo.

         “Ys,”

Yssa looked up once she’s helped Asia settle on one of the couches.

         “Bro,”

         “Pano kayo uwi?”

         “Overnight kami kina Asia.”

         “Okay pa naman kayo?” He asked again.

         “I’m going to shove my foot down Benjamin’s throat if he doesn’t shut up!” He chuckled. She let out a frustrated sigh before asking, “Ikaw okay ka pa? Kaya pa magdrive?” Salle nodded once.

         “Who’s gonna ride with you ba?”

         “Uhh...” He scanned the lobby. “‘Di ko pa alam eh.”

Yssa nodded before turning back to Asia who called out to her. She acknowledged him before leaving his side.

It was the katip kids who braved the staircase next. Phil and Mia were already in each other’s arms, giggling and lightly kissing each other as they took each step. Salle suddenly stood up straight ready to sprint up the staircase when he saw that Neo held the handrail with both his hands and took each step slowly. His face was flushed with red. He was sniffling and his eyes nearly closed as he felt through the staircase.

Salle already took a step forward, ready to let down all of his pride just to help Neo get down in one piece. The could have taken the fucking elevator . Before he sprinted up, he heard Cessie call out to Neo’s from the top of the staircase. She didn’t seem as tipsy as the others and she quickly stepped down to where Neo was and assisted him down the staircase.

Salle let out his breath that he held, grateful for his sister.

Closely following Cessie were the remaining people from their group. Addie, Faye and Ace walked down the staircase, without a hint of alcohol in their stances, apart from Addie who steadied herself between Faye and Ace. She looked like she was about to throw up at any moment. Iya sprinted from the venue to walk beside the last group.

Asia’s ride already arrived.

         “Bebiii!! Gusto ko ng kisss!” Benjo demanded, clinging on to Mappy as their group stood up.

         “Oo na, wait lang,” Mappy held on to Benjo and tried to pull his arm around the shorter man.

Salle chuckled as he bid the group good bye. He shook Mappy’s hand before they all went through the door’s entrance. Yssa waved at Salle and he nodded at her.

Salle felt a ruckus behind him. He whipped around and found Mia’s backed pressed to the wall and her arms wrapped around Phil’s neck. They lapped each other’s lips hungrily. Salle briefly looked away looking for Neo. He found him nearly stumbling on his feet to cling onto Manuel’s arm. His lips turned into a hard line.

He only looked back to Phil and Mia when he felt a hand grip his shoulder.

         “Uuuuy pare—don’t,” he laughed giggled as Mia clung to him, peppering his neck with kisses, “ano ‘yun? Don’t drink,” he burped, “and drive!”

         “Pare ikaw lasing sa’tin.”

Phil only laughed hysterically.

         “Sige pare—” Phil slurred, nearly losing his balance, “Una na kami nito,” he held Mia tighter and planted a kiss at the top of her hair.

         Salle’s eyes widened, “What?”

Mia whined, tugging at Phil to step away already.

         “Ayan na ‘yung grab oh!!” Phil pointed out.

         “Ha?” Salle reached out to pull at Phil’s shoulder, “Pano si Neo?! Sabi mo ikaw bahala!?”

Phil waved his hand with a stupid smile on his face.

         “Ipa-grab mo na lang ‘yan!” Phil nodded as he got dragged by Mia, “daming pera ‘yan! May grab pa!!” He waved as they went through the door and Mia pulled him into a car.

Salle stood there, eyebrows knitted, jaw hanging. Phil and Mia’s ride drove away and Salle could only sigh deeply and shut his eyes. He rubbed his temples with his fingers when he felt thin arms sling around his waist.

         “Kuya!!” Cessie greeted brightly.

Salle pulled his hand down from his face.

         “Uy… Ano, uwi na tayo?”

         Cessie looked up at him, “Not going home tonight,” she nodded, “stay kami dito nina Faye, Ace at Addie sa hotel.”

         “Maghohotel kayo dito?”

         “No, dun kami sa room ni Iya.”

Salle nodded once. He considered this, seeing it as an option for Neo. Cessie’s name is suddenly called out by Faye who was frantically patting at Addie’s back, who seemed like she was holding out a vomit. The two siblings looked back at each other.

         “Sige, ingat ka.”

         “Pano si ano...” Cessie pouted at him.

Salle sighed and ran his fingers through his hair, scratching his head.

         “... Ako na bahala,” he muttered quietly.

Cessie brightly smiled at him before hugging him briefly. She pulled away and waved at him as she walked back to her group.

         “Mag-text ka,” he called over at Cessie.

 

Minutes ago he thought he was going to drive most of his friends home, he didn’t realize he would end up driving alone after a party. His eyes found Neo again. Yue’s group began to move, lead by libby who was assisting Arem in first. Neo was still clinging on to Manuel’s arm, leaning his head on his shoulder.

         “Phiiiil let’s go home na kasi,”

He faintly heard Neo whining.

         “‘Di nga ako si Phil,” Manuel protested, trying to pull his arm off.

         “Let’s get Mia na kasi!” Neo cried, his eyes disappearing as he sniffled. “I want to sleep na Phil, my eyes hurt na.” Neo started rubbing his eyes and pressing his face into Manuel’s neck.

Salle felt his heart sag, as he watched him. He stood with both hands in his pockets. His attention is pulled as he felt someone’s hip nudge his from the side. He turned to see Iya with their sunglasses back on.

         “Everybody’s druuuuuunk!!!” they chimed, clearly proud of what they’ve done.

Salle smiled weakly at them.

         “Ano bang meron sa alak mo, bakit lahat sila basag?”

         “For the rest, the blood of my enemies infused with the tears from their eyes when I skinned them of their flesh.”

Salle airily laughed, shaking his head.

         “Pero ‘yung sa‘yo,” they continued, “tsaka ‘yung sa kanya,” they emphasized slowly, turning their eyes to Neo.

Salle followed their sight and his smile weakened. Neo had already stood up trying to follow Manuel when Tomas, despite his shortness held Neo back. Tomas pointed at Salle, saying something to Neo that he couldn’t hear.

         “Nilagyan ko ng love potion. Para you guys make up na.”

A weak smile turned up on his lips.

Manuel finally hopped into the backseat of Yue’s van. Tomas guided Neo back to sit on the couch meant for one. He patted Neo’s shoulder as the drunker man sunk back into the cushion with his eyes closed.

 

         “It’s not my place to say it pero… Hatid mo na siya dude,”

Salle’s eyes turned down to the floor before looking back at Iya.

         “Sige na oh,” they lightly hit his arm, “I’ll consider that your birthday gift to me,”

Salle chuckled.

         “I have a gift for you kaya,” he corrected light heartedly.

         “Ediiii, this is my birthday request.”

A few seconds passed between them.

         “Sige naaaaa,”

Another light chuckle left Salle before he nodded once.

         “Yes?”

         Salle shook his head, “... yeah.” he muttered.

         “There we goooo!” they clapped Salle’s back. “Sige, you guys take care ha!” they stepped back, “I’ll go up na, Addie might make a mess here.” they chuckled.

         “Hey Iya,”

They looked up.

         “Thanks for inviting me. The party was great.” Salle smiled. “Happy birthday,”

         Iya nodded pleased with themself. They pointed wiggled their finger at Neo’s direction. “The night’s not over yeeet,”

Salle shook his head again before he watched Iya and their group walk further into the lobby to get to the elevators. Their group waved at him, Cessie giving him a thumbs up before they entered the elevator. He peeled his eyes away from the elevator and finally acknowledge the love of his life who was nearly dead on the couch.

 

Salle sighed deeply as he eyed him. He could feel his chest shake as he stared at him. He ran both of his fingers through his hair attempting to soothe himself.

He calmly approached Neo with even steps. He carefully slipped in front of Neo to sit on the low, wooden coffee table in front of Neo’s couch.

He took a second to take in what was in front of him. Neo’s eyelids were swollen, his whole face down to his neck was flushed in red, his eyebrows knitted and soft tears were still leaking from his shut eyes.

         “‘Niwan ako nina Phil...” Neo whispered to himself, barely audible.

He wasn’t even sure if Neo already knew that he was sitting in front of him.

Neo sniffed and his hand sluggishly dragged down his stomach, to his pocket to feel for his phone. He slipped his hand in and pulled out his phone. Neo finally forced his heavy eyelids to open. He held his phone weakly with both hands against his stomach and swiped on it.

Salle didn’t know if Neo saw that he was there. Or maybe he was still on that game of ignoring him.

After several seconds, Neo sighed and let his phone drop onto his stomach. Salle didn’t meet Neo’s eyes, but those blue pools stared right through Salle’s stomach.

         “Do you have a charger?” Neo asked quietly, exhaustion evident in his voice.

Salle shook his head, keeping his eyes on Neo.

         “Power bank?”

He shook his head again.

Neo’s eyes shut and he sighed again. He whined softly. More tears slipped through the corners of his eyes.

Salle opened his mouth to ask if anything hurt, but Neo already spoke before him.

         “Borrow na lang ng phone mo...” his voice was small and fragile. Neo’s lashes separated again.

         “Bakit?”

         Neo sniffed. “Mag—” a light sob escaped him, “Mag-grab na lang ako.”

         Salle shook his head, “Ako na maghahatid sa‘yo.”

Neo whined loudly, propping his elbow on the arm rest and dropping his forehead on his knuckles.

         Salle began to stand up, “... Halika na...”

Neo whined again, pushing his back deeper into the coach to avoid Salle’s touch.

         “I’ll grab na nga lang,” Neo whined as more tears fell from his eyes.

         “Wala kang phone, hahatid na kita, sige na Neo,”

Salle crouched down to gently wrap his hand under Neo’s wrist.

Neo immediately pulled away and nearly knocked their heads when Neo shot upright. He held on to the couch as he tried to step away.

         “I’ll borrow Iya’s phone.” Neo said through a sob.

Salle sighed, and closed the distance between them. He gently wrapped an arm around Neo’s back. Neo turned to face Salle and tried to push Salle’s shoulder away.

         “I’ll grab na! I’ll grab!”

         “Neo,” Salle caught both of Neo’s wrists and held him.

         Neo stubbornly shook his head in protest, voice rising as he cried,  “You don’t have to nga! You’re mad! You go! I grab.” Neo’s sobs left his lips uncontrollably.

Salle held him in place, keeping his voice soft and even.

         “Hindi na ‘ko galit,”

It seemed to get through Neo as his wrists lessened its resistance. Neo’s eyes shut again and started whining as his tears flowed. Salle rubbed his lower back and let go of Neo’s wrists to wrap both his arms around his waist.

Neo finally slumped and leaned his full weight for Salle to catch. And he caught him, holding him close to him.

         “Sshh… Tama na.” Salle dipped his chin on Neo’s shoulder while the other sobbed.  “Okay na, okay na...”

At that moment Salle wanted to slap himself. They’ve both been too stupid to prolong their agony, when they could have just talked about it earlier.

 

~~~~

Salle slipped into the driver’s seat once he’d fastened Neo in his. He glanced at Neo while he twisted the key to start the car. The car smoothly hummed to life. Salle’s eyebrows knitted when he noticed something missing.

         “Neo,”

         “Hm?” he managed to get out.

         “‘San ‘yung coat mo?”

Neo’s eyes turned to look at himself, as if realizing only then that his coat was missing. He sighed and simply shrugged.

         “San nga? Baka lamigin ka.”

         “With Cessie,” he said impatiently.

         Salle sighed. “Balik ko na lang sa‘yo next time,”

         Neo shook his head. “No. She can have it.”

Salle rolled his eyes before letting out a breath. He took a beat before straightening up on his seat to slip off his coat. He pulls off his arms and leaned over to Neo’s side to drape it over Neo’s front, when the man shook his head.

         “No. Mm-mm,” He protested with a pout. He sniffed. “I don’t want that. You’ll get cold.”

Salle only shook his head and let go of the padded fabric, leaving it there before he set his hand on the steering wheel. He pushed down the hand break and backed out of the parking lot. Neo didn’t make any more protests, and instead, tucked himself under Salle’s coat and pulled it up to his nose.

         “Nasusuka ka ba?” He asked Neo, lightly stepping on the break.

Neo shook his head.

         “Tell me if you need to, okay?” He stepped on the gas once more, “You know the rule, ‘wag sa car.”

 

As the Salle drove into the mainroad, every so often he’d glance at Neo. He meant it when he said he wasn’t mad at him anymore, but he didn’t know how he felt about him now. He just knew he felt more at ease knowing Neo was drunk, but safe. He sighed, exhausted from today’s events. All he wanted to do now was have a nice hot shower and lay on his bed and sleep.

 

~~~~

The air conditioning hummed as it cooled the temperature of the room. Taft was closer to Makati than Katipunan, and he really didn’t want to sleep on Neo’s bed yet. He wasn’t ready for that. Salle finally got everything he wanted when he got back; having a hot shower, changing into his sleeping clothes, burying himself under his thick and warm blanket. He got everything he needed to sleep, except to actually sleep.

He lay at the edge of his bed staring at the ceiling. His arm lay over his head and his other hand rested on his chest. He finally shared his bed with Neo again after nearly a month and it didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel like how it did before. He didn’t feel like he wanted do drown in warmth and fuzziness, it felt like he just had to shut his eyes for a while only to wake up alone in his bed again.

His eyes stung at the thought and he parted his lips to let a sob pass as he exhaled. It’d been hard for him, going nearly two years of having the same man he slept with at night then waking up to find him next to him. Suddenly he couldn’t even bring that same man to bed with him for several weeks. He couldn’t see him, he couldn’t talk to him, he couldn’t contact him. He went through every single day of those weeks, waking up feeling the same kind of emptiness.

He flicked his eyes to see Neo’s back covered a black shirt that was too big for him. He blinked a few times, his eyes fixed at Neo. He wasn’t sure he was still the same person he loved.

He held him earlier. Neo trusted him for a brief second even under all that alcohol. It felt right holding him then. But now slept only a few inches away from him. He wanted to reach out and hold him again, but he couldn’t. He was frozen in place as if Neo was an artifact he was no longer allowed to touch.

He trained his eyes back to the ceiling. He’d been hopeful earlier, that fixing what they have was still possible, but right now, with the uncertainty of tomorrow, the uncertainty of waking up and finding that space empty, he couldn’t see it. His vision was blurry and he hated it.

He never meant to let Neo slip from him. Maybe the other didn’t want him back.

Another light sob escaped Salle. He shut his eyes from exhaustion, not because he wanted to sleep. This could be the last night he’d share a bed with Neo, he really didn’t just want to sleep on it.

 

The mattress dipped as he felt the figure next to him shift.

 

Neo lifted his heavy eyelids to peer up at Salle through the dark. He saw the strain on his face, how his eyebrows knitted and his lips lightly trembled. Neo felt his lips sag to a frown. He wished he didn’t see Salle like this. Before, everytime he looked at Salle, there would be a warm and radiant smile on his face. The only time he saw Salle like this was when he found out about his grandmother’s passing. And Neo blamed every fiber of his being for being the reason why he saw this much hurt written on every inch of his face now.

He was determined to see that smile back on his face, and he knew that leaving him and everything they shared behind, was not the answer.

 

         “... Please don’t cry...” he quietly whispered, almost inaudibly.

 

A painful smile tugged on Salle’s lips as he finally let the tears spill from the corners of his eyes. His lips parted as a light sob escaped him.

Neo gave in. He scooted closer, leaning his cheek on Salle’s shoulder.

He quietly listened as Salle tried to even his breath. His fingers reached up and brushed the tips of it over Salle’s larger fingers. He heard another sob from Salle’s lips and felt his chest shake.

Salle’s fingers separated to let Neo’s fingers slide into his.

They held on to each other and finally… it felt right.

 

Salle took a ragged breath before he evened out his breathing. Neo waited until Salle’s breathing returned to normal. He held him as he waited.

         “I’m sorry.”

The tightness in Salle’s chest loosened as he heard the words he’d been longing to hear. Another light sob escaped him. He blinked up at the ceiling as he held Neo’s fingers tighter.

         “... still want you...” Neo whispered softly.

Salle felt Neo’s breath on his skin as he spoke. In it he found comfort, in his words, in his skin pressed on him, in his breath fanning over his neck. Somehow all his worries melted away.

He finally felt that maybe he can sleep peacefully at night again.

         “... I want to make this right, love.” Neo whispered as he held tighter on Salle’s fingers.

Salle was too overwhelmed, he just revelled at Neo’s words without interrupting it with his. He pulled his fingers from Neo’s. It got a slightly confused reaction from Neo and he instinctively held on. A smile tugged on Salle’s lips and he let go of Neo’s fingers to wrap it around the man’s shoulder. Neo relaxed under him and he cuddled closer into Salle’s warm skin. Neo buried his face into Salle’s neck.

         “I still love you..." he whispered.

Salle felt his body lift of all its tension. He felt like he melted into a pool under Neo. He scooted closer to his warmth. Salle turned his nose and buried it into Neo’s hair.

         "do you still love me?” Neo hesitantly asked.

Salle chuckled as the last of his tears fell.

         “Yes love…” he whispered back with a smile on his lips. “Mahal parin kita.”

Neo’s breath shook and he shifted closer as if their skin pressing on each other wasn’t enough. If there was a way that they could wrap themselves up with each other beyond the physical boundaries of their skin, they would have taken that option.

 

As Neo drew himself closer to Salle, he enumerated everything that he was sorry for. He promised Salle that he would do better to try and make it work. He promised to compromise instead of just stalking out of an argument. Salle too apologized for everything he did that made Neo felt like he was on a leash. He explained to him that leaving him while they weren't okay worried him to insanity. He felt restless every time it happened because of the unsettling feeling of being unsure whether he'd wake up to get news that Neo had already done something permanent.

At this, Neo took several seconds. He didn't realize that it was what Salle felt when he did that. He wrapped his arm around Salle's neck tightly and held him. He apologized over and over in a mantra. Salle did the same.

Together, they promised to do better.

 

~~~~

The early signs of light began to break through the dark sky and both Salle and Neo remained in each other's arm, holding each other as they talked. It felt like catching up with an old friend, except it was his best rival since their pre-school years, who were now each other's lovers.

Finally the weight that hung from their shoulders since they met have lifted. It felt just like how good it felt to be in each other's company as before.

 

Neo couldn’t help but lightly laugh.

         “We fight like a married couple,” said Neo as he reached up to take his boyfriend’s free hand.

         “Kahit naman before maging tayo, I already kind of knew na we'd be like this,” Salle held on to Neo’s fingers.

         “Wasn't that supposed to scare you away?”

         He shrugged. “Since we met naman, we always fought na... It's nothing new.” Neo only nodded before Salle added, “Before nga ako umamin sa'yo, nag-away pa tayo.”

They both snickered at the memory.

A comfortable silence passed between them. They fiddled with each other’s fingers as Salle stared into the ceiling while Neo’s eyes never left their linked fingers.

         “... Just… Kahit ganito tayo…” Salle started,“I still can't imagine spending the rest of my life with someone else,”

A relieved smile found its way to Neo’s lips and he buried it into Salle’s neck. He nodded to himself, content with the fact that he’s once again felt, that he was home.

         “Good thing same-sex marriage isn't a thing in this country yet.” Neo teased weakly, “you still have time to escape.”

 

Several seconds passed and Salle’s eyes finally turned down to see their linked fingers. He stared at Neo’s finger, the one next to his pinky. An image of Neo walking down the aisle dressed up in a suit and tie passed through his head. It put a smile on Salle’s lips, thinking about how he was willing to go through anything, just to be with Neo.

         “Maybe I don't want to…” He said quietly, folding his fingers in between the spaces of Neo’s fingers.

As time slowed, he realized that maybe Neo was hesitant. Maybe Neo wasn’t sure. Maybe he was only in this alone. The topic had gone and passed, and yet, he couldn’t shake the feeling unassurance off.

         “Do you?”

Neo turned his chin up, trying to find Salle’s eyes. He held his fingers tighter. Salle finally looked down.

Their eyes finally met, again.

         “I just really don’t think I could ever be with someone and love them more than I love you.”

The rise of a storm in Salle calmed with Neo’s words.

         “It feels real and surreal when I’m with you.” Neo continued. “Despite everything, I’m still sure...” Neo shut his eyes and relaxed his fingers on Salle’s. “It’s you.”

 

That was all Salle needed to hear.

His eyes shut, resting their linked fingers over his chest.

         “Tara,” he whispered. “Pakasal na tayo.”

 

Consciousness slipped away with the certainty of greeting the next day, finding each other nestled against the person they call home.