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Slow Motion Comedown

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        In the end, it’s Paul who makes the decision for him.

        Paul, who tells him: now or never.

        In the shade of an awning, Paul tells him, “I love you, Sonny. I always will.”

        Their meeting in the park wasn’t planned. Yet, Paul’s grave expression suggests the ultimatum before Paul even says a word.

        Sonny hugs his arms to his chest and shivers. With the sun setting on them, his jacket already feels too thin for the evening air. Since his mugging, he doesn’t make a habit of lingering in the park after dark anymore.

        He eyes the lengthening shadows with some unease, but Paul has obviously been building himself up for this conversation. Now, it’s happening whether or not Sonny is ready for it.

        Miserable, he says, “I know, Paul.” Of course he knows that Paul loves him. Paul tells him often enough. In different ways, but always the same. The words are always perfect, open, and heartfelt…

        … and four years too late. Paul likes to pretend that four years can be wiped away with an easy swipe of the hand, but Sonny knows it can’t be that simple. Not for him.

        “I truly believe,” Paul says, “with everything in me, that you love me, too.”

        Frustrated and heartsick, Sonny can only shake his head. It’s so easy for Paul to say that to him. He hasn’t returned the words in over four years, but what difference does it make when Paul still hears, “I love you,” in everything he says?

        He can’t tell Paul that he’s right. Paul knows he can’t.

        Besides, love (or the lack of it) has never been the problem.

        He’s married.

        Still, even after months and months of going around in useless circles, Sonny isn’t prepared for Paul to suddenly walk away from him. The frequent repetition of this conversation hasn’t made it hurt any less, but at least it’s familiar. This is Paul deviating from their script.

        Paul’s eyes plead with him, and Sonny doesn’t want to do this. Any of it. Still, he stays, desiring an escape but unwilling to go.

        “I can’t do this right now,” he says weakly. “I’m supposed to be somewhere…”

        “Don’t go,” Paul says. “Not yet. Sonny, we can’t keep living like this, stuck forever in limbo. I can’t live like this. Not anymore. I wake up every morning already thinking about you. I miss you all the time, even when you’re right in front of me. I want to be with you all the time, but it hurts to be around you. Still, I would wait forever if you told me there was a chance.”

        Sonny knows that’s his cue to remind Paul that he has never asked him to wait for him. Any other day, and he would reluctantly play his role.

        Yet, there’s something about Paul’s demeanor in this moment that stills his tongue.

        It’s there in Paul’s tired expression— the suggestion that maybe this time really is different, as if the words will mean something besides just empty ultimatums and more pain for them both.

        What does Paul expect him to say? He doesn’t want to be cold to Paul, but at the moment, he’s stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to hurting people. Plus, their situation isn’t (and has never been) as straight forward as a simple yes or no. For some reason, Sonny seems to be the only one who understands that.

        Possibly reading his mind, Paul says, “I get that you love Will. I do. And I get that this is hard for you, but you have to make a decision.” After a beat, he adds, “Maybe you already have. Is that why you can’t look at me?”

        No. He’s looking away because it hurts to look at Paul when he’s being like this. Plus, he’s shivering and miserable, because it is cold, and he wasn’t planning on being waylaid in the park today.

        And if there were ever truly a decision to be made, then that decision was already made months ago when Sonny decided to make his marriage work. As he’s said over and over again, though no one seems to hear him.

        “Paul,” he pleads, without really knowing what he’s asking for. Possibly relief from the immense pressure Paul is putting on him.

        Sonny isn’t even supposed to be here, doing this for the umpteenth time. Will is waiting for him, with Ari, at the Pub. He’s supposed to be with his family. They have a birthday party to plan.

        There must be something broken in him that he would obviously rather be standing here, suffering in tandem with Paul in the cold than sitting in the warm comfort of the Brady Pub with his husband and child.

        When did this become his life?

        “Sonny, look at me. Please.”

        It’s a mistake to give in, to melt even a little at Paul’s gentle voice. As much as it hurts, Sonny isn’t so far gone that he can’t recognize the absurdity in his wanting to protect Paul from the late-come understanding that he can’t always get what he wants. Everyone has to realize that eventually, even Paul.

        Paul, who stands before him, open and bare in his vulnerability, as he waits for Sonny to dispute what he’s said, to tell him that he’s wrong and that he hasn’t chosen Will over him.

        Except that… he has. He has chosen Will. And Arianna Grace. His marriage. His family.

        Paul wants too much from him. He also waits longer than anyone else would, blatantly broadcasting his hope for a different outcome than they’ve already established over and over again.

        Paul’s stubborn hope is as baffling to Sonny as it is breathtaking. Every time they do this, Paul puts his heart into Sonny’s hands and…

        Sonny can’t. He can’t deviate from the script. Paul knows that. He’s supposed to know…

        He just can’t.

        Instead, Sonny lets his silence speak for him until Paul’s face finally falls. And when Paul turns away from him with a pained grimace, Sonny turns away, too.

        Helpless, he tries to imagine that he’s become a statue, mute and unfeeling. What else does he have to offer right now besides empty platitudes? He knows that Paul wouldn’t want that from him, and so he stays silent.

        “Okay,” Paul tells him, sounding heartbroken and resigned. “If that’s what you want, if Will is who you really want, then… I won’t stand in the way. I hope everything…”

        His voice cracks, and Sonny’s heart cracks along with it. He holds himself tighter, hating this. Every time, he’s hated it. Yet, here they are again, glutton for punishment. Maybe for the last time though.

        A dull ache blooms in his chest at the thought, even as relief sweeps in at the possibility of never having to put himself or Paul through this again.

        “I’m sorry,” he says. And he is. Truly, genuinely sorry. But Paul had to push this, had to push him to the point where an all-or-nothing choice had to be made, all the while knowing that there was only ever one real choice for Sonny.

        (He has a daughter.)

        “I’m sorry, too.”

        Sonny shivers, frozen in place, when Paul gently touches his face. Paul smiles at him with unmasked sadness and regret. “Sonny, just be happy, okay?”

        He nods jerkily, and Paul’s hand falls away. It would do neither of them any good for Sonny to admit that he can’t remember the last time he felt truly, genuinely happy.

        There really is nothing else left to say.

        Sonny watches Paul walk away from him with a knot in his stomach that he doesn’t know what to do with. A part of him is still unwilling to believe this is real.

        He bites his lip and waits for Paul to stop and take it back, to reset the cycle.

        But… he doesn’t. Before Sonny has had enough time to process or fully comprehend the finality of it, Paul has already walked away from him.

        Gone. After all the back and forth, it’s just… over.

        Sonny loses track of how long he stands there. Finding himself at a loss, he looks to the trees as if the answers are somehow hidden there. The park now seems immense and empty to him, the shadows longer. Even the birds are silent, offering him nothing.

        Nothing’s really changed, he reminds himself. No matter what Paul wants or does, Sonny’s life remains the same.

        There’s no justifiable reason to still be standing there, alone, and so Sonny forces his body into motion.

        He turns and heads in the opposite direction from Paul, toward the Brady Pub, where his family waits for him.

 

~*~

 

        It all happened so fast the first time around.

        Before Paul, Sonny was aimless. At twenty-two, he was too restless for college or a steady job. His wandering attention made him useless to the family company. Sonny wanted to get out into the world. He was hungry for experience and open to a world of possibilities.

        For better or worse, home was an abstract concept to him. With his family scattered around the globe and nothing strong enough to ground him anywhere, he was a seed blowing in the wind.

        “Too much money and not enough sense,” Uncle Vic had said.

        Unbound, Sonny wayfared his way through various continents, climbing mountains and exploring ruins in his thirst for something as yet undefined.

        And then there was Paul.

        Who knew the answer could be so simple? That everything Sonny had been searching for could be found in one person?

        By the time they met, Sonny, being passionate to a fault and very much in love with the idea of love— he was ready for Paul.

        He’d been ready. All it took was a single night on a San Francisco rooftop for him to decide that Paul was the one. And maybe that was too much pressure and expectation to put onto one person, but Sonny couldn’t be blamed for getting swept up.

        At twenty-four, Paul was a vision, a dream come to life, and the most wondrous thing of all? He was meant for Sonny. It was there in his gaze, in his touch the first time they made love, in the words that were gasped against Sonny’s skin: this is important.

        The connection was so immediate and undeniable that Sonny happily surrendered everything: pride, caution, façade. He was honest and completely naked in his desire.

        And it paid off.

        Paul took his breath away. He held him still as the rest of the world raced passed, with his gentle hands and smoldering gaze that pinned Sonny to the wall.

        Paul looked at Sonny as if he couldn’t believe what he was seeing and as if he never wanted to look away.

        That first night, Paul held him close and said, with his voice full of wonder, “God, where have you been?”

        Waiting, Sonny thought.

 

~*~

 

        True to his word, Paul stays away.

        As much as he can anyway. For all of its metropolitan attributes, Salem is actually a small town. Though they rarely see each other, it’s impossible to keep from running into each other indefinitely.

        Plus, their families are intertwined now, which brings its own complications.

        Paul does his best. Sonny knows he does. He no longer stops by Club TBD for coffee. He doesn’t call. No more contrived excuses for running into each other. He might even have changed his jogging schedule, because Sonny no longer sees him on his way home from the club. He barely sees him at all.

        Without Paul around as a distraction, there’s nothing to do but go back to his life. It’s what Sonny wanted. What he said he wanted, so…

        He does.

        It’s all still there, waiting for him. With or without Paul, the routine remains the same. He goes to work. He goes home. The next day, he goes back to work and starts all over again.

        Will is still sleeping on the couch. They pass each other on their ways in and out, passing Arianna back and forth like a football. He thinks Will has changed tactics, going from being overly attentive to making a conscious effort to give him space. Sonny can’t bring himself to bridge the gap.

        Without meaning to, he wanders around for a while in something of a daze, functioning on autopilot. At work, he accidentally overflows the coffee maker. Twice. He mixes up orders to the point where Jenny, his favorite waitress, has to (politely) ask him to take a break.

        Sonny doesn’t want to take a break. He wants to work and work harder until everything is back to where it is supposed to be, starting with his club. Work is simple. Work makes sense.

        He doesn’t mean to be irritable, but he has no patience for people asking him what’s wrong. They don’t know the right questions to ask, and it’s just as well, because Sonny doesn’t know the right answers.

        Despite how it might look, he is trying.

        He wants his life back.

        Even if the contours of his life don’t seem to fit as they used to, and everything still feels upside down.

        He wants to do the kind of things he used to do and to care about the things he used to care about before… everything.

        He wants to go back. He wants to stop Will from going to Los Angeles in the first place. He wants to stop himself from investing all their money in the second club. He wants…

        He wants his husband back. He wants to look at Will and remember why they got married in the first place, why it felt as if it was them against the world. He liked who he was when he and Will were at their strongest. He wants to be that man again, steady and sure of his commitment and ready to take on the world with Will at his side.

        That certainty seems so far away now. Sonny doesn’t know how to get it back. He still hasn’t figured out how to talk to Will. Most days, he has trouble even looking at Will.

        Much as he’d like to, Sonny doesn’t know how to turn back time.

        He doesn’t need anyone to tell him that he’s been sleepwalking through his own life. Still, Sonny tries. He really does.

 

~*~

 

        There’s comfort in routines.

        Today, it’s pancakes. Simply because, without any shipments or meetings currently needing his attention, Sonny doesn’t know what else to do with himself. Cooking breakfast is something he used to do on lazy Sunday mornings. Something he liked to do. It's actually a Tuesday, but that doesn't matter, does it?

        Will has a meeting with his editor. Sonny hears him leave the bedroom, though he doesn't look up from his task. He senses without seeing when Will pauses at the edge of the kitchen, obviously surprised.

        Arianna grins at Will from her highchair with syrup-stained cheeks.

        Will's approach is hesitant. He hovers beside Sonny at the kitchen counter, clearly unsure of how to interpret this gesture. This used to be a Sunday ritual for them. Time they set aside to be together as a family. It used to mean something. Now, it just means pancakes.

        Sonny watches Will from the corner of his eye as he fries up the bacon. Will absently fiddles with a beater, not looking at him.

        As checked out as he’s been, it hasn’t escaped Sonny’s notice that Will fidgets a lot now, as if he can never quite get comfortable in his own skin. As if he’s unsure of whether or not his presence is desired or allowed.

        Will used to do that a lot when they first met. Sonny thought the anxious habit was a thing of the past.

        Sonny sighs and sets down his spatula. He considers his beautiful, unfaithful husband, noticing that his hair has started curling the way it does when Will lets it grow out too long. He’s overdue for a haircut. Sonny also notices the tired bags under his eyes, suggesting that he hasn’t been sleeping well. They have that in common.

        Sonny softens.

        He hands Will a plate that he accepts wordlessly.

        Will picks at his eggs while Sonny finishes putting his own plate together. They eat in silence, somehow out of practice even in this. Meanwhile, Arianna gurgles happily around her mouthful of pancake.

        Will breaks the silence with a quiet question.

        "Did something happen with Paul?"

        Always, always Paul. Did they ever exist before Paul?

        But, for once, Sonny doesn’t hear any unspoken accusations in the question. Will’s tone is neutral, careful, but Sonny knows better. It just goes to show how often Paul has been around lately that his abrupt absence is conspicuous enough for Will to notice.

        (Of course Will notices.)

        He didn’t tell Will about his last conversation with Paul. He couldn't tell him without also admitting that it had ultimately been Paul's decision to walk away and not his own.

        (Or without admitting that there was something to walk away from.)

        Sonny… doesn’t want to tell him. He doesn’t want to untangle his own feelings or to put a searchlight over the spots he doesn’t want to admit are even there. He doesn’t want to fight anymore.

        For the first time, he considers that maybe honesty isn’t the best approach. That maybe there are other ways to show Will that he’s ready to start fighting for their marriage. Maybe by actually doing it. Actions are more important than words.

        Maybe if he can just be strong enough, then he can reshape himself and Will back into the people they were before all of this happened. They were better men than this once.

        They were in love once.

        They might still be. It’s just another one of those questions he’s been avoiding asking himself.

        “We talked,” he says. “He’s going to stay away.”

        Will seems skeptical, and Sonny doesn’t blame him.

 

~*~

 

        What it all comes down to is that Sonny doesn’t want to be like his parents.

        He loves Justin and Adrienne unconditionally. He admires them in so many ways. But he doesn’t want to be like them in this one particular way.

        His parents are good people. The best people, Sonny thinks, but they’ve both been guilty of letting their passions get the better of them. His parents hurt each other over and over again, breaking apart only to come back together for another round.

        This latest time, he thought his parents were finally settled, that their family was solidified, and then his father found Elsa and his mother found Lucas and… they’re all a mess again.

        By some accounts— Uncle Vic’s— they’ve always been a mess. But his parents managed to hold it together throughout most of his childhood. Sonny was already out of the house by the time the last divorce happened.

        It’s different this time, having a front row seat. Not for the first time, he wishes his brothers were around more.

        Sonny can’t point to a single marriage in his family that has lasted the gamut. And that's the crux of the thing, isn't it?

        Sonny wants to prove the exception to the rule. He always has. He prides himself on being the steady one, everyone’s rock in an otherwise chaotic world. That’s how Will used to see him. Everyone else changes with the wind, but not him. Not them. They were supposed to anchor each other.

        He doesn’t feel anchored anymore. He feels lost. The past year has seen the world turned inside out. He can’t help but feel that Will, his Will, was taken from him, replaced by a stranger.

        Uncle Vic asked him if he wanted to be Shawn Brady, a name synonymous with steadfast loyalty and perpetual cuckholdom. He doesn’t.

        But he doesn’t want to be Marlena Evans or Caroline Brady either. He loves both women, but he doesn’t want to be associated in people’s minds with pain and adultery.

        Arianna Grace will never walk in on him and Paul on a conference room table. He wants to be better than that.

        But is he? Does it matter if he physically stays away from Paul when all Paul has to do is look at him in a certain way and...

        The memories press and prod at him.

        “Tell me you don’t still love me.”

        He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t say the words, and he couldn’t walk away. Paul had to do it for him.

        Sonny should be grateful to Paul. He should feel relieved that he won't have to reject and hurt Paul over and over again anymore, and that he can finally move on with his life and get his marriage back on track without Paul constantly around seeding doubt. He should…

        Part of him wishes that Paul had never found him again.

        Because Sonny was wrong that night in San Francisco, at the start of it all. They were never going to be forever. He knows that now, but there’s still a part of him— the stupid, incorrigible part of him— that always refuses to hear reason.

        He’s just never been good at letting things go.